Winter solstice

December 24, 2014

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— Calvin Luther Martin, PhD

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Winter solstice.  Christmas eve.  And I am a hibernating bear, deep within the cave of winter dreams.

All my life I have sensed a strange convergence between solstice and Christmas, like two vast planets wheeling into near collision.  Then each slowly spinning off on its separate course into darkness, the dream of deep space.

For a moment the realms of mythology and history nearly intersect, the one briefly illumining the other.  At that instant we see more of each than we ever do.

In the eerie light of mythology I recognize that Christmas is old mythology.  We fool ourselves that it’s history.  The Kiowa poet N. Scott Momaday taught me years ago that we all live in myth.  We live in history too, but history is veneer.  Beneath the mask of history is the truth that never happened, it just always is.  Scott went back to his grandmother’s cabin and her gravesite at Rainy Mountain to realize this.  I have never forgotten his story and its lesson.

For years I have hunted for the crackup of myth into history—the  shattering of the flawless sheet of glass into shards.   When mind that thought in union with the earth collapsed into the mind that now observed the earth—mankind apart.

Socrates, Plato’s teacher, illustrates the point.  The Socratic method:  we’re all more or less familiar with it.  Teaching by questioning.  But it is more radical than this; it is a clue to the beginning of the modern mind—the collapse of the quantum wave into something stunningly new.  And dangerous.  The teacher would have his students recite truth and mystery, and perforce they would recite myth:  the ancient thing, the unquestioned thing, the thing that got its power through the telling, the repeating, the power in the words themselves.  The thing that never happened, it just is.  Now Socrates questioned it.  “How do you know?”  Over and over, he sowed doubt.  They were dumbfounded, his students.  There was no response.  It is said he created an uproar in Athens.

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Words now became different.  Instead of being the thing itself they began to refer to the thing:  they stopped living to become symbols, metaphors, codes.  The river of language was changing direction: instead of flowing from the land and sea into mankind, language began to flow from man into the earth.  The new art of writing, just beginning to take hold in Greece, sealed the transformation.

Socrates, Plato, Aristotle—the old language lay dying.  The modern mind was born.

But it’s Christmas.  Another curious story transpires.  An old story with great power, it seems.  Otherwise why would it have lasted so long?  It begins at the beginning, in a brilliant allegory of the death of mythology.  In a garden.  A man and woman who dream as the earth dreams.  Until one day there is doubt, the Socratic question:  “How do you know?”  How do you know this fruit won’t give you the knowledge of the gods?  The woman has no answer, nor does the man.  In fact there is no answer; the question is out of category.  A new world has appeared.  The old world:  collapsed.  The fall is not the bitten apple; the fall is the question itself.

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For generation upon generation, the question rages on, devouring continents, the seas.  The modern mind unfurls.  Rationalism, empiricism, enlightenment, science.  The mind apart, the mind of doubt, of no faith.  Language flows the wrong way.  The question is a curse.

Then a curious child is born, they say.  Virgin born.  Improbable, as in mythology.  Prophesied, as in mythology.  He grows to be a man, to meet the question.  A rendezvous with history, with the dark itch of doubt, the heavy thing, the monstrous thing Melville called No Faith.

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He finds it awaiting him in the desert.  Three doubts, three interrogations.  Three challenges.  He deftly turns them, all three, into mythology:  affirmations of faith.  He says they are not legitimate questions; he says they are out of category.  A great and momentous thing begins to happen in the searing heat:  old language begins to shake itself alive out of enchanted sleep.  Old language of faith, of hope, of compassion.  Old language of the earth itself.

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Over the next three years the mythic man will execute all three challenges: multiply the loaves, submit to death, and bow down his will.  But he won’t perform a single one out of doubt:  “How do you know?”  The Socratic question is never his.  The mind of mankind apart, the modern mind, could not overwhelm him.

Except for a moment at the end, when he struggles with the weight of humanity’s doubt lowered over him and cries, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”  That will be the final question of history—the last doubt.  And now it is finished, he said, giving up his spirit to the Spirit.

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Myth and history, two titans, suspend their quarrel as they listen and watch the tomb.  Much is at stake.  How little we appreciate this.  “How do you know?” finally demands the impatient old sorcerer.  Myth gestures, wordlessly, at the stone now beginning to move.

We don’t believe this, still whispers the old sorcerer.  Yet we don’t realize:  it wasn’t a mortal man that emerged that morning.  Nor was a mortal child born Christmas morning.  It was the Word made flesh.  It was original language:  the old language of faith, compassion, hope.  Here.  Alive.  Breathing.  Unquenchable.  Immortal.  Larger than doubt, more potent than despair.  Dwelling as if human among us, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

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Deep in winter sleep the bear within me dreams this thing that never happened:  It always is.

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