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E’ verdade! Ele fiz ao sol soubir!         It’s true, he made the sun come up!
Agora, voçê e’ o Orfeu!  Toque uma canção p’ra mim!
Now, You’re Orpheus!  Play me a song!

From Steve Hayes’ Yahoo Group “eldil”

So here’s what I posted (or would have had Eldil Yahoo Group been accessed):

You may have seen reported on the news that an atheist organization has put up a large billboard at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel in NYC that reads:  You know it’s a myth.  This season celebrate REASON.

A Catholic organization has recently retaliated with a billboard opposite which reads: You know it’s read.  This season celebrate Jesus.

When I first saw the original sign I said to myself, Of COURSE it’s a myth.

The word myth has morphed of course from the Greek ‘mythos’. In Webster’s that is  “a pattern of beliefs expressing often symbolically the characteristic or prevalent attitudes in a group or culture.”

I’m sure Steve could provide a better definition or meaning of the Greek word.  The word myth today most often in the secular world is used to mean an unfounded or false notion, a thing having only an imaginary existence.

A second comment by the same commenter [AnnA]

The atheist sign is of course wrong about myth. Myth is real. Myth and reason
are not opposites, or enemies, iyw. Every human holds to both, sometimes at the
same time. Even the atheist holds the myth of physics- indeed much of he/she
calls science, the myths of history, etc. If one hasn’t seen it, or is unable
to fully intellectualize it (such as pain, evil in the world, the meaning of
life- whatever) then one has a myth. Privately or publically everyone holds
their myths.

Steve replies:

I am reminded of what Nicolas Berdyaev said about myth:

“Myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept. It is
high time that we stopped identifying myth with invention,
with the illusions of primitive mentality, and with anything,
in fact, which is essentially opposed to reality… The
creation of myths among peoples denotes a real spiritual life,
more real indeed than that of abstract concepts and rational
thought. Myth is always concrete and expresses life better
than abstract thought can do; its nature is bound up with that
of symbol. Myth is the concrete recital of events and original
phenomena of the spiritual life symbolized in the natural
world, which has engraved itself on the language memory and
creative energy of the people… it brings two worlds together

and then I reply:

If there is one thing I have taken away from the epistemological wars I have been involved in on the internet, it is that TRVTH is something of a fluid concept.

The atheists who put up their billboard in the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel are really saying something like this: “You don’t believe the Christmas story based on any of the mechanisms you use to justify belief in your daily life, so
why believe it at all? Using the mechanisms you would use to troubleshoot a engine problem or invest $15,000, you cannot determine whether or not there ever even was a Jesus of Nazareth, much less whether he did all those things you heard he did. So, why celebrate?”

Leaving aside the fact that most people aren’t as epistemologically fastidious as a trained scientist, I realize that the atheist is making a claim that “Reason” is the primary means by which truth is distinguished from falsehood.   The problem is that reason is not a particularly good means of establishing veracity in historical matters, where usually you have to weigh the reliabilty of documentary evidence or material testimony such as pottery and other remains.

When the atheist refers to the Nativity of our Lord as “myth”, he is making two powerful claims; first, that if there was a videocamera in the stable in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, it would have discovered nothing more than an ordinary family in difficult straits, if that. Also, if this camera followed the baby throughout his life, it would reveal nothing more than an ordinary man leading an ordinary life. Maybe at the end he went a little crazy, abandoning his profession and taking up the life of an itinerant preacher before running afoul of the ecclesiastical and governmental authorities. He was tried, executed and buried. End of story. The rest is “myth”.

But the second claim is the more powerful. It is the claim that what the videocamera reveals is TRVE, i.e., that nothing can be trusted apart from the testimony of our senses, however enhanced by technology.

Now, on to myth.

My mind appears to work in two complementary ways. I learn by distinguishing differences between phenomena and by discerning likenesses between phenomena.   The discriminatory faculty I would call the digital impulse and would assert that it is what the atheist calls “reason” and it is a very powerful faculty.

The generalizing faculty I would call the analogous impulse, and it operates somewhat like two people lying on their backs and staring at clouds. One says, that cloud looks like John F Kennedy, and the other says, no it looks like an
airplane about to fly into a mountain. This is also a very powerful faculty.   The best writers I have ever read who have commented on this same polarization of the human intellect are Douglas Hofstadter and Robert Pirsig, although I
think I have seen it commented on by a host of modern thinkers from Michael Polanyi to Michel Foucalt. Just don’t ask me for my notes. 🙂

Language, that most human of faculties, appears to me use these opposing yet complementary devices simultaneously.

Now, the discriminatory faculty is amenable to discussion. We can see that light comes in different frequencies, and that the large majority of people whose retinal cones are irritated by electromagnetic impulses with a wavelength of 520nm report seeing a green object. If someone doesn’t see a green object, we don’t assume that she is merely expressing a private opinion. We assume that her visual appratus is defective in some way.

The generalizing, or analogous faculty is far less amenable to such agreement.  There is no way to establish who is “right” between the two men looking at clouds, although most onlookers with any sympathy for the two men would be able to see what they see. Culture and experience play a large role as well. It is unlikely that a Tibetan would see John F. Kennedy in the clouds, for example.  However, this doesn’t mean that the ability to see connections between seemingly  unrelated events, pattern recognition, is useless. Indeed, it is a highly sought after ability in intelligence workers, security agents, and investment bankers.

It is obvious from the Gospels themselves that not everybody experienced the same phenomenon when they encountered Jesus of Nazareth.  One of my favorite passages in the one in the Gospel of St. John where Jesus asked His Father to glorify Him with the glory that they shared before the world began. His Father responded, according the apostle, audibly, that He had glorified it and would glorify it in the future. However the apostle also recorded that the listeners were divided between those who heard an angel talking and those who heard a thunderclap.

One can only wonder what a good tape recorder, a created device, would have picked up had it tried to record the uncreated Voice. Perhaps people would have had differing responses to the recording; an apostle or someone equally pure of heart would hear the Voice of Sinai, good men would hear an angel, bad men a thunderclap.

There is an echo of this in the Tao Teh Ching:

“When the good man hears of the Tao, he practices it assiduously

When a mediocre man hears of the Tao, he neither believes nor disbelieves

When a contemptible man hears of the Tao, he laughs it to scorn

But the Tao that could not be thus ridiculed is not the Eternal Tao.”

It appears that the interpretation of this event falls within the purview of the second mental impulse, and that this impulse is what gives rise to what men call “myth”. The exercise of the discriminating impulse attempts to remove this
“mythical” element from explanations of phenomena, resulting in that which is universal for all subjects (I dislike the word ‘objective’).

The exercise of “reason” does not result in “truth” as much as it results in that which can be agreed upon by all subjects. That is why it works best on inert matter, or even more accurately, best in the abstract realm of mathematics and logic.  Reason loses traction as you ascend the ladder of the sciences, moving from Physics to Chemistry to Biology to Anthropology to Psychology to Poetics to Theology.

As you ascend this ladder, accretions of “myth” accrue. Chemical reactions are more than mere physical phenomena. Biological processes are more than can be described by mere chemical reactions. Purity of heart becomes more important as you move from quantum mechanics into medicine.

Once again, I find myself at soemthing of an impasse. As Coleridge put it, in order to be able to say anything correctly, it is necessary to say everything, and I am incapable of saying everything. I am sure that if this gets out to the right places, I will be well-corrected, maybe not gently, but it appears to me that the force of Reason is the systolic force that pushes from that realm behind or above the minds of men out into the “shining buzzing confusion” that is perceived by very young children, mystics, and the abusers of certain alkaloids.

The force of myth, far from establishing what is “right” or “true” or “so” in the realm of the phenomena, is a diastolic force that pushes back from the inert physical world, the “intersubjective” world, the world that all subjects share, back into the mind and soul of man and hopefully, links him to that which is behind and above him.  The proper use of myth is not for us to discern truth in that which is not-us, but for that which is not-us to establish truth in us.

some notes for Steve Hayes’ call for papers:

I. The Tectonic Plate Shift in The 1960s

I think there are shifts in consciousness. The much-maligned ‘generation gap’ of the late ’60s and early ’70s was shorthand for just such a shift in consciousness. It isn’t easy to describe, but you can hear the shift in the music of the era as experimentation with psychoactive drugs became more widespread and a certain ‘interiorness’ became mandatory for music, especially popular music, to be taken seriously. There were a lot of disasters, and a lot of the most promising artists of the 60s and 70s either died as a result of their drug use or had their voices prematurely stolen from them.

The experimentation by the generation of the ’60s with the sexual contract was simultaneous with, and even more earth shaking than the use of psychoactive drugs. As the baby-boomers reach retirement in the advanced industial democracies, it is hard to imagine that lifelong monogamy was once not just the ideal, but the reality. The organization of human energies within the family, and concentrically outward, the commercial sphere, the state, and the church.

There was a book published in 1970. I’m surprised I even remember it. It was called The Greening Of America and it was written by a Yale Law School professor, Charles A. Reich. It was a very popular and controversial book in 1970, celebrating ‘rock music’ and recreational drug use. It was a rah-rah book for the 60s ‘counterculture’, and nobody takes it seriously today. It appeared just at that moment of history when the 60s counterculture began to self-destruct, from its own contradictions and its own success.

Charles Reich was asked recently (2008) if his book had any continuing relevance. He said something that struck me as being very insightful. Paraphrasing him, has that young people today are concerned about the material emptiness of their lives; I can’t find a job, I can’t support a family. The complaints fielded in the 1960s were more spiritual; I don’t feel like a real human being, I feel like a machine.

Reich said, insightfully, that it is the same system that creates the different forms of emptiness. I will go Reich further and say that something truly awful has settled in the center of the web of exchange that we have been busy building and maintaining since the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which is sucking all the energies out of the Grid, pulling it closer and closer to the Core, and leaving the outlying circuits to die for lack of nourishment.

Since I am not an economist, nor a professional philosopher, nor a social critic, and am proceeding from intuition rather than from direct observation, I can only speak from that intuition. That which inhabits the center of our web is an Algorithm, composed of a mixture of usury and analysis. In order to come close to the levers of power, the human agents of the Algorithm internalize it. The cultural revolution of the 1960s was the last internal challenge to the Algorithm on it home ground, and it failed. Now it appears that we will find out what will happen to the Algorithm when the infecting vector kills off its host.

II. The Emergence Of Fantasy Literature in the 1960s

The embrace by the counterculture of The Lord Of The Rings took a lot of people by surprise in the mid-60s. It was counter-intuitive that a convoluted yarn about small people with hairy feet written by a deeply traditional Oxford professor would become a hit with young people who were thought at the time to be quite ‘radical’ and ‘experimental’.

Very shortly after the initial success of the triology, imitators began to appear. Very prominently, most of these works take place in a sort of pseudo-Middle Ages where machinery was less prominent and technology less intrusive.

This was Professor Tolkien’s legacy. His great achievement was to produce a medieval work in a modern milieu, and he was well -equipped for the task. His colleagues were frustrated in his almost total lack of interest in any literature later than Malory. He seldom rode in automobiles, preferring a bicycle. It was said that he had a name for every tree within 20 miles of his Oxford home, and was not often invited on CS Lewis’ walking tours because of his frustrating habit of pausing frequently to inspect the local flora.

Professor Tolkien had something closer to the consciousness of a well-read man of Chaucer’s time than existed anywhere else in the world in his lifetime, and we are fortunate indeed that his Lengendarium proceeded from that consciousness. If nothing else, it made us homesick for what we had lost through the triumph of the Algorithm.

The Lord Of The Rings as a medieval work stands firmly against the central assumption of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment that followed hard upon it, that reason rather than custom is a superior method of organizing human energies. This was the great conceit of the Renaissance, that the preceding age had been kind of a Dreamtime in which the race slumbered unaware of its potential.

Tolkien’s work here echos the work of his predecessors, the Romantics and the pre-Raphaelites who saw in medieval culture a unity and spritual cohesiveness lacking afterwards. In this way, The Lord Of The Rings is only the latest and most successful Romantic challenge to the hegemony of the Algorithm in a chain linking back to Blake and his lament against the “dark Satanic mills” and the triumph of Urizen the measurer.

Alternative Medievalities

In the early 20th century, it was popular to say that the Russian Empire was a “medieval” state, an offensive survival from a ruder, earlier age, like the winged mounts of the Ringwraiths being the last brood hatched in a cold eyrie in mountains under the Moon.

In the same way, the Chinese or the Indians would be hard-pressed to find a “Middle Ages” in their historiography. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a Russian, a Chinese, or an Indian The Lord Of The Rings. The necessary sense of medievality is not there, if medievality is a conspicuous re-adoption of a previously discarded consciousness which the discarder believes himself to have transcended.

This despite that Russia, China, and India had very bloody and very wrenching entrances into the world of European post-medievality. The experience of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment came for the world and the cultures outside of Europe as an experience of conquest, colonialism, and revolution. The Spanish conquest of the New World goes even farther back. The Spanish Baroque conquistadores destroyed the last remaining vestiges of the ancient pre-Classical age and incorporated it uneasily into the emerging European web. Perhaps the literary phenomenon of “magic realism” in Latin American letters is a corresponding medievality.

One culture I can see having a full-blown indigenous sense of medievality would be the Japanese culture. The opening of Japan’s hermetically sealed Tokugawa Shogunate by the European powers in the 19th century led to the supplanting of a traditional, highly stratified, and hierarchical society by a more open and technocratic one. From what little exposure I have had to Japanese cultural product, mostly through manga and anime, it appears that there may be a rough correspondence between the Western sence of medievality and the Japanese.


The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams