Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Myth as Language
Someone recently wrote to me about my discussion of C. S. Lewis. In responding to this person's insights, I came up with something I would like to share more generally.
The problem with the claim for Christ (as the one and only way to God, or the Good) is that it is not really stronger than a claim for Balder (or Osiris, or any other dying and rising god). Today we know a bit more about the gospels than we did in Lewis' day, and they are very clearly myth (just like Egyptian myth or Norse myth or any other myth). They aren't history (any more than the changing story of Joseph Smith's First Vision is). This does not mean that they do not express important human truths, but those truths are not historical (i.e. accounts of what really happened at some moment in the past) or particular (i.e. stories of a particular person doing particular things). Myths are about universal truths like love, loss, and moving on into the great unknown. They are about what happens all of the time to all of us (and each one of us).
Just like you can speak of these universal things in any language without losing important meaning (since Spanish is no truer than English or Russian or Chinese as an expression of human reality), so you can put them in any myth: they are the timeless truth; the myth is just an accidental vessel that holds them. Lewis' mistake was presuming that Christianity was somehow categorically different from other religions. It isn't. This doesn't diminish its importance: English is still important, even if it is not categorically superior to (say) Spanish (which is also important, right? why should we pretend that Spanish is inferior to English? why pretend that Christianity is categorically superior to Buddhism, Judaism, or Islam?). This doesn't mean that the real truths it teaches are not important or universal. But it does allow us to check them against other versions of themselves (as it were), and to compare our myth-makers with other storytellers out there (who may pick up on some important things that we leave out of our stories, for one reason or another).
From my perspective, Lewis just made the choice at some point to speak English (Christian), i.e. to make English (Christianity) the language through which he expressed himself. That is perfectly fine, and English (Christianity) happens to be my native language as well. But I like other languages. I don't see them as categorically inferior to mine (though there are speakers of each who claim it as the one and only true language, and treat those ignorant of it as babbling idiots, no matter how well they speak their own language; I think this is wrong).
I can make an emotionally charged argument that anyone who chooses to dismiss the Buddha or Muhammad (or Osiris or Balder) is willfully rejecting the one true prophet or the one true God. I can make an emotionally charged argument that English is the one true language, that there is no such thing as a cultured human being who has never read Shakespeare in the original. Both arguments have a gigantic flaw. They ignore the humanity of other people, a humanity evident in the facts (1) that there are many prophets and many gods (including many as good as ours), and (2) that there are many great human cultures entirely ignorant of Shakespeare (who did not live early enough to bestow his genius on the Upanishads, the writer of Ecclesiastes, the Homeric poets, or countless others widely and rightly acknowledged as having achieved high levels of culture).
What is good in my culture (English, Christianity) does not have to be qualitatively superior to what is good in other cultures. People do not have to speak my language (English, Christianity) to me before I acknowledge them as true human beings. I think even C. S. Lewis is willing to concede this on some level (with the story of the saved Calormene in the Last Battle). The only difference between us is that I see the saved Christian as being more like that Calormene: God is a mystery that all human cultures (including every form of Christianity) seek in vain to capture and own for themselves (and their little languages), but he is not ours. We can be his, but he cannot be ours. He can speak for us, but we do not speak for him. When we try to do this (speak for him), what we say has a disturbing tendency to become fascist nonsense.
Does that make my position a little clearer? I don't think I am calling Lewis (or any Christian) stupid. I think Christians are by and large good people, with good stories in a good language. But I see in us (and other human beings of all faiths) tendencies towards a kind of cultural absolutism which others use and prey upon to bad effect (in the history of the world, which it has become my job to read). For what it is worth, I have the same tendencies. So if we are fools, then we are all fools together. I have not become someone who sees other cultures as magically superior to his own: we all have human flaws that can be dangerous. But I do think that acknowledging the flaws in ourselves (as we cannot help seeing them in others) is an important first step towards getting along better with everyone (including our very selves). Moral improvement cannot really begin until we are entirely honest (at least with ourselves). For me, that means admitting that Christians (and English-speakers) are neither better nor worse than other human beings. Our story is one of many. It is not the only story in any way. It can be special because we love it, and that is enough. It does not have to be true history, or the source of imaginary superiority that we enjoy over those who have different stories. As I read Jesus (including some of the words attributed to him outside the New Testament, e.g. in the Gospel of Thomas), he was not necessarily interested in declaring himself the one true God (though some disciples were eager to claim him as such) or in founding a missionary church (though some disciples were eager for that as well). The core of Christianity, as I understand it, is cultivating love for the world (God and one's fellow human beings, which are not artificially restricted to those who speak the same language or tell the same stories). To me, this message is more important than the messenger (who may or may not have been a god on earth: why does this matter? is his message somehow false if he didn't rise from the dead or turn water into wine, etc.? I don't think so. If Lewis does, then we disagree there.)