If we accept that Christianity is a story, emphasize the primacy of faith, and deemphasize historical testimony, are we not merely reduced to telling our different stories, without being able to point to anything as having compelling objective truth? The mythopoetic appeal of Christianity is strong and valid. Yet there has to be something that guarantees the story is real.
Theology: Mythos or Logos?: A Dialogue on Faith, Reason, and History, by John Médaille and Thomas Storck (178 pages, Angelico Press, 2020)
The dialogue between reason and faith informs so many areas of life that it’s hard to keep track of them. And in truth, it should be a dialogue, never a battle. In the new book Theology: Mythos or Logos? (subtitled A Dialogue on Faith, Reason, and History), John Médaille and Thomas Storck engage in a dignified debate about faith and reason which they frame in terms of mythos and logos. These two concepts, we learn, wind their way around human affairs in countless ways. The book takes the form of a series of letters that the two Catholic thinkers wrote to each other—letters in which an argument is developed that pulls the reader along in a way few philosophical books do.
As we go, a number of related concepts cluster themselves around our central dichotomy. Logos stands for reason, logic, argument, philosophy, and science. Mythos stands for poetry, intuition, imagination, and art. Also, story.
Indeed, a good deal of back-and-forth of the book centers on Mr. Médaille’s preference for the word “story” in describing the Christian faith. Mr. Storck is uncomfortable with such usage—he will concede that scripture contains stories, among other things, but will not consent to summing up the Christian faith under the rubric of a “story.”
Perhaps his unease is due to the vagueness of the word in English. In many languages, “story” and “history” are the same word; in Italian, for example, the word storia suffices for both. In English we have two different words with two different shades of meaning. For better or worse, “story” tends to connote fiction (unless preceded by “true”), while “history” connotes fact. (Yet there is the outlying case of a “news story,” something presumably factual.) Médaille concedes that in the case of Christianity the story is a history; but it cannot be subjected to the scientific historical method. He insists that faith precedes rational inquiry—something with which St. Augustine and a host of others would agree. Indeed, Messrs. Médaille and Storck agree on many principles; where they disagree is in the conclusions to be drawn from them.
Regarding “story,” I find the following definitions, among others, in Webster’s:
1. a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse; tale.
2. a fictitious tale, shorter and less elaborate than a novel
3. a narration of incidents or events
4. a lie; fabrication
Of course, Christian salvation history fits the first and third definitions; it is a narrative, a story. The Bible tells the grand narrative of God’s relationship to mankind, articulated in many distinct “stories”—e.g., the Creation, the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, the life of Jesus. Thus far I am in agreement with Mr. Médaille that Christianity is a story, a true story, a history. Moreover, story can also mean an account, claim, or testimony (“do you believe his story?”), and this seems to chime with a key aspect of the Gospel.
Where the trouble arises, I think, is in making “story” do the job of describing the entire system of belief. It seems to me that using story in this way, it’s a small step toward viewing the faith as merely an aesthetic object or an interesting hypothesis. Mr. Storck makes a good point that the pagan myths were stories but were not rooted in historical fact. Mr. Médaille counters that for the pagans, history was not “the locus of truth”; the myths were the very definition of true because they existed in a timeless realm. But doesn’t this illustrate precisely why the Christian revelation is different from the myths, the “stories” of the ancients?
Further, Mr. Médaille extends the use of “story” to refer to the individual worldviews or “narratives” we carry with us. We must judge among these which has the most “explanatory power” rather than rely on reason to tell us which is true. Faith is the first and last criterion: If you have faith, for example, you will see the truth of the Resurrection; if you don’t have faith, you will not see it. We should not use reason and the historical method to “prove” it.
Does this way of thinking, as Mr. Storck suggests, lead to a hopeless subjectivism in theology? If we accept that Christianity is a story, emphasize the primacy of faith, and deemphasize historical testimony, are we not merely reduced to telling our different stories, without being able to point to anything as having compelling objective truth?
Mr. Médaille says that submitting the Christian faith to rational criteria is a losing proposition, but it seems that focusing on the mythic aspects of the faith is not a surefire bet either. Joseph Campbell, the noted mythologist who scrutinized the stories of the world, was convinced that the fact that the literal truth of myths was belied by reason and science meant that “there is no meaning to life—there are lots of meanings to different lives, and you must decide what you want your own to be.”[*] Is Christianity then just a lifestyle choice, which one person might happen to find interesting or attractive and another person might not?
I admit that in the earlier stages of the book, I found Mr. Médaille’s side of the argument most attractive. The “leap into the absurd” (taking this last word somewhat impressionistically) seems to me an essential aspect of faith—one that Mr. Médaille applies to the Resurrection, the Eucharist, and so forth. These things, indeed, cannot be deduced from reason. Mr. Storck counters that these are to be regarded as mysteries but not as absurdities. They are, after all, not against reason even if they are beyond reason. And while it’s true that a mystery like the Redemption on the Cross is a pure act of love, not something rational (remember St. Paul’s phrase, “a folly to the Gentiles”), there is also in it a sort of higher logic, as theologians tell us; for only a being who was both God and man could have undone the offense done by man to God.
As the book progressed, I came to side more and more with Mr. Storck because he points out, rightly I think, the risks inherent in the use of “story” and of a more or less “fideist” (again, using that term in a relative and elastic sense) approach to religion. Story is real, and it exerts a powerful pull on us. The mythopoetic appeal of Christianity is strong and valid. Yet there has to be something behind the story, something in addition to the story—something that guarantees the story is real.
Otherwise, Christianity becomes a powerful symbol, an enduring archetype, a great fable—but not a truth that compels belief. This is how Christianity is viewed in most of the cultural and artistic world now: a myth of compelling interest which once ruled the minds of men and inspired great works of art, but is now more or less an artifact, certainly nothing we have to literally believe in.
Mythos and logos: these two principles weave their way through human life. It’s a foregone conclusion that we need a balance of both. But finding the balance is precisely the challenge. As the authors show us, the question we often need to settle is how much of mythos or logos there needs to be in each situation, and which should predominate. I don’t think anyone would doubt that St. Thomas Aquinas, although he wrote some majestic liturgical poetry and had mystical visions, predominantly concentrated in his career on logos, the rational. Conversely, we think of St. Francis of Assisi as mostly a mystic and not a logician. Mr. Médaille propounds a mystical approach to faith, and Mr. Storck a scholastic one; in any case, that is how Mr. Médaille frames it. So there is room in Christianity for both approaches. Yet the mythos, though not derived from rational argument, should be consistent with reason.
Where does this leave the issue of Christianity as “story”? Mr. Storck wisely reminds us that “story does not have a univocal meaning,” as a visit to Webster’s will confirm. And how long has this phrase “Christian story” been in use? Not much before the 20th century, I would guess. Granted, language evolves, new words are pressed into use to describe old concepts. Should we then accept “story” into the Christian vocabulary?
Only as long as we understand it in a higher, mystical and aesthetic sense, one that points to God as the divine artist, the author of human history. Thomas Aquinas touches on this theme in Question 93 of the Summa: Creation bears a likeness to the mind of the Creator just as an artistic work bears a likeness to the mind of the artist. This is the sense in which our faith is story, in that it proceeds from the creative mind of God. Otherwise, if we are the ones originating the story, then we are on the road to comparative anthropology instead of theology.
If “story” produces too much confusion and vagueness, then perhaps we should lay it aside and speak again in such terms as “truth,” “revelation,” or “the Word.” These terms admittedly lack the comfortable, gather-around-the-campfire sound of “story.” They are more uncompromising—a summons. But sometimes a summons is what we need. On a more imaginative note, I would propose “vision,” emphasizing the way Christians view all things as related to each other and to God.
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* Joseph Campbell Foundation website