The Mythic Character of Reality

The friendship between CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien is well-known, as is Tolkien’s role in bringing Lewis to Christ. Less well-known (unless you dig a bit further) is Tolkien’s role in bringing Lewis out of a rigid and flat understanding of the world and into the rich possibilities afforded by “myth.” Without this conversion, Lewis would likely not have become a Christian, and certainly would not have authored the fiction that is loved by so many. It is deeply underappreciated though it goes to the heart of both Lewis’ and Tolkien’s faith. They were not only Christians, they were Christians whose hearts were deeply touched and sympathetic to the power of myth. Through it, they gave us worlds that continue to entertain. However, most are entertained by their stories in the same way they are entertained by any action drama. The mythic character of their work is passed over and reduced to little more than “children’s fantasy.” Professor Digory says it well: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato; bless me, what do  they teach them at these schools!”

The early conversations between Lewis and Tolkien were not about Christ, per se. They were about myth and the character of reality. Tolkien wrote a poem for Lewis (they both loved poetry), entitled “Philomythus to Misomythus” (“Lover of Myth to Hater of Myth”). One stanza reads:

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.

The heart of the argument turned on the relationship of myth to reality. Lewis had said: “Myths are lies, even though breathed through silver.” Tolkien saw in mythic stories not lies, but a revelation of the very character of reality that could not be known or expressed in another manner. Modernity is fond of saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” which is another way to say, “Beauty is merely subjective and not real. Beauty is a lie.” Modernity dismisses Tolkien as another fantasy author.

Tolkien once said, “If God is mythopoetic, we must become mythopathic.” Understanding this statement goes to the heart of Lewis’ Christian conversion and all of his subsequent work. Neither Tolkien nor Lewis (after his conversion) believed myth to mean “stories that are not true,” or mere “primitive efforts to explain what is not known.” Both were struck, not by the fictional aspect of myth (all myths), but by their profound insight into the nature of human existence and the world in which we live.

There is a reason, for example, that we discuss a certain kind of self-centered personality disorder as “Narcissistic,” making reference to a character in Greek mythology. Oedipal, erotic, cupidity, stygian, the Midas Touch, martial, and a host of other terms within our language make reference to ancient “myths,” not as an effort to be obscure, but because the stories within the myths carry a weight and a meaning that mere clinical language, devoid of such reference, lacks.

But both Lewis and Tolkien have something much more profound in mind. Lewis’ whimsical reference to Plato points to this fact. Somehow, myth is not just true, but real. The nature and character of the world cannot be described properly without reference to something more. That something more has a nature that gives shape to the stories labeled as myths. They are not just any story, a sub-genre of fiction. Indeed, even stories that would otherwise be labeled “true” and “real” (in the literal sense) have significance precisely in their mythic character.

Those who are “misomythic” are not necessarily anti-religious. However, their religion lacks power, beauty, and substance in that it is flat and empty. What modernity labels as “fact” is insufficient for human existence.

I have encountered such religion from time to time in a mindset that prides itself on the literal character of its faith. It will admit interpretations (of Scripture, for example) that have an allegorical or typological character (both of which seem to me to be sub-genres of myth). But, in fact, they are nominalists, granting such readings nothing more than a mental status, a literary trick. Such “tricks” are given some leeway in that they abound in the writings of the Fathers (and in the New Testament itself). But they deny that these readings are actually there: they are merely inferred.

When I have argued for the use of allegory or the “mystical” reading of Scripture, it is with reference to the actual character of reality and of the text itself. The universe is “one-storey,” something in which all that might be called mystical or mythical actually inheres. It is to be discerned.

St. Porphyrios said that in order to become a Christian, one must first become a poet. Poets, and “mythopoetic” above all else. Reading Lewis and Tolkien is not an exercise in literary fiction. Both, in different ways, understood themselves to be creating myth. Tolkien engaged in what he called an act of “sub-creation.” We feel it when we read him, with a strange aching sense that though we do not believe in his elves and orcs, they are, nonetheless, hauntingly real. I would say they have a sacramental character, embodying something that is real, but which we can only express in mythic form. Reading Tolkien should change how you see the world around you.

Lewis’ fiction is mythic in a different way. For Lewis, the primary “myth” (I would even say “Myth”) is that of Christ. He wrote:

As myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. 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. It happens–at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other…We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology.

For many, the “mythical radiance” has been lost. What has taken place is the privileging of a secular account of reality. It is felt that we must win on the ground defined by secular materialism. The result is a modernized faith, even if the “facts” embraced are antique. My argument is like that of Tolkien and Lewis. God is mythopoetic. To understand Him requires that we learn the language in which He speaks and hear even the silence into which the Eternal Word is spoken.

47 comments:


  1. The result is a modernized faith, even if the “facts” embraced are antique.

    Yep. More and more, the myth I hear is one of politics, canceling other people (under the guise of decrying “cancel culture”!), and tribalism, even if Orthodox terms are used. The very same weirdness that was once limited to schismatic groups is now the “mainstream” “Orthodoxy”, in most places I’ve seen, as of the last few years. The myth is now the same one that the Pharisees believed in: we’re under attack and God is going to send some worldly leader to right the imagined political wrongs, punish the “bad people”, and expose “the truth”. And the end result is the same: they’ll kill Christ as soon as they see Him.

    I was not able to put it into words before today, but “myth” is one of the first things I search for when I talk to someone. Regardless of the language they use, it is very evident what myth they believe in after talking to them—sometimes after just a few seconds! And I find more and more people “in the world” believe in the Orthodox myth—in a way they may not even not understand—than those that have built grand theological and liturgical edifices in their lives. But I guess that is how it has always been.

  2. Father thank you for this. My question is the following: If we are to interpret the Orthodox faith as being ‘mythopoetic’ in a sense, how are we able to judge how our ‘mythos’ is any more or less true than the spiritual truths expressed in other religions? In science, for instance, you can have clear mechanisms to discern which theories are more/less likely true….but how would that work in a mythopoetic reality?

  3. Jordan Peterson believes our culture has become so polarized because we’ve abandoned wisdom literature (which includes myth).

  4. Joseph,
    If there were only the “mythos,” the “story,” that were told, then Christianity would indeed just be one story among many. As it is (as Lewis himself once noted), in Christianity, “It all seems to have actually happened.” The other stories, he once described as, “Good dreams sent by God to prepare us for the coming of Christ.” The elements in all these stories which have an uncanny way of “rhyming” with each other, is, I think, evidence that the “mythos” that is incarnate and tangible in Christianity is and has been “haunting” the world since its beginning.

    We do not dismiss the tangible and the incarnate in favor of a disincarnate myth. But to understand that the Incarnate Whom we worship is also the primary myth of all the ages is yet another thing. It is important, I think to understand that reality is not divided into “incarnate versus disincarnate,” much less “real” and “unreal.” Rather, reality has depths and depths to it. That which we encounter on the surface is doorway, sacrament, symbol, etc.

    The emptiness of the secular mentality (which is its own, extremely shallow myth) dismisses everything else as fantasy and “mere myth.” Secular mythology is, essentially, the worship of money. Money, power, pleasure, etc., is such thin gruel. It is utterly inadequate to the task of sustaining a civilization. It is efficient, productive, and brutal, as well as immoral, other than the morality of the momentary whims of the mobs. It is currently collapsing all around us – but will become exceedingly ugly in its collapse.

  5. Peter,
    I’ve not read or followed Peterson, though I’m good friends with Jonathan Pageau – who engages him very regularly. It’s not just wisdom literature – but an entire way of seeing reality that has changed. Our current polarization (I think) is the result of American political mythology. American political theory and practice is essentially religious in nature. We are engaged in a religious war that has been going on for a long time. Neither point of view is particularly Christian. Both groups borrow and use Christian symbols, but they are divorced from true and proper Christianity. Many of the contemporary versions of American Christianity (both conservative and liberal) are heretical on many levels – significant departures from their own roots, much less the fullness of classical Christian teaching.

  6. Thank you, Father. A significant essay for me, nudging me to explore yet other depths. As well, I so often find in your comments a rich bouillabaisse – or whatever the opposite of “thin gruel” is!

  7. As always, I really appreciated this article, Father. I thank God for you and how so much of the wisdom in these blogs comes from experience with Jesus and the gospel.

    I ran across the following Youtube video recently and want to share it with you because Jordan Peterson has also gone through a great deal of suffering physically and mentally lately and is saying things now that very much seem to align with what you have shared above. I don’t know where Peterson is really headed with this but it still is a remarkable testimony to the “terrifying” reality of the myth and the fact coming together in Christ. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbVwV8_TEkM

  8. “Without a vision the people perish.” Without myth indeed we would not understand what God has deeply revealed. Science creates nothing. it merely discovered what God has already created. There is an old Star Trek episode we’re Captain Kirk is stranded on a planet with another alien being in their language the only way they can communicate is the other alien continually repeats a myth from his culture that eventually helps them to defeat another alien that is trying to kill them. Oh that people would glean from myth the depths of the mysteries that God intends us to understand. Myth gives life to existence. Without which life is tawdry and lowly toil and pain. Myth helps us to rise above the mundane. I have been in a long time admirer of Tolkien and Lewis. I’m working my way through the Silmarillion. (Big task.) However the fantasies they create seem to be more of a reality than the “thin gruel” force fed upon a hungry populace by the commercial magnates and their banal perspectives and goals. Thank God for bouillabaisse!

  9. Carlos,
    I do not know where he’s headed, either. But, his fellow-Canadian, Jonathan Pageau (an Orthodox Christian), has certainly been staying in touch with him. I keep him in my prayers that God will keep His hand on him and help him find the way Home.

  10. This is wonderful and puts me in mind of two quotes, or a quote and a story.

    First was the quote from G.K. Chesterton, whom, as you know, Lewis loved. In his book, “Orthodoxy”, he said, “Fairy tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”

    And then this is a story from magician, Doug Henning, from the interview by David Charvet in MAGIC magazine, 1999. I’ve always loved this story because I always loved Doug Henning and one of my older brothers is a magician. I love the story more now because Saint Innocent enlightened these Inuit people’s many years before and, in doing so, did not relegate their “myths” and traditions and culture to “merely pagan” and thus “false” but showed them how they were all part of the True Myth and were indeed fulfilled in Christ.

    Here’s the story…
    “I was getting a little bit of a reputation in college when I was invited by CBC to perform on Christmas shows for the troops. At one point on the tour, they asked if I would like to do a show for a group of Inuits. We were on the edge of this little town in the wilderness, 400 miles from the North Pole, and about 60 below zero. I set up my show in a little building, and the Inuits came in to watch. They sat on the floor in their parkas, and I did what I thought was some pretty good stuff. They just sat there, didn’t smile, didn’t say a word and at the end, nobody applauded. But they were completely focused on me, like I was some sort of phenomenon. Only one of them spoke English, so I asked him, “Did you like the show?”

    “Yes, we like the show,” he said.

    Then asked, “Did everybody like the magic?”

    He said, “The magic?”

    I explained that I was trying to entertain people.

    He said, “Entertainment is good, but why are you doing magic? The whole world is magical…” We sat down on the floor and he told me, “It’s magic that snow falls, all those little crystals are completely different…that’s magic.”

    Now, I was grasping, trying to explain magic to him. I thought of my ‘Zombe’, which I thought was my best thing. I said, “I made that beautiful silver ball float in the air…that’s magic.”

    “But there’s a ball of fire floating through the sky every day. It keeps us warm, gives us light…that’s magic.” Then the Inuits started talking among themselves. The man came to me with a big smile on his face, and said, “Now, we know why you’re doing that. It’s because your people have forgotten the magic. You’re doing it to remind them of the magic. Well done!”

    I cried right then. I’ve never told anyone this story. I said, “Thank you for teaching me about the magic. I didn’t know.” That was really the first time I knew what wonder was. It was the most memorable thing that has ever happened to me. I never forgot that, inside. That’s why I became a magician.”

  11. Dennis,
    Sadly, modernity tells people that there is no myth – only the story they tell themselves when they had no story (that’s a quote from Stanley Hauerwas). I think he’s correct. We think we’re making the story up as we go along – while, all the time, we’re living in a story that the powers-that-be are telling us, and selling us. It’s just mammon.

  12. Innocent,
    It is deeply tragic that most of us today think of the “magic,” the “myth,” and the “stories,” as entertainment. The truth is that these things are necessary components for the fullness of existence as a human being. They are expressions of something we know (though most often we forget). Children know it (the Inuit know it). I was exposed to very powerful teaching about the Kingdom of God as present reality at about the same time I was reading Tolkien and Lewis (when neither were the popular things among the young that they are now). This was about ’70-’71. I did not think that their stories were “like” the Kingdom of God – but I could see shadows of the Kingdom in the stories they told.

    The later commercialization (through the movies and such) has, for me, mostly missed the point. There are youtube things with silly speculation about things in Middle Earth – again, missing the point. I shudder at what Disney might have in the works.

    But, unlike so many modern readers, we have the comfort of reality around us (its fullness) and the immensity of the Divine Liturgy – when we eat and drink the Myth-made-flesh and become eternal.

  13. I once said as a comment on this blog that I wanted to understand what it was that the ancients saw as they converted away from their pagan myths and embraced Christianity. The entire Roman world was conquered by this faith. And not just them, but their satellites and trading partners also.

    Moderns will immediately point to inquisitions and such without considering that the earliest church was embracing just one myth in a sea of pagan thought, and was persecuted and ignored. Inquisitions came much later, after power, money, pleasure, etc… had found inroads into the faith of the martyrs.

    Hopefully I am not amiss in recommending the Ancient Faith podcast, https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/lordofspirits, hosted by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, and Fr. Stephen De Young. I have found that it provides many of the insights I’ve been seeking, and hopefully it will continue to do so. The Christian faith is utterly unique, it was much more than the pagan faiths that surrounded it, and continues to be unique, being much more than the flat materially reduced faith most Americans are comfortable with.

    Lord have mercy.

  14. Of course the whole secular, “enlightened” way denies the actual reality of creation and tries to replace it with empirical facts. Yet I have encountered folks who are quite factually accurate yet have little to no truth in what they say. Indeed facts often obscure the truth. There are even folks who deny the actual existence of Jesus Christ because they cannot find enough factual data from the time to verify it. They contest Lewis’s statement

    We must always remember Fezzik: “I don’t think that word means what you think it means”
    Indeed the refusal to see what is real is a big part of modernity. Is that a definition of insanity?

  15. Yes Innocent, thanks for the magician story. For me it really helped make Fr. Stephen’s point about how we’ve forgotten what magic is and how most of us have it upside down as far as what is really important.

  16. Christian Deconstructionism is real. To me as I entered my college years, there seemed to be a huge disconnect between modern Christianity, and the historical faith that martyrs died for and that peacefully conquered empires. The most common element I found when I explored Christian Deconstructionism, was the prevalence on materialist arguments. In this regard, I think the mythic poverty of modern Christianity leads to a brittle theology that cannot and will not be sustained for much longer.

    Just as a for-instance that might be seen as provocative by many, including my wife. My Christianity is much stronger now that it doesn’t rely exclusively on a materially young-earth interpretation of creation to “prove” its validity. The key though is to understand how it subverted the myths of every world culture past and present, how it proclaimed something unique about the God of Israel that set him apart and categorically above all others. We lose that with our insistence on literal materialist interpretations, that if proven wrong, or even if seriously questioned, can trigger a crisis in faith.

    Other passages in the Bible seem truly cryptic to a Christian steeped in “Sola Scriptura”. A modern believer may gloss through such passages, not realizing the import of the the references without the mythical context. Deconstructionists will point to such passages as antiquated, quaint, confusing, the product of a delusional mind – and argue that God had absolutely no hand in creating the Bible.

    To be a Christian, and feel that you’re missing something important is frustrating beyond belief, especially when things about your faith just don’t make sense to you. You want to believe, but more and more, the emperor seems to be missing his clothes. I felt that the myth needed to be embraced if my faith was to be believed; otherwise, why bother.

    Lord have mercy.

  17. Matthew, et al,
    The essential “Myth” – or foundational story beneath, behind, and throughout all of creation is that story of the Incarnation, self-emptying, death, descent into Hades, and resurrection of Christ. Those things, of course, happened in space-time reality. It is “historical fact.” But, at the same time, the “Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth.” Those things, as transcendant story (Myth), run through and connect everything in all creation. Every particle of matter (and sub-particles as well) proclaim its truth. And this is not just a “story,” a narrative that we use for interpretation. It is, in fact, THE story of all creation with a transcendant life that permeates all things. It is the “shape of the Logos” in creation. Thus St. Maximus can say, “He who understands the mystery of the Cross, understands all things.” And he means ALL things.

    On the other hand, those who see the Cross, etc., only as an event in history, regardless of how significant they believe it to be, are professing a very thin version of the faith, incapable of sustaining the Christian life in the fullness of truth. Part of my critique from time to time of “literalism” is its failure to understand the actual character of reality. Literalists, of the modern sort, are actually just secularists (unintentionally).

  18. Father,
    You reminded me of yet an extra layer of ‘deep myth’, that of the many subordinating stories/ fables of the ‘Tradition’ concerning the stories of the Scriptures (which are considered as factual in customary Orthodox mind-sets and also treated as such in the Hymnography).
    I’ll give just one example for clarity. One that also in some way relates to the mystery of the Cross:
    We have a strong tradition that the three trees (cypress, cedar, pine) that were used for the Cross of Christ (the “accursed wood” that wouldn’t fit in the Temple and which Jesus knowingly saw discarded every time he passed the Temple) were the triple tree sprouted from the staff of Abraham (planted and watered for years by Lot as a penance), as was the Ark of Noah also made by the same (the only three resin-carrying woods of the land – cypress, cedar, pine). (Without this being in Scripture, although there are clear allusions) …And there are a load of such intertwined stories that are even found outside of our scripture and yet have astounding prophetic clarity (in Plato, in the story of Prometheus or that of Odysseus saved on the cross-like wood of his boat, or entering with twelve in the cave of Cyclops to offer bread and sweet wine, and many more). I don’t want to make this too long but, rather just to bring to attention the richness that exists in this matter, and how it is imbued with so much meaning.

  19. Early into my introduction to Orthodoxy, I was introduced to the icon of the harrowing of Hades.

    At the time I knew that Adam meant “Man”. But the individual who was showing me the icon made a point to say that I should Identify with Adam in the icon.

    Later, this was reinforced by the Paschal troparion, “Christ has conquered death, by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

    In a world where either/or seems to be the mantra (myths or facts as it might be stated), I see both/and.

  20. Dennis M,

    Which episode was that? I’d like to re-watch it. I watched the entire Star Trek: TOS years ago when I was in college, but that was a long time ago and I guess my memory of the episode storylines has become dull.

    Innocent Green,

    That is a great story! It sounds like something straight out of a Chesterton story.

    Matthew W,

    Thanks for the podcast link. I will be listening to this!

    -NSP

  21. It would help us if some of the myths were put to rest. To burst the bubble: The Theotokos did not live in the temple, did not enter the Holy of Holies. The Apostles were not transported on clouds to her deathbed. A Jew did not try to overturn the deathbed and had his hands cut off by an angel. To have respect for correct history it IS necessary to admit some “history” isn’t. Some stories aren’t worthy of celebration and diminish the truth. But those are major feasts! Admit we were wrong.

  22. Bob,
    Respectfully, I disagree. There is a plausible case for the stories regarding the Theotokos in the Temple – such that simply stating that it did not happen is mostly just testimony of being saturated with historical skepticism. I get that – I was trained in such historical skepticism – swam in it. My experience is that it represented a state of the heart that easily turned into a poison of sorts. I learned to lay it aside whenever possible.

    I’m not a good literalist, however. Laying a skeptical mindset aside is not the same thing as being able to embrace a naked, unfettered literalism. I often encounter that kind of literalism – (I’ve been victimized by it from time to time) – usually with very angry, vociferous defensive arguments that tell me more about the state of the literalist’s heart than anything else.

    There is a middle ground – at least it’s a place that I’ve learned to dwell. There are rock-hard literalisms in my life – the resurrection of Christ is the first and most central one. St. Paul knows how to make a historical argument when he pressed on the matter. 1 Cor. 15 is the best example that I know. He not only recites the creed-like Tradition he has received from the mouths of the Apostles themselves, but goes on the name eyewitnesses and to remind his readers that most of them are still alive. It would hold up in court: “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

    Not everything we are given in Scripture is offered to us with such surrounding proofs. We, however, live in a litigious world, marked by darkened hearts of skepticism (while blithely accepting any amount of balderdash that pleases us). We want to press every item in the Tradition to the same standard St. Paul gives us in the Corinthian passage – as though only Occam’s Razor could teach us the faith.

    I will confess to raising an eyebrow on occasion at various stories or details in accounts. They are written and passed on with a mind more given to theological reflection than to Occam’s razor.

    Within the bosom of the Church – there is a life given to us in the Liturgical feasts and rhythms. It is where we dwell. We do not demand the kind of historical assent to the hands of a Jew being severed (in the account of the Dormition) that we demand of the resurrection of Christ. Last time I checked, it’s not in the Creed. Raised eyebrows are permitted.

    However, the sort of dismissals you suggest, throwing the full content of the tradition into the seive of modern historicism, is actually a change of heart. It is the triumph of the literal that is just as deadly as any fundamentalism (and for the same reason). It reduces “myth” to “make-believe” and ultimately embraces the triumph of secularism.

    This is, in my mind, a delicate matter. I can write, as I have in this article, about the place of mythic understanding. But what I am describing is a state of the heart (and the mind) that is part of the fullness – and not an argument about every detail that is related in traditional festal material. It is that heart that is lost to most in the modern world – and we are diminished.

    I do not think of the tradition (such as the feasts) as “unworthy of celebration,” even if the celebration includes some raised eyebrows. But, I am addressing the heart.

    In the Kingdom of God, everyone at the table was feasting and rejoicing. Some, it would seem, stood outside with Occam, weeping and refusing to join. He, and those with him, are still invited to the feast.

    I pray that I don’t scandalize anyone with this answer – either those who are deeply skeptical, as well as those who are happily literal about everything. My experience is that I cannot, for whatever reason, give assent to either position. Both, it seems to me, have something that is “not quite right” when it comes to the heart – or when it comes to my heart. I think it was the heart of modern man that Lewis and Tolkien saw as flawed (“men without chests” was Lewis’phrase). That observation has always resonated with me – even if it is difficult to quantify.

  23. Modernity hates stories. Hates everything truly human. Modernity has embraced death and calls it progress. No aspect of our lives is free of the death cult. It is even in the Church. Modernity is also fixed on correctness over truth. So, bob, “correct” history is a misnomer. In the 19th century many professional historians wrote in story form. Read Francis Parkman as one instance. Indeed I have long appreciated the word ‘history’ as His Story.

    Only by embracing the essence of Jesus Christ, participating in His mercy through repentance, forgiveness, Sacrament and Holy Tradition do we approach the Truth. That is how both our personal Temples and our community Temples are purified.

    Forgive me, a sinner.

  24. Bob – thank you for the comment. I would venture to guess that many of us have felt exactly as you have expressed at one time or another during our journey into Orthodox Christianity. I certainly know I have. In fact, I would consider myself to have been a terrible “cherry picker,” i.e. I believe this, but I can’t believe that. Unfortunately, after 5 years as a “quasi” Orthodox Christian, this left a door wide open for me to walk away from the Church – which is exactly what I did. It took me 5 years of floundering around, creating more suffering for myself, before I was willing to re-enter the Church through that same open door and re-embrace the Church in a whole new, much fuller way. I really cannot explain what happened in rational terms. I was in a desperate situation and I didn’t know what to do and I heard a voice in my head that said very clearly, “You must go back to St. Seraphim” (the church were I was baptized). And I was like, “DUH!” I am 100% certain that this was St. Seraphim himself speaking to me, as he also brought me to the Church originally (a longer story I won’t go into here). So, I didn’t question the message for even one second and within a week I was back at St. Seraphim. That was over 5 years ago and I have never looked back. This time around I found myself in a very different “heart place.” I simply decided that I didn’t care if the stories were literally true or not, that it didn’t really matter or affect my faith in Christ. Interestingly, over time, I have come to LOVE these stories for the spiritual truths that they convey, and I cannot imagine the Orthodox Church and Faith without them. I hope I am making sense.

    Fr. Stephen – thank you for such a thorough and thoughtful response, and for being so honest about your own journey and for being true to yourself. I think you help us feel okay about all the doubts and uncertainties we have encountered in our own hearts and minds as we move towards Christ.

    The Orthodox Faith is truly a faith of the heart. We cannot enter it through our mind. The longer I am Orthodox and the deeper I embrace the Faith, the less I want to read the intellectual Orthodox literature and the more I simply want to read the prayers of the Church and the lives of the Saints because it’s these two things that seem to speak to my heart, and it is the heart that must be healed.

  25. Not long ago I was told that the persecution of Christians was a myth and that the historical truth is that they persecuted non-Christians. In that conversation I didn’t deny the bloodlust that Christians have displayed in the past. But wondered how history could be so convoluted to fit secular ideological interests.

    And there are indeed ways to discern ‘fake’ reports in science and pseudoscience. But apparently the public at large in the US is not inclined to learn those tools, preferring ideology first and foremost.

    When I hear responses to the Theotokos that would deny her access to the altar, (I’ve heard them before) it seems to me to come from the same cloth or heart that finds it difficult to venerate her.

    I’ve said this before and received pushback but I reiterate. This is ultimately not a concern about a myth but a concern about the placement of a woman in such high standing as the Theotokos. And the best way to push her off her throne, is to ‘debunk’ her worthiness and virtue, ascribing it to be fantasy.

    Father you are always gracious in your responses. And I suppose I expose my own less gracious response. Please forgive me, a sinner.

  26. bob,

    Though which feasts are “Great Feasts” probably was not the thrust of your comment, that is not something that is as set in stone as we’re often led to believe. Though a Russo-Byzantine form of Orthodoxy is the most prevalent today—with plenty of baggage, inconsistencies, and flaws—that is just one limited expression of Holy Tradition. In my small community, for example, we don’t celebrate the Exaltation Of The Cross as a Great Feast—we have a different Great Feast to commemorate the Cross and it is connected in a very different way; I expect that the old Persian Orthodox Church would have had even more reservations in celebrating the Exaltation in the manner of the Byzantines! And though we don’t mark the Entrance Of The Theotokos as one of the 15 Great Feasts either (yep, 15 !) and instead give more weight to the Circumcision (also a Great Feast here), for example, it isn’t for lack of belief in the events of the Birthgiver Of God’s early life. There is plenty of early attestation, though not quite as early as the resurrectional narratives. My copy of The Life Of The Virgin is loaned out, but be assured that these are not late Medieval exaggerations—they date back very far into the early centuries of the church, FWIW.

    And to echo Pr Stephen and the other comments above, I think the more important matter is that of the heart. Even if we see the same event, it is unlikely we’ll agree on what happened. Though I have a very systematic mind, I have gotten much more comfortable with “not knowing” in the last 5 or so years. My belief goes much deeper than my ability to process facts—despite my published work, my academic background, my theological training, etc, I am still a limited creature and it would be foolish to think that the facts I “accept” (whatever that means) are constitutive of the entirety of reality. But that is often how we act.

    To give an interesting story about all of this, there was recently an “incident” at my workplace. Briefly, there was a man in the parking lot a few weeks ago screaming about seeing “the heavens opened up”, “Jesus is almost here!”, etc. He was facing certain specific directions and also screaming another name, bowing down at a certain point, and more. Each person saw something different. The manager that was there the *whole time* saw *nothing*—he was angry, ashamed, distracted, and everything else and was essentially blinded to even the “hard facts” of what happened around him. Another employee realized the bowing in the parking lot was more than it seemed: the screaming man was “sniffing” a *specific* parking spot, sensing something. The other manager, a young woman, even remembered the name the man was screaming: it was the name of the employee whose parking spot was being “sniffed”, though she didn’t recognize the name since she just started at our location! The cops saw none of this, only a man on drugs or having a mental disturbance or something like that—they promptly carted him away. Oh, and the direction the screaming guy was facing? It was exactly where the employee was at each moment he screamed—from *kilometers* away (the employee got delayed coming to work that day and missed the incident by mere *minutes*). Neither of them ever met, before or after, despite the full name being yelled out. Apparently I was the only one that thought there was anything to this and I spent the next week interviewing coworkers (and taking a different perspective of that unassuming employee, for sure!), filling in more details which are too numerous to narrate here.

    I bring this up because the “facts” remained the same. It happened just down the road, just the other day. I was there, barely a meter from some of the cops. And yet *nobody* agreed on what happened, much less the significance of any of it. Even if I were to share my synthesized, more-“complete” eyewitness accounting, I am not sure if a single mind would be changed. What seems to matter is the state of the heart. And this isn’t even the strangest thing that I’ve noticed happening over the last month or so—maybe not even top 5 !

    If we lack the eyes to see, no amount of factual corrections will ever bring us closer to truth. That is why I said, above, that myth is so important to me: Truth Is Person, and *He* saves. If you are sure or unsure about some specific fact, it is what it is. There can even be something to be gained by studying these things, with the correct heart. But know that regardless of what did or did not happen in that parking lot the other week or at Mary’s Dormition millennia ago, Jesus Christ Is Lord over all the laws of nature and can do whatever He pleases. If we start with Him, the limited facts we have—even the mistaken ones—will fall into place.

  27. Dear Father—your blessing.

    Thank you for this conversation about the mythical/mystical nature of the world. In your response above to Joseph concerning the world religions, you wrote: “The elements in all these stories, which have an uncanny way of “rhyming” with each other, is, I think, evidence that the “mythos” that is incarnate and tangible in Christianity is and has been “haunting” the world since its beginning.”

    This “haunting”… do you conceive such to be the presence of a divinely revealed wisdom in the world’s philosophical and/or religious traditions, one that reoccurs throughout the world’s history and geography? Without subscribing to a full-bore pluralism, do you think there’s reason to believe Christianity represents the fullest symbolic expression of the Myth on earth—incarnated in the crucified God-Man—while the other religions contain true but diminished representations of the Myth?

    I realize these are densely phrased questions. I’m asking this in terms of the Perennial Philosophy, as you mentioned that these stories “have an uncanny way of “rhyming” with each other.” Is there indeed a transcendent unity of all the major religious traditions, perennially expressed worldwide in various symbolic economies and recapitulated most fully in Orthodoxy? I would like to think so!

    St Paul’s warning, however, always gives me pause: “the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons” (1 Cor 10:20).

    Could you offer some further insight to these questions? Could you also recommend some resources?

    Yours in Christ,
    Owen-Maximos

  28. Owen-Maximos,
    I am decidedly not a Perennialist. That philosophy would say that the “truth” appears in different guises – reducing Christianity to just one guise among many. That is both error and heresy. However, as Christians, we believe that all things were created in and through the Logos, and that the Logos is reflected in the “logoi” of all created things. Because He (Jesus Christ) is the the Truth (and the only Truth) – the logoi of all created things cannot help but “rhyme” with Him, if you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

    Of course, as you note, the demons seek to take advantage of this in order to lead some astray. But they cannot make the logos of any particular created thing to be other than it is. They are not creators. All that they do, they do by lies.

    Christianity is not simply the “fullest symbolic expression of the Myth” here on earth – it is the very Myth Himself (the eternal Logos of the unoriginate Father) in the flesh. It is the thing itself, not just an expression. That is critically important.

  29. Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you. For the timely answer and the wise words. I certainly agree that any and all truth belong to the Logos, wherever it may be found. And Jesus Christ just is the Logos. Forgive me, I meant by “fullest symbolic expression of the Myth” not that Christian faith is on par with other world religions—not at all. I was basically referring to the manifestation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, the One who exegetes God (the Father). He reveals God to the fullest, i.e. as much as we can bear, because He is God.

    But other than direct noetic experience, isn’t this revelation always veiled in symbol?

    I don’t mean to split hairs. Thank you again.

  30. Owen-Maximos,
    I’m hesitant to say it that way: “always veiled in symbol.”

    I’m a bit cautious on this topic – in that I was falsely slandered as a “perennialist” a few years back by an internet personality. It’s never even been tempting to me – but when someone has sought to mis-label you, you speak with caution. Sad.

    We have this from St. Maximos:

    The world is one … for the spiritual world in its totality is manifested in the totality of the perceptible world, mystically expressed in symbolic pictures for those who have eyes to see. And the perceptible world in its entirety is secretly fathomable by the spiritual world in its entirety, when it has been simplified and amalgamated by means of the spiritual realities. The former is embodied in the latter through the realities; the latter in the former through the symbols. The operation of the two is one. Maximus the Confessor Mystagogia, 2 (PG 91,669)

    I assume that the word rendered as “operation” is the word, energeia.

    I would describe myself as a “Realist,” (as opposed to being a “Nominalist”). I believe that what is “invisible” is, in fact, real (maybe even “more real”). Thus, in Biblical exegesis, I do not think that we merely interpret some things typologically – but that the things spoken of in a typological manner, are truly, and really there. Thus, texts concerning the Ark, are truly texts regarding the Theotokos (as well as the Ark itself).

    It gives me a wee bit of historical “comfort.” I cannot always suspend my own skepticism or “raised eyebrows” about something in the text – often because it is simply something we cannot know. I do not presume that merely appearing in the text of Scripture is an immediate guarantee that something is and must be understood in a literal manner. I not only find that problematic, but it is a problem shared by any number of the Church Fathers.

    Interestingly, the heretic Marcion rejected the Old Testament because he was a literalist. Many of the Church Fathers had difficulties surrounding some of the texts (such as wholesale slaughters and such). They typically dealt with such texts in one of the many versions of allegorical reading. Marcion, however, insisted on a literal reading and thus, rejected the whole. That was his heresy.

    I’ve seen people who express reservations about certain OT passages labeled as “Marcionite” when, generally, it is those who attack them who are the Marcionite literalists – only without the same moral sense as Marcion. They simply don’t mind the slaughter and such. That troubles me.

    On your original point, “veiled in symbol,” if we rightly nuance the meaning of “symbol,” that is a possible way to express things. However, among those embued with modernity, I never expect them to understand “symbol” to mean anything other than something opposite to what I mean.

  31. The Orthodox Faith is truly a faith of the heart. We cannot enter it through our mind. The longer I am Orthodox and the deeper I embrace the Faith, the less I want to read the intellectual Orthodox literature and the more I simply want to read the prayers of the Church and the lives of the Saints because it’s these two things that seem to speak to my heart, and it is the heart that must be healed.

    Esmee, just the other day a man I know only online, who is a Protestant, wrote to me to say that he had a friend who was asking about what commentaries to read to deepen his understanding and faith. I responded that I gained much more in reading the lives of the Saints and recommended several books in that vein.

    Coming from a Southern Baptist background, I’m simply not comfortable with “head knowledge” anymore. It doesn’t change the heart; it doesn’t save.

  32. Christianity is not simply the “fullest symbolic expression of the Myth” here on earth – it is the very Myth Himself (the eternal Logos of the unoriginate Father) in the flesh. It is the thing itself, not just an expression. That is critically important.

    Father, this jumped into my mind reading the Owen-Maximos’ question about “the presence of a divinely revealed wisdom in the world’s philosophical and/or religious traditions.” My first thought was “Incarnation! This is not about philosophy!”. Thank you for expressing this so concretely.

  33. Fr. Stephen:
    I wish i had time to read all these comments, esp your replies. I’ve read some.
    As a very young man, I gained wisdom about the Adversary, and his wiles through evil men or even the state, through my reading of Lewis’s That Hideous Strength (third in his trilogy). Much, much later, though already quite a student of the human mind, I gained more insight into it through Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid (i recommend Stanley Lombardo’s translations). Maybe I will yet get to Plato.
    Life is impossible, or at least, very ugly, without myth. The Judeo-Christian Myth is the most true and beautiful. Yet all mythologies are in some ways useful, even errant ones can restrain behavior and provide purpose (which God in grace can later transform or transfigure). Where all mythology is forsaken, and only the here-and-now material exists, there is destruction. Look at the inner cities, rife with drugs and sexual license. Truly, where there is no vision, the people perish. But the robbery of our mythology is breaking out wholesale all over the wracked frame of our civilization. Already skeletal, we have almost no reserve left. God have mercy.

  34. Fr. Stephen,

    “Thus, in Biblical exegesis, I do not think that we merely interpret some things typologically – but that the things spoken of in a typological manner, are truly, and really there. Thus, texts concerning the Ark, are truly texts regarding the Theotokos (as well as the Ark itself).”

    I really resonate with this. Ever since The Lord of the Rings, The Great Divorce and many similar works, my inner sense has been that there is so much more to reality than we can grasp.

    Jesus said, “If I tell you about earthly things and you can’t understand, why would I tell you about heavenly things?” I suspect one thing which happened at the Fall is that our senses were dimmed. One reason might be to keep us out of too much trouble and to limit the amount of pain we could bring upon ourselves. But I believe God allowed this dulling and darkening to happen for many reasons.

    My point is that a grander, fuller reality is actually there. Here in this life our minds and hearts are only opened to see it to the extent that we allow that and to the extent it is good for us to see those things. There is so much more to be explored, enjoyed and shared, but we must be ready. So why would the words of scripture not also be brimming with multiple layers for those with ears to hear?

    But it will not be found by scrutinizing, dried-up old scabs demanding to have it proven to them in literal terms. The citizens of Wonderland are children and only they can see and enjoy it. Only they know about play, which is one of the closest action words we have for describing what life with God is truly like.

  35. Thank you for the post! To me, it provides an exceptionally lucid rendering of the Tolkien/Lewis stance on Myth; I don’t recall reading anything else on the topic that provides as much clarity! (And I’ve read any number of pieces on that topic.)

  36. Father bless–
    You write: “Secular mythology….is currently collapsing all around us – but will become exceedingly ugly in its collapse.” What do you suppose the collapse will look like? Your prayers,

  37. Diana,
    By secular mythologies, I mean those narratives of meaning that groups of people tell themselves to make sense of their lives and actions. Many of the secular mythologies are simply too thin, too narrow in focus, to sustain a culture for long. As they collapse, something of a vacuum is created. When secularism’s attack on Christianity caused its narrative to collapse for a time, the many self generated secular narratives began to arise. Christianity has not disappeared, of course.

    But the collapse of a narrative generally means an increase in chaos and violence. We are already seeing this in places. The demise of the stable, traditional family is a primary contributor to violence and chaos. The present generation of deconstructionist have discovered that it’s easy to tear things down. What is really hard is to build them up. Frankly, the pieces only fit in a stable pattern if they conform to the traditional pattern. Stability is difficult. When it might return is anyone’s guess. And chaos, by its nature is impossible to predict other than to say chaotic…

  38. Father, historically a period of chaos is followed by a period of authoritarian/tyrannical ruler. People long for order more than freedom I think. Of course, the US political myth which was never particularly stable was founded upon a more or less benign deistic naturalism. It has never been Christian in any real sense. There was one Orthodox believer in the bunch : Philip Ludlow III of Virginia. He was Baptized and Chrismated in London by the Russians. He even formed a small Orthodox community. There was a gentleman in my parish, until he moved, who wasa descendant of Mr. Ludlow.

  39. Michael,
    American, though not particularly “Christian” (in one sense), was, nonetheless an almost completely religious experiment. What it was – was a reflection of the religious landscape of England (and Scotland to a degree). Though early American history is popular among many (the so-called “Founding Fathers”), not many Americans are actually familiar with the history of the English Reformation or the details of its stormy aftermath – without which America cannot be understood. All of its various strands were present in colonial America.

    I think there’s a bit of romanticism among the American Orthodox about Ludlow. He’s an interesting historical oddity – and not really anything more than that. His conversion to Orthodoxy should be seen as a token of a strain of thought that had been in Anglicanism from its beginnings – a sense of continuity with the historic Church.

    For example, when William of Orange was made King (with Parliament deposing King James II – who was Catholic), nine bishops of the Church of England, and a number of priests, refused to take an oath of loyalty to the new king (since they believed in the Divine Right of Kings, and had sworn an oath already to James). Eventually, the “non-Juror” bishops were deposed. There was something of a non-Juror schism in the Church of England for a time. Those bishops, interestingly, actually made an application with the Patriarch of Jerusalem for reunion – but nothing came of it.

    The friendship of many within Anglicanism towards Orthodoxy continued (and is still there in some quarters). It was Anglican money, for example, that paid for and built St. Sergius Seminary in Paris after the Bolshevik Revolution. St. Tikhon lived at the General Seminary in New York when he first moved his see to New York. Anglican money was also quite important in the founding of St. Vladimir’s, I’m told.

    The last two Metropolitans of the OCA have been converts from Anglicanism, though neither was ever Anglican clergy. The Dean of St. Tikhon’s seminary, as well as the President of St. Vladimir’s seminary, are both former Anglicans. Some converts from Anglicanism even have blogs!

    Lord Ramsey, 101st Archbishop of Canterbury, held that it was the vocation of Anglicanism to be reunited to the Orthodox Church. And, he would have meant that as something that would not call for any compromise on the part of Orthodoxy. He was correct, except that the reunion is not on the institutional level, but is happening one at a time.

    For Anglicans (particularly those who had a “High Church” background), Ludlow’s conversion is nothing surprising.

    What most contemporary Orthodox converts (and others) might find surprising would be the sad state of Orthodoxy in the 18th century, and into the 19th as well. We romanticize Orthodoxy and tend to gloss over its failures (which, for me, is a very un-Orthodox thing to do). Had Ludlow traveled to Russia, he might have been troubled to find that the Church there was little better than the Anglican one back home.

    By the same token, the “Christianity” of the ruling class in Russia, and its intelligentsia in the 19th century, was quite questionable. As Solzhenitsyn noted, the Bolshevik Revolution took place because “men forgot God.” The struggles we endure in America at present are just the tail-end of something that has been going on (in Orthodox countries as well) for quite some time. Modernity is a common enemy across the globe.

  40. Following off your comment in The Limits Of Holiness, “We do not practice obedience to persons in the Church. We obey a bishop in his office as bishop…”, what did Abp Ramsey mean? Were there particular theological points he needed to change before being “Orthodox” or was this more of a matter of changes in who holds the offices and who commemorates whom ecclesially?

  41. Joseph,
    You have to let your mind drift back to an earlier generation – one in which “ecumenical” had not yet been co-opted by mindless bureaucrats and emptied of any content or promise. Ramsey, like others of his generation, genuinely thought there was the possibility of an full, institutional re-uniting of the Church. It was already hopeless, I think, in that it failed to take into account (in Anglicanism, for example) the toleration of unbelief and heresy within the Church’s institutions. I think he would likely have seen an actual re-uniting as possible.

    As time has gone by, the actual institutional rot of the various liberalism that infect the Church of England and many corners of Anglicanism, have revealed themselves. The Church of England is among the most moribund institutions in Europe, as is the Episcopal Church in the US, Canada, and many other places. Indeed, in those enclaves, those who are merely “o”rthodox find themselves alienated, hounded, and even persecuted. Traditional words are often still used, but mean things quite alien to their original meaning. One of those, for example, is “love,” which has become a mantra for same-sex unions and such.

    As history played out, the single most corrupting force within Anglicanism has been an ineffective and theologically hollow episcopacy.

    For my own experience, I discovered that converting from Anglicanism to Orthodoxy required more than a change of loyalty. It required deep repentance and a careful renunciation of a number of things. Among those things was the belief that modern Anglicanism was part of the historic, Catholic Church, when in fact, it was, root and branch, just Protestant and nothing more. I felt “empty” when I left. The healthy part was to recognize that what had taken place in my Anglican life was not the fault of Anglicanism – but my own fault. I was always free. I could always have seen more clearly. I made as many compromises in my own way as others had in theirs. We “got by.”

    There are reasons I did not write for my first eight years of Orthodoxy.

  42. Father, Michael, I believe that the name of the English convert to the Orthodox church was Philip Ludwell, III. https://www.ludwell.org My wife believes that she is also descended from Philip, but the geneology is kind of messed up with his descendents.

  43. @Dennis M,

    I finally managed to track down the relevant episode, in case anyone is interested. It wasn’t from TOS but from TNG, and thus involved Picard and not Kirk, which is why I couldn’t remember it, since I have watched all of TOS but not the entirety of TNG. It was titled “Darmok” (Season 5, Episode 2)

    🙂

    -NSP

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