Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Human Need for Myth

I’ve just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s book, ‘A Short History of Myth’, which my partner Angie found in a charity shop and brought home for me. I was ambivalent about reading it, and to be honest I still am - slightly. But it’s a quite absorbing and informative book, despite a few biases and omissions, and packs a great deal of rich thought and ideas into its 140 pages.

Knowing Armstrong’s Christian background (she was a Catholic nun for several years, but writes ecumenically about all the world’s main religions), I was worriedly expecting it to have an anti-scientific bias, which I think is somewhat evident in the final chapter. She does however, describe myth and science as in some sense opposites, accepting that we ‘need both’ in order to fully live in and understand the world. And despite my own, normally scientific bias, I share her concern about the way that the consequences of the Age of Enlightenment have made it difficult for many of us to think mythically. Scientists like Richard Dawkins (much as I like much of his work) often seem to regard myths as nothing more than ham-fisted, ignorant, childish attempts to explain the Creation or the physical universe around us. What Armstrong says is that the whole point of myths is that they’re not literally true. The Genesis myth is not literally true, and Jesus himself was mythologised by St Paul. The Catholic doctrine of original sin (which, amongst other things, began the Church’s morbid preoccupation with sexuality), was St Augustine’s re-interpretation of the Eden myth, and has no real basis in the Bible. The ‘Holy Trinity’ is a myth created to express the impossibility of limiting the inexpressible to a ‘Father God’ or other such representations. She might have said (though she doesn’t) that ‘The Lord of the Rings’ or the Arthurian myths are not literally true. A successful myth is ‘true’ in the sense that it expresses, obliquely and through metaphor, deep truths about our lives and encourage us to live in certain ways (often through hardship) and with nobility and courage. If a myth moves us deeply and brings a sense of deep-rooted, ethical meaning into our lives, then it is ‘true’. It’s a successful myth. A myth that doesn’t do this is unsuccessful and fades away. But the fact that none of them are literally true does not make them unimportant.

In such a short book, Armstrong leaves a lot out and her own fields of interest are consequently very evident. In a way, she might almost have called the book ‘A Short History of Religion’. She concentrates, after taking us through the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods (which I feel involves a fair few simplifications about these vast periods of time, and a lot of guesswork about the mythologies described, since none of them were written down at the time), mainly on the three Abrahamic religions, with a fair amount of space given to Buddhism and Hinduism and a bit about Confucianism. So: the Middle East, India and China. But that leaves a lot missing, surely? What about the pantheistic mythologies of the native North Americans? Or the so-called Celts and the people who built the prehistoric stone monuments of Britain and Brittany? These latter people always get left out, as if we Brits are still encouraged to think of our ancestors as sunk in the depths of barbarism while Egypt and Mesopotamia were inventing the modern world. But recent developments in archaeology are bringing about some fascinating ideas about the religions and mythologies of the ancient British – the people who created the awesome and richly suggestive sacred landscapes of Orkney and Wiltshire. Admittedly these theories are unlikely to be definitively proven, for obvious reasons, and perhaps they fall within the generalised category of prehistoric mythology described in the first two chapters. But I missed even the briefest reference to my own prehistoric ancestors, and felt that they surely deserve a glance even in a ‘short’ history.

What I learned about the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), was fascinating. Apparently it’s only in recent times that their sacred texts have been taken as literally as they are today by many of their adherents (I'm not sure quite how convinced I am by this). Armstrong explains how each story in the Koran was presented quite openly as a myth; the tales in the Old Testament are similarly myths, and many of them cannot possibly be literally true because they break the laws of physics or contradict historical evidence. But they are powerful myths, and this explains their dominance in the world for so many centuries, indeed millennia. The life of Jesus, thanks largely to the efforts of St Paul, is a powerful myth for Christians. Jesus cannot have literally risen from the dead, but it’s what his story tells Christians about their personal ‘rebirth’, redemption and resurrection that’s important. It’s what makes his life story (an archetypal one, in that it bears such strong similarities with other myths in other cultures) so deeply moving for those who ‘believe’ in him – even after two millennia. 

In the final chapter, while lamenting the decline of myth in the Western culture of the last few centuries, Armstrong describes how the deep human need for myth keeps trying to express itself wherever it can. I like the way she feels that modern novels are a way that we can tell new myths, and re-invent old ones (her explanation of the ways in which art and contemporary story-telling can fulfil this role, is convincing). And here I feel it’s a shame that she doesn’t even mention fantasy literature and science fiction, which is myth-making in ‘novel’ form if ever there was one. J. R. R. Tolkien said that his creative literary work arose out of a desire to create a ‘mythology of England’ – our original myths having been obscured by various cultural and physical invasions, particularly the Norman takeover of 1066. In his ‘Silmarillion’ stories, which he kept telling and retelling throughout his creative life, he provided a rich creation myth (involving a ‘Fall’! – Tolkien was a Catholic) with a Scandinavian and Germanic flavour which is deeply powerful and moving. It has a tremendous resonance, as does ‘The Lord of the Rings’, which is a myth that can be read on many levels, but particularly about power (and the renunciation of power) and ‘growing up’. Personally, I think it’s a ‘true’ myth. When I first read it, I occasionally had to remind myself, when I found myself lost in Middle-earth while working or performing household tasks, that it wasn’t history – it hadn’t actually happened, and could never happen in the real world. Because it felt as if it had! I think the profound resonance this book has for so many people – a resonance that far outstrips that of the vast majority of fantasy writing – is precisely why (even before the films were made, and despite constant sniping by the Arbiters of Literary Taste), ‘LOTR’s popularity has never waned in the half-century since it was written. It still has claims to be the most popular, the most loved, book by readers in the British Isles - and of course it’s loved throughout the world as well.

Due to my own personal interest, this paragraph has been a bit of a sidestep! But I enjoyed Armstrong’s book, despite feeling just a little irritated now and then. I think both my interest and irritation result from feeling at a crossroads recently regarding both science and religion. I love science; I think it’s by far the best way we have of understanding the physical universe, and I’m agnostic about the idea of a universe which isn’t physical. If anything else exists, I don’t think we have a way of knowing about it for certain. Science strongly suggests that the material universe is all there is (but what an ‘all’!), and metaphysical experiences may turn out to have purely physical causes that can be understood by science. But at the same time, I’m increasingly alienated by the aggressive atheism of Dawkins, Hitchens (now deceased) et al. I sympathise with its frustrations, but for me, the way to weaken religious fanaticism and stupidity is not through aggressive atheism but through tolerance (which is the opposite of fanaticism).

I’ve also found myself increasingly attracted in recent years to Buddhism, partly because not everyone even regards it as a religion, but also because I’ve been practising vipassana (mindfulness) meditation as a therapy tool for living more happily with chronic pain and anxiety. I’m also attracted to Buddhism’s emphasis on kindness and compassion, its ethical system based on non-harming (and tolerance). Despite ethical similarities with many other religions, Buddhism feels a long way from the guilt and sin-preoccupied Catholicism I grew up with. It’s deeply refreshing. I find it hard to relate to the ritual and ‘religious’ aspects, but there’s a growing secular movement which lifts a lot from Buddhism, and its core beliefs and practices can be followed without any mention of the supernatural. And it’s not a theistic religion, by a long way. So this, together with Armstrong’s treatment of religious texts as mythology, and the realisation that myths can in a sense be ‘true’, suggests to me that everything is more complicated and more subtle than the new atheists seem to realise. The belief systems of the American Christian far-right and the Taliban may be deeply childish and crude, but they are not something with which to judge the whole, complex and often immensely frustrating mythologies of the world – religious or otherwise.

It’s also possible that the future of a world where myth has been discredited, even by religious leaders who insist on taking their texts literally, might be more hopeful than Armstrong imagines. Because many of us seem to equate science either with technology, or with a field of knowledge so arcane and difficult that it’s intellectually beyond us, I think we are often unaware of the sense of wonder and meaning that science can engender. As we learn more about ourselves and the universe, we learn more about our place in it – a place which often seems so miniscule and insignificant that people may react either with despair or a defensive retreat into fundamentalist religion. But it isn’t necessarily like that. Exceptional, visionary scientists and writers like Carl Sagan, without leaving behind their commitment to rational thought, have communicated such a sense of wonder about the cosmos that logos and mythos don’t seem so far apart. “We are made of star stuff”, Sagan said, and in a demonstrable, scientific sense, we are. Our bodies are formed from the very atoms created by exploding stars billions of years ago. We could say that we are the universe made conscious, a way for the cosmos to know itself. Similarly, we are also direct descendants of the very first and simplest forms of life to have evolved on this planet, and every other living thing in the world today (or that has ever lived) is in a profound and provable sense our cousin. These ideas are, to me and many others, so awe-inspiring that they have something of the power of myth – and yet they are demonstrably, literally true as well.

The way to these profound discoveries was paved with the scientific virtues of objectivity, experiment, testability – not with the ancient ways of storytelling and myth-making that has served us throughout human existence, and which people still seem to hunger for, because the conflation of science with technology and their guilty, perhaps unconscious sense that religion doesn’t stand up as ‘truth’, has left them with nothing to feed the human sense of wonder.

These scientific ideas may even provide the germ of the kinds of modern myths which Armstrong passionately cries out for in her final chapter: compassionate myths which address the reality of our global village, in which we are all dependent on one another. In a way, the discoveries of biology and astronomy and physics are not incompatible with Buddhism, whose emphasis on kindness and compassion for all beings seems increasingly attractive to educated westerners. And again, one of the reasons for the enduring popularity of Tolkien’s works may be their reminder of the need to cherish all things of this earth (or Middle-earth), our deep interdependence with nature, and of how easily everything we need and love can be swept away by corruption, greed, technological destruction and love of power. As Armstrong pleads, we need myths that help us deal emotionally and ethically with these realities. ‘This is crucial’, she writes, ‘because unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet.’

These previous few paragraphs are just thoughts, stimulated by a night’s reading and writing when I should really be fast asleep! At the moment, I haven’t reached a place in myself where I feel comfortable in relation to atheism and religion, or science and myth. My agnosticism in part stems from my deep confusion. But it’s an interesting journey. And it’s one that many, perhaps a growing number of people, seem to be sharing.

Meanwhile, give Armstrong’s book a read. There’s plenty in even this short history that I didn’t know before – and it’s a deceptively slim book which is full of rich ideas. It will really get you thinking!

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