As you probably noticed, the world didn’t come to an end May 21, 2011 and probably won’t end December 21, either. Why not? I think it’s because the person who made the prediction mixed up what is literal (a calendar) with what is symbolic (the end of the world). In other words, he mixed up two ways of thinking – what Karen Armstrong (who just spoke at our UU General Assembly) calls Logos and Mythos.
I’d best start by defining Logos, Mythos, and what I have named the Literalist Heresy. Logos, Greek for word, means the kind of logical reasoning we use for the scientific method, legal attribution, and historical analysis. We Unitarian Universalists are comfortable with Logos. Logos brought us penicillin, DNA testing, and put a man on the moon.
Mythos, on the other hand, we’re not so used to. Mythos isn’t intuition, which is based on non-verbal cues we may not be aware of, but is thinking in analogy or metaphor. Mythos is about what something means, not what it is. For instance, “The fog comes in on little cat feet” means fog comes creeping in the way a cat does.
You former Catholics and medieval historians have heard of various heresies: the Arian, the Albigensisan, etc. One error in thinking we’ve seen in the last 300 years since the Enlightenment is what I call the Literalist heresy – that religious truths are true in the same way scientific or historical truths are or that Mythos must be the same kind of truth as Logos.
For a literary work, thinking in Logos yields patent nonsense. Take Mark Twain’s story of Huckleberry Finn. The meaning of the story is one young person learning to think for himself about racism and slavery. What is true in this story is that racism and slavery are moral evils. Although the events of the novel aren’t real in the Logos sense, in the Mythos sense the message of the book is true. People who think in Logos would argue that if Huck wasn’t real, then neither was his message. They would add that cats don’t transport fog particles with their feet, either.
But in religious matters it seems to matter a great deal whether story or image is “really” true. For instance, Literalists try to make the Genesis story of the creation scientifically true and thus claim Darwinian evolution didn’t happen. Biblical literalists force what was intended to be Mythos into Logos and create the absurd hybrid creation science – both bad religion and bad science.
These Biblical literalists maintain Mythos like the Genesis story is objective fact and therefore literally true. They become Fundamentalists.
Other literalists maintain Mythos is supposed to be objective fact but it can’t really true in the Logos sense. They become secular humanists.
UU Clicker thinks both Fundamentalists and secular humanists miss the point of religious stories.