Three video lecturettes on the shared myths of Abrahamic religions. I’ll include links to all three videos below the fold, followed by texts of the talks.
Some of the books referenced in this video series:
“Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers,” Kwame Anthony Apiah (W. W. Norton, 2006)
“J.B.: A Play in Verse,” Archibald MacLeish (Houghton Mifflin, 1958)
The children’s story books are:
“Bible Stories of Jewish Children: Joshua to Queen Esther,” Ruth Samuels (Ktav Publishing, 1973)
“The Pilgrim Book of Bible Stories,” Mark Water (Pilgrim Press, 2003) “Goodnight Stories from the Quran,” Saniyasnain Khan (Goodword Books, 2005)
Below are the reading texts for the three videos. I diverged from the scripts more than once, but this gives you the same basic argument.
Before getting in to the shared myths of the Abrahamic tradition, I need to cover a little background material.
First of all, let me answer the question: what are the Abrahamic religions? This is a fairly straightforward question to answer. These are the religions that trace their roots back to the figure of Abraham, whose story is told in the Torah and in other sacred texts. Generally speaking, these Abrahamic religions are monotheistic; that is, there is only one god whom the adherents of these religions are supposed to worship. Abrahamic religions include Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Baha’i.
Secondly, what do I mean by “myth”? This is question that does not have a straightforward answer. In our current popular culture, the term “myth” tends to have negative connotations: a myth is something that is not true, it’s a fairy tale, or even an outright lie told to keep the schlemiels happy. When political progressives, for example, talk about the “myth of American freedom,” we know that by this they mean to imply that American freedom isn’t really available to everyone living in America.
Saying the myth is a form of lying is a simple way of distinguishing between two ways of knowing, what the ancient Greeks called “mythos” and “logos.” In today’s pop culture, we’ve reduced that distinction to the difference between truth and lies. Mythos — myths — consists of lies that humans make up to help explain the world. Logos — logical thought or reason — is a more advance form of thinking and knowing that allows us to strip away the falsehoods of myth to find the real truth. In one common formulation, mythos is religion, which is outmoded, and logos is science, which has replaced all other kinds of knowing the world.
But today’s pop culture definitions of myth are confused and often incoherent. So let’s see if we can come up with a less confused understanding of myth.
We might begin by turning to the insights of psychoanalysis. For example, psychoanalyst Carl Jung hypothesized something called the “collective unconscious” wherein symbols, archetypes, are shared across multiple individuals of a given culture. These symbols and archetypes are obviously related to myths and myth-making; they do not represent some kind of pre-scientific thinking that we’re now ready to dispense with; rather, they’re somehow integral to communal ways of knowing that help us make sense out of the world. While you may not accept Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious as being valid, nevertheless I would argue that there is validity in the notion that there are symbols and stories shared across a culture that deeply affect the way we make sense out of the world.
Another way of thinking about mythos and logos is that mythos relates more to music, painting and sculpture, dance, poetry, and so on — while logos relates more science, technology, engineering, math, and so on. Science can tell us a great deal about the evolutionary biology and ecology of Eschscholzia californica — I probably mispronounced that — but poetry takes over when our hearts fill with joy when we see a hillside covered in the vivid orange blossoms of the California poppy. Understand that this is not a completely binary distinction: doing science and math can certainly fill one’s heart with joy — but there’s a reason why Henry Thoreau wrote the book Walden, rather than a scientific treatise on the biology and ecology of a glacial kettle hole.
So as you can see, mythos and logos are different ways of making sense of the world; we might even say, they are different ways of knowing about the world.
By now, it should be clear that myth is not the same thing as theology. In fact, theology has more in common with science than it does with myth. The word “theology” derives from the ancient Greek word “theos” meaning a god or the divine, and the ancient Greek word “logos” meaning (in this context) logical or rational discourse. Thus “theology” is an intellectual discipline that involves rational discourse about deities or the divine.
If I may digress for a moment, as someone trained in the Western tradition of philosophy, I can tell you that in the West what we now call science was previously termed “natural philosophy,” and during the medieval period theology and philosophy were closely related; so from a philosopher’s point of view, science and theology are merely subordinate disciplines to philosophy.
Returning to our main subject, it may help you to understand myth when you realize that fundamentalists are not comfortable with myths. A fundamentalist feels certain their knowledge of their religion is clear, unchanging, comprehensive, and not subject to correction. In this respect, fundamentalists resemble some militant atheists — Jerry Falwell and Richard Dawkins appear to have similar habits of thought. When you live in the world of myths, however, you find that while myths may seem clear at the moment, they change and evolve; that rather than being comprehensive, there is always room for one more retelling of any given myth; that myths do not exist on a binary axis of correct versus incorrect.
Now we can circle around to the question of truth and lies. Are myths lies? Well, yes; myths are lies in exactly the same sense that Shakespeare’s play MacBeth is a lie. MacBeth is one big lie. There were no witches, the actors playing the parts of Lady MacBeth and MacBeth aren’t really them, the whole play is filled with lies from start to finish. On the other hand, if you would like to know some of the deepest truths about human nature, you could do no better than to attend a performance of MacBeth. Or, better yet, several performances, because different directors and different actors will bring out different aspects of this multivalent work of art.
So I would suggest that you think of logos as encompassing theology, science, fundamentalism, technology, and other types of logical discourse. Logos, logical discourse, aims at certainty through logical argument. In logical discourse, if the logic of a given argument fails (as I would argue happens in religious fundamentalism), then the whole argument fails. Mythos, by contrast, encompasses the plastic arts, the lively arts, literature, stories, folk tales, and maybe even dreams. While we might say that the arts do have an internal logic, that logic needn’t be a formal logic; it can be the coherent logic of dreams.
So when I speak of the shared myths of the Abrahamic religions, I’m not talking about theology. I’m not talking about fundamentalism. I’m not talking about science and technology. Instead, I’m talking about the shared stories — or maybe shared dreams, or maybe even some kind of collective unconscious — that appear in different forms in several different religions.
In the previous video, I defined what I meant by the phrase, “The shared myths of Abrahamic religions.” With that common understanding held firmly in mind, let’s look at what some of the shared myths might be — and what some of the differences are.
And to begin that process, I’d like to start with children’s books. I happen to have on hand several children’s books.
First, there’s “Bible Stories for Jewish Children” by Ruth Samuels, consisting of two volumes, “From Creation to Joshua” (1954) and “Joshua to Queen Esther” (1973). This story book contains retellings of familiar stories about characters from the Tanakh, including Abraham, Noah, and Jonah.
Second is “The Pilgrim Book of Bible Stories,” a liberal Christian story book with retellings of familiar stories about characters from the Old Testament, including Abraham, Noah, and Jonah, and characters from the New Testament, including Jesus.
Third, I have “Goodnight Stories from the Quran” (2007), published by an Islamic publishing house called Goodword Books. This story book contains retellings of familiar stories about characters from the Quran and the hadith, including Ibrahim, Nuh, and Yunus — also known as Abraham, Noah, and Jonah.
Let’s start by looking at one of the stories about Ibrahim in the Islamic story book, which begins like this: “One night, the Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him) dreamt that, to please his Lord, he was sacrificing his son, Ismail (peace be upon him). Ismail was still a child, but he was a brave boy and when his father told him about the dream he was quite ready to obey Allah’s command. Without hesitating, he said, ‘Do what you are commanded, father: God willing, you will find me one of the steadfast.'”
The liberal Christian version of this story begins quite differently: “Abraham was an old man, when he and his wife, Sarah, had a child. Now God told Abraham to take his son, Isaac, and sacrifice him! Abraham cut the wood to burn the sacrifice. He gave the wood to Isaac to carry. Abraham had the fire and a very sharp knife. Isaac asked his father the burning question: ‘I see the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?'”
This feels a little like the old movie Rashomon, where the same story is told from several different perspectives. Which is the true story, the real story? But that’ the wrong question to ask; that’s the question that is asked by scientists and by religious fundamentalists. An artist would ask a different question: What of the depths of human nature can be revealed by these different version of the same myth? The artist might ask: Do these retellings of this old myth do justice to the myth, and how might I retell this story?
(The artist might also ask, If I retell this story, will I put myself at risk of retribution by crazed fundamentalists who don’t want to let anyone else retell what they claim as their story? The artist might equally well ask, Will militant atheists misunderstand why I chose to retell this story and vilify me for spreading religion? In our society, it is safer to be a scientist than it is to be an artist.)
Let’s look at another pair of children’s stories. The book of stories for Jewish children begins one story like this: In the village of Galilee, there lived a man called Jonah. One night, Jonah heard the voice of God say: ‘Arise, and go to the city of Nineveh! Tell the people I will destroy their city unless they stop their evil ways.’ But Jonah was afraid to go to Nineveh, so he ran away….” Jonah gets on a boat, a storm comes up, he tells the sailors to throw him overboard, they do and he gets swallowed by a whale, who takes him to Nineveh, where he tells the people to repent. They do repent, so God forgives them. But Jonah sits outside the city waiting for God to destroy it, until he dreams he is inside a giant gourd, which protects him from the weather until a worm eats it up. Then God lectures Jonah on forgiveness.
The Islamic story begins this way: A very old and powerful community used to live around 800 B.C., in Nineveh, some 230 miles north of Baghdad. Allah sent the Prophet Yunus (peace be upon him) to this community to guide the on to the right path. Yunus (peace be upon him) preached to them for a long time, warning them to turn away from their wickedness, but they paid no heed to his words. Angry and despairing, he left these people, and headed towards a seaport….” And then Yunus gets on a ship, there’s a big storm, the sailors force him to jump overboard, he gets swallowed by a whale, he realizes that he had left Nineveh too soon, without completing his task. So he calls out to God, the whale spits him out at Nineveh, he finishes his task.
Now you begin to see how the same basic story is retold within different religions with minor differences in plot. Not only that, but the way the story of Yunus is retold in the “Goodnight Stories from the Quran” story book is different than the way it appears in the sacred texts of Islam. And you can find other retellings of that same story. Clergypersons retell these stories all the time, recasting them for their own congregations. There are comic book versions of these stories, and more than that, characters like Noah have become familiar figures in gags of comic strips. People who have no religious affiliation can retell these stories effectively: Archibald Macleish, who appears to have been non-religious, retold the Biblical story of Job in his play “J.B.”
This is what we do with myths: we make art out of them. We make low art, like the 2014 Tundra comic strip where the animals are lined up to get on Noah’s ark, and Noah has them going through a metal detector. We make high art out of them, as Archibald Macleish did with the play “J.B.” We retell these stories to our children, making our own personal interpretations out of them.
This is what cultures are supposed to do: we take the myths that many or most people in our culture know well, and we retell them. It’s easier to retell an old story than it is to make up a new plot, as Shakespeare knew full well — he stole most of his plots from somewhere else. It’s easier to do, and it can make for more effective art, because you can play off meanings and implications known to your audience. It’s like being a jazz musician, where you take an old standard and reinterpret it: when John Coltrane plays “My Favorite Things,” you can hear Julie Andrews singing it in the movie, which makes what he does with it even richer.
And it’s also wonderful to see how myths play out across different traditions. Knowing the Islamic version of the Jonah story gives you a new perspective on the more familiar Jewish and Christian versions. And this is one of the things that can keep you from sinking into the quicksand of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism requires rigid thinking, where myths have to be slotted into logical, rational, rigid little boxes.
I think we should be headed in the opposite direction. We used to talk about “world brotherhood,” a sexist term with colonialist implications; but there was a kernel of wholesome truth in that old, outmoded phrase. Instead, we can turn to Kwame Anthony Appiah, who talks about cosmopolitanism — which might be defined as the willingness to have “conversations across boundaries.”
This, I think, is why it’s so important to pay attention to the shared myths of the Abrahamic religions. We live in a country whose leaders often proclaim their Christianity and they portray Muslims as utterly alien; yet Christians and Muslims share these key myths. Similarly, we’ve seen a rise of Christian anti-Semitism in our country in the last few years, yet again Christians and Muslims share these key myths. While we are not going to be able to talk the bigots out of the bigotry, we can try on our own to have conversations across boundaries. And those of us who don’t identify as Christian, Jewish, or Muslim — or perhaps as post-Christian or post-Jewish — yet who are participants in Western culture; we are well-placed to initiate conversations across the boundaries of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam; and these shared myths, common cultural inheritances of all of us, might provide enough common ground to open those conversations.
I’m adding this third video to what was supposed to be a two-part series on the shared myths of Abrahamic religions, so I can look at some of the shared myths.
Well, so what are some of the the shared myths of some of the Abrahamic religions? One way to answer that is to look at figures who appear in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. (Unfortunately, I know less about Baha’i, and I don’t feel qualified to talk about their tradition at all.)
The obvious figure that appears in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is Abraham. Christians and Jew both draw from the book of Genesis for their Abraham myths, while for Muslims, Abraham appears in the Quran. While the figure of Abraham remains the same across these three Abrahamic traditions, the myths vary. For Jews, the people of Israel are descendants of Abraham, and he is the exemplar of following the commandments of the Torah and of God. Christians tell slightly different myths about Abraham; he is a spiritual ancestor of every Christian, and he is the exemplar of having faith in his god. In the Quran, Muslims tell how Abraham found a spring at Mecca and thus the ritual of the hajj can be traced to him, and he is the exemplar of submission to God.
Remember that myths change and evolve over time, and different people within a single tradition may tell different myths about the same figure. So these broad generalizations about the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim myths of Abraham will have many variations across time and across cultures, and even from one individual to another.
Other figures and myths that are shared across these three religions include Adam and Eve in the garden; Noah and the flood; Moses and the exodus; King David and King Solomon; Job and his troubles, and Jonah and the whale. Again, while the figure and general outlines of the story are shared, the specifics of the ways the myths are told and retold will vary.
Another shared myth of these traditions is the myth of hell, that place where evildoers are sent after death. All three traditions talk about hell as a place of fire. For example, in surah 5:37, the Quran says that those who are condemned to hell “will long to leave the Fire, but never will they leave there from; and theirs will be a lasting torment.” But the details of hell get described in many different ways. For example, many Christians in the United States have been influenced by the description of hell in Dante’s Inferno, or by Jonathan Edwards’s sermons describing the torments of being burned up. There are a great many variations of these myths of hell, and there is no one single way that hell is described for any one of these traditions, let alone a single description of hell that applies over all three traditions.
Another shared myth is the way Adam and Eve did something that got them in trouble with God. Many Christians in the United States have been influenced — often without their knowing it — by John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” so much so that children are told Milton’s version of the myth long before they’re old enough to read “Paradise Lost.” But Jewish children and Muslim children might not hear anything of Milton’s retelling of the myth, unless they happen to take a college English class where they’re forced to read Milton’s poem.
All these differences raise some tough questions: Are the differences between the Abrahamic religions so great that they’re going to get in the way of “conversations across boundaries”? Or, conversely, are the similarities so great that the differences loom even larger, thus preventing productive “conversations across boundaries”? An article by Ulrich Rosenhagen in “Christian Century” magazine back on November 24, 2015, addressed this question. The article, titled “One Abraham or three? The conversation between three faiths,” described some initiatives where adherents of these three Abrahamic religions tried to carry out “conversations across boundaries.” About one such initative, Rosenhagen wrote:
“At the Lubar Institute [for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions at the University of Wisconsin], Jewish, Christian, and Muslim undergraduates have started to overcome religious intolerance through candid conversations about cartoon controversies, gender issues, and prayer practices. Shared trips to mosques, churches, and synagogues have enabled them to form relationships of trust and respect by learning about each other’s sacred spaces, texts, and rituals. Through debate and dialogue the students have been startled and comforted by the fact that they share sacred sources, stories of prophets, and a social obligation to care for the poor (Tzedakah, Zakat, social gospel). With each new revelation of their commonality, their bounds of moral imagination have expanded, and their ‘they’ has given way to a ‘we.’ All this gives good reason to believe that the Abrahamic paradigm is not just a noble idea but a promising new foundation for civic discourse and interfaith understanding.”
And back in 2016, I participated in one such initiative, an annual conference called “Sacred Texts, Human Contexts.” Started by a group that included Muslims, Christians, and Jews, by 2016 there were also a few Buddhists and adherents of other religions. For me, this conference proved to be a very good way to engage in conversations across boundaries, and I was disappointed when they rescheduled it to a time of year when I was unable to attend.
So this idea of shared Abrahamic myths can, in fact, be a good way to begin inter-religious dialogue. And as the Sacred Texts Human Contexts conference shows, the conversation can then be widened to include other religions.
The important point for me is the attempt to find some point of commonality where you can start to have conversations across boundaries.