Got Mythos?

My partner Sally and I spent this past weekend at a “Yoga and Wellness” camp up at the Unitarian-Universalist deBenneville Pines camp in the San Bernardino Mountains about two hours east of our home in Los Angeles. There were some 80 people in attendance, 90 percent women, and mostly all white and (I’m guessing) between 30 and 70 in age. I attended a number of yoga workshops (stretching my body in all sorts of wonderful ways) and also learned some Tai Chi (new for me) and did a labyrinth walk led by a self-described Buddhist. And during the times when I wasn’t doing my workshops, eating meals, sleeping, or talking with the other interesting people attending, I started reading Karen Armstrong’s new book, The Case for God. The introduction of the book included her thoughts on our culture and its obsession with “logos” and disrespect for “mythos”.

Sitting in my cabin in the midst of the beautiful big pine trees, after the day’s activities had played out, I read these bits from Armstrong’s provocative introduction…

In most premodern cultures, there were two recognized ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them “mythos” and “logos”… Each had its own sphere of competence, and it was considered unwise to mix the two… Logos (“reason”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world… But it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles. For that people turned to mythos or “myth”.

In her first chapter, “Homo Religosus”, Armstrong puts forward her portrait of the very ancient world (before any of the religions we know of today existed) and the critical role that myth played in people’s lives. Her contention is that people used language and reason (logos) to communicate the everyday information needed for survival – how to hunt, what to gather, how to take care of children, etc.

But as to the “why” and other metaphysical questions of life – why it was okay to kill other creatures for food that were not all that different from humans, why it was important to be kind to others, why bad things happened to good people, why life was such a struggle, how a young person became an adult – logos could not provide useful answers. These questions required myths and legends built on a ritual practice that generally went beyond mere words and knowledge that was attainable through the senses.

The development of religion as an essential part of being human, according to Armstrong, did not involve doctrines or principles composed of mere words. It involved rituals and other practices, that when undertaken in the appropriate context, led to individual discovery and insight on the deeper “why” and other metaphysical questions of life.

By coincidence (if not synchronicity at least for me reading this at a yoga retreat) Armstrong uses the ancient discipline of yoga as an example of ritual practice toward a calm mind that can perceive knowledge beyond the realm of the senses. In the Wikipedia entry on the word “yoga” it says…

The Sanskrit word yoga has many meanings, and is derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj”, meaning “to control”, “to yoke” or “to unite”. Translations include “joining”, “uniting”, “union”, “conjunction”, and “means”. It is also possible that the word yoga derives from “yujir samadhau,” which means “contemplation” or “absorption.” This translation fits better with the dualist Raja Yoga because it is through contemplation that discrimination between prakrti (nature) and purusha (pure consciousness) occurs.

After a ninety-minute yoga session (of gentle stretching and thoughtful breathing) I would be lying on my mat on the floor of the camp lodge in the “corpse pose”, my shoulders, hips and back returned to a proper alignment, my chest open to a full breath (of that much cleaner mountain air). My mind would be blank (for at least a little while) and I would be in a state that I could only begin to describe using the word “bliss”, but something really much more nuanced than that.

And the last evening of the retreat we all gathered in the lodge for a drumming circle and a sort of call and response chanting and singing know as “Kirtan”. Again, in the midst of the rhythms that we were all contributing to (with the array of drums they made available to everybody) or amidst the sound of sixty voices in unison responding to the call of the person leading, I felt a profound sense of some sort of “truth” well beyond what any words could fully describe. A connection between all of us in attendance that felt like it was also between everybody else as well.

So was that perhaps at least a more visceral glimpse at the religious “practice” that Armstrong was talking about in the ancient world? Something she attempts to write about with mere words on a printed page? What the great religious thinkers of the ancient world, like Buddha and Confucius, often described as a profound “nothing” beyond all the muggle somethings of the world.

As Armstrong says…

Religious discourse was not intended to be understood literally because it was only possible to speak about a reality that transcended language in symbolic terms.

That makes sense to me, even though I, like Buddha and Confucius (who are way beyond my league), do not “believe” in deities that “exist” in some form. They intuited a deeper level that did not “exist” in any precise sense of that word, but could be intuited by others by following certain disciplines of thought and action (like going beyond ego or practicing the Golden Rule).

Teasing it in her introduction (and detailed in chapters I have yet to read) Armstrong goes on to posit that starting with the beginnings of the “Modern Era” in the 16th Century, the Western world moved away from myth and ritual religious practice toward a hyper focus on logos (rational thought) as the only legitimate source of truth about the world. Some began to believe that science alone could answer all the most profound questions of the world.

In the process, the metaphorical legends and other stories (never intended to be taken literally according to Armstrong) that could give people a metaphorical context for wrestling with profound dualities and contradictions (not just things that we did not know yet), were discredited. The definition of the word “myth” became simply “something that is believed but is not really true”.

Armstrong believes that most Western religions got caught up in this obsession with logos, and in order to try and stay relevant, reframed their sacred texts, including the Bible and the Koran, as literal truth (logos) rather than metaphorical stories (mythos) meant to suggest insights on the human condition.

Certainly science has advanced to the point of explaining so many things, including where babies come from, that germs are involved in making us ill, what causes earthquakes, and that the processes of natural selection can reasonably explain the development and diversity of life on our planet. And maybe science will eventually explain many of the mechanisms of how “consciousness” inhabits (or seems to inhabit) a human body or how people can perceive things beyond their five senses.

But why bad things happen to good people, can “logos” have an answer beyond the fact that it is completely random. Most people don’t want to go on living unless life has some meaning beyond survival and even beyond simple pleasures of good food, drink, sex and company.

I consider myself a humanist who believes Albert Schweitzer’s famous quote, “There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed.” But I believe that more strongly after sitting in the deBenneville Pines lodge two nights ago in as state of great relaxation and inner tranquility hearing the combined voices of sixty human souls (including my own) all unique but choosing for that moment to act as one.

Our country has a great principle of separation of Church and State, which acknowledges a role for both. How about agreeing as well on some sort of principle of the separation of logos and mythos, and acknowledging the value of both as well? If religion stayed in what Armstrong describes as its original realm of a vibrant and non-discredited mythos, would people be expressing so much hate and acting with such violence in the name of religious “truth”.

3 replies on “Got Mythos?”

  1. I think Armstrong has hit it on the head when she asks “that if religion stayed in it’s original realm of a vibrant and non-discredited myothos, would people be expressing so much hate……in the name of religious ‘truth’ ” I hope there is a time when the sorry record of one religious groups interpretation of what is the “truth” is not used against the others.

    blanche rosloff

  2. Blanche… I think to get to where Armstrong would like to see us get to, we need a complete separation of religion from secular power, particularly power exercised “over” people in the form of control. That leads to one religion singled out as being the best that is practiced by “us” while people who practice “lesser” religions are labeled as “them”. It leads to a moralistic hierarchy of religious practice that sorts out winners and losers.

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