Sunday, August 14, 2005

True Lies

I attended a worship service at my parents' church this weekend. And I was struck anew by certain aspects of the service:  symbolic acts and references to seminal events in Christian history. Actually, what struck me was the solemn stillness of the congregation. The words and rituals possess great meaning for those folks.

If you're a sceptic, I hope you don't hurry away to the next blog on your blogroll. My parents' church is liberal in its theology:  like you, they're sceptical about many of the things written in the Bible. Nonetheless, the Christian faith still acts as a focal point for them and provides meaning that might otherwise be missing from their lives.

How can this be? How can someone doubt the accuracy of the biblical text, and yet derive meaning from it? It's a bit like that movie, True Lies. Only, in this case, it would be better to speak of True Myths.

When we hear the word "myth", we quickly think "not factual" and then "false". But maybe this chain of associations is too facile. Perhaps a myth can be not factual and yet true.

Allow me to illustrate the point with an example that would offend many Christians:  a sculpture of a female Jesus, naked on the cross. It wouldn't be historically accurate, but perhaps it could still express truth. Here's a charitably sympathetic interpretation from a Salvation Army web site:
There once was a sculpture exhibited in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York, which depicts Jesus, naked, on the cross. Not terribly original, except for the fact that Jesus is here portrayed as a woman.


This work of art has been labelled both pornographic and blasphemous, a desecration to the image of Christ. It is a shocking piece of art, there is no question, and offensive to many. …

We can also find paintings depicting Jesus as a black man, as an Asian, as a Native American, and as any other number of races and body types. We generally do not find those images to be blasphemous, but rather representative of the fact that Christ identifies with all people at all times. But Christ as a woman? For many this seems a step too far.

Is sculpting Jesus as a woman simply an extremist feminist statement? Possibly. But there may be other ways to look at it. The birth, life, and death of Jesus should be seen in the light of God’s radical and total identification with humanity. All of humanity. Jesus does not belong exclusively to any particular sub-section of the human race.

So perhaps this artist was merely taking seriously the claim that 'in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.' Perhaps she was trying to wake people up to the fact that Christ’s identification with humanity — women included — should very much impact the way women are viewed and treated in the world today.

When God took on human flesh it made false for all time the idea that the human body should be despised, used, abused, or objectified.
In this case, "not factual" does not necessarily mean "false". A work of art can be unhistorical and yet meaningful.

The same may be true of religious rituals. For example, the church service I attended included two baptisms. The minister began that portion of the service by praying, "Bless this water, O Lord, that it may become an instrument of your grace."

Was the water changed by the prayer? No doubt its chemical composition was the same:  it consisted of two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen. But was the water spiritually different after the prayer? What could this phrase, spiritually different water, possibly mean?

Here we are in the realm of faith and myth. Consider this analysis of the subject from a book by Karen Armstrong:
The people of the past 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.

Myth could not be demonstrated by rational proof; its insights were more intuitive, similar to those of art, music, poetry, or sculpture. …

Logos was equally important. Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world. We may have lost the sense of mythos in the West today, but we are very familiar with logos, which is the basis of our society. Unlike myth, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external realities if it is to be effective. It must work efficiently in the mundane world. …

In the premodern world, both mythos and logos were regarded as indispensable. Each would be impoverished without the other. Yet the two were essentially distinct, and it was held to be dangerous to confuse mythical and rational discourse. …

You were not supposed to make mythos the basis of a pragmatic policy. If you did, the results could be disastrous, because what worked well in the inner world of the psyche was not readily applicable to the affairs of the external world. …

Logos had its limitations too. It could not assuage human pain or sorrow. Rational arguments could make no sense of tragedy. Logos could not answer questions about the ultimate value of human life. A scientist could make things work more efficiently and discover wonderful new facts about the physical universe, but he could not explain the meaning of life. That was the preserve of myth and cult.
Some of you know that I am a Christian but liberal in my beliefs. In my opinion, Armstrong's analysis is insightful.

I know meaning can be found elsewhere. Snaars and I have discussed this subject as part of a larger dialogue on whether God exists. Even though he is an atheist, Snaars affirms that human existence has meaning; he is able to find meaning in philosophy.

Thus I do not insist that meaning can be found only in mythos. But I wonder whether my readers can follow me even so far as to agree with my thesis:  i.e., that a myth can be not factual and yet true.

Over to you. Yes or no; why or why not?


At 10:56 PM, August 14, 2005, Blogger Mary P. said...

Yes, something can be not factual and yet true, in the same way as it is possible to be entirely factual and yet dishonest. Facts and truth are not synonymous.

Myths have always been ways of expressing truths that defy facts. It is their appeal.

At 10:57 PM, August 14, 2005, Blogger Mary P. said...

Or perhaps, more accurately, myths express truths that go beyond, or can't be encompassed neatly, by mere facts.

At 11:22 AM, August 15, 2005, Blogger The Misanthrope said...

There is usually a kernel or basis of truth in most false things otherwise they would not be believed in the first place. Then the truth is manipulated to communicate whatever groups’ own propagandized message. I definitely agree with you that there is some truth in many myths.

At 11:44 AM, August 15, 2005, Blogger 49erDweet said...

Well said. Insightful exegesis of "myth".
In your view what part does "faith" play in this analysis, (unless. of course. it is being manipulated by those being referred to by the misanthrope)?

At 12:38 PM, August 15, 2005, Blogger Haley said...

I don't suppose you have read Natural Symbols by Mary Douglas? In it she introduces a distinction between rituals as we commenly think of them, and what she refers to as "ritualized ritual". She says that we so often focus on the fact that these things are ritualized that we lose the value of the actual event. One of the key principles of her book is that these acts and sayings can be true to the people who do and say them, without having any real basis in fact. She also argues for a change in terminology that would allow us to talk about ritual and myth without the connotations that distract us from the underlying meaning of the event.

I'd highly recommend reading it; I think it's something that you'd really enjoy.

At 3:23 PM, August 15, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Mary P.:
myths express truths that go beyond, or can't be encompassed neatly, by mere facts.

Well said. One of the basic premises of monotheists is that God is beyond human comprehension. Whatever language we may devise in order to express our theological convictions, language is ultimately inadequate to describe God. Myths and rituals are also inadequate, but they are another tool in our endeavor to communicate, however imperfectly, something of God's majesty and glory.

I agree with your point about propaganda. I occasionally visit Christian blogs and give them a hard time on the same sex marriage issue (e.g., see the comments I posted here).

Too often, the Church stands against something rather than for something. That's the worst kind of propaganda: sowing condemnation and guilt. The Gospel is supposed to be good news, but you'd rarely guess it from the Church's proclamation. (Though perhaps I'm being unduly cynical here.)

what part does "faith" play in this analysis?

Faith and myth go hand in hand.

One of the things that interests me about Armstrong's analysis is her conviction that pre-modern people knew perfectly well that myths were not to be taken literally. I'm not convinced she's right, because even today, in a culture which is thoroughly dominated by science and logic, many believers take myths literally.

But the idea is sound. Myths point us in the general direction of ineffable realities. Our faith should be placed in the reality beyond the myth, not in the myth itself.

We so often focus on the fact that these things are ritualized that we lose the value of the actual event.

You've identified one of the negative aspects of ritual. During the few years that I was the pastor of a church, I was always bothered by people who appeared to be totally unreflective as they celebrated the Lord's Supper. To this day, I'm still ambivalent about it because I'm never confident that my own state of mind is sufficiently exalted for the occasion!

I'm not familiar with the book, but thanks for the recommendation. This is not an area of expertise for me — you could probably teach me quite a bit.

At 11:13 AM, August 16, 2005, Blogger snaars said...

One of the things that interests me about Armstrong's analysis is her conviction that pre-modern people knew perfectly well that myths were not to be taken literally.

I suspect that the first tellers knew that the myths were not historically accurate (or else their concept of "historical accuracy" was quite vague, and they saw no reason to adhere to it). As you say, it's not clear that the listeners understood that the myths were not the literal truth, and later generations certainly came to see them as the literal truth.

Myths definitely can impart meaning without being literally true. The book of Genesis, for instance, was not written as a science textbook (as so many people want to read it today) - it was written to describe a purported relationship between God and the creation, especially that part of the creation that is humanity. Many thoughtful people read it today with this meaning in mind, and find it deeply moving and meaningful.

I don't deny that these stories operate on more than one level. We shouldn't dismiss the deeper meanings out-of-hand. But I have to question whether these deeper meanings are any more true than the surface meanings. That we are able to separate falsities from the myth and have meanings left over, doesn't indicate that what we salvage is necessarily true.

Myths are worthy of very serious study, just as later works of fiction are worthy. But I believe the ineffable truths they reveal are about ourselves primarily, and perhaps totally.

At 4:38 PM, August 16, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Elsewhere you've written,
I hope that the best human values will survive in an impersonal, uncertain universe. … One of my hopes is that we can reach some agreement as to what those values are, even if we cannot agree about where they come from.

You and I agree that God has not provided a direct, verbal revelation of her nature and her will to us. Many believers assert that the Bible is precisely that, but you and I think otherwise.

You say there is no God; presumably you believe the Bible (and the scriptures of other religions) are 100% human in origin. I believe there is a God, and that the authors of scripture may have experienced limited divine inspiration, so that the Bible is (in places) the product of mixed divine/human initiative.

Per the quote at the top of this comment, you agree with me in hoping there are values which transcend the selfish will of any human individual.

So I don't know why you would say, I believe the ineffable truths [myths] reveal are about ourselves primarily, and perhaps totally.

You reject the notion of divine inspiration; but why couldn't such myths embody an intuitive insight into the transcendent values you and I both believe in?

At 6:32 PM, August 16, 2005, Blogger snaars said...

They absolutely could embody intuitive insight into transcendant values! (Still uncomfortable with that word, transcendant, though.) Sorry, I didn't mean to leave the impression that they didn't. I think that some of the greatest leaps of moral understanding in human history have been expressed by myths. That's one of many reasons that myths should be preserved and studied.

At the same time, I think that many of the moral lessons contained in mythology are mistaken. The very best reason to preserve mythology, in my opinion, is to understand the historical progression of human thought - and moral thought in particular. That is what I had in mind when I wrote that the myths reveal truths about ourselves. They contain insights into how people have thought about morality. Sometimes it seems the myth-tellers got it right, and sometimes they didn't. Some of the most interesting myths are the ones whose puzzles we have still not unravelled.

The subject of how people think about morality seems to me to be slightly removed from the subject of morality, itself. If I am right, and morality is more than just what people think about morality, then the two subjects overlap but they are not the same.

I see beauty in the human struggle to find truth. I value the myths as a record of that voyage of discovery.

I believe that human intuitions are often true. As individuals, we must trust our intuitions a good bit of the time. I just don't think they're guaranteed to be true.

It could very well be that human intuition is capable of reaching some truth that reason alone has not, or cannot. This way of looking at faith makes sense to me. On the other hand, I think that if faith blatantly contradicts careful reasoning, then that is an awkward predicament, and I am more likely than not to trust careful reasoning over intuition.

I don't know if I have mentioned this here or on my own blog, but I do not rule out the existence of a personal deity - the universe is too big and strange a place for me to say that with certainty. So, I do not begrudge anyone their faith, or their intuitions, or whatever you are comfortable calling it.

I guess I just wanted to add a cautionary note to the conversation, that's all.


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