The Vault

On Demythologizing

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A pocket diary can be a mine of information. Lest you be tempted to forget, and go to work when you should stay at home, it lists the Public Holidays. It carries a range of postal information. It may include such valuable information as that russet brown is a combination of orange and purple, or that sound travels at the rate of 1.132 feet per second. Presumably the good people responsible for putting out these little compendia have visions of their customers finding themselves in strange situations when such items of knowledge will prove invaluable. And sometimes they include succinct statements that the sun rises at such and such a time, and sets at a certain hour.

It is with this latter pair of statements that we are concerned. Who, we might ask, are these compilers, who apparently belong to the Middle Ages, for they think that the sun rises and sets, whereas the veriest schoolboy in these enlightened days knows that the sun does neither? He will tell you that the earth rotates on its axis to give us day and night, but the sun does not travel across the sky.

But if we were to ask such a question we should condemn ourselves, rather than the objects of our derision. For nobody expects that these, and many other statements like them, are to be taken literally. They represent the conventions of language, and if we were to take pains to ensure that every statement we make is scientifically accurate, the art of conversation would be even more intricate than it is now.

Demythologizing.

All of which is very relevant to many Biblical statements. Men of antiquity understood the use of metaphorical language just as much as we do, and they ought not to be thought of as so many wooden-headed literalists.

This sometimes seems to be forgotten by some of our demythologizers. The concept of “myth” looms large in modern theological literature, and there are many who are insisting that we must recognise that much of the language of the Bible is mythical and that we must penetrate behind the myth to the underlying idea if we would really understand what they wrote.

This is an entirely laudable aim. Indeed, one might say that something like this is the task of the Christian Church in every age. The revelation is given to us in the words and imagery of the Bible, and it is our task to take those words and ideas and translate them into the idiom of our day. Merely to repeat the ancient words when they are no longer understood will get us nowhere, and is to shirk the responsibility that is laid upon us. It is desperately urgent that we should make every endeavour to present the Christian message to the men of our day in a way that they can understand. And of necessity, this will mean a serious questioning of the Biblical language as we endeavour to see what is the deposit of Christian truth, and what is the meaning of the words which are employed.

What is a Myth?

But in their application of the technique some have not given sufficient consideration to the question of what constitutes myth. One gathers the impression that it means widely differing things to different people. Sometimes those who speak of myth have the idea that men of New Testament had a view of a “three-decker” universe, so that their statements on heaven and hell have to be revised in the light of such beliefs. They are thought to have considered that the sun rotated round the earth and not vice versa, and a whole host more. Indeed, the more extreme seem to have forgotten that the men of the early centuries were just as able to use their language as the compilers of modern pocket diaries.

Here a comment by Jerome may not be out of place. He gives as an example of “foolish talking” (Eph 5:4) “those who are reckoned to have reached clear measurements of the sand on the seashore, the drops in the ocean, the space of the heavens and the earth’s point within it,” and he goes on to say “In the Church too we have foolish speaking: as when a man, deceived by a passage in Isaiah (6:4) which he has failed to understand, thinks that heaven is curved like an arch; that a throne too is placed in heaven, and that God sits upon it, and that as though He were a general or a judge the angels stand in a circle round about Him to obey His injunctions and to be sent on different missions.”

Nor should we be under misconceptions as to the nature of ancient beliefs about the universe. It is often said that the language of the Bible is pre-Copernican, but it is overlooked that it is also pre-Ptolemaic. On this point E. G. Selwyn remarks “I know of no evidence that men of the ancient world took their spatial imagery more literally than we do. The Pythagoreans, if not the ‘master’ himself, believed that the earth was round and revolved round a central luminary; Aristotle’s cosmography involved something far more complicated than a three-storied universe; Aristarchus of Samos put forward what we now call the Copernican hypothesis in the third century B.C.”

It is hard to resist the conclusion that some of our demythologizers have their own “myths” about what the men of Biblical days believed, and of how they used words.

Religious Language.

The point of importance is that we should realise that certain metaphors are natural to religious language. Thus we speak of heaven as “up,” as “above the sky” and so on without for a moment losing sight of the fact that our language is metaphorical. We do an injustice to the men of old if we think them incapable of the same process.

While, as we said earlier, there is a very good intention behind demythologization, yet in the execution of that intention one cannot but feel some have failed to give due regard to the usages of language. We should be warned by them, in at least two matters. The one is that we should not adopt a high and mighty attitude to the capacities of men of earlier days. We should recognise that they could use metaphors just as we can. The other is that we should not treat their inspired poetry as nothing more than pedestrian prose.

From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, originally published March 15, 1956.

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