I’ve long been interested in the studies of Robert Graves (and others) of the various religious ideas of the pre-Christian Mediterranean basin, as spelled out in his The White Goddess and incorporated in historickal fiction like Hercules, My Shipmate.  I don’t have any particular reason to doubt his documentation of the variety of pagan myths and worship practices focused on, for example, the annual sacrifice of a nominal “king” for the benefit of the people, that also appear in Christian theology, but I have always found irksome the reasoning – often either explicit or implied – that this somehow delegitimizes the latter, exploding it as a slap-up derivative or a cheap imitation with no unique legitimacy.

So you can imagine my delight in reading C.S. Lewis’ response to this idea in his essay “Is Theology Poetry?”:

The truth is that the resemblances tell nothing either for or against the truth of Christian Theology.  If you start from the assumption that the Theology is false, the resemblances are quite consistent with that assumption.  One would expect creatures of the same sort, faced with the same universe, to make the same false guess more than once.  But if you start with the assumption that the Theology is true, the resemblance fits equally well.  Theology, while saying that a special illumination has been vouchsafed to Christians and (earlier) to Jews, also says that there is some divine illumination vouchsafed to all men.  The Divine light, we are told, “lighteneth every man.”  We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of great Pagan teachers and myth-makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story – the theme of incarnation, death and rebirth.  And the differences between the Pagan Christs (Balder, Osiris, etc.) and the Christ Himself is much what we should expect to find.  The Pagan stories are about someone dying and rising, either every year, or else nobody knows where and nobody knows when.  The Christian story is about a historical personage, whose execution can be dated pretty accurately, under a named Roman magistrate, and with whom the society that He founded is in continuous relation down to the present day.  It is not the difference between falsehood and truth.  It is the difference between a real event on one hand and dim dreams or premonitions of that same event on the other.  It is like watching something come gradually into focus; first it hangs in the cloud of myth and ritual, vast and vague, then it condenses, grows hard and in a sense small, as a historical event in first century Palestine.  This gradual focusing goes on even inside the Christian tradition itself.  The earliest stratum of the Old Testament contains many truths in a form which I take to be legendary, or even mythical – hanging in the clouds, but gradually the truth condenses, becoming more and more historical.  From things like Noah’s Ark and the sun standing still upon Ajalon, you come down to the court memoirs of King David.  Finally you reach the New Testament and history reigns supreme, and the Truth is incarnate.  And “incarnate” is here more than a metaphor.  It is not an accidental resemblance that what, from the point of view of being, is stated in the form “God became Man,” should involve, from the point of view of human knowledge, the statement “Myth became Fact.”  The essential meaning of all things came down from the “heaven” of myth to the “earth” of history.  In so doing, it partly emptied itself of its glory, as Christ emptied Himself of His glory to be Man.  That is the real explanation of the fact that Theology, far from defeating its rivals by a superior poetry, is, in a superficial but quite real sense, less poetical than they.  That is why the New Testament is, in the same sense, less poetical than the Old.  Have you not often felt in Church, if the first lesson is some great passage, that the second lesson is somehow small by comparison – almost, if one might say so, humdrum?  So it is and so it must be.  That is the humiliation of myth into fact, of God into Man; what is everywhere and always, imageless and ineffable, only to be glimpsed in dream and symbol and the acted poetry of ritual becomes small, solid – no bigger than a man who can lie asleep in a rowing boat on the Lake of Galilee.  You may say that this, after all, is a still deeper poetry.  I will not contradict you.  The humiliation leads to a greater glory.  But the humiliation of God and the shrinking or condensation of the myth as it becomes fact are also quite real.

Sorry for the extended passage, but I wanted to share:  This is the sort of insight that, when I stumble across it, gives me such a case of the shivers that I have to sit down, lest I start frantically flapping my arms about and shouting, “Oh, my God! Yes! See? Of course!  Yikes!”

I am finding this Lent that my focus is settling very strongly on this relationship between the long view and the short, the immortal and the natural.  You may let out a collective “Well, duuuuh!” if you choose, but this is a big step for me: In years past, I think I have got too caught up in the here and the now, too focused on the immediate and not paid enough attention to the eternal counterpart.  Whether passages such as this one are pushing me in that direction or whether I am paying especial attention to such passages as a result of my own adjusted priorities, I couldn’t say.  Either way, I feel (or at least hope) I am deriving a tremendous benefit.

** UPDATE – Forgot to add the invitation to spot the quote.  Mr. FLG should appreciate it because it involves pirates.