Wednesday, January 18, 2006


Mythos and Logos

One of my very favorite writers is Karen Armstrong. Her book, A History of God, is a classic, and no doubt one I will read again; it isn’t a book you can absorb with just one reading.

One of the main points that Karen Armstrong makes over and over again in A History of God and her other books about religion, is the difference between mythos and logos. I’ve ended up exploring these ideas in the novel I am working on now, because I think the idea is so important and powerful.

Briefly: mythos is everything that is sacred. It is the intuitive, spiritual side of life and can only be expressed and experienced through ritual, meditation and art. Mythos anchored the ancient people and gave them a way to express joy, sadness and pain. But it didn’t try to explain the world literally, only how we are meant to perceive it.

Logos is everything that is causal and rational. You can think of grammar, science and analysis as coming from the world of logos. Any time you stop to smell the flowers, you are experiencing a moment in mythos. When you make shopping list, you are engaging logos.

Armstrong tells us that terrible things happen when mythos and logos are conflated, and indeed we see that now in our own world. The origin of the universe, for example, is the realm of logos not mythos, and yet there are people who want to find a “religious” explanation for everything. Any other approach to life is heretical. Similarly, there are those who want to find an explanation for all human experience through logos; anything else is sissy, anti-intellectual and deluded.

I tend to side with Armstrong. I will offer my humble opinion that the truth about “explaining everything” is far more complex than simply rejecting science or rejecting religion (or spirituality or whatever you want to call it to make the argument make sense to you). I can’t really think of an example in life where a complete disavowal of anything is ever an answer to a problem, though we would very much like it to be.

A professor of mine once argued that Aristotle’s Ethics was the most boring of Aristotle’s works because Aristotle said that we should all strive to live moderately. This professor said that “moderation” is a boring approach to life and that it is the extremes that are the most exciting. I can see his point. But I actually think that nothing is more challenging than trying to hold contradictions in your mind, or than picking through a difficult situation and weigh the conflicting pieces of information and emotion that come flying to us day after day gas we decide how to act. This is far more complex and subtle than simply choosing one, intolerant approach to living, come hell or high water.

This, I think, is what it means to live consciously with the difference between mythos and logos. For the record, I certainly don't hold myself up as an example of someone who has managed to do this!

Did you dig the other day that the ex cathedra word from the Vatican? They essentially said that logos and mythos were not to be conflated in discussions where pure science conducted its work. The fundi Catholics pushing for "intelligent design" to be taught in U.S. schools were simply out of line with official Catholic teaching. Excellent news - they even went so far as to say that evolution posed no threat whatsoever to theological discussions of meaning. As long as the scientists stick to science, the Vatican said, "all good - just let us handle the value issues & we're cool".

We can live in an intelligent and meaningful world. We just have to have intelligent and meaningful people in leadership positions.
Hey, I missed that the Vatican said this, but I think it is fantastic. It would be a good thing for people to realize that fundamentalism exists in all branches of religion, and that the founders of the big monotheistic 3 didn't mean to try to take over how the world was run, but rather to speak in a humane way to how we perceive life and should treat each other. Thanks for this intelligent post!
The article ws out January 19 under the headline, "In 'Design' vs. Darwinism, Darwin Wins Point in Rome". (I'd send you the link, but I am lucke to be web savvy enough to post this reply.)

As far as the intention of the "founders" are concerned, I suspect that attempted world domination through ideas may indeed have been at the core of their activities. Be that as it might, there are energies that pull us in both directons - toward a more unified and evolved integration of our universal soul and toward utter self-annihilation. These energies are in play all the time and turn everything humans do one way or another - or both ways. It is this duality within ourselves that we must both overcome and accept at the same time. Freakish but true. It is much easier to demonize others and point others out as the cause of our misery rather than to try to recognize, reconcile ourselves to and control our own dual nature. It is why I believe a category of "original sin" is still quite useful - because I find it eminently descriptive. (BTW, don't all parties in Japan receive traffic fines for being involved in an auto accident - even if one's car was legally parked and one was not present for the event itself?) And it points to just the kind of debate we have been referring to, whereby some scientists triy to "explain away" the numinous and some theologians try to invalidate or control the findings of hard science.

Am I still on topic?
Yes, that article I did see.

I buy that the bureaucracies which have sprung up around the world's major religions very much want to be a part of HOW things are done in cultures at a practical level. I'm less convinced that if we read the gospels or Buddha's teachings (or even Mohammed's) that we are reading the words of people who wanted to be part of government. I think we do read the thoughts, insights and emotions of great men who wanted to mitigate suffering and ensure a better future for future generations, and speak to the discovery of the sacred and self-awareness. But I am skeptical that their concerns were on the balance political.

I am sure that there is a logical connection between the traffic ticket issue and your other thoughts. If you would be so kind as to elaborate, I can comment more intelligently. Until then, I am only guessing. If you mean to include the traffic ticket incident as an example of how all of us are bound up by "original sin," then I might have to hem and haw a little bit. I don't think the Japanese view themselves as inherently "guilty" in quite the same way as those who grew up in the Judeo-Christian tradition do. Rather -- and this is putting things very, very simply -- there is a greater awareness of how a community must function. Be careful here; community and "being tied together by original sin" are two very different approaches to the world.

As for man's dual nature . . . I think it is a culturally useful way to think about the big picture, particularly in this country which, let's face it, is primarily in the Judeo Christian tradition. I have always, for example, loved Jung's idea of integration. But the more history I read, the more I feel like some old Greek, nodding and saying, "Oh, here comes hubris again. Time for some more catharsis." Etc. I never, for example, understood the phrase "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" before because I wanted to believe that there is such a thing as being a very good person for a very long time.

Now I think I know what the phrase means.

This is a roundabout way of me saying that I often find the dualistic way of looking at the world to be severe and limiting. What about mischief? What about humor? What about stoicism and endurance? Or accidents? What about spiritual leaders who actually have egos the size of Donald Trump's? I like my world to have Pan and Dionysis and Psyche in it.

I sometimes think that the pagans -- and by pagan I am referring pretty generally to animistic and polytheistic religions -- are often wiser and more forgiving than the notion that we are living on an imperfect balance beam, perpetually tilting one way or the other.
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