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12. Sparks from the Mind's Furnace

I am sure that at this stage some readers may feel as did a friend of mine, with whom I was discussing the inner approach to God. “I'm aghast”, she said, “to hear such nonsense. We know what God is like. The Bible tells us so. Philosophers have proved his existence, his nature, his qualities. Why throw overboard what the best of minds have worked out in centuries?”

I was speechless because I realized that, from her point of view, the matter was closed. How to tackle her rather simplistic ideas? How to explain in a few sentences the complicated history of human thinking about God? How to convince her of the obvious truth that our ideas about God are of our making and thus inaccurate? “Then on the shore of the wide world I stand alone and think”, I told her; but I knew I was doing her an injustice. What she needed was the opportunity to study religious history; and to think about thinking itself. This is what we will do in this section.

Most people imagine thinking to be a very straightforward action, just like sleeping and walking. Thinking seems so simple and natural. But in fact, few people stop to examine their mode of thought; they take their thoughts for granted. Yet many problems in life take their origin from our thoughts. As we read in Hamlet:

There is nothing either good or bad
but thinking makes it so.

So far in this book I have challenged wrong concepts about God, and especially the unwarranted stress on his action outside us. The time has now come to place my contentions within the wider frame of human thinking about God. If we study the history of that thinking we can see more clearly why a certain bias was unavoidable; that is, until now.

Of necessity the chapters in this section will be a little more academic (and thus boring?) than those in previous sections. Some readers may find philosophy stuffy, abstract arguments contrived, and ancient heart-searching out of date, so for their sakes I will try to strike a balance. I will attempt to keep my text lighthearted — though whether I can succeed in this when wading through the morass of medieval metaphysics, I do not know! But for more serious students who, like myself, believe that even mental muddles can be fascinating, I will provide solid and extended notes, notes which will, in fact, offer a substantial reading guide to all questions I touch upon.

Experience over hundreds of years has shown that it is useless to speak of God before we start examining our way of thinking. This is not an excuse or an escape, but a real necessity. If theology means reflection on God, it is by definition bound up with thought. Whatever meaningful word be- uttered about God is ultimately based on a category of our mind. It is too much to say that God is “the product of human minds”, as Julian Huxley maintained, but it is correct to say that our understanding of God is the product of our mind. Just as music cannot be played without an instrument producing the notes, so our speaking of God rests on the quality of our thinking.

Thinking can be of different kinds, much as there are different approaches in the sphere of action. Originally men and women travelled on foot. Later they trained the horse and covered greater distances on horse-back. Later again they mechanized transport, and even took to travelling by air. Walking, riding on horse-back and flying in an aeroplane are three totally different approaches to the same action of travelling. They are three kinds of travelling, related to the same basic need of going to another place, but meeting this need with different techniques.

To cut stone people first invented the hammer and the chisel. Then they invented dynamite. Later still they found the chemical solution for making cement, thus enabling themselves to make concrete of any kind and shape required. The basic purpose of using stone for construction is still there, but radically different approaches of doing so have been developed. The same is true of human thinking.

In the course of centuries we have developed some fundamentally different approaches in our thinking. These ways of thinking are just as different from one another as walking is different from flying. We have developed the new ways of thinking out of necessity, as we have developed better techniques of cutting stone in the struggle for survival.

It will now be my purpose to show the three main kinds of thinking which humankind has developed, and to explain how they are different. The three kinds I refer to are called: mythopoic, metaphysical and functional. (1) Mythopoic thinking is the kind of thinking that sees coherence in the world by the presumed existence of invisible, supernatural agents in our immediate environment. Metaphysical thinking understands reality as a universal, all-embracing whole, subject to the same laws of being. Functional thinking limits the understanding of the world to particular aspects of it, and those only in as far as they are seen to have a meaningful function. As these definitions are too abstract to permit a concrete grasp, I will work out the difference by means of examples.

Mythopoic thinking

Recall the way in which an orthodox Hindu approaches the mystery of “fire”. For him fire is a manifestation of the god Agni. In ancient times people used to make fire by rubbing two pieces of wood together, and whenever the spark as “a living being” sprang out of that dry wood, this was considered a supernatural event, a creative act of Agni. The aggressive nature of the fire god was derived from the fact that as soon as it was born it began, with unnatural cruelty, to consume the parent wood from which it had sprung. Agni is a god who brings prosperity, but also a god who makes heavy demands. In the Mahabharata it is recounted how Krishna sacrificed a whole forest, with all living beings in it, to the hunger of the god Agni. The “home” is the Hindu's sacrifice of fire in which ghee and other precious materials are offered to the god.

The supernatural nature of fire is attested to in everyday Hindu religious superstitions. If a person dreams that his house is destroyed by fire, it is reckoned to be a very auspicious sign. The fire of a lamp will never be placed towards the south, the abode of death. Fire may not be lent out at night to another person. One should never wear a burnt cloth. Most of all, the function of fire is sacred at the cremation of the dead body. It is a handing over of one's body to the god of fire. In ancient days the wives of a deceased husband would voluntarily throw themselves into the arms of fire.

This wood and sacred oil, O Lord of fire,
I offer hoping it will enhance your power.
As best I can I worship you with hallowed words.
I seek a hundred blessings through this hymn.

Grant us your favours, generous Lord,
rich as you are when brightly enkindled.
With your shining arms and flickering shapes
bring your treasure to my home. (2)

If we analyse this kind of thinking we find it rests on the assumption that under the appearance of fire there is the supernatural agency of the fire god. It is the fire god who is supposed to bring prosperity and protection. It is also the fire god who ultimately claims life. The reality of every-day fire is linked with the imagined action, the “myth” of the fire god. That is why this kind of thinking is called “mythopoic”, that is “myth-making”.

Metaphysical thinking

The Greek philosophers approached fire in a totally different way. They asked themselves fundamental questions about the universe in which we live. Looking at the reality around them, they were convinced that it was ruled by some basic laws that would apply to everything. Aristotle in particular stressed that underlying the many different external forms of beings, there is a homogeneous construction of the world. In this fire too has a part to play. Heraclitus even maintained fire was the basic constituent of the universe.

Following Empedocles, Aristotle maintained that all substances in this world were a combination of four elements, namely: fire, air, earth and water. These four elements were distinguished on a logical basis. Warmth and coldness, dryness and wetness are the primordial qualities, Aristotle said. The four elements are distinguished because fire is warm and dry, air warm and wet; the earth cold and dry; and water cold and wet. The elements also differ in their tendencies of upward or downward motion. Earth and water are “heavy” and tend downwards, while fire and air tend upwards. That is why, according to Aristotle, the elements in their pure forms lie on one another in layers: the earth underneath, then the water, then the air and finally fire.

Lucretius, like other “atomists”, disagreed with these views. The smallest units of matter, he claimed, are “atoms”: tiny, solid particles, permanent, indivisible, capable of being the building blocks of any known object. Atoms are more basic than fire.

Those who thought that the raw material of matter is fire have obviously strayed far from the truth. Also those who say there are four elements. . . In visible objects there is a final point that forms the smallest thing that can be seen. Similarly, there must be a final point in objects that lie below the limit of sense perception. This point is indivisible and the smallest thing that can exist. . . If there were no such indivisible atoms, even the smallest bodies would consist of an infinite number of parts, since they could always be halved and their halves again halved without limit. . . But this cannot be. Reason cries out against it! (3)

Notice that Empedocles, Aristotle and Lucretius tried to go beyond observing physical reality. They arrived at their conclusions by argument, by logical thinking. They practised what Aristotle called metaphysics, that is: what comes after and goes beyond physics. Metaphysical thinking tries to understand the nature of things. It argues by general laws. It approaches reality by considering over-all qualities that can be applied to reality as such.

Functional thinking

In modern thinking fire is approached once more in a different way. If we strike a match, we see a flame leap up from the stick. The scientist asks: “What happens?” His answer will bear upon the chemical reaction. At specified degrees of heat, material substances tend to combine with oxygen. This is a rather violent reaction which changes the original compound drastically (by, for instance, reducing wood to ashes) and releases energy in the form of heat and light.

This understanding of fire may seem simple and straightforward to us now, but it took scientists centuries to establish the chemistry of combustion. Until late in the eighteenth century scientists generally followed George Ernst Stahl, who proposed the phlogiston theory. In fire, he said, a substance which he named “phlogiston” escapes from the burning fuel into the air. “If you invert a drinking glass over a burning candle, the flame dies out because it is stifled by the phlogiston with which the air within the glass is saturated.” In spite of his scientific intentions, Stahl still adhered to the Greek notion that fire — now under the name “phlogiston” — is an element of matter.

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier discovered the true nature of combustion in 1772, by careful measurements. On weighing the remnants of burned sulphur, he found these ashes were heavier than the original substance. This could only come about by the chemical combination of the original sulphur with an element in air, namely oxygen. A flame under an inverted glass dies out because the oxygen in the air gets depleted.

To arrive at such important new insights scientists had to overcome both mythopoic and metaphysical thinking. The modern scientist is not interested in the “nature” of fire in a philosophical sense, but in how it can be used in technological processes. After having analysed the components of fire, the scientist studies its applications. On the strength of his studies he designs furnaces to cast iron or blow glass. He makes engines with which the combustion of fuel can be converted into energy. Most of our modern machinery, from the steam engine to the Jumbo Jet, derive their energy from carefully controlled processes of fire. The scientist knows how fire works, and he makes it work for us.

When studying a phenomenon such as fire, a scientist will limit himself to what he observes and what he can deduce with certainty. He only claims to have functional knowledge. He would feel it to be wrong for his conclusions about fire to be applied to other fields of experience, unless they be proved. He will not admit a prioris and generalizations.

Primitive people ascribe a fire to a supernatural agent, the metaphysician tries to understand its being, and the modern scientist tries to find out how it works. Each of these three modes of thinking springs from a different phase in the development of humankind, and is still part of our mental framework. Each has deeply affected our understanding of God. For God too can be approached from various angles and can be thought about in varying terms. The difference does not lie in fire or in God, but in our mental make-up. Our mind is, after all, the apparatus with which we think that we think, as Ambrose Bierce reminds us in his ‘Devil's Dictionary.’

Have you ever looked into a flame and reflected on its mystery? Have you seen a forest go up in fire and shuddered at its destructive power? Have you been spellbound by the wild beauty of glowing coal in an open hearth? You will then have no difficulty in entering into the world of mythopoic thinking, a world we are now about to enter.

I praise you, God, divine fire,
my priest,
minister of my sacrifice,
who offers my oblation,
who gives me all I treasure. (4)


1.. It was the atheist A. Compte who first identified the three different stages in human thinking, which he called “mythological, metaphysical and positivist”, in The Catechism of Positivist Religion, Trubner, London 1883. C.A. Van Peursen corrected and refined the notion, calling the three stages “mythological, metaphysical and functional” in: “Man and Reality. The History of Human Thought”, The Student World, Vol. 56, 1963. H. Cox worked it out more fully in The Secular City. Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective, Penguin 1968.

2. Rigveda III, 18.

3. Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, passim in I 483-704. An English translation of the whole book was made by R.E. Latham, Penguin 1951.

4. Rigveda I, 1.1.

Next? Go to:

The Power Perception of Ancient Myths

The Way in to GOD

Creator in us

Inner Judge

Beyond thought



This course is based upon the book God Within Us by John Wijngaards and published by Collins, Fount Paperbacks, London, 1988..

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