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Reply To: The Blessing of Spiritual Poverty,” with Mythologist Norland Téllez, Ph.D.”



So much to absorb here, so much that calls for deep thought and reflection, so much I want to respond to (only a fraction of which I will get to, or I would be typing for days).

I’ll admit a literal interpretation of the Christian myth (in terms of what most people think of as literal) is not something I’d ascribe to you. The only explanation I can think of for that assumption is that’s what’s associated with the practice of Christianity historically, and reflects the experience of most people who were raised Christian: Jesus really was born of a Virgin, really did walk on water, turn water into wine, raise Lazarus bodily from the dead, etc. (you might say that’s part of our mytho-history). My guess would be unconscious projections are in play, based on the sense of personal experience and/or the preponderance of historical evidence, that all Christians believe scriptural accounts as referring to concrete facts that literally happened.

As Joseph Campbell observed:

“I think one of the great calamities of contemporary life is that the religions that we have inherited have insisted on the concrete historicity of their symbols. The Virgin Birth, for example, or the ascension into heaven—these are symbols that are found in the mythologies of the world. Their primary reference must be to the psyche from which they have come. They speak to us of something in ourselves. They cannot primarily refer to historical events. And one of the great problems that is confronting us now is that the authority of the institutions that have been presenting us with these symbols—the religions in which we have been raised—has come into doubt simply because they have insisted on talking about their underlying myths as historical events somewhere. The image of the Virgin Birth: what does it refer to? A historical, biological problem? Or is it a psychological, spiritual metaphor?” (Pathways to Bliss 88)

I agree with Campbell ‘s observation, but if the default assumption whenever one hears the term Christian is that individual must be a literalist, that overlooks the rich strain of symbolic readings of the Christian myth stretching back to many Gnostic Christians in the early centuries, and all the way up to mystics and clerics of the modern age like a Thomas Merton or a Matthew Fox.

Fortunately, Campbell’s perspective is more nuanced than that.

(See what I did there, by the way, tossing in “literal” and “concrete,” though in the sense of common usage rather than that within more esoteric circles.  😄 This is why it is so important to define one’s terms, which does so much to clear up misunderstanding.

I really appreciate the explanation of your distinctly different usage of these terms. When I hear someone say  “literal,” or “concrete,” I tend to embrace the common parlance – which means I would completely misunderstand what you intend [heck – it would never occur to be to think of “literal” as “abstract,” which is very much at odds with my Webster’s Unabridged – “true to fact; not exaggerated; actual or factual”].

However, given your elegant and nuanced amplification, everything you say that depends on that definition now falls together in my mind. That might not necessarily change my embrace of the common usage in general – it’s not that one usage is right and all others are wrong – but it does enhance understanding and improve communication when discussing a different perspective. There have been moments in my life where I am certain I am at odds with what another person is saying – and then one or the other of us tumbles to the realization that we are using the same word differently, and voilà! –  turns out we are in agreement in our heart and mind, just separated by a common tongue. Defining terms in relation to how one is using them is always a plus.)

Apart from that parenthetical musing, no need to go into the weeds discussing literal vs concrete, other than to thank you for taking the time to address that tangent.

Far more fascinating to me is your subsequent post (#5884 July 20). Your observations rock, Norland! Especially that final paragraph, which just ties so much wonderful together from so many traditions (especially enjoyed drawing in the Native traditions on our continent).

Two things I’d like to focus on from your post: mytho-history, and the sacrificial image of Christ.

We’ll start with sacrifice. I recently came across this in a journal from a couple decades back:

Sacrifice is a metaphor for the nature of the cosmos in which we live: transcendent eternity, pouring into the field of time & space (often represented as a cross). This Eternity is thus immanent in all of creation – fragmented into a multitude of forms that comprise the material universe, with each of us one of those fragments, containing our own little drop of Eternity.”

Best I can tell, I was summarizing my take-away from Joseph Campbell’s theme in The Historical Atlas of World Mythology, Volume II: The Way of the Seeded Earth Part I: “The Sacrifice”

Perhaps Campbell’s interpretation of sacrificial images from a wide range of cultures may have been formed, to borrow your phrase, in the awareness of “the sacrificial image of Christ in the watershed of the Christian eon”; nevertheless, for me that doesn’t alter the perceived resonance with other images of sacrifice from a wide range of cultures (which doesn’t mean there is a point by point correspondence, but rather a kinship). At the same time, that perception doesn’t negate that each is different from the others and unique to its own time and culture,

What is undeniable, whether or not one subscribes to Christian beliefs, is that the Crucifixion is clearly central to Christianity. I am in no overt, conscious sense a Christian – but when my wife and I traveled through Italy last summer, image after image of Christ on the Cross – and also of the Pietà – whether on canvas, mosaic, or marble – triggered unexpected emotions and fluttery sensations in heart and gut.

Such is the power of the archetypal image, especially within the context of my culture’s mytho-history.

I’d also like to ask for a little more on mytho-history. If individuals can have radically different understandings of everyday  terms like literal, concrete, or myth, I suspect some may be vague about just what mytho-history refers to – or perhaps, what you mean by the term.

Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen (whom Campbell references a few times in both Oriental Mythology and Occidental Mythology,) identified “the Eridu Genesis” from Mesopotamia and the Priestly source of portions of Genesis as evidence of “a new and separate genre” he designates the “mytho-historical” (Thorkild Jacobsen, 1981 “The Eridu Genesis.” Journal of Bible Literature 100: 513-529). The fragment that comprises the Eridu Genesis combines mythological motifs that were current in ancient Mesopotamia along with a historical accent as it details the succession of Sumerian kings and the dates of their reigns (akin to the accounting of the antediluvian patriarchs of Genesis whose lifespans stretched into centuries). That seems the earliest academic appearance of the term I can find. Mytho-history then inspired some theologians, like William Lane Craig, to move away from a rigid, literal interpretation of the many miraculous and mythic motifs in scripture, while acknowledging an historical context.

And, of course, mytho-history relates to more than just the Bible-based religions (as you have noted in relation to the Popol Vuh of the Mayan culture). One can find this in the Illiad (mythological elements clustered around what archaeology reveals is a history of conflict between Greek cities and Troy), the Bhagavad Gita, and so on.

Is this a fair summary, as far as it goes? Did the term originate with Jacobsen? Or does it go back to Renè Girard, who certainly seems to be stepping in that direction decades earlier? What would you add or expand upon to flesh out the understanding of this concept?

Thanks for bearing with me . . .