Personified Living Realities

Personified Living Realities January 2, 2017

Those old Greek gods

“Those old Greek gods are not just poetry and legend. In them the Ancients personified living realities—intelligence, beauty, love, or lust, which are still at work in our hearts, and which fashion our person. The language they speak is that of image and myth, which touches the person much more directly than the explicit language of science and the intellectual dialectic of the modern world. It is also the language of the Bible, of the parables of Christ, which the rationalist of today finds it so difficult to understand, of the Word of God which demands of us not a discussion but a personal decision.”

— Paul Tournier (1898-1986), “The Meaning of Persons,” New York: Harper, 1957, p. 132.

This is one of the reasons why C. S. Lewis recognized that if you cannot appreciate the value of myth in general, then you aren’t going to appreciate Christianity. Countless conservative fans of Lewis have failed to even pay attention to this point that he made, much less heed it.

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  • Powerful quote!

    I remember reading Tournier’s book years ago.

    Thanks, for bringing his thought into the new year.

  • arcseconds

    I remember reading somewhere someone asserting that ‘to the Greek mind, denying the existence of Eros would involve denying the existence of love’, (my paraphrase, I don’t remember the exact wording), and would thus seem just nonsensical, or at any rate absurdly cynical.

    However, I think it’s unfair to pick out ‘rationalists’ as not being open to understanding mythic language, when it’s obvious that very many Christians also do not. I think it’s pretty clear that our society through and through does not have the ears for this any longer.

    (and it seems to me that the classic rationalists, like Leibniz, would do a bit better than your average biblical literalist, because they were at least open to interpreting religion metaphorically, even if they think it’s not only possible but better to speak literally about reality)

    Also, it seems really unlikely to me that people like Tournier (whom I have not read, but I have read Ricœur, who has a broadly similar outlook) can actually recover the weltanschauung of ‘mythic culture’ for themselves (or for us). We can say, probably correctly, that it’s wrong to think of Eros as something like a human being with love-themed superpowers, who has a contingent existence independently of love, like say the relationship of the DC superhero ‘the Flash’ and speed. But it’s also probably wrong to think they had a concept of love that was independent of Eros, whereas we certainly do. For us love is a concrete reality, but Eros ends up being at best a powerful symbol. We may say, using language informed by the likes of Gadamer, that Eros is ‘true’, or it’s true that Eros is the child of Aphrodite (and also true that he is older than Aphrodite and not her child at all, but the child of Nyx, and also was the first god of all) but it’s not the same sense of ‘truth’ in which we say ‘it’s true that the world is significantly older than 6,000 years’. If mythic cultures don’t think of their stories as literal truth in our sense of literal truth, it’s also the case they don’t think they’re untrue in this sense.

    Plato in Symposium has several characters give speeches in honour of Love, and one of them, Eryximachus, gives a recognisably naturalistic and reductive explanation of love (not dissimilar from the ‘just chemicals’ attitude you mentioned the other day), unlike the others who discuss love in entirely mythic terms (except of course for Alciabiades, who doesn’t discuss love in theoretical terms at all, but only his actual personal experience of loving Socrates). Plato is surely representing an existing view here, not inventing a new one, so already we can see a modern concern for literal truth here, even though Plato himself isn’t limited to that form of expression.

    And when Augustine explicitly promotes understanding the Bible in allegorical terms perhaps we have the terminus ante quem for understanding the Bible in living, mythic terms. If you have to be encouraged to explicitly not read the bible literally, then we already have a bifurcation between literal truth and non-literal forms of truth.

    • I suspect that, even if their representation in society is in different proportions, the same kinds of views may have been found in the past and persist today. If in antiquity we have far more numerous instances of people being content to live with multiple stories of what happened to their gods and heroes, we also had some people determined to harmonize them, or to eliminate contradiction through allegorization.

      • arcseconds

        That’s a fair point, and in fact I have heard that this kind of thing persists in people living in modern societies who have also inherited an oral tradition: they can have multiple origin stories of their own people, for example (and to some extent the modern scientific view about their origins just becomes another origin story for them).

        However, it’s not quite what I’m getting at, and actually I’m having trouble working out what it is that I’m getting at myself 🙂

        Let’s put it this way. People like Tournier and Ricœur encourage us to see traditions like the Bible or the Greek mythic corpus in symbolic and mythic terms, and it’s said that by doing so we are better able to understand the meaning of the text, even the meaning it had to the original writers and original recipients. This passage of Tournier’s is particularly clear in attributing the symbolism to ‘the Ancients’.

        And I’m not disputing that we do understand things better in this direction, rather than thinking that these ancient myths were written as a literal history.

        But it seems to me that we are always going to contrast mythic/symbolic understanding with concrete, scientific, literal reality, as we have the later to compare it to.

        At least for those of us who have some understanding of scientific investigation (widely considered, so including history) do. Our understanding of what truth is is informed by our methods of attaining it.

        So however we consider the symbolic meaning of Genesis, we’re aware that there’s also the Big Bang and, much later, the formation of the Solar System from a planetary nebula, which means for us Genesis can at best only be ‘purely’ symbolic. We could even think that the Genesis symbolism is more important for us than the Big Bang, as what actually happened is just a bunch of arbitrary stuff that occurred without any meaning, so why would we be interested in that? But there’s still this distinction.

        So there’s still a big gulf between the way we think of this, and the way the ‘ancients’ thought of it, which presumably (for the original authors and recipients at least (problematic though that concept is)) was a unity: there was no distinction between the mythic and the symbolic and what actually happened.

        In a way, people like Ken Ham, while they’re deaf to the symbolism in many ways, do see reality as a unity of narrative and concreta, so in that sense they’re perhaps closer to the ancient mythic view than scholars are.

        But I think the people who come closest to mindset of the people who originated the myths are probably people who we’d consider to be idiosyncratic cranks or even those that we’d think warrant a diagnosis of some kind. Some of these people do seem to be actively creating symbolic realities, but at the same time think that by doing so they’re also discovering the truth about how the world was in the ancient past, say (like the person on Celtic-L who thought she could intuit the meaning of the names of the ogham by reading them aloud and seeing how they struck her) or how it is today (run by lizard people, for example. Don’t tell me that seeing our rulers as something utterly alien and lacking in any human commonality isn’t symbolic of something.).

        So while Tournier and others sound as though they’re encouraging us to see things as the ancients did, I think they’re actually encouraging us to do something quite different, something that’s actually quite modern. No doubt we can find ancient people who did have something like the understanding Tournier is encouraging (Plato, maybe, or the rabbis of the midrashic literature), but I think they’re atypical.

        • It can be really hard to tell, precisely because those individuals you are suggesting were exceptions are part of the literate minority that left us their views in a way that others could not, at least directly.

  • Nick G

    The parables attributed to Jesus are not in fact particularly hard to understand, but I suspect Tournier used the word in a sense according to which you can’t understand them without being a Christian.

    • What makes you think that?

      • Nick G

        The fact that he claims that “rationalists of today” find them “so difficult to understand”, when I don’t think they are, and know of no evidence for his claim. It looks to me like a fairly typical rhetorical move in Christian apologetics, which could be paraphrased: “If you’re not a Christian, it’s because you don’t understand the Christian message”. But I admit I could be wrong, as I’m not familiar with Tournier’s work. Do you agree with him that Jesus’s parables are difficult to understand? If so, why?

        • I understood the reference to be to those who insist that the value of stories is entirely determined by their historical content. I didn’t understand him to be suggesting that the parables have mystical hidden meanings that only the spiritual can perceive. I’m familiar with the latter claim, but I did not understand this author to be making it. But I too am not familiar with Tournier’s work and so am unsure.

          • Nick G

            Is there anyone who insists that Jesus’s parables should be judged on their historical content? Like: “Was there really a Jew on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho who was set upon by robbers and rescued by a Samaritan?”. That would surely require a complete failure to grasp the very idea of fiction. I guess you might find some neuro-atypical people of whom that is true, but it hardly applies to the average “rationalist of today”.

          • I suppose I understood the quote differently, as saying that the language of myth is the language of parable, and so those who can understand the value of the latter should also be able to understand the value of the former. But perhaps I misunderstood the quote…

          • arcseconds

            The interpretative problem here is the idea that the parables are difficult for the ‘rationalist of today’ to understand.

            Nick doesn’t think they’re difficult to understand. I’m not so sure that this is entirely correct: if Kenneth Bailey is right to understand the parable of the prodigal son requires considerable knowledge of the culture of the time as regards inheritance. And many of them are to do with the ‘kingdom of heaven’. Given that there is continual discussion over this matter, I don’t think this can be said to be clear.

            But it surely isn’t the case that the ‘rationalist of today’ has any especial difficulty, that is not also faced by say the ‘Christian of today’.

            So Nick’s solution to why the parables are said by Tournier to be difficult to understand for the rationalist is that he must be thinking that they do have some esoteric or at least spiritual meaning that isn’t readily available to a ‘rationalist’.

            If the point is just that rationalists don’t understand the language of myth, then why pick on the parables, which are surely pretty low-hanging fruit as far as symbolic language is concerned? They may or may not be difficult to understand, but the difficulty doesn’t stem from people mistakenly interpreting them literally (in contrast to, say, Genesis), and your average rationalist surely doesn’t have some enormous problem with interpreting figurative language in general.

            I agree with you, FWIW, I think the point is just that the parables are the clearest example of the Bible being properly interpreted in a non-literal manner, and much of the rest of it needs to be so interpreted to.

            But I can see the difficulty Nick is trying to solve.

            My solution is just that Tournier has written this carelessly: the language of the Bible is what is difficult for the rationalist of today to interpret, and the parables have been inserted as a clear example but unfortunately the proximity to ‘rationalist’ makes it sound as if these in particular present a problem for rationalists.

            The only other alternative I can see is that Tournier is trading in a terrible straw-man version of rationalists, where he actually is half-supposing that rationalists cannot cope with figurative language and symbolism at all.

            (I think something of the sort is happening anyway, as I said earlier: why pick on ‘rationalists’ in particular when there are so many examples of Christians faring no better? I suppose Tournier’s european and early-20th-century context might mean he’s less familiar than we are with the most obvious forms of biblical literalism, which are more of an Anglo-American (with stress on the ‘American’) phenomenon, but continental Europe, while it might do a bit better on average, doesn’t strike me as being entirely populated with sophisticated hermeneuts either. )