Culture, myth, reality

We only understand anything through language. We distinguish one thing from another through the words we use: Structuralism says that language is a system, one thing, and words relate to each other rather than to discrete things out there. Post-structuralism says I am born into a world of language, which defines what I might do or think. Orwell imagined Newspeak preventing anyone ever thinking an unorthodox thought: perhaps English does, too. Deconstructionism asserts that meanings are not fixed, but must always be ideological constructs, which attempt to make that which is the product of a particular culture or thought system seem natural, inevitable and objectively true. To destroy slavery, including slavery to concepts of masculinity, we need new language.

Back to that later, perhaps. Language comes before reality in the Bible: In the beginning was the Word; the Earth was a formless void until God speaks, and calls our world into existence. Yet in Christianity, God made revealed Truth. Human beings simply have to tune into revelation of this ready made divine order of things, and fit themselves into it. 

Yet I believe in continuing revelation, human beings working things out, seeing things anew.

I have just been watching a television drama, Thirteen, in which a girl was kidnapped and imprisoned for thirteen years before she escaped. I don’t believe her post-traumatic responses, necessarily, it is a drama of events more than ideas, and one for the quotidian rather than extreme- couples split and reform, people choose between spouses and lovers; so as well as the threat of the Murderer- will he kill the ten year old he has kidnapped now?- I am offered a vision of what it means to be in a couple.

I have a choice of many such stories, in fifty-year soap operas or novellas, millions of versions, from four millennia of civilisation. They are hot, with strong threat and emotion, or cool and contemplative. There are great Myths, and English-speaking peoples are shaped by the King James Bible and Shakespeare. We have no sure way of relating the Jewish teacher, Y’shua, to the Jesus of the Gospels, but we have those stories, of being born of a virgin, changing water into wine, dying and rising again.

There are continual new interpretations of these stories. Humans use them for our own purposes. They do not trap us into one understanding but free us for greater understanding as we continually explore. Stories enable us to share glimpses of truth, as well as the clear detailed descriptions of truth in scientific papers; and to feel our way into empathy as well as thinking into understanding.

Different languages give different understandings of the world, divide it up in different ways.

I am not saying any philosopher considering language has a lesser view than this, but for me, language is a good enough tool to explore my world, and the cage is porous enough for humanity to stretch it: it is not a cage, but scaffolding, for us to create greater understanding. The stories can free us.

I started on this because I have been reading Derek Guiton who apparently fears that David Boulton will drive belief in God out of the Religious Society of Friends. Possibly no-one reading this has my precise interests, yet I hope you get something from it. Here I have looked at Boulton’s explanation of stories in The Trouble with God and found it compatible with belief in God as well as useful in understanding my world.

Bronzino, fresco from the chapel of the old palace in Florence, 2

11 thoughts on “Culture, myth, reality

  1. Again, I understand the point you are making but, because your blog post includes the term ‘myth’ if figured I had to speak up.

    You say, We only understand anything through language. You then imply this means words and I understand why such word are, in fact, culturally and socially important.

    But I’ve got to say something here that is only tangential.

    Because our brains have no direct connection to reality, we have to interpret data. The interesting thing here is how we do that and it’s not with words. In a nutshell, we do this by representation. We only understand anything through representation… which we then interpret by the use of symbolic meaning and then test by modeling reality (sort of a mapping technique that is far more complex than what I’ve written here).

    I mention myth because this is the primary tool once used for transmission of shared understanding. Myth is all about symbolic meaning. The symbols – words that describe magical stuff we do not encounter in real life – have a symbolic meaning (obvious only to some… others presume some version of literalism and miss the point entirely busy as they are believing in such fairy tales in spite of no compelling reasons from reality to do so), This meaning indicates to the listener (followed by the reader, now the screen audience) what the narrative theme represents and this theme is the central teaching of the story. By interpreting the symbols with meaning relative to today and associating them with what they represent in real life relative to today, we then have the opportunity to learn these universal and deeply meaningful insights into the human condition… a condition all of us share. Upon gaining this understanding, we then have an opportunity to incorporate the lesson and live well, to understand how to live with suffering and celebrate life as it is. Understanding myths to be the ticket to gaining wisdom about life is just the first step.

    For the first test, just look to Genesis. Anyone who pulls anything literal out of this mash up of myths has failed. Anyone who thinks it justifies a later historical event obviously has failed.

    Yes, words matter, but so too does gaining wisdom. And one cannot find wisdom in badly confused and outright ridiculous religious beliefs that can’t even interpret a basic myth like Genesis without getting it all wrong.

    So, try a little experiment and reread Genesis as if for the first time unencumbered by dogmatic religious assignments to the various characters. You might be surprised at the deep wisdom it contains applicable to today.

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    • Dear Tildeb, I am delighted that you find value in Genesis; however as I have read and re-read it, I hope I would pass your test, and you would find no literalism in me. But I don’t think the tradition is quite so harmful: the idea that Genesis 1 is a scientific textbook is post-Enlightenment, and the scary insistence on it is far more recent than that.

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      • Are you sure, Clare?

        Most Christians seem to think the historic blood sacrifice of Jesus is to ‘atone’ for Adam’s sin… a sin that all humanity literally inherits (an inheritance that has to be literal for this to make any sense).

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        • Catholic catechism: 390 The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man.264 Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents. I don’t think that is necessarily literal.

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          • Now that’s amusing! It’s figurative, but it’s primal (meaning fundamental, essential, OED). Nice word play… probably obvious and quite noticeable in it’s error to someone concerned with the power of words. This is an excellent example of mental gymnastics, wouldn’t you say?

            So, original sin is fundamental and essential to the human condition, but it’s source is from a figurative yet necessary free will action, an historical and literal deed… that shouldn’t be taken to mean literally! (This just keeps getting better and better!)

            Catholicism is often portrayed (incorrectly) as being friendly to evolution – even compatible and has its very own privileged terminology: theistic evolution. But here we see it is not. It is pure creationism claiming a first created couple (but not like that figurative Genesis myth). And the claim that an original couple (for which we have incompatible genetic evidence in conflict with this hypothesis) committed an historical act (represented in Genesis but not literal, of course) that introduced heritable sin in need of later divine and historical (not to mention Catholic) redemption is the very definition of a Just So story that tries to have it both ways. This catechism plays the necessary word game to make the square but figurative peg appear to fit seamlessly into the round but literal hole. But we also know appearances can be and often are quite deceiving… and we know who the Great Deceiver is, don’t we… mythologically speaking? But I read the same apologetic word game – word play to make ‘up’ appear to be another kind of ‘down’, ‘black’ appear to be another kind of ‘white’ when we squint just so – played by all flavours of Christianity to avoid exactly this thorny incompatibility.

            I’m relieved you don’t think that the myth(s) of Genesis is (are) necessarily literal, and so I am pleased you’ll be first in line to understand why anyone might view all the rest of the scriptures as not necessarily literal, either. In fact, on such a figurative basis, it makes sense that the remainder of the God-is-real, Man-is-flawed belief set derived from such figurative scripture should ever be considered necessarily literal… right up to and including the whole figurative redemption Just So story of Jesus. Then you could correctly claim that you don’t take any of Genesis literally. Short of that, however, I think you’re being very generous to yourself to think yourself any different in principle (but far more rationalizing) from the fundamentalism of others who do use Genesis as a science textbook. If you think they are misguided for such anti-scientific, anti-enlightenment beliefs, then it’s really a question of time and intellectual honesty until you realize you are, too.

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            • I am almost too bored to explain my thought processes, but:
              -“most Christians”
              -Catholics outnumber Orthodox and Protestant, Copts and any others, put together, I understand.
              -“If you think they are misguided for such anti-scientific, anti-enlightenment beliefs, then it’s really a question of time and intellectual honesty until you realize you are, too.”
              -er, steady on; I would call myself post-enlightenment, actually. I don’t care for you questioning my intellectual honesty, but any basis you have for such a judgment is entirely your own misunderstanding, so it does not particularly bother me.

              One more post on perception and reality in a couple of hours.

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            • That’s a rather evasive response. My comment regarding intellectual honesty was about either holding Genesis as figurative, in which case there is no need for Jesus’ literal sacrifice OR Genesis as literal, in which case it is a science textbook that is factually wrong. That’s the round peg, square hole I was talking about. You’ve evaded this entirely in this latest comment but, instead, have played the ‘misunderstanding’ card in its place. What misunderstanding? It’s either figurative or literal. That’s the tough choice. You can’t have it both ways without being, as I said, intellectually dishonest in the sense of simply and arbitrarily cherry-picking which bits are which… yet seemingly separating yourself from those anti-scientific, anti-enlightenment fundamentalist believers who are at least consistent.

              Because you are Quaker (and I assume take on the set of Christian tenets that define them as Christian), you are ‘most’ Christians when it comes to bearing the burden of this thorny problem. That’s all I was saying in this regard.

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