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The Unorthodox Martin Luther King, Myth, & Christianity

January 20, 2010

My friend “Ed the Gnostic” shared some interesting quotes with me from Martin Luther King from this article. These weren’t from the “I Have a Dream” speech or “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Rather, they were from papers he wrote in his grad school days on the connection between Christianity and ancient mystery religions (eg, Mithraism) and other pagan spiritualities. If you’re not familiar with some of the contours of King’s theology, this may be troubling to you.

For example, King wrote ‘It is at this point that we are able to see why knowledge of these cults is important for any serious New Testament study. It is well-nigh impossible to grasp Christianity through and through without knowledge of these cults. That there were striking similarities between the developing church and these religions cannot be denied.’

‘To discuss Christianity without mentioning other religions would be like discussing the greatness of the Atlantic Ocean without the slightest mention of the many tributaries that keep it flowing…The staggering question that now arises is, what will be the next stage of man’s religious progress? Is Christianity the crowning achievement in the development of religious thought or will there be another religion more advanced?”

Many Christians I know realize that King was not completely orthodox, though many do not. Around this time of year, I see many well-meaning Christians embracing ALL of MLK. This isn’t wise. “Watch your life and doctrine closely” Paul said to Timothy (1 Timothy 4:16). King’s theology had problems. He was a product of his time and environment. Liberal scholarship was in its heyday when & where he was studying.

For me, that doesn’t detract from the enormous respect I have for King as a leader or from his fantastic contribution to civil rights. I just wouldn’t get all my theology from him. Still, the moral force that fueled the civil rights movement was Jesus and the prophets. We don’t get King if he’s just drawing on Mithraism and Plato. We get King because he’s drawing on Jesus and Amos.

In reading the article & quotes above, I saw mostly an acknowledgment that we should recognize the context of Christianity’s origin, which I agree with. In my seminary classes, we spent a good deal of time discussing mystery religions & the general religious environment of that period. I think that’s important. (I also think that particular article pushes King so far into paganism that he wouldn’t recognize himself).

Still, King goes further than I will in somewhat relativizing Christianity as but one iteration of humanity’s spiritual evolution, when he asks “what’s next?” The “What’s Next” question is in flat contradiction to the claims of Scripture about Jesus. Jesus himself says he is the “Alpha and Omega” (Revelation 1:8). There are no letters after Omega in the greek alphabet. “In Christ, all the deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). Not part of the deity, but all of it. The incredible claims of Jesus and the NT authors is that the fullness has arrived, the Kingdom has come, and we do not need to wait around for someone greater than Jesus to arrive on the scene. He’s the prophet greater than Moses, the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, the eternal heir to the throne of David. He’s all that and then some.

Incidentally, Christian readers, Brian McLaren makes some similar claims to King in his books. There are sound, deep, and weighty theological reasons for rejecting his “conversation.” The “what’s next” argument also leaves the door wide open for the claims of Islam, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and anyone else who wants to claim to be the latest and greatest.

Now, back to the question of Christianity’s similarity to certain aspects of ancient mystery religions. Do these real and irrefutable overlapping aspects somehow threaten the uniqueness of Christianity, and therefore its Truth-claims? No. Christians have, from the very beginning, seen the commonalities we share with other religions as part of how a sovereign God was preparing the world for the reception of the Gospel message. This is true whether we’re talking about ancient religions, or modern ones. With reference to Mithraism and the like, we believe it was part of how God was preparing the world to receive the Gospel message, in the “kairos” moment in history, “when the time had fully come,” (Galatians 4:4).

I’ll go even further with regards to Christianity’s similarities to mystery religions than saying it doesn’t bother me. I’m with C.S. Lewis on this, when he writes in “Myth Become Fact” (an article in the anthology God in the Dock) that

[t]he heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. … God is more than god, not less: Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “pagan Christs”: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic? [Check out this great article on C.S. Lewis and Myth.]

And also, when Lewis writes in his conversion memoir, Surprised by Joy:
I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion — those narrow, unattractive Jews, too blind to the mystical wealth of the Pagan world around them — was precisely the matter of great myths. If ever a myth had become a fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this. Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another, but nothing was simply alike. And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time… yet also so luminous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god. But if a god — we are no longer polytheists — then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all.
It is precisely this, Jesus as the Myth-Become-Fact, that causes people to either embrace him or reject him. If you are a highly spiritual person from another religious tradition or a pagan spirituality, Jesus’ arrival and ministry is not spectacular enough. It stops short. My friend Ed is continually frustrated by the Christian fixation on Jesus. He says we make too much of Jesus, and that we focus on Jesus to the detriment of our spiritual development/evolution. He wants us to push past Jesus to the next click in humanity’s evolution. We Christians remain stubbornly fixed on Christ, “the image of the invisible God.”
Of course, if you are a secular person, your offense is in the opposite direction: the message and claims of Jesus are too spectacular to be plausible. A God-become-man. Not only the existence of the deity, but the fullness of the deity in bodily form. The claim that though there are passing similarities to dozens of other mystery religions, THIS man, at THIS time, was the real deal. That this is no mere legend or fable. That this is no imaginitive wish-thinking with supernatural fairy-dust sprinkled on top.
Perhaps it is the very fact that it confounds our expectations, secular and spiritual alike, that points to its Truthfulness.  As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:22-25,

22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2010 9:13 pm

    Love the Lewis quotes. J. R. R. Tolkien’s pointing out that Jesus was the only true myth he knew of was an important part of Lewis’ conversion to Christianity.

    Besides that fact that we just don’t know much about Mithraism, the similarities have always struck me as being superficial, and as far as I know there has never been any real evidence found of a link between them. Dr. King makes the same mistake here that many do, assuming that some sufrace similarities imply core similiarities, when this is simply not true. You probabely run into the opinion on campus as often as I do, that all religions are, at the core, the same, and point to the same thing. This couldn’t be further than the truth. The fact is that many religions are on the surface the same, but at the core hold wildly divergent values and beliefs. We may all pray, but we do not all pray to the same gods for the same things.

  2. January 23, 2010 10:34 am

    Nick–right on. Very common objection, and it’s amazing how some of these objections have such staying power. I don’t find the “it’s just like other religions of the time period” argument very persuasive, but while there is nothing new under the sun, there are always new people, and we have to explain our response afresh.

  3. January 26, 2010 11:24 am

    Last summer I read a book by Paul Rhodes Eddy and Greg Boyd called “Lord or Legend: Wrestling with the Jesus Delemma.” There’s an academic version too, “The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition.”

    This box exhaustively and convincingly defends the origins (and originality) of the Christian faith. I recommend the “non” academic version for a quick read.

    I thought it was funny you have a friend you call “Ed the Gnostic”
    I have a similar name for a gentleman in my community who’s a devout atheist. I call him “Anti-Mike.” Mike’s a great guy and is happy to have a conversation about faith. I mean no disrespect and I only call him this because the senior pastor of my local church is also named Mike….okay, now I’m feeling a bit convicted…

    • January 26, 2010 12:28 pm

      Ian–good heads up on the Jesus book there.

      “Ed the Gnostic”–who told me he liked this post–knows it is an honorary title. He is a devout and knowledgeable Gnostic (pun intended). He knows his church history better than most Christians.

      If “Anti-Mike” doesn’t mind the nickname, no harm no foul!

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