Ethics, Place & Mythology


Mythology is usually defined as false belief and contrasted against scientific truth.  However, this dismissive view does not explain the role of myth in establishing people’s identity.  A deeper understanding of myth can enable us to ground our ethics in the spirit of place. Alfred North Whitehead, the British philosopher who founded process theology, pointed to this deeper meaning when he said the art of free society consists in maintaining and revising the symbolic code to satisfy an enlightened reason.[1]  By this he meant that philosophy should apply logic to understand our myths in order to deepen our freedom. This definition of myth as the symbolic code we live by has potential to transform Christianity to ground it in an ethic of place.

In June 2005 I attended the fourth International Festival of Philosophy, Science and Theology at the Anglican Cathedral in Grafton NSW. [2] The aim of the Festival was to provide a safe space for free discussion of different ways of thinking in order to work towards an inclusive Christian faith.  This event signalled how modern spirituality is searching for new myths that will be more in tune with the places where people live.

Australia has an amazing mix of clashing worldviews.  So-called ‘Aussies’ disagree with Muslims, advocates of Aboriginal reconciliation often question colonial pride, and some supporters of Jesus Christ dislike the Christmas Santa cult.  One way to analyse these social dynamics is in terms of competing mythologies. The psychologist Rollo May[3] provides an entry point to such discussion by defining myth as the stories which give meaning to people’s lives.  Using this broad definition, myth can’t simply be contrasted to truth as something to be ‘busted’.  The stories we live by support our perception of reality and have a truth for us.  ‘Busting’ Santa[4] is not going to lead to his disappearance, but competing views always have differing myths which can be deconstructed in terms of their attitudes to ethics and place.

Even science has its mythic dimension.  The observation that the earth goes around the sun has a mythic function for science in supporting the idea that empirical objectivity is the only source of truth.  The scientific view of truth contrasts with the ordinary ‘flat earth’ human outlook which uses the apparent movement of the sun to understand direction and time - from sunrise in the east to sunset in the west.  For the everyday human perspective it seems true that the sun goes around the earth: our planet looks to be the centre of our universe, grounding our local sense of place.  This geocentric view is the basis of our clock, our calendar and our compass.  Science sees this human outlook as an illusion rather than a coherent source of meaning and truth.  However, the ‘placeless’ view of truth in science has its own problems, especially when it claims that the only valid ethics are those that are based in science, thereby discounting the wisdom of pre-scientific culture.[5] 

We seem to be seeing a rebalancing now between science and religion, as people look to both to find values to live by. This is an example of how, over time, myths adapt to realities of place as the idea of truth is contested.  The Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology[6] explains how this happened in the ancient world, when gods of conquerors initially appeared all-powerful in myths of the time of triumph, but the old gods of subjugated people re-emerged later in a new subordinate role reflecting the social relations between the contesting cultures. 

In his introduction to the Larousse Encyclopaedia, Robert Graves says a function of myths is to justify an existing social system.  For example, diverse tribal gods were often absorbed by unifying imperial gods which took over their rituals and supposed powers.  For example in the myths of ancient Egypt, the sun god Ra was challenged by the feminine goddess Isis, mirroring the contests between city rulers vying for federal power.[7]  Modern science seems to face similar mythic challenges to its justification for secular western culture.

The famous psychologist Carl Jung[8] explained how myths appear in popular culture and resonate with the public mind through what he called archetypes.   An example of such a mythic archetype is the iconic mercy of Christ.  Jung suggested that people often repress archetypal thoughts through defense mechanisms that operate outside awareness, but the repressed material will always return, often in mythic form, if it reflects an underlying reality.[9]  The Australian theologian David Tacey[10] uses Jung’s ideas to suggest Australia’s archetypes are changing as the narrow religion of colonial times no longer resonates with popular spirituality.  Australia’s mass culture seeks much of its meaning in media and sport, but Tacey observes widespread dissatisfaction with the shallow vision of secular society and with the way secular opinion seeks to repress religion.  Secularity claims that religion conflicts with reason, but spirit continually returns in archetypal myth because it speaks to people’s hearts with an elemental force that gives meaning and purpose to life. 

The Philosophy, Science and Theology Festival in Grafton pointed to the evolving archetypes in Australian culture.  The mythic clash that struck me most vividly was the incongruity between the diverse ideas discussed at the festival and the stunningly beautiful stained glass windows of the cathedral.  Windows such as Christ on the cross and St George slaying the dragon proclaimed the exclusive Christian message that was preached to Grafton’s settler society.[11]   However, these beautiful pictures seemed to deny the sacred in the surrounding nature while enclosing God in a building. 

The cathedral is a central monument to what people consider sacred.  I had to ask, why is this building so exclusive in the images it contains?  The absence of images from Aboriginal mythology, from Buddhism, or from other sources of meaning such as Islam, Hinduism, etc, sends a restricted message about the nature of divinity.  The issue here is not for the church to swing rapidly to adopt passing fads or lose its gospel core, but of evolution in theological worldview. Grafton’s church icons show how the old Christian myths received a culturally specific interpretation in colonial Australia.  However, these images no longer speak with the symbolic power they once did. The old evangelicalism resonates less and less with modern views, and will face a real struggle for relevance until it adapts.[12] The return of the repressed in this case involves acceptance of the existence of sanctity outside the church.

It is interesting to compare Christian icons with the stories told by indigenous Australians.[13]  The Dreamtime stories tell of giant creatures that looked like animals or plants or insects but behaved like humans. The greatest was the Rainbow Snake. The movement of his huge multi-coloured body across the land formed the mountains and the rivers that flow to the ocean. By lifting his tail he makes rainbows. A story told by Douglas Cook, a Bundjalung man,[14] tells how Rainbow Snake and Goanna worked together to create the Richmond River and Evans Head.

Aboriginal stories of the rainbow snake have a spirituality of place which recognises the sacred resonance in the earth.  By contrast, the Christian myth of the Fall presents an alienation between our world and God, allowing Christian societies to view nature as separate from God and permitting economic destruction. When colonial explorers discovered Grafton in the 1820s, [15] the place was a massive cedar forest.  It took just three years to cut down all the big old trees of Grafton, which were later symbolically replaced by jacarandas.  A mythic sense of spirituality of place could imagine Grafton like the elven forest home Lothlorien from Lord of the Rings,[16]  with giant cedar trees sprouting in the floor of the cathedral, like Yggdrasil the world ash[17] or Wotan’s oak.[18] 

The Bundjalung people lived since time immemorial where Grafton now is, but they were swept aside by the colony of New South Wales which was technologically advanced but spiritually bereft.  During my visit to Grafton an Aboriginal elder took a group of us to see some local historical sites, including the place where a concentration camp stood until the 1920s, the Grafton gulag, where Bundjalung people were taken so their land could be given to white settlers.  Accepting the historical truths of the destruction of Aboriginal society remains difficult for Australians who want to focus on pride rather than guilt in constructing their mythologies of political identity.  The ‘pride myth’ dismisses dreamtime stories as primitive, but this rejection of Aboriginal vision fails to engage with the indigenous ethics of spirituality of place.

Indigenous feeling for land is at the opposite end of the political spectrum from racist claims of superiority.  The old myths have much to teach, despite the political and theological challenges of finding a balance between reverence for place and the demands of modernity.  An underlying question is how a spiritual affinity with the earth can be regained in a way that respects Christianity, while also critiquing theology that is alienated from the earth.

The clash of mythologies is a valuable research topic for sociological understanding.  People inhabit mythic paradigms[19] such as conservatism, liberalism, radicalism, science, Christian fundamentalism, popular television, ecology, Islam, etc, and construct values from within their worldview.  The result is often a partisan outlook, with people believing their own myth is true and good while opposing myths are wrong and bad.  People can find it hard to see the good in other myths –for example scientists and fundamentalists tend to lack respect for each other’s beliefs.    Some scientists don’t see any value in the social and ethical role of religion, while some religious people are fearful that empirical study of evolution and sexuality does not properly understand the basis of traditional values.

These ideas about ethics, place and mythology lead me to suggest Christianity should change its interpretation of John 14:6, where Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’.  Missionaries have used this line to make people abandon myths which gave them deep meaning and identity.  It would be better to respect traditions by recognising that wherever people find the way of truth and life, there too is Christ, and using this as a starting point for dialogue about the gospels.  Such an outlook might lead the Anglican Church to consider inviting Grafton’s Bundjalung community to paint a mural of the rainbow snake inside the cathedral as a gesture towards cultural reconciliation.  Would Aboriginal people want to do this? What sort of a debate would this start?



Robert Tulip is a friend of ASCM in Canberra.

[1] Whitehead: Symbolism : Its Meaning and Effect, 1927, p.88.

[2] Grafton Festival, Speakers included Festival Patron Howie Firth of Orkney (, Arthur Zajonc - physicist, anthroposophist and dialoguer with the Dalai Lama (, Melanie Purcell - researcher in hermetic mystery; Robert Eisenman of Dead Sea Scrolls and James fame (, and well known Australians such as Veronica Brady and Rachael Kohn.  The conference website includes a paper I gave on some themes I have written on in Jubilee Grapevine.  PSTF was covered on the ABC by Rachael Kohn at

[3] R. May, The Cry For Myth

[12] Pax Christi gives suggestions for such change in its publication Celebrating Difference

[19] cf TS Kuhn – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions