The non-rational and the mythic

I’m reading The Art of Listening: A Guide to the Early Teachings of Buddhism by Sarah Shaw, which is mostly about the more “mythic” texts of early Buddhism. It’s a fascinating book touching on the quirks of oral literature and expounding early Buddhist philosophy via mythical texts.

Modern Western thought values the rational above all else, but in mythic and traditional cultures, there’s a lot more space for the non-rational. Note, this isn’t the irrational or absurd, a sort of intellectual nihilism.

When you take rationalism to its conclusions, you start running into philosophical and logical trouble. I read Yanofsky’s The Outer Limits of Reason years ago, and that was one of the key texts that got me to questions some of the major assumptions embedded in Western thinking, namely turning rationalism into an ontological system and materialism implied therein.

These sorts of things aren’t easy to explain, and all but the most dedicated devotees of philosophy tune out when you mention non-rational systems of thinking.

That’s why mythology is important. Many of the core, most value, dare I say most true teachings of a culture or philosophical system are easily expressed in myth. A ten-year-old would have little trouble understanding the differences between Hermione and Luna in Harry Potter. Hermione is the ultimate rationalist, but there are things she can’t solve. Luna isn’t irrational, but she’s not quite a linear, rational thinker. Her approach was the one that was needed at many critical junctures.

And thus a grade schooler can often have a deeper understanding of philosophy than a scientist. Such is the power of myth.

Western Christianity struggles with this, as it feels like most Western Christians have thrown in the towel, admitting the superiority of rationalism and are content with the leftover crumbs. Kierkegaard is perhaps the expection, who seems to have had profound non-rational spiritual experiences and then spent the rest of his life trying to make sense of them.