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"Myth and the Bible" by Jeffery Small

Myth and the Bible

 
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When you hear the word “myth” associated with the Bible, what is the first thought that comes to your mind? Do you define the word “myth” to mean that the stories described are not factually true?

My reading of the Bible has undergone an evolution over the years. As a child, I was taught the various stories as if they were actual historical events. As my understanding of science and the world began to broaden, I saw that a literal reading of many of these stories was impossible. I came to view the Bible as myth, by which I meant non-historical stories that contained a moral message. Today, my understanding of the Bible as myth has taken another step. Although I still do not believe that many of the stories are historically or factually accurate (although they may be anchored in historical events), I view “myth” in a broader and more meaningful sense. Mythology is a form of literature that expresses
fundamental truths in a way that ordinary discourse is inadequate to describe. Mythology adds a richness of detail and a concreteness to metaphorical language. Now when I refer to the stories in the Bible as mythology, I do not intend to do so pejoratively. Reading these stories as myths gives me the freedom to understand their underlying meaning in a way I never could before.

Why specifically did I abandon the historical view of many of the writings in the Bible I was taught as a child?

1.   From a scientific standpoint, many of the “facts” in the Bible were simply wrong. One of many examples: according to Genesis, the universe is just over 6000 years old. According to physics, the Big Bang occurred 13.7 billion years ago.

2.   Also from a scientific perspective, many of the stories were impossible. Within this category, I put most of the miracles. The story of Joshua stopping the sun moving across the sky is an example. First, the story assumes (as was the thinking then) that the earth was flat and was at the center of the universe. We simply know this to be false. Second, for the sun to stop would mean that the earth would have to cease rotating on its axis—an event which would destroy the planet.

3.   For many of the miracle stories, natural explanations exist, especially considering they were written in a time when the authors believed that solar eclipses were divine omens, disease was divine punishment, and mental illness was caused by demon possession. In the case of Jesus, I do believe that he was a faith healer and that healing was an important part of his ministry. However, today we can find faith healers in Haiti who practice voodoo and in tribal Africa who practice witchcraft. Many of these modern-day faith healers have patients who are actually healed by these practices. Doctors call this the placebo effect, an effect so powerful that drugs must undergo double blind experiments.

4.   Some of the mythological stories in the Bible are not original, but were borrowed from other traditions. The Epic of Gilgamesh—a Sumerian poem detailing the creation of the universe that predates the writings of Genesis by many centuries—contains a flood story whose plot points are almost identical to the story of Noah.

5.   The other world religions also contain rich histories of mythology and fantastical sounding (to us) stories. On what basis can we Christians claim that our miracle stories are legitimate, yet theirs are flights of fancy? The mythology surrounding the Buddha, who lived 500 years
before Jesus, includes tales of how he healed the sick, walked on water, and flew through the air. His birth was foretold by a spirit (a white elephant rather than the angel Gabriel) who then entered his mother’s womb! At his birth, wise men predicted that he would become a great religious leader.

6.   The Bible itself is full of inconsistencies. How can it be an accurate historical record, when the various books contradict each other? Here is UNC Religion Professor Bart Ehrman: “Just take the death of Jesus. What day did Jesus die on and what time of day? Did he die on the day before the Passover meal was eaten, as John explicitly says, or did he die after it was eaten, as Mark explicitly says? Did he die at noon, as in John, or at 9 a.m., as in Mark? Did Jesus carry his cross the entire way himself or did Simon of Cyrene carry his cross? It depends which Gospel you read. Did both robbers mock Jesus on the cross or did only one of them mock him and the other come to his defense? It depends which Gospel you read. Did the curtain in the temple rip in half before Jesus died or after he died? It depends which Gospel you read…Or take the accounts of the resurrection. Who went to the tomb on the third day? Was it Mary alone or was it Mary with other women? If it was Mary with other women, how many other women were there, which ones were they, and what were their names? Was the stone rolled away before they got there or not? What did they see in the tomb? Did they see a man, did they see two men, or did they see an angel? It depends which account you read.” (
http://www.bringyou.to/apologetics/p96.htm)

Despite the above points, millions of people still read the Bible literally. Other than the inherent problems associated with closing our minds to science and the reality of the world, I see other problems in literal interpretations of the Bible. I believe that such a reading limits the Bible. Rather, than expressing universal truths, a literal interpretation limits the actions of God to certain events in history. Yes, there are many rules articulated and lessons expressed, but God’s actions on the world become finite, confined to certain historical events: like the chess master making individual moves on a chessboard frozen in time two thousand years ago. Reading these same stories mythologically, however, can bring forth their universal qualities.

Second, encouraging a literal reading of the Bible alienates much of our society. In an age of science and technology, too much of the Bible is simply unbelievable to today’s mind and can turn people away from the underlying messages. I fear that an insistence on a literal or historical view will ultimately lead to the irrelevance of Christianity. Furthermore, because the stories were written in a different age with very different views on social justice—an age in which slavery was legitimate, an age when discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation was the norm—the Bible can also be used to justify intolerance today.

Reading the Bible as mythology is not a new concept. Two of the early Church Fathers, Origen (185-254) and Augustine (354-430), both interpreted Genesis metaphorically, rejecting literal interpretations. Early in the 20
th century, German theologian Rudolf Bultmann called for a “demythologizing” of the New Testament for many of the reasons I have given above. Rather, the movement in many fundamentalist circles today to read the Bible as inerrant (an extreme form of literalism, in which every word of Bible is viewed as true) is a late development from the 19th century as a response to the chipping away at the historicity of the stories since the Enlightenment.

By throwing off the shackles of having to believe in the historicity of the Bible, we are free to interpret the stories as a testament to the religious experiences of people from a different age—a testament that communicates a meaning about their experiences of Ultimate Reality, of God. I understand that their experiences of the divine ground were interpreted through the lens of a pre-modern view of the world, and my own religious experiences will take on a different form today. In my next post, I will examine how I interpret a few of the key Biblical stories in a metaphorical way that helps me to understand the meaning of God.

SOURCE:
http://www.jeffreysmall.com/JeffreySmall.com/Blog/Entries/2009/12/19_The_Bible_as_Mythology%2C_Part_I.html

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THE BIBLE AS MYTHOLOGY, PART 2: GENESIS
What can the stories of the Bible teach us about our own experiences of the divine? In my last post, The Bible as Mythology, I discussed my problems with a literal interpretation of the Bible. Reading the Bible as mythology, however, does not mean that all of the stories are historically untrue. Many are, in fact, based on real historical events and people. Others are purely fictional, and yet others are a blend of history and imagination. In this post, I will demonstrate how unlocking the handcuffs of historical truth from the Bible can free us to experience the universal themes present in the stories.

Let’s start at the beginning: Genesis. A source of ongoing debate, this story is often read by creationists as a literal description of how God created the world in 6 days 6000 years ago, forming man from the dust as a potter might create a pot. Atheists like Oxford Biology Professor Richard Dawkins see the story as not much more than a primitive people’s attempt to explain the workings of the universe without the benefit of modern science. On the other hand, I (along with many others, including the early second century church father Origen) read it as a metaphorical commentary on the relationship between God, humankind, and existence itself.

Whether the original authors of these stories believed in the accounts literally or not is irrelevant to how we read them (Chapters 1 and 2 actually present two different accounts of creation, written not by Moses but by at least two authors during the 6
th century BCE—one of the later texts of the Torah—who borrowed imagery and themes from the much older Mesopotamian creation story, the Enuma Elish). If we read the Bible as the encounter of a pre-modern people with the divine, we would expect their interpretations to be written in a way that conformed to their cultures and their understanding of the workings of the world, which is a very different understanding than we have today. But the underlying thematic message of the stories can still contain universal truths that hold just as much meaning for us. Just as our scientific laws change over time as we gain knowledge of the universe, why shouldn’t our theological interpretations of scripture likewise evolve?

From the opening lines of Genesis, we can thus see God as
creator. But today we might choose to interpret God not as a supernatural being sitting outside the universe commanding it into existence, but rather understand God as the source of existence itself—an existence that flows forth from God. We can understand God as the creative power that supports existence. This creative power was not a one-time event, but it occurs continuously—underlying the space-time framework of the universe, the matter and energy that make up its content, and the physical laws which govern its actions. This creative power is also that which animates life itself as we see with the image of God breathing the breath of life into Adam. The Hebrew word for “breath,” nephesh, also means “soul.” God is thus the center of our being. (For more on this view of God, see two of my earlier posts: Rethinking God and Symbols.)

Similarly, we can read the Garden of Eden as representing an ideal: the essential underlying connection between God, nature, and humanity. However, we do not live our lives in this ideal essence.  Instead, our actual existence is characterized by a distance between us and the divine ground that is the power behind creation. This separation (the “Fall&rdquoWinking and our own further distancing from our divine centers in which we elevate our egos over God (“sin&rdquoWinking is what results in our suffering. (See my earlier post on
The Problem of Evil that explores this issue further.)

We also see in this story that although God is the creative source of existence, we have freedom—just as the theories of quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and evolution all posit the importance of randomness, probability, and freedom in the laws that govern existence. God creates, but a key mechanism in the process of creation is freedom of the created.

The metaphor of the Fall and the separation of humanity from our divine ground can also be seen in the metaphorical language of sexual awakening. Just as a child transitions through puberty to adulthood (symbolized by the recognition of Adam and Eve of their nudity and their sexual union) and this transition also coincides with both a loss of innocence and a corresponding increase in wisdom (symbolized by the eating of the fruit from the knowledge of good and evil), humanity has transitioned from our pure essence to our actual existence. The question then becomes how can we reconnect with the divine ground, with God?

Rereading Genesis in this way allows us to see both the creative role of God and the human existential situation within a framework that is consistent with modern science. In a later post, I will similarly address the mythological meaning behind the resurrection.

SOURCE:
http://www.jeffreysmall.com/JeffreySmall.com/Blog/Entries/2009/12/19_The_Bible_as_Mythology%2C_Part_I.html


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Re-imagining God in the 21st Century by Jeffery Small

Unlike the age of the Biblical writers, we live in a world ruled by science, technology and secular thought — a world that is interconnected in ways that a few decades ago was unimagined. Today we understand that our world is governed by physical laws from the subatomic realm to the cosmic, so where do we find room for God to act? Is God still relevant? How can we conceive of God today in a way that is honest to our intellects while satisfying to our hearts?

In my previous post,
Moving Beyond a Human Image of God, I set forth the problems of the classical picture of God as a supernatural being. God as the potter, the watchmaker or the chess master has lost its relevance for many in our post-modern world. The response to this critique by some is to close their eyes to science and the realities of existence. Such a strategy is not sustainable in a society in which almost everything we touch and encounter during our daily lives depends on the laws of physics, chemistry and biology working. Others take the atheistic approach, one I also do not find satisfying because I sense in the core of my being that there is meaning to existence and that the daily physical reality of our world is not the end of the story.

In this post, however, I will not debate the existence of God because I do not think that the argument is winnable by either side. Instead, I will outline ways in which we can start to understand God in the modern world. For me, God must not just be consistent with scientific and rational thought but must embrace it.

I have come to understand God, not as a transcendent Zeus-like figure, but instead as the infinite creative source of existence.

By “creative source” here, I do not mean to say that I think of God as creating existence by waving a magic wand from afar, but rather that all of existence — matter, energy, the physical laws which govern the universe, even our consciousness — comes out of God. This understanding of God is rooted not in Creationism, Intelligent Design or a desire for a father figure, but rather comes from this simple question posed first by the ancient Greek philosopher Parminedes (b. 510 BCE): Why is there existence in the first place, instead of nothing?

I do not see this “coming from” God as just happening at one particular time in history, whether this was 6,000 years ago according to Genesis or 13.7 billion years ago according to the Big Bang theory, but it happens continually. I do not see God as a separate being, but rather God is the center of being within me and everything around me. God did not form my distant ancestors out of clay as mythological tales might suggest if taken literally; rather, God is what gives me life and gives existence its very structure. This power is infinite and indescribable because it lies behind all that is. God is not to be found “out there” but deep within existence.

My conception of God is not new but is derived from 20th-century Christian theologian Paul Tillich’s description of God as “the ground of being.” Tillich himself was influenced by centuries of theologians and philosophers before him who thought of God in similar existential terms: Friedrich Schelling (b. 1775) considered God as “the Power of Being”; Georg Hegel (b.1770 ) referred to God simply as “Being”; Meister Eckhart (b. 1260) “being itself”; Francis of Assisi (b. 1182) “the ground of all reality”; and Plotinus (b. 205), drawing on Plato, described God as “the One” — the source out of which all being emanates, including the human soul.

My view of God was also influenced by another 20th century philosopher-theologian, Alfred North Whitehead, the founder of process theology. For Whitehead, God is not a static supernatural creature but is the essence of the creative process of the universe. God does not sit in a different dimensional heaven and watch us go about our daily lives, occasionally intervening for good measure. But God is immanent within the universe as its creative power.

Whitehead insists that the traditional image of God as unchanging must be reconsidered. A God truly immanent within existence means that as the universe expands and evolves, so does God. This view of God also does not mean that God is directing and determining every creative act, but only that the power for existence comes out of God. Essential to the creative power that God bestows on the universe is the ability of its constituent parts (including us) to self-create. The scientific laws that govern the universe — the randomness and uncertainty inherent in both quantum mechanics and evolution, for example — are then not contrary to God but become crucial elements of the divine creative process.

How does one even conceive of such a God that is not an exalted deity? Here, I will leave you with one example. This metaphor for God as the creative source of being does not come from a Christian theologian or a philosopher, but from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who imagined the relationship between God and human as that between the ocean and the wave.

The ocean and the wave are related in two important ways. The ocean is the “ground” of the wave in the sense that the water molecules of the ocean make up the essence of the wave. From a creative and dynamic perspective, the power of the ocean creates the individual existence of the wave. The wave (like us) has its own individuality, but its lifespan is relatively short. The wave emanates from the infinite ocean, and at the end of its existence, it returns to the ocean. Each individual wave is connected to all other waves because they share the ocean as their ground. Existence is finite, individualized and unique, yet underlying existence is a connection to the infinite.

To me, this understanding of God can not only work within the confines of modern science (since all scientific laws come from God as part of the creative existence of the universe), but it also provides a powerful direction for how we experience God. What I may have lost from the illusory “comfort” of believing in a supernatural father figure who may or may not intervene on my behalf, I have more than made up for with a new realization: I can touch and experience a God that is the ground of my being (though I’ll never fully understand or see God) at a much more intimate level, because God is the spark of light within me. This view of God also leads to a more embracing view of morality because I share this power of being with each of my fellow humans in true brother and sisterhood, and I share it with the natural world as well.

One challenge we face when thinking about God in this way is how do we talk about, much less worship, such a philosophical sounding God? It is easy to picture Michelangelo’s God as the grandfatherly figure on the Sistine Chapel, but how do we relate to the God of Tillich and Whitehead? In a future post, I will examine how we can rethink our traditional symbols of God as Father or Lord, but for now I’ll pose the question to you:
What symbols or metaphors might we use to open our minds to a new way of thinking about God that works in the 21st century?

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-small/reimagining-god-in-the-21_b_822776.html


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"Moving Beyond A Human Image Of God" by Jeffery Small

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When you think of God, what images come to mind?

Do you think of a supernatural being who sits outside the four dimensional (space + time) universe who created us as a potter might? Do you picture God as a supreme designer who built the intricate laws of the universe as a watchmaker assembles a fine timepiece? Do you see God as a grand chess master who has an elaborate plan for the figures on his cosmic chessboard? Do you imagine the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where the outstretched hand of Michelangelo’s God (who looks like someone’s muscular grandfather!) reaches toward Adam?

Many popular images of God resemble a Zeus-like figure, who lives in “heaven” rather than on Olympus. When we think about it, this God seems a lot like us, only much more powerful. He has emotions: he can be a “jealous God”; he can be an “angry God” or a “loving God.” We may address him as Father, Lord, or Judge. We even use the personal (and masculine) pronoun “He” in referring to God, but we capitalize it to show that “He” is greater than we are.

In other words this God is strongly anthropomorphic, a Greek word whose roots mean “human” and “form.” In the fifth century BC, Greek philosopher Xenophanes wrote, “If horses had gods, they would look like horses.”

To me these classical images of God are fraught with problems. As a teenager, when my interest in science blossomed, I began to question the theology I had been taught as a child. Why would God allow millions of children to starve in Africa or die in a genocide, yet “He” just might intervene on behalf of our favorite sports team if we prayed hard enough? Why is it that two and three thousand years ago (when human understanding of science was very different than it is today) during the age of the Biblical writers, God seemed to intervene in the world a great deal more than he does today: causing worldwide floods, parting seas, speaking from burning bushes, stopping the sun from moving across the sky, raising dead people, and sending angels to earth to deliver his message?

The common view of God as a supernatural being like us, only more powerful, is one of the principal reasons behind the rise of atheism in the Western world and the spiritual apathy of many young people today. It certainly contributed to my own questioning of the usefulness of religion. This view of God opens itself up to critiques from the likes of eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume who pointed out the logical fallacies in the traditional arguments for the existence of God, Sigmund Freud who characterized such a God as nothing more than a “projected father figure,” and twenty-first century biologist Richard Dawkins who points out the incompatibility of this God with science.

Our modern lifestyles depend on scientific principles working, not some of the time, but all of the time: would you fly in an airplane if the laws of aerodynamics only worked occasionally? We take for granted the physics behind our cell phones and TVs. We understand that solar eclipses are not a divine omen in which God turns day into night, but are predictable astronomical events caused by the moon passing between the sun and the earth. We have faith in the biological principles that allow for the medicines we create to treat our diseases - diseases that we understand today are not caused by evil spirits or divine punishment but by bacteria, viruses, and biochemical processes.

In this post-modern age in which reason and science underlie every aspect of our daily lives, which concept will lose out in the battle between God and science? I think we are seeing (unfortunately) that God is losing this battle.

Even more problematic than the incompatibility of the classical view of God with modern scientific and logical thought is that this God opens “Himself” up to the critique of being an incompetent watchmaker, an unartistic potter, and a cruel chess master. The world we live in is a messy, complicated, imperfect place, ripe with tragedy, sickness, and injustice. The traditional view of God leads to the philosophical problems caused by the existence of evil, the reality of human suffering, and the multiple religions around the world with opposing doctrines about God. How can such a God be omniscient, omnipotent, and loving at the same time?

Finally, for me, the ultimate critique of this God is that “He” is too small. A God that is seen as some kind of intelligent being living in an extra-dimensional heaven becomes just one more thing in the universe (although a powerful thing nonetheless). A God that chooses when to tinker in the workings of the universe and when not to is not only capricious but begs the question of why God didn’t make things right the first time around? In other words, this God is finite.
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Does this critique of our traditional understanding of God mean that the only alternative is the atheist one?

That is what writers like Dawkins, Hitchins, and Harris want us to believe. I actually agree with much of their criticism of religion, but ultimately, I think that the version of God they are trying to disprove is nothing more than a straw-man.

As much as my rational mind wanted to reject God, something deep in my core sensed a fundamental meaning to existence. What I needed was a different way to conceive of God that didn’t require me to close my eyes to scientific knowledge, to reason, and to personal experience. How could I be true to both my intellect and my soul: my mind that must see the world in logical terms and my heart which yearns for a greater spiritual connection? In my next post, I’ll explain how my current view of God attempts to reconcile these seemingly conflicting goals. But for now, I’m interested to hear from you.

How then do you think about God in a way that works in the 21st century?

SOURCE:

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-small/the-problem-with-god-toda_b_814932.html


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