Karen’s on the case #1
Karen Armstrong is one of my favourite non-fiction writers. Her latest book, The case for God: What religion really means1, is her riposte both to the ‘new atheism’ and the kind of conceptions of God and religion which the ‘new atheism’ feeds on. Having said that, I found little for an atheist such as myself to quibble with. Except perhaps towards the end, where I did scribble a bit in the margins.
As I followed The case for God I kept thinking: Yes OK, but you know it cuts both ways? I am writing this partly to work out what I was thinking.
One significant theme running through the book is the contrast between mythos and logos:
In most pre-modern cultures, there were two recognised ways of thinking, speaking and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary… Logos (‘reason’) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. People have always needed logos to make an efficient weapon, organise their societies or plan an expedition. Logos was forward-looking, continually on the lookout for new ways of controlling the environment, improving old insights or inventing something fresh. Logos was essential to the survival of our species. 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’.
…[L]ike logos, [mythos] helped people to live creatively in our confusing world, though in a different way. Myths may have told stories about the gods, but they were really focused on the more elusive, puzzling and tragic aspects of the human predicament that lay outside the remit of logos…
At the risk of oversimplification, her argument is that both modern religious literalists (including ‘fundamentalists’) and the ‘new atheists’ forget that religion, in its origins and in its essence, is mythos, not logos.
Like many of St Karen’s books, The case for God takes a broad sweep through history. We begin in the caves of Lascaux and 300+ pages later arrive at our own post-9/11 cavern of confusion. If there was a pivotal moment when the mythos of religion went pear-shaped and started masquerading as logos, it was the emergence of modern science in the 15th and 16th centuries. This early modern period introduced a scientific concept of truth, which was then inappropriately applied to religion as the march of science got more and more unstoppable. Descartes (1596-1650) for example dedicated his Meditations on First Philosophy to the Faculty of Theology in Paris with the claim:
I have always thought that two issues – namely, God and the soul – are chief among those that ought to be demonstrated with the aid of philosophy rather than theology. For although it suffices for us believers to believe by faith that the human soul does not die with the body, and that God exists, certainly no unbelievers seem capable of being persuaded of any religion or even of almost any moral virtue, until these two are first proven to them by natural reason.2
God was also essential to the system of Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Because matter was inert, it could not move or change unless an outside force acted on it:
Though these bodies [ie the solar system] may, indeed, continue in their orbits by the mere laws of gravity, yet they could by no means have at first derived the regular position of the orbits by themselves from these laws…
…[Their existence and position] could only proceed from the counsel and domination of an intelligent and powerful Being.3
Moving back to the ‘pre-modern’ context though, it is important to note that while logos needed to ‘correspond accurately to external reality’ the examples Armstrong gives present both mythos and logos as essentially practical rather than theoretical. So what is acquired is in both cases skill (knowing how) rather than facts (knowing that). This could be expressed as the difference between procedural knowledge and propositional or descriptive knowledge.
The difference matters because although knowing how may involve some knowing that, there is no necessary dependency. Two people may both know how to grow vegetables but know very different facts about plants, soil, climate and the seasons. They also may know very different numbers of facts.
Indeed, we may know how to do something on the basis of beliefs which are actually incomplete or false. For example a farmer may be successful because he always waters his crops in dry weather, but he does this because he believes the earth goddess is thirsty and repays his kindness. His farming logos has corresponded with external reality to the extent of understanding a connection between irrigation and plant growth, but not to the extent of correctly explaining the connection.
Quite by chance I have stumbled on an example combining logos (knowing how to farm) and mythos (knowing how to relate to the divine). This may be because the example is so simple and undeveloped. In more extensive examples a key difference begins to emerge between logos and mythos:
Religion [an example of mythos] is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart… It is no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth and falsehood, before embarking on a religious way of life. You will only discover their truth – or lack of it – if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action. Like any skill, religion requires perseverance, hard work and discipline…
The early Daoists saw religion as a ‘knack’ acquired by constant practice…
People who acquired this knack discovered a transcendent dimension of life that was not simply an external reality ‘out there’ but was identical with the deepest level of their being. This reality, which they have called God, Dao, Brahman or Nirvana, has been a fact of human life. But it was impossible to explain what it was in terms of logos. This imprecision was not frustrating, as a modern Western person might imagine, but brought with it an ekstasis that lifted practitioners beyond the constricting confines of self. Our scientifically oriented knowledge seeks to master reality, explain it, and bring it under the control of reason, but a delight in unknowing has also been part of the human experience.
So while logos and mythos both have roots in skill – knowing how rather than knowing that – logos has developed into structured, rational and scientific knowledge which relies on resolved, non-contradictory discourse, while mythos became something whose very richness embraces the frontiers of meaning and transcends contradiction. She quotes George Steiner:
It is decisively the fact that language does have frontiers that gives proof of a transcendent presence in the fabric of the world. It is just because we can go no further, because speech so marvellously fails us, that we experience the certitude of a divine meaning surpassing and enfolding ours.4
Which brings us to apophasis, a key building block in the case Karen is constructing:
[M]y aim is not to give an exhaustive account of religion in any given period, but to highlight a particular trend – the apophatic – that speaks strongly to our current religious perplexity.
Which we’ll leave till next time…
2 René Descartes, Meditations on first philosophy: In which the existence of God and the distinction of the soul from the body are demonstrated, translated by Donald A Cress, Hackett, Indianapolis, 1993.
3 Isaac Newton, Sir Isaac Newton’s mathematical principles of natural philosophy and his system of the world, translated by Andrew Motte (1729), revised by Florian Cajori, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1962.
© Chris Lawrence 2009.