[This post originally appeared at my old blog on April 27, 2006. The original is here.]
“Christianity is a myth,” declared the professor in my college folklore class. “However,” he continued, “that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t true.” The word “myth” as it has come to be used in the common vernacular simply means “something that isn’t true.” So in this sense the idea that President Bush was behind the attacks of 9/11 is clearly a myth.
But let’s distinguish for a moment between this common definition of myth and the somewhat different notion of mythology. What is a myth in this second sense? According to the Encyclopedia Mythica, a myth is
a story of forgotten or vague origin, basically religious or supernatural in nature, which seeks to explain or rationalize one or more aspects of the world or a society … Broadly speaking myths and mythologies seek to rationalize and explain the universe and all that is in it. Thus, they have a similar function to science, theology, religion and history in modern societies.
Mythology, then, serves the same function as a worldview, but in narrative form. It is a way in which people understand themselves in relation to reality, what there actually is, and thus it is a way in which people understand their own meaning.
Now back to my question: is Christianity mythology? Well, not in the first sense of being a story that isn’t factually true. But do mythic stories have to be false? To put it another way, does the concept of myth entail falsehood? C. S. Lewis certainly didn’t think so. In his excellent essay, “Myth Became Fact,” he defends the idea that Christianity is the one, true, factual myth. He sees the function of myth as that of taking abstract truths and completing them, and thus completing human knowledge:
In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to the experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction … When we translate we get abstraction – or rather, dozens of abstractions. What flows into you from the myth is not truth but reality (truth is always about something, but reality is that about which truth is), and, therefore, every myth becomes the father of innumerable truths on the abstract level. Myth is the mountain whence all the different streams arise which become truths down here in the valley; in hac valle abstractionis ["In this valley of separation"]. Or, if you prefer, myth is the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with that vast continent we really belong to. It is not, like truth, abstract; nor is it, like direct experience, bound to the particular.
For Lewis then, mythology may help us better understand those ultimate, metaphysical, and sometimes mysterious truths about the world in which we live. However, Lewis sees the Christian story as the myth, the one that teaches us the ultimate truth about reality itself. But unlike the other mythologies, the Christian story is factually true, and that is what makes it so important:
Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other …
Those who do not know that this great myth became Fact when the Virgin conceived are, indeed, to be pitied … We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’: they ought to be there – it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic — and is not the sky itself a myth — shall we refuse to be mythopathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.
In a world of where rationalism and materialism act as usurpers to the epistemological throne, the declaration of the true myth of Christianity – the story of the world above reaching down to the world below – is essential. The fact is that many people do believe in various mythologies: they literally idolize their favorite sports teams, or musicians, or pop singers, or political theories, and yet none of these can do the job, for they are all unfortunately tied to the finite and temporary realm in which we live. The myth of the dying, atoning God, of eternity’s Messiah who saves mankind, is also fact. It is the one true mythology, the one true story by which faltering humanity may chart its course to eternity.
[Note: "Myth Became Fact" can be found in the excellent anthology of Lewis' essays and articles, God in the Dock.]