Mythos, Logos, and the God Beyond God

studyThe following article by renowned religions scholar Karen Armstrong—despite some sweeping generalizations—articulates well the historical context that has brought the Western world to its current religion vs. science dichotomy. Along the way Armstrong makes some well-reasoned claims as to religion’s place in the world and our lives.

By Karen Armstrong

Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course—at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death, and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal, and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making. No wonder so many fundamentalist Christians find their faith shaken to the core.

But Darwin may have done religion—and God—a favor by revealing a flaw in modern Western faith. Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our understanding of God is often remarkably undeveloped—even primitive. In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call “God” is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.

But by the end of the 17th century, instead of looking through the symbol to “the God beyond God,” Christians were transforming it into hard fact. Sir Isaac Newton had claimed that his cosmic system proved beyond doubt the existence of an intelligent, omniscient, and omnipotent creator, who was obviously “very well skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry.” Enthralled by the prospect of such cast-iron certainty, churchmen started to develop a scientifically-based theology that eventually made Newton’s Mechanick and later, William Paley’s Intelligent Designer, essential to Western Christianity.

But the Great Mechanick was little more than an idol, the kind of human projection that theology, at its best, was supposed to avoid. God had been essential to Newtonian physics but it was not long before other scientists were able to dispense with the God-hypothesis and, finally, Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God’s existence. This would not have been a disaster had not Christians become so dependent upon their scientific religion that they had lost the older habits of thought and were left without other resource.

Symbolism was essential to premodern religion, because it was only possible to speak about the ultimate reality—God, Tao, Brahman, or Nirvana—analogically, since it lay beyond the reach of words. Jews and Christians both developed audaciously innovative and figurative methods of reading the Bible, and every statement of the Quran is called an ayah (“parable”). St Augustine (354-430), a major authority for both Catholics and Protestants, insisted that if a biblical text contradicted reputable science, it must be interpreted allegorically. This remained standard practice in the West until the 17th century, when in an effort to emulate the exact scientific method, Christians began to read scripture with a literalness that is without parallel in religious history.

Most cultures believed that there were two recognized ways of arriving at truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary, each with its own sphere of competence. Logos (“reason”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to function effectively in the world and had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. But it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggle. For that people turned to mythos, stories that made no pretensions to historical accuracy but should rather be seen as an early form of psychology; if translated into ritual or ethical action, a good myth showed you how to cope with mortality, discover an inner source of strength, and endure pain and sorrow with serenity.

In the ancient world, a cosmology was not regarded as factual but was primarily therapeutic; it was recited when people needed an infusion of that mysterious power that had—somehow—brought something out of primal nothingness: at a sickbed, a coronation, or during a political crisis. Some cosmologies taught people how to unlock their own creativity, others made them aware of the struggle required to maintain social and political order. The Genesis creation hymn, written during the Israelites’ exile in Babylonia in the 6th century BC, was a gentle polemic against Babylonian religion. Its vision of an ordered universe where everything had its place was probably consoling to a displaced people, though—as we can see in the Bible—some of the exiles preferred a more aggressive cosmology.

There can never be a definitive version of a myth, because it refers to the more imponderable aspects of life. To remain effective, it must respond to contemporary circumstance. In the 16th century, when Jews were being expelled from one region of Europe after another, the mystic Isaac Luria constructed an entirely new creation myth that bore no resemblance to the Genesis story. But instead of being reviled for contradicting the Bible, it inspired a mass-movement among Jews, because it was such a telling description of the arbitrary world they now lived in; backed up with special rituals, it also helped them face up to their pain and discover a source of strength.

Religion was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason but to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace; today, however, many have opted for unsustainable certainty instead. But can we respond religiously to evolutionary theory? Can we use it to recover a more authentic notion of God?

Darwin made it clear once again that—as Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas, and Eckhart had already pointed out—we cannot regard God simply as a divine personality, who single-handedly created the world. This could direct our attention away from the idols of certainty and back to the “God beyond God.” The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words. At its best, it holds us in an attitude of wonder, which is, perhaps, not unlike the awe that Mr. Dawkins experiences—and has helped me to appreciate —when he contemplates the marvels of natural selection.

But what of the pain and waste that Darwin unveiled? All the major traditions insist that the faithful meditate on the ubiquitous suffering that is an inescapable part of life; because, if we do not acknowledge this uncomfortable fact, the compassion that lies at the heart of faith is impossible. The almost unbearable spectacle of the myriad species passing painfully into oblivion is not unlike some classic Buddhist meditations on the First Noble Truth (“Existence is suffering”), the indispensable prerequisite for the transcendent enlightenment that some call Nirvana—and others call God.

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal, followed by a rebuttal by Richard Dawkins.

About the Author

11 Responses to Mythos, Logos, and the God Beyond God

  1. It’s interesting how she turns Darwin’s observations around; rather than eroding faith the painful logos of evolution brings us back in touch with compassion and mythos. Brilliant.

  2. I still don’t buy into this whole “mythology” thing. The very premise seems very atheistic to me and I really doubt if ancient Greeks and Romans thought of their gods as “not factual but primarily therapeutic.” Give me a break!

    • Well after all, Karen left the convent only to become a popular, watered down voice for religion.

      • Dawkins in his reply is so childish saying that nature never violates laws of physics: I am appalled at his naive understanding of science.I am disillusioned with many of these so called scientists like Dawkins, especially after meeting some very humble scientists and mathematicians, who acknowledge that we know very little even though they are not committed to any religion.

  3. I think while there is merit to the stand Karen has taken, stating that myth is just a early form of psychology is too extreme a position to take. Certainly “myths” cannot be quantified and measured empirically, but they may be more than just therapeutic.

  4. God is like one of those 3-D pictures: if you just stare at the little dots all you will ever see is little dots. You have to focus past the little dots to see Him.

    These theism vs. atheism debates are more or less a waste of time. We all see what we want to see and don’t see what we don’t want to see.

    In the so called primitive societies there were no atheists because they all learned from the earliest days to see past the little dots in front of their nose. The freedom of living in the material world means that one person can say with 100% conviction that there is no God, and another person can be equally certain that God is in his heart.

    • I agree that this debate usually goes nowhere, but I can appreciate when people like Karen Armstrong offer something that breaks free the standard back and forth of the two extremes. She is a big name and this article appeared int he Wall Street Journal, I think it is good to see someone with such potential influence making points about how religion is an entirely different way of knowing. These kind of deeper points totally undercut the regular ho-hum discussion.

      At the same time, like Gaura-vijaya and Amara pointed out, Armstrong almost always makes pretty clearly secular statements in the midst of her defense of religion. At best she seems to lean towards some monistic transcendence. Everything I have read from her has always had this element of subtly demeaning traditional views of religion in favor of a more mundane (and therefore more palatable to many) understanding. I have also seen some pretty extreme historical inaccuracies in one of her books.

  5. The word myth comes from the greek word mythos, which originally meant speech or story. In the modern scientific age, logos or reason has come to be accepted as the only valid method of understanding the truth. Thus a myth has come to mean a story that is not true.

    The modern fundamentalist scientists will accept only empirical, mathematical, reason as ‘truth’. Because the religious myths do not correspond to our current empirical understanding of the world, they are considered false.

    So Armstrong voices the oh so popular view that – “Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos.”

    It may be the popular view, but it is nonsense. Evolution is a process of creation. It is an intelligent process. Evolution gives no scientific proof or conclusion as to the presence or absence of a benign creator.

    The goal of both Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins is selling lots of books. Discovering the truth is low on their list of priorities.

    As Srimad Bhagavatam 12.3.38 says – (In kali yuga) – “Those who know nothing about religion will mount a high seat and presume to speak on religious principles.”

  6. The goal of both Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins is selling lots of books. Discovering the truth is low on their list of priorities.

    This seems quite presumptuous to me. Do you know them well enough to say what their intentions are? The more generous view, and perhaps even more accurate, is that they are both putting what they consider to be the truth out there for the benefit of others. That the truth they put out there is not up to the standard of the Bhagavata does not mean they are only out to sell books. And I must say that your citing the Bhagavata to make your point seems a bit fundamentalist to me as well.

  7. In 1950, Immanuel Velikovsky culminated decades of research with a book titled Worlds in Collision that “proposes that many myths and traditions of ancient peoples and cultures are based on actual events.” His approach was interdisciplinary, a rarity in the 20th century, taking into account astronomy, physics, chemistry, psychology, ancient history, and comparative mythology.

    He noted, for example, that Venus, the second brightest object in the night sky, was not mentioned by the earliest astronomers. He proposed that the planet was a newcomer to our solar system, a comet, appearing in historical times with an irregular orbit that caused catastrophic events on our own planet.

    Coming in close contact with the Earth, the latter’s rotation altered, making it appear that The Sun had stood still, a phenomenon reported on in the Book of Josue. What has come to be known as Joshua’s Long Day is corroborated by the texts of the ancient Chinese, Japanese, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Mayans; the East Asians reporting a extremely long sunset, the Mexicans reporting an extremely long sunrise.

    Immanuel Velikovsky was too imminent a scholar to be dismissed outright as a kook, and he counted some respected people among his friends. (See The Einstein-Velikovsky Correspondence). Nevertheless, his Catastrophism was rejected outright by a scientific establishment that couldn’t stomach an interdisciplinary challenge to its dogmatic Uniformitarianism, even after Velikovsky’s predictions about the temperature of Venus and radio activity from Jupiter were proven true.
    From tml

  8. I like the approach of Immanuel Velikovsky. It reminds me of the Terence Mckenna insight that “reality” consists of language. Language is the actual building block of Maya – almost like a computer graphics system. This also relates to the relevance and connection between Sound/Language/Mantra.

    So, every culture has its own “graphics” and that was their particular spiritual connection relative in Time/Space. Every civilization is a natural personal emanation of its particular place, like plant growth. The point is that all of these manifestations are like different cartoons of Maya. Just look at the cartoon of the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Industrial Age, The Nazis, The USA. Its all brilliant aesthetic humour provided by the Supersoul. So, now with the global “cyberdimensional” network and instant info, “history” in a certain sense has effectively come to an end on this planet.

    So, this gives the people of this planet to effectively choose their “reality” and “deities” etc….

    It is effectively already happening – Dawkins deifies Darwin, children deify Spiderman (Still Vedic Knowledge holds true – “Those in the mode of Passion worship the “demons” etc….), but what makes Krsna Consciousness perfect is that the person of Krsna and the “stories” as the Supreme Person are based on the foundation of all Spiritual mellows and prime archetypical relationships, therefore the Vedic Information is truly “fountainhead” information and knowledge. I mean, what do any of these debaters (Religion vs. Atheism) have to offer except another limited mundane worldview? What can the Vedas actually offer ? Limitless expansion of knowledge, bliss and existence due to a perfect fundamental systemization of Absolute Reality! It’s great ! I cannot understand why none of these debaters touch on the Vedas. This is simply a question of conditionality and perhaps innate envy of the Supreme Person. It is actually ridiculous how they refuse to acknowledge it. It is literally like it is not yet a part of their animation to enter it (In fact it is exactly this – they haven’t been graced) But they will, because inside every single heart of all of these people resides the Paramatma Visnu expansion, so it is not something that they can escape, just like you cannot escape your brain whilst you are in a “meat body”.

    All that needs to happen is a “re-language” of Vedic Knowledge. Even though the language is already actually perfect, still it needs to be acclimatized for the supposed “modern human”. Then the cartoon might change a bit. Futurama! (Get it : Futu – “Rama”)

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