The Mythology of an Anti-Christian Bigot

Have a look at this article, whose nominal subject is academic freedom and whose implicit subject is the crudity and ineptitude with which a professor at a third tier state university can go about instructing his students:

[Liberty Counsel’s] complaint relates to Grace Lewis, a high school student enrolled at Polk State through the Florida Virtual School Full Time program … Liberty alleges that Russum is a “radical ideologue, bent on imposing his views on students, in violation of acceptable academic standards and the U.S. Constitution.” As evidence, it cites multiple elements of the syllabus and assignments for the online introductory humanities course, including Russum’s notes that “What we take to be the ‘truth’ is just the retelling of the myths of early civilization. The god [sic] of Christianity/Islam/Judaism are [sic] a mixture of the god(s) myths of the Mesopotamians. … The point of this is not to ‘bash’ any religion, we should NEVER favor one over the another, they all come from the same sources, HUMAN IMAGINATION” [emphasis Russum’s].

The complaint also cites Russum’s introduction to the ancient epics, which highlights “elements of homoerotic/friendship, raw human sexuality” and “the use of sexuality and the role of women.” Liberty says that Russum also tried to “deconstruct the Bible by claiming that the discredited position that the Egyptian Book of the Dead is the source material for the biblical Book of Samuel,” for example, and that he discredited Christianity by citing the Crusades and saying that “Christianity proved itself during the Middle Ages to be one of the most violent forms of religion the world had ever seen.”

The complaint alleges that Russum also “assaults the sensibilities” of his students by including a close-up image of the penis on Michelangelo’s David and by highlighting other phallic and potentially homoerotic symbols in Renaissance art.

“Russum then uses Michelangelo as [a] … stand-in for his own beliefs about homosexuality, stating that ‘in the 16th century, Michelangelo is claiming that being in a same-sex relationship is NOT A SIN and WILL NOT keep someone out of heaven,’” Liberty wrote.

The professor, Lance Russum, seems to be teaching a course that is repellent in content and in theory; it is one likely to provoke his students without actually causing them to think more deeply.  Based on the article, I would describe him as a crude instantiation of the default position of most people in the academy in our day. Perhaps surprisingly, that position is one typical of most persons in our age.

Russum has evidently organized his Introduction to the Humanities to unfold as a narrative guided by a theory.  The theory has three parts:

(a)  Christianity is a mythos, and a mythos—every mythos—is a total-world-view wrought by the human imagination.

(b)  This mythos is fundamentally discredited by its historical antecedents; because, he claims, he can show that the ingredients of the Christian mythos derive from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and other desiderata of material history, this mythos must be untrue.

(c)  We only use (b) as a stick with which to beat Christianity, however, because the Christian mythos proves oppressive and cruel insofar as it operates as an “ideology,” that is to say, as a total-world-view that is used for the purpose of controlling or frustrating the free operations of individual human desires.  By his standard, every mythos can be described as an ideology, it seems, because every mythos in fact shapes our view of the world including, even above all, the purpose of human life within it.

Anti-Christian Bigotry is Anti-Mythos Bigotry
Russum’s first premise (a) is silly, but not for the reasons one might expect.  His claim derives from late-nineteenth-century liberal or modernist theology.  Both of these schools presumed, indeed, that Scripture, the Church as believing community, and the doctrine derived from the former to give shape to the latter were essentially mythological.  And they accepted that mythos, as the total poem that represents and explains reality, was a work of mythopoeisis, of a myth-maker; the most obvious candidate for a myth maker is the human imagination.  This would seem to show that religion is a myth of man’s “invention.”

This liberal or modernist claim is, however, the perverse outworking of an earlier one held by orthodox Christians—one which is held by most orthodox Christians in our own day.  The early expression, articulated by S.T. Coleridge, John Keble, and John Henry Newman, held that indeed culture is the poem of a poetic community.  The Church is a poetic community, whose practices, prayers, doctrines, and works constitute together a great poem.  This poem is a work of human imagination, because the Church is composed of human beings.  This says nothing about its truth or falsehood.

The question we must answer is, rather, what is this imagination whose out-working, whose expression, is manifested in the great poem of the Church?  The Church answers: it is the active recipient of the absolute and the unconditioned.  The Church receives the revelation of God.  The human imagination receives this revelation in faith.  In response to this reception, it begins its work of discernment, of staring into the hieroglyph of what God has shown, in history and above all in his Son, the Logos, so as to discover what are the expressible truths its contains.

The Logos, the singular eternal Word, finds expression in the many temporally spoken words, the logoi, of the Church and its members.  And so, the primary source, or cause, of the activity of the imagination of the Church is inspiration: this revelation in faith to the people of God, from God.  But this primary source is not the sole source.  Human reason of its own nature and power can rise up to the absolute, unconditioned truth.  If it could not, we could not know by reason the truths of mathematics, the definitions of such things as rabbits, frogs, goodness, justice, freedom, and beauty, or of the existence of God.  But we in fact do know all these things, and do so by way of reason’s own activity.  Philosophy, poetry, and the physical sciences are some of its more prominent expressions.  These are not human “inventions,” they are the result of reason’s discernment of realities outside and above itself.  To claim otherwise would be to claim that every truth is an invention of the individual’s subjectivity.

And so, we would expect Christianity to be a work of the human imagination, wherein that imagination gives expression to the total, unified discovery of human reason and divine inspiration.  The Church, indeed culture as a whole, including each and every culture the world over, is an attempt to express, in Phillip Rieff’s marvelous formulation, the Sacred Order in the Social Order.  That Christianity is the true myth that transcends and completes all others is merely a consequence of its unfolding as an expression of the discernment of human reason and also of God’s revelation.

Russum’s position, and that of theological modernism, is incoherent.  It claims to offer a universal theory about mythos, but such a theory, if it is to mean anything, would necessarily be itself an expression of the human capacity to discern the unconditioned truth.  To claim otherwise, again, would be to say that every truth is an invention of our subjectivity.  Where exactly would we stand in order to make such a claim and to say it is a truth all persons can know and accept by reason?  Discerned by reason or inspired by faith, what we know comes to us from above us; this is what it means to know the truth rather than to create it.

In both the modernist and orthodox theological tradition, mythos is the broadest of categories; it comprehends the total discernment, perception, and expression of the human mind, what it knows and how it says and acts on what it knows. The point of contestation is not whether Christianity is mythological in this broad sense, but what the source of that mythos is. Every mythos is a work of human imagination, but it turns out that the imagination is not a source, as the modernist proposes, but an active recipient of truth by way of faith and reason. And this is just what Christians have always understood Christianity to be.

Christianity: A Whole Absolutely New from Old Parts
Russum’s second premise is a familiar one. He seems to deny the truth of Christianity because parts of it resemble things that precede it.  Russum evidently teaches what I understand to be long-since discredited and simple-minded claims that all the ingredients of Scripture and of the Church can be shown to have their genesis in the elements of other and earlier cultural traditions and artifacts.

This would be a sound doubt if it were not based on a faulty premise.  If the poetry of the Church is the expression of inspiration, if the muse really is heavenly, then we want to see something unearthly about it.  He goes farther: it had better be supernatural to the exclusion of the natural, all inspiration and nothing human.  Every human fingerprint is an occasion for doubt: we just made it all up out of the leftovers of something that someone else made up even before us.  On this argument, the fact that history exists seems to be itself a cause of disappointment for our hopes that anything transcends history.

The short work to be made of this argument is simply to say the evidence for Christianity as a mere derivation of Mithras, or any number of other antecedent religious expressions, is wanting.  It is a logical fallacy to say post hoc ergo propter hoc.  One would need rather to show causality, not just chronology.

A more compelling response may be found in C.S. Lewis’ “Myth became Fact,” which proposes that the mythic structure of the slain or hanging god is indeed expressive of a universal and perennial human longing that at last and once and for all finds fulfillment in the incarnation and death of Christ:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.

The myths produced by human reason prepare the human imagination for the revelation and reception of the true God. This seems to be what Matthew intends in writing, “When the centurion and those guarding Jesus with him saw the earthquake and the other things that were taking place, they were terrified and said, “This man certainly was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54).

The inclusion of this moment serves to underscore two seemingly contradictory truths. On the one hand, the pagan Roman centurion, who would recognize Caesar as the “son of god,” has in consequence of this political theology a word to throw at Christ, so that even now, before the Resurrection, the significance of Christ’s person is not entirely unintelligible to him. And yet, as Joseph Ratzinger and others argued long ago, the Roman soldier may have a word for what he is seeing, but the true meaning of that word and the soldier’s intention in using it are equivocal. It does not mean what he thinks it does; the true meaning turns the intended meaning on its head. Not the emperor of this world, but the one whom the world kills so that the truth that transcends the world might be revealed. Power is supplanted by love, the aureole of divine glory on earth is dimmed in comparison with an earthly wretchedness that at once hides and reveals the light of Heaven.

Lewis expects the already existent language of other mythologies to find fulfillment or answer in Christianity. Ratzinger shows that Christianity does not just fulfill but undermines, transforms, and transcends its historical antecedents. Indeed, there are no true antecedents or parallels but only an already existent language to be reworked and fulfilled. If God had to give us language along with his revelation, then we would, as it were, lack the vocabulary necessary to receive his Word; it would have to be immediately inserted into us, and this would be no revelation at all, but a simple dissolving of history into the divine.

I continue to find this supposed skeptical mode, this pretension to debunk, Christianity bizarre. Its argument seems to be that if sources for the language of scripture can be discovered, then the language of scripture itself has no integrity, and so, no reality as a revelation of a truth greater than the sum of its parts. Does such a claim withstand scrutiny even on the natural level?

Shakespeare based his play King Lear on Holinshed’s Chronicles, passages from Sidney’s Arcadia, and indeed an earlier play, King Leir. Does anyone doubt that Shakespeare is nonetheless the author of his play?

Every word in Scripture derives from an antecedent: the language in which it was written, the usage that preceded the writing. The revelation of Scripture is to be found in the whole, the meaning formed out of those already existent, historical parts called words. To claim to debunk Christianity by showing its historical antecedents in language is a lot like calling every author a plagiarist because his words may first be found in the dictionary.

Anti-Christian Bigots Want to be a Law Unto Themselves
The central concern of modern attacks on Christianity is to discredit it as the only mythos generally available to modern persons for belief; that is to say, as the only mythos besides that of modern possessive individualism, which is our age’s true mythology. Russum, in his efforts to cast aspersion on Christianity and then to draw on its greatest achievements—the mystical theology of Julian of Norwich, the religious sculpture of Michelangelo—to advance his own materialist and libertine agenda, may seem to be inconsistent. Why would we value Michelangelo as an authority if he, finally, is complicit in and exemplary of a myth we are not supposed to believe?

If it is an inconsistency, it goes to the heart of the secular mythos of our time. It runs roughly as follows. We all recognize something distinctive and transcendent about ourselves; even the most average fellow recognizes his own life as having a value that cannot be reduced to his identity as a part of the whole of society, or the whole of the species, or the whole of the blasted particulate that constitutes the material universe. The hardened materialist cannot seem to get outside of this sense: “I know we are just naked apes, or cabbages with cognition, whose purpose is simply to pass on our genes,” he begins, before asserting his “right” to pursue any manner of desires that would not actually serve that purpose.

Augustine tells us the mind is a triune whole whose faculties are memory, understanding, and will. Our selves constitute a continuity of being, reason, and desire. The materialist or atheist sees that our having being is no occasion of transcendence, because he thinks the specious unity of our body and our consciousness is just an incidental property or product of a coincidental chaos of atoms. Having denied any intelligible or knowable purpose to human life, he thinks of human reason as a mere useful tool to help one get what one wants and to escape from what one does not. Reason helps us make money and escape from bears and Vikings. That’s about it.

So what is left? The will. We may know we are just “naked apes,” but that says nothing against an infinite capacity to desire. And so, the modern age deifies the will. It insists that it is the capacity to conceive desires, to pursue desires, and to enjoy the pleasures that come of attaining them, that make us human. The world is then treated as nothing more than atomic elements to be brought under the dominion of our will and for the sake of its enjoyment.

The transcendental value of the will and its right to assert itself whichever way it sees fit (so long as “no one else is hurt along the way,” qualifies the tidy little liberal) is the mythos of our age. It is the cult of liberalism. If freedom of the will is the highest good, then everything that stands in the way of its assertion must be decried as an “ideology,” that is, a claim to objective truth that stands in the way of our subjective good. Every mythos is an ideology, for every mythos is an expression of the mind’s discernment of truth.

Thus, Russum’s main argument against Christianity is that it “oppresses” women, distinguishes between normal (good) and abnormal (perverse) sexual actions, and does myriad other things that try to convince us that the will and its power are not the divine good. The will is a jealous god; anything that stands in its way must be torn down.

Having denounced Christianity as a myth, on what basis would Russum or anyone assert the truth of this mythology of the will? Having denied the transcendent orientation of human reason to the truth, what rational argument could be made in favor of his position?

The answers are: on no basis, and none. But that does not matter. The modern mythos does not have any use for truth or reason except as tools occasionally to be used against themselves and exploited so as to clear more space for the assertion of our wills over reality as the way by which human beings demonstrate their transcendence over all things else.

The three premises of his course would seem not to be an inquiry into the truth, but a nasty, untruthful, and disingenuous assault upon it. Russum stages that assault for the same reason persons in every age have: to weaken the claim of the Christian mythos upon our being, our reason, and our will, so that our individual private wills may become as gods. This is what Dr. Johnson meant when he said, “the Devil was the first Whig.”

James Matthew Wilson

By

James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. He is the author of a chapbook of poems, Four Verse Letters (Steubenville, 2010) and of Timothy Steele: A Critical Introduction (Story Line, 2012), and a collection of poems entitled The Violent and the Fallen (Finishing Line Press). His latest book is titled The Fortunes of Poetry in An Age of Unmaking (Wiseblood Books, 2015). Readers can learn more about his writing at jamesmatthewwilson.com

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