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Mythos and Time

Albert Einstein was asked by a friend “Do you believe that absolutely everything can be expressed scientifically?” Einstein answered “Yes, it would be possible.  But it would make no sense.  It would be description without meaning – as if you describe a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.”[1] From this perspective the modern world, both religious and secular, lives an impoverished existence, like a person with one eye who cannot perceive depth, however clearly he or she sees surfaces.

Consider how time appears from the contrasting perspectives of mythos and logos.  Logocentric time is linear, as one moment follows another.  Time is a neutral and empty category which we and others fill with events. From the mythic perspective, Time is more than an empty filing system where events can be organized sequentially.  It is subordinate to and embedded within divine experience, and is filled with meaning.  Christian philosopher Charles Taylor argues that for Christian thinkers, events in the Old and New Testaments “were linked through their immediate contiguous places in the divine plan.”  Taylor writes that the near sacrifice of Isaac and Christ’s crucifixion “are drawn close to identity in eternity even though they are centuries (that is, eons or saecula) apart.  In God’s Time there is a sort of simultaneity of sacrifice and Crucifixion.”[2] There is more than a whiff of Sallustius here.

Logos by contrast conceives time as secular and homogenous, and devoid of intrinsic value.  Logocentric time is a stage onto which all things appear and disappear, never to be repeated. As Taylor describes it,[3]

events now exist only in this one dimension, in which they stand at greater and lesser temporal distance and in relations of causality with other events of the same kind. . . . this is a typically modern mode of social imagination, which our medieval forebears would have found difficult to understand, for where events in profane time are very differently related to higher time, it seems unnatural just to group them side by side in the modern relation of simultaneity.

 

Compared to today, Taylor writes, “Pre-modern understandings of time seem to have been multidimensional.”[4] And this is time in the language of myth, time as a framework of meaning and relationship rather than a narrative sequence.

In secular historian Peter Gay’s words, a logos based understanding of time, constituted “one of the great achievements and essential preconditions to scientific thinking [for it] abstracted time from living particular rhythms into an impartial measure.”[5]  These achievements required time to be treated as one dimensional and common to all. Gay’s approving words help confirm Taylor’s more measured ones as to the difference between mythic and logocentric time.

When we perceive time in only one way we focus on one aspect of our lives and avert our gaze from others.  Probably most of us have experienced coincidences we personally found to be meaningful.  Two logically unrelated events are experienced as significantly connected by a common meaning that unites them.  Carl Jung’s described how a scarab beetle with gold tints began flying against his widow pane just as a particularly resistant client was recounting her dream involving a gold scarab transformed the analysis.  For Jung it was not “just a coincidence.”[6] Peter Gay’s perspective would deny this was possible.  It was just a beetle, just a coincidence, with no real significance, and we imposed whatever meaning we thought we saw from without.  Its source was our own subjectivity ultimately disconnected from the real character of the world.  This perspective is the polar opposite of Sallustius’s.

In the mythic frame of mind even common daily events can be immersed in greater contexts of meaning.  Such occurrences are relatively common, and are powerfully meaningful for those to whom they happen, proof that we are enmeshed within networks of meaning far larger and more mysterious than we know.[7]  They are not simply coincidences.  This immersion provided a depth to people’s experiences that linked them with eternal patterns of life going beyond the moment, with its evanescent hopes and fears, pleasures and pains. From such a perspective, the modern view is like a photograph which, however beautiful, remains two dimensional, with the viewer forever on the outside.  We are strangers looking in, and always will be.  Every photo shows us what has already passed, never to return. Every moment we experience is gone forever.  Life is loss and memory the only (provisional) immortality.

In the medieval Eucharist, and still today within traditional Catholic and Orthodox Christian understandings, Christ’s body and blood are present in the wafer and wine.  To quote Peter Gay again, “Ritual did not recall a miraculous event, it was that event.”[8] As Sallustius observed, it “happens every day.”

In the logos rooted Protestant understanding, the wafer and wine stand for Christ’s body and blood, but always remain themselves ‘just’ a wafer and wine.  What is celebrated is remembrance of an event that is gone rather than a past that continues into the present.  It honors what is no more, instead of what is always present. Despite their external similarity the difference in these experiences, and the meanings encountered in them, is profound. This shift in understanding unintentionally helped open the door to nihilism.

In a universe of empty time, as Shakespeare so memorably phrased it “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
 That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
 And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
 Signifying nothing.”[9]  All that was needed was for the transcendental God that supplied meaning to such a world to cease being real to people.  What was a personal tragedy in Shakespeare’s time would become a civilization wide ailment in our own.

 

 



[1] Quoted in David Suzuki and Peter Knudson, Wisdom of the Elders, (NY: Bantam 1992). 79. See Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times, (NY: Avon 1971). 755.

[2] Charles Taylor, Liberal Politics and the Public Sphere, Amitai Etzioni, ed., New Communitarian Thinking: Persons, Virtues, Institutions, and Communities, (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1995), p. 197.

[3] Ibid., p. 198.

[4] Taylor, Liberal Politics and the Public Sphere, op. cit., 198.

[5] Peter Gay, The Enlightenment (New York: Norton 1969), 91.

[6] Jung and scarab dream .

[7] Terry Tempest Williams writes of one that happened as a part of her family’s Christmas observances. Pieces of White Shell: A Journey to Navajoland, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1884). 7-8.

[8] Gay, The Enlightenment, op. cit. 90.

[9] William Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act 5, scene 5, 19-28.