Mythos and logos
I gave Karen Armstrong's A History of God a mixed review, but one of her messages, both there and in her later The Battle for God, strikes me as especially important as we try to figure out our (and the world's) relationships to God today: the importance of both mythos and logos:
Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless we find some significance in this world, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal. It was also rooted in what we would call the unconscious mind...
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 purpose of this story. It is to confuse mythos with logos.
Logos was equally important. Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world. We may have lost the sense of mythos in the West today, but we are very familiar with logos, which is the basis of our society. Unlike myth, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external realities if it is to be effective. It must work efficiently in the mundane world. We use this logical, discursive reasoning when we have to make things happen, get something done, or persuade other people to adopt a particular course of action. Logos is practical. Unlike myth, which looks back to the beginnings and to the foundations, logos forges ahead and tries to find something new: to elaborate on old insights, achieve a greater control over our environment, discover something fresh, and invent something novel. (The Battle for God, xv-xvii)
(Please note that at least from my perspective, this is a different use of logos than is used in the first chapter of the Book of John.)
I think it's fair to argue that American culture is utterly biased toward the logos. Even much of the mystical activity out there seems 'explained' by reference to literalist interpretations of the Bible, and the hardcore rationalists are on the attack again - perhaps provoked by what they see as the excesses of the religious, or perhaps attempting to get past problems of their own. People in need of a stronger title for their religious work often call it "scientific" or "literal", words that garner their strength from the logos, not the mythos.
Reading this gave me loud echoes of Chuck Fager's essay in George Fox's Legacy: Friends for 350 Years. He chronicles a mix of "the Psychic, the Mystic, and the Skeptic," and cites Jesse Herman Holmes, professor of philosophy at Swarthmore College and active liberal Friend:
Indeed, Holmes declared that liberal Quakerism is "able to offer a scientific age a genuinely scientific theology on which to base a genuinely Christian life. We have no occasion for pride in this... But we call our faith to the attention of many who are tired of superstitious observances and crude theologies - who long for an intelligent and intelligible religion."
In a similar vein, Fager points to Holmes' Letter to the Scientifically Minded, which Fager describes as "a thoroughly humanist manifesto, in which God was reduced to little more than a nice idea held by the right-thinking, highly-educated, middle-class white readers it was addressed to."
Fortunately that isn't the end of the story, and Fager talks about later thinkers - Howard Brinton, Hugh Barbour, Lewis Benson, and Henry Cadbury - who helped bring liberal Quakerism back from the simple rationalism it seemed headed toward in the 1920s, returning more mythos.
(Rufus Jones, often cast as the dangerous liberal, remember, was an Orthodox Quaker, who did relatively little with FGC. I'd be curious what he and Holmes thought about each other.)
What provoked all this rambling?
A week ago, there was an Intergenerational Meeting before the regular Ithaca Meeting for Worship. One of the exercises was breathing deeply - not just for additional oxygen or to establish a rhythm, but because the air we breathe is shared with everyone else, filled with spirit.
Whenever I breathe deeply, or think about breathing, I see the classic diagrams of the lungs: trachea, bronchi, bronchioles, alveoli, with blood vessels carrying oxygen-poor blood in and oxygen-rich blood out.
Thinking of this breathing as a different kind of exercise, however, changed the way I perceive my lungs. Rather than being a system for getting me oxygen, they're a system that connects me to the world, to other people, to all kinds of things beyond me. Instead of red alveoli and mucus, it seemed (and felt like) my lungs had a soft white glow.
I suspect some rationalist reading the last paragraph will be left giggling, wondering how anyone could fall for that kind of nonsense when it's all about oxygen and carbon dioxide, though maybe an environmentalist rationalist would have hung in there until I hit the soft glow.
If you're giggling, you're welcome to continue giggling, but you'll also get some of my (likely unwelcome) pity with that. It's hard - perhaps even impossible - to explain to a strict rationalist why rationalism is by its very nature incomplete. I'm grateful that Quakerism generally accepts the proof of that by experience rather than by theological calculation.
Update: Hmmm... Slacktivist also just posted a new entry with a similar title, though different content. Coincidence, I guess.