« His hat was gone his religion was gone | Main | Early Quaker Trinity questions »

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.


This is definitely a different sense of "logos" from John 1:1. To understand how that is, one would have to go back to the Greek.

That issue aside, I sympathize with readers' ambivalence and conflicted feelings about Karen Armstrong's work (feelings that may express themselves as rejection) because I share them -- without even having been exposed to more than the passing article or interview. The reason for this unease is the same as the reason why I distrust this "mythos/logos" distinction: it's too neat, too facile, it presumes to explain too much. In a word, it's too "logical", and to the extent that it isn't (to the extent that this discrimination participates in the mythic), the meaning it conjures up in me is one I dislike and distrust, a fake or false "aha", a sense that oh-the-world-is-so-simple, If Only One Understands. But it isn't. I'm sure I'd have no problem with Karen Armstrong as a person and a thinker; as a dinner companion I'm sure she'd have much to share. But the "Karen Armstrong" offered by the media and the marketers as such a wonderful salve to the world's soreness -- that, I distrust, and the bits of her arguments I do run across aren't reassuring. Here, I wonder when the "when" was (since the discussion is couched in the past tense) in proposing these terms. What authority, ancient or modern, is she actually citing? On what basis, I wonder, is "logos" associated with the practical and pragmatic, whereas "mythos" is subtle and subterranean? One suspects masculine vs. feminine is not far behind: a deconstructionist would have a field day.

But the issue itself, it's true, is enticing. The thing is, we do seem to mean at least two different things when we say "meaning". On the one hand, we mean how a word or idea or expression participates in a system of such words or ideas, its formal activity, the way we can parse, decode or resolve it, say by looking it up in a dictionary, thereby reducing and exposing it while simultaneously revealing its relations with other things represented by other words or ideas or expressions. This sort of formal and "logical" meaning is really important, as the systems in which words or ideas work are marvelously intricate and complex and, sometimes, revealing, having evolved over time to have considerable powers to represent, to signify, and to elaborate themselves in representations and significations. And we know that to work in this way, examining and weighing concepts in themselves and apart from local incidentals and contingencies, is itself quite a formidable achievement, requiring from us real, substantial discipline: openness, humility, equanimity, acceptance of things as they are so we can see them and not make them out to be something different, not distort the world in our wish for it to be different from what it is. Yet at the same time -- and this is why we learn (or at least, those of us who are paying attention learn) to distrust it -- why the "logos" half of the split comes to be denigrated as useful-but-flawed -- such meaning is also, oddly, meaningless, merely a formal exercise, about the token as it participates in a system but not about what the token represents. It turns out that local incidentals and contingencies actually matter. If you work with computers or technology you learn this: a command or instruction doesn't "mean" anything at all in any "meaningful" way. It just kicks off a process; it's fundamentally arbitrary. Typed onto a command line, "del" doesn't mean anything at all, except in the sense that it is bound to a certain behavior (say, file deletion): as cause, it comes to "mean" its effect. But the real cause isn't the "del" but the programming behind it and the user who invokes it, and "del" doesn't really mean "delete" any more than long hot days "mean" summer. They just happen to go together, is all.

The other sense of "meaning", the sense the "mythos" side invokes, is the larger meaning that emerges when we relate the token or form outside and beyond its participation in the merely formal system -- the contingences and connections to human purposes, expectations, and to the emotions that seem inevitably to go with these, both positive and negative. This kind of meaning is the meaning people crave (and it is a craving, no different from any other, as any self-aware watcher of daytime TV can tell you). And because we crave it, we say it's good, and the other kind of meaning is unsatisfactory for us.

But to say that mythos is good because it connects us, it makes us feel alive, is to neglect how logos is also about connections, and about how the disinterested, ego-less connection of logos might itself be good, indeed a necessary basis for a deepening of the capacity for mythic connection in a way that, because it is not so caught up in the small and short-lived demands of self or tribe, will not turn out to be soul- or world-destroying. Thus, to understand that long hot days mean summer because of the angle of the earth's rotation as it circles the sun, is not to deny what "summer means long hot days" means for the earth's creatures, up to and including those pleasant evening hours spent telling stories on the front porch, but rather to recognize how it is we can all be in this together, to see something about Summer and the connection between the great tipped earth and the small animal waiting in the shade for dusk. Logos and mythos, properly understood, require each other: there can be no system without stuff to be systematic.

Given this reading, I don't think American culture per se is biased towards "logos". I think discourse itself is, especially poorly thought through, half-baked, insensitive discourse intolerant of paradox, irony or complex interdependency. But American culture loves mythos too -- it's just that it's riskier and harder to get right, entailing as it does a sensitivity to context and boundaries and an appreciation of how little we actually control. Yet, perhaps convinced by a weird tribal myth that nothing but good can come of it and blinded by our faith in the power of PR, supposing mythos is as easy to manipulate as the ratios we know, we Americans are also ready and eager to cross boundaries into mythic realms of big significances. This gets us into trouble. Sometimes, big trouble.

But Simon, when you tried breathing meditation with the instruction of recognizing the breath as what connects you, as spirit, to your world, that was Logos as much as Mythos. You were essentially rewiring your understanding of breathing, as part of that one particular system of lungs, alveoli, blood, O2 and CO2. With this exercise, "breathing" became integrated into a new context, and it doesn't surprise me that given its emotional valences, you could synaesthetically sense a soft white glow -- as the glow is itself a symbol in a system of meanings, and here, also, an effect resulting from a cause -- breathing, connection, spirit. It took your brain to do this, recognize the validity of that connection, and how there is more to breathing than exchanges of gases across semi-permeable membranes. But we don't just "mean" with our brains, however that fatty organ may be mysteriously capable of logical operations. We mean with our entire selves.