Reclaiming Mythos in a Logos World

A Sermon by Barbara Wells, co-minister
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

– January 13, 2002 –

Two Readings:

From The Battle for God – by Karen Armstrong (p. xvi)

"In the pre-modern world, people had a different view of history. They were less interested than we are in what actually happened, but more concerned with the meaning of an event. Historical incidents were not seen as unique occurrences, set in a far off time, but were thought to be external manifestations of constant, timeless realities. Hence history would tend to repeat itself, because there was nothing new under the sun. Historical narratives tried to bring out this eternal dimension. Thus, we do not know what really occurred when the ancient Israelites escaped from Egypt and passed through the Sea of Reeds. The story has been deliberately written as a myth, and linked with other stories about rites of passage, immersion in the deep, and gods splitting in two to create a new reality. Jews experience this myth every year in the rituals of the Passover Seder, which brings this strange story into their own lives and helps them to make it their own. One could say that unless an historical event is mythologized in this way, and liberated from the past in an inspiring cult, it cannot be religious. To ask whether the Exodus from Egypt took place exactly as recounted in the Bible or to demand historical and scientific evidence to prove that it is factually true is to mistake the nature and purpose of this story. It is to confuse mythos with logos." by

From The New American Spirituality – by Elizabeth Lesser (pp. 36, 38)

"To give voice to our spiritual longing is to reveal a side of ourselves that we have become skilled at hiding. We may be ashamed to admit that we feel a kind of helplessness — a need for something that we cannot even describe. We may have grown up thinking that we should always be smart or happy or strong, consistently able to deal with the vagaries of life. Therefore, revealing our mysterious longings is unsettling. We don’t want to be seen stumbling around in the wilderness of our own ignorance and meagerness. Nor do we want to come across as innocent or eager in a world that has elevated cynicism to an art form. Instead, we pretend to be fine, strong, smart, hip, amused or disinterested even when we are not. Most of us have become habituated to hiding our weakness and wonder from each other. We construct brilliant masks to wear over our humanness until we forget the authentic nature of our own true face……"

Elizabeth Lesser goes onto say,

"Unchannelled spiritual longing is a powerful force. It has been successfully manipulated throughout history in ways so hypocritical and repressive that religion has earned a bad name. But spiritual longing came before religion. Step into a limestone cave in France where Cro-Magnon people left their paintings and ritual markings, and you will find your own questions and yearnings engraved on the walls. The need to understand our place within the mystery of the universe is as ancient and instinctual as our other basic human needs. Creation stories, religions, prophetic philosophies, and scientific explanations rise and fall within cultures and throughout eras. Spiritual longing remains constant in the human heart."


Sermon: Reclaiming Mythos in a Logos World

I had the privilege of hearing British historian of religions, Karen Armstrong, speak in Chautauqua, NY, this summer, and I also read The Battle for God, her study of fundamentalism, at the same time. I came away captivated and not only planned to preach about it but I also recommended it to the Paint Branch Religious Quest Book Group, which just finished reading it–a remarkable book.

Those of you who heard my sermon on Oct. 28 may remember that I used Armstrong's book to help us understand what she calls "a theology of rage." She has a great grasp on the history of fundamentalism and its effect on our world today. Karen Armstrong has studied every major world religion (and written books on most of them) and she knows the history of them perhaps better than anyone alive today. Yet, she is more than an historian. She is also a student of human nature, a worldly woman who was once a cloistered nun; a scholar who describes herself as a "freelance monotheist," for whom studying ancient texts is a sacred practice that fills her with awe.

In the prologue to The Battle for God, Armstrong suggests that the primary challenge facing the world today is that we have confused "mythos with logos." Her earlier writings had talked about the primary role rationalism and mysticism played in the development of the great monotheistic religions. Her latest thinking revolves around the even broader concepts of "Mythos and Logos." Now what in the heck does she mean by those two words? The reading you heard earlier helps us to understand. Armstrong believes that before the advent of modernity, people's lives were very different from our own. She writes that pre-modern humans "evolved two ways of thinking, speaking and acquiring knowledge, which scholars have called mythos and logos. Both were essential; they were regarded as complementary ways of arriving at truth."

Mythos was, in those days (before the scientific method took over) considered more important than logos, for the myths people told helped to give their lives meaning and purpose. Mythos, as the religious stories of humanity (now mostly seen in ancient texts or in folk tales), were a pre-modern form of psychology, for they helped people to understand their place in the world, and why it mattered if they lived or died.

Armstrong believes that these stories were never meant to be taken literally and usually weren't by the ones telling them. They were understood to be, well, mythical, but that did not lessen their import. Myths, like the story of the Exodus mentioned in the earlier reading, may have had some basis in history. But their historical veracity was not terribly important. What was more important was that mythical stories, in every culture and tribe across the globe, were used to help these evolving humans understand what their life meant. Myths were timeless, and their timelessness allowed people to find themselves in them again and again.

Logos, on the other hand, was "the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world." Logos is very much concerned with how things work, with taking things apart, with the practical. Logos sees things as they are and does not attempt to find meaning in them.

Armstrong argues that in the pre-modern world these two ways of understanding life were naturally separated. People understood that both were important but they generally did not confuse one with the other. That began to change, however, as science and technology began to be more and more important, particularly in the west. New insights into the way things worked led human beings to rely more and more on "logos." While religion was still extremely important in people's lives, the extraordinary discoveries of Galileo, for example, challenged the way people understood the prominent religious myths of the day. In the Middle Ages, people were comfortable with the idea that the earth was at the center of the universe. However, it did not much influence the technological act of building cathedrals. God was in heaven, people were down here on earth, and life went on.

But when, through scientific exploration, such as that done by Galileo, the earth was moved out of the center, it put the church on the defensive. Religious leaders who may have never needed to understand their myths literally began to think that they should. And this religious "digging in of heels" seemed to lessen religion's credibility in some eyes. Gradually, many in the west started understanding the world entirely through the lens of reason, rationality, logic–and rather than seeing religion and myth as a way of making meaning in the world, people began to think that religion should also be logical. And that's when the trouble started.

Why is looking at religion logically likely to cause trouble? Because myth was never meant to be understood as fact. Yet the rise of the logos mind over mythos has led to just this phenomenon. Today, extremely rational people who are generally liberal in their approach to religion do not believe spiritual "truths" because they cannot be proved. And extremely rational people who are generally conservative in their approach to religion do believe these spiritual "truths" and are quite ready to show you just how factual they really are.

Now wait a minute! you might be saying. What do you mean about religious conservatives being rational? Isn't their fundamentalist faith all about mythos? Isn't it completely irrational? Not in the least. Karen Armstrong, and others who have studied fundamentalism claim (and rightly, I believe) that modern fundamentalism is extremely logical and rational. It is why fundamentalists must insist that the Bible is word for word true. It isn't myth or poetry or even psychology. It is fact pure and simple–every single word. The western overemphasis on logic above all has had this strange and unexpected outcome: fundamentalism.

Let me tell you a quick story to underline this. When I was studying for the ministry I had to serve as a chaplain in a hospital and I did this over at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. While there, I developed a rapport with a young woman who worked with me. She and I would often talk about a variety of things. She was very interested to hear that I was studying to be a minister, but was appalled when I told her I wasn't a Christian. One evening when we were both working late, we took a short break in one of the empty waiting rooms. "Barbara," she said to me, "I need to show you what's coming if you don't accept Jesus as your savior."

She pulled out a book filled with horrible pictures of what looked to me to be monsters. She told me they were pictures of what is described in the book of Revelations as a great beast with "seven heads and ten horns that looked like a leopard but had paws like a bear and a mouth like a lion." (This is a direct quote from the scripture.) She truly believed in these monsters, they were not myth they were fact. I didn't believe in them. To me they were lies told to scare little children. Had we been able to remove the lens of logos that says that things must be factual in order to be true, we both might have been able to understand these monsters as powerful myths which speak to our human fears. But neither of us was able to do that and we were stuck in a place we couldn’t get out of.

Fundamentalism is one result of this overemphasis of logos over mythos. The other is existentialism and nihilism. Science and technology have led to incredible gains in our knowledge. But they don't generally help us understand what life means. When we prove that God as described in the Bible cannot be literally true, then for many the idea that anything is sacred gets lost forever. When nothing is sacred, then nothing has value beyond what it can do or make. Humans are reduced to cogs in a factory and the earth is valuable only for what it can give us.

This has led to extraordinary degradation of the natural world and, as Karen Armstrong says, to the most frightening elements of our modern world. To quote her directly, "Despite the cult of rationality, modern history has been punctuated by witch hunts and world wars which have been explosions of un-reason." She goes on to say that "without the ability to approach the deeper regions of the psyche, which the old myths...once provided, it seemed that reason sometimes lost its mind in our brave new world." From the trenches of World War I, to the concentration camps of World War II, to the gulags of Stalin, and to the atom bomb–it is clear that non-religious rationality isn't doing any better at making this world a better place. Perhaps it's time to do something different. Perhaps it's time to look again at mythos, in new and different ways.

This is a challenging task for Unitarian Universalists. Bringing reason into religion is a very important aspect of our religious tradition. But rationalism has its limitations. While it challenged our forebears to use their reason as they worshipped, it has a tendency to neglect the inner heart of the human spirit. So even in our very logos-centered faith tradition, there have been those who have called out for another way of understanding life and creation.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, perhaps the most famous Unitarian of the 19th century, rejected what he called the "corpse cold" religion of his orthodox Unitarian colleagues and longed for a more personal approach to the spirit. He found it through nature, primarily, and his writings were to change the face of our religious heritage forever. Others, like the Unitarian Henry David Thoreau put into words, in "Walden," the deep spiritual connection of human being to the earth. It was their friend, Unitarian Margaret Fuller, who wrote so eloquently of the spark of God that she found in nature, and in so doing began to open the way for women to become religious leaders. These people were mystics, for they believed in trusting their hearts as they sought to understand the holy. They did not feel a need to "prove" that God existed in any rational way. It was enough to feel God's presence in their hearts and in the soul of nature. But these thinkers, as famous as they might be, were always the exception in our religious tradition, not the rule.

Today, over a century since Emerson first challenged the rational orthodoxy of our faith, there are many in our congregations and in the world around us who are also longing for a way to make sense of life and death and creation and who find that reason and logic can only go so far. I hear it so often from people who come through our doors. They tell me, "I don't know what's missing in my life, I just feel empty." Or, "I am very successful in my work but I can't see the value it brings to the world." Or "I feel so alone. Is this all there is?" People who come to UU churches are not lacking in "logos." Most of us are extremely rational and reasonable. Most of us are glad to be in a church that honors our mind and doesn't ask us to see myths as factual truths. But facts and figures and logic cannot answer the hardest questions: Why am I here? What does my life mean? For that we must turn to mythos, which is often a very difficult turn for UUs to take.

Since I entered the ministry nearly 20 years ago, people in our congregations have been grappling with this inquiry. Some move closer to reason, and find it is enough. But there are others who want something more in a world where reason and logic are paramount, yet may feel foolish in asking for something different.

Here is where I find Karen Armstrong's thesis so compelling. If we are looking at "mythos," at those stories and words and ideas that were created by our ancestors to help us understand ourselves; if we are looking at this through the lens of logos then it will never make sense. But if we take off the lens of logos, and seek to understand the mythos of life in a different way, then perhaps we can reclaim a powerful religious way of being in the world.

The removal of this lens is already happening in many places. The "spiritual longing [that] remains constant in the human heart," as Elizabeth Lesser writes in The New American Spirituality, is finding new avenues for attention. People are trying to bring their hearts souls and minds to the table, in order to make sense of life and to make this world a better place. If we look at some of what is going on–the prayers to an earth goddess, the chanting and dancing, the study of ancient scriptures and the revival of prayer; if we look at this through our logos lens then it will only appear as foolishness. And this is what many in our congregations indeed feel, I suspect.

But if we can take off that lens, we might realize that most of those who feel this spiritual longing are not expecting or even wanting it to be factual, but rather find in such spiritual practices a feeling of truthfulness that goes beyond fact. Then perhaps we can be more open and even learn to count ourselves among those who live in a mythos as well as a logos world.

This movement into an openness to spiritual-truths-that-go-beyond-fact is still in its infancy. Here in our congregation we struggle to accept and respect the many ways of being human, of understanding what is right and true. I do not want to lose the logos mind that has allowed us to broaden and deepen our knowledge of our planet and the extraordinary technologies that allow us to live in such comfort. Nor would I want to return to a time when religion was entirely separate from reason.

But in our world, when there is so much strife and so much confusion, I would suggest that the human longing for meaning has not been fulfilled through logos alone. We need something more. And that something more, I believe, is found in the heart of mythos, where our souls dwell. It can't be easily explained but it can be felt. We can't weigh it; we can't measure it. But on a very deep level, we can know it.

The words used to describe it are always inadequate so sometimes it is best just to sing. This song, invoking a longing for connection to something more, is a song that is best sung without our logos lens on. Take them off dear ones, and let your heart and soul sing.

Song #15 The Lone Wild Bird

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