Myth and the Desire for the Transcendent
There is within our present society a profound and pervasive sensitivity that something is amiss, a deep and desperate yearning for things higher than our modern materialistic society has within its power to offer. Burrowed in the innermost secret place of every man and woman there is a sense, an inherent knowledge, that much of what we are led to believe to be right is, if we are bold enough to be plainly honest with ourselves, precisely what is driving this profound sense of disquiet within our souls. For some, this feeling is alive and active, for others it struggles against formidable bonds, and for others still it lies in a dormant, comatose state, having consumed to excess the cheap pleasures of this world.
Yet there can be little question that it resides in us all. Carl Jung referred to this as the collective unconscious—the symbols, ideas, stories, and moral understandings that appear all throughout history in all cultures that developed these ideas independently of each other. C.S. Lewis in his prophetic masterpiece refers to this as the “Tao,” again pointing out that there is something real, if intangible, contained within the heart of every man and woman which inherently knows certain things; things not learned or transmitted from one generation to the next, but simply understood. Something so primitive and fundamental must also possess great power, and to ignore something so powerful carries fateful consequences.
In our time, sadly, a great many fall into the third category described above. Happy to sleep through life, they consume what this world offers them until their souls have fallen into a stupor. Equally sad is how few fall into the first category. These are those who stand on the shore of the sea in an attempt to rebuke the waves. This is exhausting work, but admirable and honorable even in its seeming futility. Here, though, there is hope, if for no other reason than because there is a middle category. It is the middle category, those who feel the dissonance but know not what to make of it, where the battle is fought.
One sees very clearly this thirst for the transcendent when he reads of young people discussing a popular series of novels intended for children and young adults as sacred. One does not search for transcendence unless he experiences its lack in his own life. Many have derided this generation, and not unjustly so, but let us not go down that road such that we drive them still further away. Let us, for a moment, recall another former non-believer who, thanks to the moral imagination of a close friend, became one of the great apologists of our time, or indeed any time.
C.S. Lewis was always an exceedingly brilliant man, and for much of his early life that brilliance was directed, most paradoxically, both towards and away from God; to the former, he was ever in search of the truth, and was never wildly opposed to the tenets of the Christian faith, save one (which will be discussed presently). Seeking truth, then he sought God as well. To the latter, Lewis felt exceedingly antagonistic towards the popular claim of many a Christian, then as now, that their religion was absolutely true and all others were absolutely false. How could this be a point of celebration, he wondered. If the truth means anything, then it must be too great by its very nature to be contained in a single expression of an idea. Was it not possible that the pagans, too, might have touched upon the truth even if they misinterpreted it? Or did God not reach out to them? Is a God who ignores his creation really a God befitting of the devotion of the Christian faith? It was this line of questioning that drove the young Lewis away from his childhood faith. Lewis took greater consolation in the ancient pagan myths, not because they were factual, but because they were true, myth though they were.
It was only when Lewis’s good friends Tolkien and Dyson suggested that Christianity was itself a myth, but that it was a true and factual myth that Lewis began to see with new sight. Lewis was thus baptized into the body of believers who, like him, held that the good and true things found outside the Christian worldview were in fact of God and so could be means of sanctification for those who held to such ideas. So it was that Tolkien pointed out to Lewis that his deep interest in pagan stories of dying and rising gods was precisely the Christian story, with a few very important differences. Nonetheless, Tolkien suggested that the myths so captivating to Lewis were perfected in the true myth of Christianity; perfected, if for no other reason than it was in the case of Christianity, in fact, factual. Thought of as a true myth, Lewis began to see the meaning behind the stories he knew so well but did not believe. Both Lewis and Tolkien knew that a myth need not be factual in order to be true, for truth and fact are not one and the same.
Consider the words of St. Augustine, which echo through the centuries:
If philosophers have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.
St. Augustine thus urges Christians not to dismiss out of hand every word that comes forth from the mouth of the pagan, but rather to evaluate them all, and to focus on those that share even a thread of the truth. Moreover, he says that we must take back possession of it, as it is being held “unlawfully.” This notion bears out in his City of God, wherein Augustine spends much of his work wrestling with the pagan beliefs of Roman culture as argued by Plato, Cicero, and men lesser known to the modern mind such as Varro, in order to bolster his argument that a thriving Christianity was compatible with a stable post-Roman world. The truth cannot be allowed to reside with those who do not know, or else reject the Truth. We are not led to truth in order that we might alter and manipulate it for our own worldly ends, but rather are receivers of truth that we may plant it, cultivate it, and see that it grows as intended.
In our time, Romano Guardini expressed the same sentiments in this way:
Deeply significant for the new religious outlook of medieval man was the influx of the Germanic spirit. The religious bent of the Nordic myths, the restlessness of the migrating peoples and the armed marches of Germanic tribes revealed a new spirit which burst everywhere into history like a spear thrust into the infinite. This mobile and nervous soul worked itself into the Christian affirmation. There it grew mightily. In its fullness it produced that immense medieval drive which aimed at cracking the boundaries of the world.
Here, Guardini points out that even while particular beliefs may be out of line with Christian doctrine, the motivations and drives—the will (today a dirty word, it seems) behind them may be enough to build upon. The drive to explore and expand, to conquer and convert, was found to be the sanctifying motivation, though certainly the means of the one were different from the means of the other. Nonetheless, a missionary religion and a roving people share one thing in common if nothing else—expansion of their tribe. Wide may be the chasm across which the bridge must be built, but it must be built nonetheless.
But if truth can be found without the Church, what of the truth found within the Church? Indeed for all of Lewis’ eloquence and apologetic fervor, he was still a devout Anglican and advocated, at least popularly, for a minimalist or “mere” Christianity. Bradley Birzer, in his excellent study on Tolkien titled J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, details the tension in Lewis’ friendship with Tolkien, pointing out that Lewis’ deeply rooted prejudice against Catholicism was always a point of conflict between the two men.
How, then, can a man whose religious beliefs tended towards an inherent institutional disunity still be held as a banner man for sacramental Christianity? Here one may play with words in order to dig deeper for the vein of truth. Prior to his conversion proper, Lewis held an analytical view of religion, which is to say he held a very abstract view. The word “analytic” comes from the Greek analusis, which means to loosen up or break apart. When one engages in analysis one sets to the work of picking apart a given thing. Thus, for so long Lewis looked at religion, and Christianity in particular, analytically, never the while succeeding in ascertaining the religion’s meaning. It is exceedingly difficult to cultivate a faith built purely on complicated words ending in –ation and –ism. These are abstract ideas, and not the stuff of belief.
It was only after speaking with Tolkien and Dyson that Lewis began to see religion in a religious light. Contra “analysis,” the word “religion,” which comes from the same root as the Latin religare, means, “to bind fast.” Religion, then, is a re-ligamenting, or a finding of unity. Lewis came to see that in paganism, or what we might consider in our time to be progressive ideology or the prevailing secularism of the era, myths were men’s stories about God, perhaps inspired by God, but delivered in an unfocused and mythological, if still true, way to tell stories about the world; yet in the story of Christ we have received God’s myth, the story in which God directly and clearly expresses himself—through a particular man in a particular time doing particular things.
Thus in Lewis we find two competing ideas. First, that God as creator is the author of truth, such that wherever truth is found, God must be near at hand. Lewis understood this, and made much of it. Yet this seems to contradict or perhaps distract from the fact that the fullest expression of truth is found within the Church itself, as the Church is the body of Christ, and thus the place where Creator and created meet. It is a tension, to be sure, yet God is not a God of contradictions. Perhaps, then, one may surmise that the truth without should serve as an enticement to find the truth within. Returning once again to Lewis, he once wrote that man encounters the truth in many disparate places and begins to feel a winsome nostalgia for those times and places, but the feeling is not the thing [truth] itself, but only a brief glimpse. It begs the question, which is well beyond the scope of this essay, whether one can fully know any single truth this side of eternity. But whether we can or not, our search for the fullest expression of truth should not be deterred.
Concluding with Lewis will suffice. In a very important, though oft overlooked essay titled Myth Became Fact, Lewis makes a claim that would be far too easy to misinterpret without a prior understanding of the truth that informs myth. He writes:
I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other. A man who disbelieves the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it.
Men have derived more sustenance from unbelievable myth than from professed religion. This is why there are those who seek truth, goodness, beauty, and meaning in a series of books they know are impossibly unbelievable while eschewing the religion of their fathers. These young men and women are experiencing what Lewis experienced in his own time which drove him from his childhood faith. The body of the faithful should not so quickly dismiss the inclinations of those without, and should instead look for a means by which the truth, whatever it is or wherever it may be found, can be sanctified.