Myth and religion are terms re-entering public debate in Australia. Certainly, myth is a notion still often used in a pejorative sense, to evoke a fantastical story that serves to legitimate particular interests. Yet – as retellings of the Gallipoli story reveal – there is a growing awareness that any community, whether a nation or a small neighbourhood, needs to debate the myth or imaginative narrative that gives it inspiration.
We look out for forgotten stories that might jolt us out of our comfort zone, and provide an alternative mythology; novels and films present mythic stories about ourselves. The most enduring of those poetic imaginings acquire the status of what we might call a classic, becoming part of a core bed-rock of stories to which we return to re-invent ourselves as a community.
They may not be historically accurate statements of fact, but they inspire and help us to re-imagine the world. Each religion has a collection of such mythic stories that constitute its holy scriptures.
Religion is still contentious as a term. For some, it’s synonymous with obfuscation and dogmatic beliefs, whereas for others it relates to a core body of values. As a teacher committed to promoting religious studies within a university context, I am intensely aware of how important it is to demonstrate that any religion offers not so much a set of beliefs as a vision of the world.
Religion (a word that in Latin means re-connecting) can be seen as a powerful set of cultural practices that offers meaning to a community, and a vision of order in the world. Religions can be used for pernicious ends.
Yet they also have the capacity to generate the virtue of faith or trust, at times when adversity may give cause for despair. Like myth, any religion is capable of a wide range of interpretations. Like Christianity, Islam is much richer as a religion than the caricature offered by extremists.
Only by becoming aware of the diversity of religious practice and understanding, both across time and within contemporary society (in Australia and internationally), can we move beyond naïve assumptions that religion is simply about dogmatism.
The fact that every religion, like every political system, has its own set of myths, does not mean that we should avoid teaching religion within a secular educational structure. Globalisation means that we no longer live in a society dominated by a single religious tradition. Secularisation offers a space for studying how myths and religions enable any culture to question the received truths of the economic and social order.
The term theology has a harder time than religion in the marketplace of ideas. For educated people raised to think of science as based on observation, and theology as based on unquestioned propositions, there is no place for studying theology within secular society, except within a confessional context.
Yet theology is any form of reasoned discussion about the principles of a religious tradition, embodied in its stories. The ancient Greeks used it to refer to poetic stories about the gods or God (for which Hebrew uses a plural word, namely Elohim).
In the Latin West, Augustine avoided using the word theology, because he thought it too pagan. For him, what mattered was Holy Scripture, the sacred stories of the Hebrews, given fresh meaning by Christ, revered by his followers as the living embodiment of Jewish wisdom.
Augustine preferred to think of Christian teaching as first of all about the Scriptures, the ancient songlines, as it were, of the Hebrews, made accessible through Christ to the world.
With the expansion in the 12th and 13th centuries of new educational structures in the Latin West - above all, of the university - theology was developed as a discipline that combined the best of the philosophical traditions of the Greeks with the wisdom of the Scriptures.
While Christian theology was shaped at medieval universities by male intellectuals, applying logic to Scripture, mystics (often women) drew on poetry to interpret religious experience. The writing and music of Hildegard of Bingen belongs more to theopoetics than to theology, retrieving an ancient impulse to communicate the spiritual life through song as more powerful than analytic prose.
Myth, religion and theology are all rich concepts that defy easy definition. They are terms that are integral to religious literacy, the goal to which any form of religious studies must aspire.
Whether within primary, secondary or tertiary education, students need to be made aware of the variety of ways in which cultures have understood these concepts, as well as of the range of terms they have employed to communicate and discuss such ideas.
Theology is not a word that makes sense in every religion. Within Australian Indigenous communities, the sacred is communicated first of all through song, transmitted orally rather than through written text. In the case of Judaism and Islam, the key notion is that of Law, as a divine principle larger than the individual laws by which it is manifest.
In Buddhism, the cosmic law may be defined in terms of dharma rather than of a transcendent law giver. Myths and religions communicate core values in different ways.
Within a secular society shaped by multiple religious traditions, there is an urgent need for both believers and non-believers to understand the core principles of any religion, to prevent those traditions being taken over by narrow ideologues who preach hate and intolerance.
We need to promote religious literacy, not to enforce commitment to any particular religious tradition, but to better understand religious discourse and imagery. Only through such literacy, can we better understand the meaning of terms like myth, religion and theology.
We’re currently commissioning articles on all aspects of religion and mythology. If you’re an academic, and would like to know more, contact the Arts + Culture editor.