Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The technical view of "myth"

But many forms of narrative (including some that claim simply to recount what actually happened) are in fact governed by symbolic modes of organization. As Herbert Richardson says of myth, a significant form of narrative for our purposes, "mythical discourse rises at the level of the total story, the most complex level of linguistic utterance. The linguistic unit appropriate to myth is not the single word nor even the sentence, but the story." Thus, the truth of a narrative in this sense does not arise from the "correspondence" of its words or sentences to "reality," but from the coherence of the story as a whole. Just as a poem cannot be paraphrased conceptually without irreparable loss, neither can such narrative be. [Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 32-3]

When it comes to telling big stories about the order of existence, then, even if they are scientific stories, they will have religious implications. It is better to face this fact head on than try to deny it. ...

... myth is not science. Myth can be true, but it is a different kind of truth from the truth of science and must be judged by different criteria, ... . I would argue that the myths told by the ancient Israelite prophets, by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, by Confucius and Mencius, and by the Buddha, just to stay within the purview of this book, are all true myths. ... they are all worthy of belief, and I find it possible to believe in all of them in rather deep but not exclusive ways. (Ibid., 47)

Myth is a profoundly ambiguous word, so it would be well to be clear what Donald means by it:

Mythical thought, in our terms, might be regarded as a unified, collectively held system of explanatory and regulatory metaphors. The mind has expanded its reach beyond the episodic perception of events, beyond the mimetic reconstruction of episdes, to a comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe. Causal explanation, prediction, control—myth constitute an attempt at all three, and every aspect of life is permeated by myth.

(Ibid., 134)

In the evolutionary view, which I might add informs ANE (Ancient Near-East) studies, the mythic stage is where stories are created for the purpose of understanding the world. These stories are existential in purpose, where the goal is that the person can feel some manner of coherence in the world. As stories, they have no actual correspondence to reality, and do not need to have any. As long as a story can fulfill its existential function, it is successful. In this light, "true myth" merely means that the story is coherent, but it does not need to have any correspondence with reality, because "myth is not science."

In colloquial terms, "myth" signifies that something is fictional and thus false. In the technical discipline of the history and philosophy of religion, "myth" is stated to be "a unified, collectively held system of explanatory and regulatory metaphors," which when boiled down still means that it is false in the colloquial sense of the term, in the sense that there is a true correspondence to reality. It is in this sense that Christianity can never be said to be a "myth" or even a "true myth," for Christianity proclaims historical, philosophical and scientific correspondence with reality. Christianity is first and foremost truth, before it deals with the existential problems of Man.

It is here that I think Christians need to be careful about the unspoken premises in ANE studies. ANE studies, while most definitely not fully wrong, are not neutral with regards to their presuppositions. The turn to the narrative might sound nice and "warm" for those rejecting Modernity, but it comes with baggage that is antithetical to Christianity. Plus, unless you are a Charismatic, one shouldn't decide on a theory based upon how one feels, but upon what is true according to Scripture, even if one feels no warmth in the truth.

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