Myth, Reason, & Imagination
The Oxford Inklings, including their most famous members, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, are highly regarded as one of the most prolific and impactful collaborative intellectual groups in the 20th century, and there has arguably been no group like them since. At least in the Western world. Given this status, and considering the sheer quantity and cross-genre works they produced over their careers, it is always fascinating to run a thought experiment on who would be a likely candidate to be invited for their Tuesday meals at the Eagle and Child, and what would the talk turn to? The most likely intellectual in the Western world who would be invited, in my opinion, would be Dr. Jordan Peterson. It wouldn’t be because of his fame (that may indeed be a bit of a disqualifier for the group), but because his message to a lost and lonely society contains many similarities, and many differences, to what the Inklings were telling the same society over half a century ago. Dr. Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, came to fame (or infamy for some) in the autumn of 2016 from being ushered onto the public stage from his stance on Canada’s Bill C-16, regarding the use of personal pronouns for transgendered persons. Then, in 2018, his book 12 Rules for Life was published1, and it was followed by a slew of television interviews that subsequently went viral.2 He, unlike many in academia, bemoans the devaluing of myth and the human longing for transcendence. Modernity seeks to pull story into the subjective sphere and laughs at any notion that any significance or meaning transcends any one individual.
Peterson contends that we see the human imagination not opposed to reason, but stands alongside it as a legitimate organ of knowledge about ourselves and our world.
Imagination is the mental faculty of meaning-making3 (or meaning-realizing), and is a pre-rational commitment of the affections towards a particular narrative vision of the good. Myth is the imagination embodied, or as Alister McGrath says, it is “a story that invokes awe, enchantment, and inspiration,…an imaginative expression of the deepest meanings of life – meanings that prove totally elusive in the face of any attempt to express them conceptually or abstractly.”4 It is via the imagination where we get our framework for meaning, and from which we derive the hierarchy of goods that shape our understanding of who we are and what we ought to do. To be “pre-rational” is not to be “irrational” or “non-rational.” The Inklings broadly stood within the Augustinian anthropology which holds that we are primarily lovers, not thinkers. Descartes was grievously mistaken. And it is our affections, or our loves, that shape and form our imaginations on a subterranean level beneath our reason. The deepest truths are conveyed not by propositions, but by a story.
The recent phenomenon of Jordan Peterson is telling evidence that the pull of the imagination, while latent here in late modernity, is still potent. It is obvious that something he is saying is speaking into a vacuum. What is it?
Weary of the “glib and shallow rationalism”5 as the young C.S. Lewis reflects, and still haunted by the transcendent longings6 that spontaneously pull back the “veil of familiarity” that permeates our secular age, many in the modern West have become enraptured with the compelling yet controversial vision contained in Dr. Peterson’s books and lectures7. What is this vision? Simply put, it is meaning. Peterson seeks to ennoble men and woman to contend with the Chaos that is everything unknown to us, and that the myths, stories, and archetypes of our ancestors provide profound insights into how we are to do this.8 His writings attempt to combine reason (evolutionary theory, neuroscience of emotion, and psychology) with imagination. And it his respect for the imagination together with the reason he values that has made his ideas magnetic to so many. In respecting the imagination, Peterson agrees with much of what the Inklings had to say about myth and “faerie-stories,” which is that they convey deep truths beyond the narrow boundaries of rationalism and that inserting ourselves within “the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual.”9
In his seminal work: Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, Peterson lays out his theory of reality. He states that
The world can be validly construed as a forum for action, or as a place of things. The former manner of interpretation – more primordial, and less clearly understood – finds its expression in the arts or humanities, in ritual, drama, literature and mythology. The world as a forum for action is a place of value, a place where all things have meaning. This meaning, which is shaped as a consequence of social interaction, is implication for action…No complete world-picture can be generated without use of both modes of construal.10
From this statement throughout much of the first section of the book, Peterson’s language is spookily similar to Lewis’s lecture as published in The Discarded Image. Peterson argues that since the Enlightenment, we have sought to force the world as a “forum for action” entirely within the subjective realm and placing science, or how we know the “forum of things” as the supreme epistemology. Yet, we still unwittingly act on both stages, as it is inherent to who we are as human beings. He goes on to say that “everything is something, and means something – and the distinction between essence and significance is not necessarily drawn [in the mind of medieval man]…The automatic attribute of meaning to things…is characteristic of narrative, of myth, not of scientific thought…We are not yet ‘objective’ even in our most clear-headed moments (and thank God for that).”11 Once again, with very clear yet unreferenced echoes of The Discarded Image, Peterson says, “the ‘natural,’ pre-experimental, or mythical mind is in fact primarily concerned with meaning…and not with objective nature.” He laments that
We have lost the mythic universe of the pre-experimental mind, or have at least ceased to further its development. That loss has left our increased technological power ever more dangerously at the mercy of our still unconscious systems of valuation. Prior to the time of Descartes, Bacon, and Newton, man lived in an animated, spiritual world, saturated with meaning, imbued with moral purpose. The nature of this purpose was revealed in the stories people told each other – stories about the structure of the cosmos and the place of man. But now we think empirically (at least we think we think empirically), and the spirits that once inhabited the universe have vanished.12
So far, so good, and it is clear that Peterson understands what is missing from the modern mind, and can articulate it well. But here is where the problem begins to present itself. For Peterson, the human imagination, while not subjective, is still nonetheless merely a product of accumulated human behavior over hundreds of centuries of adapting to the “Chaos” of the unknown. This adaptive behavior is emulated, imitated, retold, acted, and codified as myth. So, in one sense it is a true story about human beings and how we relate to and experience the world (the cosmos). However, it still does not rise above biology. It is merely an epiphenomenal, emergent truth. And it is entirely contingent. While clearly articulating that he does not think the stories accumulated in the “collective unconscious” are true in the historical sense (including the accounts of Creation and The Fall in Genesis 1-3 and the Flood in Genesis 6), he believes them to be true as signposts of meaning and significance.
Here is the convergence: Myth enables us to see more clearly the things we most knowingly long for, restoring “the rich significance” of an existence shrouded by shadows of ourselves. Reason locates truths nested in the mythos within space and time. “Myth became Fact,” “The Word became Flesh, and dwelt among us.”13 This is theology at its most raw, and imagination at its purest. To read these words makes one want “to embrace its object completely, to take it in at a single glance, and see in it something harmonious, symmetrical, and self-explanatory…it also loves to lose itself in a labyrinth, to surrender to the inextricable.”14 We see, through Divine revelation, that Love and Reason are intermingled, and that Love which grounds all of Reality is the shoot of Jesse.15
Against this discovery of absolute Reality grounded in Love, imagination and myth that fail to grasp the fundamental Reality that is Love fall prey to becoming the myths of the “dark gods.” To elaborate, Lewis writes that moderns:
Love nature in so far as, for them, shall calls to ‘the dark gods in the blood;’ not although, but because sex and hunger and sheer power there operate without pity or shame…Overwhelming gaiety, insupportable grandeur, somber desolation are flung at you. Make you can of them, if you must make at all. The only imperative that nature utters is, ‘Look. Listen. Attend.’…We must get our theology or philosophy elsewhere.16
Theologically interpreted, this means that the myths grounded merely in a “Romans 1” realm of reasoning, or what is theologically called “general revelation,” comes close to but ultimately falls short of mythical ideals. Now, our storytelling ancestors (both in blood and spirit) have reasoned from the order and beauty of the cosmos to hand us down myths and imaginative symbols that parallel the true Myth in significant ways, and are a far off gleam of the Gospel in the real world. 17 The story is frequently told of how Tolkien showed this to Lewis that late night on Addison’s Walk which played a critical role in Lewis’s conversion to Christ. Again, though, without the Incarnational aspect of the True Myth, or at least the hopeful expectation “through a glass darkly” of this event, myth falls short. Tolkien affirms that this is “the magic of Faerie,” which among its operations “are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another (as will be seen) to hold communion with other living things.”18 Lewis echoes this sentiment when he says that, “we do not want to merely see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have people air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves…”19
This leads us to the fatal flaw in Peterson’s faerie-story, his mythos: The gaping absence of the Incarnational eucatastrophe. The nature of the myth propounded by Peterson, whatever else it may be, is not romantic. Critical to good myth, or proper faerie-story, says Tolkien, is this:
The ‘consolation’ of fairy-stories has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending…The eucatastrophe tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function…It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as belief.20
His mythos, while not materialistic, is also not personal and lacks the consolation that all will be well in the end. Peterson writes that, “the constituent elements of the world as drama were Order and Chaos…meaning is to be found on the border between the ever-entwined pair. To walk that border is to stay on the path of life, the divine Way. And that’s much better than happiness.” 21 The “way forward,” or “way out,” according to Peterson, is not going to come from without in the form of a Person, from an unexpected Happy Ending. The tendency to be overcome by Chaos or lulled into complacency by Order is overcome or challenged only by the notion:
That people need ordering principles, and that chaos otherwise beckons. We require rules, standards, values – alone and together. We’re pack animals, beasts of burden. We must bear a load, to justify our miserable existence. We require routine and tradition. That’s order. Order can become excessive, and that’s not good, but chaos can swamp us, so we drown – and that’s also not good. We need to stay on the straight and narrow path…the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being, and that the willingness to take on the responsibility is identical to the decision to live a meaningful life.22
C.S. Lewis does have respect for the prima facie nobility of myths akin to Peterson’s. The primordial hero and heroine struggling against all odds to lift herself upwards from the suboptimal world she finds herself in is indeed the basis for many Tragedies. Against the backdrop of infinite suffering, they fight, spread, and thrive on the way to becoming true Man who learns to master Nature. Eventually, in the far future, we find them becoming demigods approaching divinity. And, as Lewis points out, this myth hits its “final stroke of genius…the last scene recourses all. We have the Twilight of the Gods. All this time, silently, unceasingly, out of all reach of human power, Nature, the old enemy, has been steadily gnawing away. The sun will cool – all suns cool – the whole universe will run down…all ends in nothingness…It is the pattern of many Elizabethan tragedies.”23 Inserting Peterson’s Chaos and Order in the place of “Nature” in the previous quote, it is easy to see the resemblance. The best we can do, Peterson tells us, is to stand up straight with our shoulders back and push against the Chaos for as long as we can endure.
In Peterson’s myth, Chaos and Order, while not strictly material entities, are also not personal. There is no “thing” to commune with, to relate to. The desire for this communion pulses deeply, according to Tolkien, within the veins of true Faerie-Story. No, we are all alone. It is up to us to take up the mantle of the Hero archetype and reorder what we can until the cooling of the sun. In the end, the imaginative appeal falls short. Beauty perfected is Beauty Personified, and it is Beauty that we really long for. Yet, within the Christian tradition, we also recognize that the thought of a personal Divinity with whom we were made for also terrifies us. Absolute Beauty is safe, as are Order and Chaos, for there is certainly a certain beauty in the yin/yang interplay of the two. “It,” or “They” could never come here and make a nuisance in our own lives, and it really costs us nothing. What terrifies us is the notion of Personified Beauty is that it (He) demands, by the very nature of His Being, that we pull our gaze off of ourselves and look outwards. There is a cost to true self-forgetfulness. And yet, there is also freedom.
Peterson offers us no freedom, but only a brief consolation. His mythos, while important to our culture as it has reawakened in our atrophied imaginations the desire for seeking a home for our affections that pulsate beneath the thin rationalism of our age. The imaginative “end-state” for human beings is to conform to and commune with the Archetype of Creation, building and ordering as a bastion against the black entropy of Chaos. What his imagination is missing is not merely reason, but Reason. The Logos. The Eucatastrophe. What he is missing is not merely the Archetype of all Creation, but the Archetype of all Relation.
When telling readers why Dante did not allow Virgil into Paradise in his Divine Comedy, Dorothy Sayers says that “faith is imagination actualized by the will; what was lacking to Virgil’s faith was precisely the imagination.”24 If Dante rewrote his Divine Comedy using figures from our secular age, Jordan Peterson may indeed be our modern Virgil. Virtuous and imaginative, yet nonetheless barred from Paradise, the fount of Joy. And also like Virgil, his faith lacks imagination. An imagination not too big, but too small. Too small to contain the true Eucatastrophe, the Incarnation, that we all long to behold.
1 Karen Heller. “Jordan Peterson is On a Crusade to Toughen Up Young Men. It’s Landed Him in Our Cultural Divide.” The Washington Post, May 2, 2018. Accessed 4 November, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/jordan-peterson-is-on-a-crusade-to-toughen-up-young-men-its-landed-him-on-our-cultural-divide/2018/05/02/c5bafe48-31d6-11e8-94fa-32d48460b955_story.html
2Robert Barron, “The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon,” Word on Fire, February 27. 2018, https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/the-jordan-peterson-phenomenon/5717.
3 Tolkien defined one aspect of Imagination as “the mental power of image-making,” but I believe “meaning-making” wraps up a more robust definition.
4 McGrath, Alister E.The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. Accessed October 29, 2020, 2013, ProQuest Ebook Central.
5 CS Lewis. Surprised By Joy (1984, repr. New York, NY: Inspirational Press, 2012), 97.
6 James K.A. Smith. How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2014). 10
7 Karen Heller. “Jordan Peterson is On a Crusade to Toughen Up Young Men. It’s Landed Him in Our Cultural Divide.” The Washington Post, May 2, 2018. Accessed 4 November, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/jordan-peterson-is-on-a-crusade-to-toughen-up-young-men-its-landed-him-on-our-cultural-divide/2018/05/02/c5bafe48-31d6-11e8-94fa-32d48460b955_story.html
8 Jordan Peterson. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Toronto: CA, Random House Canada, 2018). xxiv.
9 CS Lewis. “On Stories”, in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947, repr. 1966 Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing),101.
10 Jordan B. Peterson. Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), 1.
11 Jordan B. Peterson. Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), 3.
12 Jordan B. Peterson. Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), 5.
13 John 1:14 (English Standard Version).
14 C.S. Lewis. “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory And Other Addresses (1949, repr. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1999), 119.
15 Is. 11:1 (English Standard Version).
16 C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves (1960, repr. 2012 New York, NY: Inspirational Press), 223.
17 McGrath, Alister E. The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central.
18 J.R.R. Tolkien. “On Fairy-Stories” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947, repr. 1966 Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing), 44.
19 C.S. Lewis. The Weight of Glory in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresess (1949, repr. 1980, New York, NY: Harpercollins Publishers), 42.
20 J.R.R. Tolkien. “On Fairy-Stories” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947, repr. 1966 Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing), 81.
21 Jordan Peterson. 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Toronto, CA: Random House Canada, 2017), xxviii.
22 Jordan Peterson. 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Toronto, CA: Random House Canada, 2017), xxxiv.
23 C.S. Lewis. “Is Theology Poetry?”in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (1949, repr. 1999, New York, NY: HarperCollins), 124-125.
24 Dorothy Sayers. “On Telling You A Story” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947, repr. 1966 Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing), 33