Part II of my new book being prepared for publication, The Way of Myth: Stories' Subtle Wisdom, contains 19 short blogs that I have both written for this book as well as gathered from earlier publication sites in newspapers . Here is a complete blog; would love any responses you would care to offer. The Herald-Zeitung is our local paper here in New Braunfels, Texas.
Beliefs’ Power and Fragility*
Originally published as “Moral Injury and Its Challenges.” The Herald-Zeitung. Thursday, June 10, 2020. A-4.
What has surfaced and demanded attention in this period of our national history is the crisis of belief. I was impressed with Jim Sohan’s letter in “Voices” (Dec. 12-13, 5-A) in the Herald Zeitung, “Time to Stop Being Silent.” Referencing fledgling democracies in the world, he writes: “The foundation of those democratic institutions is the belief of the public that elections are free and fair. . . .” Belief as foundation, belief as base line. We have a natural impulse or instinct to believe in something. What? Which? and Why? are crucial questions to answer not once, but frequently.
It seems, in the period we are slogging through today, that a belief rests less on its being true than on its level of emotional value and persuasion for an individual or a community.
Whatever each of us accumulates in our storehouses of beliefs will in fact shape the story we live by and further contour our identity as an individual. In other words, our personal narrative, regardless of how much or little we reflect on it, is an amalgam of what we believe, sense, intuit, assume, accept, and reject about what we loosely call “reality.” The efficacy of a belief is highlighted most often by how much affect or emotional response it elicits from its adherents. In other words, is it believable?!
When any of our beliefs calcify into an ideology that “this is the truth,” rather than “this is my perception of what is true,” then out of that rigid and tight-fisted stance often arises resentments, denials and violent responses to what others have settled on what is true for them. Acceptance, or even tolerance of another’s angle on “reality,” transports us in a different direction and loosens the grip of a tyrannous sense of rightness.
Things become more complex when the phenomenon of fact is introduced into the argument over what is true.
In his insightful book on revising education, Unbinding Prometheus: Education for the Coming Age, physicist and university president Donald Cowan writes of “the myth of fact,” which he claims has been “the prevailing myth of the modern age” (Prometheus 4). Fair enough. But he then points out an historical move that may be responsible for the conspiracy theories enjoying such prominence today.
He suggests that the myth of fact shifted in the early Renaissance [14th century Italy] in a substantial way: “In it the observable objects of the world came to exist in their own right. Rather than taking their meaning from a context. . . in order to participate in a larger reality, facts began to be considered the unchallengeable substance of life. . .. (4-5).
What evolved has come down to us as “facts speak for themselves.” They can be measured and verified and trusted as entities to believe in. But we have entered a different mode in our relationship to facts. “Fact-checking” has become necessary to counter the dizzy world of “alternative facts.” Facts are then weakened in their ability for many to believe in. Moreover, the contesting energies between facts and fantasies—lies—becomes more acute.
When facts lose their contexts, their veracity diminishes; facts in large measure help us to construct our narratives that shape our identities. But if facts are relativized, so also is the core of reality itself. If individuals and groups or nations are no longer certain what or who to believe in, their identity as a coherent and cohesive body with shared senses of purpose and ideals to pursue are orphaned. In addition, the shared mythos on which a people’s sense of purpose and callings rests is eroded at its base.
May our collective journey forward allow us to find a tolerant, accepting level of accommodation for one another as we struggle through the pandemic and the pandemonium of our recent past in order to forge a future we can all believe in. Through communal generosity we can retrieve it. Only then can we each participate in a shared myth that bequeaths to us a formed set of facts, and the values that hibernate within them, to embrace as our image of the real--a mucilage that binds us as a community.
Cowan, Donald. Unbinding Prometheus: Education for the Coming Age. The Dallas Institute Publications, 1988.
Dennis Patrick Slattery, Ph.D. Distinguished Professor and Emeritus faculty in Mythological Studies, Pacifica Graduate Institute