A Pagan's Blog

A Pagan's Blog

Mythos, logos, the Bible, and abortion

In her book The Battle
for God
  Karen Armstrong distinguished between mythos and logos in a way that sheds light on both Pagan spirituality and current
irrationality on the part of the religious right. The abortion issue is a good
case in point, made particularly relevant today by current efforts to subjugate
women to arbitrary readings of their scripture and then writing their fantasies into law.

Mythos addresses truths about the deeper meaning contained
in things.  Its secular close equivalent is poetry, which takes the reader
right up to what can not be said in words, and enables them to make that final
Mythos does the same,
but in terms of spiritual truths
Logos by contrast is what
we call rationality today: instrumental logic of the form “if…then”
and not addressing internal value.  

Pagan religions have
historically been expressed primarily through mythos.   The Roman Pagan Sallustius  observed that “a myth has never happened, yet it happens every day.”  From Sallustius’s perspective, properly
understood, myth reveals the deepest of truths about meaning that are capable
of being revealed, but it does not record a supposed historical event.  As he put it,  “one may call [even] the world a myth, in which bodies and
things are visible, but souls and minds hidden; the outer shell veils the inner
realities.” From a mythic perspective logos
explores the outer shells, mythos plumbs the inner realities.

Biblical religions
originally were a combination of mythos and logos oriented texts with no clear way of determining which was which. In his Confessions,
Augustine describes his encounter with the early Church father Ambrose,
writing “I was delighted to hear Ambrose in his sermons to the people saying,
as if he were most carefully enunciating a principle of exegesis: ‘The letter
kills, the spirit gives life.’ Those texts which, taken literally, seemed to
contain perverse teaching he would expound spiritually, removing the mystical

problem with this tradition was the
many arguments breaking out as to
which Biblical parts were taken as literally true and which parts were mythic.
 Over time myth usually lost out to literalism. 
Beginning with the Reformation mythos was gradually eliminated from a
great deal of Christian theology because both Catholics and Protestants found
that their side gained when they could argue the text’s literal meaning supported
their side.  Protestants took this process farthest.  This trend was
strengthened because this way of reading came most easily to lay readers
unconnected with long traditions of scholarship. In Religion and the Enlightenment James Bryne observed both Protestants and Catholics were “Stuck with
Biblical literalism and doctrinal integralism in which the truth of
Christianity as a whole stood or fell with each of its parts.” Because of this
“the Christian churches were for the most part incapable of responding
creatively to scientific advances which conflicted with their own orthodoxy.”

This means that
conservative “Biblical Christians” are reading their Bibles in very modern
ways, adopting a scientific-style ‘objective’ interpretation, and then when
science does not support their position, shifting over not to mythos, but to a
simple will-to-believe which is utterly irrational because it is closed to any
attempt to communicate with and learn from other points of view. They feel they have no choice.  

Consider their argument
that the fetus is a human life. 
Theirs is an entirely physical literal argument: the fetus is
genetically human, and if left to develop will be born as a human being.  Therefore all that counts is encased
within a purely physical definition of human.  Biblical passages that suggest a person in some way was known
to God before their birth are interpreted in the same way, that the person
existed in the womb, period. 
Ironically the same passages often suggest the person was a spirit
unconnected to the fetus, but those passages, being mythic, are ignored. (For
example, Psalm 139:13-16

That something disturbing emerges from this style of thinking  is demonstrated by their reaction to equally literal readings that do not support their views.  The longest Biblical passage I have found discussing the loss of a fetus
explicitly indicates it is not a human life in the inner moral sense that other human
beings are.  The passage is Exodus

 And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with
child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall
surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as
the judges decide.  But if there is any further injury, then you shall
appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for
hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

At the time I first drew
attention to this passage several years ago, my argument was backed up with
comments by religious Jews, who reported the Torah always said murder should be
punished by death and so its argument that the death of a fetus should be
punished by a fine was definitive for Jews that abortion was not murder.  In addition, they said the Torah commands
abortion when necessary to save the life of the mother.

In other words, in the
strongest Biblical passage dealing with causing the death of a fetus, the
literal reading indicates abortion is not
murder. This would seem to be decisive to people who read texts literally.  

Fascinatingly to me, these
arguments had absolutely no impact on conservative and right wing Christian
commentators, nor are they likely to now that I bring them up again. But I pass
this passage along anyway because it illustrates a very disturbing point.

Spiritual literalism
degenerates into irrationality. 

This is in the very nature of the project.  When certain principles are held as absolutely true, they will of their very nature be interpreted as absolutely true in different ways.  All readings must be interpretations that are better or worse, with the possibility of error always present.  So when a person believes they have the ‘literal’ meaning as God’s word, they exempt themselves from the very human capacity for error.  As a consequence they must reject evidence they error by ignoring ‘literal’ passages that contradict their ‘literal’ interpretation.

By reading sacred texts in a purely logocentric way they ultimately trap themselves and cut themselves off from all spiritual
insight because as Sallustius and Augustine and Ambrose all recognized, they cannot be read that way wisely.  When the ‘literalists’ interpretations are contradicted by historical evidence or scientific
discoveries, because they have rejected myth they have no way to incorporate new knowledge into their spiritual
understanding, and so new knowledge must be rejected.  The earth
must be 6000 years old or
there is no truth in their Bible. 
had to be around dinosaurs or there is no truth in the Bible.  And so on, absurdity after absurdity.  Mythos is unavailable to them and logos contradicts them so
all that is left is the irrational commitment, a will-to-believe regardless of
the evidence.

When such people do change their views – and this happens – it is because their hearts rebel at the implications of their doctrine.  This is to their credit.  But for many, when doctrine wars with their heart, doctrine wins.  I do not know how to get to such hearts, though if they engage in interfaith work, that can happen.  But most close themselves off from this. The result is a religion of irrationality.  As we see about ourselves, it easily spills into irrationality elsewhere.

Because most Americans are
more reasonable than this, it is in our interest as well as theirs for us to
challenge the religious right at every juncture, throw their scriptures in
their faces, and make as clear as possible that the will-to-believe is the
ultimate spiritual pride: that because I believe it, I speak for God. There is
no greater pride.

Comments read comments(12)
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posted February 4, 2011 at 7:01 pm

Excellent post. There’s much wisdom here.

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posted February 4, 2011 at 7:15 pm

And so differing ways of “doing religion” drive folks to try to pass laws that affect us all. (or at least all Americans)
So we try to understand different beliefs.
Or so I assume this post is about that. ‘Cause otherwise it seems like taking potshots at others’ beliefs which makes me quite uncomfortable.

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Gus diZerega

posted February 4, 2011 at 7:23 pm

Actually neither was my intent, Helen.

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posted February 4, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Literalism is a wasting disease for any belief system. The only time it’s good for anything is if you’re trying to assemble an entertainment center or a set of bookshelves.

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Grace Alexander

posted February 4, 2011 at 10:58 pm

This is utterly brilliant. I’m sharing it around – so timely, too, with the abortion laws being thrust down everyone’s throats by the GOP.

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posted February 5, 2011 at 1:32 am

As far as I can tell, it is the fundamentalists’ inability to recognize the existence if mythos in their sacred texts–to distiniguish the symbol from the thing symbolized–that is at the root of their fanaticism. Any sane person, no matter how deeply indoctrinated, must occasionally have doubts about the literal truth of, for example, the Genesis account of creation or the reports of the sun having stood still for a day for the benefit of the Israelites. But, for followers of a religion whose religious identity is defined in terms of belief (as I’ve noted in comments here before), doubt is the one thing that will damn them. And so their doubts must be suppressed.
This is, of course, entirely ineffective from a psychological standpoint. What one drives out the door will come back in through a window. The doubts continue to fester in the individual’s unconscious, and the individual must compensate or go mad. And fanaticism, as many psychologists will tell you, is nothing more than overcompensation for doubt–the lady protesting too much, as Hamlet would say.
I suspect, by the way, that this goes a good way towards explaining why the religious right in the United States has been, and continues to be, as vocal and active as it has been, while the religious centre and left have remained more or less quiescent. The members of the latter groups, being better able to deal with concept of sacred text as mythos, do not experience the same urgent need for psychological compensation.

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posted February 5, 2011 at 11:05 am

Real religion almost always contains a certain respect, awe, and wonder at the mysteries we find all about us. Logic is usually an attempt to wrap a few words around the mysteries and substitute “I know” for “I wonder”.
This takes the wonder out of religion, leaving an empty shell.

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posted February 5, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s important to challenge the religious right whether Christian or Pagan. Because I really disagree where their religious beliefs take them politically.
I just question anyone’s right to question their actual religious beliefs. Since I don’t allow them to question mine.

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posted February 5, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Excellent post.
I grew up secular, and always enjoyed the symbolism in poetry and literature (majored in English in college). So when I became a Christian in my 20s I had no problem reading the Bible in a ‘mythos’ fashion. That was the only way it was ‘true’ on a spiritual level given all the ways it contradicted history and science.
That’s why it was so weird for me, over the years, to join a church and encounter the literal reading of the Bible, and the attitude that if you did not read it literally as well, it meant your faith was lacking and you were not a good Christian. I came up against this attitude time and time again. And truthfully, I think the only reason I remained a churchgoer for so long was because of the music (I loved the feeling of fellowship gained in group singing). The sermon I would often take with a grain of salt. Until one day I got tired of the B.S. and decided I was no longer a Christian. And now I can enjoy reading Christian texts again, particularly the works of some of the medieval mystics and the desert fathers.

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Hilary Chaney

posted February 5, 2011 at 6:40 pm

I hate to see you say that as between heart and doctrine, doctrine wins. If true, then we must toss the doctrine out. See what I say about doctrine in
Thank you for making the word Pagan a part of our modern lexicon.

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Gus diZerega

posted February 6, 2011 at 12:00 am

Hilary- Not always. Many people recover from fundamentalism, and I would wager it is more due to their hearts rebelling at worshipping a demon god who rules by fear and power rather than from the arguments of scientists.
I am reminded of a comment Lenin made during the Russian Revolution. He loved listening to Beethoven, and so he refused to listen to him very much because it made him “soft” and kind, and he believed he needed to be cold and hard to fight and win the Revolution.
Human history would be so much better if people listened to their hearts more than their minds and will- power. Both are great when subordinated to the heart, and dangerous otherwise.

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Richard Norris

posted February 8, 2011 at 2:39 pm

The main reason that Catholics cling to an anti-choice position is the theology that supports their entire tradition. To take apart such doctrine you would need to argure effectively that essentialism and natural law are false and that human nature is better understood in another fashion. Do you know any modern philosophers that muster good arguments against these things?

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