FROM MYTHS TO RELIGION
17 October 2021
As a Christian and a Roman Catholic, I often think of what is meant by “Jesus Christ rose from the dead.” The scholar Joseph Campbell shares his thoughts. In the context of mythology, he writes that the statement above has several layers of meaning:
1. Literally, the meaning is obvious. Jesus of Nazareth died and rose from the dead.
2. Allegorically, it means that like Jesus, we also are to rise from the dead
3. Mystically, it says that in death there is eternal life
4. Morally, it admonishes us to let our minds be turned from what is mortal to what is eternal
For many of us, believing in the literal sense is sufficient. We celebrate the day Jesus Christ rose from the dead—the greatest holyday in Christendom. Defining us as Christians is our belief that the historical Jesus of Nazareth was truly God as he defied the laws of nature. For some others who likewise think of themselves as Christians, the literal sense is not sufficient, possibly not even necessary. What’s more important is what lies underneath.
It's the mystical Christ that we celebrate at Holy Mass—the most important ritual of the Roman Catholic Church. Bread and wine are transubstantiated into the mystical body and blood of Christ, which we then eat and drink to give us eternal life. Moreover, our eternal life does not come in some heavenly place after we die, but in the here and now, in this point in time and beyond time. Because these realities elude our understanding, because we have difficulty grasping what they mean, we create symbols. Unlike signs which merely point to something else, e.g., red traffic light means stop, symbols have their own structures which carry a complex set of associated meanings. Thus, the crucifix is more than a sign, it is a symbol of Christianity.
The symbolisms of religion are similar to those of myths, with their self-same search for the inner meaning of life. The writer Aldous Huxley explains further: the fact is that our brains and sense organs are limited, only concerned with our biological survival. But out there, there is a Mind-at-Large, which contains a mass of knowledge and awareness that, if processed, could confuse our brains. To keep itself from being overwhelmed, the brain thus creates a sieve or a funnel allowing only what are necessary for our practical use and biological survival. However, intermittently, this Mind-at-Large can be accessed through drugs, or hypnosis, or more beneficially, through our traditional rituals, perhaps with the priest or the shaman who may act as a portal to give us passage. Hence, religion’s need for rituals. Symbolic actions manifested in rituals are complemented by symbolic narratives in the form of myths. In other words, it is the supporting myths which are the belief systems underlying rituals.
The belief in the risen Christ is a testament to my Christianity. But supposing a Buddhist would tell me that Gautama Buddha was conceived in a dream by a white elephant? Because I am not a Buddhist, I would think of it as a myth, in the same way that the risen Christ would be a myth to many Buddhists. Robert Graves, the authority on Greek mythology, claims that a religion’s traditional stories are “myths” if, and only if, one does not belong to the religion in question. This confirms our persistent idea that myths are "false" beliefs.
Whatever our notions of myths, we can see how mythology overlaps with religion. Both refer to concepts of the supernatural or the sacred, although religion is broader in scope in that it includes non-narrative forms of rituals, codes of morality, and mystical experiences. Perhaps we can then say that myths are the belief component of religion since a given mythology is almost always associated with a certain religion. Disconnected from a religious system, a myth loses its sacred relevance to the community and becomes a legend or folktale.
Many of the fifteen narratives contained in my forthcoming book SONG OF NEGROS illustrate the belief systems of our old forefathers. Early Filipinos were animists. They believed that all objects have supernatural aspects and that the whole world is imbued with spirits—spirits of their ancestors, of wild animals, of trees and plants, and even non-living things, such as mountains and anthills. Some of these beings—especially those very relevant to their needs--were implored and deified so that our forefathers worshipped many gods.
Monotheism brought by the Spanish conquistadors was consequently very alien to them. As in most belief systems imposed from the outside, it did not sufficiently permeate through our indigenous worship of anitos and other gods. Instead of taking root, monotheism was simply super-imposed on our old beliefs of fairies and other supernatural beings. Fr. Francisco Demetrio writes, for example, that Christianity brought with it the notion of heaven and hell. The idea of heaven was readily accepted by our ancestors because it was a place of contentment. On the other hand, hell was more problematic. As they already thought earthly life was suffused with suffering, it would seem difficult to understand that more punishment was to come. Linguistically, there was no Filipino word for “hell,” so that we had to borrow the word impierno from the Spanish.
The idea of guilt and sin, including the issue of intent, was likewise foreign to our forebearers, and possibly still remains weak amongst us to this day. Hence, we easily forgive corrupt dictators and collaborators and human rights abusers. In place of guilt, our concept of shame puts a graver burden for us. We should not get caught when performing illicit acts—otherwise, we deserve to be punished.
These historical references naturally form a framework behind our myths, legends, and folktales. We saw how our ancestors’ ancient symbolic stories were good enough for them given the limited knowledge of their day. Then, with the 300-year Spanish rule and the introduction of Christianity, the old stories lost their sacred meanings and we formed new narratives. These new myths included tales on the appearances and miracles of Our Lady. More recently, millions of Filipinos continue to flock for each grand procession of the Black Nazarene, believing that by simply touching the icon, they can be delivered from whatever difficulty they have. The myths behind them have survived. And they have survived because they fit our contemporary need for miracles that would alleviate our widespread poverty.
These myths were originally reflected in the traditional Catholic dogmas and doctrines observed in old Spain, many of which are still preserved by the Vatican today in the name of immutability. However, in so doing, whilst they have remained relevant to Philippine Catholicism, they have lost their important function in many western societies. Malleability, i.e., the ability to adapt to the changing needs of the societies where they are imbedded, is a basic requirement for the survival of myths. Needless to say, malleability and immutability are antithetical to each other, i.e., myths cannot be malleable and immutable at the same time.
But how did Europe lose its old myths? Medieval Europe was the seat of Christianity. However, European societies changed during the 18th century Age of Enlightenment. The era brought great advances in knowledge, particularly in science and technology. Suddenly, the secrets of the universe seemed to unfold to the initiated, ushering the growing secularism of Europe. Our own agency seems to enable us to solve the mystery of our existence. Thus, many in secular Europe no longer need God. According to the 2018 Pew survey of Christianity in 15 western European countries, most Christians no longer practice their religion, even as they remain nominally Christians. Only 22% say they attend a service at least once a month, although a higher minority at 38% continue to believe in a higher being (including the God of the Bible at 27%). Not surprisingly, a good-size 26% are atheists, i.e., they do not believe in any high power at all.
On the other hand, the U.S., the inheritor of many European beliefs, has remained relatively more religious. According to the 2018 Gallup polls, 70% have no doubt that God exists, although only 47% say they belong to a Church. This is complemented by the Pew survey of 2014, which found 7% of Americans who say they are either atheists or agnostics. (Another interesting finding is that this spirit of secularism grows inversely proportional with age, i.e., the younger, the more secular).
This onward march to secularism has many wondering if religion is becoming an old idea, and could its future follow the fate of old civilisations. The rise and fall of civilisations follow an arc. It starts with their birth, their growth in complexity, their decline, and their eventual fall. By the same token, what started as the simple beliefs of our forefathers have grown in complexity in line with the growth of our knowledge. Thus, over these past 2,000 years, the old Christian religion has divided and sub-divided into many branches, with each branch growing in complexity over time. Similar to civilisations, might the arc of religion start with its birth in the form of a cult, then as it gains more followers, it matures into a religion, and when its claim to sacred truth fades away, it becomes a myth in the sense it is used more commonly?
But perhaps, we are discussing here about organised religion. There are many who believe as I do that we are born with religious or more specifically, spiritual impulses. Could there really be a God gene after all, i.e., the propensity to believe? If so, spirituality will never die whilst we humans live, if by this we mean a belief in the sacred and the supernatural. “If God did not exist,” the philosopher Voltaire opines, “it would be necessary to invent Him.”
Many scientists claim that religion is probably as old as man, that religious practices predated the development of civilisations. Symbolic animal cave drawings were already worshipped by pre-historic peoples. These animals would later be killed in a spirit of sacrifice for the survival of their worshippers.
Following this line of argument, in a scenario where we are born with spiritual impulses, these impulses would remain formless and intangible unless they are harnessed and given form. Intuitive impulses need to be made more comprehensible and more enduring, and thus have to be organised and institutionalised. With institutionalisation comes the creation of a uniform ritualistic worship and a codified system of morality.
The costs of institutionalisation are, nonetheless, hefty. In the process, these impulses become rooted to the institutionalising society’s manifest culture and socio-political systems. Organising dogmas and doctrines are constructed and dogmas in the wrong hands can be risky. We have seen how politicised dogmas have exploded into xenophobia and violence, and history has proven, time and time again, that unforgiving dogmatism amongst the powerful has led to unmitigated brutality.
My question then is, does sacred belief necessarily lead to organised or institutional religion? Voltaire has argued that organised religion is necessary for a society to function. Further, many anthropologists claim that an organised priesthood is one of the hallmarks of civilisation itself. But does institutional religion with their dogmatism have a monopoly over belief? Beliefs, not dogmas, should be the driving force behind religion. Moreover, moral actions should be the driving force behind beliefs.
Whither from here? Organised religion is increasingly getting fragmented and worse, we often look down on others who do not share our own beliefs, and who belong to a different community of worshippers. Instead of uniting us in a common system of morality, its politisation has divided us. We have not learned from history that exclusions and condemnation of others in the name of religion have never paid off. This is despite the great political invention of the separation of Church and State.
The 300 years since the Age of Enlightenment that saw the great advancement of knowledge have not united us to a universal mythology and a common quest on the meaning of our existence. Instead, we have used these advances to divide us as we serve only the myopic interests of our group, our tribe, our nation. In other words, our questions have remained universal, yet our answers continue to be local. We have wasted the fruits of advances in our knowledge, forgetting that we have a common goal based on our common humanity.
Personally, I believe that religion, or simply spirituality—whether organised or not--is a gift, but like all gifts, it can be used for good or for ill. And although excessive dogmatism has led to intolerance for many, there are millions more who have used this gift in numerous ways that are uplifting, as a source of kindness and generosity, giving us a moral compass to live by.
We should therefore build a society that treasures its spirituality and its attendant mythologies. But the individualistic West has killed its myths, and secularism hasn’t found new ones. These are still waiting to be born. Rudderless, many are now floating in the sea of loneliness, looking for meaning in their lives.
Amongst the collectivistic Filipinos, we have frozen our myths and locked them up in an era long gone, reflective of the culture of pre-Enlightenment Spain. Perhaps, there remain within us the chains of colonialism and we do not yet know how to escape from this psychological bondage. At any rate, these myths no longer jibe with the requirements of the current market economy led by the more affluent and more secular West. We are no longer in tune with the practical demands of our times.
We should work collectively on keeping our myths alive, either by creating new ones when they have become completely anachronistic, or by re-fashioning old ones to meet our current needs. Our myths are our truths. These truths will guide us in our quest for the fundamentals of our existence--who we are, where we came from, why we are here, where we are going.