Myth and History
By Rev. Elizabeth Wheeler
This course tells the story of the United Church of Christ within the context of the myths America lives by. It explores how the UCC helped to make those myths and was made by them and why the UCC history cannot be separated from American history. It asks who the prophets of tomorrow are and what the UCC vision is.
There are, of course, many ways to read history. This course could have looked at the events in UCC history through the eyes of great men and women on the premise that they, by force of thought and action, so influenced events as to direct their course. We could have tried to write a story of how ordinary people lived their lives, the premise being that their multitudinous acts comprise the great flow of history which the acts of great men and women simply confirm and make visible. Or we could have tried, as many commentators do, to apply social science theories to explain the crucial movements of our times. Or we could have assumed a theory of history that sees human institutions as living organisms which grow and die to rise again from the fertilizer of the past in to a different form.
Historians have long struggled with trying to organize the facts in some meaningful way and finding, themselves overwhelmed with so many facts that any selection makes an understanding of the whole meaningless. They have sought overarching frameworks to explain the way things happened as they did, only to be defeated by the shards of what could have been that prick the logic of their stories. Their visions are always partial, fragmentary and frustrated. They can't make sense of it all because, said Isaiah Berlin , history cannot answer questions about meaning and purpose, about
the permanent relationships of things and the universal texture of human life, wherein alone truth and justice are to be found by a kind of ‘natural' . . . knowledge. To do this is, above all, to grasp what human will and human reason can do and what they cannot. How can this be known? Not by a specific enquiry and discovery but by an awareness, not necessarily explicit or conscious, of certain general characteristic of human life and experience. And the most important and most pervasive of these is the crucial line that divides the ‘surface' from the ‘depths' – on the one hand, the world of perceptible, describable analysable data, both physical and psychological, both ‘external' and ‘inner', both public and private, with which the sciences can deal . . . and on the other hand the order which . . . ‘contains' and determines the structure of experience, the framework in which it must be conceived.
On the one hand, historians can analyze and classify, through scientific methods and concepts, the physical and psychological data our senses pick up. But a large part of how we feel, what we think, what we hope for, how we talk, what we believe, who we are is
immersed and submerged in a medium that, precisely to the degree to which we inevitably take it for granted as part of ourselves, we do not and cannot observe as if from the outside; cannot identify, measure and seek to manipulate; cannot even be wholly aware of inasmuch as it enters too intimately into all our experience, is itself too closely interwoven with all that we are and do to be lifted out of the flow (it IS the flow) and observed with scientific detachment.
Yet it is this part by which we live and move and have our being. Or as Berlin says, it is this part that
determines our most permanent categories, our standards of truth and falsehood, of reality and appearance, of the good and the bad, of the central and the peripheral, of the subjective and the objective, of the beautiful and the ugly, of movement and rest, of past,, present and future, of one and many . . .
Some people are more aware than others of the submerged portions of their lives and seek wisdom rather than information to get at these imponderables,
to separate the real from the sham, the worthwhile from the worthless, that which can be done or borne from what cannot be; and does so without giving rational grounds for its pronouncements. ( Berlin 487-90)
. . . because rational and irrational are terms that don't apply to the framework in which we live our lives. What we are grasping for is something more primal. And the only language we have to express the inexpressible is the language of religion. This course trains people for the practice of ministry in the body of Christ called out by God under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is not useful for training social scientists, natural scientists, artists, humanists or even theologians.
While doctors, lawyers, historians, physicists, biologists, scholars must submit their practice to the rigors of their disciplines, we religious are disciplined by Scripture. It is against Scripture that we test the faith and practice of our “profession”. Science and religion have no argument because they are two different ways of knowing using two different kinds of language. But because every “profession” has its own language, we priests and ministers must learn to speak the language of our “profession.”
This course, therefore, attempts to tell the history of the UCC in the language of Scripture. It compares the journey of American Christians of the United Church of Christ persuasion with the journey of the Israelites and the disciples, not only because the comparison illuminates our journey as a people of God, but also because the language forms of Scripture more aptly grasp the imponderables that so frustrate historians. One form which religious people use to speak about these imponderables is myth
Myth is a form of religious thinking about the relationship of human groups to their gods. Myths explain to a people where they came from, how they were made, where they are going, how to get there, who will save them in times of peril, who they are that they should be saved. By devoting ourselves to
the spiritual traces of vanished times . . . can we train ourselves to feel with the past; then gradually sympathetic strains may be set in motion within us so that we find in our own consciousness the threads that link ancient and modern times. A greater wealth of observation and comparison allows us to go further and proceed from the particular case to a law. It would be a sad pass for human knowledge if detailed research ipso facto fettered the mind and prevented it from seeking a synoptic vision. The deeper you delve, the more you may expect to be rewarded by general insight.” (Cassier quoting Gotternamen Usener's essay 21)
These spiritual traces are most often related to “pregnant” moments in the history of the people. In such moments the people feel as though they have lived more vividly than they have ever lived. Every sensibility, every emotion is heightened. They know they are in the presence of the holy, in another dimension. The eternal has pierced time and history. The experience defies understanding. It accumulates a whole series of events and ideas in it.
The tension between that experience and the struggle to make sense of it is discharged in a story because stories are the only way to capture the fullness of the experience and fix its multiplicities into consciousness. People who experience events in pregnant moments, tell their stories matter of factly again and again with words which are precise descriptions of what they have lived through yet conjure the fabulous because the experience WAS unbelievable.. They compress what is important into the moment to magnify its significance and, in so doing, they mythologize the moment
For Americans – the land so abundant that the cod “pestered” the boats and clam banks spouted showers of water up to the diggers' knees, a land so vast that from a rise above the Missouri the prairie rolled out as far as the eye could see into the big sky of the west;
For Americans -- the great migrations of people who left -- by force of sword or will -- every familiar way, all the beloved scenes, each dear person for a life of hard labor, danger and loneliness among strangers;
For Americans -- the Revolutionary War with its bloody foot prints to Trenton and the farmers' victory at Bennington and the Civil War led by one man who would fight and another who would cry;
For Americans – the youthful adventuring from the China trade to the moon and the exuberant industrial know-how that poured out a cornucopia of textiles from Lowell, iron from the Mesabi, automobiles from the River Rouge, chips from Silicon Valley;
What was all this for? Why did our people do what they did? Why did things turn out the way they did? How do we explain what is beyond words? Mythic language is the only language that comes close to saying what the people know to be true about the hardships and miracles they witnessed. It goes to the gut, the primal, the visceral, the mysterious, the central.
Mythic thinking reveals the involuntary, unconscious ideas that lie within every American. In contrast to scientific thinking that seeks to discover how the material world works, mythic thinking wants to articulate what a life worth living is … and that's a question about the spiritual realm.
The stories that last are the ones that can be used again and again. The bridge between the story and the moment is the metaphor. It captures the essence of the moment and the raison d'etre of the people. To tell the story-myth activates the whole people's whole history, past, present and future in toto.
Americans are an immigrant people. We are not place-identified, nor can we find comfort in the records of a noble past. We have been on our journey together only 350 years. We are young as nations go. So we have had to explain ourselves using the words we brought with us: initially the Christian Scriptures.
American myths are heavy with Biblical content. This content finds its origins in the UCC's Puritan ancestors. And because the UCC has lived the entire American experience, how it has adapted the myths America lives by is important.
It behooves UCC people to understand the power it unleashed in America 's founding myth and the reincarnation of this myth, as it has evolved through the American experience from the Chosen People to the Redeemer Nation, to the New World (Order) and the New Reformation of today.
In The Great Migration of 1630, the 1,000 people who made the passage from Old England to New England explained that God had called them out on a special mission: to fill the land with God's purified people. After a time of tribulation and perhaps because of their trials, the people with the help of God's strong arm would subdue sin and bring in God's kingdom in God's New Canaan.
In this enterprise God would judge the whole nation not just individuals. When the people deviated from God's laws. God's punishment would be swift and strong – war, disease, earthquake – and God would often have a controversy with the people. But their correction was God's tough love and God's covenant with the people would endure. The great blessing of the strenuous Christian life was confidence and hope under God's providential care.
By the 18th century Americans were established and prosperous and not a little lax. God revived their religious fervor in the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 40s and taught them Freedom. The by-product of the Great Awakening was the Revolution. Every commoner could know God personally without the mediation of church or priest. And once empowered, no commoner needed the mediation of king or Parliament either. God blessed the Glorious Cause and raised up the people into The People.
Religion and politics were of one accord and God called The People to a new mission: to carry the gifts of Christ and the Republic from shore to shore. The evangelical church brought the good news of liberty and justice to women and slaves and the charity of Christ to the sick and uneducated.
The 19th century was alive with social and political movements under the banner of Jesus. Evangelical Christians loved real things. They celebrated the good earth and the good people who filled the earth. The good news of the historical Jesus would turn the world upside down and the fervor of the Second Great Awakening sparked a Second Revolution. God's kingdom come on earth was possible! And America was God's redeemer nation in the conquest of sin, the creation of justice and the construction of the good life.
People not only went west, they went to China , India , Armenia , into the slums, the jails and workhouses. They went into hostile mobs, murderous armies, killing cold. They ran toward danger and defeat. And if the afflictions of the Civil War were visited upon The People as upon a woman in childbirth, the cloudless atmosphere prevailed. When the war was over, The People bound up their wounds and redoubled their efforts.
They could see millennial visions of peace. The last unregenerate social sector, labor-management relations, would be Christianized through trust busting, labor legislation and honest government. The commonwealth would hold together not only through voluntary charities but also through government mandates. The People were good and reasonable people, better living through chemistry was the way to go and progress toward justice and equality was clearly visible in every walk of life.
Conquest did have many unfortunate consequences, of course. But these were the price of freedom and Jesus didn't run from a fight. By 1917, therefore, America mobilized to make the world safe for democracy. The children of God were growing up and the world was now the stage God set for his chosen nation. Much had been given and much was expected.
There was some confusion about whose side God was on, since both sides during the Civil War and World War I prayed to the same God. But The People felt secure in equating victory with favor. A few noticed, however, that Abolition did not solve the race problem, the Social Gospel did not solve the jobs problem, that victory did not solve the peace problem, that Prohibition did not solve the morals problem.
In Chapter Three of the American myth, the new world lost its order and God seemed to have lost his voice. After 300 years the liberal evangelical project petered out. But what a story it left behind!
The People's poet is still Walt Whitman. And his song is still the adolescent's vivacious discovery of himself. John Updike calls Whitman's I-centered universe “egotheism” and goes on to say “the hero of the ‘Song of Myself' is a god, whose palms cover continents, but also a God who enters into the egos of the suffering: ‘I am the hounded slave . . . I wince at the bite of dogs . . . I am the mashed fireman with breastbone broken . . . I am the man . . . I suffered . . . I was there'” (Updike 111)
Whitman's perfect democracy embraced the universe. Each one of us was the whole world unto ourselves. That was reality. And if that universe turned out to be limited by ourselves and the echo of ourselves – well, even if that's all there was, the moment was fabulous while it lasted.
By the end of the 20th century, however, it was clear that the material girl left to herself had botched things up royally. The political sordidness and sense of exhaustion contrasted wildly with the scientific and technological achievements. The dissonance was deafening. The whole blood-soaked century of gratuitous murder had buried the Enlightenment under millions of corpses – on the Marne in World War I, in the gulags of the Russian Terror, in the massacres at Nanking and in the furnaces of Auschwitz during World War II, among the disappeared in Chili, in the mass graves of Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia.
The silent screams of lost generations have circled the earth without rest ever since. As the monstrosities spill over into the 21st century, the consolations of seeker-sensitive mega-churches won't last and the prospect of perpetual war and drowning coastlines should chill even the most apocolyptically-minded.
Something is missing. Something tougher and more muscular. Most of us do not feel material to ourselves. Or rather we feel there is something more to life than the transcient matter of our bodies and the changingness of our world. We look to the more enduring substance of the spirit. For Christians Jesus without Christ is only half the story.
The discontent, division, anxiety we feel are the manifestations of a people without a vision, a myth that describes our condition, our hopes and our God. When liberals secularized the faith they degraded the myth into egotheism and left The People prey to their own devices, not all of which were humanistic. The Sixties rebellion was against a nation and a religion that had lost its soul. We had gotten bogged down in what Karl Barth called the “liberal swamp.” (Updike 828)
When fundamentalists privatized the faith after World War I they domesticated the myth and left the people prey to sexual politics and a solipsistic craving for a Oneness with God. The present counter-revolution to the Sixties rebellion feeds on the fears of all kinds of religious people that the country has lost its morals. Although liberals retort that the fundamentalists have led the people into a Babylonian Captivity of the faith in bondage to politics, both sides are right. Either way The People wander in all directions, murmuring.
We lack a synthesizing narrative all Americans can share as one people under God. For we are a “middling people on the make” whose favorite son is Jesus, hero of a hundred different religions, which thrive under a secular creed: that God has created all men (and women) equal and given them inalienable rights to pursue life, liberty and happiness. Without a faith we perish. That's just the way we are.
So it's back to basics. The working title of Chapter Four from the American myth-makers is the New Reformation.
They will ask: whatever became of the common good and the high calling of public service? (Wallis 6) Whatever became of the majesty of God, the frailty of human beings, the sacrifice of God in Jesus and resurrection of Christ for us? Is there more to transformation than self-improvement and spiritual ecstasies? Whatever became of the Christian values of simplicity, modesty, compassion, charity, courage, justice, wisdom, love and the Republican virtues of honor, duty, honesty, industry, fairness, sacrifice and excellence? Are war and shopping all that hold us together? Whatever became of our adolescent optimism and river raft adventuring? Where is the Holy Spirit moving today? To whom is God speaking now and what are the signs of the times?
Historians try to get the facts right and so will we. But The People do not live by facts alone. They live by visions and myths, by dreams and nightmares. Myths and visions energize the people in ways that facts never can. One purpose of this course, therefore, is to teach students about the power of myth-making, how to use this power for the sake of The People and how to protect it from false prophets and vain princes who lust for power.
In many ways it is a good time to be in the religion business. Religion is a rising force everywhere. Since the 1970s it has become so politicized that ecumenical and interfaith dialogues are urgent and moderates of every faith must restore some decency to the claims that are made in their name. The United Church of Christ has matured and developed into a confident model for Christian unity and a genuine alternative to the legal corporations that structure much of community life. Covenant, the commitment to live for the sake of others, is a bond more powerful than any social contract which allocates power secured by force for the maximum self-interest of the signatories.. There is reason to hope.
Over the last 40 years, religious scholars have revisited the issues of church and state and reconsidered religion in the public square from the learnings of the civil rights movement. Religious leaders have reframed family values in terms of a living wage, adequate health care, faithfulness as the standard of marriage and the protection of the very young and the very old as the measure of familial strength. They have reframed a theology of life beyond the choice for abortion and stem cell research to include the life and death choices for war, the death penalty and the right to die with dignity. And they have pointed out that the gifts of nature are not free. Reverence for life extends to all creation. We hold the environment in trust by God's grace. Its keeping is not a commercial option but a divine command.
Ethical and communal issues are in the news every day demanding a decision. What kind of people are we called to be? Where do we stand and for what? What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be The Church? How high should the wall be between church and state? What work of our own has God called the United Church of Christ to do? Not since the Reformation has The Church and its task been so widely discussed.
It is the prophets who have begun to put into words what they see. Looking for reasons to hope, they see a cloud no bigger than a hand on the horizon. Becalmed and adrift at sea, they feel a change in the wind. They sense that the new crew looks after each other and leaves no one behind not even Spongbob and his queer friends. They hear songs of alabaster cities and the laughter of children rubbing their bellies and tapping their heads as they frolic in safety and in health. A dove lands on the bowsprit. A change in the weather can be tumultuous but they trust in God and set their course.
The ruah of God is blowing across the face of the waters and the prophets feel a change in the wind. God is still speaking and doing new things. And The United Church of Christ, so original in its creation, is again in at this creation.
John Updike Hugging the Shore “Whitman's Egotheism” and “Tillich and Barth” New York : Vintage Book 1984
Ernst Cassier Language and Myth New York : Dover Publications Inc 1946
Jim Wallis God's Politics San Francisco : HarperCollins 2005
Isaiah Berlin The Proper Study of Mankind “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” New York : Farrar Straus and Giroux 1997