One of the most profound understandings that came from our season on Faith & Politics is the difference between mythos and logos as articulated in Karen Armstrong's Battle for God . At a time when so much of our political dissent has its foundation in differences over religious and secular worldviews, we think it forms a basis for moving forward in the culture war.
Historical importance of mythos
We tend to assume that the people of the past were (more or less) like us, but in fact their spiritual lives were rather different. In particular, they evolved two ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge, which scholars have called mythos and logos. Both were essential; they were regarded as complementary ways of arriving at truth, and each had its special area of competence.
Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning...
Myth could not be demonstrated by rational proof; its insights were more intuitive, similar to those of art, music, poetry, or sculpture.
Armstrong sees faith as the realm of mythos:
...To ask whether the Exodus from Egypt took place exactly as recounted in the Bible or to demand historical and scientific evidence
to prove that it is factually true is to mistake the nature and purpose of this story. It is to confuse mythos with logos
The ascendance of logos
Logos was equally important. Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world.. We are very familiar with logos, which is the basis of our society. Unlike myth, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to extemal realities if it is to be effectlve. Unlike myth, which looks back to the beginnings and to the foundations, logos forges ahead and tries to find something new...
In the premodern world, both mythos and logos were regarded as indispensable. Each would be impoverished without the other. Yet the two were essentially distinct, and it was held to be dangerous to confuse mythical and rational discourse. They had separate jobs to do. Myth was not reasonable; lts narratives were not supposed to be demonstrated empirically. It provided the context of meaning that made our practical activities worthwhile. You were not supposed to make myth the basis of a pragmatic policy. If you did, the results could be disastrous, because what worked well in the inner world of the psyche was not readily applicable to the affairs of the external world.
Logos had its limitations too. It could not assuage human pain or sorrow. Rational arguments could make no sense of tragedy. Logos could not answer questions about the ultimate value of human life.
Modernity loses sense of the importance of mythos
By the eighteenth century, however, the people of Europe and America had achieved such astonishing success in science and technology that they began to think that logos was the only means to truth and began to discount mythos as false and superstitious...
Our religious experience in the modern world has changed, and because an increasing number of people regard scientific rationalism alone as true, they have often tried to turn the mythos of their faith into logos. Fundamentalists have also made this attempt. This confusion has led to more problems.
Fundamentalists feel that they are battling against forces that threaten their most sacred values. During a war it is very difficult for combatants to appreciate one another's position. We shall find that modernization has led to a polarization of society, but sometimes, to prevent an escalation of the conflict, we must try to understand the pain and perceptions of the other side.