I’ll never forget reading my first chemistry textbook. The thesis of the introduction was that everything can be explained by chemistry. Everything. From the weather to plants to human thought and human behavior. I remember feeling particular disgust when the textbook claimed that what we call love is actually just the interaction and activation of certain chemicals in the brain and throughout the body.
With one stroke, the authors had answered all of life’s questions, solved all the deepest mysteries that we can ponder—including the most powerful elements of human life, such as the nature of love, death, and rationality itself. The veil was lifted. You’d expect this accomplishment to garner some attention in the press or at least to fill me with a sense of triumph and epiphany. But a claim like this causes only an interior deflation, a sickening letdown, ice inside the stomach.
If love is a biochemical operation, no different than, say, the sudden urge to sneeze or to use the bathroom, what value or meaning does it have? And if love has no meaning, does life?
Two very different visions of the world are represented here.
The materialistic mindset demonstrated by my high school chemistry textbook refers to a rationalist, fact-oriented, scientific attitude concerned only with material causes. There’s no mystery to love or hatred—just neurons firing, atoms colliding, chemicals interacting. Indeed, for the materialist, there are no true mysteries, only unsolved problems. Everything can be explained. As G.K. Chesterton puts it in Orthodoxy:
As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. . .[The materialist] understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea. The earth is so very large, and the cosmos is so very small. The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in.
The alternative to materialism emphasizes the mysterious and the transcendent and the “real things of the earth,” to use Chesterton’s term. It turns to mythology, philosophy, and religion to find the ultimate causes of things, many of which lie beyond the material. It asks, Where did we come from? Where are we going? What does it mean to be human? Why do we sense a constant pulsation of purpose and the thrumming of unsounded, enigmatic depths of meaning under the shimmering and shifting surface of our lives?
How could something like mythology address such questions? Well, first, we must be careful with a word like mythology. It has different meanings in different contexts. I am not using the term to refer simply to a people’s folktales or legends about themselves and their origins. Nor am I using it to mean simply a grand narrative, such as the myth of progress. I am using it to refer to the use of story and poetry to explore fundamental mysteries of life and gain glimpses of truths that cannot be properly expressed by mere quantity and matter, quarks and meters.
Regrettably, the word mythology today has become synonymous with untruth. A myth is generally viewed as a quaint story from an era when less enlightened people—who did not have Science (with a capital S) to explain things like weather and tides and love—came up with fanciful notions of gods and magic and curses to try to fabricate an understanding of a hostile world. Many assume that Greek and Roman mythology, for example, is fit only to entertain children.
Now, of course, I’m not proposing that myths are true in the literal sense. But a literal understanding of something is only one of many possible levels of analysis. I turn here to the great master of myth, a mythmaker himself, J.R.R. Tolkien. In a letter to Milton Waldman, Tolkien wrote, “I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.”
Tolkien is not speaking here of, say, historical facts; he is speaking of transcendent truths about human life, the nature of the universe, the mystery of the cosmos. Take, for example, Tolkien’s own mythic work The Lord of the Rings, which contains profound truths about the perennial struggle between good and evil, self-sacrifice and selfishness. Such topics do not fit into a neat, materialist box. To try to address them through the scientific method (for all its many useful purposes) would be like trying to paint a portrait using an electric drill. Stories interact with the world and touch us in a way statistics cannot.
Tolkien suggests that some truths are best presented through the non-literal, non-scientific mode of the mythological and poetic. Transcendent mystery must be explored, not “solved,” and this is the task for art and myth.
As the Rev. Francis Bethel writes in John Senior and the Restoration of Realism, “Such a [scientific] effort at clarity, solution and mastery is useful in many domains, but all knowledge cannot be reduced to clear ideas and problem resolution; reality cannot be reduced to something reason can fully comprehend.” And so the poet or mythmaker comes, not with the insane purpose of “explaining” love or “solving” war but with a quiet confidence that by contemplating something concrete and particular—such as a specific marriage, a certain leaf, a warrior’s blade—we can enter into a deeper experience and knowledge of the universal concepts of love, nature, or combat.
Chesterton writes: “The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head.” Thankfully, the real heavens are too grand to fit into the logician’s or materialist’s head. The real cosmos is large enough that, with the poets, we can wander through its glittering depths in wonder and awe for age upon age and never come to its edge. With Hamlet, we can say to the materialist, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
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