Religious Knowledge, Lectures 4 and 5


Lectures 4 and 5.  October 21 and 28, 1947

In dealing with mental truth we must detach “truth” from the Bible as it is known in history and science.  The first fact we are aware of is that we live on a flat surface and the sun rises and sets.  Then, by explanation, we know it is an illusion.  But the fact of experience is still real.  The truth as it appears in the Bible is like the truth of that fact of experience.  The accuracy of history in the Bible is in inverse proportion to its spiritual value.

In the Old Testament we see a chasm opening between two types of minds.  One type sees experience in historical terms, and the other, the prophetic mind, transforms human reminiscence into drama.  The shape and form of that story becomes a parable.  A cleavage emerges between the literal and the spiritual comprehension.  The literal acceptance survives in Judaism and represents a type of attitude that Jesus condemned in the Pharisees.  The Gospels bring the spiritual approach.


Ritual is the act, the thing done.  Myth is the Word, the revelation, the scripture, the story of how this came to be; that is, what is said in the Bible.  Ritual comes earlier because the act must precede its explanation.  Myth is the explanation of the ritual. The Bible is a gigantic myth, a mythic account of human life. It is definitive myth which gets everything in and consolidates all mythic tales of any significance.

What ritual is the myth explaining?  The ritual of human sacrifice.  This must be dug out of the Bible because it is clear only in myth.  Much editing has covered up this human sacrifice ritual and it survives only in odd and lurid passages in Judges, etc.

All myths do not explain a ritual.  The explanation of customs of various tribes have mythical explanations.  The anthropologist is looking for different explanations because a different conception of myth is necessary to him.  Myths deal with gods.

God is the God of Christians; god is a supernatural being.

All products of human civilization are products of myths; they are attempts to reflect on life.  Man doesn’t evolve; he resists evolution.  The development of consciousness is an evolution of mental form.  Evolution takes place in time, while consciousness looks back at time.  Myth is word, idea.

Natural              Human

Ritual                Myth

Act                    Word

Will                   Idea

Monoloty is the stage of religious statement in which the Hebrews say “Jehovah is our God.”  It is not polytheistic nor monotheism, but a kind of halfway house.  Other people have gods and each god chosen is a war-god––“my god can lick your god,” which means no tolerance of someone else’s god.

Monotheism is when our god becomes the only true god, the only possible God.  This represents the advance of civilization.

Polytheism: Man never assumes he is the greatest thing in the world.  He is a natural being among nature.  God here is seen as unknown, which means we separate him from the known, that is, from nature.  To make god knowable, he must combine subject and object, human nature and the forces of nature. There becomes a god for each natural phenomenon; the god humanizes the natural force of the storm, for example.

Man never forgets the circumscribed nature of his power.  He can use his intelligence to harness natural animals but he never forgets the power in nature.  He knows it is nonetheless powerful for being stupid.  Man creates God in his own image because he exists in a split world of weak intelligence versus powerful natura.  Therefore, God has intelligence and power.


subject             object

known               unknown

man                   nature

intelligence        power

creator               creation

myth                  ritual

word                  act

We must approach God through the left side . . . .  To look for God in nature, you stupefy God, you get a brutal God.  There is a kind of stupefied sense of justice in nature, one of natural consequences.  In nature you see an order and a form, cause and effect.  Science tries to see how cause follows effect, to make nature predictable.  Once power is predictable, intelligence subdues it.  The ultimate aim of science (which is the application of intelligence to nature) is prophetic: science judges truth by predictability.  It is true because it will work.  Science stops before mystery before what it cannot predict.

The prophet in the Bible is dealing with human life which is unpredictable.  He doesn’t tell the future of man’s behaviour and life.  If that is true, science can reach it.  When you look for God in man you see lack of power, the babe in the manger.  Intelligence is vital, alive, but weak.  Intelligence makes form out of chaos, but it is not a thing that is measurable.  We also use the term “intelligence” in the sense of knowledge, which is the accumulation of comparative judgments.

The true God is the creator God.  The deepest intuition of religion is that God must come out of the human side, not the natural side.  You can’t approach God as a creator of nature, although He did create it.  The God of creation, of unknowable power, is a god of superstition.  God as creator, as Son of Man, is true Christianity.  Ritual comes from man in nature. Myth is concerned with stories of God.  The Bible works along the line of myth, creator, intelligence.  There is value in understanding that God is a person, has a sense of humor, loves children, prefers mildness to cruelty, and in understanding that there is an evil in nature that God loathes.  He is not a lazy pantheistic god who has his own way.  He has enemies to fight.

(Example of ritual act and myth.  Judges II, Chap. 30, the rash vow which is followed by the ritual act; the four-day feast of lament is a mythical explanation.  The ritual is growing out of human sacrifice.  The God to whom Jephthah sacrifices is a much cruder God.)

Faith is not the uncritical acceptance of what is rationally absurd.  Faith is associated with doubt.  There are no limits to human comprehension.  The sceptics set limits to the possibilities of knowledge.  The same is true of a religion that says the Will of God is already completely known.  Myth does not limit; it suggests infinite meanings.


Primitive man contrasts himself with what is outside him.  He knows he is inferior to nature.  The contrast between the human world and the world “out there” is the beginning of religious experience.  The more conscious man is of himself, the more marked the contrast is.  The original impulse to postulate god or gods is to complement man’s weakness.  But the farther we go from man the more stupid nature is.

Freedom                        Death, hell, bondage

Intelligence                   Stupidity

Consciousness               Unconsciousness

Morality (conscious       Indifference

fabrication of a

social unit)

Weakness                      Power

Form                             Monstrousness

Conventional Christianity begins with strength—God the Father, etc.  Christianity starts with intelligent consciousness and moral weakness—the child in the manger.  God the Almighty has been annexed to Christianity.  The Christian instinct is that one finds God in Man, not in nature.  Religion then becomes polarized between a monster and the tamer of the dragon—Leviathan and the Messiah.  The Messiah is the God-Man who grows in power and kills the dragon.  He is also the tamer of chaos.

Man seeks a state of freedom.  As long as he is in the natural world, he in bondage to its power.  The Messiah then, frees man.  The fight between the giants and the gods in the Elder Edda saga, for example, suddenly ends and you wake up and find yourself in a garden.  The human mind can wake up from the nightmare.  The original sin is the fact that man is born into a stupid, unconscious world.  The natural within man drags him down to the level of nature.  The human deliverer is to overcome the stupidity of nature.

Nature has an order, a cyclic movement of natural law, repetitive and predictable.  Science predicts what nature will do.  The arts are divided into the arts of rhythm and pattern.  The basis of human effort is the conception of predictable pattern of energy.  In the cyclic movement, light and life conquer death.  The sun fights the powers of darkness, the young, divine hero battles the dragon of death and darkness; he is swallowed but coughed up again.

The religious experience is crystallized in the dragon-killing myth.  The Saviour withdraws man from the dragon so that he can see that the dragon is not alive after all.  The rhythm of the seasons shows that life goes underground in winter, as in the Greek myth of Persephone.  The power of the seed, of life, is imprisoned for half the year and returns in a cyclic victory.  Human life has its analogy.  Beyond man are civilizations that rise and collapse.  The Israelites see the Egyptians, Syrians, Babylonians come and go.  The cyclic movement of history is strong.

The divine deliverer is like the sun, the spring, and the national hero.  A definitive myth about such a man will include these symbols.  He is born at the solstice when the sun is weak; he is swallowed and coughed up; dies and revives in the spring.  He has the same qualities of the national hero and will deliver the Israelites from Rome.  He will suffer and die and his triumph is not simply killing the dragon, but his death will defeat the dragon.  When you focus on the defeated deliverer, you get the dead sun pinned to a dead tree, mocked as a national hero.  Yet this is the reverse of the real situation.  The image of the dead hero is turned inside out—the physical defeat is eternal victory.

This intuition of the divine deliverer is seen in the prophets.  Amos teaches of a God who has human qualities, plus more: justice and spiritual balance.  Hosea tells of a God who is concerned with man (Israel), a God who is willing to help Israel indefinitely, no matter if the people do go wrong.  The exile supplies the key to this problem.  The exile is the dawning of the conception that the deliverer cannot come from somewhere else; he must be Israel and go through the same suffering.

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