I’ve been a J. R. R. Tolkien fan for some time, even took a great course on the theology of Tolkien. He built an entire mythology of which Middle Earth was but a part. Tolkien’s ability to construct a whole mythos was incredible, but his thoughts on the nature of myths were even more earth shattering. Tolkien opined that he thought the “Christian myth” or the “Gospel myth” was the most beautiful and compelling out of all the alternative myths, religions, and worldviews. To his mind, the “Gospel myth” was far more persuasive than alternatives because of how it spoke to the human situation and narrated a deeply moving drama that really understood the human’s physical and psychological composition. We should not miss the point that Tolkien’s appreciation for the Gospel was also heavily linked to it being convey as a story or drama rather than in prose or didactic form. It might not be overstatement to say that how something is done is just as important as what is done.
Prior to my study of Tolkien, I had never heard anyone use the phrase “Gospel myth” or “Christian myth.” It was unsettling because I thought it implied “fiction” or “untrue.” If I am honest, I’d admit that Tolkien’s use of this phrase is still a bit elusive to me, but I think I understand a bit better why he used such a complex and potentially confusing phrase. Strangely, this understanding has developed through my ongoing study of science and the troubling conflict it has often had with religion. The Church was against a man of science, Galileo, for printing a book on heliocentrism, that the sun was at the center of the known cosmos, even imprisoning him for it. What is vexing in this conflict was the primacy of viewing it through a spatial lens. Why, exactly, were the spatial movements of planets so central when asking if the earth was the center of the cosmos? To me, the rarity of life should be the lens. The Bible is fixated on life, dominating the early pages of Genesis. If we judge what is the center of the cosmos based on bio-centrality (life-centric) the earth is the obvious winner, and we stay true to the focus of Scripture (on life, not the movement of planets).
My point in all this is precisely that science framed the question, and the Church combated it as it was framed rather than reframing the question. Tolkien, I believe, was reframing the use of the word “myth” rather than leaving it in the dull hands of an increasingly oriented scientific world. Tolkien may have very well thought that stories which explain our human experience are more true and more helpful than setting a rocket on the moon. My vehicle takes me places, but stories about the human struggle, the battle between good and evil, the path to victory, all these inspire me, change me, grow me. My vehicle is science; the stories are myth. I believe Tolkien was challenging us to think more broadly about the definition of myth and about how we judge something to be true.
Tolkien’s challenge has resulted in my reevaluation of whether or not any worldview can escape using myth. Even an agnostic is indebted to a misty view, invoking easily a mythological picture of obscurity. Those involved in heavy science are likewise left with mythology too; they cannot escape it. Darwinism, for our evolutionists out there, aims to explain the changing of life; it does not provide any explanation of the origin of life. Even more, there are 500 prerequisites for the possibility of life before we even begin to ask the question, “Is this where/when/how life originated?”
Take the 2020 Nobel Prize winner, the Oxford physicist Roger Penrose, whose work breaks with current scientific consensus. Penrose theorizes that the universe is an expanding and collapsing mass — all this centers around the behavior of electrons, atoms, etc., well beyond my ability to unpack — and postulates that this expanding/collapsing repeats so that there is a line and succession of universes. This leads to one of two consequences: either (1) existence is eternal or (2) the first ‘universe’ did indeed start at some point. I believe Penrose is ambivalent on this. What is current scientific consensus? That this universe had a definitive starting point (big bang).
Why do I think all these scientific views still indebts anyone holding them to mythology? If the universe is eternal, we are in the realm of myth. This is because, as Penrose acknowledges, at the time of collapse and then a new expansion — running with Penrose’s theory — the scientific laws do not govern and are irrelevant. Those who hold big bang theory similarly say that it is a time/place “where all scientific laws break down.” Either way, we invoke mythology since scientific laws are not the controlling feature, leaving us only with mythological musing to explain or talk about these things. A traditional attribute of God is ‘eternality’. Technically, eternality or infinity is a negative attribute: i.e., it is the conceptualizing of existence without time limitation — I do not believe anyone since the curse has experienced existence in this way. Therefore, assigning ‘eternality’ to the universe is a mythological borrowing of a divine attribute from God.
In sum, there is no respectable, “non-mythology” position to hold. Even the agnostic shrugs their shoulders and appeals to the fog. In many respects, the agnostic is nearly a myth-advocate par excellent. If we think the universe is eternal, we appeal to myth. If we think it began (big bang), we appeal to myth. If we hold a Christian view, we name this myth “creation ex-nihilo.” Again, the drive for a respectable and modern position that does not need to appeal to myth is unavailable. We should then ask if trying to find such a respectable position is itself fiction. Mythology enables us to explain much, and it frees us to think with fluidity free from the constrains of science: after all, when the scientist who holds that the universe had a starting point states, “It is a time/place where all scientific laws breakdown,” this scientist is thinking freely and outside the confines of the science he so dearly holds. Mythology does not mean “untrue” or “fiction”; it means beyond the confines of mere rational composure. It opens us up to think outside the restrictions of a closed universe. The prevailing question of how existence “is” at all demands this step “beyond.” How literal is the Adam & Eve narrative? Should religiously minded people be embarrassed by stories that sound like myth? My firm answer to this is no. If I’ve argued accurately, no one can escape using myth in their worldview, which means either everyone is embarrassed, or no one should be.