Religion Needs Mythic Roots
Elder Tan of Mae Tang, North of Chiang Mai, was a popular preacher of the old school. He was also a self-proclaimed expert on Buddhist mythology. He had specialized in applying many of the Buddhist myths to Christian evangelism. In particular, he believed that the myth of Araya Maetrai is a prophecy of the coming of Christ, rather than of the coming of another Buddha 5000 years after Gautama. Tan recalled all sorts of details about this to support his contention that Christianity is not a foreign religion, because Christianity was actually foretold by the Lord Buddha himself.
As far as I know, Uncle Tan is the only evangelist who espoused this view. I wonder what might have happened if his idea had taken hold. I woke up at about four one recent morning thinking that Christianity in Thailand has never established itself as having roots in sacred time, as Tan’s message would have done. As long as Christianity is a late-comer without roots in the mythic past it is an intruder.
There are several mythic strains that support the belief that Buddhism is the legitimate religion for the people of this land. The prevailing myth here in the north is that the Lord Buddha traveled throughout the land in sacred time. He rested here and there, leaving some physical evidence, a hair around which people built a sacred mound and kept venerating the Buddha in that place, or a footprint imprinted in rock. In this way the land has been appropriated as part of sacred space. Most importantly, the Lord Buddha met giants who ruled these northern hills and converted them [the picture above of Chiang Dao Cave entrance is one place this is said to have happened].
I believe that some such mythic legitimacy must be established for every religion for it to become one that firmly belongs where it is found. There must be an unshakeable faith that the religion, as it is now, has legitimacy as the descendant or successor to cosmic ancestry as mediated by sacred intermediaries.
Christianity claimed the northern part of Europe by latching onto the myth of Ragnarok. That myth told of an epic battle in which the old Nordic gods died. At their death missionaries of the heir came with the news of the spread of the new faith. They entered lands vacated by the old gods. “The risen Christ is come,” they announced.
Christianity prefers the idea of death and resurrection to that of improvement. Even conversion must involve a form of death and resurrection. When it comes to cultures, the old must be eradicated, as the missionaries did to the Aztecs and Incas.
On the other hand, once in a while the idea of “prophecy fulfilled” overwhelms the preference for violent overthrow. Baptist missionaries in Burma found that the ethnic people in the north had an old expectation of a white prophet flying in on the wind with a golden book of life. The missionaries were white, their ships seemed to fit the story, and the Bibles they carried were trimmed with gold and told of “eternal life.”
In North America, however, the myths of the indigenous peoples did not comport with the supremacist views of the colonists from Europe. The native ideas of a great prevailing Spirit with a generous nurturing Mother were too much like heathen pantheism. The savage tribes needed to be purged. What’s more, they were in the way of a divine imperative, the “Manifest Destiny” of the new nation to expand from sea to shining sea. The mythic notion that empowered the colonists was their belief that wherever they went the place of their dwelling was ipso facto sacred. The land became sacred by sacred people being there.
Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), took this “sense of destiny” a step further by telling how God’s people had been present on North American soil long before 1492, through the immigration of lost tribes of Israel after the destruction of Israel by the Babylonians. A myth like this is powerful if it takes root deeply enough.
In Japan that has not happened. The mythic past has not been extended to include Christianity as its present-day evolution. The scattering of Christians across Japan has been insufficient to tip the balance and revolutionize the myth. For several decades it has looked like that was about to take place in Korea, but now the failure of Christianity to find its mythic roots in the heart of Korea may be undermining the shift. In the Philippines Christianity patiently absorbed ethnic culture without trying to wipe it out ( I think that’s what happened).
Buddhism in the USA has yet to penetrate into the mythic layer of faith beyond small ethnic immigrant communities which are to some extent in the process of becoming integrated. When Buddhism moves beyond its “native lands” it tends to be sustained as a philosophical set of concepts.
In Thailand, Indonesia, Japan and India Christianity remains as enclaves making no claim to be the dominant religion of culture or state, much less the national religion. It exists as “one of God’s colonies” in an alien environment. Without mythic roots embedded in the sacred past, aside from the vague assertion that God created the whole world, Christianity is still under development. It is on the way toward enculturation in a millennium or so, or perhaps heading for eradication in those places where the dominant religion becomes militant.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.