Amythia: Crisis in the Natural History of Western Cultureby Loyal Rue
Amythia: Crisis in the Natural History of Western Culture
Loyal D. Rue, University of Alabama Press, 1989
A review and commentary by Ursula Goodenough
Circa 1991 I wrote the review of this book that appears below. It was apparently never published; I’ve only come upon a handwritten version.
Given that my encounter with this book directly launched my exploration of a religious naturalist (RN) orientation and two editions of my book The Sacred Depths of Nature, its influence on me was profound, and my explorations, in turn, undergird the many articulations of RN that have emerged in the past 20 years.
What needs to be rectified is that few of the articulators seem to have read Amythia, or at least it is not listed in their bibliographies. It has placed at the very bottom of amazon.com’s buyer rankings for decades.
Following the review, I offer a short commentary on the book’s history.
This eloquent book can be praised at two levels.
First, as literature, it is a technical tour-de-force. Rue is a philosopher who has mastered the pace of the Socratic argument and the important abstractions within western intellectual history. As a sideline, he also writes pithy op-ed pieces for the Des Moines Register in a style somewhere between Tom Wicker and Garrison Keillor. The combination is terrific. He will present us with several pages of philosophical discourse or church history, with careful attention to methodological detail, and just as we sense our attention wandering a bit he steps in, rings out a few punchy declarative sentences, pulls it all together, and sets up for the next round of Augustine or Luther. As a result we have a clear sense that he is in control, that we will not be abandoned. At key moments Rue anticipates our responsiveness and draws us into a dialogue, the hallmark of a perceptive teacher. The writing itself is clear and often powerful, particularly in the second half of the book where Rue really picks up steam and eventually switches from the passive to active voice. In short, the book is masterfully crafted; it has a life of its own.
The second level of praise is for the argument itself. The title gives a name to our state of cultural malaise, our absence of collective meaning. “The [Abrahamic] myth from the past has lost its power to capture the modern imagination.” “Cut off from the public network of shared commitments and objective values, we find ourselves alienated in a universe of oppressive privacy, in a kind of self-enslavement.”
After defining the problem, Rue proceeds with a graceful account of the evolution of life, human life, human mind, and human culture, as if to make sure we are all grounded in the same science-based reality. This reality then becomes the context in which any new myth, or meme, must survive.
He then takes us on two journeys, one through western intellectual history and the other through the history of the Judeo-Christian church, tracing the evolution of our myths and lifting up their resilience, the thesis being that for any myth to survive it must have both distinctiveness and plausibility. He identifies the most durable myth as the concept of Covenant – the relationship between humanity and the source of existence – and documents that this concept has undergone numerous transpositions during the natural history of western culture.
The major crisis of our times, then, is that whereas the “source of existence” has traditionally been termed God, “there is no longer any point in being mealymouthed about it; the personal metaphor of God is dead. To continue to talk as if our world were in the caring hands of a transcendent intelligence takes us well beyond the acceptable limits of plausibility in contemporary culture.” Hence the challenge is to affirm a Covenant, the meaning of existence, in the absence of God.
Rue quickly goes on to point out that we are nonetheless still free to consider what has been regarded as God’s activity, namely, the creation and unfolding of all that there is, and use the word evolution to describe that activity. Hence he calls upon modern mythmakers, notably artists, to present the concept of evolution in forms that will inspire self-transcendence and a reunification of human culture.
In his final chapter, Rue proposes that we use the church as an institution for sponsoring and supporting such mythological change. We are basically urged to take over the church – some would say subvert the church. For readers who have dismissed the church as hopelessly entrenched in the mythology of salvation this may sound far-fetched, but a visit to one of the more enlightened churches in your community may offer a real surprise: many are actively focused on the Amythic dilemma and poised for fresh input. I am hardly saying that “a new venture in mythopoesis” is as yet sweeping our religious institutions, but it could happen, and it would be far more likely to happen if Amythia were put forward as required reading.
When Loyal Rue wrote Amythia in 1989, lifting up the salience of what he came to call Everybody’s Story, he was unaware of Thomas Berry’s 1978 book that called for the adoption of what he called The New Story. Berry continued to articulate this theme for the rest of his life, albeit he did not speak of RN by name, often in collaboration with his students Brian Swimme, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and John Grim, who created an enchanting film called The Universe Story. His life and work are commemorated here and in a highly engaging biography.
In his most recent book chapter, Rue notes that the RN trajectory is being played out in numerous guises, as recorded in the many other chapters in the book. And although RN terminology is not usually used, many progressive church congregations have adopted robust eco-minded orientations and projects, as extensively recorded here; they retain their monotheistic credos, to be sure, but the RN impulse is manifest. Also ascendent is an awareness of the nature-centered indigenous, pagan, and East Asian traditions where the human is embedded in the natural world. Notable also is the formation of many on-line associations that adopt an RN perspective, as accessed here . The vision offered by Rue in the last chapter of Amythia has taken root in many ways since he offered it 35 years ago.
Importantly, Rue developed the Amythia perspectives in four subsequent books, listed below, that display the same level of mastery and have enjoyed far wider readership. Hopefully this review will encourage an exploration of his RN roots.
By the Grace of Guile 1994
Everybody’s Story 1999
Religion is Not About God 2004
Nature is Enough 2012