Sunday, January 24, 2010

Faith as Belief: A Modern Phenomenon - Karen Armstrong and Marcus Borg

Many Christians today understand Christian faith as giving intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. Such Christians would also say that one should live according to Jesus' teachings on attitudes and behavior. But they would insist that, without basic orthodox beliefs, one can't call oneself a Christian.

In my previous post, I showed how Karen Armstrong learned that other religions emphasize faith as practice rather than belief. In fact, the view of faith as belief is quite recent.

On page xi of her Introduction to The Case For God, Karen Armstrong explains that people from pre-historic times until the Enlightenment understood the difference between logos, or rational thought, and mythos, or mythical thought. Karen says that rational thought helps us to function in the external physical world: to fashion tools, to build structures, to solve problems. Rational thought deals in facts. On the other hand, Karen says that mythical thought helps us to understand our psyches: to move through grief, to face life with courage, to love deeply. Mythical thought deals in symbols.

Pre-Enlightenment people understood the difference between a factual account and a myth. A factual account tells about something that happened at a particular time, in a particular place, in a particular way. A factual account is true if the events recounted actually happened in the physical world as stated. A myth is not a factual account. Karen Armstrong says, "A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time" (page xi). A myth is true in the sense that it imparts deep truths about life.

This distinction of logos and mythos was lost during the Enlightenment, the period of time in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when science came into its own. Karen Armstrong explains that the huge success of science, based on rigorous rational thought, led to an over-emphasis on logos. Karen explains that science brought wonderful technological and economic improvements to people's lives and that people, therefore, began to rely exclusively on rational thought to the inclusion of mythical thought.

Karen Armstrong shows that people even began to apply rational thought inappropriately to myth. For many, it became impossible to believe in God as portrayed in the Bible because many of the Bible accounts are not factually true. Mythical truth was abandoned. Karen says, "In particular, the meaning of the word 'belief' changed, so that a credulous acceptance of creedal doctrines became the prerequisite of faith, so much so that today we often speak of religious people as 'believers,' as though accepting orthodox dogma 'on faith' were their most important activity" (page xv).

Marcus Borg, in The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, puts it like this: "For many, Christian faith began to mean believing questionable things to be true--as assenting to the truth of claims that have become 'iffy' " (page 29).

This misguided effort to apply rational thought to myth has resulted in at least three responses.

  • Fundamentalism. Karen Armstrong points out that, to hold onto their faith in a purely rational world, fundamentalists insist on giving rational intellectual assent to religious teachings and stories. Christian fundamentalists insist on believing the Bible to be factually true and and on interpreting the Bible in a literal way that was foreign to earlier Christians.
  • Atheism. Karen Armstrong also points out that Atheists, especially today's New Atheists, respond to this literal interpretation of religion--which seems completely incredible to them--with a rejection of the whole idea of God.
  • Drifting. Marcus Borg points out that many people are spiritually adrift. They can't give intellectual assent to the incredible accounts in the Bible, so they see no place for themselves within Christianity, and they have found nothing to replace it.
This indicates to me that we have actually regressed in our religious understanding. Many of us simply don't understand mythical thought. We apply rational thought to everything, even when it is not appropriate. We do this because logos is all we know. We have lost the whole marvelous and necessary faculty of mythos.

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