How to do Religion

Religious scholar and author Karen Armstrong, gives me hope for a modern religious renaissance. She describes in her book, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts how we have lost touch with the brain’s right hemisphere, which is the side of the brain that thinks in myth, metaphors, and symbols.

The explosion of technology and scientific advancement since the rise of the world’s great religions has caused us to place more value on logic and reasoning-the left hemisphere of the brain. And rightfully so.  We now have electricity, airplanes, vaccines, and the internet. We’re living longer than ever before, and technology has made our lives much more comfortable. But Armstrong points out the trouble with relying too much on science. She explains that “both mythos and logos are essential for human beings–and both have limitations.  Myth cannot bring something entirely new into existence, as logos can.  A scientist can cure hitherto incurable diseases, but this cannot prevent him from succumbing occasionally to despair when confronted with the mortality, tragedy, and apparent pointlessness of our existence.”

This is the case for religion in a nutshell. Science, or logos, doesn’t solve despair. Sure, science can suggest more exercise or offer prescription pills, but it cannot answer our existential questions: What is the meaning of life?  What is my purpose here?  How should I live?  This is where mythos comes into play, the function of our right brain hemisphere.

Many of our world religions began more than two thousand years ago when we didn’t have a sophisticated, scientific understanding of the world. Instead, we explained the world through stories not facts. And the point of these stories, wasn’t to describe how and why things are the way they are, it was to teach humans how to live in a good way. Armstrong tells us that “traditionally, a myth expressed a timeless truth that in some sense happened once but also happens all the time.  It enabled people to make sense of their lives by setting their dilemmas in a timeless context…Myth could not be demonstrated by a logical proof, since its insights, like those of art, depended on the right hemisphere of the brain.  It was a way of envisaging the mysterious reality of the world that we cannot grasp conceptually.

Lately, we’ve been approaching our sacred stories all wrong. We’ve been reading them too literally, trying to use logic and reasoning to understand them. We have forgotten how to interpret these eternal myths as symbols and metaphors to aid us in our own lives, so many of us are falling away from religion, brushing off the world’s sacred texts as outdated and unrelatable nonsense.

Take for example, the story of Adam and Eve. The literal reading of this is: Adam and Eve are created by God and living blissfully in the Garden of Eden until Eve is tempted by a snake to eat from the tree of knowledge and gives Adam a bite. Immediately they realize they are naked and feel ashamed and eventually they get kicked out of the garden for their disobedience. When we look at this story through our logical lens, it doesn’t seem believable. We don’t know the location of any heavenly garden, snakes don’t talk to us, and there’s no magical tree that makes us wise.

But when we interpret this story through metaphor and symbol, we can see how this story represents the very foundation of the human condition, which Is that we are animals that somehow developed the awareness and consciousness that sets us apart from all other animals. We are visionaries and creators who wear clothes. We were, in a sense, kicked out of the bliss of pure animal instinct and forced to carry the realization that we will die one day. In another interpretation, this story represents the human journey from childhood to adulthood.

The greatest strength of our sacred myths and world religions is that they pull us into a giant collective, placing us all into anonymous archetypal roles that are eternal and run deeper than our individual dramas. We are all Adam and Eve learning what it is to be human and how to navigate through the joys and challenges of life. Our sacred stories give dignity and meaning to our lives. They point out the patterns and the wisdom we have picked up over the millennia to help us live in a good way.

The challenge for us today is remembering what our ancestors always knew: life isn’t meant to be understood rationally, and logic doesn’t provide us with meaning. The eternal, like a piece of beautiful art or the feeling of love, isn’t something we can easily express or define. It’s an experience of transcendence, of something that lifts us out of ourselves and connects us to the wonder and mystery of what it means to be alive.