Sunday, December 12, 2010

Myths are all very well, but dreams of purity are pernicious

Andrew Sullivan, pushing back against atheist literalism that attacks religious tenets on the ground of their obvious factual inaccuracy, writes:
The Christmas stories in the Bible - and they are multiple and contradictory - are obviously myths. They are obviously not to be taken literally. They are meant as signs to the deeper, profounder truth that Christians hold to: that the force behind all that exists actually intervened in the consciousness of humankind in the form of a man so saturated in godliness that merely being near him healed people of the weight of the world's sins. This is so enormous and radical an idea that it is not suprising [sic] that early Christian writers told stories to bring it more firmly to life. But they were stories, telling of a deeper more ineffable truth. If only contemporary Christians could let go of the literalism in pursuit of the far more extraordinary fact of the Incarnation.
Nothing really can be said against this. If myths are not dependent on factual occurrence, and if the myths of a particular religious tradition speak to a given individual, who is to nay-say?  Specifically, if the core of Jesus's preaching as represented in the gospels really sings in your soul, there is nothing to argue about.

Or maybe there is, a little. You can argue about the psychological and social impact of particular myths -- for example, virgin birth, which is ubiquitous in diverse mythologies and sacred texts.  In Christianity, virgin birth is bookend to the doctrine of the fall, which I regard as a really pernicious myth that fundamentally miscasts the human condition.

The intensity of my dislike of the fall meme has taken form through my ongoing if increasingly pointless internal dialogue with C.S. Lewis, whose mythopoeic force made Christianity at least partially imaginatively available to me for a few years. In his novel Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis imagines three intelligent species on a planet, Mars, that has never experienced a fall. Hence the differing social lives of the three species are uncorrupted by violence, fraud, injustice, self-inflicted suffering. The achievements are of our own society -- law, medicine, commerce, technology -- are memorably lampooned as byproducts of human depravity.

The imaginative depth of Lewis' depiction of three distinct species with different talents and personalities, none of which exploits any of the others, is really remarkable. Utopias that actually make a just and peaceful society imaginable -- and desired by the reader -- are rare and to be treasured. (Another one, underpinned by an equally if oppositely misguided ideology, is Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed.)

Yet what's behind this dream of an effortlessly just, God-honoring society? An answer lies in a fictional footnote to the novel, added by the hero ("Ransom") in a letter responding to the narrative produced by his friend ("Lewis") who has written up his story.  Ransom notes, among other facts of life pertaining to the species he lived with, "that their droppings, like those of the horse, are not offensive to themselves, or to me, and are used for agriculture" (p. 169, Macmillan edition, 1946).

So. An unfallen species would presumably not be inhabited by bacteria -- or maybe only by good bacteria that smelled like roses.  The conditions of our evolution and the fundamental realities of our biological being are causes for guilt, because we deranged them in our collective past ("mythical" or not). (Pair with this an earlier detail: the hrossa are not only completely monogamous, but mate only for a relatively brief season.  That's presumably because, as CSL explains elsewhere, the fact that human beings don't attend gastronomic stripteases in which dishes are seductively uncovered proves that something is fundamentally wrong with our sexuality.)

The perception of a "fall" is of course a way of coping with the pervasive feeling of guilt so common (if not universal) to the human experience. I suspect that it is a rare person who does not go through life internally murmuring some version of the dreary refrain (and title) of Joseph's Heller's novel Something Happened. Something must have happened to me at some point.  There was a time when I did not feel so powerless, or faithless, or angry, or guilty...what changed me? What happened? And how can I get back? 

But in an era in which humanity has built up detailed if fragmented understanding of how organisms interact with each other and with the nonorganic physical world, how the body processes nourishment and fights off disease, how our behavior is related to that of our primate ancestors and mammalian cousins-- and how our values and behavior have evolved over time -- the notion that our limitations and nonadaptive impulses derive from some fundamental originary act of disobedience -- whether understood collectively or individually -- is simply not adequate, not helpful, not in keeping with the factual knowledge we have acquired.  We are what the physical universe and the biology of this planet have made us. Increasingly, as we acquire knowledge, we are what we make ourselves -- we have the capacity to at least partially shape our own evolution, for better or for worse. If the notion of an "unfallen" society haunts us, it should be as a hope of the future, not a dream of the past.

Virgin birth myths are of no more use at this stage of our development than myths of a fall. In Christian doctrine, the Virgin Birth is antidote to the fall -- God repairing the rift.  Why virgin? Because sex is the sign and symptom of sin. As a generation of feminists enjoyed pointing out, this fantasy is rooted in misogyny, pinning the guilt attached to sexuality on the object of men's lust -- the mother of all projections. As Freud noted,  neurotics can't bear the thought of having been born between shit and piss. And along with whatever virtues they possess, mythmakers have been known to be possessed of a tinge of neurosis. To step outside of Biblical tradition for a moment, consider a tale of the birth of Buddha:
The most popular legendary account of the birth of Buddha is in the Nidanakatha Jataka (see, Jataka tales) which accounted for the lives of Buddha in previous incarnations. In this account, the “Great Being” chose the time and place of his birth, the tribe into which he would be born, and who his mother would be. In the time chosen by him, Maya, his mother, fell asleep and dreamed that four archangels carried her to the Himalayan Mountains where their queens bathed and dressed her. In her dream the Great Being soon entered her womb from her side, in the form of a white elephant...

It is told that the mother and son were watched over by four angels, and of the necessity of the mother's early death, of how a "Bodisat leaves his mother's womb erect and unsoiled, like a preacher descending from a pulpit or a man from a ladder, erect, stretching out his hands and feet, unsoiled by any impurities from contact with his mother's womb, pure and fair, and shining like a gem placed on fine muslin of Benares.
Ah, purity. The dream of purity, for the individual or society, is also pernicious.  Here my teacher is Salman Rushdie:
In the age of mass migration and the internet, cultural plurality is an irreversible fact; like it or dislike it, it’s where we live, and the dream of a pure monoculture is at best an unattainable, nostalgic fantasy and at worst a life-threatening menace — when ideas of purity (racial purity, religious purity, cultural purity) turn into programmes of “ethnic cleansing” or when Hindu fanatics attack the “inauthenticity” of Indian Muslim experience, or when Islamic ideologues drive young people to die in the service of “pure” faith, unadulterated by compassion or doubt. “Purity” is a slogan that leads to segregations and explosions. Let us have no more of it. A little more impurity, please; a little less cleanliness; a little more dirt. We'll all sleep easier in our beds.
Maybe some people's religion can embrace Rushdie's dirt. There is real explanatory power in Robert Wright's theory that God has evolved with human society: that as society grows more humane, so do concepts of God. What I question is how long the ancient scriptures, imprinted with harsh values by now discredited by, say, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, can continue as adequate vehicles of that evolution. Those with a serious commitment to a given tradition often scoff at religious selectivity, the notion that a would-be believer can pick and choose: I will let this alleged teaching of Jesus be my guide, I will reject that alleged teaching of Jesus (or Paul -- or Moses, or Mohammad) as an historical relic or latter-day interpolation. But the alternative is to be fettered by prescriptions and proscriptions that have no place in contemporary society, that repress and oppress and waste minds and lives.

I wonder when some new perception of divine law or the human condition that takes full account of acquired knowledge and wisdom, political and scientific -- one not based on past scriptures or a product of obvious fraud, like, say, the Mormon scriptures -- will burst upon the world. Maybe never. New scriptures generally reference old ones, and full-souled in-spiration may depend on a degree of self-delusion (thus speaks the Lord!) not possible in someone who takes full account of knowledge acquired in the last 200 years. But it's plain that the thirst for doctrine and ritual and communion, a vehicle for contact with the numinous and a frame for understanding duty and purpose, and a reassurance that all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well, is not going away.


  1. Interesting post. If you are interested, I commented on it here:

  2. Doesn't Spengler belong in this discussion?