Thursday, May 7, 2009

Face to Faith: The value of myths such as the resurrection....

The value of myths such as the resurrection is in their truth as meaning rather than fact, says Michael Horan.

The Guardian March 28th 2008

Before talk of resurrection and ascension dies down for yet another year, this may be an opportunity to emphasise just one more time that the earth is not flat, in spite of what the ancients believed. Homer's contemporary Hesiod sang in his Theogony that if a bronze anvil were to fall from heaven, it would be nine days and nine nights before it finally crashed to earth - and it would take as long again to fall from earth into the underworld.

For thousands of years men and women continued to believe in this three-tiered universe: a flat earth with heaven high above and an underworld far below. Gods came down to earth, intervened (or interfered) in mortals' affairs, and returned to heaven. Similarly, the gods and sons of gods could visit the underworld, coming and going at will. But for human beings that descent was on a one-way ticket.

Homer's Odysseus, progeny of Zeus, visited Hades, where he met the shades of Achilles and his former warrior companions among the gibbering ghosts, before resuming his homeward wanderings. Virgil's Aeneas, Trojan prince and son of Venus, also journeyed to the underworld to seek the spirit of his father, Anchises, and lived to tell the tale.

The Jews long believed their Sheol to be a place from which there was no return, but later the concept of resurrection began to develop. During the Babylonian exile the prophet Daniel declared that at the end of days many of the dead would rise to everlasting life. In inter-Testament times, the book of the Maccabees tells of a Jew defying his Syrian torturers, crying out that his God will raise him to a new life. The gospels record the enmity between Sadducees and Pharisees over the doctrine of resurrection.

It was perfectly possible, then, for men in the first century of our era to believe, speak and write about the son of their God, who not only "came down" from heaven to earth, but also "descended" into hell, and after three days "rose" and "ascended" to heaven again.

Many today not only still appear to live in that three-layered universe, but also retain a belief that Jesus' resurrection and ascension were literally physical, historical events. The man Jesus was indeed crucified and buried; this was the historical execution of a historical figure. But it would be a category mistake to claim resurrection and ascension as the continuation of a series of historical events. The crucifixion does not belong with a belief in the supernatural; nor does it belong in the outdated heaven-earth-underworld universe. Those are leftovers from a pre-scientific age.

At this distance in time, and with only the New Testament as a source, we cannot know what actually happened after Jesus' crucifixion. Disillusioned, confused and frightened, the disciples seem to have returned north to Galilee to resume their fishing. As they reminisced, possibly over many months, recalling their extraordinary experiences with Jesus, links began to form between their mental images of him and then-current messianic expectations. Possibly a part of that imagining was the idea, wholly feasible in their minds, that God had raised Jesus into his presence.

There is a historical event of which we can be certain: these formerly frightened men became inspired by the spirit of Jesus, and were emboldened then to devote their lives to declaring that Jesus was the Messiah - risking punishment, imprisonment and even death.

It was said that when the Messiah came he would "proclaim release for prisoners". The resurrection itself, myth rather than history, may be seen as a metaphor for that liberation: men and women set free from whatever it is that holds them captive, with their lives transformed and renewed. The value of myth is not in its truth as fact, but in its truth as meaning, and so to understand the meaning of the resurrection as liberation and rebirth enables us to join with the disciples in declaring: "Jesus is risen!"

Michael Horan is the author of Jesus and the Trojan War: Myth and Meaning for Today, published by Imprint Academic.