Truth of Mythic Proportions

When I originally read Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God I didn’t get it when she described myth as an alternate way of arriving at very human truths. I was still all too indoctrinated. But as I’ve studied the history of my faith, I learned a thing or too from real and actual scholars.

One of the problems I’ve had in the past with my Christian faith was myth. This is because I had always been unconsciously credulous in accepting the common wisdom that myth equals lie. And further that people who believed myths were credulous fools. Modernity is, after all, dominated by scientific (materialist?) rationalism. It made the myths of my faith occasions for scorn and even anger. Who could believe such drivel? The ancients were barbaric, backward fools! Why should we listen to anything they had to say? Even apologetic attempts to justify these myths by fundamentalists betrayed the insecurity these myths produced because of their lack of rationality and adherence to scientific truth. And so the indoctrination went.

Well, no longer.

When I originally read Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God I didn’t get it. She described myth as an alternate way of arriving at very human truths, but I was still all too indoctrinated to fully accept this. However as time wore on, I read up on the history and anthropology of my faith, I learned a thing or too from real and actual scholars. Not people with agendas and ideology whose first master is propaganda, truth they could own, rather than the facts which are owned by no one. I now believe myth with integrity because I learned that myths aren’t lies they are metaphors. They are stories whose purpose is to convey truths which are ineffable. A difficult task indeed but one not wholly alien to us. We all recognize and accept the use of “poetic license” when watching a “docudrama” that tells the truth of the story while violating certain facts of that story. We still believe it.

So when Armstrong explains mythos and logos for the second time, it was far clearer to me.

We tend to assume that the people of the past were (more or less) like us, but in fact their spiritual lives were rather different. In particular, they evolved two ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge, which scholars have called mythos and logos. Both were essential; they were regarded as complementary ways of arriving at truth, and each had its special area of competence. Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal. It was also rooted in what we would call the unconscious mind. The various mythological stories, which were not intended to be taken literally, were an ancient form of psychology. When people told stories about heroes who descended into the underworld, struggled through labyrinths, or fought with monsters, they were bringing to light the obscure regions of the subconscious realm, which is not accessible to purely rational investigation, but which has a profound effect upon our experience and behavior. Because of the dearth of myth in our modern society, we have had to evolve the science of psychoanalysis to help us to deal with our inner world.

Myth could not be demonstrated by rational proof; its insights were more intuitive, similar to those of art, music, poetry, or sculpture. Myth only became a reality when it was embodied in cult, rituals, and ceremonies which worked aesthetically upon worshippers, evoking within them a sense of sacred significance and enabling them to apprehend the deeper currents of existence. Myth and cult were so inseparable that it is a matter of scholarly debate which came first: the mythical narrative or the rituals attached to it. Myth was also associated with mysticism, the descent into the psyche by means of structured disciplines of focus and concentration which have been evolved in all cultures as a means of acquiring intuitive insight. Without a cult or mystical practice, the myths of religion would make no sense. They would remain abstract and seem incredible, in rather the same way as a musical score remains opaque to most of us and needs to be interpreted instrumentally before we can appreciate its beauty. In the premodern world, people had a different view of history. They were less interested than we are in what actually happened, but more concerned with the meaning of an event. Historical incidents were not seen as unique occurrences, set in a far-off time, but were thought to be external manifestations of constant, timeless realities. Hence history would tend to repeat itself, because there was nothing new under the sun. Historical narratives tried to bring out this eternal dimension. Thus, we do not know what really occurred when the ancient Israelites escaped from Egypt and passed through the Sea of Reeds. The story has been deliberately written as a myth, and linked with other stories about rites of passage, immersion in the deep, and gods splitting a sea in two to create a new reality. Jews experience this myth every year in the rituals of the Passover Seder, which brings this strange story into their own lives and helps them to make it their own.

Armstrong, Karen (2011-08-10). The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism (Kindle Locations 250-277). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

And so it goes. Now the myths of my faith are an important part of my life because of the meaning they give to it. I make them real by living out their meaning, their truth in my life. And really that’s precisely what they were always meant to do.

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