Mythos, Religion, and History


I am, which is to say I remain, a Christian, if an odd sort of Christian. I even remain in many ways a theologian, though an odd sort of theologian, as well. The problems theology has had in terms of dealing with historiological studies of scriptural times, places and events has never been something particularly important to me – denying them would be silly, but I don’t have any reason to regard them as all that relevant, although occasionally interesting. To think that they somehow ‘disprove’ Christianity seems to me to require a very naive understanding of mythos and religion, how they interact and intertwine, together with an even more naive understanding of history.

I remain a Christian, and as a thinker necessarily a theologian, not from any posited ahistorical or supra-historical perspective, but precisely as historical. The individual stories, syncopes, parables etc. form the history of which historiology is at best a doubly overdetermined analogy. Since, as with most people brought up in a given culture, one that is given precisely in its mythos, understanding that mythos is my only way of understanding myself historically, and thus history in its relevance to me, as something materially relevant to my present situation. However other Christians, or people who try to understand the mythos of a different culture, self-interpret their actions, I find it difficult to think that that basic sense of being-historical insofar as one understands the stories, syncopes, parables and other forms of passing on a tradition, is not the most basic reason for the fascination with mythos and the religions it both founds and at times causes to founder. The key is to think that history historically enough, as Heidegger put it.

In terms of literal historiology (meaning as written) the place where historiology fails to think history historically enough is centred in the historical record. Historiology has to fail, because what it must take as valid is what is most questionable. To put it as simply as possible:

  • Specifically as written, the historical record is the ongoing result of a forwards and backwards projection, where the individual records that make it up were predetermined by a belief that they would be relevant to future historians, and where those historians, in trying to make sense of those individual record and determine their specific validity, are always guided by an overall sense of validity that comes from the historical record as they inherit it.
  • Thus as written, the historical records is an analogy that pivots a forwards and backwards projection, but the analogy itself comes from the records of bookkeepers. Bookkeepers have the factical daily task of recording trading events so that the books can be balanced and debts paid later on – there’s no mystery as to why one record is relevant and another not. If the record is of a transaction that wasn’t in error or cancelled, it’s relevant. The relevance or irrelevance of a historical event, however, is more complex and less obvious in terms of how it’s determined in either projection.
  • As such, the historical record is doubly overdetermined. It’s overdetermined in one sense in that what did determine the original decisions to record a given event and preserve it was itself the forward projection, and that forward projection arose from the rationalization of a revelatory experience, i.e. a prophecy.
  • In its relation to mythos and religion, though, the relations are inverted. The mythos, as what is passed on and understood as historical by non-literate peoples, who even within literate societies have formed by far the largest proportion outside of a few countries in the past hundred years or so, is formed by the backwards and forwards projection of telling stories told in the past in order to tell stories of the past.
  • As written, history as the historical record is only the history as understood by those who were literate. From innumerable prophecies arising from innumerable revelatory experiences one or two become the sole important ones, by the simple virtue of having been written down. By revelatory I mean a sudden, ‘all-at-once’ intuitive understanding, along the continuum that runs from minor insight to epiphany to revelation the main difference is the scope and in an inverse way the determinateness. Minor insights are usually fairly determinate, but lack much scope, while the revelation with the widest scope is entirely indeterminate in terms of content – the revelation of understanding as such, which is absolute in terms of its reflexivity – sudden understanding of understanding, and its absence of determinate – and as such, relative – content.
  • Thus an arbitrary, contingent and small subset of prophecies tends to determine from the beginning what is included and what is left out of the historical record. While it is revised via a backwards projection, that backwards projection is itself always determined initially by the historical record as inherited, hence the forward projection overdetermines the whole; and the few written prophecies, representing only a small part of those that are told and retold by non-literate people, overdetermine the forward projection.

This overdetermination makes the validity of the historical record, i.e not merely the actual historical record we in fact have but the concept of a historical record, extremely questionable. Its questionableness has to be preserved in every attempt to think anything historical, which includes ourselves, historically enough. The relation of the two backwards and forwards projections, that of the literate and non-literate, has to also be maintained as a problematic when thinking historically. Finally, the relation of both to prophecy, and the relatively limited set of such prophecies in history as written, raises further questions that must be thought through in thinking of any given thing as historical.

Thinking historically enough, far from obliterating mythos and religion, has to enlarge its scope through them. Thinking mythos and religion, and thus theology, historically enough has to see that its scope has to be far greater than historiology, and its methods far less naive.

That there is an appearance, one somewhat increased by historiology, of contradiction within the mythos and religion(s), is not in any doubt. In a certain sense it echoes the contradictory nature of experiencing the world, the experience of being human.

The equivocation, though, within historiology (and the other sciences that deal with the past and/or human development), that takes mythos and religion in the sense of ‘mere’ myth, as moralistic fables and fairy tales, becomes null and void when one considers that the stories, syncopes, parables etc of the Christian mythos or any mythos capable of founding a religion, specifically resist any kind of simple moralistic interpretation. They most often appear contradictory to any obvious meaning.

As an example, one can look at the ‘parable of the ten pounds’ in Luke, or the similar ‘parable of the talents’ in Matthew. While as Zizek notes somewhere or other, a wealthy right-wing Christian, so long as he ignores what’s actually said and rephrases the story, could view it as proof that Jesus was a proto-capitalist, the description of the ‘nobleman’ (Luke) or ‘master’ (Matthew) as one who ‘takes up what he did not lay down and reaps where he did not sow’ hardly fits with the master as representing Jesus, since that description wouldn’t have been accepted by any self respecting Jew even if in a rare instance it happened to fit. That he calls for those who ‘don’t want [me] to reign over them’ to be slain is also problematic for the proto-capitalist interpretation. Yet Zizek’s reversal, in which the slave/servant who hides the money and returns it, albeit without interest, is the ‘hero’ of the parable, is also untenable, given that he is to be ‘cast out into the darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth’ – one of the few clear references, outside of Revelations, to the dark side of the netherworld.

As with the parable of the prodigal son, the syncope of Jesus as an errant youth in the temple, or even the expression ‘Son of man’, the epithet most often ascribed to himself by Jesus, the obvious and clear moral lesson characterized by fables such as those of Aesop, or the more recent ones from sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and neuropsychology, is singularly lacking.

For someone who has a properly historical sense of mythos and religion, as well as an appropriately mythic understanding of history (not to mention having experienced the religiosity of the sciences), that the story as a whole is full of gaps, apparent contradictions, and at times incomprehensibilities is a necessary part of its truth – reality is full of gaps, apparent contradictions, and incomprehensibilities. It is only part though, or people wouldn’t put effort into understanding it further. The necessity of its appearance as contradictory and at times even nonsensical can only be understood when one has already grasped that some truths can only be safeguarded when they are at least partially concealed, and that some truths inherently conceal others, in an interplay that we are not yet close to comprehending, though we understand it perfectly well.

Mythos and religion do have a message, many messages in fact, and those messages contain more understanding of the reality of being human than anything else human beings possess. However, like the post office, the institutions of religion don’t have to understand a message in order to deliver it. Were the post office to understand my mail, in fact, that would be a cause for concern.

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