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Ch. 3 - Christians: Brave New World (1492-1870) 
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Post Ch. 3 - Christians: Brave New World (1492-1870)
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Thu Dec 30, 2004 12:14 am
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Christians: Brave New World (1492-1870)
Having just finished up my post on chapter 2, I'm tempted to let chapter 3 sit until tomorrow. But I've got a busy day planned, and I'd rather have this out of the way now.

A potential non sequitar[/i] on page 61 to start off the chapter. Armstrong says:

"Where the conservative spirit had taught men and women to remain within carefully defined limits, the new culture of Western Christendom showed that it was possible to venture beyond the confines of the known world and not only to survive but to prosper. This would ultimately make the old mythological religion impossible, and it would seem that Western modernity was inherently hostile to faith."

Certainly she intends to illustrate this notion in the ensuing pages, but I'm not so sure that the second sentence follows logically from the first. The argument relies, for one thing, on the identification of mythos and conservativism, a relationship which I suggested in the last post might have limited applicability. We might further question the generality of the statement -- after all, Armstrong may well provide examples of individuals or even groups to whom such statements are applicable, but those examples do not necessarily constitute proof that such views were commonly held.

What Armstrong means by moder
will likely be a recurring question in the discussion, but for some indication we might look at her statement on page 63: "By the time this rationalization and technicalization of society had resulted in the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, Westerners were so confident of ceaseless progress that they no longer looked back to the past for inspiration, but saw life as a fearless march forward to ever-greater achievement in the future." Taken with her description of mythology as consistently retrospective, it seems to take this forward-looking tendency as characteristic of modernity. Of course, we may be inclined to question the validity of Armstrong's assertion on this point. Someone could easily make the counterpoint that modernity has seen an exponential growth in historical scholarship, including the development of anthropology and archeology. The art of modernity routinely delves into the realms of nostalgia and the historical costume drama (not to mention the theme of time travel). We are, perhaps, not as Janus-faced as Renaissance Europe, but surely progress has one eye on the rear-view mirror, does it not?

Nationalism might serve as a more salient characteristic of modernity. Armstrong's discussion of "the needs of the modern state" at the top of page 64 suggest more than she seems to have intended. I wonder if it wouldn't be more viable to trace secularism, humanism and Armstrong's modernity in general back to the drive towards nationalism. Indeed, if we look at the history of nationalism, we see that it coincides to a great degree with the evolution of modernity as Armstrong conceives it, contributing to the French revolution, the development of German philosophy, and the ideas of many of the political theorists cited by the author (not to mention the Jewish demand for a homeland state, which should figure prominantly in later chapters).

In view of this idea, we might from time to time look at fundamentalism in a light distinct from (or only indirectly related to) that provided by Armstrong. If nationalism is a key characteristic of modernity, then we might do well to look at fundamentalism as the resistence of the individual or a group identity to assimilation by the body of the state. The perceived crisis in every case of fundamentalism, in such a conception, would be the potential loss of a cherished identity. This would certainly seem to apply in the case of secular fundamentalists: the Black Panthers in the sixties, perhaps. Nor do I see why it couldn't apply to most groups of religious fundamentalists.

Moreover, we might look at nationalism as the new repository for the myths of modernity. In modern America the Founding Fathers have almost the stature of myth, and their role in continually shaping the ideals of the role of citizen have the sort of function that could be described as analogous to the role of myth in ritual.

As regards Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, Armstrong presents them as exhibiting emblematic expressions of the idea that, even in religion, mythos no longer worked and needed to be replaced or at least supplemented by logos. She writes (p. 65), "All three showed that in this rational age, the old symbolic understanding of religion was beginning to break down." Are we to take this as the rejection of mythos altogether, or rather as the need to replace certain elements of the old symbolism with new, more viable symbols? Probably not the latter, from Armstrong's point of view: her argument is the inexorable advance of logos over mythos, and I'm not sure that a mere changing of mythos for mythos would have much place in her narrative. But that, I would say, is precisely what happened in the Reformation. Or, to be more precise, the old interpretation of the root Christian mythos was replaced by a new interpretation.

Armstrong relies on an old argument in discussing the triumph of logos over mythos in astronomy, but I'm not sure it holds up in the form she gives it. On page 68 she describes the damaging effect that the Copernican system would have on the old cosmological model as a triumph of logos over mythos, without first considering that the old model had arisen in large part as an exercise in logos. The examples of pre-Copernican cosmology are not those that immediately preceded the heliocentric model: she alludes to local Greek cult and Muslim ritual practice. It would make an already long post longer still to outline the entire cosmological system observed by medieval Christendom, but suffice it to say that it was an attempt to render the natural world intelligible in a language that approximated actual experience as much as possible. The medievals did attempt to mesh myth onto their model, but they did not, so far as I am aware, subordinate reason to myth in the attempt. The flaw in their system lie not in an unwillingness to apply reason, but in the principles which they applied and the tools by which they made their observations. As such, it doesn't really stack up to claim that the Copernican revolution undermined their faith in their myths. To be sure, it upended a structure of logos that had existed and undergone refinement since the fall of Rome, but mythos did not stand or fall with the medieval cosmological model. For an understanding of how myth fell out of favor with modernity, we're apparantly going to have to look outside of Armstrong. She claims that modernity killed mythos outright, but that conclusion does not seem, to me, consistent with the evidence. Indeed, if mythos and logos were traditionally distinct, as Armstrong asserts in her introduction, then we have to ask how the rational systems of Galileo, Darwin and Freud could have caused crises of faith at all.

As concerns the struggle of truth against myth, I would suggest that an examination of the transition from Renaissance (which exhibited an intense interest in mythos) to Victorianism would be in order, and I suspect that the opposition betweem "myth" and "truth" (which Armstrong alludes to later on) was fostered in large part by the Church in an effort to curb the Renaissance interest in Pagan deism. Incidentally, for a fleshed out version of the medieval cosmological model, I would suggest C.S. Lewis' study, "The Discarded Image".

In the same passage in Armstrong we might note another nuance. Heliocentrism also represented a setback on the individual exercise of reason; the layman in the midst of the Copernican revolution was forced to rely on the authority of professional scientists. Here begins the modern trend, one might say, of the polite deferrence of the layman to the "establishment of science". And in a strict opposition between mythos and logos, as Armstrong presents it, a populace who believes something which is not apprehended by their own logos must have indulged in a mythos. It is here, perhaps, that we also have the origin of that strange institution of science as the myth of the modern age. This idea will find later expression in Francis Bacon, whom, according to Armstrong, believed that (p. 70) "The inventions of science would end human misery... and inaugerate here on earth the millenial kingdom foretold by the prophets." (Again, without textual support, we might question Armstrong's characterization.)

As a sidenote, Armstrong says of Newton that he "had literally no time for the intuitive mystical consciousness". This, immediately after quoting him to have said, "O God, I think Thy thoughts after Thee!" That sounds so similar to the expressions of religious mystics that I have to wonder what precisely Armstrong means when she talks of mysticism. It's one of those terms that crops up often in the book without appearing in the glossary, and its use (like that of mythos, logos, modernity, etc) suggests an understanding that is less straightforward than Armstrong would lead you to suggest. Hopefully, more on mysticism later on.

Much of this suggests that the evidence provided is more complicated that Armstrong intends. She hopes, it would seem, to suggest a crisis in the making, but I'm not so sure that we can infer from the comments of the innovators themselves that the general populace felt the same way. In her quotation from Pascal, for instance (and I might note that she's been much more thorough in backing up her claims with quotes in this chapter), she concludes with, "Then I marvel that so wretched a state does not drive people to despair." I regarded this inclusion with irony, because it seems to me to suggest the opposite of what Armstrong intended to suggest: that people are not driven to despair suggests that they may not feel things to be as wretched as Pascal makes them out to be -- they may not even be aware of the circumstances that seem such a crisis to a man as equally devoted to science and religion as Pascal.

Armstrong's characterization of religious hysteria also warrants scrutiny. She presents it as a warning sign, an extreme deviation from the norms of conservative religion, indicating a crisis of faith. I'm not convinced of its marginality. Aside from the Bacchic cult she mentions (which was, I think, more widespread than she suggests), there are other religious groups to consider: the Sufis of Islam, Haitian voodoo, the cults of Celtic religion (both Druidic and otherwise), the Flagellants of medieval Greece, shamanistic religions of both the New World and Old. That last group raises the possibility that the American religious groups of the Great Awakening might have been in part influenced by early American encounters with Native American religion -- that, at least, would serve to explain why the hysterical outbreaks were vogue in America but not in Europe.

To wrap up this chapter we might ask a question about Armstrong's assertion (p. 95) that modernity had "lost the original sense of the mythical", namely "How?" To my knowledge, Armstrong offers no satisfactory answer.

Wed Feb 02, 2005 5:01 am
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