Friday 1 November 2013

Disenchantment and Myth turning into History


In much of his work, and perhaps most explicitly in The Lost Road/ Notion Club Papers and the accompanying development of the Numenor legends - Tolkien was very concerned by the process in which Men used-to live in Myth, but now Myth has degenerated into mere History

This is Tolkien's version of the Disenchantment of the World, and his explanation for the modern sense of accentuated 'alienation' or Man's detachment from a world that is increasingly perceived as indifferent and mechanical.

Tolkien's lifelong 'project' was perhaps to reconnect modernity - that is History - with that world of Myth so nearly lost to us, and thereby re-enchant the world.

In a nutshell, Tolkien sought to restore Myth to Modernity.


But what is characteristic of Myth?

In Tolkien's world, Myth is about direct personal contact with the gods.

The gods are the major Valar such as Manwe, Morgoth and Varda/ Elbereth, and the minor (angel) Maia.

There is no direct contact with The One (creator) God Eru; but at times Elves, and very occasionally Men lived in contact with the Valar and Maia - some Elves by dwelling either in the land of the Gods (Valinor) or nearby (Eressea); men in exceptional instances meeting Valar like Tuor and Earendil, and (perhaps) in Numenor - plus those unfortunates who encountered Maia such as Morgoth, Sauron, Balrogs, and the corrupted Saruman.

At any rate, by the end of Lord of the Rings, all contact with the gods has ceased - in the Fourth Age Myth has ended and History has begun - Myth is but a memory.


With Christianity there is a similar movement from Myth into History. In the time of the Apostles there were Men who walked and spoke with the Son of God; but also throughout the Old Testament were Prophets who spoke with God, sometimes face to face (many theologians argue that this 'God' (Yaweh or Jehovah) was also the Son of God in a pre-incarnate form).

But since the time of the Prophets then the Apostles, most Christians regard Myth as having turned into History - and our modern reality therefore is assumed intrinsically to be second rate - our contact with God conceptualized as indirect via the Bible, the Church and other secondary means.

We are supposed potentially to be in contact, in a relationship, with God during prayer - but the age of Prophets is generally regarded as long-since finished in the sense that modern revelation (communication with God) is never supposed to add to, subtract from or substantively modify Christianity as received through the Bible, Tradition, Church authorities and so on.


At various times, there have been Christian revival movements which said that the age of Myth - living in a direct relationship with God - had returned  - but most have fragmented or rapidly degenerated. Mormonism, however, began as exactly such a revival, with its claim that the Heavens had opened, a Prophet was come, all could and would receive revelation: in sum, the Age of Myth was returned.

Mormonism survived and has thriven as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has substantially modified the earliest impulses with a considerable organizational element - yet at its highest and most developed level, fully retaining the sense that the Age of Myth is returned.

This is something I find quite extraordinary and wonderful. That while the world sees the side of Mormonism that is par excellence the religion of control especially self-control; restrictions and rules; strictness, altruism and families; hard work and good works... And while this is true; it is also a religion in which the Age of Myth is restored to the Earth, and Man lives again in direct, frequent, personal contact with God and his angels.

And this, I believe, is the heart of Mormonism - for which all the emphasis on rules and proper living exists to sustain and encourage (and without which they would be meaningless).


There are other denominations and churches in which a similar emphasis on a rebirth of the Age of Myth has arisen - perhaps (although I do not know) the very rapidly expanding Pentecostal movement.

Against this are the strict traditionalists (whether 'Ultramontaine' Roman Catholics, Calvinist and 'fundamentalist' (scriptural inerrancy) Protestants, or Old Calendar Orthodox).

While I do not deny the Christian validity of strict traditionalists, and I do regard them as valid Christian paths; I do personally deplore their embeddedness (as it seems to me) in a highly literalist and unMythical world which I find dry and heart-chilling.


My deepest yearning is for the Age of Myth to be reborn; for a world with which we are (sometimes, and the best times) in a personal lively and vivid relation with God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost and the angels.

Any denomination that chills this impulse and thwarts this possibility will never have my heart-felt allegiance.


Note: It may be pointed out, and with justice, that the denominations I mention above as strict traditionalists, may in actual practice serve as Myths-to-live-by for some of their adherents. For example, a very strict Ultramontaine and Thomistic Catholicism was Tolkien's own religion - about which he had no complaints and many positive things to say. I can have no argument with this view. I merely state how things are for me (after several years of rumination and empathic consideration); and how many branches of what I regard as real (and valid) Christianity repel me powerfully by (what comes across to me personally as) their bottom-line dryness, strictness, coldness, literalism - their lack (for me) of Mythic reality.


Anonymous said...

Now that you bring it up, I see that leftism relies heavily on myth. Leftists tell us their gods truly are with us now. Leftists speak to their gods, or are inspired by them, all the time, and they keep close watch over us always.

This is true of leftist Christians too, and their gods are much the same as the secular leftists gods- the same modern saints or martyrs, not Che but MLK and the Kennedys.

Myth and Christianity is difficult. On one hand in its original form it depends on the presence of the Holy Spirit, and modern evangelicals talk about a "personal relationship with Jesus". Luther found the Pope within himself, which doesn't sound right to me. Modern Christianity would prefer people get their inspiration from religious leaders, not from their personal experience, which makes it weaker in human appeal than leftism.

Boethius said...

Would you consider Marian apparitions as contact with gods/angels?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Boethius. Yes, I would. Tolkien commented, and of course others have said the same, that the special veneration of the BVM is (I paraphrase) the warm heart and sweetness of Roman Catholicism.

@dl - "modern evangelicals talk about a "personal relationship with Jesus". Yes, and I think this is at the heart of the (almost unique) appeal and success of the evangelical movement. It is incomplete - there is a great lack of attention to God the Father who sent His Son, and indeed the Old Testament is all but superfluous to the evangelical style - but it seems that for most alienated moderns, a warm-but-incomplete Christianity is better than an abstractly comprehensive but remotely theoretical Christianity.

Adam G. said...

The most viable orthodox Christianities at the common level were and are those that are the most concerned with saints and relics and charisms and visions.

Ian said...

I'm confused a bit by this post. How is a Church such as the Catholic Church, for instance, unMythical, if Myth is defined as direct personal contact with the gods?

Every time the Eucharist is celebrated, we have contact with the Son of God. And not just spiritual contact, but bodily contact.

In contrast, where is such direct, tangible contact in the non-sacramental churches?

Donald said...

BGC I am wondering how much personal experience you have had with Eastern Orthodoxy - that is actually worshiping and living as an Orthodox Christian? My experience has been absolutely suffused with angels, saints, prophets, miracles and revelations. It's theology and spirituality that consciously distinguishes itself by not being as legalistic/formulaic/philosophical as RC.

And my experience with *folk* R.C. has been somewhat similar - lots of miracles and divine intervention - although of course this is a minority of R.C.

Donald said...

My previous question stems from our mutual appreciation that just pondering a Christian Church in the abstract is not the same as living in it, breathing its air and ethos.