Saturday, January 08, 2011

Some Thoughts on Mythology

Myth is a vital part of the human experience. One cannot subject myth to scientific/historical fact. Those who wish to do so think science and history are superior to myth. I, however, think myth is more important than history and science, that the meaningful truths of myth are more important to human life than are the meaingless facts of science and history. I think meaning is more important than meaninglessness. That is why I respect the Bible for its meaning and wisdom without the least concern with its historcal, scientific, and mathematical inaccuracies.

However, let me give a non-Biblical (and thus less volatile) example.

In his poem "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer," John Keats says that reading Chapman's translation of Homer made him feel

"...like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific -- and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise --"

The note at the back of the book with this poem says that "Cortez was one of the first Europeans to see Mexico CIty; Keats confuses him here with Balboa, the first European to see the Pacific."

The point is not that it was either Cortez or Balboa who saw the Pacific for the first time. Here Keats clearly gets the facts wrong. If we were to subject this poem to the rigours of historical fact, we would have to disregard it. It is ironically the defenders of Biblical facticity who are its greatest enemies in this respect -- it is they who insist that the Bible does not contain truth if it is not factual in all ways, in all manners. (The enemies of the Bible, by the way, love the fact that so many Christians make this mistake.)

It ultimately does not matter that it was Balboa, not Cortez, who saw the Pacific. What matters is that we understand this feeling -- it is the truth of the sense of awe, the truth that Chapman's Homer, that reading Homer, is as great and wondrous a discovery as the Pacific Ocean.

Homer, too, presented myth. Yet Homer gives as much detail about his characters and the situations they are in as anything in the Bible (in fact, if you read Auerbach's book "Mimesis," you will see that it is much more detailed than is the Bible). Or take any good novel. Like "War and Peace". In it we learn the lineages of the families, the ages of those people and how long many of them lived. There is a lot of "unecessary" detail that helps to create the appearance of something having actually happened that way. These are more than just parables, which acknowledge up front they are morality tales. But a good novel or an epic poem is also a morality tale, among other things. Take, again, "War and Peace". In this novel we can find all sorts of historically accurate facts about the French invasion of Russia. But if we go try to learn historically accurate information about the families, we will be disappointed. The point is not the historical accuracy of the novel, but the meaningful wisdom-truth of the novel. That is the only truth that matters in myth -- not historical-scientific facts.

You cannot ever extract truth from history. All you can ever do is extract facts. History is about facts. It says how things were. It has no opinion about ethics. It has no opinion about God. Only mythological truth, not historical-scientific facts, can possibly address all the why questions, including what my prupose is, how I should live, if I am accountable to anyone for my actions, and to whom, what will happen when I die, what the future holds (questions of right and wrong may lie in both camps). These questions will evade you only if you think that truth lies in history and science. In fact, every scientist will tell you that all these questions cannot be answered by science, that science does not ask them at all. So will any historian. It is only the mythologists and those who study mythology (theologians) who even care to ask these questions, let alone answer them.

Mythology is not falsehood and deception. Those who believe it is is an enemy to mythology. Which means that you are an enemy to religion, including the Bible. You expect something from the Bible that it never intended. And when you do that, all it takes is just the smallest disproof of a fact-claim in the Bible to make one an atheist. In fact, it is precisely this attitude that has created all the atheists I have ever known. The anti-mythology attitude is and has been killing Christianity since the end of the Renaissance. And so long as people continue to have an anti-mythology attitude, it will continue to die.

Of course, the drive to mythologize can never die. It is the source of our stories, whether in poems, short stories, novels, epics, romances, plays, television, or film. We will find our truths and wisdom there, if we cannot find them anyplace else.
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