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All Myths Are True

I’m reading No god but God by Reza Aslan, and there are things in it that are so brilliant that I have to share them right away. He addresses the so-called “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West by redefining it as a clash of monotheisms, then goes on to say:

    One could argue that the clash of monotheisms is the inevitable result of monotheism itself. Whereas a religion of many gods posits many myths to describe the human condition, a religion of one god tends to be monomythic; it not only rejects all other gods, it rejects all other explanations for God. If there is only one God, then there may be only one truth, and that can easily lead to bloody conflicts of irreconcilable absolutisms.

So how can we get around this, when communicating from one religion to another?

    Religion, it must be understood, is not faith. Religion is the story of faith. It is an institutionalized system of symbols and metaphors (read rituals and myths) that provides a common language with which a community of faith can share with each other their numinous encounter with the Divine….

     

    It is a shame that this word, myth…has come to be regarded as synonymous with falsehood, when in fact myths are always true. […] Whatever truths they convey have little to do with historical fact. To ask whether Moses actually parted the Red Sea, or whether Jesus truly raised Lazarus form the dead, or whether the word of God indeed poured through the lips of Muhammad, is to ask totally irrelevant questions. The only question that matters with regard to a religion and its mythology is “What do these stories mean?”

When discussing religion with my friends in Morocco, I often got hung up on just this point. When I tried to compare their myths to the myths of other religious systems, in order to better understand what they mean and their psychological context, the response, especially from my younger friends, was often to reject the comparison out of hand. Their myths, they insisted, were literally true. God dictated the Qur’an to Mohammed in Arabic through an angel. Everything in it is God’s own words. Therefore the events described happened exactly as is said. As a boy, Jesus made a bird out of clay and it flew away. The ancient king Dhul al-Qarnain built a wall of iron to keep the creatures of Gog and Magog from invading this world. Abraham sacrificed his firstborn, Ishmael, and not Isaac as the Jews say. These are certainties, whereas the myths of other religions are either distortions or lies.

What is the point, then, in comparing the Qur’anic version of the Flood to the one in the Bible, or to the more ancient one in the Epic of Gilgamesh? Nothing can be learned from that, since God sent the Qur’an to clear up the record. I tried to explain that the truths of the Qur’an are only true to those who believe them, and that to those who don’t share this belief, they are only myths. But I shouldn’t have said “only.” I should have said, “All myths are true, absolutely—yours and those of the Jews, the Greeks and the Hindus. But they are true on a metaphorical level. They speak to the secret places our soul. So rather than arguing over details, let us ask what God is trying to say with them—what they mean. Perhaps on that level, you will find that the Qur’an and the Baghavad Gita are not so far apart.”

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