Friday, August 17, 2007

Mixing Our Myths







Our Need for Myth

I have long been convinced of humankind’s need for myth. Traditionally a myth (mythos) may be described a sacred story concerning the origins of the world or how the world and the creatures in it came to have their present form. Who has not heard of the Greek and Roman myths or even our very our Celtic and Gaelic myths? Anyone who has studied academic Theology and Scripture (as opposed to learning fundamentalist dogma or reading the Bible as a quarry for one’s already formed and hardened presuppositions and religious biases) will be aware of the mythology of the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. These accounts, scholars have informed us, are further based on older Sumerian myths like those of Gilgamesh (who as a Sumerian king is supposed to have reigned about 2,700 B.C.) Obviously these myths are not meant to be taken literally – they tell a story, and as I have said in these posts already stories are important in the making and shaping of human identity and meaning.

One does not have to be either an Einstein or a brain surgeon to be aware of the innate thrust to meaning that lies at the heart of the human condition. Everything that we do is involved in this thrust. I’m sure I have alluded before in these pages to Vicktor Frankl’s marvellous little book, Man’s Search for Meaning which really is the foundational text upon which he was to base his own particular brand of psychotherapy called “logotherapy.” This particular therapy is based on each person’s unique desire to give meaning to his or her particular life. Frankl showed that such a desire for meaning can even be found and used in the most hellish and in the gravest of human predicaments like that of being an inmate in a concentration camp. He noticed that the strongest physically and even the most educated of the inmates would perish if only once they gave up on the quest for meaning. It was those strong individuals, not necessarily the strongest physically or intellectually, who had that resilience of spirit to persist in the pursuit of meaning even in the worst of all possible hells who lived to walk out of the camps.

Now back to the place of mythology in our own lives. We need to give order and meaning to our lives. In that way we make it livable and habitable. Without myths and stories we are only shells of human beings. Now, as I’ll explain later in these lines, I count science as partaking in the construction of new myths and new stories. A story or a myth is not a falsehood or a lie contrary to some sloppy modern thinking which some scientists and some humanists would have the credulous among us believe. The person who first uttered the words “once upon a time” set out upon the journey of the quest for meaning. What father or mother would refuse to tell their children bedtime stories? What father or mother, brother or sister, uncle or aunt is not captivated by a child’s sheer wonder and innocence of imagination? I’m a teacher and it’s often important when teaching children, and I mean children of all ages and I include myself in that, to create a story which will captivate the imagination of the audience, to make things come alive. If you are a literalist, of course such stories are false; of course such stories are lies. What you are lacking is a breadth of appreciation as to what truth is or can be. You are a thinker who thinks within too narrow a range of parameters.

Ans so to tell a story or to weave a myth is to tell, not a lie, but rather a different type of truth – in other words, you are giving another angle on the truth. I love the stories of the Creation Accounts in Genesis because I believe they are metaphorical and symbolic stories which seek to explain our universe. They tell a different type of truth but a truth nonetheless. The authors are saying to us readers, and to all his pre-scientific listeners that this is how our world came to be so full of innocent suffering etc. And to tell this deep human truth they made up a story. Now I admit that they probably believed in the literal truth of their story then. Most modern scripture scholars worth their salt don’t accept the literal truth of the Genesis stories now. The Bible is after all Good Literature and it is possible to be a believer and to hold this point of view as many do. Now I also love the story of the scientific origins of the universe, namely that of The Big Bang, the fact that whatever was there “originally” in that fascinatingly beautiful term, in that “primordial singularity”, that initial indescribable intensity that exploded outwards to form our ever-expanding universe and our little puny earth (which we have magnified out of all proportions – I might even say that we have done this by our propensity for myth-making or giving ourselves meaning!).

I have always loved popular science since my teens. Two of my favourite science books are Stardust (Penguin, 2000) and Almost Everyone’s Guide To Science (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1998) by the brilliantly clear author John Gribbin. I simple fell head over heels in love with these books, not alone because of their content, but because of their lucid style. The first two lines of the first of these books read like the beginning of a myth or of a story, which indeed it is. These two lines are: “Life begins with the process of star formation. We are made of stardust.” (Op.cit., p.2) Sure, Gribbin is a great astrophysicist and a great astronomer, but he is also a great storyteller. Sure his knowledge is scientific and much indeed of that provable in the laboratory or by observation of the night skies, but there is also a fairly substantial body of science which is hypothetical still because either not yet proved conclusively or the individual theories have not yet been replaced with more comprehensive or more exact ones. Then there are basic scientific axioms, in virtue of being axioms, that must remain unproved. This I among many others call the scientific mythology. Man makes many mythologies e.g., religious mythology, literary mythology, psychological mythology and scientific mythology among many others. To say, therefore, that mythology partakes of falsehood is simply stupid. As an agnostic I do not know whether God exists or not, and actually could not really care less. I remember in my student days reading Russell who dismissed contemporary metaphysics as stupid and ridiculous and meaningless. I loved the way he put it and I quote from memory here. He said we may as well say we believe that there is a tea pot orbiting the moon (or was it the earth, I forget) as to say we believe in God. Okay, it’s a silly statement but a funny one I think. I’d like to tell a bedtime story based on this teapot to a very young child. It has promise as a story does it not? "Once upon a time there was a teapot, and a very handsome teapot he was, too!..." There’s a certain truth in this story – the truth of the possibilities of the human imagination, an artistic truth because we might be able to draw it etc. What I’m saying is that if I’m a literalist obviously the whole thing is ridiculous. I think the same applies to religions in my book. If you’re a literalist or fundamentalist the whole thing becomes as silly as a literal teapot orbiting the moon or earth.

Humankind needs myths and dreams. I remember reading in Storr yet again that the great professor Kekulé at the University of Ghent discovered the structure of the Benzene ring by dreaming of the symbol of the Uroborus, i.e., the snake eating its own tail. On one level this mythological symbol of creativity is meaningless in a fundamentalist scientific sense but in a broader creative context it is very meaningful indeed.

In short what I am arguing for here is against a literalist take on life and indeed against any fundamentalist take on life whether it be from the Religious Camp or from the Scientific Camp. We have come a long way since those famous debates about evolution between Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. In a rather scoffing tone, apparently, the reverend gentleman had said words to the effect: “Is it through your grandfather or your grandmother, Mr. Huxley, that you claim your descent from a monkey?" We all remember Huxley’s famous retort, which many say led to a greater acceptance of the theory of evolution in the Oxford of the 1860s, “I am not ashamed to have a monkey for my ancestor; but I would be ashamed to be connected with a man such as you who uses great intellectual gifts to obscure the truth.” I think we owe a lot to Huxley, because whatever the truth is, and indeed I think and feel it is not written in stone but can be shaped and reshaped to fit the evolution of knowledge, it needs to be pursued relentlessly and never atrophied into dogma of whatever type be it religious or scientific.

In arguing against literalism I’m aware that I am very much a relativist or perspectivist even, but I am happy with either of these attributions because obscurantism will lead us nowhere. In my book we need our mythologies of all types, but we must not be literalist, fundamentalist or evangelical believers in our own mythologies seeking to push our angle on the truth down another’s throat. To my mind that’s where I find, with many others, Richard Dawkins hard to take because not alone is he guilty of pushing his viewpoint down our throats but it is obvious that he dislikes and ridicules his opponents. He is a Bishop Wilberforce of the scientific type. Let’s listen to all mythologies and give them a fair hearing. Let’s not swallow our own shibboleths and be deaf to the beliefs of others. Above all, let us respect the stories of others, and not alone that, listen to them and try to understand them. If we fail to understand them at least let us try to respect them. Then, we might someday be able to listen to not alone the extreme Muslims but even those of a moderate vision of what humankind is and maybe, just maybe, we might have a little peace, yes even a little.

Above I have placed a rather poor picture I took of Navan Fort (Eamhain Macha) in the rain on last Tuesday. I brought my visitors Mat and Isa there on a visit.

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