Anglican Essentials: Going Deeper–A Contemporary Perspective

Logos or Mythos?

A number of Christian voices are again discovering how to think and pray along with the early Christians and Church Fathers, and articulate again the cosmic significance of Christ, unveiling for us the Trinitarian face of God.   Paul Tyson, and Australian Baptist, is one of these.  His book, Returning to Reality: Christian Platonism for our Time, lays out the case (Note: Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were all Christian Platonists in Tyson’s sense).  As many others have, Tyson distinguishes between logos and mythos.  Logos refers to the positive knowledge rationally articulated (“scientific”) knowledge that we know how to talk about.  Mythos refers to

the outlook on reality generated by the deep meaning orientating stories assumed in any given culture.  For it is by key collectively believed stories that reality is creatively imaged and interpretively reflected in our minds

Tyson makes the crucial point that it is not a matter of “reason” or “science” versus “myth,” as the modern mythos insists.  Rather, we always have both together:

Logos is a transformation within mythos, not a replacement of myth by reason. That is, the very idea of logos—that the world that we experience is an ordered and reasoned unity that can be understood by our minds—arises out of a religious outlook.

We all have a deep inner preconditioned outlook on things that we bring to any “reasoned account” of them.  This coheres with Aristotle’s understanding of “science” (reliable demonstrated knowledge which must begin from an initial “rational intuition” of things).  From a Christian perspective this, of course, is how God intended it:  we come into the world that is given to us, both as a good Creation and as a “fallen” world where our forebears have contributed to its “fallenness.”  Our minds are in need of redemption, as Paul says in Romans 12:2, “be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

In Tyson’s articulation, the essence of the modern is “atomization,” fragmentation, separation, “secularization”; we live in an “Immanent Frame” (Charles Taylor’s term) where God is invisible.   The modern mythos includes the following:

  • What is real is what is material, measurable, and is a-moral 
  • Knowledge is disconnected with the good, the moral
  • Ethics are grounded either in personal fulfillment or in arbitrary rules
  • The idea of God or a Logos is publicly implausible and reduced to the sphere of private belief or values
  • The modern mind is not based on order and reason but meaningless matter and instinctive facts, giving rise to a meaningless pragmatism.
  • Modern people seek instrumental power, sub-rational pleasure, and avoidance of pain
  • We can manipulate the world to fulfill our desires (Technology as an Idol!)

By contrast, ancient wisdom was to conform the soul to reality, whereas modern action is to subdue reality to the wishes of men.  In ancient understanding, meaning precedes knowing, whereas to the modern, the knowing (subject) produces meaning. Consequently, the Christians mythos has a different posture on ALL OF REALITY, where God is intimate to all things and seen in them, most preeminently in the light of Christ.

C. S. Lewis, in his book The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, gives an insightful reflection on why it is that human societies have a “taste in universes.”  This is simply to say, to put it in Tyson’s terms, that in all societies mythos precedes logos.  Lewis says:

I hope no one will think that I am recommending a return to the Medieval Model [of the cosmos].  I am only suggesting considerations that may induce us to regard all Models in the right way, respecting each and idolizing none.  We are all, very properly, familiar with the idea that in every age the human mind is influenced by the accepted Model of the universe.  But there is a two-way traffic; the Model is always influenced by the prevailing temper of mind.  We must recognize that what has been called “a taste in universes” is not only pardonable but inevitable.  We can no longer dismiss the change of Models as a simple progress from error to truth.  No Model is a catalog of ultimate realities, and none is a mere fantasy.  Each is a serious attempt to get at all the phenomena known at a given period, and each succeeds in getting in a great many.  But also, no less surely, each reflect the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age’s knowledge.  Hardly any battery of new facts could have persuaded a Greek that the universe had an attribute so repugnant to him as infinity; hardly any such battery could persuade a modern that it is hierarchical.

It is not impossible that our own Model will die a violent death, ruthlessly smashed by an unprovoked assault of new facts–unprovoked as the nova of 1572.  But I think it is more likely to change when, and because, far-reaching changes in the mental temper of our descendants demand that it should.  The new Model will not be set up without evidence, but the evidence will turn up when the inner need for it becomes sufficiently great.  It will be true evidence.  But nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her.  Here, as in the courts, the character of the evidence depends on the shape of the examination, and a good cross-examiner can do wonders.  He will not indeed elicit falsehoods from an honest witness.  But, in relation to the total truth in the witness’s mind, the structure of the examination is like a stencil.  It determines how much of that total truth will appear and what pattern it will suggest.

We do indeed contribute to the makeup of the world we live in, whether we are aware of it or not (see the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge below).  This is but as aspect of the freedom permitted by our Creator to his image-bearers as to their mode of participation in his Universe.  As Lewis says, this is not wrong if we are truthful.  It becomes wrong when we are not truthful about the evidence we are given.

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