Mythological truth: religion as a relationship

I was thinking about how conversion to a religion is a bit like getting married. The decision involves several aspects:

  • Is this person’s/religion’s values, aims and beliefs compatible with mine?
  • Are we a good fit? Does the relationship “work”?
  • How do I feel about the person/religion?

No-one gets married thinking “I can always get a divorce if I change my mind”. Likewise no-one converts to a religion thinking “I can leave it if I change my mind”. Because religion and marriage are things that you grow your life around… extricating yourself from them after many years of investing yourself fully in them is painful, stressful and disorientating. No-one wants to have to go through that.

Some relationships progress quickly to marriage because it is clear to both people that they are a good match. This is partly a matter of actually finding a good match, but also a question of personality – some people are more decisive and other factors like that.

Other relationships might spend several years in limbo, never quite being sure if they want to commit long-term or if they could do better with someone else.

Some people fall in love, elope, and then split up a little while later because it wasn’t based on any real substance. Often this shocks people around them who believed them when they said “this is it” and “he’s the one”.

Some couples keep falling apart and then giving it another try, time after time, never quite being able to completely cut the tie even though it’s clearly not functioning for whatever reason.

When I think over all the stories I’ve read of people choosing religions, I can see parallels for all these types of relationships.

I can only conclude that religion is a relationship. In choosing a religion, you are choosing to marry yourself to a world view. Regardless of how you came to the decision, your commitment from then on has little to do with whether that world view continues to stand up to evidence, and everything to do with a personal attachment to it. You will only let go of it if you no longer love it, because it no longer works, or you discover aspects of it that don’t match your more deeply-held values and convictions. People could show you all sorts of reasons why it’s not true, and it might make you uncomfortable, but it won’t have any real impact. In this sense it is irrational… in the same sense that any relationship is irrational.

It is in this sense that I (tentatively) understand the concept of “mythological truth”, as presented by Reza Aslan, Karen Armstrong, and Howard Jacobson. It’s not that anyone sets out to believe in a non-literal way. It’s just that if you’re really honest, you will admit that’s the only option left to you if you want to carry on the relationship with religion after its basis – the things you believed in literally when you entered the religion – has been taken apart and deconstructed. It’s like you’re saying, “I know it’s not really true, but I’m invested in it and it’s working, so I’ll keep going with it”. So then there is a need to come up with an alternative definition of truth – it’s not literally true, but it’s true in some other sense.

Although I can cope perfectly well with mythical and allegorical content in scriptures (e.g. the creation story), I’d find it hard to see the basic tenets of the religion as allegory and still find the religion credible. God either intervenes in history or he doesn’t… God either sends messages through prophets or he doesn’t. I can’t really get my head around the idea of truth being relative or subjective. Belief is subjective, yes, but surely truth is not?

And I think most believers – by far – are literal believers, even if they don’t follow through with it. (There is an inner contradiction that some people are perfectly happy to maintain – believing something is the word of God, but not reading it, not understanding it, not applying it. I think this is why I tend to be all-or-nothing – I dislike contradiction.)

Here is an interesting bit from Howard Jacobson’s article:

“I like the idea there is this one God, not to be obedient to, although he wishes obedience and insists obedience, but to be in a perpetual argument with. One of the great scenes in Genesis is the wrestling with the angel, and I think that’s how you read if you love the Bible. It’s a wrestle, and you’re wrestling with something that’s very, very personal.

God changes as the Bible gets rethought and rewritten, but in the Creation, God is almost there. In the very first pages, he’s walking in the garden with Adam and Eve. He’s there. He’s a presence. You can talk to him and deal with him, and that’s thrilling.

I feel proud that my Jewish religion is so rooted in philosophy and argument. Everything is up for constant refutation, endlessly being argued about and criticised. We are like no other religion in the way we subject our holy works to scrutiny. Nothing is so holy that it can’t be criticised, and re-understood, and reinterpreted. The Bible is about infinite reinterpretation.

You can’t disagree with a God, unless you start with a God. That’s the other important reason to have a God, so that you can disagree and reject him if you like. But you can’t reject something that wasn’t there in the first place.”

Here are some excerpts from the prologue of Reza Aslan’s “No God But God”:

“Religion, it must be understood, is not faith. Religion is the story of faith. It is an institutionalized system of symbols and metaphors (read rituals and myths) that provides a common language with which a community of faith can share with each other their numinous encounter with the Divine Presence.”

“…we must never forget that as indispensable and historically valuable as the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet may be, they are nevertheless grounded in mythology. It is a shame that this word, myth, which originally signified nothing more than stories of the supernatural, has come to be regarded as synonymous with falsehood, when in fact myths are always true. By their very nature, myths inhere both legitimacy and credibility. Whatever truths they convey have little to do with historical fact. To ask whether Moses actually parted the Red Sea, or whether Jesus truly raised Lazarus from the dead, or whether the word of God indeed poured through the lips of Muhammad, is to ask totally irrelevant questions. The only question that matters with regard to religion and its methology is “What do these stories mean?”

The fact is that no evangelist in any of the world’s great religions would have been at all concerned with recording his or her objective observations of historical events. They would not have been recording observations at all! Rather, they were interpreting those events in order to give structure and meaning to the myths and rituals of their community, providing future generations with a common identity, a common inspiration, a common story. After all, religion is, by definition, interpretation; and by definition, all interpretations are valid. However, some interpretations are more reasonable than others.”

I guess I don’t understand why he says that myths inhere legitimacy, and all interpretations are valid. If I’m honest, it seems like this is a polite way to deny the literal truth of religion but still respect others’ literalism.

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This entry was posted in myth and metaphor, Unitarian. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Mythological truth: religion as a relationship

  1. susanne430 says:

    Great post! Lots of interesting things. I really liked this for some reason:

    “One of the great scenes in Genesis is the wrestling with the angel, and I think that’s how you read if you love the Bible. It’s a wrestle, and you’re wrestling with something that’s very, very personal.”

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