I’m really loving my Greek and Roman Mythology class. On the one hand, it’s a 1000 level course, so the ‘difficulty’ is pretty minimal, but being a four credit class instead of a three means that we get a ton of reading in the original sources. Amongst other things, it has been very interesting for me to read these ‘myths’ and ‘see parallels’ in certain Scriptural images. As a friend of mine recently confirmed, it is hard to look at Noah the same after reading the Epic of Gilgamesh.
So I find myself confronted with how to understand these things. Of course I want to affirm the ‘uniqueness’ of Christ (and I do!) but it is intellectually irresponsible to apologetically argue that Christ, as represented in Scripture – that is, on a textual as compared to an ontological level – is a totally unique ‘apocalyptic event’ without precedence in other sacred literature. (I take this to be at least a part of what Hans Frei argues.)
A classic example is a confusion that sometimes happened as Christianity came into contact with its neighbors. Jesus was sometimes understood as a sort of Dionysus figure – Christ as Vine; as transforming life in the Eucharist; and as Harrower of Hell, were taken to be parallels to certain Dionysian myths.
There are two thinkers in particular who have been helping me, though in many ways they take radically different positions. Rowan Williams has a sort of take on this in an essay entitled “The Finality of Christ” in his astounding “On Christian Theology.” Williams wants to see Jesus “not dehistoricized or absolutized as an icon of significance, but neither [as] depicted as the teacher of one among several possible ways of salvation. He is presented as the revelation of God: as God’s question, no more, no less. Being a Christian is being held to that question in such a way that the world of religious discourse in general may hear it.” (105)
+Williams represents here a sort of chastened iconoclasm, trying to worm between the simplistic options of ‘exclusivism,’ ‘inclusivism’ and ‘pluralism’ as commonly conceived. I’m not totally convinced of this essay on all points, but his christological focus I think is indispensable in understanding other faiths and ‘myths’ in light of Christ.
On the other hand I’ve been ruminating on C.S. Lewis’ “Reflections of the Psalms.” Famously Lewis makes a (rather good) case for understanding certain myths as ‘pointing to’ Christ. He is most convincing when talking about Plato’s picture of the ‘Perfectly Just Man’ who is scorned by society as a disruptor of the peace and subsequently crucified. Lewis goes on to say “when I meditate on the Passion while reading Plato’s picture of the Righteous One, or on the Resurrection while reading about Adonis or Balder…there is a real connection between what Plato and the myth-makers most deeply were and mean and what I believe to be the truth. I know that connection and they do not…One can, without any absurdity, imagine Plato or the myth-makers if they learned the truth, saying, “I see…so that was what I was really talking about. Of course. That is what my words really meant, and I never new it.” And with his typical generosity he concludes “(Or may we more charitably speak, not of what Plato and Virgil and the myth-makers ‘would have said’ but of what they said? For we can pray with good hope that they now know and have long since welcomed the truth; ‘many shall come from the east and west and sit down in the kingdom’)”
As it stands I’m not looking for the mythic ‘middle’ or ‘third way’ between these two, but I’m feeding off both and trying to see the truth of what they’re saying; I’m looking for the Christ in Dionysus not because I want to cheapen the truth of Christ, who remains the Way, Truth and Life – but I’m looking for him because I believe that it is in him that all things cohere.