I don’t often hear people equating religion to music or language but I think they’re helpful comparisons. More often than not, we hear different comparisons: religion v. science. Myth v. fact. Superstition v. proof.
But when I try to explain why despite every problem religion has caused I care about it, I’ve found that first I have to make it clear that what I’m not talking about is not some opposite of modern science. In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong’s project is to explain to a skeptical public how “belief” and “faith” went through a transformation of meaning since the 1500s. As Descartes and Locke became the principal gods of metaphysics, religion became a counter-narrative that increasingly butted heads with scientific claims about nature. As “what you see is what you get” became the key to advanced science and industrialism, faith in a sacred reality became faith in fiction. Belief in an unprovable, infinite love of God became belief in myth.
That’s why I work against the grain of hundreds of years when I say to friends that I like to study religion as a language instead of religion as a fact. Portuguese or Igbo are not correct or incorrect, music is not proved or unproved. Instead of psychological terms to explain that we feel happy, we sing. Notes and adjectives are the finite things with which we can express what feels endlessly complicated inside. They’re symbols that you use, not that you defend.
Of course, just like they argue about the meaning of words, people argue about the meaning of religious symbols. While saying “blue” or “love” may express a general universal, there are always particulars to work out. And unfortunately in religion, the imposition of one interpretation over another or one religion over another has been dangerous and even deadly.
So why the specificity? Why for some people are Jesus, Moses, Esther or the Prophet Muhammad more useful ways of framing their lives than secular self-help books? What’s the value of plot points, mythos instead of logos, in the modern world?
Stephen Crites, formerly a professor at Wesleyan, believes mythos matters because experience happens to us through narrative. When he says that the “formal quality of experience through time is inherently narrative” he means that the way we act out our lives, like musicians blowing through holes or painters striking brushes to a canvas, is through storytelling. It’s impossible to describe what anything means to us without telling a story, without choosing a beginning, middle, end, and a line, a melody that runs through it all. Physicists and biologist have to describe what happened in an experiment and what it means with narrative. Infinity is not our language. As finite beings we speak in finite terms. Without narrative we swim without direction, lost in a slough of a thousand meanings.
Crites claims that narrative can even function to create our consciousness, rather than just to describe it. That’s why he says people in traditional folk cultures lived “in” their sacred stories. They were not myths but dwelling-places, so essential to experience that “men’s sense and self and world is created through them”. Crites distinguishes a sacred story as a story you live instead of a story you tell. A writer may spin a world of fantasy and characters, but people’s ritual reenactment of sacred stories takes place in their own world – the stories live in their own bodies.
At Bryn Mawr, freshmen go through a sequence of initiation traditions that to outsiders seem totally inane. But for many Bryn Mawr students, from beginning to end the traditions formulate their college experience. In the Roman Empire mystery cults initiated people into stories that they would live, ways of framing their lives, as an alternative to state-standardized religion. In God of the Oppressed, James Cones writes that when people in the black church sing, preach, and tell stories, they are talking about another reality, a reality “so high you can’t get over him, so low you can’t get under him, so wide you can’t get around him.”
Sacred stories are different from science. They function on different planes. We’re people who need meaning as much as we need proof. Religion, although not the only way, is a language for expressing it.