Someone asked me a question below that I started with an easy answer to, but which grows a bit more interesting the more I think about it. Basically, his point was that, given there is a metaphysical/mystical meaning that can be found in the gospel accounts of Jesus (as there is in the accounts of other religions.) Can we simply discard the historical reality of the gospels? regard them simply as “myths” and still derive all the benefit or effect that they are intended to have? Can we still have Christianity without a historical Jesus?
Of course, most Christians would answer with an emphatic “NO!” citing such scriptures as “And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.” (1 Cor 15:17) To such Christians, the literal, historical facts ARE what Christianity is all about. But I’m not so sure it’s a simple black and white dilemma between regarding the gospels, with scholarly detachment, as interesting myths (which I agree has very little personal benefit) and regarding them as scrupulously literal history.
Malcolm Muggeridge suggested that the truths of the gospel were “artistic truths” or we might say “mystical truths” which he regarded as infinitely more important than historical truths. I can see a lot of merit to his reasoning. Which is more important? that God loves us, or exactly what words Jesus said from the cross?
C. S. Lewis seems to imply something similar in his children’s tale “The Silver Chair”. In that Lewis told a story of several children, accompanied by a strange pessimistic creature called a “marshwiggle” named “Puddleglum” who descend from the kingdom of Narnia, ruled by the good lion Aslan (Jesus) and enter a subterranean kingdom ruled by a witch-queen to try to rescue a kidnapped prince. Once there, the witch puts them under a spell of confusion and forgetfulness. She gradually convinces the children that there IS no world above ground, no sun, no sky, no Aslan. They become convinced that these are all simply children’s tales and dreams – projections they have created in their minds from the drab and ordinary objects in the miserable underground world ruled by the witch. Only Puddleglum rebels.
“One word, Ma’am” he says to the witch, “All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face on I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we HAVE only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours IS the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
Now of course, in Lewis’ story, Narnia is very real indeed, and the doubt only an illusion. But I think Puddleglum’s point has wisdom nonetheless. You’d be better off living your life as a Narnian than to content yourself with strict materialism. The truths of Narnia were a good deal more important than the bare rock and the darkness.
Important mythical truths tend to be felt as having a very solid reality – a reality that seems to yearn for physical expression. Take for example the recently created myth of ?The Lord of the Rings?. My children became so enthralled with this myth that they began to speculate if there couldn?t have been a time in history, or pre-history, or (if all else fails) a parallel dimension that actually exists wherein this world is REAL (They felt the same way about Narnia when they read THOSE books 😉 The point is, I think human beings sense very deeply that mythic truth is indeed Truth, and tend to associate historical truth with it. I have to admit, for example, that when I read the Bahagavad Gita, I find it very easy to feel a strong sense of “reality” about the personality of Krishna. Furthermore, Jung would contend that powerful mythic archetypes tend to actually PRODUCE in historical reality, embodiments.
In summary – I think one could get some benefit as a mystic out of the Christian gospel while doubting its historical elements. But ONLY by realizing the following: mythic truth is not LESS real than historical truth, it is MORE real.
Take the case of the Catholic who has an intimate, intercessory prayer relationship with some saint who’s historical existence is now in doubt. St. Christopher or St. Philomena for example. I’ve asked St. Philomena for intercession myself – even knowing that virtually everything we know about her is based on conjecture, or ecstatic religious visions. To me, she represents a part of God that is very much interested in me – regardless of the historical details that may or may not have embodied that part of God. On the other hand, for many people, the importance of the historical reality is so powerful in their minds that prayers to a saint of dubious authenticity are useless, as would be Christianity, were it not historically literal to a very high degree.