instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, August 16, 2004

Applying a distinction

Let me overgeneralize:

The East is far more comfortable with mythos than with logos. The West is far less satisfied with mythos.

The mythos/logos tension captures one of the challenges of Roman Catholic apologetics. Some Christian denominations have all but reduced the Christian mythos to a logos: you are saved if and only if you have accepted Jesus as your personal Savior; the logos is clear from the Bible, and anything else is at best excessive. Sacraments and mysteries are by nature mythos, and therefore not part of Christianity.

Other Christians, though, reject either the particular Catholic logos or even the whole idea of a Christian logos. All that rationality, all that theologizing, is in this view a Hellenization of Christianity. Jesus told stories; He didn't write treatises. The God of the Bible is not the god of the philosophers; He gets mad, He changes His mind. Without a logos, what matters is my story, my experiences, and these don't depend on what a bunch of men said at some council or other.

So, depending on who he's talking to, a Catholic may be seen as either a poet (boo!)or a philosopher (hiss!). [I'm not suggesting this situation is unique to Catholics.] In fact, he might even be seen as both a poet and a philosopher, choosing his persona based on which best suits his purposes.

Am I talking about the doctrine of the Trinity? Then let me mention procession and relation and models of memory, understanding, and will. If pressed on it, though, let me switch to shamrocks and a love so great it becomes a person, like the myth of Narcissus in reverse -- except (pardon the switch) that it doesn't become a person, since as you'll recall the Divinity can have no potential.

In order to understand someone, you need to have some idea of where he's coming from on the mythos/logos graph (a representation of which I will spare my readers. For now). It would help avoid endless "But you just said..." counterarguments to reach some agreement on whether and how poetry and philosophy apply to the matters you're discussing.

My position, obviously, is that Catholicism (if not each individual Catholic) is both poetic and philosophical, and rightly so. The trick is to present both story and reason in a way that isn't entirely ad hoc and self-serving. It's a trick I've by no means mastered myself, but I think it has to be based on one of the assumptions any attempt at a logos has to make: that the world is intelligible to humans.