Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Myth: Science and Faith

I've been editing material for a philosophy book, but I've finally hit a hole where I don't have any previous material. Here is a draft for a first section of chapter 8: Science and Faith.

8.1 Myth
In the novelized introduction to philosophy, Sophie's World, the fictional "tutor" of the novel's main character tells her that a particular myth "tried to give people an explanation for something they could not understand." [1] In this casual definition of a myth, Sophie's World reflects the popular, Western understanding of ancient myths: they were basically bad science. The general feel you get is that, in this particular instance, people from Scandinavia were trying to explain why the seasons changed, so someone made up this story about a god Thor getting his hammer stolen... and then the stupid people actually believed it!

It is true that many, if not most of the ancients took these myths literally. We mentioned in the last chapter that Anaxagoras (ca. 500-428BC) was forced to leave Athens for disbelieving in the gods and instead suggesting that the sun was a very hot rock or that the moon simply reflected light. Here Anaxagoras was following in the tradition of another philosopher from Asia Minor just a bit earlier than him, Xenophanes (570-480BC).

Xenophanes thought that the portrayals of the gods in Homer and the poet Hesiod were deplorable. In their stories, the gods behaved little better than mere mortals. They became jealous, slept with other men's wives, murdered the innocent, and thus differed from everyone else simply in the fact that they were powerful enough to get away with it and live forever. He concluded that people basically portrayed gods as bigger versions of themselves. If a cow could make up gods, he suggested, they would look and act like cows with greater power to do the things cows do. Xenophanes was thus the first person we know of to suggest that people create the gods in their own image.

textbox: "If cattle, horses, and lions had hands, if they could draw with them and do what people do, horses would draw the gods in the shape of horses. Cattle would draw them in the shape of cattle. Each animal would give the gods bodies like their own"

"The divine being is nothing other than the human being... All the characteristics of divine nature are, therefore, characteristics of human nature."
Feuerbach (1804-72), The Essence of Christianity*.

Interestingly, Xenophanes did believe in a god, but to him this one god was unlike any human being. Like many of the Greek philosophers, he had a concept of an underlying power behind reality that was quite different from human beings. As Christians, we live in a tension between this tendency to picture God as being too much like us while believing at the same time that God created us in His image (Gen. 1:27). What exactly does it mean to say that humans were created like God (cf. Ps. 8)? We will discuss this issue further in chapter 9.

An entire stream of Christian thought, however, has responded to these concerns and suggested that God can primarily be known not for what he is like, which inevitably tends to portray Him in human categories, but by what he is not like. This approach to God is called negative theology or the via negativa (the "negative way"). This view of God is "apophatic," based on what we cannot say. So God is not limited in power or in knowledge or by space or time rather than to portray God in terms of human power or knowledge or space and time. This approach might say that we know God primarily by analogy to the things we can understand but recognize that God's literal ways are "beyond finding out" (**).

textbox: negative theology, Trinity

At the same time, many Christian thinkers would suggest that this way of thinking about God is not quite Christian because it fails to take into account our belief in the Trinity. Christians believe that although there is only one God with one identity and being, God is nonetheless three persons. This is not an easy idea to understand--maybe it is beyond the capacity of the human mind to understand! But it is based on the belief that there is only one God, while at the same time Jesus was God, and Jesus' heavenly Father was God, and the Holy Spirit that fills us and works within us is God. These three persons are all God and yet there is only one God. In a way, this Christian belief has the flavor of something apophatic, for it scarcely makes sense to our human reasoning. Any attempt to explain the idea almost always ends up in an idea that Christians at some point have said is not what it means.

So many Christian thinkers would suggest that our belief in the Trinity does tell us what God is actually like in His actual being. In fact, the last few decades have seen Christian thinkers explore the Trinity extensively, in particular how it might serve as a model for the way we live as Christians. Is it possible, however, that some of these explorations fall into Xenophanes' trap? For example, more than one group has recently looked to the Trinity for a model of how we might order our families. But, not surprisingly, those who already believe the man should run the house find God the Father running the Trinity, and those who believe the partners should be equal find equality in the Trinity. Perhaps even the Trinity is only an analogy for something we humans could not possibly understand on a literal level.

The rise of postmodernism in recent days has prompted some re-evaluation of the myths of ancient peoples. When science reigned supreme in Western culture, it was perhaps inevitable that we would see the ancient myths as bad science, as the poor attempts of ignorant people to explain the world the best they could. And, as we have mentioned, most of the ancients on a popular level probably did take these stories literally.

But let's return to some of what we explored in the previous chapter. Can we really get outside of our heads, beyond our perceptions of the world to the things of the world itself? Aren't my "explanations" of the world ultimately expressions of my perceptions of the world. By faith we take our perceptions as generally accurate--we don't have to abandon our faith in reality or truth. But it is an act of faith, not proof. I cannot prove that I am not a brain in a vat somewhere. It's just an idea that does not "work" very well for everyday living.

If we return to the Scandinavian myth of Thor and the changing of the seasons, in this story Thor's hammer gets stolen by another god and it becomes winter. Thor then dresses in drag and manages to get himself engaged to this other god. Then when they get together to get married, he kills the other god and spring returns.

Now as bizarre as this story is, it would not make a very good explanation for why the seasons change. After all, Thor killed the other guy. In order for it to be a good explanation, the guy would have to come alive every year and steal the hammer again. We wonder if rather than being a bad explanation for why the seasons change, if this story was more a fun and playful expression of the changing of the seasons.

Jack Finegan put it nicely when he said, "A myth is not, then, in the first instance, a fanciful tale, but a symbolic or poetic expression of that which is incapable of direct statement." [2] You can see the idea even in the similarity between the word myth and the word mystery. Certainly people will use words as they use words--we saw in chapter four that the meanings of words is a matter of how people use them. So, like it or not, the most common use of the word myth today is in reference to something that is false.

But we cannot tell the "myths" of the ancients what they were. In this case, simply thinking of them as "false stories" is to skew significantly how they functioned for the ancients. Ancient myths were stories that expressed the mysterious aspects of life. True, many ancients did raise the question of whether these stories were literally true or false. [3] And certainly there could be false myths because some of the stories may have expressed notions about life that we disagree with. But the fundamental shift from thinking of myths as explanations to expressions opens up beneficial ways for us to think about ourselves.

In particular, rather than thinking of myths as bad science, this shift leads us to think of science as very finely tuned myths! What are scientific formulas, theories, and hypotheses but sophisticated attempts to express the ways in which we perceive various things in the world to operate? The myth of Demeter and Persephone expressed the fact that the seasons change from hot to cold to hot again every year. Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation expresses the pull of gravity on a falling object.

The rise of relativity and quantum mechanics in the twentieth century have pointed out that the Newtonian "myths" were not as precise as they could be. They expressed the way things behave to a certain degree. But we needed new myths to express the way things behave on the "subatomic" level. So we have mathematical stories about characters we call photons, quarks, and gluons. These are true myths not insofar as they tell us the way things really are on the "subatomic" level but insofar as they correctly express the way we perceive things to behave in certain situations.

[1] Sophie's World (New York: Berkley Books, 1991), 25.

[2] Myth and Mystery: An Introduction to the Pagan Religions of the Biblical World (Baker) *.

[3] We have to be careful when we translate the Greek word mythos in the New Testament because it can simply mean a story. 2 Peter 1:16 uses the word to say that the Transfiguration was not a "cleverly devised story." 1 Timothy 1:4 and 4:7, as well as 2 Timothy 4:4 and Titus 1:14 refer to false stories, but they are not Greek, but apparently Jewish stories of some kind.

1 comment:

Angie Van De Merwe said...

What you have said, it seems to me, is that we live by faith in the 'god of the gaps"...until science proves something. In the meantime, "god is the controller"(of mystery) and that is to give hope to those whose lives are affected by the social scientists that have need of "proof"...

Bultmann's understanding that the flood was a local flood, that to these ancient writers seemed to be the "whole world" (that is, if one wants to believe that the text is historically accurate). We do speak and understand from our frame of reference.

There has to be an objective world of some kind (I take by "faith"). And we base our understanding and thinking on what we know to be true...through our experience.

We do not base our faith on ancient texts of tradition, unless we want to limit our perspective to a narrow way of understanding (which is a specific tradition and not universal human experience. But, I imagine my 'universal of human experience" is still to be "proved" by the social scientists).