Society & Politics

Convenient Myths

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Iain Provan

Dr. Iain Provan is the Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College. You can hear him speak further to this topic at his book launch lecture entitled "Whassup?! Reading Culture: The War of Myths and the Mission of the Church".

Most people, I believe, do not comprehend the way in which each of us is inevitably caught up in what theologian Ched Myers has called the “war of myths” – a battle of overarching stories that claim to explain life (what it’s about, where it’s going, and what its purpose is).  For Myers, our lives are war-zones.  Very different “big stories” about the world vie for influence over our hearts and minds.  But most people simply take the world as they find it and get on with their lives without reflecting too much about this battle.  They simply assume that what is true about reality and about right and wrong is obvious.  However, the fact of the matter is that every one of us lives in a world profoundly shaped by other people’s ideas.  Everyone lives inside an (inevitably disputable) story, recounted to them in the first instance by other people. Human beings are always “storied” in this way—regardless of whether they reflect upon this fact—just as they are always “political,” regardless of whether they vote.  The only question that faces us is this: are we going to make any effort to ensure that we inhabit a true and a good story, rather than a false and possibly dangerous one?

In my just-published book, Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World That Never Was (Waco: Baylor University Press), I extend an invitation to engage in the serious critical appraisal of two influential myths of our time. Both myths are stories about the past told in pursuit of present and future agendas.  The first I have labeled the myth of the axial age. The idea of an axial age was first introduced to the world by the German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers in the period just after the Second World War. Modern human beings stand, he proposed, on the far side of this crucial turning point in history (800–200 BC), which produced the basic categories within which we modern human beings still carry on our thinking.  The cultures that experienced this new beginning constantly return to it in order to renew themselves. As they do so, they recognize what they hold in common, beyond all particular differences of faith. It is to this common past that we ourselves must now return, as we strive to make the unity of humankind concrete in the present. We must return to this axial age—the wellspring from which all faith once emerged, behind and beneath all specific religious and philosophical worldviews and their secularized, political forms. And, having gone back, we must move forward to build a new world order. We must birth a new axial age—an age of world peace.  This myth has in turn been popularized by many others, including the religious studies expert John Hick and the popular religious historian Karen Armstrong.  Even those who have never heard the terminology may be familiar with the myth itself as expressed in the kind of statements that often appear in Karen Armstrong’s books (e.g., the ways in which all religions “are at the core really just the same, focusing on compassion”).

The second myth, I have labeled the myth of the dark green golden age. The mythmakers in this case also believe in something like an axial age, but they do not look back to it for inspiration, because they regard it as an age, not of enlightenment, but of repression. Axial age civilizations destroyed prior societies based around natural and cosmological cycles. They broke the human connection with the earth. They also broke down human community, as individual religious identity developed.  Axial age (world) religions, since they were not connected with particular places, inevitably reduced the importance of place, unless that “place” was in a spiritual afterlife. Much of what is wrong with contemporary human life results from this embrace of civilization. To recover ourselves, we must now get back behind the axial age, in order to recover a more authentic way of being. We must revisit the Paleolithic era, and reconnect with our hunter-gatherer ancestors in the state of nature. That is where we will actually find the spirituality of empathy and compassion that we need, to save both ourselves and the planet.  How can we access this Old Stone Age, which is long gone, and of which there is so little meaningful trace even in the archaeological record?  We can access it by way of surviving preaxial tribal peoples not yet entirely assimilated into axial reality – indigenous peoples of the modern period, who still tell truer stories about the world than we modern people do. It is by listening to their wisdom that we can save ourselves and the planet; for even into modern times, they have lived more world-affirming, equitable and peaceable lives than axial peoples, informed by a much more authentic, organic spirituality than is available in the world-denigrating world religions.  In particular, even into modern times, these ancient peoples, living in harmony with nature, have displayed the ecological knowledge without which we cannot now manage.  So we must listen carefully to them, reconnect with our deepest past by doing so, and in this way equip ourselves to move ahead into a sustainable future.  Among the many accessible books that promote this myth are those written by ecologist David Suzuki and anarcho-primitivists John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen.

Both these stories have been told and retold in recent times by well-motivated people who want to make the world a better place. Both have proved to be remarkably influential, whether at sophisticated levels of politics and government, or at the more popular level. The popular appetite for the myths is well-illustrated in the difficulty I faced, when writing my book, in even getting access to the writings of people like Karen Armstrong and Derrick Jensen for any extended period of time, because of the demand for them in our local (including university) libraries. Certainly here in the Pacific Northwest, many people are drawn to these myths, and in recognition of the demand their proponents’ books are well-represented in our bookstores.

For my own part, I have enormous sympathy for the agendas of the writers in both camps. Nonetheless, I believe each of the stories is patently false – and that is what I try to argue in my book.  But I also explore why it is that the two stories are so widely believed by so many, even though they are evidently untrue, and, most importantly, I ask whether this matters.  I think it does; I think false stories are dangerous. The flourishing of our planet, and indeed of its human inhabitants, will not in the end be advanced by such.

Source: Marketplace Institute



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