Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Big Enchilada

The first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.  Easter. The Big Enchilada of Christian faith and observance.  Well, the big day approaches and, as usual at this time of year, I do my "Easter Duty"--though not what good UN-collapsed Catholics mean by that expression.  What I mean when I speak of Easter Duty is, well, just sitting down, perhaps with a glass of Chardonnay, and thinking about what The Resurrection of Jesus could possibly mean.

This is, of course, big time "cognitive dissonance."  I cannot make any rational sense out of a tale of miraculous rising from the dead.  The universe as I apprehend it with my reason and five senses does NOT make exceptions to its own rules.  I cannot, therefore, acknowledge miracles as real within the framework of what humans can explain.

But I also sense--who doesn't?--that the greatest portion of "reality" is probably completely inaccessible to human reason and could never be explained with human language.

I'm fascinated by the distinction made by Karen Armstrong (in The Case for God) between logos and mythos.  Armstrong asserts that these terms designate two different means of apprehending reality.  Logos refers to knowledge we acquire using our five senses and our reason.  This knowledge can be explained in human language and discussed logically.  Mythos, on the other hand, refers to "unknowing," to a kind of intuitive, ineffable, inexplicable ecstasy that somehow involves us in transcendental reality--reality that goes beyond rational understanding.  Further, Armstrong posits that logos and mythos are not incompatible but rather complementary ways of experiencing, simultaneously, both that which is and that which is not.

In other words, Armstrong would assert that the Resurrection story is both false and true.  It is false in a literal, rational sense:  people die and they do not rise from the dead.  Our senses do not provide us with ANY scientific, objective evidence that such miraculous events occur.  But the Resurrection is true  in a mythological and metaphorical sense.  Our religious experience and practice make us aware of this truth, but there is simply no way that human language can explain what we sense as a result of our participation in the liturgy and discipline of the Easter faith.  We cannot, in fact, really talk about the "mythological" truth.  The language that we use--the language used in the Gospels--is metaphorical and completely unscientific.  It "points" but what it points to is "silence."  Armstrong calls this truth "apophatic" (wordless, irrational--or, perhaps "beyond meaning").

I suppose none of this "makes sense" to those who are accustomed to relying exclusively on logos (what can be known scientifically and rationally).  But, as Armstrong points out, the "unknowing" of mythos--a transcendent state prized in all religions--is NOT the product of any INTELLECTUAL activity.  Rather, it occurs only within and as a result of ritual practice, discipline and commitment to a way of living.  One must empty oneself and indeed lose one's selfishness within this ritual structure.  Armstrong insists--and I agree strongly--that the RITUAL life is what genuine religion is about.

The sacraments for Christians; the ritual prayer and fasts for Muslims; the "Path" for Buddhists.  The "logical" explanations for all of this are, let's face it, nonsense.  When I go to church (it still happens), I never listen to the sermons.  What logical foolishness for a priest--or a religious establishment of any kind-- to attempt  to "define" (limit) God or tell me anything at all about Him.  God is not accessible to the logos.  But in the ritual and the ceremony, in the songs and the chants, in the "magic" of the Mass, the mythos can (and, I think does) speak--with no words.

Does this mean that, in order to "go beyond," we must somehow abandon our reason and our intelligence--deny the truths that we know logically?  Of course not.  That is the asinine conclusion of the fundamentalists who assert, ludicrously and dangerously, that what we know with our senses and our reason (logos) is NOT true and contrariwise, that the mythos of the Bible or the Koran IS objectively and scientifically and rationally provable using the logos faculty.  So, we wind up with the outrageous cognitive dissonance of such statements as:  humans did NOT evolve from more primitive life forms; Moses DID part the Red Sea;  Jesus WAS born from a virgin; God does NOT want women priests, etc., etc., etc.

And, of course, the biggie:  Jesus DID really and truly and objectively and demonstrably rise from the dead.

Nope.  Not scientific.  My logos says NO.  But my mythos says YES.  And, for the time being at least, I'm going to try to be faithful to both forms of knowing.  Therefore, perhaps it is best, at this juncture, to practice what most of the greatest religious leaders have urged their disciples to do when they, the disciples, reached the limits of their logical understanding:  shut up!


  1. I would love to hear more from you about Armstrong's idea of mythos as a method of apprehending reality. Are there exceptions? If so, what? If there's no limit, does this mean that EVERYTHING through mythos is "true" (i.e. hallucinations of schizophrenics, random stuff people make up, fringe/cult beliefs, etc.)? Or just the ideas/rituals that have been around for a really long time and have the support of a significant population? And if everything can be true through mythos, are there, then, no such things as falsehoods? It seems that if mythos were a legitimate way of "knowing," then there's really no way of "unknowing." I guess shutting up puts all these questions on the back-burner for a bit, but it's an unsatisfactory reprieve.

  2. I, too, am uncomfortable with the seeming intellectual anarchy of Armstrong's view. But I think she would reply, simply, that the terms "true" and "false" can be applied only to those "things" which can be categorized and understood by human reason. Any"thing" else, whatever that might "be," cannot even be talked about. True/false are equally meaningless in this context. That's all Armstrong means by "shutting up."

  3. I agree that "true" and "false" can be applied only to things categorized and understood by human reason. After all, outside humanity, many dichotomies (i.e. good/evil, true/false) aren't appropriate--there is only "is" in nature, for example. But I don't completely agree with the concept that mythos under (what I understand to be) Armstrong's definition should include ideas of human construct, such as legends and religious beliefs, within the "anything else that might BE which cannot be talked about" category. Otherwise, her use of "mythos" seems to be an attempt to justify holding various personal beliefs, ranging from the mainstream to the ludicrous.

  4. You've fingered the exact concern that I have. I can't help wondering whether her whole book is not, in fact, an attempt to "salvage" something that Armstrong senses (as do I, for I don't know what reason) that is valuable, at least to her personally. But is it wholly honest / legitimate? I don't know. I DO keep coming back to that phrase, don't I?

  5. Perhaps we can frame your consistent use of the phrase "I don't know" as Socratic wisdom. Would this make not knowing any less lonely, frightening, and awful?