Sorting Myth from Reality

4 March 2013


     Note: A shorter version of the following article was published in a local newspaper.  It was written in response to two other articles, one published in the same paper, another posted online, by a retired professor in philosophy who takes the modern universalist (i.e. syncretistic) approach to religion. I think readers will understand the basic points and hopefully agree with my argument.

     Reading a newspaper column by Nick Gier, a local professor, now retired, on Christmas Eve took me back to the summer day when I was five and an older neighbor girl told me that the jolly old elf known as Santa Claus was not real.  Shocked, I said he was.  She insisted otherwise.  “Then who brings all the presents?” I asked.  “Parents,” she said.  “But they can’t afford it!” I cried.  “Oh, uncles and aunts help,” she said.

     Still unconvinced, I ran indoors for backup, only to hear my young mother, who, I realize now, felt she was being put on the spot, quietly admit the hard truth.  As I burst into tears, she took me on her lap, and I felt my childish world collapsing in a heap.  “And fairies — are they real?” I asked.  No, she said.  “And elves — and witches?”  No.  “And God?”

     “Oh, He is real,” Mom said.

     From then on, while still enjoying fairy tales, I regarded them as such.  I had come to a new phase of learning how to sort fact from fancy and myth from reality.  Entering Catholic school that fall, I began a study of religion that would form the foundation for my dealing with such topics.  Over the years I also came to realize that few in this day and age have stuck to my core beliefs.  In stirring the pot of history, most prefer to pick a bit of a truth here and a legend or two there, and stir them all together in a kind of trendy mush.  Such, indeed, is the method employed by academics like Nick Gier, who formerly taught philosophy at a local university.

     Thus his article, entitled “Cal Thomas, Islam and copycat religions,” equates Christ with pagan figures like Mithra, who, he says also shared a “sacred meal” with followers.  Since this cult flourished in the early centuries A.D. Gier thinks that it served as a model for Christian Communion and not the other way around.  What he fails to mention is the fact that the god Mithra never really existed.  Or that the Christian ritual instituted at the Last Supper, was no mere “sacred meal,” but, rather, the “clean oblation” foretold by the biblical prophet Malachias.  As St. Paul notes in his epistle to the Hebrews, Christ was made our High Priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedec, the biblical priest of Salem who offered up bread and wine.  While not mentioned in Gier’s article, this contemporary of Abraham surely predates the elusive Zoroaster, who is cited instead as a source for Christian belief.

     Gier also fails to note that some scholars think the three magi who followed the star to Bethlehem were Zoroastrians.  Since they came looking for Baby Jesus, the question arises: Who was leading whom?

     St Paul’s words regarding Melchisedec also echo in the ordination rite for Catholic priests, who continue to celebrate the ritual that was instituted at the Last Supper.  This is Christ’s own Sacrifice of His Body and Blood, offered under the appearances of bread and wine.  Called the Holy Eucharist, it comprises the heart of the traditional Mass, which, in its simple grandeur, flows as a whole in an ancient pattern.  Thus at the foot of the altar the priest starts by intoning Psalm 42: “I will go in unto the altar of God, to God who gives joy to my youth.”  From here he moves up and on to the inner sanctum, or Holy of Holies, where the Lamb of God is offered for our salvation, and afterwards remains in the Tabernacle.

     While believers find this inspiring, Gier finds it scary and, worse yet, a fraud.  In an online book review entitled “Christianity without Crucifixion in the Early Church,” he traces the notion of a ritualistic sacrifice to the harsh ways of Charlemagne, who forced pagan Saxons to convert “at the point of a sword.”  Prior to this St. Boniface, whom Gier ignores, had journeyed from England to convert his Saxon and Frisian cousins, going so far as to chop down their sacred oak.  Ultimately he was martyred.  Under Charlemagne, Gier says, Christian priests presented Christ as a fearful Judge.  A Saxon carved the first known crucifix, and the cross became a sign of terror, of “divine wrath.”  As it was placed on altars, the happy feast celebrated by early Christians “at the table of Paradise” was transformed into a sacrifice evoking horror.

     Or so says Gier.  To be sure, he overlooks what I learned in grade school, that some of the earliest Christians performed their sacred ritual on the tombs of martyrs in catacombs –– hardly the normal setting for a nice meal.  Or that during the 4th century, St. Helena, mother of Constantine, searched for the true cross on which Christ died — and found it.  Even those who doubt the authenticity of her find, or of the miracles that resulted, must concede that the cross, and all it stood for, was venerated centuries before Charlemagne, who died in 814.  Furthermore, as the Cross on which Christ died, this was the original crucifix – and continued to be honored as such.

     While noting the excesses of Charlemagne, Gier ignores not only Boniface but also the many other monks and missionaries of the 6th and 7th centuries who went unarmed among the pagans and never charged for their services.  Those from Ireland included Columba, who founded Iona, off Scotland; Kilian, who preached among the southern Germans; and Columbanus, whose many foundations included Luxeuil, in present day France; and, Bobbio, not far from the future site of Genoa, birthplace of Columbus.  Nor should we overlook an earlier traveler, a 5th century Irish cleric (and contemporary of St. Patrick) who, after being shipwrecked on his way back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, ended up in the far south of Italy, or Sicily.  There he is still known as San Cataldo.

     The monasteries founded by these monks and others across Europe became renowned as centers of learning.  Ironically their foundations in Britain, would be confiscated centuries later by so-called armed monarchists and others masking as reformers, who prospered accordingly.  How do you suppose Downton Abbey got its name?  Altars were replaced with tables in order to turn the Holy Sacrifice into more of a happy holy (or wholly Happy?) meal.  Dissenters were forced into hiding.  Thus during penal times in rural Ireland, priests offered the Holy Sacrifice on so-called Mass Rocks.  For them it was back to the catacombs at the risk of death or deportation as slaves to Barbados.

     Ignoring Christian monks or martyrs, however, Gier prefers to sing the praises of the Buddha.  Though in this he is not alone.  Not long ago PBS, for instance, ran a series about this figure.  Later that year, touring the Art Institute in Chicago, I came across a huge hall full of Buddhas, placed on shelves or lying on the floor.   Looking down at them from a staircase, I figured there must have been thousands, all with the same fat face –– and vacant stare that seems, nevertheless, to serve as a source of inspiration for the likes of Nick Gier.


Copyright by Judith M. Gordon 2013