Chesterton on Mythology and Religion

Chesterton Painting

In the last post we saw how Chesterton took issue with comparative religion. In its place he provided a number of new headings within which to understand religious claims and worldviews. The basic gist of the argument under the first heading, ‘God’, was to suggest that monotheism is less a development of polytheistic theology and more likely its foundational idea. Over the course of history this simple idea was forgotten through cultural amalgamation and accommodation giving way to polytheistic religious pluralism. “…the whole world melted into this mass of confused mythology.”

With this statement, Chesterton sets up his next move. He now begins to treat his second heading, ‘the gods’, which he discusses by trying to unpack the purpose of mythology. What is mythology? Why do we create mythologies? How directly does mythology relate to Christianity? Again, Chesterton’s treatment of myth anticipates the common jibes of the New Atheism. Many Christians are familiar with the Atheistic quip that belief in Santa Clause and Jesus are analogous. But Chesterton challenges this claim with a rather odd statement, “They [mythology and Christianity] are fundamentally different exactly where they are superficially similar; we might almost say they are not the same even when they are the same.” (109).

What does Chesterton mean by this? He begins by pointing us to aesthetics. A work of mythology should not be analysed scientifically, it is instead, a work of art and intended to be so. “We do not submit a sonnet to a mathematician or a song to a calculating boy; but we do indulge the equally fantastic idea that folk-lore can be treated as a science.” (95). This is a problem that doesn’t only apply to mythology. All manner of things are often evaluated against the wrong criteria. For example, the quality of a painting shouldn’t be judged by the amount of money it sells for. The problem with many treatments of myth is similar, they are often understood within the wrong framework. Myths are not to be understood scientifically but aesthetically. Mythologies are not attempts to provide scientific theory or mathematical axioms. They are not abstractions in the same way that we deduce a theory of gravity from a falling apple. Rather, mythology attempts to make sense of what is unknown, not by abstraction, but by use of the imagination.

When in fairy stories water or woodland are given a personality, the personality is not intended as an insignificant addition. “The point is that the personality perfects the water with significance.” (99). It captures something that can never really be captured by scientific theory; it reaches out to an aesthetic reality. The test of a good myth is not whether it meets the standards of scientific inquiry, the test is imaginative.

“Father Christmas is not an allegory of snow and holly; he is not merely the stuff called snow afterwards artificially given human form, like a snow man. He is something that gives a new meaning to the white world and the evergreens; so that snow itself seems to be warm rather than cold. The test therefore is purely imaginative. But imaginative does not mean imaginary.” (99).

Mythology isn’t too dissimilar from painting a landscape. I often go and find a quiet spot with some watercolours and attempt to put what I see to paper. But even when I really like a painting it never really captures the place fully. It is an attempt at an image, not the thing itself. Even then though, I recognize that painting captures something that a cold description never could. “Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through a veil.” (99). “In other words, the natural mystic does know that there is something there; something behind the clouds or within the trees; but he believes that the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.” (99).

You will recall that Chesterton noted in earlier chapters that this tendency to create mythology is universal. This is an anthropological fact. It is this kind of spiritual sense that gives impetus to the creation of mythology; just as the beauty of a scene gives impetus for trying to describe it in oils. “The substance of all such paganism may be summarized thus. It is an attempt to reach the divine reality through the imagination alone; in its own field reason does not restrain it at all.” (105). For that very reason, paganism as such isn’t really defined in terms of creed or confession. It is in a very real sense only a kind of day-dreaming. It is not fixed in what it believes. “So the mythological imagination moves as it were in circles, hovering either to find a place or to return to it. In a word, mythology is a search; it is something that combines a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt, mixing the most hungry sincerity in the idea of a seeking for a place with a most dark and deep and mysterious levity about all the places found.” (107). It is a very sincere attempt at finding something in the dark, and yet it is not so sincere as to become thoroughly dogmatic, it was never intended to be.

This particular observation is found in the works of C. S. Lewis who read The Everlasting Man around the time of his conversion to Christianity. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, echoing Chesterton, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Paganism and mythology are a way of describing that desire and, as Chesterton said, such mythology, while produced from the imagination needn’t be imaginary. “A picture may look like a landscape; it may look in every detail exactly like a landscape. The only detail in which it differs is that it is not a landscape.” (108).

Myth isn’t functioning here as a kind of fanciful lie, it is an attempt to provide a worldview, an account of things, which looks beyond a reductionist rationalism. There are things in the world that rationalism can’t reach. The concept of myth wasn’t understood by Chesterton in the way we understand it today. Myth was understood as an imaginative way of describing things that are not reducible to rationalistic formulae.

And then we come to Christianity. Where myth was only ever intended as a kind of day dream or artistic reaching, we find in Christianity, not only something that makes aesthetic sense of the world, but that does so while claiming to be a description of the true reality of things.

Lewis explains, “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’.”

The difference between Paganism or pure mythology, is that in Paganism “…the rivers of mythology and philosophy run parallel [they] do not mingle until they meet in the sea of Christendom.” (106). Christianity was never intended to be a day dream, it is instead rooted in historical events. It is not simply a search in the dark, for it claims that when Jesus entered the world, the light was switched on. Jesus did say, after all, in John 8:12, ““I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The story of Jesus explains the sense of the numinous that we find so prevalent in humans throughout the world but, unlike other myths (here understood as imaginative attempts to explain a world that can’t be explicated in terms of pure reason), this one corresponds exactly to the reality of things in a way that is intended to be more than aesthetic.