From Liberty Street: Transformation of Mythology

Why are we having an outbreak of speculation and writing about the events of the First Century in Palestine? It surely can't be simply that someone has written a runaway best seller which employs startling revelations about that time. After all, The Da Vinci Code  is a novel and the plot elements that are bringing it so much attention aren't new. The theory that Jesus did not die on the cross but was rescued and managed to escape from his home territory has been around for years.

More is at stake here than whether a novel points to historical truth.

When my friend Dan Noel died almost four years ago he was at work on a book about the nature of modern belief. His thesis was that belief was headed for a kind of meltdown which would eventuate in one of two developments, both of them intellectually diseased. Either people would become perfectly credulous and be ready to believe almost anything authorities dished out or they would become perfectly skeptical and refuse to find any truth in the stories and legends of the past. Dan's solution to this approaching crisis was an invigoration of the imagination that would lead us to recognize imaginative truth as an equal partner with factuality in ordering our lives. We can't live without imagination, Dan would say, but we can't see it as the same thing as propositional fact either. He was about equally opposed to fundamentalists, who couldn't tell the difference between fact and imagination, and positivists, who thought that facts were the only thing that mattered.

Had he lived, he would have been excited, fascinated, and dismayed by developments over the past three years.

The new millennium -- which isn't super new anymore -- is bringing us to a time when old orders of belief are crumbling and giving way to something different which is yet to reveal itself clearly. And for many people, that's a cause of anxiety. They tend to hunker down, as Lyndon Johnson used to say, and to hold onto the certainties they thought they possessed when they were children, certainties that were never approached by either the acids of the critical mind or by the shimmering light of the imagination.

Hunkering down in that fashion turns people into troglodytes whose irresistible impulse is to bash anybody who looks a little different, talks a little different, or thinks a little different from themselves. It also renders them into perfect material for political manipulation.

Outbreaks of troglodytism are emerging all around the world, and here in the United States it has focused on the figure Jesus of Nazareth. There are a great many things that can, and have, been said about him but at the very least it ought to be clear that he is an extremely powerful imaginative creation. If people could keep that straight in their minds a great deal of the misery associated with his name would be avoided.

If there was a historical person at the core of the creation -- and, probably, there was -- we don't know a great deal about him. The evidence is slight and none of it reveals incontrovertible facts of his existence. That doesn't interfere with the grandeur of the creation itself unless one has become dismissive of the power of imagination.

It's a curious truth that the people who take opposing positions about the importance of Jesus are agreed on a fundamental proposition,  which is that if he was not major historical personage then he doesn't matter. I say "curious," but I suppose it's fairly common for extremes on any issue to come together. This fits with Dan's thought that it wasn't of great consequence whether people became totally credulous or totally skeptical because the outcome would be the same in either case.

More and more, I see his wisdom on that point. As we survey current debates about what should or should not be believed we observe that people who claim complete knowledge in those respects are projectors of hatred.  Not only that. They have a vested interest in hatred. They can't do without it.

It remains to be seen whether there's something in human nature which insists on making a claim to knowledge, whether one has it or not. If there is, then our future as a species is not bright. But I think it's worth hoping that we can transcend that limitation and come to understand that our mythologies are immensely important, even though they don't convey the sort of information we need for building a workable automobile or for traveling confidently to our local supermarket.

If we can sort out the forms of knowledge and grasp how each is valuable, we have a chance to make our lives less pathetic and, perhaps, even to develop a taste for literary works of greater imaginative reach than The Da Vinci Code.

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