Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Lesson Before Dying

As I reread this 1993 novel by Ernest J. Gaines, I kept thinking, “Who is teaching who what lesson?”

 Jefferson, a young, black man in a Louisiana Cajun community in the late 1940’s, is falsely convicted of participating in a pre-meditated crime resulting in murder and is sentenced to death.  The defense had argued he was too stupid and sub-human to carry out such a crime.  “Why I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this,” was the last statement in the defense attorney’s closing argument.
Jefferson’s grandmother knows there is no justice to be found for him in the white-dominated, racist criminal justice system; she just wants him to die with dignity. 

She and her friend turn to the friend’s nephew, Grant, the educated local school teacher, asking him to visit Jefferson in jail and restore his sense of self-worth after his humiliating victimization and his equally humiliating defense in that public courtroom.  Grant is reluctant to agree.  He will have to humble himself before the white officials of the town to get permission to visit Jefferson, and he has no idea what he can say or do to build Jefferson’s self-esteem on death row.

Grant bows to the pressure of the older women, however, and takes up the task.  He finds Jefferson in a depressed state; not only is he facing an early death, he cannot get that image of himself as a “hog” out of his head.  Grant has no lesson plan and despairs of getting through to Jefferson, but at the urging of his aunt and her friend, the grandmother, he continues to visit and try to talk to him. 

Grant, himself, we might say today, has a bad attitude.  He is sometimes disrespectful and even contemptuous of his elders, including the local minister.  He wishes he could escape the small town and its traditional environment, hates his teaching job, and resists almost every effort to participate as a full member of his community.  It doesn’t help that he has rejected the Christian religion that his family and neighbors live by.  He refuses to lie to Jefferson about salvation and life after death, though he does dutifully preside over the school Christmas program.

Grant’s inner conflict is represented by the fact that his secular schoolroom is housed in the church.  And the theme of religion vs. secularism runs through the entire novel.  How will a secular atheist fulfill the wishes of his Christian aunt and her Christian friend, as well as their minister, to rebuild Jefferson’s self-image as a child of God, worthy of salvation and immortal life in heaven?  And is it Grant who will teach Jefferson the lesson of self-worth or is it the community that will teach Grant the lesson of social obligation and self-redemption?

In the end it is both.

 Instead of using religion to persuade Jefferson that he is better than a “hog,” Grant uses history, the whole history of slavery and racial oppression under white supremacy.  Jefferson can use his execution and the manner in which he faces it to transcend that history and demonstrate to whites and blacks alike the full humanity, worth, and equality of the black man.  In effect Grant builds Jefferson’s self-esteem by reminding him of his duty to his race, his family, his community, and by persuading him that he has the capacity, not only to be a hero to his people, but also to prove their human dignity to their white oppressors.

By rising to the challenge of his community, especially of the women in his community, and by learning to empathize with them, as well as with Jefferson, Grant learns the value of social relationships.  When he teaches Jefferson that in the historical context of racial oppression his life and death have significance and meaning, Grant shows that he has learned the lesson of social obligation, that he is a member of a community as well as an individual in his own right.  And when he refuses to take credit for Jefferson’s “transformation,” when he admits the minister and Jefferson are braver men than he is, Grant shows that he has learned the lesson of humility.

Not only does the novel raise a protest against racial injustice and the death penalty, it raises questions about the meaning of education, religion, power, and individualism.

The minister tells Grant that his secular, formal education cannot help him help Jefferson; Grant proves him wrong but also comes to appreciate the value of education through human experience.  Similarly, while Grant does not undergo any sort of religious conversion, he comes to understand its meaningfulness in people’s lives. Likewise, he learns the difference between social power and psychological power, as the man who was reduced to a “hog” in public and sentenced to death emerges as the strongest and bravest in the room at his own execution.  And finally Grant learns to temper his sense of individual righteousness with a sense of community values.

The story is narrated almost entirely from first person point of view by Grant.  However, near the end we get Jefferson’s point of view in his journal and then the POV seems to pan out to an omniscient overview of the community.  This technique reinforces Grant’s (and Jefferson’s) shift from egocentrism to sociocentrism.

In a larger sense, the novel uses Christian allegory and the universal patterns of the hero’s quest and the scapegoat myth to lift the novel out of its historical context to a transcendent level of meaning.

If you think it a stretch that Jefferson serves as a Christ figure, consider that, when his execution is set for two weeks after Good Friday, Grant notes, “And on Friday too. Always on Friday. Same time as He died, between twelve and three.”  In addition, Jefferson is innocent of the crime he is accused of, and, like Christ, he dies with dignity and is lifted up by his community after his death as one who left a legacy as “the bravest man in the room,” braver than any of the white people who participated in, presided over, and witnessed his execution.

The Christian story, of course, and Jefferson’s are both examples of the universal hero’s quest and scapegoat myths.  Jefferson’s quest is to refute that public image of himself as a “hog,” and with Grant as his guide, he fulfills that quest, showing that he is a better man than his accusers and demonstrating the full humanity, not only of himself, but of his race.

Like Christ, Jefferson is also a scapegoat.  As Christ dies for human sin, so Jefferson dies as a scapegoat for the guilt and fear of his white oppressors.  By accusing and executing him, the dominant white class reassures themselves of their own supremacy.

Grant also, however reluctantly, fits the hero myth pattern.  He is called to a quest which he resists but ultimately fulfills—to “save” Jefferson from his shame and from an ignominious death.   In the process, he learns that, as much as he might like to live his live for himself alone, he is part of a community, a race, and a human family, calling for certain sacrifices and challenging him to leave a legacy that is larger than himself.  To that extent the novel serves as a coming of age story, not only for Grant, but for Jefferson as well.

And so both Grant and Jefferson redeem each other, contributing to each other’s maturation and growth into better people who leave something behind more significant than either would have done alone.  

Finally, as one who has no faith in God or an afterlife, Grant learns and teaches Jefferson that it’s not that you die, it’s how you die, and how you live, that matters.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Breaking the Spell VII

Family medical issues arose on multiple fronts and for the first time I missed a month of blogging.  It’s been weeks since I finished Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and I’m just now concluding the series on this provocative but, at times, maddening book. (See previous posts starting in Sept. 2013.)

I largely agree with the skepticism Dennett expresses in chapter 10 that religion is the foundation of morality.  I know too many atheists and non-religious people who are upstanding, ethical, responsible folks to think that religion is necessary to morality.  Likewise, we read every day in the news of devoutly religious people, including religious leaders, committing unspeakable acts of violence, sexual crime, and moral corruption, sometimes in the very name of religion.

Dennett argues that religious institutions themselves are responsible for those who use religion as a cloak for their own nefarious behavior, and that religious moderates, even when they denounce the fanatics, are allowing themselves to be used by the lunatic fringe when they fail to recognize the way religion discourages critical questioning and rational thought.  By promoting faith in certain sacred dogmas over philosophical and scientific inquiry, religion, by its nature, enables irrational extremism.

I don’t quarrel with this reasoning, but Dennett goes on to blame, not only institutional religion, but a broader cultural belief in philosophical dualism over materialism.  Any belief in a non-material reality, whether under the guise of religion or generalized spirituality or the paranormal, it seems, reinforces the popular notion of “materialism” as the root of evil and “spirituality” as the source of goodness.  This naïve dualistic belief enables those with a religious or “spiritual” world view to, in effect, deny their own capacity for evil and rationalize any behavior done under the perceived guidance of “supernatural” powers. 

Just as he reduces religion to a system of literalistic belief in symbols, metaphor, and myth, he reduces the debate between dualism and materialism to a simple binary, with one element on the side of the angels and the other on the side of the devil.  I find this to be too simplistic.

As usual, Dennett fails to recognize the power and efficacy of symbolic thought, even though he makes repeated references to such abstract values as love, justice, joy, beauty, and freedom, none of which can be satisfactorily reduced to empirical reality alone. 

He claims that “all” of these values are “material benefits” without even addressing the long-standing philosophical debate between dualism and materialism or the role played in this debate by modern physics.

It is those times when Dennett makes such blanket assertions or assumptions without a supporting argument, which takes into account counter-arguments, that Dennett’s book becomes maddening.  I expect more from a philosopher.

In the end, Dennett’s conclusion in chapter 11 struck me as anti-climactic.  The best recommendation he could come up with for addressing the failures, excesses, and destructive tendencies of religion is more and better education.  I’m all for that, but after his long, extended build-up, I was expecting more. 

And I can’t help but wonder if the goal should be, not to eliminate religion, but to improve it.  To me the greatest fault with religion is literalistic thinking.  What if religious leaders spoke and acted like artists and storytellers, presenting their claims in figurative terms instead of facts?  What if religious believers were less literal and “materialistic” in their convictions and more symbolic and metaphorical?\

More and better education could certainly help with this, but even an educated philosopher like Dennett seems to have a problem understanding and/or appreciating symbolic thought.

In the end I do agree with Dennett’s statement that “we must recognize that people need to see their lives as having meaning.  The thirst for a quest, a goal, a meaning, is unquenchable, and if we don’t provide benign or at least nonmalignant avenues, we will always face toxic religions.”  And I agree that religious institutions have a responsibility for promotion of such avenues, but so do the materialists, atheists, agnostics, and non-believers among us.  I trust Dennett will help with that effort as well as the effort to explain religion as a natural phenomenon.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

"To the Thawing Wind"

To The Thawing Wind
Come with rain. O loud Southwester!
Bring the singer, bring the nester;
Give the buried flower a dream;
make the settled snowbank steam;
Find the brown beneath the white;
But whate'er you do tonight,
bathe my window, make it flow,
Melt it as the ice will go;
Melt the glass and leave the sticks
Like a hermit's crucifix;
Burst into my narrow stall;
Swing the picture on the wall;
Run the rattling pages o'er;
Scatter poems on the floor;
Turn the poet out of door.

Here in Minnesota serious winter cold set in before the Solstice and has only now relaxed its grip.  We've been calling for the thawing wind since February, but here in the central part of the state we had eight inches of snow as recently as April 16.  Now at last the thaw has arrived, with wind and rain punctuated by occasional sunshine.   Yesterday, despite the remaining winter chill in the air, we fertilized and tilled our plots at the St. Cloud Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Community Garden. We’re looking at another week of spring rain.  It seems a good time to appreciate Robert Frost’s “spring” poem, published in A Boy’s Will (1913).

We think of spring in clichéd terms of budding trees, singing birds, blooming flowers, and warm sunshine; Frost reminds us that early spring can be cold, wet, and windy.  And in northern climes, the thaw can come late in April.  It is a time of year when the wind and rain are welcome signs, not only of winter’s end, but of an end to our long indoor human hibernation.

Frost writes the poem in a staccato-like trochaic imperative, calling on that wind and rain, indeed, celebrating the coming storm.  It’s not a gentle wind and rain but “loud” and strong enough, at least metaphorically, to “burst” the window, rattle pages, “scatter poems,” and blow the poet out of his “narrow stall.”  The lines grow shorter as the poem goes on, increasing the sense of urgency for escape from winter’s grip.  Yet the couplets convey a sense of order and security that somehow the storm will remain within nature’s bounds, even as it brings disruption to the indoor life.

Obviously it is a poem about the welcome change of seasons and the anticipation of singing birds, blooming flowers, and warm brown earth, but perhaps more importantly (“whate’er you do tonight”) it is a poem about the anticipation of a thaw in the human isolation of our winter hermitage.  The inner life has become close and confining; we yearn for relief and release to a more active, outgoing life in the open air, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.  We long for escape from our introspection to a life of interaction with the outside world. 

I have no problem seeing Frost’s text as both a nature poem about the change of seasons and a psychological poem about the human need to escape from our own inner prisons.

What I wonder about is the reference to “a hermit’s cruxifix.”  Of course the poet is being compared to a hermit and the crucifix literally refers to the wooden crosspieces within a window frame.  But does that reference to a religious symbol suggest some other meaning?  Does the cross represent the burden of winter, of human self-consciousness, of the poet’s calling?

Or, does the cross represent the universal principle of sacrifice, the reality that suffering is the necessary evil that makes some greater good possible.  Is the suffering of winter necessary to the glory of spring and summer, is life possible without death, is our human inwardness somehow necessary to enhance our social life, is the poet a kind of scapegoat whose sacrifices make possible a higher level of consciousness for all of us? 

Or, are we too far out on the limb of interpretation?

For those who insist Frost’s text is just a simple nature poem, in which the poet expresses his winter weariness and longing for spring, we’re making too much of a good thing.  For those who love poetry for the levels of meaning it can express, its power of expressiveness, and its unfailing ability to surprise us with new insights, we’ve made a good thing even better.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Living with a Wild God

Having spent the last eight months reading and discussing Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (see previous posts Sept., 2013-April, 2014) in my Unitarian Universalist Adult Religious Education group, it seemed serendipitous when I saw Barbara Ehrenreich interviewed about her new book.

An atheist writing about having had mystical experiences?  What would Dennett say?

Probably he would say what Ehrenreich herself said for years: temporary psychic break, “perceptual slippage,” sudden electrical or chemical power surge in the brain, etc., in any case, a perfectly rational and natural explanation.

Raised by atheist parents under the strong influence of her scientist father, Ehrenreich struggled most of her life with those rational and natural explanations that were never quite commensurate with the experiences themselves, experiences in which the natural boundaries of ordinary physical objects broke down and the world seemed to flame out in radiance.

She pursued a career in science herself, moving from chemistry to physics, finally earning a Ph.D. in Cellular Immunology, before becoming a free-lance writer more focused on the social science of feminism, economic inequality, war, militarism, and the politics of health care than chemistry, physics, or religion.

It was actually her research into the origins of human warfare that eventually intersected with her life-long quest to understand her seemingly “mystical” experiences.  The study of human evolution led her to, lo and behold, the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device or HADD (see previous post Jan., 2013), which Dennett cites to explain the rise of early religion in the form of animism and the human belief in other types of “imaginary agents.” 

For Dennett, this survival mechanism becomes overdeveloped, even as it makes the advancement of the species possible, resulting in supernatural belief and eventually the cultural evolution of organized religion.  By now, however, Ehrenreich’s faith in the certainties of empirical science has been undermined by the New Science of quantum mechanics and “non-linear dynamics.”  And she dares to ask the question:  If the HADD is reliable when it comes to detecting conventionally observable predators, why is it not reliable in detecting other, non-conventionally observable agents? In any case, how do we know that the latter type of agents is entirely imaginary?

In the end, she does not undergo any kind of religious conversion, but her “faith” in atheism has been shaken.  While, she says she does not believe in a god or gods or divinity or universal consciousness at work in the world, she keeps an open mind, neither drawing definite conclusions from her “mystical” experiences nor rejecting them as aberrations without any meaning.  There may just be more going on in the universe than our ordinary powers of human perception can take in, and “it may be seeking us out.”

Metaphysical musings aside, Ehrenreich’s book is also an autobiographical study of family dysfunction, a string of broken relationships, academic experimentation, political and social awakening, and self-exploration, all held together by the author’s lifelong quest for the truth about our inexplicable human “situation.”

She recounts tragedy, disappointment, misdirection, social idealism, political activism, success and failure with a cold, unsparing eye and a sharp wit.  There is no sentimentalism, no high-flown rhetoric, no glamorization, and no air-brushing of stark reality.  Ehrenreich’s unflinching rationalism, skepticism, and wry humor make her openness to the possibility of a “palpable Other or Others,” more credible than the espoused certainties of either true believers or confirmed non-believers.  She is not one to be seduced by easy answers or wishful thinking.   And that ethic applies to herself as well as to her “wild God.”

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Breaking the Spell VI

I found chapter 9 to be a fascinating discussion of why people are so attached to their religions as to foreclose any rational investigation of them.

Daniel Dennett cites three reasons:  1) love that is akin to irrational romance, 2) the postmodern academic restriction that only sympathizers are qualified to study religion, and 3) the “belief in belief” discussed earlier (see previous post Feb., 2014).

First, like lovers who eschew any rational questioning of their romantic attachments, many religious adherents appeal to experiences with the divine as beyond words, much less logic.  Just as critically analyzing a love relationship ruins the romance of it, so subjecting the religious experience to empirical study is completely antithetical to the experience itself, which transcends all mundane research.

I admit to a certain amount of sympathy with this line of thought, but when I consider how often irrational romantic attachment and religious enthusiasm can both lead to destructive, even violent, behavior, I welcome any study that helps us better understand these states of mind.  And I would think that romantic lovers and religious believers themselves would want to have some insight into the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy attachment.

Second, since the advent of postmodern identity politics, the whole idea of academic neutrality has been thoroughly interrogated and largely debunked.  A male can’t really study feminism because he is inherently biased in favor of his own gender.  The same applies to whites who attempt to study non-whites or privileged elites who study the poor.  Similarly, non-believers cannot escape their own bias when studying religion and are therefore less credible.  It takes a religious sympathizer who applies academic methods from “inside” the subject matter to arrive at the most reliable understanding.  Of course, women, non-whites, the less privileged, and religious sympathizers can’t escape their own biases either, but at least they speak from first-hand experience.  

Again, I see the value of this point of view, but as a white woman of professional class status I can also see the value of learning about my social situation from a non-white, non-professional male, who may be able to instruct me in how my attitudes and behavior affect him.  Similarly, as a Unitarian Universalist I think I can learn from an outside observer of my religious denomination.  If absolute objectivity is impossible, then surely the most complete understanding comes from both an inside and outside analysis.

Finally, just as Americans who criticize the United States are sometimes told, “America, love it or leave it!” so those who question religion, even from within, perhaps especially from within, are often made to feel like traitors.  The “belief in belief” is so powerful because, just as extreme patriots believe their country would be better if all its citizens displayed unquestioning loyalty, so religious adherents often believe that the world would be a better place if everyone held an unquestioning belief in God. 

This last deterrent to the rational study of religion raises the question of what religion is good for.  Earlier (see previous post Jan., 2014) Dennett had conceded that false belief can yield benefits, such as greater confidence, optimism, and even enhanced physical and mental health.  In this chapter he cites empirical studies to support such ameliorative effects of religion, but he claims the research results are mixed and withholds judgment until more thorough research can be done. 

This certainly seems fair.  At least he does not dismiss the possibility out of hand that religion may be good for people, regardless of its truth value.  Even if the possibility is confirmed, Dennett raises another question, namely what are the side effects of false belief, and do they outweigh the benefits?  More importantly, is religion the basis of morality?  And that question will be addressed in the next chapter.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Healing Emotional Wounds

Having heard the story before it was written, I anxiously awaited the publication of this 2013 book ( by my college classmate Nancy Welch, a pediatrician and Director of the Health Department in Chesapeake, Virginia, my home state.

We had met during orientation week at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, VA, in 1964.  She took the biology and chemistry academic track and took the English and humanities track, so we didn’t have a lot of classes together, but we always knew each other.  In 1968, she went off to Duke Medical School and I,  to the University of Virginia.  I can’t remember exactly how we reconnected in the 90s, but she always sent a Christmas card after that, and when I visited relatives in the Tidewater area of Virginia, we would get together for lunch.

That’s how I came to hear the story behind this book, not only of the events it recounts but also the story of its composition, the editing process, and, finally, the long-awaited publication.

It is hard for me to believe that I know someone who went through the experiences Nancy narrates in this book, the story of suddenly deciding in her fifties to adopt two children from the Ukraine and raise them as a single parent.

I had lived, as the military dependent of my career Army father, first in Taiwan, then in Okinawa; later I had lived in Germany for nine months as an adult, never having studied the language.  Even so, I was shocked by the conditions Nancy endured on her two trips to the Ukraine, not knowing a word of the language.  Those circumstances, it would turn out, were the least of the challenges she faced.

The two children she adopted (Alec and Alyona—not their real names) had both suffered early infancy and childhood trauma from neglect and abuse.   Alec was later diagnosed with Asperger’s and Alyona with Bipolar Disorder.  Into Nancy’s staid, professional, single life, they brought chaos, disruption, and violence, which were what they knew and how they coped with their own internal pain.

Alyona had already been adopted once by an Italian family and returned to the Ukrainian orphanage because she was so violent.  Nancy was determined, however, that she would succeed with these children.  It took years of patience; the support of church, neighbors, colleagues, friends; the help of therapists and counselors; professional care; sheer endurance; a stubborn refusal to give up; and a seemingly bottomless reservoir of love; but eventually Nancy, Alec, and Alyona became a family, bonded by love, trust, and a sense of pride for having overcome such tremendous odds. 

Were you to meet Alec and Alyona today, at age 21, Nancy says, you would not believe the events of the book were true.  They are thriving young adults ready to move on into their future lives, knowing that their mother will be there for them, no matter what.  It is hard to imagine how any obstacle they might face in the future could be insurmountable, given all they have been through.

When Nancy wrote the first draft of the book, she says, her editor tossed it back to her, saying, “You've told the story of the children, but you haven’t told your own story, the story of why you did this and how.  This is your story too.”

A private, professional person, Nancy had to learn how to open herself up to self-disclosure, allow herself to become vulnerable, and share her motivations; her doubts and fears, as well as her hopes and dreams; her failures, as well as her successes; and her own personal story of growing up in a loving, supportive family; building a successful career; and finally deciding, based on a personal conviction of being called by her faith; to become a mother.

As a literature and rhetoric scholar, I recognize the story of the children as a classic redemption narrative, following the pattern of sickness-recovery-health, and the story of the author as a kind of quest tale, as trials are suffered and obstacles overcome.  It could also be read as an identity quest as Nancy's character and self-concept are repeatedly tested and ultimately vindicated.

It might not even be too great a stretch as to view the narrative as a kind of salvation story, for Nancy, with help from her community and from health professionals to be sure, was the primary agent by which these two severely wounded children were saved from what could have surely been a very dark fate indeed.

But, for the most part, I read her book, as a personal friend, full of admiration for all Nancy had accomplished, not only with her children, but also with her task of turning her parenting experience into a readable, sometimes heart-pounding, sometimes heart-wrenching, always inspiring testimony to the power of determination, commitment, and ultimately, of love.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Breaking the Spell V

In chapters six and seven, Daniel Dennett goes on to speculate on how folk religion developed into organized religion and became institutionalized , or, as he says, “domesticated,” complete with “stewards,” such as shamans, imams, rabbis, clergy, and other leaders who use their power to ensure the perpetuation of belief, religious practices, organizational structures, and, of course, their own positions.  These stewards use fear, deception, the promise of rewards, and organizational hierarchy, as well as, appeals to a Higher Power to maintain their positions and sustain the religion.  Religions act like corporations, developing a “brand,” competing in the “marketplace,” and selling “goods” to their “customers.”  A “God you can talk to,” who offers eternal life, is the ultimate consumer good.

In chapter eight Dennett discusses how “the stewardship of religious ideas creates a powerful phenomenon, belief in belief,” which reinforces the need, even the duty, to believe.  This belief in belief serves to deter rational questioning and disinterested investigation.  One form that it takes is the redefinition of religious terms to make them ever more resistant to empirical doubt.  Thus “God” develops from a supernatural, anthropomorphic being to an abstract concept, a concept, like infinity, which seems compatible with math and science. 

To say that Dennett casts religion in a cynical light would not be too strong a statement.  Repeatedly, often sarcastically, he inveighs against religious insistence on belief in “fictions.” 

As stated in a previous post (Jan., 2014), I continually find myself wondering if Dennett is capable of suspending his disbelief long enough to appreciate the power and, yes, the truth, of imagination.

Can fiction ever tell the truth?  Can religious “fictions,” understood figuratively or symbolically, embody an important truth of human experience?  Just because a story or belief is literally false, does that mean it cannot be true in a larger sense?

In the 18th century there were a group of literary critics who argued that it was irrational and unrealistic for a play to move freely through time and space.  If a play takes three hours to perform, it should take place in three hours.  Similarly, since a play can only be performed in one place, the action on the stage should occur in one locale.  They also thought the action should be limited to one plot.  Otherwise, the spectators would not be able to suspend their disbelief enough to appreciate the performance.  Shakespeare, of course, broke all these rules of the “three unities,” as they were called.  And Samuel Johnson famously derided these critics, arguing that “the audience is always in its right mind” and can both believe and disbelieve at the same time.  That is, the audience is capable of knowing that a dramatic performance is both imaginary and “true” at the same time. 

Surely, even an atheist can appreciate the power and truth of religious myth.   Let’s take the story of Jesus Christ. 

Most Christians probably consider it to be a unique story, but actually it follows the familiar pattern of a hero/quest myth found in almost all, if not all, cultures: (1) mysterious or miraculous origin, (2) hiding, (3) initiation and divine signs or special powers, (4) preparation, meditation, withdrawal, refusal, (5) trial and quest, (6) death and the scapegoat, (7) descent to underworld, (8) resurrection and rebirth, (9) ascension, apotheosis, atonement.  Not all hero myths contain every element, but all roughly follow the same outline. (See David Leeming's *Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero,* 2nd ed.)

In the case of Jesus Christ, (1) he is born of a virgin, (2) he is born in a kind of “hidden” place, a manger, (3) he shows a maturity beyond his years during his conversation with religious teachers, (4) he spends  forty days and forty nights in the wilderness resisting the temptations of Satan and preparing for his “quest,” (5) he calls his disciples and undertakes his ministry performing miracles and spreading his message, (6) he is crucified and dies as a scapegoat for human sin, (7) he is buried in a tomb, (8) he rises from the dead, and (9) he ascends into heaven and is deified.

So, if we dismiss the story as factually and literally false, on what basis can we affirm its truth value?  For one thing, we can affirm that, regardless of time and place, some individuals seem to acquire special status.  These individuals perform outstanding acts or make noteworthy contributions to their communities.  In turn, their communities elevate them and attribute unusual qualities to them in recognition of their accomplishments.  Hero myths thus represent the enduring human truth that some individuals rise above the rest of us and that the rest of us confer upon them a distinctive standing.  Likewise, these myths embody the truth that, as humans, we seek role models, mentors, and heroes, who inspire and lead us toward our own higher life.

From a psychological perspective, we can also view these myths as representing the universal story of each individual’s life journey.  As we grow, we become conscious of ourselves as having a distinct identity.  We often think of ourselves as having a special calling or mission in life.  We may face threats to our survival; we look for signs of our “destiny” or our unique goals in life; we seek success in one form or another and we prepare ourselves to achieve it; we encounter obstacles and trials that must be overcome in our life’s “quest.”  Not all “heroes” are successful, and we may experience a failed quest, perhaps more than one.  Regardless of success or failure, we must face death, but we take comfort that we will live on after death, even if it is only in the form of the memories of the living or the legacy we leave behind.   Psychologically, our apotheosis is the mark we leave on the world.

Thus, the literally false myth embodies the symbolic truth of our sense of unique identity, our individual life journey, and our shared human experience of trial and quest, success or failure, suffering, death, and the hope, if not the conviction, that our life was significant.

Stripped of its religious meaning, the story of Jesus Christ is the same story that we each live, and that is perhaps one reason the story can resonate powerfully even for an atheist, assuming the atheist has not rejected imagination along with religion.