Christianity and Mythology

by Andrew Simmons                                                                           Thursday,  April 10

“The content of myth is always concrete; in myth it is a question not of God in general and humankind in general but of a definite form or instance of a definite divine revelation…For this reason, myth is or rather must be the negation of any subjectivism or psychologism…” –Sergius Bulgakov, Unfading Light: Contemplations and Speculations, p. 65

Ark-Gustave Dore

The Great Flood by Gustave Dore

It goes without saying that the film “Noah” has stirred up a significant amount of controversy due to views of the film’s politics, theology, and accuracy to the narrative. This is not one of those critiques. To be honest, the film was rather disappointing for me, and I would much rather go beyond critique for the sake of this article. What will be focused on is what has been brewing within and around events such as the Ken Ham and Bill Nye debate: the validity of myth. For many, myths are merely viewed as being synonymous with lying; others treat myths as being literal history based on a misunderstanding of the reality portrayed in myth. Myths are fundamentally a real presentation or unfolding of values cemented within a society. According to Joseph Campbell, myths find meaning and continuation through metaphor and religion (Campbell, 8). From assessing this definition, not only can “Noah” be properly explicated, but myth itself can be properly understood by a society that seemingly has lost its mythic mentality.

Mythological stories arose from a time in history in which the polis or communitas was the fundamental way of life for the various tribes and kingdoms around the world. The more individualistic and self-autonomous society we live in today is the byproduct of the Enlightenment which in itself has a basis in the end of the communal space during the Renaissance. Since even modern myths such as the Lord of the Rings find a firm foundation in the myths derived from the old Anglo-Saxon polis, there is a connection between myths and a communal way of life. Aeneas, even if he does not create the city, is the great mythological figure of the Roman people. He is the great paterfamilias (father) that both exemplifies the values and instills the value in his people. What Virgil is not doing is creating simple propaganda, but, rather, is embarking on the creative journey that one day assumes him in the myths of Dante.

For Dante, Virgil is the objective presentation of pagan virtue who finds his meaning throughout the whole of the pagan (or at best Roman) communitas. In much the same way, Aeneas is made to reflect the values that the entire community holds to. Their objectivity is grounded within a communal way of living, and, as such, they do not reflect the subjective psychological views of the individual (Bulgakov, 65). The same can be said of Noah, Abraham, and the other mythic figures of the Old Testament. It is Kierkegaard who has to ponder the psychology of Abraham in his Fear and Trembling for the myth does not. Abraham can be a titanic figure of faith that does not question God’s word for he is the father of his people and objectively reflects them. The same goes for Noah of which there is no account of his subjective views in the narrative itself. When Babylon conquered Assyria and brought an end to their polis, they presented a mythological account of their god Marduk making the cosmos from the corpse of the Assyrian god Tiamat; when they brought down the Assyrian community, they ended their world and replaced it with their own. But with this comes a serious question: is the myth of the people or imposed on the people?

The answer to the question is placed within the context of the myths themselves. When Aeneas travels from the ruins of Troy to Italy, he is always under the pressuring auspices of Fate. When he seeks his own individual pursuits, Fate is always present through the god Jupiter who takes away friends, family, and the aspirations of Aeneas. In Roman society, the rule of Fate through the gods exemplified their emphasis on right and wrong (verum and falsum) (Zuckert, 58). From it, the great legalists and ethicist such as Cicero emerge to expound upon morality and the rule of law. Within the Greek polis, truth claims were bound up within the word aletheia which means the disclosure of being (Zuckert, 38). From this, the mythological stories of the Greeks present a means of disclosing being (Zuckert, 58). Aristotle and Plato mention Homer and critique him, but they are indebted to Homer and wish to expound upon what he has set in motion. The God of the Biblical myths provides an intriguing impasse for He offers both commands, but there is also a mystery interwoven throughout the narratives.

Despite the commandments, the Biblical myths have continued to maintain a tradition of commentaries that further pass on the narrative even if they are not myths themselves. The commentaries are referred to as the Midrashim of which Father Robert Baron considers the Noah film a part of. Additional texts include the Babylonian Talmud, the Dead Seas Scrolls, and possibly the Medieval Jewish philosophers. Now, I would, as a Christian, say that this tendency has continued within the Christian community. Whether it is the stories of saints, medieval theological dramas, or even the works of writers such as Dante, the faith has not found itself within a static horizon  as seen among fundamentalists. The culmination of Biblical myths is grounded within Jesus Christ who has brought forth a new community in the Kingdom of Heaven. Christianity does not annihilate the polis, but perfects it; the Christian may find himself as a lonely individual in the world, but he is of a divine community. The Christian is one oriented towards being immersed in myth, not contrary to it.

Works Cited:

Bulgakov, Sergius. Unfading Light: Contemplations and Speculations. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2012. Print

Campbell, Joseph. Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor.  Novato, California: New World Library. 2001. Print

Zuckert, Catherine H. Postmodern Platos. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. 1996. Print.

Andrew Simmons is a graduate from Aquinas College. He studied  for a double major in History and Theology with a minor in Catholic Studies. In 2010, during his freshman year, he converted to Catholicism. After what the responses were to Noah, he is worried that Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” will bring the controversy scale up to a whole new level. 

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More to Remember

Seventy-two years before the fifth of November became a day to remember, there was another, and radically different, response by a Catholic to the state of affairs in the English Church. Rather than an attempt at a grand act of death and destruction it was small, the act of one man. Yet it did more for the Church than Mr. Fawkes ever could.

One of the great mysteries of the Church is found in the differences between these two events. In the more famous case several men come together with a plan to bring about what God must want, namely the restoration of a Catholic England. Yet it is obvious that this did no good for the Church and one is hard pressed to imagine that it would have done good if it succeeded (Charles I, II, and James II suggest that a Catholic monarchy had little chance in post-Elizabethan England).

The counter case is not so much an event as a non-event. In May of 1532 Sir Thomas More resigned the Chancellorship of England. Henry VIII was at the peak of his Supremacy game and it was a prime job of the Chancellor to support him, a job More could not perform.

St.-Thomas-More-2

A Saint in furs

The act of leaving his position had little effect on England. Thomas Audley succeeded him (More was preceded by another Thomas, and fourth followed after Audley. Bracketing them were a pair of Williams) and the country moved on. For More and his family it was nigh cataclysmic. His income dropped by 75% and his family was forced to live on a much smaller scale. It also greatly aggravated the king. More had long been a close friend (Henry often “dropped in” for dinner) but from the beginning More said that, if “my head would win him a castle in France (for then there was wars between us) it should not fail to go.” His resignation was ostensibly on grounds of health, but Henry (and the kingdom) well knew it was because More would not swear an oath setting up Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England. The king was a proud man and this state of affairs was intolerable.

Over the next three years Henry (and his new Queen) grew more and more angry at More. His refusal to attend Anne’s coronation was broadly seen as opposition to Anne’s queenship. Action was taken. After several spurious charges (bribery, conspiracy with the “Holy Maid of Kent,” etc.) Henry finally found a perfect solution: make it treason to not say what Henry wanted More to say, namely that Henry was Supreme Head and Anne was rightly married to him. Finally, Henry forced More to . . . do nothing. More remained silent and only an overly broad interpretation of the law landed him in the Tower and a simply act of perjury resulted in his death sentence.

(More’s words upon his being given a death sentence are worth repeating: “More have I not to say, my lords, but that like as the blessed apostle Saint Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present and consented to the death of Saint Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue there friends forever: so I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation.”)

Throughout his life More was a highly visibly man; Guy Fawkes was almost utterly unknown. We know the latter for what he tried to do, the former for what he didn’t do. But More is also known for the little things; he was above all corruption, sought justice for all, was a family man par excellence, and had quite the wit. He is also the saint of the two. While he was canonized a martyr, one could imagine a canonization for a holy life as well. It was not his great acts that made him holy, but the small ones: the delight in his family, the words of comfort, the heart turned to heaven (when his wife accused him of playing the fool by not swearing and thus missing out on the comforts of home he replied “Is not this house as nigh heaven as mine own?”).

More and Fawkes both sought to influence the highest authority of their land. Both sought to make their country better by their actions. Both prayed “thy kingdom come.” Both died because of their belief. But only one sought the best for this authority; only one desired a better country of better people; only one expected the kingdom to not be of this earth; only one chose to die now rather than eternally. Only one is a saint.

St. Thomas More is a saint in the richest way; he is truly human, a rich and multifaceted individual. I leave the last words to (the Anglican) Jonathan Swift and William Roper, More’s son-in-law.  Swift tells us More was “a person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced.” And Roper leaves us with a phrase that echoes to even our day: “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”

Justin Burgard considers himself a Theophilotitionist. He holds a BA in English Lit from Montana State University and is working on an MA in Philosophy and one in Theology. If you ask, he will regale you on the 37 novels he is planning to write.

A Tour of Saints

By Karen Mannino                                                                              Monday, November 4th, 2013

On Friday, I took a friend to a small chapel on the campus of the local Jesuit university. It is up on the third floor of a building full of rather drab old classrooms. It is a long low room with narrow pillars and stained glass windows filling both sides. The windows came from an older church on the other side of the country and they depict a good collection of Christianity’s finest. The figures are a little bigger than life size and so close, in that intimate space, that it is easy to feel the communion of saints there praying with me. My friend is getting ready to join the Church. It seemed appropriate to take her around and introduce her to some Saints on All Saints Day. So we walked slowly around the room, savoring the colored sunlight on our faces as I tried to remember what century these people lived in and how they died. I didn’t know everyone’s full story. But I told all my favorite details about all the Saints I knew, trying to convey their personality as well as the facts of their lives. I wanted my friend to know that these were people, like her, who had their sufferings and their triumphs, passions and pitfalls that formed their path to God.

I had to admit that while I have always loved Katari Tekakwitha, and I have read about her several times, I can never remember the main events of her life. What I remember is that she was brave. She was often alone, and so she needed to be steadfast and courageous in her faith. I remember the cold of Canada and the pox marks on her face.
saint-cecilia-09We spent a long time on St. Francis of Assisi. He has a million fun stories attached to him. “It looks like he was crucified” my friend observed. No, I explained, that is called the Stigmata. It was a gift for him to share the wounds of Christ.
I like the gory details of the death of St. Cecilia, and the strangeness of a body that keeps insisting on a particular posture in burial. Beyond the morbid fascination, there is a young woman peering back at me who sang her joy to belong to Christ. To visit her grave is on my bucket list.

stk01017Being a part of the Body of Christ gives us the power to reach across time and space and connect ourselves to these lives. We are seeking the face of Christ, and these brothers and sisters of ours walked that path also. Something about telling their stories brings me closer to them. Fitting in the human details that I can only guess at, but seem to fit. Katari was brave. I wonder if she was an introvert like me, who retreated to the inner riches of her faith when the people around her ridiculed her. The greatest wonder is that they reach back for us also, by their prayers, waiting, longing for the day when we will join them in perfect unity with God.

Karen Mannino picked St. Zita has her patron because the two of them have almost nothing in common, and because Karen was fourteen and thought the name sounded cool. If Karen ever becomes a competent house keeper it will be entirely by Zita’s intercession.

The Halloween War

Of all holidays, Christmas deeply reminds us of the humility of God, Easter demonstrates the Love of God, but my favorite holiday season is from October 31 to November 2.

 

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, with gushing blo...

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, with gushing blood, detail of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan Van Eyck. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This season is centered around all Saints Day (November 1), the day that we celebrate the victory that our brothers and sisters who have won the battle for their souls are now in communion with God. It reminds us that the war is not hopeless that it is possible for each of us to enter heaven, and that it is possible for each of us to become a saint. This is a holiday of hope. In reflection on All Saints we ask our older siblings who have made it to heaven to pray to God for us. All Saints is the celebration of the Church Victorious.

 

The day after is the memorial of All Souls. On this day we pray to God for our older siblings who have won the war, their battle, but still suffered grievous harm to themselves and their relationship to the body of Christ. The souls in purgatory, that place of mercy God provides for those not perfect upon death, are by God’s judgment able to receive his mercy to enter heaven. I imagine the suffering in purgatory would be like the suffering experienced if there was a great party happening and you couldn’t go because you were down with the flu. You know that there is a party going on. You could’ve been having a good time yet you aren’t able to go yet, because you are not healthy to attempt attend. Reflection on the spiritual triage unit of the afterlife reveals that All Souls is a holiday of mercy.  The memorial is for the Church Suffering.

 

Frontispiece to chapter 12 of 1905 edition of ...

Frontispiece to chapter 12 of 1905 edition of J. Allen St. John’s The Face in the Pool, published 1905. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In heaven resides the Church Victorious, in purgatory resides the Church Suffering, but what about us on earth? Those of us still on earth are called the Church Militant. Named that way because we are still fighting the battle for souls. But there isn’t a feast to celebrate us, and you might be a little bummed about that. In fact you might even be more bummed when you consider that Halloween which is the eve of all Saints, seems to have been taken over by the world and become a secular holiday. But isn’t that perfect? We are supposed to in the world and not of it after all. And Halloween is an excellent time to reflect on ourselves as the Church Militant. Halloween is the time where we can step out of ourselves and out of our surroundings and look at the world full of monsters and heroes. A world where both good things (treats) and bad things (tricks) happen seemingly indiscriminate of who they are. Now some may still find it evil or worldly, and attempt to banish the darkness by dressing up only as saints or banish the holiday altogether. Ignoring the existence of the dragon. A reversal of the world which seeks to banish the knight. But reality like fairy tales have both.

 

Joshua Fahey is a Chestertonian Catholic with a bachelors in software engineering, and hasn’t dressed up for Halloween in years.

 

Unless you Believe you will not Understand

By Paul Fahey                                                                                        Thursday, September 12

Shortly after it was released I began reading through Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei or The Light of Faith. I breezed through it pretty quickly, picking up some great tidbits and one liners. However, later in the summer I was asked to give a talk on the second chapter of this encyclical, “Unless you Believe you will not Understand.” So then I went back and spent nearly two hours really diving into chapter two of Lumen Fidei. And since I just gave that talk this past week, I figured, “Why not double dip?” and decided to share some of my reflections here as well.

Chapter two of Lumen Fidei has thirteen numbered paragraphs (about 20 paperback pages) that are grouped into six sections. My favorite was the second section, “Knowledge of the Truth and Love.” This is primarily because it touched on a subject that has been on my mind as of late (and have previously written about), viewing reality with a supernatural vision. So it is section two that I will share with you here.

The encyclical begins this section by discussing the relationship between faith and love, and how this relationship gives the person of faith a particular kind of knowledge.

Through this blending of faith and love we come to see the kind of knowledge which faith entails, its power to convince and its ability to illumine our steps. Faith knows because it is tied to love, because love itself brings enlightenment. Faith’s understanding is born when we receive the immense love of God which transforms us inwardly and enables us to see reality with new eyes (26).

Referencing Wittgenstein, the pope then goes on to explain how, in our relativistic culture, faith is likened to love, or rather, the feeling of falling in love. That is, faith is a personal, subjective experience that may have meaning for the individual but ultimately has no bearing on anyone else. “But,” the pope asks, “is this an adequate description of love? (27).”

While love may involve emotions, is that all that it is, or is it something more than passing moments of intense feelings? According to the pope, real love is grounded on truth, that is, a sincere acceptance of who I am and who the other is. Real love seeks to unite who I truly am with who the other truly is. True love, the pope says, “unifies all the elements of our person and becomes a new light pointing the way to a great and fulfilled life. Without truth, love is incapable of establishing a firm bond; it cannot liberate our isolated ego or redeem it from the fleeting moment in order to create life and bear fruit (27).”

Now here is where things get really interesting. Love, uniting one’s self with another, brings the lovers a unique kind of knowledge. Love allows the man or woman to experience reality through the eyes of their beloved. The pope says,

One who loves realizes that love is an experience of truth, that it opens our eyes to see reality in a new way, in union with the beloved. In this sense, Saint Gregory the Great could write that “amor ipse notitia est”, love is itself a kind of knowledge possessed of its own logic. It is a relational way of viewing the world, which then becomes a form of shared knowledge, vision through the eyes of another and a shared vision of all that exists (27).

Here is a really simple example. My friend and I go on a “man-date” to the local movie theater to watch that most terrible move, “Pacific Rim.” Then during the car ride home I share with him what I thought of the movie, the main themes, and what stood out to me. He does the same. So, by the end of the night, not only did I experience the movie from my perspective, but, in some way, I experienced it from his as well. This, in a nutshell, is what the encyclical is getting at.

Now let’s apply this idea to faith. God loves us first, then if we respond to Him in faith and love Him in return, God’s loves transforms us and allows us to see reality as He does. The pope says, “Faith does not merely gaze at Jesus, but sees things as Jesus himself sees them (18).”  Let this sink in for a moment. Faith allows us to see reality, our reality, but also all of history, from His eyes. “Faith-knowledge,” the pope says, “sheds light not only on the destiny of one particular people, but the entire history of the created world, from its origins to its consummation (28).”

It is this faith-knowledge, seeing the world through God’s eyes, that gave the great saints their peace and their hope. Saint Maximilian Kolbe, for example, saw (at least in part) the Nazis and the horrors of Auschwitz as God saw them. He saw them as mere pawns of the darkness, darkness already beaten by the new dawn that is Christ.

So let’s pray for faith. Real faith. Not faith that makes us feel good about ourselves and the situations we find ourselves in, but faith rooted in the truth and the love of Christ. For it is only with the light of faith that we will see things as they truly are.

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and catechist. He has a BA in Theology with minors in History, and Catholic Studies and is currently studying at the Augustine Institute for a MA in Theology. 

Supernatural Vision

By Paul Fahey                                                                                                                              Monday, August 19 

Last week, on August 14th, the Roman Church celebrated the feast of Saint Maximilian Mary Kolbe. He was a Franciscan priest who was killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1941. He handed his life over to the Nazis in order to save the life of a fellow inmate. He was starved for two weeks before he was finally injected with a lethal dose of carbolic acid. However, this post isn’t about his death, it’s about his life, a life enlightened by faith.

When Fr. Kolbe was arrested by the Nazis he said to his companions,

Courage, my sons. Don’t you see that we are leaving on a mission? They pay our fare in the bargain. What a piece of good luck! The thing to do now is to pray well in order to win as many souls as possible. Let us, then, tell the Blessed Virgin that we are content, and that she can do with us anything she wishes.

At first glance this may sound like the words of a man who does not fully get what is really going on. But on the contrary, these are the words of a man with a supernatural vision. In Lumen Fidei the pope says that “Faith does not merely gaze at Jesus, but sees things as Jesus himself sees them.” In other words, faith allows man to see as God sees. Faith gives man the ability to see reality as it truly is, to see past the terrors and storms of life.

This kind of supernatural vision can be seen in the Gospels when Jesus invites Peter to walk toward Him on the sea. As long as Peter gazed on Jesus, had faith in Jesus, saw the water as Jesus did, he could walk on the lake’s surface. However, once Peter let himself get distracted by the storm, he became afraid, lost faith, and immediately was engulfed by the sea. Later, after His resurrection, Jesus was able to walk into locked rooms. This was not because He was an ethereal ghost that could float through walls, but rather because His risen body was in fact more real than the walls themselves.

Fr. Maximilian Mary Kolbe

This is the faith, the supernatural vision, that enlightened Fr. Kolbe’s entire life, up through the moment of his death. During his two week stay in the starvation bunker, with only urine to drink, Fr. Kolbe was the voice of peace to the other prisoners. One of the camp undertakers said,

It doesn’t even seem like the starvation bunker….When I go down there, it’s like descending into the crypt of a church…Sometimes the prisoners would be so absorbed in prayer that they would not even realize the guards had come for the daily inspection and had opened the door of their cell. Only when the SS began shouting at them would they stop praying.

Though he was in Hell on earth, he did not fear death. Rather, he saw the Nazis for what they really were – pawns of the “powers and principalities,” powers that have already been conquered by the God-man. Though he was mercilessly beaten and starved to death, he was the image of real peace and joy, to the point that it could be questioned whether or not he was actually suffering.

This supernatural vision is not only offered to great saints and apostles, but it is promised to all men and women who ask for it. Imagine a life not ruled by the passing exterior storms of this world – where pain, suffering, illness, and death do not hold men captive. Yet this is the faith, the freedom, that we are all called to.

Saint Maximilian Mary Kolbe – pray for us.

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and catechist. He has a BA in Theology, History, and Catholic Studies and is currently studying at the Augustine Institute for a MA in Theology.