Free to celebrate myth
December 26, 2010 by Bill
“To do some little thing in the spirit of love is to live in the spirit of Jesus. To so live is all that is required to be a Christian,” wrote Albert Schweitzer, that giant biblical and religious scholar. In his classic, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Schweitzer also observed that, “Jesus never claimed to be anything that the church has claimed for him.” And so it is. Around the simple figure of Jesus, the church built an elaborate “Christ” mythology encrusted layer on top of crusted layer with themes common to the Near East: virgin birth, savior god, resurrected hero, divine son, holy trinities – all mythological themes well-known to the authors of biblical literature.
At our beautiful Christmas Eve candlelight services we will remember that myth and metaphor can be celebrated as well as historical and factual events. It is as Joseph Campbell wrote, “The primary function of mythology is to express a sense of awe before the mystery of being; the mystery of existence.” And so it is. When George Santayana was the Chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University, he wrote that he had totally rejected Roman Catholic dogma as a young man. He never again took part in any of their rituals, but one: the midnight candlelight mass on Christmas Eve. Even knowing that it was a celebration of one of the great myths of humankind, it still “fed his spirit,” he wrote.
Christianity is not a set of doctrines and creeds about Jesus that must be believed, even though absurd when metaphor is misread as dogma. Authentic Christianity is a way of living daily life, of doing little things in the spirit of love. It is that simple. It is that profound. It is that difficult. Nothing is easier than “believing.” Nothing is more difficult than living love. If Jesus would come back today he would find it repugnant, or laughable, to find people passionately denying evolution or abortion or classic literature or the humanities, thinking that is what made them “Christian.” He would discover people frantically debating church-made (man-made) doctrines of trinity, atonement, or some vaguely incomprehensible nonsense they have labeled “original sin.” Jesus would find it comical to see people thinking that believing these man-made opinions is what made them “Christian.” He would tell them again that living as a Christian requires nothing more than living a daily life “doing some little thing in the spirit of love.” And he would tell them again, even as he told the legalistic Pharisees of his own day, “You strain out gnats and swallow camels.”
In this Christmas season, let us look past the “Christ” mythology to the simple and basic theme of the Jew of Galilee named Jesus, who along with many other great spirits have wanted only to point us again toward the mystery. Let us peel back the centuries of layers on top of layers of “official” man-made doctrines and return once again to the source.
Albert Schweitzer said it well, “The historical Jesus moves us by his subordination to his God, and in this he stands out as far greater than the Christ created by dogma and myth.”
If this Christmas Eve points our lives again in the direction of the source, the holy and the mystery, then this night will not have come and gone in vain.