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A Teacher of Myths

Ed Brayton promoted a discussion I had with another commenter on his blog, and that has generated yet another discussion of whether religion and science are incompatible. A certain number of folks believe they are not, and that religion should fade away as science rules all. For some unfathomable reason, I disagree.

One of the commenters there, bernarda, stated:

Sorry if I am a bit brutal, but what rational person cares about “theological systems”? Theology is entirely summed up by trying to count the number of angels on the head of a pin.

“Henry is a Christian, a Hebrew scholar and the director of a Bible school;”

So he believes mythology, he studies mythology, and teaches mythology.

I often have a reaction to a comment that is clearly not what the author intended. My first thought was, “Yeah, that’s me!” My second was, “I’m going to steal that and use it next time I need to introduce myself to a class.” But then I remembered a post I had bookmarked a couple of days ago in the hopes I’d have time to write about it and respond to it.

This article by Lifewish on the blog Areté, is beautifully titled The Art of Religion, and comments on a post of my own, Believing in Words and Symbols. I can hardly fail to respond to a post that starts: “Henry Neufeld is a really nice guy.”

A little further on, however, he notes the following with reference to my post (already linked):

. . . The underlying theme is that he really only has one core belief: that there is Something out there. Everything else – the Trinity, the Resurrection – is really just a language, a set of myths that seem to convey the feelings he experiences.

Now note that Lifewish has said about me pretty much the same thing that bernarda did, though clearly with a bit of a different intent. Now it’s quite likely that I take the language I use more seriously than an atheist imagines, yet at the same time considering that I don’t believe I actually know, but rather use the best language available to describe an experience that is intensely personal, I will have a hard time quibbling.

When you add it all up, just what does the doctrine of the trinity mean in terms of any sort of physical reality. Actually very little. It’s not supposed to. It is language that works very well for me in speaking about God. When I speak about my car I have a very clear referent. It’s sitting outside the window. I can look at it and verify my understanding. When I speak about God, I’m far out of that world. When I add to that and use the language of trinitarian theology, one can justifiably say that I do not truly know what I’m doing.

Yet I believe that, I have faith that, I am somehow talking about something, even though I find the word “something” grotesquely inadequate. Thus the very obscurity of some of the language of the trinity helps make it work for me.

So I think the description, presumably intended as negative is very good for me, though I would do it in a different order. So I study mythology, I teach mythology, and I’m so mentally primitive that I actually believe mythology. On some days I believe it more intensely than physical reality.

But as for ever knowing it, I confess the doctrine of infinite ignorance. I, a finite person, am ever infinitely ignorant of God. No matter how much knowledge I gain, when subtracted from infinity, it leaves infinity.

Ouch! Or Wow! (Hallelujah is “churchese” for Wow!)

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  1. I have to agree that I like the mythology bit as a description of you, and I hope of me too. I can’t say, though, that my core belief is that there is Something out there. It’s more like, “There’s Something there and here and everywhere” or better, “There is only one thing, and we’re all tiny fragmented parts of it.”

    I find that many of the generalizations about Christians (and other religious people as well) made by atheists on Ed’s blog assume a very basic, anthropomorphic view of God as a separate entity, located in some other spot (a cloud maybe), with human powers and feelings and attitudes all magnified, who occasionally reaches over and meddles with something in the physical world. I suppose that view may come from the fact that fundamentalist notions are so well publicized, with the most child-like and/or the most dishonest or manipulative getting the most attention.

    I think that if in my mind I had only the two choices of believing that God is like that or believing there is no god at all, I too might go with believing there is no such thing as god. I’m glad there’s another view.

  2. Scientists are quick to forget that they too used to believe theories that have since been proven to be untrue, and there are theories now that may be proven untrue later. If they insist on using the term “mythology” to mean something that is untrue, then science has had more than it’s share of mythologies along the way and we have no gauarantee that we aren’t currently mythologizing some areas of science now.

    You could even re-write the quote from the comment stream:
    ” . . The underlying theme is that scientists only have one core belief: that there is Something out there. Everything else – physics, chemistry, and biology – is really just a language, a set of rules that seem to convey the reality he experiences.”

    The two pursuits aren’t that different – they just seek to address different facets of our existence.

  3. You will notice that I am using the word “mythology” in a different sense than the commenter did, but that difference reflects our different attitudes.

    Myths also vary in value.

  4. Do you know, I think this is the first time I’ve had a post of mine quoted before? (Note to self: flattery gets you everywhere 😉 )

    JuliaL: Point taken. I do know what you mean – I’ve personally experienced what a Christian would (I think) have considered to be the Holy Spirit, and it was not at all anthropomorphic.

    I’d mention, though, that it seems to be pretty much arbitrary whether people imagine God as something outside themselves or something that they’re a part of. There’s at least half a dozen distinct types of religious experience, some of which are definitely anthropomorphic. It’s an open question whether these are different interpretations of the same experience or not.

    Larry B: I’d say the primary difference between sciences and arts is that sciences are prescriptive, whilst arts are descriptive. Sciences attempt to explore the limits of what nature will permit. Arts attempt to explore the limits of what humans can feel.

    In other words, to the extent that religion is an art, it doesn’t really matter whether it is empirically “true” or “false”, as these are prescriptive concepts. What matters most is how it conveys our deepest feelings. Two conflicting sciences cannot both be valid; two conflicting arts provide twice the opportunity to express ourselves.

    To the extent that religion is a science, I personally believe that it fails (which is why I call myself an atheist). But I’m becoming increasingly aware that this isn’t all there is to religion, hence the post.

    If you believe that religion should be treated primarily as a science then I’m happy to discuss this over at my blog (or yours), but it’s probably not something we should clog Henry’s comments section up with.

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