Sermon preached July 21, 2013
Texts: Genesis 1:1-8, 24-31; 2:1-9, 18-25; John 1:1-18
A frog sits on a log in a swamp singing a song called “The Rainbow Connection.” As the song is ending, up paddles a canoeist. “Help, help. This is a serious call for help. Someone help.” He comes upon the frog. “I have lost my sense of direction.” Frog: “Have you tried Hare Krishna?”
This must be my year of the Muppets. That scene begins “The Muppet Movie” – the first feature-length film starring Jim Henson’s lovable muppet characters. One of the wonderful things about the Muppets is that they appealed to children, yet had humor for adults. “I’ve lost my sense of direction.” “Have you tried Hare Krishna?”
Kermit the Frog walks into the El Sleezo Café and sits down at the bar. “Buy me a drink sailor?” “I don’t even know you.” “Buy me a drink anyway.” The woman’s date intervenes. “Are you talking to my girl?” Woman: “I think he touched me.” Man: “You better go wash or you’ll get warts.” Frog: “No, that’s a myth.” Man: “Yes, but she’s my myth.” Frog: “No, myth, myth.” Then a young woman walking by says, “Yes.”
The question posed for today, from the sticky Scriptures suggested for this summer was this: "How do we know which Scriptures are mythological and which Scriptures are factual?” The texts suggested were Genesis 1 and John 1. I embellished a little by adding some of Genesis 2 to the readings.
How do we know which Scriptures are mythological and which Scriptures are factual? The question may sound kind of abstract, but I think it matters. It matters if we seek a thoughtful faith. It matters if we want to respond to some of our sisters and brothers in the faith who see nothing but fact in the Bible, and who think that this is the Christian position.
Let’s look at the story of creation. A few years ago, I was channel surfing on the car radio. Is that getting to be a lost art in this world of Cirrus radio? Anyway, I stumbled onto a signal where there was this rather breathy radio preacher. “And I tell you, if you don’t believe the Bible, that God created the world in seven days, not seven periods of time, seven days, well, you can’t be a Christian.” For this preacher Genesis 1 had to be true, literally factual. And if you do not believe that it is, then you are not a Bible-believing Christian, a true Christian.
There are some problems with this. For one, if one reads carefully, one finds two distinct creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. We are familiar with the days of creation, with the orderly progression from day/night to plants to animals, culminating in the sixth day’s creation of human beings – So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. Beginning in Genesis 2:4 we have another take. Before there were any plants, the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Then God plants a garden and puts the man in the garden. Later, God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” To avoid this idea of two creation stories set side-by-side in the first chapters of Genesis, those who read the Bible literally tend to argue that chapter two just gives details missing from chapter one, but that doesn’t work well.
The more significant problem with a literal/factual reading of the early chapters of Genesis is that it seems to run counter to just about every bit of empirical scientific data we have about the earth, and to the best of our scientific thinking. The earth is millions of years old, as best we can tell, not a recent creation. Some sort of evolutionary processes seem to function in living things. It has taken some time, but many theologians have found compatibility between evolutionary science and Christian faith. The official position of the Vatican is that something like the evolutionary processes described by Charles Darwin occurred, but that these processes don’t preclude Christian understandings of the human as created in the image of God, or as having a soul. Theologian John Haught writes about the potential compatibility of science and theology.
Even if religion and morality have been adaptive – say, in the evolutionary sense of aiding the survival of human genes – theology is not necessarily wrong to claim at the same time that religion and morality exist because of a divine invitation to each personal consciousness to reach beyond itself toward an infinite horizon of Meaning, Truth, Goodness and Beauty (God and the New Atheism, 85).
Haught also responds to those who argue that evolution and Christian faith are incompatible. Taking the Bible as a source of accurate science actually diminishes the sacred texts. Symbols and metaphors… lead us much deeper into the world of the spirit than literalism does. Taking the Bible’s figurative language literally actually leads to a loss of religious depth. (Responses to 101 Questions on God and Evolution, 78).
How do we know which Scriptures are mythological and which Scriptures are factual? Science matters in answering that question. It seems pretty clear from the best of our scientific knowledge that the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 cannot be “factual.” It is important to raise two cautionary notes here. One, science is a human endeavor suspect to mistakes and misinterpretation. The best science of one day and time has proven inaccurate at a later day and time. The best of science keeps an open mind about the full range of empirical data available, yet some, in the name of science, argue for a narrow view of what is scientific. The quote in the invitation to worship was from the scientist Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) – “all science is either physics or stamp collecting.” Respect for science is different from “scientism” – “the idea that science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective” (Hilary Putnam, Renewing Philosophy, x). That there may be a measure of biochemical or biophysical explanation for some healing does not mean that prayer does not help with healing, or that something miraculous may occur. So the first cautionary note is not to give too much to an uncritical science, to scientism.
The second cautionary note is even more crucial to a thoughtful faith. I would challenge what can be too strong a contrast between the mythological and factual. I appreciate the question asked in the sticky Scripture box, and I have asked it a lot myself. I also think we need to be careful because the default mode of thinking in our culture tends toward an uncritical scientism which equates factuality with truth and the mythological with magical thinking. We live in a scientistic culture, a secular culture. To quote one of my theological teachers and mentors, Schubert Ogden: The widespread popular assumption that what is mythological in its form of expression cannot be true evidences only the extent to which all of us today are, to some degree, under the spell of secularism. Underlying this assumption is the secularist denial that there is any truth other than empirical truth most fully worked out in the sciences. (The Understanding of Christian Faith, 132).
For me, a thoughtful Christian faith is open to scientific knowledge, acknowledges that much of our Scripture is mythological in language and form, yet argues for the importance, yes, even the truth of the mythological. Interestingly, modern Christian fundamentalism is really “a kind of inverted scientific approach in its adherence to a crudely literalistic reading” (The Literary Guide to the Bible, 539). Fundamentalism says that we need to read the creation story and all Scripture in as literal way as possible and that it and they must be factually true. If not, the entire meaning of Christian faith crumbles.
There is a better way to understand Scripture. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg write helpfully about this in their books The Last Week and The First Christmas. Are these stories fact or fable? For many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, these are the two choices…. It is important to realize that there is a third option that moves beyond the choices of fact or fable. (The First Christmas, 27). They call their third option “parabolic truth.” “The meaning of a parable – it’s parabolic truth – does not depend upon its factuality” (33). In telling a parable one can say, “I don’t know whether it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.”
To try and make factual claims from poetic, parabolic, and mythological texts is to miss the point of those texts, because these texts “myth the point” – they speak truth in powerful ways that speak to the human spirit.
If we are to read the Scriptures in ways that open us up to what God’s Spirit might be saying to us today, I think we need to develop a richer understanding of poetic, mythological and parabolic language, or poetic, mythological and parabolic truth. The late author Joseph Campbell is another resource for helping us do this.
Campbell tells us “myth is of the order of poetry” (Myths to Live By, 258). He quotes the Christian monk Thomas Merton. The true symbol does not merely point to something else. It contains within itself a structure which awakens our consciousness to a new awareness of the inner meaning of life and of reality itself. (265) In his extensive televised interviews with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell reflected on the power and purpose of myth. People say what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality so that we feel the rapture of being alive (Campbell and Moyers, The Power of Myth, 5).
Awakening. Aliveness. These are at the heart of Christian faith. Jesus offers the image of new birth to Nicodemus – awakening, aliveness. Jesus says that he came that we might have life, life in all its fullness. Awakening. Aliveness. God’s Spirit continue to invite us into this newness of life, and because that awakening and aliveness are often best expressed in the language of metaphor, symbol, poetry, parable and myth, we dare not disparage them. Facts matter, but here is a fact. Human beings respond in the depth of their lives to symbols, metaphors, poetry, parables and myths. They move us in powerful ways, and through such language God’s Spirit speaks to our spirits and souls inviting us to newness of life.
Theologian John Haught poses the question of what the purpose of our lives might be in an evolving universe. Our vocation, our mission in life, must be in some way to participate in the universe’s own ageless labor of intensifying the reign of beauty…. A lively awareness of the general cosmic aim toward beauty give us a rich context in which to cultivate the life of virtue. The virtues we idealize are still the traditional ones – humility, compassion, justice, gratitude, hope and so on…. In the context of evolution, we can see more clearly than ever that the good life is one that contributes meaningfully not only to the spiritual growth of the individual person but also to the ongoing creation of a whole universe. (Responses, 142)
The first story of creation is a parabolic truth about the beauty of the world and the importance of the human person. The second creation story is a parabolic truth about the care of God, and our need for each other. It is not good for us to be alone. The re-creation story in John says that the very wisdom that is part of the created world finds its way into our world, particularly in one Jesus, in whom was embodied grace and truth.
The world was not made in seven days, but that story is deeply true, as are the companion creation stories. God is the relentless, persistent power toward beauty. The way of following Jesus is the way of awakening, of aliveness, of intensifying the reign of beauty. It is a way full of grace and truth. It is a way that can only adequately be expressed in the powerful language of myth, symbol, metaphor, parable. It is the way God’s Spirit continues to invite us to live, and that’s what matters most. Amen.