The Trouble with History

I ended the previous essay by asking, “How do we say that which we cannot reduce to words, sentences, and logical thought?” The key to answering the question is to embrace the fact that we can know much more than we can say. Truly embracing this will help us stop trying to reduce reality to words.

In near Eastern mythical literature (whether Sumerian, Egyptian, or Greek) two characters who universally appear are the brothers, one who embraces good and the other evil. The hallmark of the good brother was his willingness to embrace that which we cannot know. By embracing it, by playing the hero, the good brother was able to ultimately subdue parts of the unknown and thus incorporate it into the known and structured world. In this way, that which lays beyond rational explanation becomes the “water of life,” (the domesticated “water of chaos”) which regenerates and strengthens society.

The essence of the evil brother, on the other hand, was what Peterson calls “unbridled rationality.” It is a refusal to embrace that which lays beyond what he can understand and focus only on that he thinks he can understand and thus can control.

This “spirit of unbridled rationality,” horrified by his limited apprehension of the conditions of existence, shrinks from contact with everything he does not understand. This shrinking weakens his personality, no longer nourished by the “water of life,” and makes him rigid and authoritarian, as he clings desperately to the familiar, “rational,” and stable. Every deceitful retreat increases his fear; every new “protective law” increases his frustration, boredom and contempt for life. His weakness, in combination with his neurotic suffering, engenders resentment and hatred for existence itself. [From the Introduction to ch. 5 of Maps of Meaning, p. 245.]

Heroes (the good brother of mythology) refuse to deny the great unknown of chaos, although they know they can ever ultimately subdue it and thus know all that there is to know (that is, rationality gone amok). But the thing that makes them heroes is their ability to use both rationality and technology as a tool to tame a bit of the chaos while simultaneously understanding they will never ultimately defeat chaos, or to use imagery from Gen. 2, they till the Garden and keep it orderly. They don’t exterminate the weeds completely (in Monsanto-like arrogance), only remove them from the Garden

The evil brother would consider this never-ending process futility (akin to Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill) and would thus reject the hero manner of doing things. Instead he would carve out a world where everything was orderly and understood and chaos could play no part. Rationalism (the typical response of the evil brother) seeks to understand and control everything. It is no accident that Satan, before he fell, was Lucifer, the angel of light, or “light-bearer.” Light (ie, the Enlightenment is the metaphor par excellence of reason itself). Lucifer’s battle against the God who dared create chaos (in the beginning the world was formless and void) resulted in his being cast out of heaven and cast into a circumscribed world of his own making. And while it met his standards, we know it as hell.

Likewise the evil brother’s world is circumscribed and his reason ultimately becomes the limiting factor. There are echoes of the mythical good brother/bad brother story in the story of Cain and Able. Able (the good brother) was a shepherd; shepherds don’t (can’t!) ultimately control the sheep and goats; they rather follow them or guide them, they protect them, and allow them to develop on their own. Cain (the evil brother) was a farmer who controlled his bit of creation, killing the plants he didn’t want to grow and allowing only the good plants to grow in his fields. His circumscribed life led to a circumscribed offering that was unacceptable to God. Able’s gift, on the other hand, was found acceptable.

Of course there is a fundamental problem here (not a contradiction of facts, but what we might call a contradiction of ideas). In the Garden of Eden, tilling the ground is a virtue and God says it will be necessary. In the Cain and Able story, tilling the ground becomes the problem while animal husbandry becomes better choice. In a fundamentalist Christian context, this larger meta-story of Cain the evil brother, as illustrated by the fact that he is a farmer rather than a shepherd, needs to be suppressed because it can’t be rationally harmonized with God’s words in the Garden of Eden. The power of the meta-story therefore has to be suppressed in favor of a more logical and rational (and therefore, circumscribed) explanation.

But this contradicts the nature of reality. It is bigger than any one story. From the perspective of the Garden, farming is a virtue; from the perspective of Cain’s sacrifice, farming becomes a vice. Which is it? the rationalist asks? But that’s a question that grows out of a rationalist need to reduce the world to understandable categories. The world is bigger than that; it has high valence and as a result our minds are able to associate these images (in this case, farming) to a variety of situations in a variety of ways.

And this is the real danger of reducing Gen. 1-11 to history or fact. It is a form of rationalizing the larger truth down to something understandable and circumscribed. Our rational, circumscribed explanation works for a while, but as the world changes, cut of from the “waters of chaos” (that have been conveniently explained away by reducing myth to history), we no longer have access to the “water of life” that will revivify our communities.

The Part That Got Left Out

I am currently reading the textbook Maps of Meaning by Jordan B. Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Univ. of Toronto. Peterson has recently become infamous for his opposition to bill C-16 (a Canadian Parliamentary Bill proposing full civil liberties to trans-gendered persons that has several scary side-effects). My own acquaintance with his work was through the Orthodox Church and the seeming infatuation many Canadian Orthodox thinkers have with Peterson’s ideas.

I worked my way through the 2017 version of his “Maps of Meaning” classroom lectures, available on YouTube. That was a 30 hour slog that made me wish I was in university again. The lectures piqued my interest; the textbook made it abundantly clear why the Orthodox are so enthralled with his work.

It is now expected and a bit trite to blame many of our problems on the Enlightenment. I’ve been on that bandwagon for 25 years or longer since I read Colin Gunton. But other than recommending the Protestant theologian Karl Barth and the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar, as well as the Eastern Orthodox divine liturgy, I’ve had little to work with beyond repeating the “Enlightenment has resulted in bad things” trope.

I’ve known since my college days that the Enlightenment was and is fundamentally reductionist, and thus leaves us incapable of adequately discerning reality and the truth. Peterson has given me a glimpse into just what got left out of the Enlightenment equation:


(Yeah, really! That’s the part that got left out.)

In popular usage “myth” means it’s a story that’s not factual, and thus not really true. To say, for instance, that Adam and Eve are a myth (as Samuel Johnson did back in the 18th century) was and is considered heresy by “Bible believing” Christians. We all “know” that there are facts and there are myths and facts lead to truth and myths don’t. Of course the students of myth (the aforementioned Johnson, as well as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Joseph Campbell, to name a few) say that this bifurcation of myth and fact misses the point.

And the well informed “Bible believing” Christian might sniff, “Well, maybe it does miss the point, but that doesn’t change the fact that Adam and Eve aren’t a myth!”

What’s interesting about this deep divide between what is often construed as conservative and liberal Christianity is a recent phenomenon. The early church didn’t struggle with this “problem” because they didn’t notice a problem. The divide exists because both parties (liberal and conservative Christianity) have accepted certain key presuppositions of the Enlightenment and none of us (including me) can figure out how to move beyond these presuppositions.

This is where I found Jordan Peterson to be quite helpful. He reframes the issue in a manner that helps me (and obviously a number of other people, given his hearty reception among the Canadian Orthodox) to step beyond the Enlightenment problem of reducing reality to too small a box. Furthermore, he does it in a constructive manner. Post-modernists, and deconstructionists of all stripes, have done a good job of stepping beyond the Enlightenment by criticizing it; but beyond that they have nothing positive to say. Like me, once they deconstruct the Enlightenment, they have no path forward, just the old trope, the “Enlightenment has resulted in bad things”

Peterson’s solution (and it’s not his invention – he says he’s adding the neurobiological and neuropsychological pieces to an argument already made by others before him) is not only to expand the frame of reference, but move its focus altogether. Critics of the Enlightenment have universally said the Enlightenment was reductionist. Peterson goes much farther by saying that fundamental truth does not revolve around object, but around meaning. “Objective truth” is actually a second-order truth that is extracted from the more fundamental “significance” (an idea closely related to “meaning”). Significance is what allows us to prioritize and organize objective truth. (See Maps of Meaning, ch. 1, “Maps of Experience: Object and Meaning.”)

To return to a possibly overused analogy (but an analogy that is used so frequently precisely because it is so applicable), Peterson is offering a “Copernican Revolution” as a solution to the Enlightenment predicament. Just as the Earth was not the center of our sky, but rather the Sun (or the center of the galaxy, etc.), so objects are not the center of truth, but rather meaning. Objects come forward out of the chaotic mass of atoms and molecules and energy and light to reveal themselves as objects not because they are inherently objects but because they mean something to us and thus reveal themselves as objects.

Mapping objects is a relatively simple task. At least it was relatively simple from a Newtonian framework. Objects fit into a “time-space continuum.” (Of course the mapping of objects gets a bit weird at the quantum level.) Mapping meaning is far more difficult, and yet it is something that we instinctually know and do. The process of mapping meaning is the dilemma that I am quite fond of which can be described (in Michael Polanyi’s turn of phrase) as, “We know far more than we can say.”

So how do we say that which we cannot reduce to words, sentences, and logical thought? I’m already at 850 words, so I’ll save that question for the next essay.


Thoughts on Trinity Sunday

I became fascinated with the Babylonian creation stories many years ago. The two original deities, Tiamat, the feminine god of chaos (or salt water, or the ocean, which is the embodiment of chaos), and her consort, Apsu, the masculine god who is very mysterious and unknowable, but was probably the god of fresh water, and particularly, the god of the springs from where the holy water of the religious rites came.

They had a number of children, but the key child – in terms of the creation story – is Anu, who killed Tiamat, chopped her up, and scattered her. Those scattered remains became the created order as we know it. Thus the created order came about from the defeat of chaos.

But chaos remained. Babylonian society was a small enclave of order surrounded by chaos.

This Babylonian creation myth came to mind because of the texts for Trinity Sunday, which was celebrated June 12 in the Western churches. The Christian creation story also starts with chaos: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was [chaotic] and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1f).

The difference in the two stories is striking. In the Babylonian story the outer chaos is something to be feared and avoided. I purposely quoted the RSV because it views Gen 1:2 from a Christian perspective translating the Hebrew “Wind” (blowing over the chaos) as “the Holy Spirit.” In this Christian version of the story, the chaos is there, but the Holy Spirit is present out there, above the chaos.

In the Gospel lesson Jesus sends the disciples out into the world. In the Babylonian view of the world, only a Hero would dare venture out into the chaos. In the Christian view, we ordinary people can venture out into the chaos outside our community because the Spirit is already present “blowing over the waters.”

As humans we naturally fear chaos (it’s actually biological) and in the last several years our world has become quite chaotic. For Americans that chaos reach a fever pitch with the recent presidential election. My liberal friends who are horrified by President Trump and live in abject fear of what they perceive as the chaos in the political order (and similarly, my conservative friends who were equally frozen in fear by the prospect of Hillary Clinton), desperately need to hear these glorious words of Trinitarian truth: The Spirit’s abode is above the chaos (in the same way the wind blows above the prairie). The chaos is therefore not so much a problem as it is an opportunity. As frightening as it is, the chaos is relatively safe. In chaos there be dragons! But in chaos there be God blowing upon the deep. It is the Trinitarian message of hope.