Modern scholarly researchers like Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung suggest that the gods and goddesses of mythology are archetypes in a collective unconscious that human beings can or seek to embody. Religion cannot merely be reduced to a study of stories or psychology. But the insights they provide can enrich our appreciation of religion.
The strict distinction between myth and history may be more important in some religious worldviews than others. Myth pervades the Greek epics of Homer and the much longer Indian epic of the Mahabharata. There is a sense in which the question whether the stories' events actually happened is unimportant. The story is more important than whether or not they really occurred. Tales of Achilles Hector, Krishna and Arjuna, have a timeless value as stories.
Other religious tradions place much weight on the historicity of their great stories. Christians believe that Jesus really lived and that his life was not simply a cultural recurrence of the dying god myth, such as that of Osiris or Orpheus. Similarly, Christianity is founded on the conviction that the crucufuxion and resurrection were historical facts. Although theology describes the incarnation of the Logos, it reached the conclusion that the human and divine natures are perfectly united in the unique being of Jesus Christ - who exists simultaneously within and beyond history. History is the touchstone of religious validity here, rather than certain universal truths preserved by mythology.
We may also distinguish the mystical, prophet and occult strands of faith traditions in the global heritage.
The mystical traditions look to an experience open to human beings as the touchstone of religious truth and validity. The mystic's experience is variously described as a liberation, or an enlightenment, a oneness with the divine. The yogi's Samadhi indicates the loss of any distinction between the finite and the infinite. The extinction of Nirvana in Buddhism conveys a similar sense. For the mystical tradition, this dissolving into the All is the source and goal of religion. Meditation, with its merging of the conscious into the unconscious, goes with the territory. There is the accompanying sense that the world is an illusion of some kind, a Maya, a play of light and shadow on a cave wall that hypnotises the aspirant until he awakens to a reality beyond name and form.
There are mystical veins within all faiths, existing alongside the rituals and philosophy and the rest, but some traditions like Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, could lay claim to being mystical religions.
The East is the main source of mysticism; the Middle East the cradle of the prophetic religions; and the West the chief stronghold of the occult tradition.
This will be taken up in the next blog post.