The Place Of Mythology In Religion

Religious stories are myths. And, as such, they often are misunderstood and misused.

In the study of religion, myths are not lies, but they are not caches of historical facts either. Myths lie somewhere in between. Myths are religious stories that may or may not be historically true, but convey profound truths. To avoid confusion and frustration, it is important to recognize religious stories as myth — and therefore as expressions of religious ideals — and not interpret them as historical facts.

One reads a recipe differently from a sports column, and reads both differently from an obituary. Failing to recognize the different genres and insisting on a literal interpretation of each creates problems. Instructions to “remove skin from chicken and cut into 1-inch pieces” may upset the folks from PETA; a newspaper report that the Giants crushed the Saints will excite religious fanatics looking for Armageddon; and one might be tempted to become cruel and selfish after reading the obituaries, since they tell us only the kindest, warmest, best-smiling people die.

Therefore, to ask, “Was it really a virgin birth?” or “Did the sea really part?” or “Did the infant Buddha really walk seven steps immediately after birth?” or “Was Muhammad really taken on a winged horse up to heaven?” is to misunderstand the genre and miss the deeper meanings behind the stories.

One example should suffice. Laozi, the founder of Daoism, was born 60 years old. What is more, his mother was impregnated by a shooting star and was pregnant for 60 years before she gave birth — hence the reason for Laozi’s age at birth and his name, Laozi, which literally means “old man.” Some fail to realize that this story is a religious myth and may mistakenly interpret it literally as a result. From such an erroneous perspective, one may argue that a woman only can be pregnant for about 40 weeks. Past this, both mother and child are endangered, and labor must be induced to save the lives of both. Therefore, it is scientifically impossible for a woman to be pregnant for 60 years, and this fact exposes the story of Laozi as a lie and the religion that developed from it — Daoism — as wrong. Such a misguided view misses the religious truth embedded in the myth.

In several Asian cultures, reaching 60 years old is an important milestone in a person’s life and a big celebration is often had to commemorate this achievement. Why? A different animal sign and its accompanying traits dominate each year in the Chinese zodiac system. 2015, for example, is the year of the Ram. It is not just any Ram year — this is the year of the Wood Ram. Twelve years from now it will be the year of the Ram again, but it will be Fire Ram instead, and 12 years after that it will be Earth Ram. There are five different elements that characterize each animal sign — wood, fire, earth, metal and water — and it takes 60 years for each of the 12 animal signs to be paired with each of the five elements. Thus a person who has reached 60 years old has completed the entire cycle and has accumulated a lifetime of wisdom and experience. At 60, one begins the zodiac cycle anew and is “born again.” One experiences a kind of second childhood and an accompanying return to innocence.

Indeed, in Japanese tradition, the word for baby is “aka-chan” (literally “red one”), thus the person celebrating a 60th birthday dresses in red as a symbol of returning to a baby-like state. Scammers know of the return to innocence at this age all too well and prey on the trusting innocence of the elderly. And yet the elderly are not completely naïve, as those past 60 have wisdom from a lifetime of experience. They are childlike, yet wise.

What is so remarkable about this? In a different place, in a different time and from a different tradition, a man and woman were expelled from a garden of innocence for eating a fruit from the tree of knowledge. According to this religious myth, one cannot be innocent if one has knowledge. Innocence and knowledge are incompatible. We are born innocent, but become less so as we acquire knowledge and understanding. Religion literally means to “reconnect.” Thus, at 60, the wisdom of a lifetime is reunited with the innocence and purity of a child. One is thus complete, full, whole.

More than lies and less than facts, myths are fascinating stories created to tell us who we are and explain the world around us. By doing so, myths satisfy social and psychological needs and may even disclose hidden meanings that enrich the lives of the faithful community in the process. Not understanding religious stories for what they are leaves us less fulfilled, and impoverishes the creativity and imagination used to create such stories.