Fairy tales as a method of divine communication

Albert Einstein is credited with having said: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”  Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?

I agree with Einstein’s statement because, when considered at their most fundamental level, fairy tales[1] are the principal way that we interact with and give meaning to our world as human beings. They are also very likely are also the primary means by which God chooses to communicate with us. Thus, as one becomes more familiar with fairy tales, including their origins, nature, and common themes, the more intelligence[2] he or she acquires.

We humans love our fairy tales. In fact, “Literary Darwinists” have argued that human beings are drawn to fairy tales, as well as broader narratives of story and myth, because they provided an evolutionary advantage to our distant ancestors.[3] As a means to convey information from one person to another (say, about which foods are safe to eat or how to avoid dangerous pitfalls along a journey), stories proved to be more effective than lists of information because our brains are hardwired to more readily remember the details of the former but not the latter. Thus, those who were more effective story-tellers and story-hearers in the distant past were also more likely to remember the important information conveyed in the story, allowing them to avoid dangers and survive to pass along their genes to the next generation. Through natural selection and evolution, then, humans became master story-tellers and story-hearers.

Taking this a step further, Israeli historian Yuval Harari has recently argued that the uniquely human capacity to create and share fairy tales (he uses the word “myths”) not only helped our ancestors evolve through natural selection, but that fairy tales are also what enabled us to coordinate collective action, build civilizations, and advance in knowledge over the past 10,000 years.[4] Drawing on the fields of anthropology and evolutionary psychology, he argues that fairy tales, “enabled us to imagine things collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. And it is these myths that enable Sapiens alone to cooperate flexibly with thousands and even millions of complete strangers.”[5] This happens, he explains, because when different humans believe the same myth, they are able to coordinate their efforts to achieve common goals even though they may have never met each other before. A shared story of reality creates a common community of trust that facilitates effective collective action and thus higher rates of survival.

In the twentieth century, postmodern philosophers began in earnest to discover the power of fairy tales, which they called “discourses.” By analyzing the patterns found in our stories, words, and ideas through a process called “critical discourse analysis,”[6] they identified the common qualitative feature of fairy tales: they organize ideas of power into hierarchies that then influence human behavior and shape the structures of communities, nations, and civilizations.[7] Not only are there political fairy tales (democracy, authority, liberalism, divine right to rule, social justice, conservatism, etc.) they argue, but also economic fairy tales (capitalism, “rugged individualism,” communism, etc.), social fairy tales (patriarchy, heteronormativity, intersectionality, societal tribalism, etc.) and yes, religious fairy tales (Noah’s ark, free will, substitutionary atonement, “Heavenly Father,” sin, etc.). These are but some of the many fairy tales that have shaped the direction of human evolution and the development of human civilization over the last several millennia.

Among the various forms of communication available, why would God choose fairy tales as the primary means to convey information, moral truths, love, and divine presence to us humans? Many theologians, philosophers, and scientists have argued that God is in some ways congruent with,rather than the creator of, the universe and its natural laws. Whether it be the emergent God of Nancy Ellen Abrams,[8] the Omega Point of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,[9] the Emergent Christ of Ilia Delio,[10] the Cosmic Christ of Matthew Fox[11] or the Universal Christ of Richard Rohr,[12] these theologians posit a God who works within the natural world, along with its structures, laws, and physics, to bring about God’s ends and manifest God’s presence in the universe.

The physical laws that govern the interaction of matter structure the interactions of neurons in human brains which enable our conscious perception and understanding. Whatever the ultimate nature of human consciousness and its relationship with the brain,[13] the interactions of our neurons influence how we perceive reality.[14]

Assuredly God understands the structuring role that fairy tales play in the neurophysiological interactions that create human motivation, memory, action, and emotion. It is not unreasonable to conclude, then, that God chooses to work through these culturally-contingent fairy tales because they are the most effective way to convey God’s truths, presence, and love to us given the realities and limitations of human neurophysiology and behavior. Indeed, perhaps fairy tales are a manifestation of the Incarnation in the “fleshy tables” of our brains (2 Corinthians 3:3, KJV). Using the words of Paul, God might even say: “I am speaking [to you] in human terms because of your natural limitations” (Romans 6:19, NRSV).

While some may dismiss these fairy tales as “mere fiction,” they instead contain the key to understanding profound metaphorical truths about the nature of human experience, including the truths that God desires to convey to us. They are a primary avenue through which God communicates God’s love and presence to us.

Albert Einstein argued that we should read fairy tales to our children so that they become intelligent. For the reasons explained in this essay I believe that the same also applies to ministers of the gospel: we should teach as many fairy tales as possible. This is because doing so will better enable those we serve to more accurately perceive, through the rich Incarnations of metaphorical narratives, the nature of the cosmos, their place in it, and God’s infinite presence and love for them.

Essay written to accompany a seminary admissions application, spring 2019.

[1] For the purposes of this essay, I define “fairy tales” as narrative sequences that present metaphorical depictions of aspects of the human experience in a way that organizes concepts into an effective framework through which humans interpret and give meaning to their lives. The exact figures and tropes in these fairy tales are drawn from their cultural and historical context.

[2] For the purposes of this essay, I define “intelligence” as the capacity to accurately perceive the nature of the world, cosmos, and reality as well as one’s place in it.

[3] See “The Literary Darwinists” by D. T. Max, The New York Times, November 6, 2005: https://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/06/magazine/the-literary-darwinists.html. See also Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice by Joseph Carroll (SUNY Press, 2011).

[4] See Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari (Harper Press, 2015).

[5] From “Power and Imagination” by Yuval Harari, 2017: https://www.ynharari.com/topic/power-and-imagination/.

[6] See Principles of Critical Discourse Analysis by Teun A. van Dijk, Discourse and Society 4(2): 249-283.

[7] See Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 by Michel Foucault, edited by Colin Gordon (Vintage Press, 1980).

[8] A God That Could be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet by Nancy Ellen Abrams (Beacon Press, 2016).

[9] The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008).

[10] The Emergent Christ: Exploring the Meaning of Catholic in an Evolutionary Universe by Ilia Delio (Orbis Books, 2011).

[11] The Coming of the Cosmic Christ: The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance by Matthew Fox (HarperOne Publishers, 1988).

[12] The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe by Richard Rohr (Convergent Books, 2019).

[13] See The New Science of Consciousness: Exploring the Complexity of Brain, Mind, and Self by Paul L. Nunez (Prometheus Books, 2016) for an overview.

[14] Some would even go so far as to say that these interactions “determine” how we perceive reality. See, for example, “Neurophysiology and the Problem of Human Free Will: A Case of “Nihil Sub Sole Novum”?” by Heinrich Weßling, Medicine Studies 4(1-4): 37-51, for an overview.

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