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Mythos and Logos

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Myth, Art, and Poetry

Mythos and Logos
Sunday, September 27, 2015

Another building block in my wisdom lineage is the world of myth, art, and poetry. This realm has a great capacity to bring coherence, meaning, healing, connection, and deep trust for the human journey that is demanded of us. I recall Jane Hirshfield’s words: “A good poem makes nothing happen. It solves no outer problem. It is inherently contemplative.” And that’s why myth, poetry, and art heal. Rather than orient you toward solving a problem, they turn your focus toward naked being itself, that deeper level of meaning, purpose, and inner vitality—that deep well from which we draw all our enduring energies. They evoke those levels hidden beneath the “steel manhole cover” of the ego, and speak to our personal unconscious—as good therapy does—and even the collective unconscious—as mystical and unitive knowing does.

Earlier this year I shared that there are several levels of knowing and interpreting reality—a “hierarchy of truths” as Pope Francis calls it. Not all truths are created equal, or of equal importance. Something might be true, for example, merely on a psychological level or a historical level or a mythological level, but not on a universal level. For some sad and illogical reason, fundamentalists think the historical level is the “truest” one. “Did it really happen just that way?” The literal level is one of the least fruitful levels of meaning. Even if it did happen just that way, our capacity to understand even that truth is still filtered through our own cultural and personal biases, which are largely unconscious. Truth on that level may be fascinating, but it seldom “changes your life.” [1]

At CAC’s CONSPIRE conference last year, Rob Bell explained the difference between logos, which is more like problem-solving language, and mythos, which is more like the language used in good poetry. Logos language includes facts, data, evidence, and precise descriptions. Bell says, “Logos language and thinking got us medicine, got us airplanes. . . . We are living in a culture in which we have had for the past three hundred years an explosion of logos language. . . . But the problem is, there are whole dimensions of our existence that require a different way of thinking.”

Bell says, “The Bible is mostly written in mythos language. . . . Good religion traffics in mythos. . . . Mythos language is for that which is more than literally true. . . . Evolutionary science [logos language] does an excellent job of explaining why I don’t have a tail. It just doesn’t do so well explaining why I find that interesting!” We need mythos language to express the more-than-factual meaning of experiences like falling in love, loss, and death. [2]

Good religion, art, poetry, and myth point us to the deeper levels of truth that logos can’t fully explain. Early Christians knew this; but the Western Church spent the last five centuries trying to prove that the myths and stories in the Bible really happened historically, just as they are described. The Church went backward here, as we came to rely heavily on technique, formula, and certitude instead of the alluring power of trust and allowing. The whole point of Scripture is the transformation of the soul. But when we stopped understanding myth, we stopped understanding how to read—and profit from—sacred story. [3] Art, myth, and poetry invite us into the transformative world of sacred story. This kind of knowing has the power to change us at the level of the subconscious and intuition because it can open mind, heart, and body simultaneously. Children can read stories over and over again, fully fascinated, without needing to verify the historical question. Thus they can live in eternal and always true time, given away by that lovely and captivating opening phrase “Once upon a time.”

Gateway to Silence:
“To see a world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower.” —William Blake

[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Hierarchy of Truths: Jesus’ Use of Scripture (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), CD, MP3 download.
[2] Rob Bell, In the Beginning (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2014), disc 3 (CD, MP3 download).
[3] Adapted from Richard Rohr, an unpublished talk (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2015).

Image credit: The Winged Deer (tapestry detail), French School, (15th century), Musee des Antiquities, Rouen, France, Peter Willi, The Bridgeman Art Library.
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