Rejecting Mythos

What I call transcendental monotheism is prone to degeneration into fundamentalism in a way that most, perhaps all, Pagan religion is not.

The great monotheistic traditions rely on sacred texts to provide their teachings and implicit in these texts is the claim there is one right way along with many wrong ones for accessing the sacred. These texts were also long interpreted as mixtures of myth and history. A mythic interpretation was long considered essential to understanding them, as when St. Augustine wrote "I was delighted to hear [St.] 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 veil."

But there was a problem that even the most skillful exegesis has been unable to solve. Christians made a claim Jewish monotheists did not: that everyone must become a Christian to win salvation. Yet the Bible gives no clear way to distinguish logocentric truth from mythic truth. This was more a problem for Christians than Jews because the latter emphasized common practices whereas the former was concerned about getting the inner meaning right for everyone. In practice this problem was settled by political force, and Christianity remained united to the extent that armies could make it so.

This all started to come apart in the West during the Reformation. The problem was that texts do not speak for themselves. They must be interpreted. As soon as you put a teaching into your own words, you have interpreted it. If you cannot put it into your own words, you do not understand it. Yet when put it into your own words, you have changed the message, even if trivially. When the dividing line between historical claims and myth is unclear, and accounts of supposed events such as the resurrection differ, divergence is guaranteed. With the best will in the world people will read the 'same' passage differently. And so, for all their claim to clarity, texts create disputation even while claiming to teach the one right way.

As the Reformation wore on, disputing Catholics and Protestants both discovered their arguments gained strength in many people's eyes when they could claim they derived from a literal rather than mythic reading of scripture. Increasingly mythos was abandoned as a valid form of spiritual knowledge. The later successes of science strengthened this trend, but its origins were religious: in a text that did not make clear what was literal truth and what was myth while claiming it and it alone taught the only road to salvation.

The Triumph of Will

Protestantism in general abandoned most mythos but most Protestants are not fundamentalists. One more step was needed to lay fundamentalism's foundations.

To cover a complex era very briefly but I hope not misleadingly, initially modern science was thought to support Christianity. When it increasingly did not, particularly with Darwin's discoveries, a crisis emerged for modern Christianity. The logocentric reasoning Christians had come to rely on for most of their doctrinal understanding now indicated scripture was deeply flawed.