Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Which Myths Must Be True?

(This post is jam-packed with ideas and sources which I'm pulling together; I apologize in advance if it's a little dense. That's not a humble-brag; I am sincerely sorry conditional on your discomfort.)

An atheist friend once told me that the thing which frustrated him most about most of his atheist friends is that they didn't seem to understand that everyone has a mythology. His mythology is that birth is traumatic and then life is a downhill run to the grave. Other people have other mythologies: maybe it has something to do with the struggle between reason and conservatism, or maybe it's about the universe's basic indifference. Not everyone is aware that they have one. But everyone has one nonetheless. (To be fair, I don't think it's just his atheist friends who don't get this. A lot of Christians, for instance, think that non-religious people can't have a mythology; you'll have heard this as, "If there is no God, the world has no meaning.")

So that's a fair question to ask yourself: what's your mythology? I suppose we could think of mythologies as metanarratives, the big stories which make sense of all the little stories: Marxism's class struggle, Christianity's life-death-and-resurrection of Jesus Son of God, the Enlightenment's slow dawn of progress. But I don't know that all myths have to be big. The zodiac comes to mind: I know people who care about their sign, who understand themselves in light of that sign, but I don't think they believe the zodiac is the big story which gives meaning to all of the little stories. Myths can be medium-size stories which give some meaning to our experiences, but not all of the meaning. (In other words, you don't have to be a hedgehog to have a mythology; foxes have mythologies, too.)

Ambaa at the Patheos blog The White Hindu wrote a post a few months back called "Krishna is a Myth; Jesus is a Myth," arguing that it doesn't matter whether or not religious myths are historically true or religious figures were historically real; rather, what matters is how those myths and how those figures' teachings impact your life. It's the wisdom tradition that matters, she says. She speculated that insistence on historical reality was generally an attempt to claim religious supremacy. I commented to disagree with the motives she ascribes to Christians who believe that Jesus is historically real (counting myself among them): in general, the idea is that Jesus must have been real (and crucified, and resurrected...) in order for the Christian wisdom tradition to make any sense. So while many Christians probably do use Jesus' historicity in order to insist that Christianity is the one true and good religion, I think the theological (if not always emotional or social) motive for this belief is just that most Christians think that Jesus' historical reality is necessary to make Christianity coherent. The Christian wisdom tradition just doesn't make sense otherwise.*

However, I must say that the mythical truth/historical truth distinction is one that many Christians make. In particular, many Christians (I don't know about most) think that Genesis is not literally historically true; it really is a myth in the more anthropological sense. I know that some conservative Christians have argued that if we say Genesis isn't literally true, then soon we'll be saying Matthew isn't literally true, either; this may be a stretch, but certainly Ambaa is arguing for something like that. So there's another question: what parts of Christianity are necessary, and which are optional? Which parts must be history?

Or, a better way of putting that might be, which parts of my mythology require historical, scientific, logical, philosophical, or otherwise external justification in order to be sensible/useful/helpful? Which myths could still be useful and good if false? And which myths must be true?

(Technically I mean, "Which myths must be true in order to function as myths?", but that's far less pithy.)

In case you think that all myths must be true to be useful, I humbly submit that that's nonsense. Lots of really tenuous myths are helpful if they help you articulate something about yourself that you otherwise couldn't articulate. Freud, for instance, produced a massive mythology which has no real empirical basis, but some of his language--id and ego, repression--and some of his overarching concepts--the difference and relation between the conscious and unconscious minds--have been incredibly useful, at least until we came up with better language. And certainly science education has thrived on basically-flawed metaphors; when our best ways of understanding the universe is a set of advanced equations, you have to teach myths. I've written about how useful the idea of introversion has been to me; I was able to use that term to better articulate my needs and experiences. However, I am lucky: the concept of introversion does a very good job of articulating my experiences, but I know it that it doesn't help most people articulate their experiences. The fact that most people are ambiverts rather than introverts or extroverts suggests that the idea doesn't have much value as a scientific explanation of human behaviour generally. This does not change the fact that it has value as an explanation of my experiences. Introversion, as a myth, does not need to be true to be useful.**

This doesn't even get into the problems about what truth is, or what kind of truth we're talking about, and the distinction between "in order for this myth to be useful it must be true" and "in order for this myth to be useful I must believe that it is true." We have to tackle the nature of truth alongside the question, but I'm not getting into it again here.

So I have a lot of questions which I intend to ask of myself and I encourage you to ask of yourselves:

What is your mythology? And what are your myths?
Which myths could still be useful and good if false?
Which myths must be true?

(And let's remember that the map is not the territory...except when the map precedes the territory.)

*I had a Religious Studies professor in undergrad who said that one particular problem has plagued Hindu-Christian conversations: Christian participants often do not realize that, when they are explaining Christianity, they are not distinguishing between Christianity's Incarnation and Hinduism's avatars, allowing the Hindu participants to think Christianity is basically a kind of Hinduism. As a result, the Hindu participants would often just try to absorb Christianity into its exuberant polytheism without realizing that Christianity really does not work like Hinduism does. The reason this problem is a big one is that it afflicts conversations in which the participants are trying to get along; the problem results in the participants disagreeing about the best way of getting along (conflating Hinduism and Christianity vs. observing their differences). I think Ambaa's post fits well in this tradition of mutual miscommunication (if it is a tradition at all, and not something my prof made up).
**As it happens, there might be good empirical evidence to suggest that there is something going on at the level of the brain that folks have called introversion, to do with well-measured things like the brain's arousal to stimuli. But when people use the terms introvert and extrovert, they rarely use them in the neurological sense.

1 comment:

Kai Chen said...

Good post. I hope I can use this as a backgrounder when people get confused by "I believe that Christianity is both and myth and true."

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