This address was recently given by Dr. Louise Cowan at the University of Dallas, my alma mater (audio file available here). She takes as her point of departure Pope Benedict’s now-famous remarks at Regensberg. But where his focus is on the modern world’s need for reason, hers is on feeling, specifically the “mythic sense”.
I’m still processing it and thus have no comments so far.
But I think her ideas are very important. Louise Cowan has been instrumental in shaping my philosophy of education, my understanding of literature and myth. She is a great soul as well as a wonderful teacher and a brilliant scholar.
A few excerpts:
We find ourselves worldwide, then, suddenly in a crisis situation. Our mythic sense, given to us from our centuries-old tradition, has up until fairly recently made clear to members of society that some things are unthinkable�and we have taken this moral attitude to be universal. Without the sacredness endowed by myth, human life is cheap. Hence innocent civilians, children�all can be slaughtered without remorse, and suicide becomes a salvific act. All moral and ethical standards can be put aside in the nihilism resulting from a failure to value the finite world�the failure to extend one�s religious faith into a culture, a way of life, not death. It is education that instills such a mythic sense. Yet in our emphasis on skills and techniques, we are likely to forget how important liberal education is and how much depends on our continuing and even expanding it.[snip]
How do we characterize an epoch? It isn’t just marked by the calendar, nor is it a mere change in style, as when skirt hems go up or down, or hair is suddenly worn long and straight. It is a time in which basic values are, in Nietzsche’s term �transvalued,� in which the total organization of what is taken for granted in a society is obliterated, with a new set of customs and mores manifesting themselves as commonly held. What I have been calling the myth changes. Suddenly certain words and actions permissible in the preceding age are taboo—-and even more mysterious, everyone seems to have forgotten that they were ever permissible.[snip]
Such mammoth changes of direction occur seldom, over a period of centuries. In such a major reorganization, even the sustaining structures of a society undergo modification. What is marriage? Gender? What laws govern sex? Are religions necessarily the breeding ground of intolerance? Are churches enemies of the public good? And for us, the basic battle determining a people’s cosmology has resurfaced: the Darwinian theory had been absorbed all too easily in the twentieth century; it had failed to destroy its enemy, the sense of supernatural purpose and, rather, had seemed able at least reluctantly to accommodate it. Now, in this new era, its fervent apostles work hard to make clear that not a shred of the old theocentric view can remain. It must be an article of dogged literalist faith that the earth and all the creatures inhabiting it developed out of the random accommodations of matter, with no hint of design or purpose. Those who dare to think otherwise find themselves branded fundamentalists, with the charge of extremism and even a hint of terrorism lurking in the background.
So obviously on this matter, as on many others, our dominant communal myth has changed. Perhaps it is time for us to speak directly about what exactly a communal myth is and how it comes into being. As several of us in literature use the term, a myth is an unconscious psychological and teleological structure held in common by a people who consider themselves to be a political unit. It is shaped by unexpressed beliefs that they hold in common about their nature and destiny as a people. We, the people …the Declaration of Independence was an overt statement of something that before its statement had been a mythic sense of unity underlying the consciousness of the American colonists. After it has been brought into consciousness and stated, it becomes overtly political and may be given form by legislation. But if legislation doesn’t reflect the myth of a people, its deepest beliefs, it becomes either tyrannical or whimsical. In a healthy society, the entire ethos of a people is subtly molded to curve into the shape of the dominant myth. During the renaissance, when the medieval myth of chivalry was dying and modernity was being born, the whipping boy, the pharmakos, was the Catholic Church, maligned and despised in the light of the new. Before that time it had been Rome the Great. At our own time, of postmodernism, the villain is America, accused and resented. What I am saying, then, is that this general tendency to find a scapegoat is one of the marks of an age of transition.[snip]
If indeed we could consider this apparently destructive epoch we are going through at present to be a transitional time, leading to an era of harmony beyond itself, how might this change the way we look at it? That is, if we regard this turbulent time we are in as a time of shaking up, like a kaleidoscope before it settles into a new pattern, is there any way to predict what sort of pattern will emerge from this chaos? I think there is; though we can�t be extremely particular; we can only speculate about large changes that correspond with the good in the human heart. For our society has been baptized; we have been promised that Christ is with us until the end of the earth. This mortal enterprise has value; and it moves toward the good, despite all its pain and contradiction along the way.[snip]
It seems important for people who studied for their graduate degrees here at this university to talk together, not as Democrat or Republican, not as pro or contra Bush, but with the imagination and discernment that come from a liberal education. In the decades ahead, which could conceivably become a new dark ages preceding a new renaissance, the radiance of the Greek and Latin wisdom, seen in the light of the Jewish and Christian revelation, may have to be kept alive in your hearts. In the meantime, the need for liberal education is imperative. It will be in persons and their work that the true myth of our culture, the Christian tradition, will be embodied anew in our institutions and our cities.