Mythical Thinking after 9/11

René Girard is among those scholars who like to point to the similarities between myths from around the globe. In this regard his work follows in the footsteps of people like James Frazer, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade. Girard’s explanation of the source of mythological structures and motives, however, is quite different from the approaches of his colleagues. Girard maintains that the archetypal mythological pattern is eventually rooted in a so-called scapegoat mechanism, following a typical ritualistic pattern that is rooted in the same mechanism (for more on this, click here).

Aztec human sacrificeMyths can be considered as tales which contain the worldview of a culture, transmitting from generation to generation the belief that certain phenomena (from certain things to certain persons and acts) are sacred or belong to the gods. Traditionally, the realm of the gods or the sacred is also the realm of violence. If the sacred order of things is not respected or approached in a proper (i.e. ritualistic) way it brings about violent chaos, diseases, death and destruction in the (human) world. Next to connecting chaotic situations to the realm of the sacred (portraying chaos as “the wrath of god(s)” or “bad karma”), myths also contain messages on how to transform sacred disorder into sacred order. Following René Girard, myths can thus be understood, more specifically, as justifications of certain taboos and of certain types of sacrifice which should help to conserve or renew order in the world.

In short, according to René Girard, mythical thinking consists in connecting violent mayhem, natural disasters and contagious diseases to “god(s)” or “a sacred realm”. As such, violent mayhem etc. are explained as necessary moments of disorder from which a new order is generated. This never ending mythical cycle of “disorder – order – disorder – order – …” at the same time often functions as justification of the sacrifice of certain people whose death should bring about order.

A comparison between some ancient myths and contemporary interpretations of today’s international terrorism makes clear that mythical thinking as Girard understands it is on the rise again, especially in an eschatological sense and also in secular circles that hold on to a naïve version of the myth of human progress. Just take a look at the schematic presentation below presenting the mythical structure, time and again… (for more on the sexist implications of many myths, click here).

A) The Greek myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods

Prometheus Gustave Moreau1) A WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO” or “COSMOS”)
with a clear distinction between different realms
=> Fire belongs to the gods and is considered TABOO

2) (TRANSGRESSION OF TABOOS brings about) A MOMENT OF DISORDER
(“MANQUE” or “CHAOS”/“CRISIS”)
with a challenge (the “call”) to restore the balance in the world
=> Prometheus steals the fire from the gods

3) Some kind of SACRIFICE (as the pinnacle of a “HERO’S JOURNEY” or “QUEST”)
with a transformation of the identity of the hero figure(s) – into “monster(s)” or “savior(s)”
=> Prometheus is banned to the Caucasus mountains, where he is chained and tortured

4) GOAL = A (RE)NEW(ED) WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO”)
again with clear distinctions between different realms

B) The Hebrew myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

• A WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO” or “COSMOS”)
with a clear distinction between different realmsAdam and Eve driven out of Eden by Gustave Dore (1866)
=> Fruits of the Tree of Knowledge belong to God and are considered TABOO

• (TRANSGRESSION OF TABOOS brings about) A MOMENT OF DISORDER
(“MANQUE” or “CHAOS”/“CRISIS”)
with a challenge (the “call”) to restore the balance in the world
=> Adam and Eve “eat from the forbidden fruit”
[from a comparison with the Song of Songs: this is a transgression of the taboo on sex]

• Some kind of SACRIFICE (as the pinnacle of a “HERO’S JOURNEY” or “QUEST”)
with a transformation of the identity of the hero figure(s) – into “monster(s)” or “savior(s)”
=> Adam and Eve are banned from Eden and have to accept a life with suffering and death

• GOAL = A (RE)NEW(ED) WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO”)
again with clear distinctions between different realms

C) The Greek myth of Oedipus

• A WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO” or “COSMOS”)
with a clear distinction between different realms
=> Killing the “father-king” and taking the “mother-queen” is considered TABOO
[Note: “thanatos” and “eros” motif]

• (TRANSGRESSION OF TABOOS brings about) A MOMENT OF DISORDER
(“MANQUE” or “CHAOS”/“CRISIS”)
with a challenge (the “call”) to restore the balance in the world
=> Oedipus kills his father, the king, and marries his mother, the queen and allegedly causes a plague in the city of Thebes

Oedipus stabs out his eyes• Some kind of SACRIFICE (as the pinnacle of a “HERO’S JOURNEY” or “QUEST”)
with a transformation of the identity of the hero figure(s) – into “monster(s)” or “savior(s)”
=> Oedipus stabs out his eyes and goes into exile

• GOAL = A (RE)NEW(ED) WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO”)
again with clear distinctions between different realms

D) A religious fundamentalist mythical interpretation of 9/11 (“end times”)

(Jerry Falwell & Pat Robertson)

• A WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO” or “COSMOS”)
with a clear distinction between different realms
=> Types of relationships which differ from the “traditional”, patriarchal family are TABOO

• (TRANSGRESSION OF TABOOS brings about) A MOMENT OF DISORDER
(“MANQUE” or “CHAOS”/“CRISIS”)
with a challenge (the “call”) to restore the balance in the world
=> Feminists, gays, lesbians and other “liberals” challenge the patriarchal family structure

• Some kind of SACRIFICE (as the pinnacle of a “HERO’S JOURNEY” or “QUEST”)
with a transformation of the identity of the hero figure(s) – into “monster(s)” or “savior(s)”
=> Two days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, two evangelicals, shared their “theological” views on the terrorist violence (transcript from the 700 club, a well-known evangelical television program in the States – September 13, 2001). Especially these comments are telling (for more, watch the video below the transcripts):
survivors of 9-11 attacksJERRY FALWELL: The ACLU’s got to take a lot of blame for this.
PAT ROBERTSON: Well yes.
JERRY FALWELL: And, I know that I’ll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen.”
PAT ROBERTSON: Well, I totally concur…

In other words, 9/11 is interpreted as an unavoidable SACRIFICE, sanctioned by God; it is “the wrath of God” caused by people who keep on transgressing “sacred” laws and taboos. This sacrifice manifests itself in a twofold manner: the autoaggression of the terrorists’ suicide implies the heteroaggression against the victims in the planes and the twin towers.

Conclusion: “Secularists” or “the secularist lifestyle” (as Falwell and Robertson understand this – which corresponds to the Islamic fundamentalists’ notion of “the satanic West”) should be abandoned or banned.

• GOAL = A (RE)NEW(ED) WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO”)
again with clear distinctions between different realms

To conclude this post, I’d like to mention an article by John Gray on the book The Pursuit of the Millenium by Norman Cohn. Gray points to the eschatological myths of religious and secular political ideologies, from Christian Millenarianism (especially in today’s context we might think of Islamic Millenarianism as well) to Nazism and Communism. All these ideologies have justified sacrifices and massacres to bring about a new world order, a “paradise” – hence every utopia turns into dystopia… At the end of his article, Gray also warns for new versions of the eschatological myth in “liberal humanism”:

There is a line of reasoning which accepts that totalitarian ideologies were shaped by apocalyptic and utopian thinking, while insisting that liberal humanism is entirely different. They – the Nazis and communists – may have been deluded and irrational; we – enlightened meliorists – have purged our minds of myth. In fact, the belief in progress in ethics and politics, which animates liberal rationalism, is itself a myth: a view of history as a process of redemption without the Christian belief in a single transforming event, but nonetheless a faith-based narrative of human salvation. It is obvious that human life can sometimes be improved. Equally, however, such gains are normally lost in the course of time. The idea that history is a process of amelioration is an article of faith, not the result of observation or reasoning.

Reading Cohn will not lead secular thinkers to relinquish their cherished myths. The need to believe in them is far more powerful than intellectual curiosity. But, for those who want to understand the origins of the conflicts of the past century and the present time, The Pursuit of the Millennium may be, as it was for me, a life-changing book.

Considering all this, we might want to rethink the concept of “eschatological battle” as a struggle we have to face within ourselves, in the depths of our soul… The true fight is a spiritual one, as we are converted from our human violence (and all our man-made gods, idols and ideologies justifying that violence) to the absolute non-violence of the God of Love, The Merciful One… 

The challenge is to build an order and a “peace” that is not built on the violence of sacrifices, but to build a peace that allows for “non-violent conflicts…” (a “non-totalitarian peace”).

Celebration for Peace (9/11 – 2011)

September 11, 2002. The Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino boys’ and men’s choir (from Sint-Maarteninstituut, Aalst, Belgium) and its conductor Rev. Michaël Ghijs participate in an event called The Rolling Requiem, a worldwide choral commemoration of all those lost and all those who helped others on September 11th, 2001. The event means that Mozart’s Requiem is performed throughout the world, in every time zone, beginning one year after the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Since then, The Rolling Requiem has become an institution on its own, supporting the victims of catastrophes throughout the world.

Yesterday, September 11, 2011, Cantate Domino once again performed Mozart’s Requiem, commemorating the victims of 9/11 ten years later. This time the commemoration was organized by U.S. Ambassador Howard Gutman, and took the shape of a Celebration for Peace. Once again the event was held in the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, in Brussels. New conductor David De Geest asked me if I would want to join ‘the troops’ one more time, and I was grateful to be able to accept the invitation. So, yesterday I found myself among the other choristers, singing one of the most beautiful and moving Requiems ever written, on an equally moving occasion…

The music was alternated with reflections and prayers by representatives of the different Abrahamic religions. Here are some excerpts from their meditations:

Jew: A 2nd century quote in Hebrew learns: “The whole Torah exists only for the sake of peace”. The echoes of this basic truth resound throughout the three millennia-long Jewish tradition. Thus, Nahmanides, one of the Spanish-Jewish sages of the 13th century writes: “The sword is diametrical opposite to our Hebrew bible, it is in fact the ultimate antithesis of our Hebrew text”.

Maintaining peace is for Judaism an absolute must. In fact, in Hebrew thinking, man is to transcend the easily spoken word, to pass from the project stage to concretization, from parabolic utopia to concrete action. According to Haim Nahman from Braslaw (1772-1810), one of the wise men of hasidism, “Educating our youth has only one goal, i.e. to develop in the individual the qualities and habits necessary to channel aggressive tendencies. This is supported by teaching the duties toward our fellow creatures”. These duties are presented in the concise and energetic form of a maxim which we must apply as a reference point amidst the labyrinth of hazards in our lives: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). That is the founding principle, the summary of our duty toward humanity. That is the genesis of this universal peace that we have been awaiting for too long a time.

(Prof. Dr. J. Klener, President of the Central Jewish Consistoire of Belgium).

Western Christian: Peace is an irrepressible yearning present in the heart of each person, regardless of his or her particular cultural identity. Consequently, everyone should feel committed to service of this great good, and should strive to prevent any form of untruth from poisoning relationships. All people are members of one and the same family. An extreme exaltation of differences clashes with this fundamental truth. We need to regain an awareness that we share a common destiny which is ultimately transcendent, so as to maximize our historical and cultural differences, not in opposition to, but in cooperation with, people belonging to other cultures. These simple truths are what make peace possible; they are easily understood whenever we listen to our own hearts with pure intentions. Peace thus comes to be seen in a new light: not as the mere absence of war, but as a harmonious coexistence of individual citizens within a society governed by justice, one in which the good is also achieved, to the extent possible, for each of them. The truth of peace calls upon everyone to cultivate productive and sincere relationships; it encourages them to seek out and to follow the paths of forgiveness and reconciliation, to be transparent in their dealings with others, and to be faithful to their word. – Pope Benedict XVI, Message for the world day of peace, 1.1.2006

(Quoted by Canon Herman Cosijns, Secretary of the Belgian Bishops’ Conference).

 

Eastern Christian: In his letter dated May 22, 2011, His Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew talked about peace as follows:

“During the celebration of the Holy Liturgy, we ask the Lord three things: ‘peace’, ‘peace from above’ and ‘peace for the whole world’. We aspire with our whole being that the world reflects the Lord’s Kingdom and that God’s love reigns ‘on earth as well as in Heaven’.

As faithful disciples of the Lord of peace, we have to constantly look for and continuously recommend ways of acting which rebuff violence and war. Of course, human conflicts may turn out to be inevitable in our world but this is not the case for war or violence.

Justice and peace are key topics in the Scriptures. However, the Orthodox Christians should not refrain from the great tradition of the Philokalia which emphasizes that ultimately peace always begins in the hearts. Saint Isaac the Syrian wrote in the seventh century: ‘If you make peace with yourself, heaven and earth will make peace with you’.

Peace… is a way of life which reflects human participation in God’s love for the world.”

(Quoted by Father Psallas Evangelos, Representative of the Orthodox Church in Belgium).

Muslim: We cannot emphasize enough the sacred aspect of human life. In the Holy Qur’an, God says: “Whosoever killeth a human being, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.” [Surah 5;32]

That is the message of Islam which is also spread by other religions.

All attempts and movements to associate Islam and Muslims with “terrorism” are unacceptable.

This is why we have to unite so that these kinds of actions never happen again. Every community has the responsibility to build a just and peaceful society by bringing together the different philosophical views that are inherent to our society.

If we want to give our children a peaceful future, we will all have to make efforts to promote dialogue, respect and tolerance within our own homes, our religious community and society at large.

The actions of a small minority should not have any impact on the efforts of men and women who are working to build a society that respects differences.

I am convinced that, despite the tensions of the last few years around the world, we have not come to a point of no return. The crisis we are currently experiencing should make us conscious of the fact that living together is a challenge that each of us must embrace.

I ask for the help of God to guide us on the right path, to protect us from the dark forces of all kinds of ignorance and to give us the strength and courage for a peaceful world and to live in peace.

(Reflection by Mr. Semsettin Ugurlu, President of the Muslim Executive of Belgium).