“Once Upon a Time”: understanding the world through the imagination

This is the second part of a six-week program, “Worldview as the L.E.N.S. of Life,” given at Life Community Church in Mahomet, Illinois

Before we had science, philosophy, theology, or Oprah to help us understand ourselves and the world around us, what did we use? We used our imaginations. We told stories. We created myths.

All human civilizations begin with a “myths,” stories used to explain who we are, why we are here (and how we got here), and why the world is the way it is. We imagine immortal beings that are the source of all things (and are in control of all things). We use their interactions with one another, with the world (and us) as a way to explain everything. Ultimately, we develop religious practices (rites) and beliefs (doctrines) around these stories.

So the wisdom of the modern world tells us. And of course, modern science and philosophy tell us such stories are untrue. But what if it really is the other way around? What if there is really One True Story given to us by the One True God so we could “see” and know Him (and all of reality) “through the eyes of our hearts”? What if the Gospel is the One True Myth?

In the video below, from EWTN’s “Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings:’ A Catholic Worldview,” J.R.R. Tolkien discusses the “true myth” of the Gospel with his friend Jack (C.S.) Lewis.  Based on an actual interchange between the two prior to (and instrumental in) Lewis’s conversion to Christianity.

Ancient Myths are rooted in culture and language and both reflect and project characteristics of those cultures. For example, mythical stories of agricultural societies would center on fertility, seasonal cycles, harvest offerings. Woodland societies would develop myths that are more natural and elemental, featuring animal spirits. Myths of seafaring societies focus on wind and water and longing for far-off lands.

Myths incorporate narrative archetypes (symbolic representations that provide motivation and meaning)

Myth and religion in early human history are intricately connected; both use stories to provide imaginative explanations for human origins and reveal deep truths about the human experience. What we want to consider is what they tell us about the Three Big Worldview Questions: Human Identity, Human Condition, Human Destiny (see the last post for a reminder if needed).

Most ancient myths begin with conflict (often murder) among deities prior to creation. Humanity is created as “puppets to serve the gods and tend to their needs. It is their task to tend to needs of material world and build temples to honor and appease the gods in their spiritual realm.” (see “A Tale of Two Worldviews,” Hearts and Minds podcast, Fr. John Oliver http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hearts_and_minds/a_tale_of_two_worldviews)

  • Man is created as an afterthought; the universe was not created for man, but for self-serving deities.
  • This served the interests of the powerful and elite in ancient societies. They come to see themselves as occupying the same position in the material world as the gods occupied in the spiritual world.
  • Society is divided between the powerful and the powerless. Only the former deserved any sort of life after death, and even for them eternity was reserved for royalty or the most noble/heroic.

The impact of this view of the human condition is all-too apparent in history: justification of power and privilege in a variety of forms. Royal families claim to rule by “divine right.” Industrial and commercial capitalists oppress and exploit workers. Darwin’s theory of natural selection becomes the basis for a “survival of the fittest” mentality in society.

By contrast, the Biblical story of creation depicts Father, Word, and Spirit working in unity to craft a cohesive reality—both material and spiritual–and declaring it “good.” This “Great Story” of human identity, condition, and destiny begins both in Old (Genesis 1) and New (John 1) Testaments.

“In the beginning God [the Father] created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness covered the surface of the watery depths, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.” And, “In the beginning was the Word, [Logos, the pre-incarnate Christ] and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things were created through Him, and apart from Him not one thing was created that has been created.

In Genesis, God [the Father] proclaims, “Let there be light.” In John, we are told of Christ, “Life was in Him, and that life was the light of men.”  God [the Father] continues, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness . . . . So God created man in His own image; He created him in the image of God . . . male and female.”

This story gives us a quite different view of humanity and our place in the created order than that of other ancient “myths” (again, from Fr. John Oliver):

  • Man is created in the image and likeness of God as the “crown of creation; the apex, not the afterthought.”
  • Man is a distinctive part of creation, endowed with a glory found only in him.
  • All people matter, particularly the powerless. In fact, the worth of the least is emphasized.

The story goes on from here into a classical catastrophe as humanity falls from grace through disobedience to our gracious God. Disobedience brings sin into the world, banishment from God’s presence, and, ultimately, death. Yet even when we reject God’s good plan, he does not abandon us.

To borrow a word from J.R.R. Tolkien, God comes to us by putting a beautiful eucatastrophe into motion. He makes a covenant first with one man, then with one people, extending it through them to all of humanity. The Logos becomes incarnate among us, showing us the Father and paying the price for our disobedience. In His death and resurrection comes the promise of restoration and redemption—not only for humanity, but for the human condition as well. He indeed “brings life.”

Romans 8 fills out the picture of the human identity by assuring us we “are not [merely] in the flesh, but in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God lives in you . . . . And if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, then He who raised Christ from the dead will also bring your mortal bodies to life through[d] His Spirit who lives in you.”

This truth of “the reality of all things” was, Colossians 1 says, a “mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to His saints. God wanted to make known among the Gentiles the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim Him, warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”

As beings created in “the image and likeness” of God, we can experience true knowledge of Him, not just information about Him, and enjoy full relationship with Him. We find our identity in Him and find meaning and purpose in life in light of His nature. Ultimately, we find eternal salvation by His grace and have the promise of complete restoration of all! This is the Story God gives us, and it is this Story we are called to take to a world that so desperately needs to be reminded who they really are.

About Rick D. Williams

Teaching and writing have been my life's work for over two decades as a journalist and educator. My degrees in History were earned at Illinois State University, and I've done additional graduate work at Lincoln Christian Seminary and Urbana Theological Seminary. Over the years I’ve led conference workshops and authored articles and book chapters on topics ranging from religious education and international student ministry to state and local history.
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