Mythos and Logos

Creation: Week 1

Mythos and Logos
Monday, February 12, 2018

The Judeo-Christian creation story is told in the form of a cosmic poem (Genesis 1). The realm of myth, art, and poetry can heal and create coherence, connection, and deep trust for the human psyche much better than prose that “tells it like it is.” Rather than orient us toward solving a problem, symbolic language and images turn our focus toward being itself, toward meaning, purpose, and inner life forces. They evoke the depths hidden beneath the practical, self-centered ego, and speak to our personal unconscious—as good therapy does—and our collective unconscious too—as story and myth often do.

There are several levels of knowing and interpreting reality—a “hierarchy of truths,” as Pope Francis calls it. [1] Not all truths are of equal importance, which does not mean the lesser ones are untrue. So don’t fight useless battles against them. Something might be true, for example, on a psychological, historical, or mythological level, but not on a universal level. Fundamentalists think the historical level is the “truest” one, yet in many ways literalism is the least important meaning for the soul. Facts may be fascinating, but they seldom change our lives at any deep level. I do believe the “historical-critical” method of interpreting Scripture is a helpful frame [2], without which fundamentalists create a fantasy that looks a lot like their own culture and preferred class perspective.

Scholars since Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) have been making good use of a distinction between logos, or problem-solving language, and mythosLogos language includes facts, data, evidence, and precise descriptions. Rob Bell describes how “logos language and thinking got us medicine, got us airplanes. . . . For the past three hundred years we have had an explosion of logos language. . . . But the problem is, there are whole dimensions of our existence that require a different way of thinking.”

Bell rightly 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 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!” [3] We need mythos language to express the more-than-factual meaning of experiences like falling in love, grief, and death.

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 stories in the Bible really happened just as they are described. For some Christians, it’s imperative that the world was created in six literal days, otherwise their entire belief system falls apart. Christianity came to rely heavily on technique, formula, and certitude instead of the more alluring power of story, myth, and narrative. These give room for the soul, mind, and heart to expand. Ironically, from such an open and creative stance, we can actually solve problems much more effectively.

The whole point of Scripture is the transformation of the soul. But when we stopped understanding myth, we stopped understanding how to read and learn from sacred story or Scripture. Children delight in hearing the same fantastical stories over and over again because they are open to awe, mystery, and discovery. Oh that we could all read the creation story with similar childlike wonder and open-heartedness!

References:
[1] Pope Francis reaffirmed this Vatican II teaching (from the Decree on Ecumenism, 11) in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 36, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html#_ftn38.

[2] Marcus J. Borg gives an overview to this method of Scriptural interpretation in Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally (HarperSanFrancisco: 2002). For more immediate access, this entry from Encyclopedia Britannica includes links to some general articles on the topic: https://www.britannica.com/topic/historical-criticism-biblical-criticism

[3] Rob Bell, In the Beginning, disc 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2014), CDMP3 download.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Hierarchy of Truths: Jesus’ Use of Scripture (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), CDMP3 download; and
an unpublished talk (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2015).

Image credit: Winter Leaf I: CAC Gardens (detail), by Nicholas Kramer.
God always and forever comes as one who is totally hidden and yet perfectly revealed in the same moment or event. The first act of divine revelation is creation itself. Thus, nature is the first Bible, written approximately 14 billion years before the Bible of words. —Richard Rohr

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