Traditional Culture

When Materialism Infringes on Religion’s Domain

Mythos versus logos, part 2
BY James Sale TIMEJuly 9, 2023 PRINT

What happens when our understanding of the world is split into the competing camps of science and religion?

In the first part of this article series, we talked about the difference between logos and mythos, and said that both were forms of knowledge that were necessary for our human survival. In the modern world, though, logos had come to dominate thinking to the exclusion of all other methodologies, and that this was impoverishing our collective life and communities.

Essentially, logos explains how things happens (so it’s most readily, but not exclusively, identifiable with science), and mythos explains why things happen; in other words, the origins of things (and so is most readily, but not exclusively, identifiable with religion).

The Overreach of Science

When Scholars Argue
“When Scholars Argue,” 1890, from Humoristic Monthly Magazines. The translation of the text on the image: It is good that at all times, the scholars, when they argue don’t get into a bar-fight, but just intellectually spar with each other. But WERE things to get physical, one wouldn’t be wrong to imagine that it would look something like what you see in the picture here, when they get into it. (Public Domain)

There are regrettable consequences of this fracture between mythos and logos and so between science and religion. In the case of science, it has led to what has been dubbed “scientism,” a form of overreach in which science pontificates on theological and mythological issues without knowing much about them. For example, in the 2006 bestseller “The God Delusion,” the author’s understanding of both history and theology is severely limited, as well as being highly cherry-picked. Professor Terry Eagleton, an agnostic himself, remarked of the book: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the ‘Book of British Birds,’ and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”

Some scientists acknowledge the misuse of scientism. As Nobel-prize winning scientist Sir John C. Eccles expressed it in his book “Evolution of the Brain: Creation of the Self,”:

“I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition. … We have to recognise that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world,”

Put another way: Science isn’t being science when it makes unproven assumptions about ultimate reality—the “why,” in other words.

Materialism’s Effect on Religion

Origen teaching the catechism to a group of students
A book illustration of Origen teaching the catechism to a group of students, 1700, by Jan Luyken. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. (Public Domain)

In the case of mythos and religion this fracture produces another problem. As certain scientists (and mainstream media, for that matter) advocate “promissory materialism” under the guise of scientific truth, and simultaneously attack the truth(s) of religion(s), we find literalism (that is to say that texts have one and only one meaning) and fundamentalism (which is the belief carried into action that the one ‘meaning’ must be accepted by everybody else) creeping into—rushing into—the void that is created by the collapse of mythos and mythos-thinking.

The fundamentalists end up as dogmatic materialists who simply can’t entertain, much less understand, mythos-thinking; and religious literalists who become addicted to interpretations of texts which are massively at variance with how those texts were once understood by earlier communities of believers.

Origen (A.D. 185–253), for example, is a good example of one of the early church fathers who advocated a mythos approach to interpreting scripture, as did Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354–430) and Gregory the Great (A.D. 540–604).

The Problems of Fundamental Literalism

One of the traits of this literalism is what might be called “selective texting”: Certain sacred texts are predicated as being the right ones, and so texts which seem to contradict their central contention are either ignored or explained away. Furthermore, fundamental literalism does, and will, run into real problems with “real” science: The most glaring example of this is probably the dating of the creation of the world versus the Genesis account. I shall return to this point, but to be clear on my own position: I am not anti-science, for science has much (but not everything) to teach us about the world we live in.

First, though, how was this mythos-type thinking that theologians such as Origen taught constituted? There are many variations on a theme here, but the important point, I think, is to realize that there is a literal understanding of text, a non-literal (hidden) understanding, and a moral or spiritual understanding that can transcend or supersede the other meanings.

Take, for example, the simple word “Jerusalem” in the Bible. What does it mean? Quite obviously, and literally, it may refer just to the geographical city in Israel. But less obviously, it may actually refer to a hidden sense, for example, of the Holy Church; or it may signify the faithful soul of whoever aspires to the vision of eternal peace; or finally, even, as classical and medieval scholar Harry Caplan noted, it denotes the life of the dwellers in Heaven who see God revealed in Zion. If we fix on just one meaning, we may miss the others. And here we are only dealing with one word! What might happen if we look at whole sentences?

Episodes in the book of Genesis
Episodes in the book of “Genesis” with God creating the sun, moon, and stars, animals, and man in his image. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0)

To return, then, to an earlier point: One of the most famous conflicts of mythos versus logos concerns the chronology of creation. Bishop Ussher was an English 17th-century theologian—one of many—who calculated that the world began in the year 4004 B.C. (and he even calculated the day, the month and the time in 4004 B.C.!). Other theologians calculated other dates, but whatever the dates were, they are massively at variance with scientific calculations.

But let’s be clear here too: Scientific calculations of the approximate date of the origins of the universe and Earth have also altered over the last 100 years. Will they alter again? Following the leads of new evidence, it seems highly likely they will, and so the notion that there is somehow a correct or definitive answer to the issue is inherently problematic.

But the point is that in trying to read the Bible as if it were a scientific textbook designed to provide us with the date of the creation of the Earth is fundamentally to misread it, and it is to widen the split between science and religion in a completely unnecessary way.

Interestingly, one thing that scientism and fundamentalism have in common is the quest for certainty—the complete avoidance of ambiguity, the burning desire to believe or subscribe to unalterable texts or irrefutable facts.

Certainty in science, however, is specious as many eminent and brilliant scientists inform us: “If you thought that science was certain—well, that is just an error on your part,” said Nobel Prize winner for physics Richard Feynman. And if that were not enough, the very history of science itself tells us that its truths, its models, and paradigms shift and change.

The Multifaceted Sacred Text

Saint John the Evangelist
There is a very strong case for arguing that the Book of Revelation is a poem. “Saint John the Evangelist,” between 1624–1629, by Domenichino. National Gallery, London. (Public Domain)

Equally, looking at the Bible in a most cursory way, we see that it is not one book, but a collection of 66 books (in the Protestant tradition) with a large number of authors, over a large time span of human history, and furthermore, in a wealth of different genres. Just to take this last point: Different genres require that we read a text in a different way. We would not, for example, think that reading a novel, reading a love letter, reading a cookbook recipe, reading a business contract, reading a poem, among others, should or might be read in the same way. Would we? Not at all.

The Bible, then, contains historical narratives, wisdom literature, letters and epistles, homilies, parables, apocalyptic and prophetic literature, law codes and moral commandments, priestly and ecclesiastical instructions, theological and salvific debate, poetry (a large amount), and so on. Of the final category, surprisingly, we find that some say more than 30 percent of The Old Testament is actually poetry.

It is not just the obvious texts such as the Psalms that are poetry. There is a very strong case for arguing that the Book of Revelation is a poem. Nick Page in his fascinating book “Revelation Road” describes the writer of the book of Revelation, John, as “a poet. And that’s why Revelation scares so many people. Because they will keep reading it as prose.” Reading poetry is quite different from reading prose—quite, quite different; in fact, one of the major qualities of poetry, as opposed to prose, is its built-in ambiguity. What, exactly, does a poem mean?

When we think about it, there is a lovely symmetry in considering the book of Revelation to be poetry. It is the last book of the Bible, and Genesis as the first book, especially in its pre-Abrahamic early chapters, contains large amounts of poetry, too. Are these, then, the kind of texts on which we would base an estimate of the Earth’s scientific age?

Furthermore, is knowing the exact date of the Earth’s, or the Universe’s, age, or moment of creation actually important in any fully meaningful way? For example, if the Earth were created not in 4004 B.C. but in 4005 B.C., would that make things different for us? Or what if it were 40,000 B.C. or 400,000 B.C. or 4 million B.C., would that affect the spiritual reality of being a human being? Does anything important to our lives hinge on this fact (or should I say, “factoid”)? Hardly.

Actually, much more important than knowing exactly when the creation occurred is knowing that there was a creation and that it can only have occurred via the intervention of a Divine Mind, which, in the Western tradition, we call God.

This latter point is brilliantly summarized in Eric Hedin’s “Canceled Science”: “Absolute nothing cannot produce something, because if it had that ability, it would have something, and so it wouldn’t be nothing. From this we can conclude that something has always existed because something exists now. So far, we’re just using logic.” The “something” that has always existed, we call God.

In part 3 of this series, we will go directly to Genesis to see the wonders that the poetry (the mythos) reveals about God, the creation, and mankind. These wonders are far more important than trying to trace back genealogies to establish literal dates, as I hope to demonstrate.

The Creation
“The Creation,” 1534, by Lucas Cranach from Martin Luther’s 1534 translation of the Bible. (Public Domain)

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James Sale has had over 50 books published, most recently, “Mapping Motivation for Top Performing Teams” (Routledge, 2021). He has been nominated for the 2022 poetry Pushcart Prize, won first prize in The Society of Classical Poets 2017 annual competition, performing in New York in 2019. His most recent poetry collection is “StairWell.” For more information about the author, and about his Dante project, visit EnglishCantos.home.blog
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