September 21st, 2016


(no subject)

I'm thinking a bit about a link I saw passed around in some Facebook posts today: Eighty-five Years Ago Today, J.R.R. Tolkien Convinces C.S. Lewis that Christ is the True Myth. To be honest, I've not gotten past the title. The site is a standard of evangelical culture-blogging (including culture war-blogging), and I'm not sure I want to invest my time in their reading of Inkling lore. Never mind my Wesleyan suspicion of a "salvation date," a single timestamp when someone's understanding of this "true myth" is complete, let alone their our to it perfected. (Salvation, if the concept makes sense at all, is a process much more than a discrete point.)

But the details don't really matter so much to me. It's that phrase, "true myth," that made my inner philosopher sit up and take notice. Because the idea of theology as myth rather than factual claims is actually pretty interesting. Not sure if the word "true" is the best one here, but it's close. To my mind, "true" means an accurate description of reality. The statement "The American president on September 21, 2016 is African-American" is true if (and only if) there is an American president on that date and he actually is that ethnicity. It almost certainly won't be if we change the year to 2017, and definitely wasn't if we go pack in time to 1916. "Marta likes strawberry ice cream more than chocolate" is true if and only if that's an accurate description of my preferences. Philosophers will quibble over this approach (we call it coherentism). For instance, how do you make sense of ethical claims? Most people would say a sentence like "We ought to help starving people if we can without making someone else (or ourselves) suffer in the process" is true, but it doesn't seem to be describing anything that actually is. It gets tricky when you bring time into it, too. So definitely there's room for debate and fine-tuning but I do think this approach to truth makes a lot of sense, at least in the broad strokes. Certainly it's what most people mean when they talk about truth, or at least a large part of what they have in mind.

The problem is, myth isn't supposed to work like that. It's not really a description of how things are, or even how they'll definitely be at some specific future point. It's like art that way, but with a tie to the good I don't think we can presuppose when it comes to art. Good myths drive us to imagine the best possible world. Take that fascinating Chesterton quote: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” He clearly isn't talking about the literal existence of dragons, or literally slaying them, it's about something metaphorical and the moral lesson that we can master them. It's about imagination and possibilities and the kind of attraction Aristotle thought was so key to building character. You see (say) generosity or courage modeled, you like what you see, you want to become like that person so you try to do the kind of thing you think they'd do, in your situation. Good myths do something similar because they get us thinking in terms of what-ifs, but in a context that's tied to how we ought to be. (I'm not going to sit here and say art can only be good art if it drives home the right moral lesson; good art seems to be doing something else entirely - c.f. Hannibal, to take one example....)

But set that quibble aside. That description of Christian theology as myth is a fascinating one, isn't it? I mean what would theology look like if we were less interested in making specific claims that were true or false, and more interested in opening up the kinds of possibilities that attracted people to some transcendent good. (Or Good, in the Augustinian sense: That which gives all other good things their goodness, the ultimate goodness.) Using language to describe God is an iffy endeavor anyway, for a variety of reasons, youv'e either got to make claims the human mind can't really understand or else they're not going to be sufficient descriptions of God because He's just supposed to be bigger. I never liked the idea that this was all religion was supposed to be about, factual claims the human mind could understand and defend - seemed so stilted, somehow. And myth seems like a much better way of thinking about theology. I'm just not sure what that would even look like.

Feh. Maybe, for all my different influences and my not-so-latent-these-days identification with the Jewish side of my upbringing, I really am very Protestant, which means creeds and factually correct belief. Don't get me started on the irony there. I can't help thinking that article title might have been on to something, even if it was just by accident.

(Btw, I read peoples' responses to my other post. Meant a lot. Still quite ... everything I was when I made that post. But I needed a break and space to play for a bit, so have this musing on an entirely different topic for right now.)