Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Day 2: Religion and Myth


Prof. Dr. Hans-Ulrich Weidemann gave the lecture ‘Pragmatic Functions of the Gospels as Narrative Founding Myths in the Early Christian Period’and discussed the uses of the word mythos in narrative tales about gods and other divine beings. The term has been in use for a very long period of time; as early as during antiquity the connotations were, however, negative. A mythos, it was stated, was something that should not be used by historians as it was not truthful. A writer would never refer to his own oeuvre as containing mythical material, instead it would be used, sometimes in a derogatory manner, to describe someone else’s work. This sense of value implies that there must always exist an opposing term describing the corresponding counter-value. For instance, Plato discussed mythos as the opposite of logos, or the logical and rational way of thinking. Although Plato rejected mythos, he did admit that everything could not be expressed merely through logos, and that myth hence had a function. The kernel of truth, that is the allegorical or rational interpretation of the mythoi, was what was truly important.

The development of the term, however, moved towards an increasingly fictional interpretation. The myths were perceived as purely fictional stories, and as the direct opposite of historical accounts. In Jewish and Early Christian usage, the word signified exactly this, and had a strongly negative connotation; the Romans’ ‘pagan’ religion was the opposite of truth. This would be the main use of the term for several centuries in the Jewish and Christian tradition, and served to make a sharp distinction between the ‘true’ and the ‘pagan’ faiths, and, naturally also between the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ of the religious communities.

Prof.Dr. Weidemann also discussed David Friedrich Strauss, who was the first to apply the term mythos to the whole life of Jesus, and Rudolf Bultmann, who both equaled ‘mythological’ with ‘miraculous’. In the gospels, supernatural forces could intervene, and Jesus is perceived as a celestial, divine being in many aspects. This kind of mythological worldview, however, is unacceptable to modern people and not compatible with a scientific world view. Bultmann did not wish to eliminate the mythological features, so instead suggested a de-mythologization of the texts. This implies that the essential substance of Christian faith remains the same, but that the gospels are to be perceived as an account of the human experience of the world, rather than a direct account of the world itself. Hence, early Christian myths are ‘translated’, and interpreted not cosmologically, but rather anthropologically and existentially. It is important to mention, however, that Bultmann was only interested in the meaning, and not in the origins or the functions of the myths.

In terms of the literary character of Greek mythoi, Prof. Dr. Weidemann stressed that they are always narratives with no real author, typically beginning with non-personal expressions such as ’it is said’, ‘as is known by all’, or ‘the muses told me’. The function of these myths is to serve as an explanation and foundation for the cosmogony, that is the origin, development and present state of the world as a whole. Myths are generally traditional tales with social relevance and collective significance that are meaningful for a group and its group identity, such as a myth relating to a local place of worship, for instance. Myths are particularly important for communities, as they cement social ties, bring individuals together as a group, and reinforce the identity of the group in question. Furthermore, myths provide an explanation, foundation and legitimization of traditions, rituals, worship forms and institutions. Finally, the mythological notion of time should be mentioned; sharp distinctions are generally made between pre-history and history. Myths clearly belong to the past, and relate events that happened at the origin of time or in ‘time before time’. Hence, a type of sacred history is narrated, one describing how divine forces laid the foundation of the world.

Finally, Prof.Dr. Weidemann discussed various interpretations of Philippians 2,6-11 as a Christian myth, deconstructed the mythical aspects of the Christian gospels as whole, and also emphasized the role of the gospels as a form of Christian founding story, mirroring and accompanying the separation from Judaism.


Prof. Dr. Andreas Hoffmann gave the lecture, ‘The Force of Demythologization of Christianity in the Ancient World’. He initially emphasized the monotheistic conviction inherent in Christianity, as well as its predilection for philosophical thinking; reason, conceptual thinking and rational argumentation are generally favoured. Polytheism, on the other hand, favours a multitude of gods, demons and other spirits, that all have their own fields of responsibility and that are believed to affect the world in various ways. Myths about these divinities explain the current state of the world and the position of the human race within the framework of the world, and the prevalence of human society depends on accurate worship of the gods in question.

The Christian perception of this, as emphasized in the text by Tertullian we read for the seminar, was that the ‘so-called gods’ did not exist, as they were nothing but humans that had been deified after their deaths; mere products of imagination. There was only one god, who created the world and controlled it, and he was the only one to be worshipped. The consequences of this divergence of faith were dire; from the Christian point of view, good and true Christians would naturally have to avoid any form of recognizing the Roman ‘gods’, hence excluding the Christian community from many important aspects of Roman society, such as social and commercial pursuits. From the Roman point of view, the Christians challenged the very foundation of Roman society through their refusal to worship the gods and partake in communal activities.

Prof Dr. Hoffman then explored the topic further through a discussion of Augustine and the Manichaeans, with a particular focus on Augustine’s practical definitions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, which illustrated how mythological thinking based on the experience of human life was replaced by a more controlled form of philosophical and rational thinking.


Prof. Dr. Ulrich Riegel gave the lecture, ‘Mythical Thinking – Reference Source or Developmental Episode?’, concerning the definitions and the different types of mythical thinking, faith development theory and the role of religious fundamentalism and spirituality. He touched upon aspects such as cognitive models of perception, ontology and the interplay between multiple realities, super-social and super-national relations, literal and symbolic aspects of mythical thinking, and different stages of faith development, with a particular focus on James Fowler’s theory and its principle of irreversibility.

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