The Myth Must Hold

The Myth Must Hold November 19, 2020

We need a story that will save us, because logic and facts apart from a narrative will not produce the passion we need to do our duty.

A man will die for a flag, but he will not die for facts.

To live, thrive, and multiply any good organization or cause must have a central story that motivates, provides a place for reason, and is beautiful. When the reason for being, the story that birthed the movement dies, then nobody can save the group, even if they wish to do so for other reasons.

The small Church of England parish in a village may be irreplaceable, but if Christianity is hollowed out then the Church will die. The usefulness of having an Oxbridge graduate in every town working, ministering is not enough to motivate enough candidates to go. The mission and calling to go is what will drive men to live a life of service. The beauty of the Book of Common Prayer, the services, the choir is not enough to get the average person in the parish to participate. When the orthodoxy at the heart of choral Evensong is lost, then slowly the service will become the province of the professional, the dilettante, and will cease to be the work of the people.

When we decide to gut the founding myths of an organization and replace that story with spreadsheets and pragmatism, then doom is inevitable. George Eastman could create Kodak, the great yellow Mother, but no company man could save her once the vision was lost. Disneyland is a place of vision, storytelling, and a view of reality. That view may have to be modified over time, but if the vision is simply destroyed by the Suits, then the magic is lost.

Truth or at least probability is necessary to a good founding vision, because being false or implausible makes the story impossible (or difficult) for a free person to believe. If Jesus rose from the dead, if there is a Heaven and Hell, then much follows. If a rational person can no longer believe such things, then we might regret the decline of Christendom, but the end will be inevitable. If Jesus is alive, then the Church might wane, conquered as in 1453 by merciless foes, but her story can never die. The story is too powerful, the myth too strong, and metaphysical reality anchors her safely. 

The likely story is a “myth” and some are true, others false. The false myths can endure for a time, even produce great beauty, but they cannot endure. The true myth, the likely story cannot die forever, but may be overlaid. The enduring legends, even the hagiography, that creep around the true story will be more powerful than any dry recital of the momentary problems of that story. The unifying vision is necessary for a man and woman to put aside desire and form a family. The powerful must have a reason to be merciful and the poor to be patient. The hope of the world is that the arc of history runs toward a just God and this hope makes every moment of history a possibility for a golden age.

Yet vain men, people who wish to exalt themselves, cannot endure any such story (even a likely one!), because they are not central. A Washington or Lincoln can play their role, but the story of America surpasses them. The tyrant is jealous of that story and so must stamp it out, even if he has nothing better to say. He will find the holes, the flaws, quibble about some legend, mock an overblown bit of hagiography and leave most of us without hope.

So Plato warns us in Republic where the tyrant replaces the founding story of the city with a cult of personality. In Timaeus, the philosopher gives us a better story: the triumph of free Athens over tyrannical Atlantis. The gods themselves, just in Plato’s story, decree the ultimate doom of Atlantis and the city is swept under a great wave. They would not make lovers of wisdom rulers and so they are doomed. Plato does not have a true story, only a plausible one, to try to save his beloved Athens.

It was not enough and Athenian independence was soon lost forever.

However, the likely story he wove, of a dying just man who returns to point to the justice of the cosmos, of a Creator God, of the idea that mathematics is the language of the cosmos, all were true enough that they endured. They were better than Alexander, more enduring than petty Ptolemaic kingdoms. When they finally met Jewish sages in Alexandria or Saint Paul on Mars Hill, they produce the Hellenic synthesis greater than Athens by herself. 

We gained classical, Hellenic, Christianity and so a better story was told. This story is true, though often some auxiliary account or understanding must be abandoned. This story is beautiful, though those hearing the story often do ugly things. The story good, though we are not. The story, the Gospel, is greater than we are and will save us if we believe. The myth must hold if we are to endure and the Gospel story will hold.

We will live in safety for all time.

From a devotional for the College at Saint Constantine before a Timaeus session.

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