Metaphysical mistake | Karen Armstrong | Comment is free | The Guardian

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Metaphysical mistake | Karen Armstrong | Comment is free | The Guardian
  Search The question: Should we believe in belief? The extraordinary and eccentric emphasis on belief in Christianity today is an accidentof history that has distorted our understanding of religious truth. We call religiouspeople believers , as though acceptance of a set of doctrines was their principal activity,and before undertaking the religious life many feel obliged to satisfy themselves aboutthe metaphysical claims of the church, which cannot be proven rationally since they lie beyond the reach of empirical sense data.Most other traditions prize practice above creedal orthodoxy: Buddhists, Hindus,Confucians, Jews and Muslims would say religion is something you do , and that youcannot understand the truths of faith unless you are committed to a transformative way of life that takes you beyond the prism of selfishness. All good religious teaching –including such Christian doctrines as the Trinity or the Incarnation – is basically asummons to action. Yet instead of being taught to act creatively upon them, many modern Christians feel it is more important to believe them. Why?In most pre-modern cultures, there were two recognised ways of attaining truth. TheGreeks called them mythos  and logos . Both were crucial and each had its particularsphere of competence.  Logos  ( reason; science ) was the pragmatic mode of thoughtthat enabled us to control our environment and function in the world. It had, therefore,to correspond accurately to external realities. But logos  could not assuage human grief or give people intimations that their lives had meaning. For that they turned to mythos ,an early form of psychology, which dealt with the more elusive aspects of humanexperience.Stories of heroes descending to the underworld were not regarded as primarily factual but taught people how to negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche. In the same way, Metaphysical mistake Confusion by Christians between belief and reason has createdbad science and inept religion Karen Armstrong The Guardian, Sunday 12 July 2009 20.00 BST Metaphysical mistake | Karen Armstrong | Comment is free | ... of 39/25/14 2:42 PM  the purpose of a creation myth was therapeutic; before the modern period no sensibleperson ever thought it gave an accurate account of the srcins of life. A cosmology wasrecited at times of crisis or sickness, when people needed a symbolic influx of thecreative energy that had brought something out of nothing. Thus the Genesis myth, agentle polemic against Babylonian religion, was balm to the bruised spirits of theIsraelites who had been defeated and deported by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar duringthe sixth century BCE. Nobody was required to believe it; like most peoples, theIsraelites had a number of other mutually-exclusive creation stories and as late as the16th century, Jews thought nothing of making up a new creation myth that bore norelation to Genesis but spoke more directly to their tragic circumstances at that time. Above all, myth was a programme of action. When a mythical narrative was symbolically re-enacted, it brought to light within the practitioner something true about human lifeand the way our humanity worked, even if its insights, like those of art, could not beproven rationally. If you did not act upon it, it would remain as incomprehensible andabstract – like the rules of a board game, which seem impossibly convoluted, dull andmeaningless until you start to play.Religious truth is, therefore, a species of practical knowledge. Like swimming, wecannot learn it in the abstract; we have to plunge into the pool and acquire the knack by dedicated practice. Religious doctrines are a product of ritual and ethical observance,and make no sense unless they are accompanied by such spiritual exercises as yoga,prayer, liturgy and a consistently compassionate lifestyle. Skilled practice in thesedisciplines can lead to intimations of the transcendence we call God, Nirvana, Brahmanor Dao. Without such dedicated practice, these concepts remain incoherent, incredibleand even absurd.But during the modern period, scientific  logos  became so successful that myth wasdiscredited, the logos of scientific rationalism became the only  valid path to truth, andNewton and Descartes claimed it was possible to  prove  God's existence, somethingearlier Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians had vigorously denied. Christians bought into the scientific theology, and some embarked on the doomed venture of turning their faith's mythos  into logos .It was during the late 17th century, as the western conception of truth became morenotional, that the word belief changed its meaning. Previously, bileve  meant love,loyalty, commitment . It was related to the Latin libido  and used in the King JamesBible to translate the Greek  pistis ( trust; faithfulness; involvement ). In demanding  pistis , therefore, Jesus was asking for commitment not credulity: people must giveeverything to the poor, follow him to the end, and commit totally to the comingKingdom. Metaphysical mistake | Karen Armstrong | Comment is free | ... of 39/25/14 2:42 PM  By the late 17th century, however, philosophers and scientists had started to use belief to mean an intellectual assent to a somewhat dubious proposition. We often assume modern means superior , and while this is true of science and technology, ourreligious thinking is often undeveloped. In the past, people understood it was unwise toconfuse mythos  with logos , but today we read the mythoi   of scripture with anunparalleled literalism, and in creation science we have bad science and inept religion.The question is: how can we extricate ourselves from the religious cul-de-sac we enteredabout 300 years ago? © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. Get the best of Comment is free The most shared comment, analysis and editorialarticles delivered every weekday lunchtime. Sign up for the Comment is free email Metaphysical mistake | Karen Armstrong | Comment is free | ... of 39/25/14 2:42 PM
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