So what have we learned so far about myth and ritual?
First, we have learned that myth and ritual are at the core of every religion, great or small, new or ancient (even prehistoric). Second, we have learned that religion is a cultural system that humans do to answer the following three questions: Who are we? Where did he come from? Where are we going? Myths are neither true nor false in any rational sense of those were. Myths are either believed or not. Any discussion of their veracity is totally irrelevant.
Now comes the hard part for Christians to accept. The Bible is a collection of myths. Any discussion of whether the Bible is truly the Word of God or not is totally irrelevant. Either one believes that the Bible is the Word of God or one does not. If one believes, then one is definitely a Christian. If one does not believe, then one is either a heretic or a nonbeliever. (I fall into that category of heretic). One of the biggest theological problems in Christianity that has led to many heresies is attempts to prove things like the existence of God or that the Bible is completely and unequivocally true. Questions like that can never be answered rationally. Rational answers to our questions is what science is for, or so we believe. One of the reasons scientists do not use the supernatural as explanation for phenomena is because the supernatural cannot be proven or tested. Rational knowledge is what we all think we use to make our arguments for or against anything. The problem is, and this idea is supported by no less in the great Albert Einstein himself, much of the intellectual needs we humans have made not from rational knowledge but from intuitive knowledge. Blinding insight, what the Gnostics called gnosis.
Gnosis is revealed knowledge. Christians believe that the Bible is the revealed word of God. That makes the Bible the ultimate Gnostic text. How is that for a heretical statement? That is why the Bible, as well as all other sacred texts, cannot be subjected to rational scrutiny as to their veracity or lack thereof. Sacred pack are revealed knowledge not rational knowledge. The history of Christianity, especially in terms of heresy, is full of people who should know better trying to rationally prove revealed knowledge. You have to understand that revealed knowledge cannot be proven or disproven. If you get nothing else out of this blog, I hope you get that!
Finally, we learned that ritual is and has been for millennia the reenactment of myth. Many of our myths, and that includes the Bible, originated in a time or a culture, that had no real tradition of written text. People were basically illiterate by modern standards. That means revealed knowledge was passed on orally… In order to drive home their point, the keepers of the sacred stories created ritual that dramatized the story. How many of you would much prefer to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet performed on a stage or a movie then have to read the play? Holy Communion is a play about the last supper. We tend to assimilate knowledge better when it is presented to several of our senses simultaneously. That is why visual aids in teaching are so important. I know this from my own experience as a teacher.
The Protestant Reformation was a byproduct of the Western World becoming literate once again. After the fall of the Roman Empire, literacy went downhill rapidly. It was not until the time of Charlemagne in the ninth century that Western Europe saw a revival of literacy and education. With the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, it became possible to produce books, the most important tool of literacy, cheaply and in great quantity. That led to a tremendous demand for the Bible to be printed in the vernacular languages of Western Europe. With the availability of the Bible in print and in the vernacular, religious reformers demanded greater emphasis on the actual words in the Bible rather than the story presented in ritual format.
An aside here. The great Gothic churches of the Middle Ages with their beautiful stained glass windows served as a visual presentation of the stories of the Bible. To this day, stained-glass windows more often than not depict scenes from the Bible, both the Old and New Testament. The reason for these stained-glass windows was simple. During The Middle ages, most religious services in Christian Europe were in Latin. The vast majority of the people attending church did not speak or understand Latin. The windows reinforced the knowledge that the rituals were attempting to pass on. I agree with the reformers that the Bible needed to be translated into the language of the common people. I also agree that the religious services needed to be held in the language of the people, not some old dead language that nobody spoke anymore except the priests and monks.. But I disagree that this need to present Christianity in the vernacular meant throwing out the very dramatic and very effective rituals of the church. That is what I meant when I said the Reformation threw the baby out with the bathwater. Some of the more “Catholic” denominations have made serious attempts to restore much of the ritual that the reformers threw out.
I have rambled enough for one day. Next time we will take up a new topic, though I am not sure exactly what it will be. I do promise it will be controversial and somewhat radical. That is what I do, that is who I am!