One of the most disconcerting things that I have to deal with in writing this blog is that a lot of the terminology, especially the social science terminology, that I use exists in common every day English usage. The difficulty there is that this social science meaning for these terms is much more precise than the common usage definition. So, what I want to do first is to lay out the social science definitions of two really important concepts related to religion, all religion. These two concepts are myth and ritual. I am assuming that all of you are quite familiar with the common usage definitions of those two terms. I am also assuming that most of you are not familiar with the social science definitions of those terms. I do not take credit for these definitions. What they are is a combination of ideas from several different social theorists, most notably Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Claude Leigh V-Strauss, Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner, and Alfred Schutz. If you want to know more about what these gentlemen had to say, I recommend you Google them or go to your local library and search the card catalog for them. They all make wonderful reading, if you’re into this kind of stuff, which obviously I am.
The common usage for myth has a certain implied value – a negative value. To call something a myth is to say it is not true. In social science, a myth is neither true nor false. In fact, whether it is true or false is totally irrelevant. Myths are stories that answered the question “who are we?” “Where did we come from?” “Where are we headed?” The stories that answered these questions for any specific culture are usually stories about supernatural beings, supernatural events, and often are quite ancient in their origins. For instance, the Hindu myths, are at least 5000 years old. The ancient Egyptian myths as found in, for example, The Book of the Dead, are even older than that. It is quite likely that the creation myth found in the biblical book of Genesis traces its roots back to ancient Samaria, making it at least as old as either the Egyptian or the Hindu myth. Obviously, the creation myth from the Bible is the one that is most relevant to our discussion.
According to Clifford Geertz, religion deals with symbols and rituals and stories that are so embedded in the culture and so powerful for the people in that culture that they are accepted as truth no matter how fantastic those stories might be. For instance, both Christians and Jews, especially the more fundamentalist ones, accept the idea that God created the world in seven days, literally. If you really think about it, that is a bit hard to accept as “fact.” Yet every Christian and every Jew and I suspect most all Muslims also accept that as truth in some form or another. That is because the myth, the Bible story, it’s so embedded in Western and Middle Eastern culture that it is almost universally accepted as truth. (For a discussion of truth and how I define what is truth I suggest you read the page titled What Is Truth?). So, for Christians, the Bible, the old and the New Testament, are is a collection of myths. These myths are neither true nor false. They just are and they are very important.
Ritual is the acting out of a myth stop almost every ritual ever originated as a myth. That is true of every one of the seven Christian Sacraments. There is a myth in the Bible that relates to every one of those ritual. The most important one is the ritual of Holy Communion. That ritual isn’t acting out of the Last Supper, the last meal that Jesus had with his disciples prior to his Crucifixion. In that ritual we reenact the actions and words attributed to Christ at the Last Supper. It is this myth and this ritual that set up the whole theology of the forgiveness of sins achieved through the blood of Christ. The theologians through the centuries have had a real ball with that one!
Note that the ritual of Holy Communion brings to mind not only the Last Supper but also the Crucifixion itself. It is the crucifixion Crucifixion that is, pardon the pun At the crux of Christian belief. Without the crucifixion, the slaughter of the sacrificial lamb, there is no redemption nor salvation through Christ. It is this slaughter of the sacrificial lamb that, I believe, Jesus was referring to when he said that he He had come not to Destroy the law, but to fulfill it. As I said in my article on the Covenant, a covenant is not fulfilled until there is a blood sacrifice. The blood sacrifice originally meant to seal the covenant with God, was the death of Isaac, Abraham’s son. According to the myth in the book of Genesis, God relented and provided a RAM as the sacrifice. However, as we all know, the blood of an animal is never enough to seal a covenant with a God, even Jehovah. If you read the Old Testament thoroughly, you will find numerous references to blood sacrifices, even human one, although the human sacrifices are sometimes allegorical and it is not immediately clear that the death was a sacrifice to seal a covenant. This idea of sacrificing a mystical king, a sacred king, which according to Christian mythology Jesus was, other long way. I recommend you read James Frazier’s, The Sacred Bowel for more details on the sacred king. One of my favorite fantasy novelists, Katherine Kurtz, uses the idea of the sacred king to explain several rather important historical events. One was the death of William Wallace. The other was the death of the Duke of Clarence, the brother of George VI of England, who died in a plane crash during the battle of Britain. Both are intriguing stories and I recommend anything my Katherine Kurtz to all of you.
In closing, please keep in mind exactly what I mean by this and ritual when I use these two words. When I call the Bible a myth it is not say that the Bible is untrue. Nor do I say it is true. The truth of the Bible is something that cannot be proved or disproved, nor should it be. The Bible is at the core of our belief systems, at the core of Western culture, and at the core of what it means to be American, for the most part, although that is subject to change since we are and always should be a multicultural society stop
Postscript: Happy Thanksgiving to all of you. May you enjoy the blessings of the day and the season. Peace be with you!