Religion is the language of mythic truth, not historic fact. At the heart of religious language is the mystical experience of trying to express an inexpressible feeling of awe and reverence. It is an attempt to express the feeling of being filled from within with sheer delight and endless goodness, an expansive notion that all will be well. Religion emerges from this originating mystic experience and at its best, is an attempt to facilitate more mystic encounters.
But alas, as we all know, religion fails as much as it succeeds. Trying to capture and control mystic experience is like trying to hold running water in your hand. In the end you might have damp hands, but the living water has run on past. Rather than uniting, religions often divide into camps of us versus them.
This week Christians celebrate Easter, and I’m reminded of this tension between mystic experience and religious language. I recall the proverb, “All stories are true, and some of them have actually happened.” Christianity, like many other religions, is rooted in a mythic story conceived as historic fact. In Judaism there is the miracle of the crossing of the Red Sea and the escape from Pharaoh’s empire. In Islam there is the direct revelation of God’s word to and through the Prophet Muhammad. In Buddhism there is the originating story of the Buddha’s enlightenment. All of these ancient religions have foundations in historic narratives that cannot accurately be traced. Each of these religions requires faith and trust to fully engage with them.
At Easter, Christians often confuse mythic truth with historic fact. For example, the core story that guides its religious language is the event of resurrection. Easter is a celebratory remembrance of Jesus’ victory over death.
Christians gather to remember that, despite the political terrorism of the Roman Empire in cahoots with local elites, a good man triumphed over the ultimate weapon of death.
In Christian circles we call this resurrection, a doctrine that teaches us that death and fear does not have the final word in our life. Christians often confuse this with an actual reanimation of a corpse.
But think about it: Even if the dead Jesus really did rise on the third day, making it a verifiable, historical event, so what? Other than a great magic trick, what really does that have to do with anything? We’ll still die just like Granny died. We don’t wake up and come back. There are no reanimated corpses in my family tree. So really, what’s all the hoopla over Jesus?
Christians forget that the point is mythic, mystic truth, not a research project into historic fact. The point of Easter is that we Christians ought to be the “fact” that embodies the myth. We ourselves ought to live without fear of empires and elites. That’s the true meaning of resurrection and salvation.