Myth and the Garden of Eden
--Bishop of Woolwich, John A.T. Robinson, But That I Can't Believe!, 38-39.
To non-specialists, the term "myth" carries a negative meaning: something that is told (and re-told), but did not "actually" occur. The word "myth" is thrown around in common language to mean "falsity." However, in the study of religion, "myth" can be quite useful if we really try to flesh out the meaning. In this sense, what J.A.T. Robinson is trying to convey, "myth" conveys a certain metaphysical truth about reality and the human experience. Myth is not concerned with what "really" happened or didn't happen. How do we ever know something happened? We don't, unless we experiened it ourselves (and even then it's open to speculation and perspective). Rather, myths get a deeper meaning in a narrative, a deeper truth than the story at hand. Let us suppose, for a moment, that the creation story is a functional myth, a story told with a greater truth underneath. What would it look like?
The Garden of Eden, presented as myth, would mean that we used to have communion with God. At one time, we were not estranged from God. And yet, something went awry. That something was in us - and we call that "sin." Adam (or males) and Eve (or females) walked in the presence of God. But now, because of human frailty, we no longer walk with God. The creation story takes on a new narrative: a narrative of God's interaction with humanity - and the beginning of the plan of salvation. God is presented as Creator - the Creator. This shows us a metaphysical truth of God - that God is active in human history, creating and willing things into existence. But there is more: God allows humanity to struggle. Why? Adam and Eve gain strength in this struggle, though it is not readily apparent in the text. What J.A.T. Robinson is showing in his use of the "myth" to explain the creation story is that we all embody this particular story. The narrative of creation is embodied in us; we have all fallen short of the glory of God. But, God is re-creating us in God's own image. We are all Adam; we are all Eve. That is point of creation as myth: the story's functional method, myth-as-narrative, enjoins us into the story. We are apart of the whole of creation.
Now, that's an appreciation of J.A.T. Robinson's theology, but not a critique. I'm no strict literalist, but I can't help but feel that something is lost in this story. There's no nitty-gritty - the Genesis narrative talks about Adam struggling with the earth to grow food and Eve struggling in child-birth. Creation as myth doesn't always embody the humanity of the narrative. The focus is so much on the metanarrative that the human side is lost. That said, is it possible to regain the humanity in myth? Perhaps, but I'll return to that in a future post.
The strength of looking at a narrative as a myth is twofold: first, as aforementioned, there are higher truths that are best explained with simple truths. A story engages our imagination in a way that encourages to find the metaphysical truth. And second, a myth doesn't discount the possibility of literal, factual, "historical," truth. More clearly, a myth says that a story could have happened that way, but it didn't necessarily happen that way. So, there is value to expressing such a story as myth - so long as we define what we mean by "myth."
What do you think?