Friday, December 18, 2009
True or Not?
Ours is a very literal minded age. Things are literally true, or they are not true at all.
That mindset leaves us with only three real choices: 1) old fashioned positivism, what's true is only that which we can apprehend with our senses and our conscious reasoning; 2) religious fundamentalism, what's written down in a Bronze Age book or proclaimed unaltered for centuries is literally true because God and our ancestors say so; 3) nihilism, there is no real meaning or value to anything.
Those three choices have one thing in common, they are all repulsive. Positivism and fundamentalism take us down well-traveled paths to dead ends, and are unacknowledged twins to one another. Nihilism trashes the whole world because there's no good reason not to.
Myth is a fighting word nowadays. Myth suggests fairy tales (forgetting that fairy tales began as stories told by parents to children to teach them about life, about fortune [Cindarella] and misfortune [Hansel and Gretel], about good and evil). To say someone's beliefs are based on myth is to suggest very strongly that they are not true, literally or any other way.
Did ancient peoples really believe their myths literally? Did the Egyptians literally believe that the sun rose every morning because a giant scarab beetle pushed it up over the horizon? It's hard to say. When interviewing people from cultures still immersed in myth and legend, it's hard to tell in their answers what is authentic and what is a creation of the modern mind-set which is all pervasive. The answer to that question is probably yes and no. I doubt the Egyptians literally believed that the sun rose because a giant beetle pushed it. They still believed that the sun was alive, divine, and that they could speak to it and it could speak back to them. I seriously doubt the Greeks and the Romans from Hesiod to Plotinus literally believed any of their stories. Saint Augustine and most of the other church fathers are quite candid about the literal truth or not of most stories in Scripture. Augustine warns against exclusively literalist interpretations of the Bible.
On the other hand, the world of the spirit, which for us is mainly symbol and metaphor, was something palpably real for ancient peoples, always there lurking just behind what they could see. The spirits of nature, of fortune, and of the dead were always talking to the living. Divination was a way of transmitting their messages. Sacrifice was a way of influencing them. Sometimes those spirits would talk directly in the form of dreams and visions. People talked to them in the form of prayer. The great rabbi Martin Buber suggested that religion is not really about explaining anything, but about talking to whatever may or may not be there listening over the horizon of death, beyond what we can see, and at the very heart of everything that is. In the midst of an age of scientific technology, he proposed in some way returning to that basic activity of ancient religion even if that old palpable sense of the presence of the spirits is no longer available to us.
So why did these peoples keep their stories even if they knew they weren't literally true? They kept those stories and passed them along from generation to generation for centuries. Why?
Because whether or not those stories were literally true didn't matter to them. What mattered was that these were the stories that people lived by. The ancient Greeks taught their children the stories of the Trojan War not because they were literal history, but because those stories embodied what the Greeks saw as most desirable and meaningful in life. As literal history, the Trojan War was just another ancient conflict among many. In the hands of Homer and generations of Greek poets and playwrights, the Trojan War was about a heroic view of life. Telling their children the stories from that war was a way for the Greeks to pass on their civilization and its values from one generation to the next.
Myths are the stories people live by. Maybe they are literally true, and maybe they are not. It ultimately doesn't matter. For this reason, the artists of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance had no qualms about setting holy stories in contemporary settings. Masaccio had no hesitation about setting the story of Peter healing the sick with his shadow in the streets of 15th century Florence. Flemmish artists like Jan Van Eyck and Robert Campin routinely placed the Madonna and Child in 15th century Flemmish cities. It's not that those artists didn't have today's archaeological knowledge of ancient Palestine, they just didn't care. What mattered was what the story meant and meant right now. It's history was beside the point.
We are a very powerful and very poor culture. Science and technology have pried open the dark mysteries of nature and given us powers we once attributed to our gods. Ordinary people now take for granted pleasures that kings would have envied (e.g. electronic readily available music and entertainment). For the first time in history, people have a realistic expectation to influence, if not determine, their own destinies and the destinies of their communities. The elimination of gross poverty is now a technical possibility for the first time ever. These are all things to be welcomed with gratitude.
And yet, there is a profound disconnect between the outer world and people's inner imaginative lives that wasn't there before. The pace and magnitude of technological change make the process of inwardly assimilating new realities difficult to impossible. The manifest success of rational thought in reshaping the world banished the imagination to a kind of ghetto where it has stayed since the 18th century. And yet, we remain creatures of imagination. While devotees of the "scientific method" may dismiss imagination, scientists know that they can't do their work without it. There is no art, music, or literature, popular or not, without imagination. That same imagination that was long ago dismissed as the source of phantoms and superstition may well hold our path back to sanity and integration. As Goya very brutally reminded us, what is made from tissue and airy nothings is not the creatures of our imagination, but our hold on our sanity.
The only binding message about the meaning of life that our age offers us is that money is the measure of all things. That's all we have left to agree upon that everyone finds binding, even criminals. Value is nothing more than what someone is willing to pay for something. There is no intrinsic value to anything. Nihilism has won. Even materialism requires a certain measure of conviction and has its own language of myth and symbol that is more than a lot of people can manage. Not just our children, but we ourselves are constantly hammered with this message. Money is the measure of all things because there is nothing else left. That is the dominant ethos of our day. Ours is an age that makes no real distinction between persuasion, marketing, and torture. Small wonder that we all retreat back into our own heads to find freedom and the Great Good Place. We all struggle to make that Great Good Place real in the world beyond our skulls. It is our inward vision of Something Better that will ultimately guide us out of the bleak house of empty brutality we dwell in now.
Posted by Counterlight at Friday, December 18, 2009