Saturday, August 25, 2007

Beyond Science

I recently started reading the book The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, by Karen Armstrong. I haven’t yet gotten very far in it, but I am struck by ideas she presents just in the introduction.

“To ask whether the Exodus from Egypt took place exactly as recounted in the Bible or to demand historical and scientific evidence to prove that it is factually true is to mistake the nature and purpose of this story. It is to confuse mythos with logos.” (p. xvi)

Mythos or myth is about true meaning found in stories – particularly religious stories – and is not concerned with practical, rational, scientific facts. Logos, then, is concerned with all that is practical, rational, and scientific. Karen talks about how before the Modern Age, people did not mix these up, that to even ask whether a story (reserved to the realm of mythos) actually happened was to try to apply scientific thought (logos) to that which was beyond science, to that which has meaning regardless of science.

“By the eighteenth century, however, the people of Europe and America had achieved such astonishing success in science and technology that they began to think that logos was the only means to truth and began to discount mythos as false and superstitious. … Our religious experience in the modern world has changed, and because an increasing number of people regard scientific rationalism alone as true, they have often tried to turn the mythos of their faith into logos.” (p. xvii and xviii)

This sounds all too familiar to me. In fact, this is almost exactly what I have been struggling with, especially as a scientist. Take, for example, my struggle with the story of Jesus and the idea of Christ. I have gotten lost in literal interpretations that contradict (or potentially contradict) my experience of science. The scientist in me vehemently rejects such contradictions and I have found myself searching for analogical meaning, trying to translate the literal interpretations into something that has meaning for me. Instead of getting lost in literal interpretations, I need to go back to the original story of the life and teachings of Jesus, and find the meaning there – and I do indeed find great meaning there. I need not worry about whether it actually happened.

This idea is not new to me, but to find it so well articulated and to find the beginning of a historical explanation for how we got here today to this almost overly rational and scientific way of approaching the world has brought new clarity for me. I am feeling released from my need to rationalize these stories. I feel like I can read and learn from the Bible, I can begin to speak of Christ, and I can understand better the idea of Jesus working in people’s lives (even in my own life!) without the scientist in me raising alarm and challenging me to examine my integrity. It is neither in line with nor contradictory to science, because it is beyond science.


Much love to all,


RichardM said...


It is indeed a liberating idea to see someone with genuine respect for religion get away from literalism. I'm reading Walter Wink right now and it pleased me to have him just come right out and say that when the Bible reports God as telling the Jews to engage in genocide against their neighbors that this was merely the Jews rationalizing their behavior and falsely attrituting these wars to God. Quite a few liberals don't want to go this far and try to take troubling passages like this in some metaphorical way. For example, this call to war is really a call to annihilate the evil in ourselves. Nice thought but I don't think these passages are really metaphorical, nor do I think God is really a genocidal maniac, so I conclude with Wink that the human authors of the Bible were just wrong.

But I'm not fond of Armstrong's line either. It seems to be another replay of Deism. The idea of deism is to insulate God from science by putting him in a box completely separate from the facts. My problem with that is that the division is too sharp and artificial. One can't reasonable say that facts are facts and values are values. That science gives us facts and religion gives us values. Facts and values are too connected for that.

I'm very proscience myself. What I resist is the idea that all truths are scientific truths. Science is the truth but it is not the whole truth.

Claire said...

My sense is that Armstrong is attempting to present the way people thought historically as a step toward discussing how we got to where we are today with fundamentalism in its various forms.

For me, I see this as a door through which I can step into deeper thinking, rather than a stopping place. I too find it troublesome to try to separate facts from values, because I think they are inherently intertwined. Same with the physical and mystical. Mystical experiences can have a physical component, for instance, and also if we are not physically well it can be hard to have mystical experiences.

In the same way, even though I said it in my original post, I have a hard time saying that spirituality and truth found in religious stories are beyond science - in a way, science is also beyond these stories; they are beyond each other. What does that mean?

I think I get caught up in differing ways of thought. Science is very much a way of thinking about the natural world, but God is also a way of thinking about the natural world. How do these ways of thinking fit together?

Ah, but now I'm just blurting out unfinished thought processes.

I keep hearing about Walter Wink, and I definitely hope to read something of his soon. For now, I should try to find time in my life to get further in Armstrong's book!

Thank you so very much for your continued dialog with me on this blog.

much love,

RichardM said...


I'd encourage you to hang on to the "different ways of thinking" approach to the science/religion divide. It is the monolithic claims by either side to possess the whole truth which cause problems. consider this analogy. One can look at meals for a nutritional standpoint (does it contain enough protein, too much fat, etc.) or from a culinary point of view (is the sauce too thick, too spicy, too salty). Nutritional judgments can be true or false but nutrition is not the whole story. Culinary judgments are also both true and important.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Hi, Claire!

It's been years since I looked at Karen Armstrong's book, and I no longer remember much of what she said in it. The basic point you make in this essay — that the stories of the Bible are not intended to express scientific truth, but to express the kind of truth found in myths — is one that I totally agree with. But I think to state this point in terms of the Greek words mythos and logos is misleading, and if that is what Karen Armstrong did, I'm sorry she did so.

The truth is that in the Greek of Biblical times, logos was never a word used to represent (in your words) "all that is practical, rational, and scientific". The concept of something practical, rational and scientific, that could be divorced from other things like mythos, simply did not exist at that time in human history.

The word logos evolved out of the older Greek word legô, a verb that meant to lay (in order), and thus, with reference to a collection of objects, to gather, collect, select; with reference to a merchant's or landowner's inventory, to reckon up, create an account of; and with reference to the facts contained in a story or narrative, to create an account of, recount, tell, relate, report. Thus, in regard to speech, logos refers to the kind of organized speech one uses to lay out an understanding — that is, to the sort of talk that follows an outline. Broadly speaking, a good way to translate logos in most contexts would be as "an accounting".

Logos did not mean organized speech as distinguished from mythos; for a reciter of myth might well be engaged in putting the elements of a myth in the proper order, and laying out the whole story as an account, and if that is what he did, the myth-story he then produced would rightly be called a logos. Properly speaking, a Greek in Biblical days would refer to a presentation as a logos, not to distinguish it from myth, but to distinguish it from speech not thought out beforehand — blurted statements, unplanned conversation, and uninhibited harangues.

And the category of speech that could be described as logos is very broad. In Biblical times, it included sayings and epigrams, no matter how unscientific or unsupportable by systematic observation ("if you don't like the weather, wait an hour"; "it never rains but it pours"). It included rumors, no matter how false. It included conversation of the sort that played out deliberately — focused discussions, debates, and things of that sort. And as I say, it included myths and fables. In sum, it included every sort of speech that involved some sort of getting-one's-thoughts-in-order, whether the order involved was rational or merely chronological, practical or visionary, scientific or mythical or political.

So it's not quite fair to say, as you've said here, that "before the Modern Age, people did not mix these [two things, logos and mythos] up." A thing could be a logos and a mythos simultaneously. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were both things simultaneously, and so were the plays of Sophocles and Euripedes.

It also has to be remembered that mythos and logos are Greek words, expressing a Greek way of dissecting reality, whereas Judæo-Christian thought emerges out of Hebrew/Jewish thinking, which dissected reality rather differently. Ancient Hebrew had no concepts matching either mythos or logos, and so the scholars who translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek used logos in inexact ways. Much of Septuagint usage seems to have involved letting logos stand for the Hebrew word dabar, a word meaning "word" in the simple sense of speech, "report" in the sense of a message relayed, and above all "command" (as in "Hear, O Israel, the dabar - command - of YHWH!").

The writers of the New Testament sometimes used logos in ways that could not possibly have meant "all that is practical, rational, and scientific": in II Peter 2:3 it is used to refer to "lying words", and in Ephesians 5:6 it is used to refer to "empty words".

Only in certain special contexts, such as the prologue to the Gospel of John and Luke's version of the parable of the Seed, does the meaning of logos begin to approach what you are talking about here. In such contexts, it evidently refers to what Herakleitos and the Stoics meant when they spoke of the logos: the fundamental abiding law or harmony that gives meaning to human life. But even there, the relationship between Herakleitos's usage of the word logos, and the New Testament usage, isn't simple: for instance, in Luke's parable of the Seed, we are told that the Seed is the logos of God, but logos here can be taken to mean, both the fundamental law that gives life meaning, and also the specific teachings and commands that the prophets gave their hearers, and that Jesus gave his followers.

To argue that when the Bible tells the story of Creation or the story of Jonah, it is telling a mythos that should not be confused with rational or scientific truth, is to impose our own modern distinctions on the text, rather than to see the text as it simply is. For the Bible itself doesn't make such distinctions. It never asks whether it has gotten all the facts of Genesis, or Jonah, or the Nativity of Jesus, with journalistic accuracy or not. Its authors never seem to have asked whether what they were recording was mere myth. They simply told their stories, treating those stories as true, and expected their hearers to listen and learn.

Maybe this is a minor gloss on the basic point you were making. But insofar as it shows that the authors and readers of the Bible weren't even asking the question of "is this myth, or scientific truth?", I don't think it's all that minor; I think it's important.

Claire said...

Richard - I agree with you about the different ways of thinking. Thanks for the analogy, too!

Marshall - Thanks so much for the clarification. I definitely agree that a correct understanding of terms is very important, and am glad to have much more information now than I did originally.

Sorry to both for taking so long to respond - in the past two weeks have brought a great transition for me.

much love,