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Truth vs Fact

Page history last edited by PBworks 17 years, 3 months ago

© 2007 by Erik Dutton


(Quoted with permission. This article originally appeared in modified form on the Executive Pagan blog)



One of the most common questions I hear when discussing my religion with non-pagans (given where I live, this means almost always Christian, usually some form of Protestant, and frequently quite conservative) is something along the lines of, "You don't really believe in all that stuff, do you?"  The obvious answer, of course, is "Well, yes… if I didn't, why would I bother having this as my religion?"  As we will see, I like to go for the less obvious answer.  If the discussion gets deep enough to bring out the fact that I'm not even Wiccan, but Hellenist, then - almost inevitably - the next question is about Zeus' love life. I love this question!



I do, in fact, believe in "all that stuff," although not always in the way most people in Western cultures are trained to think.  Do I believe that Zeus actually seduced all those girls as a swan, a bull, a shower of gold, and so on?  Not necessarily; although as He is a God, of course, anything is possible.  What I do believe is that whether these things "actually happened," the stories themselves do have religious significance.  In this particular example, what I gain from the myths is a sense of Zeus' role as "Father of Gods and Men" and how important that aspect was to the

ancient Greeks, remembering both that this is one of His more common epithets, and that the name the Greeks called Him is descended from the Indo-European *dyeus pater, meaning roughly "[shining] sky father."  I'm sure that's not the only possible meaning in these stories, but that's what I get from them right now.



Most Western pagan religions don't have "scriptures" in the sense that most Abrahamic monotheists (or many Hindus, I believe) would understand the term, as direct or indirect revelations from a deity.  My own view, of myths in general and of mine in particular, is that they are the record of the experience of individuals and cultures with their Gods, and how they understood those experiences.  Some certainly do reflect, if not perfectly record, linear-historical events (Schliemann demonstrated that); some almost certainly do not; and most... well, we honestly have no way to know.  As another example, I believe that on some level, Prometheus was indeed “really” chained to a rock for opposing the will of Zeus and giving us the gift of fire (and possibly of life itself) - indeed, that He may be eternally chained there, and also eternally free.  I also believe that if I could go back in time, what I would probably see is the discovery and harnessing of fire by our evolutionary ancestors; but just because I might not be able to discern the coming of Prometheus does not mean that He was not there, or that He is not eternally coming.



Given that the myths are written and, in at least some cases, likely invented by humans, it follows that there is no imperative to regard them as perfect and unalterable fact.  Frankly, given how many different versions there are of many of the stories, it would be a remarkable exercise even to try; but to assume therefore that they should not be taken seriously is just as big a mistake.  These stories tell us about someone's experience of our Gods, and for that reason they deserve to be taken seriously, and read with spiritual as well as historical discernment.



Most of us brought up in the Christian West, particularly in the Protestant traditions, are taught that in order to be "true," myths have to be "fact," a concept that I have taken to calling "time machine theology" - i.e., if I had a time machine, I could go back and see the Crucifixion, or Prometheus chained to the rock, or whatever.  The root of this belief is to be found in the very nature of revealed religion:  as it says in the New Testament, “…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Corinthians 15:17-20, New International Version)  This impoverished view of sacred story reduces and limits the experience of the ineffable to that which we can comprehend and express, and is at the root of a lot of the religious fault lines that sometimes threaten to pull our society apart at the seams. Although I do not believe the Resurrection was a literal event in history, I do see that the Christian story of Divine love and self-sacrifice tells a profound truth and has the power to change lives for the better; but I also see that far too often, in preaching the necessity of “faith” in the literal event - and eternal consequences for not having that faith - Christians miss teaching their deepest truth.  Taken absolutely (and only) literally, most mythologies look somewhat absurd, including mine and yours; it's only when we look at them "in a myffic kind of way" (with apologies to Terry Pratchett) that we see how they make sense.

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