Saturday, 10 December 2011

Myth & Mystery: Glad Tidings of Reason and Fact

From “Lifecraft” by Forrest Church from the chapter “A Mystery Story”

"Reckon the odds. That we should even exist staggers the imagination. Then take it back further, back to the ur-paramecium. All of us are connected genetically to the beginning of life and kinetically to the beginning of time. The universe was pregnant with us when it was born. I find this far more amazing and inspiring than most theological reflections. Simply being here - my having written, your reading - is a miracle. Consider my awe at the underwater world on the Great Barrier Reef, how impossible is was to be blasé in the presence of a giant clam. We should never be blasé when reflecting on the creation or our place in it. As it is written in thirtieth chapter of the book of proverbs,

Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a woman.

Physics, anatomy, biology, and psychology can begin to decode such mysteries. Yet knowledge has its limits. Quoting an academic study, novelist Saul Bellow observed “that an average weekday New York Times contains more information than any contemporary of Shakespeare would have acquired in a lifetime.” That includes Shakespeare himself. The Times is a fine paper. I read it every day. But for all its information, it only hints, and then only occasionally, at what Shakespeare knew so very well: that the beauty of the bird, the symbol of the snake, the courage of the pilot, and the wonder of human love will always be touched by mystery."

Oh I do love Forrest Church...he speaks to my condition...

I was round at a friend’s house the other night, we were just chatting away about a few things that we as adults see as being so important. My friend has a six year old son and during our rather serious conversation his son burst in with incredible excitement. A tooth had fallen out and obviously he wanted to show it to his dad. I am told that the going rate for a tooth these days is £5 and a set of football cards. It seems that the global recession has not yet impacted on the tooth fairies. A little later he burst in again this time desperate to show something he’d received on his laptop. It was a personalised video message from Santa Claus. Santa addressed him by name and was in possession of a great many details about his life, He had pictures too. Santa discussed how my friend’s son had been behaving for the last few months. At the end of the message Santa told him to be nicer to his brother.

It was an absolute delight to hear this little boy asking when his brother would be home, as he wanted to give him a hug. It was beautifully magical just getting lost in this family's little world, if only for a short time. I had gone to the house to help someone, spiritually I suppose, I had gone to teach. That said I left feeling I was the one who had learnt a lesson and I was one who had received the greatest gift; the gift of joy and wonder; the gift of seeing life through the eyes of a child. A priceless gift if ever I have received one. We can learn so much from children.

They do indeed bring “Glad tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy”

Sophia Lyon Fah’s is so right when she says that every night a child is born is a holy night. For in every child is that wonderful gift of potential. It is important to always remember that we did absolutely nothing to deserve the gift and privilege of being born; we truly had no say in it, it is a gift freely given. What we do with the Grace that is life itself though is another matter all together. This we do have some say in, but we did absolutely nothing to deserve it.

We are now well and truly into the Christmas season. The music is being played in the coffee shops and the other shops too no doubt. I am yet to venture into the other shops and can only vouch for what is being played in Cafe Nero in Altrincham. The adverts are everywhere. The season of Christmas re-runs has already begun. As has the bah humbugging. I heard a bit of it the other morning from a friend. A friend who always makes me chuckle when I sit with him. He makes me chuckle because he reminds me of the cynical guy that I was a few years ago, I was the emperor of scepticism. This was back in the day when my brother would call me Alan Rickman. This was because I reminded him of the character he played in Galaxy Quest, I used to be a real ranter back in the day. And yes Christmas really was a humbug. The awe and wonder at the mystery of life that I had once possessed had become covered by a cloak of cynicism and bah humbug.

Advent is about preparation. Now I used to be someone who was well prepared for misery, I sought it out in actual fact. You may well say I was utterly addicted to it. I certainly worshipped it. What I am becoming increasingly aware of is that I now have to make myself equally prepared for joy. This is my focus at the moment to open myself up as much as possible to the joy that is there in life. This will not take away the pain and disappointment that is there in all our lives. That will hit me just has hard as it always has. That said it will not have the same impact as it once did, because I am also working on preparing within myself a nest, a home, for the joy that is present in life, in love, in mystery. I am learning not to dwell on my troubles, because I keep remembering the lessons that the children I have known in my life have taught me. This advent for me is about preparing for joy and magic and mystery.

A friend recently sent me this play on the Christmas carol “God rest thee merry gentlemen”, it was written by the Unitarian Universalist minister Rev Chris Raible. He is playfully mocking himself and our tradition for its idolatry of reason. Reason and fact aren’t everything. There is more to humanity, and to life itself than we are ever capable of seeing and knowing. True humility always leads to a greater openness to new and wonder filled experience.

"Glad Tidings of Reason and Fact" by Rev Chris Raible

  God rest ye, Unitarians,            
  Let nothing you dismay!             
  Remember that there is no proof     
  There was a Christmas Day            
  For Christmas really started as     
  A pagan holiday.                    

  Oh, glad tidings of reason and fact, 
  Reason and fact. 
  Glad tidings of reason and fact. 

  No wise men travelled from the East, 
  The journey's far too long. 
  There were no shepherds in the fields, 
  The time of year's all wrong; 
  We don't believe in angels; 
  That rules out the angels' song!    


  We're too sophisticated to 
  Believe in tales so old. 
  We know that human avarice means 
  Too much bought and sold; 
  We only celebrate because 
  This season is so cold. 
Now I will not argue with the factual accuracy of the words, but is this really what the Christmas story is about?  Is it really about what actually happened or didn’t happen all those years ago? Does this really bring glad tidings of anything? Does it help us to live better lives, to offer love and compassion to one another?
Advent is about preparing us for the coming of hope that can be found in a humble birth of a lowly child in a lowly stable. A child with incredible potential and yet who is rejected. Isn’t this a universal tale? Doesn’t it speak of all of us at times? There is more to the Christmas myth than the historical accuracy or inaccuracy of the Biblical accounts. In fact to get lost in detail of what did or didn’t actually happen is to miss the whole point of the story. It sounds as ludicrous as those medieval theologians who argued over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Is that what really matters? Surely there is more to the story than reason and fact. Gosh I’m starting to sound a bit like Alan Rickman again.

Joseph Campbell taught that myths such as the nativity story are actually metaphors for human life. That they are eternal and universal tales that can teach us about our lives right here right now. He believed that by understanding these mysteries we can begin to understand who we truly are and what life is all about.

Carl Jung taught that these myths originate within our “collective unconscious”. He said that we each have a conscious level that we are aware of in our waking moments (this is what is operating now as you read this blog, or at least I hope it is, are you still awake?). Beneath this is our personal unconscious level, our closet. This is where we store memories, experiences, desires, fears, urges, compulsions etc. It is here that our personal “stuff” is stored, which from time to time we dip into. Some of this stuff is beautiful and some of it is terrifying. This is the domain of our devils and demons.

Jung described our “collective unconscious” as our “collective closet”. He uncovered common themes, symbols and motifs while working with his patients and he noticed that these same themes, symbols and motifs were also to be found in the religious stories and myths. From this he concluded that these common myths and stories are part of humanity's “common closet”. These myths are drawn from a common human well of memory and thought and that they teach us about ourselves and the mysteries of existence. The problem today is that when we hear the word myth we equate it with an untruth, a lie, instead of seeing them as revealers of deeper universal truths. As Campbell observed, to view them as lies is to actually get “stuck in the metaphor” and to fail to see the deeper universal truth that is being revealed.
Why these are imprinted into our human consciousness I cannot answer. Richard Dawkins talks of the evolution of the meme (pronounced like cream) that these ideas, tunes, catchphrases and stories are just past on down the line to help us cope with life. He sees the myths as untruths as lies, as I once did and my friend in the coffee shop still does. Today though I see more; there is something in the corner of my life that I cannot quite see and yet I can experience, so long as I don't get stuck in the metaphor.

Yes the reductionist can dissect life and understand the minutiae but by doing so they can still miss out on its beauty and true meaning. You see the truth is the more we know, the more we realise how little we can ever know and so the mystery grows. I suppose it is here where the magic is and where the God of my misunderstanding is discovered, in the unknown and unknowing. This power is both redemptive and it is divine. It brings out our heart and it brings out our soul. By opening myself up to the unknown I have discovered the hope and joy that I had once lost and I have found the peace that passeth all understanding.

So yes this advent I am preparing myself for the coming of hope, love, peace and joy. I invite you to come and join in too.

Come Christmas come...most needed of seasons.


  1. The thing I really like about Alan Rickman's character in Galaxy Quest is that he eventually does have a personal epiphany and does something compassionate.

    Meanwhile, "By Grabthar's Hammer! By the Sons of Morvan! You shall have a happy new year!"

  2. Cheers Yvonne...I will be returning to this theme...yes I've been getting a lot of "By Grabthar's Hammer" a lot this Christmas...just siblings keeping me down to right size...reminding me of the man I use to be