Short History of Myth III: Living without it

Continuing from post 1 and post 2 reflecting on Karen Armstrong's A Short History of Myth:

Living Without Myth Today

Pages 132-134:
Crusaders such as Thomas H. Huxley believed... people must choose between mythology and rational science, and there could be no compromise. Reason alone was truthful and the myths of religion truthless. But truth had been narrowed down to what was 'demonstrated and demonstrable', which, religion aside, would exclude the truths told by art or music. By treating myth as though it were rational, modern scientists, critics and philosophers made it incredible....

Mythical thinking and practice had helped people to face the prospect of extinction and nothingness, and to come through it with a degree of acceptance. Without this discipline, it has been difficult for many to avoid despair....

Logos [eg logic, not the Logos of the Fourth Gospel!] has in many ways transformed our lives for the better, but this has not been an unmitigated triumph. Our demythologised world is very comfortable for many of us who are fortunate enough to live in first-world countries, but it is not the earthly paradise predicted by Bacon and Locke.... Other societies saw death as a transition to other modes of being.... In no other culture would anybody settle down in the middle of a rite of passage or an initiation, with the horror unresolved. But this is what we have to do in the absence of a viable mythology....

We still long to 'get beyond' our immediate circumstances, and to enter a 'full time', a more intense, fulfilling existence. We try to enter this dimension by means of art, rock music, drugs, or by entering the larger-than-life perspective of film. We still seek heroes [eg Elvis, Diana].
The myth of the hero was not intended to provide us with icons to admire, but was designed to tap into the vein of heroism within ourselves.

We must disabuse ourselves of the nineteenth-century fallacy that myth is false or that it represents an inferior mode of thought. We cannot completely recreate ourselves, cancel out the rational bias of our education, and return to a pre-modern sensibility. But we can acquire a more educated attitude to myth....
So much for the quotes. I have a thought and then a pile of queries.

Thought: It would be a useful and helpful project to elucidate the myths we are wrapped up in ourselves today. Perhaps we can frame it as an analysis of the "powers and principalities" of U.S. sociopoliticocultural life today. I can think of a few concepts to start with, but it would be interesting to know what "idols" are all around us and we don't even notice them:
  • Celebrity and sports star worship
  • Money and consumerism
  • Technology worship
  • Individualism
  • Four American Archetypal Stories: "Up by the bootstraps," "Mob at the gates," "Barnraising," and "Rot at the top" (as identified by Robert Reich)
  • Democratic republicanism/Capitalism/[fill in blank] as the best of all possible systems
  • etc. etc.
Pile of Queries:
What does it mean to live without the myths of the past to fall back on? Whether we are theists or not, we are embedded in the social, economic, spiritual, and political culture of our times, whether we are consciously aware and resistant of those powers and principalities or not.

What does it mean to take up the cross of faith even in a faithless world? Or, what does it mean to hold fast to the truths of love and solidarity even absent a sense of a larger power binding you together?

Are you fervently, religiously devout but oblivious to suffering around you? Are you intellectual, rational, and utterly selfish?

Are you a determined atheist who wins friends and influences people through the openness and many kind gestures you offer to the rich and poor alike? Did you sell all you have to follow Jesus and move to the Kibera slum in Nigeria and offer counsel to the orphans and street children there?

How do you "tap into the vein of heroism" within yourself?

Has your practice made you more loving and kind toward yourself, toward other people, toward the natural world?

In the end, it's the "fruit" that is the measure of the harvest.
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So that's all for now. Pick one question above and write about it if you can...


RichardM said...


You invited me to comment on #2 of this series but I'll post here instead.

I think the traditional Quaker insistence on truth means that I shouldn't believe something unless I really think it's true. You are right to think that there is a kind of new orthodoxy which assumes that the truth is that the world is nothing but atoms and the void, that all our experiences are just functions of the brain and that hence there are no miracles, no afterlife, no redemption of suffering, no God, etc. Some Friends buy this and want to keep the language of God, Jesus, soul, etc. but it treat it merely as comforting falsehood--as a kind of teddy bear or security blankey for adults. Or perhaps because they kind of like people who have these old-fashioned ideas and want to express solidarity with them by talking God-talk even though they think it is literally false.

What makes me as a philosopher shake my head about all this is knowing how weak the arguments are for this depressing materialist world view. As a matter of plain fact Dennett, Sagan, Wilson and company are shooting blanks. The arguments for materialism prove nothing. But they put up such a confident front that they bluff people into thinking that their arguments are overpowering and the only way to believe in God is make some irrational leap of faith.

Should we live without false beliefs? Absolutely. Does this mean giving up traditional theism? Absolutely not.

Chris M. said...

Richard: Thanks for wading through the series to offer your thoughts. I will say that a part of me holds out hope for the panentheistic solution, if I remember it correctly: God is both immanent -- present in the natural world in a way totally consistent with "the natural" -- and transcendant, occupying some other dimension that transcends our perceptions. (Perhaps in one to seven of the eleven dimensions found in string theory?)

-- Chris M.

RichardM said...


To hold that God is both transcendent and immanent is certainly a very traditional Christian view. But it is so abstract that it gets dangerously close to being a "notion." That is to say, the connection of these words with actual experience is too thin. I don't have an experience of a transcendent God, so I'm in no position to affirm or deny his existence.

This Quaker tradition of avoiding notions and not speaking further than our experience shows why it is pointless to argue about theology. If someone does not have the experience of God, then I can't talk them into it. At best I can urge them to be patient and wait for it. I do believe that God will not leave them orphaned and refuse to speak to them. But I don't see why someone should believe me when I tell them this. To me addressing "that of God" in them just means speaking to that part of them--often an unconscious part--that does believe what I'm saying. It is encouraging that part and gently ignoring the disbelieving part of them.

Nancy A said...

I've been thinking a lot about the absence of myth in modern protestant religion too. Modernism became obsessed with rationality and reason, and myth, ritual, and symbol didn't fit into that worldview. So it got tossed out.

Protestantism is a religion that resides entirely in a person's head. There is nothing in the hands, feet, emotions, senses, fantasies, irrationalities in it. Quakerism belongs in this category as the ultimate "in your head" religion.

It's as if protestantism chose to worship the human brain at the expense of every other part of being human. Only brain activities were holy. Only brain activities could "save" you.

So, as you point out, those myths that got chucked out merely attached themselves to other aspects of common life.

But we have to be carefully to distinguish between myth as a synonym for a false truth and myth as a story with transcendent qualities. We use the same word for both, but they are not the same concept at all. To say that claims that capitalism is superior to other forms of govt is a myth means the first sense (we can just call them lies); to say that monetary policy and neoliberal economics can transform the world into a better place for all is a myth in the second sense.

Fundamentalist protestants find themselves backed into theological corners, because they want to "prove" that things are "true" (meaning: facts). Their head-orientation makes them want to keep everything in their heads. Yet the "myth" that they subscribe to is not one that could ever be proved. They haven't accepted that truths don't need to be facts.

By expanding our idea of religion to embrace the nonlogical, nonrational, non-head aspects of life, we can embrace both science and wonder, thought and experience.

Nice posts.

Chris M. said...

Richard: I'd have to say you caught me out on "panentheistic." That's a pretty heady, notional word. Yet it seems true to my experience... I'll have to think about that and write some posts some day.

Nancy: Mm-hm, that's it exactly: science and wonder, thought and experience. Thank you.

-- Chris M.