Re-visioning Theology: A Mythic Approach to Religion

Re-Visioning Theology proposes a contemporary mythic approach to theology that offers a way of living fully and faithfully in the midst of the tension and uncertainty of changing times.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Re-visioning Theology: A Mythic Approach to Religion

  1. Review

    Book Review: “Re-visioning Theology: A Mythic Approach to Religion”, by Norvene Vest, Paulist Press 997 Macarthur Boulevard Mahwah New Jersey 07430, ISBN 978-0-8091-4688-8, 2011, 206 pp.

    by John Noack, August 2012.

    The concept of “re-visioning” implies that the author intends to move from an old vision to a new vision. Norvene Vest, who has graduate degrees in theology, in mythology as it relates to depth psychology and in political theory, is well equipped to deal with both of these visions.

    The old vision has traditionally presented Christianity in a literal and triumphalist manner. Many Christians today can recall in their younger days their own indoctrination into this version of Christianity. This tradition promoted [1] literalism in relation to the ancient biblical texts; [2] a hierarchical patriarchy in relation to Christianity’s all-male Trinity and its male-dominated culture and [3] of an infallibility-demanding dogmatism in Christianity’s creeds, confessions and doctrines. Christian Fundamentalists still embrace such a vision and apologists, who publicly proclaim this version of Christianity as “God’s eternal Truth” based on “God’s inerrant Word”, would prefer such an absolutist and literalistic vision of Christianity to be eternal.

    The Importance of Imagination

    In contrast to this “conservative” but still firmly held Christian vision by some, the author’s new vision moves from the view of divinely-revealed ancient texts and an inerrancy-obsessed literalism to a more open-minded view, which displays a literary and mythic appreciation of Christianity’s texts and traditions. Her three areas of interest for her re-visioned Christianity constitute the contents of this thought-provoking book, which she presents in three large and interesting chapters from pages 21 to 137. These three include [1] the need for Imagination and the Imaginal Realm in present-day Christian soul-work; [2] the need for an Integrative Feminist Vision in contrast to the old heroic, patriarchal, inerrancy-demanding and triumphalist Christian vision and [3] the Interpersonal Insights of Paul Ricoeur and his Open and Reflective Philosophy. These three are also summarized very succinctly in her Introduction from pages 15 to18 and in the author’s concluding chapter from pages 143 to 161, which is her courageous presentation of “A Bold Theology”.

    Obviously this book is not likely be opened or read by present-day closed-minded Conservative and Fundamentalistic Christians mentioned above but fortunately, they hold no monopoly over Christianity. In contrast, the revealing comments on the back of this book indicate that there are also some concerned, creative and more progressive Christians in the World, who are keen to acknowledge that “we are living in a time of major paradigm shift in our many cultures” (Laura Swan) and that Christianity needs to move beyond “the hyper-rationality which has characterized Western culture since the Enlightenment” and to “rediscover the fullness of a rich ‘humanitas’.” (Mary Donald Corcoran, OSB).

    Disorientation, Deconstruction, Dismemberment and Dissolution

    Rev Diana Akiyama points to present-day Christianity’s need for a new vision, when she states that “Norvene Vest has provided a way forward for Christians who are weary of the literalist and triumphalist theological voices that dominate today’s public discourse”. Dennis Patrick Slattery confirms further this need for “re-visioning”, when he states that “when mythos meets theos, history itself is reformatted and our narratives reanimated”.

    For Slattery therefore, “Such is the boldness of Norvene Vest’s epic-laden and epic-anchored ‘Re-Visioning Theology’. Disorientation, deconstruction, dismemberment are the three ‘d’s’ that she employs to allow the mythos that drives theological inquiry to flourish anew. Her inter-disciplinary courage offers a fourth “d” that is the dissolving of the stifling boundaries between modes of knowing, so a new birth of patterns of openness can be re-imagined and integrated into a new ‘Godde image’.”

    Such pioneering and integrative thinking by Norvene Vest presents many challenges to our visions of Reality, to our World-views, to our understanding of Religion, Spirituality and Theology. It also is a challenge to our own personal and private anagogical appropriations of Christianity, with its “sacred” texts, its super-natural and miracle-filled stories and its spiritual, liturgical, confessional and historical traditions. The author therefore clarifies some problematic issues, such as the nature and role of myth in today’s World, before she describes in detail her three areas of re-visioning: the Imagination, an Integrative Feminism and the Inter-personal Ideas of Paul Ricoeur.

    Myths are False and True

    Whereas many writers today prefer the use of the word “stories” to the word “myths”, the author accepts the ambivalence of the concept of myth, which sees myth as containing aspects which are both true and false. Although current dictionary definitions stress mainly the negative and false aspects of myth in relation to Natural Science, in contrast, depth psychology and spirituality studies tend to promote the truths of human nature in the mythic epics or sagas and in their imagery as symbolical truths in relation to the form, the functions and the fruits or expressions of Human Nature. For Norvene, “Myths are about what might be called boundary questions” (p.5) and she shows how myth is a mediating medium between the material and the metaphysical realms. Myth connects backwards to its source in the material, scientific realm and myth connects forwards to its provision of soul-sustenance in the metaphysical realm of spirituality. As an inverted triangle therefore, the top two corners can be viewed as material science and metaphysical spirituality, with both of these points connected to the one point of medium-making mythological epics and symbols below.

    The author then reminds readers that epic mythology reaches “the depth mythological substructure of a culture (p.4) and that Christianity in the past has not shirked from exploring concentric circles of meaning in the Bible (p.6). In fact, Christianity’s “multi-dimensional method” of textual and confessional analysis has been followed by many past and some present Christian scholars, as they have explored or continue to explore the four traditional levels of meaning: [1] the surface, literal or historical level, and then the three spiritual levels and meanings commonly described as [2] the allegorical or parallel meaning, [3] the tropological of moral meaning and application and [4] the anagogical or the ultimately meaningful and personal appropriation (p.6).

    Classical Epic Myths

    In the Classical World of Epic Legends and Epic Myths, the author goes on to identify regular patterns. Such Epic Narratives tend to display four stages of development. These include [1] Relationship Riddles, rifts and conflicts between characters within racial, tribal or family groups; [2] the Reality-Recognition of the present discomforting situation, which results in shock as well as in disorientation, deconstruction and Dis-memberment; [3] a Responsive or Reactive Reversal, involving a change or shift in consciousness and a new awareness and finally [4] a Resolution through prospective unraveling and a futuristically-oriented Re-visioning and Re-creation (p.10). The legendary myth of Oedipus follows such a pattern and it is not hard to see how the equally legendary Gospel of Mark and its chief literary Semitic character Yehoshua-Messiah, closely follows such a pattern of Epic Myth, Legend, Story or Narrative.

    The author also sees the above-mentioned “disorientation” in Aristotle’s model of epic myth and in “the confrontation with the unconscious” described by Psychologist Carl Jung. In this process, both the confronting ego and the confronted unconscious or archetypal complex are able to change both entities and to bring about “personal transformation” (p.11). She also refers to the “dark night of the Soul” as described by the 16th century Carmelite monk St John of the Cross (p.11). The author sees such patterns in both personal and in wider communal and cultural contexts. One of her concerns is the wide-spread influence of the ‘rational, masculine, heroic Ego” which is in need of supplementing with a heroinic, feminine and receptive Ego. Vest therefore takes her readers beyond this type of impasse to the future’s “positive potential”, personal and communal re-creation and to wholeness (p.12).

    Against this important back-ground, the author explores the above-mentioned three aspects of her Re-visioning Project, namely, [1] the Imagination’s Imaginal Realm, [2] the Integrative Feminist Realm and [3] the Inter-personal Realm, Insights and Open Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur.

    The Imaginal Erotic Soul

    The author’s exploration of [1] the Realm of the human Imagination as a supplement to the often exclusively-viewed Realm of Reason, reveals her concern, within traditional myths and mythic epics, to “retain a core of Integrity”. Such a “core of truth” then allows for the experience of enjoying “the ongoing ambiguity and unfolding multiplicity of that truth” (p. 144). Her replacement of the masculine-oriented and repressive heroic half of the Ego with the feminine-oriented heroinic and responsive half of the Ego thus gives rise to Norvene’s model of the” imaginal erotic soul” where ‘mysteries are to be enjoyed, and chaos is understood as the place where life begins” (p. 144).

    This supplementary step leads on to the further need for [2] an Integrative Feminist Vision as a supplement to the positivist perspective of the West’s often dictatorial rationality. Here Christian constructs and concepts such as the All-male and a non-wholly Trinity of a personified Father, his Son and a Spirit, the Latin “Spiritus” with masculine gender, is complemented and balanced with such constructs as the personified Hokmah/Sophia/Wisdom and such imaginative concepts as “mother, lover, friend and even as the body of Earth” (p.149). It is Sophia who can be viewed as the “eternal prototype of Creation” (p.151).

    Paul Ricoeur’s Open Philosophy

    The final area is [3] Paul Ricoeur’s stress on the “relational soul” as a supplement to radical individualism. Ricoeur stresses the role of “semantic innovation” and “metaphoric truth”, which help to produce his “world of radical complexity and polyvalence in which all truth statements are provisional (p.153). This means that Ricoeur proposes a supplement to empirical verification and his tests for truthfulness include the logic of probability and the logic of discovery (p.154). Hence, Ricoeur is part of a post-modern re-visioning, which supplements certainty with probability, isolated entities with inter-related parts of a whole and he supplements objectivity with participation (p.156).

    The author concludes by reaffirming that the old myths have shattered, along with the view of “Godde” depicted as reasonable, heroic, isolated and disconnected from the world. In its place is the proposed “strategy of harmonious complexity” and the appropriation of myth as the expression of the imaginal erotic soul (p.161).

    This book concludes with scholarly Notes, a comprehensive Bibliography and a useful Index.

    For many in the West today, especially those who view Christianity’s doctrines and dogmas like an historical Virgin Birth, Resurrection and Ascension in relation to “Jesus”, as out-moded superstitions,it has now become defunct and irrelevant. However, others, who are absolutely certain of the infallibility and inerrancy of all of their Christian
    doctrines and dogmas, have increased their levels of arbitrary, belief-inspired dedication to the “Faith of their Fathers”.

    Myth as Mediating Medium

    In a similar pattern, just as the author has stressed the mediating medium of myth between material science and metaphysical spirituality, this challenging, clearly-written and well-argued book, can now be seen in a similar light, namely, as an important mediating medium between the above two extreme poles of Christianity as either defunct or as divine. Many will welcome this book’s mediating quest for core truth and for kernels of reality, which feature between these two extreme poles and which can promote a Christianity that can display both an intellectual integrity and the concern for soul-myths, which can continue to exercise educated minds and to care for symbol-seeking souls now in our present century and also into future centuries.

    John Noack, August, 2012. Email:

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