Sunday, May 31, 2009

12-14-2008: 3rd Advent (B)

Isaiah 61:1-2,10-11/Luke 1:46-54/1Thessalonians 5:16-24/John 1:6-8,19-28
I have never really understood why we classify stories as fiction and non-fiction. If fiction were merely the same thing as falsehood or untruth, why would we make it the determining category in relation to other works of literature? In other words we start with fiction and then designate everything else non-fiction. Would we say that non-fiction, then, is something not not-true; or is fiction something quite different from the mere category of untruth or the more pejorative designation: false, fake, unreal?

Something akin to the relationship between fiction and non-fiction is a part of the recent brouhaha in the state capitol building in Washington State where a sign was placed by a group of committed atheists opposite the Christmas crèche. In the interests of an egalitarian ethos the atheist “credo” (so to speak) states: there is only the natural world…religion is but myth that enslaves the mind. Prescinding from the obvious issue of bad taste and sour grapes, the statement nonetheless challenges Christians – and, indeed, all religious people -- to give reason for our faith. Because if the accusation is true (if religion does indeed enslave the mind), then the atheists have made a point to which any self-respecting rational human being would have to acquiesce. But whose mind is really closed?

The atheists’ position is that religion is but myth. The believer might answer: Of course…so what? The atheists’ position might counter: Since myths are legends, and legends are fairy-tales, religion is a fairy-tale and thus untrue, false, fake. But the believer might muse: Just because something uses the elements of fiction, is it untrue? When you read a good novel, knowing full well the story was created from the author’s imagination, does it stop you from crying when the heroine dies or from laughing over an all too human foible? I suspect we laugh and cry precisely because, no matter what the incidentals of the story might be, it is completely and utterly true.

The atheists argue that there is only the natural world: case - and mind - closed! The believer might suggest that the natural world is itself a myth, the overlay to a still mightier and wondrous dimension of reality. Cardinal Newman once mused that the hills and valleys are but the hems of the garments of those (angels) who see the face of God.

Permitting oneself to wonder what might lie beneath, or above, or somewhere beyond that which our eyes so poorly behold is the essence of a good myth and of all true religion. It may not lead all to faith, but it’s at the heart of religion and, yes, science; opening the mind and freeing the imagination to contemplate the possibilities which the natural world can only suggest but never prove.

In the end it seems quite right for the atheists to choose to make their case against the backdrop of the Christian nativity story – the virginal conception. It was, after all, a young girl who entertained the possibility that, if she listened well to the strange voice that came to her one day long ago, she could actually hear God’s finest whisper and the invisible world might make itself visible to human eyes and mercy be made manifest in this world, here and now.

Christian apologists have long ago ceased to argue that the stories of the Bible are not myth; they simply suggest that a myth might be truer than facts and that perhaps once - and only once - the supernatural and natural world touched in such intimate intercourse that both fiction and non-fiction were found on the same shelf.

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