Why Stories? Because the Cosmos is more poem than proposition

Jonathan McCormackSymbolic World Icon
November 7, 2023

Can the entire texture of reality be captured in a math equation? We don’t experience and think the world this way. Rather than closing upon some calculated conclusion, thinking, often to our surprise, is like an encounter with some aspect of Being that we have been invited to dialogue with. Like every personal communion, this may require a certain openness and trust on our part, but isn’t that how it is?

For the religious, this makes sense, as the Cosmos itself is communication, Being is communion. As such, there are no other means to access truth other than narrative, imagination, emotion, and rhetoric. There is no such thing as the truth behind the narrative, and claiming so would merely amount to another story.

This is explicit in Christianity, for its truth cannot be separated from the story it tells. No one by rigorous logical proofs would deduce that some first-century Jewish itinerant Rabbi was the Son of God. This truth is clothed in a particular place, enfleshed in a particular person, and only makes sense within a particular story.

Of course, modern minds wish to toss the story out. What is the objective truth obscured by all this rhetoric? When you toss away the metaphors and masks of truth, the thing itself is lost. No, the secular fact itself is an imaginative construct.

As Alasdair MacIntyre points out, “facts, like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen, were a seventeenth-century invention.” 1

To call something a “fact” is to render a judgment on the existence or significance of a thing, a judgment that is always encased in a linguistic apparatus, an apparatus that is always part of a story. Logos without mythos is itself the great myth of modernity. In reality, truth always has a local dialect, a history, a place, and even a face.

It is Nietzsche who claims that all articulated notions are essentially mythic. What a culture calls logical is embedded in a more fundamental pre-rational culturally situated bedrock of meanings. All interpretations are shaped by a more basic mythos that structures our interpretations. Mythos is the basic thing. Every time we express some fact, we must rely on words conceptually formed in the experience of some particular community, with its particular history and practices.

Nietzsche writes that philosophers “think they are doing a thing an honor when they dehistoricize it, sub specie aeternitatis—when they make a mummy out of it.” Philosophers handle “conceptual mummies” such that “nothing real has ever left their hands alive.” 2

Elsewhere he says,

“The sphere of poetry does not lie outside of the world as a fantastic possibility conceived by the brain of a poet; it strives to be precisely the opposite, the unadorned expression of truth, and must for just that reason reject the deceptive finery of the alleged reality of the man of culture.” 3

Hence, God, “the Poet at the beginning of days”, always speaks to man in poetic language. God speaks in stories because our Cosmos is constituted by stories. Indeed, the categories we think in are not primarily constituted by space, time, number, or causality but by the living full-bloodied categories of tradition, experience, and language.

Logic, conceived on the model of mathematics rather than Logos, has stripped reality of reason; now stands a skeletal world of geometry, where once a living Cosmos throbbed with breath.

Platonism’s argument, taken over by Christianity, is that spiritual qualitative meanings are real and more primary than material quantitative facts. We can think of nature as space, time, and matter, and grace as the order, value, purpose, and meaning that is expressed through nature. However, it is simply unintelligible to speak of nature apart from grace. What would it even mean to have matter without form, facts without meaning, objectivity without value, thinking without reason?

Of course, one may become captive to a corrupt and corrupting narrative, one disproportionate to how we experience and inhabit the world. In other words, one may live a lie. The mythos of science, when taken as a metaphysical picture of the whole, is one such example, by first subtracting value and meaning from its method, to then making the claim that these have no substantive reality.

However, like all phenomena, even that which falls within the domain of science’s method and is acknowledged as fact is still embedded within a more fundamental narrative. The mythos of science situates what it allows as fact within the analogy of the machine. Yet, these same facts could just as easily be conceived musically rather than mechanistically. Indeed, the Oxford professor and world-renowned physiologist Denis Noble, drawing on systems biology, will say it is more true to conceive of life as a kind of music. The genome is more involved in a symphonic interplay between genes, cells, bodies, and the environment, rather than the misleading metaphor of DNA as a set of instructions sequentially building lifeforms brick by brick as a human might a robot. 4

In physics, the narrative is changing as well. Writing in the 2005 issue of Nature, the quantum physicist Richard Conn Henry, in his article The Mental Universe, quotes Newton’s biographer, Richard Westfall, who noted: “The ultimate cause of atheism, Newton asserted, is ‘this notion of bodies having, as it were, a complete, absolute and independent reality in themselves.’” 5

With the discovery of quantum mechanics, the physicist Sir James Jeans would write: “the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter…” 6

Since the 16th century, people have described the regularities of nature with an analogy to “law”, as in “the laws of nature,” which Wittgenstein famously called “The great delusion of modernity,” but we all know a law is a human construct given by a judge to govern society. No one believes a rock is intentionally obeying a legal edict. 7

Naturally, if one uses the analogy of legal fictions to describe the regularities of nature as pre-existing natural “laws”, or if one imagines these regularities more analogous to the creative process of thoughts in some mind, the story we fit these “facts” into will organize our understanding and perception, even as all the fluid poetic ambiguities of reality that escape such scientific categories of definition, determination, and certainty are forgotten in the misty oblivion of modernity’s amnesia.

This is why liturgy is vital. After all, Christ did not come to bring us doctrines, but His body, the Church, which enfolds us into the pattern of its life, the life of Christ. By participating in the rhythms of religious rituals, we order our modes of perception to receive the world as a sacrament. Truth is a habit, a habitat, a pattern that we love, move, and have our being in.

We were made, not for propositions, but stories, and God, rather than a computer programmer, is a lover who sings, and the Universe His great song, as we, by being harmonized within the rhythms of the liturgy, become the very grammar of the poetry God speaks into existence.

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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  1. MacIntyre, Alasdair. Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, p. 357. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.
  2. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols, p. 45. Oxford University Press, 2008.
  3. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy, p. 22. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  4. Noble, Denis. The Music of Life: Biology beyond genes. Oxford University Press, 2008.
  5. Henry, R. “The mental Universe.” Nature 436, 29 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/436029a
  6. Ibid. Max Plank, Neils Bohr, and many other physicists have come to similar conclusions. See also the work of Henry Stapp, a theoretical physicist at the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley, particularly his Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer.
  7. “The whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena. Thus people today stop at the laws of nature, treating them as something inviolable, just as God and Fate were treated in past ages. And in fact both were right and both wrong; though the view of the ancients is clearer insofar as they have an acknowledged terminus, while the modern system tries to make it look as if everything were explained.”
  1. — Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.371-2
    New York :Harcourt, Brace, 1933.
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