Struggling with Incongruities

In “Map is not Territory,”[1] Jonathan Z. Smith argues that myth does not simply function as an explanation for the way things are, since some elements of myth are inconsistent with reality. Rather, the inconsistency or “error” of myth is an intentional mistake designed to produce a certain effect: “Myth is (…) a self-conscious category mistake. That is to say, the incongruity of myth is not an error, it is the very source of its power” (Smith, 299). In Smith’s view, the congruent and incongruent elements within myth interact in a spiritually constructive way: “There is delight and there is play in both the fit and the incongruity of the fit between an element in the myth and this or that segment of the world or of experience which is encountered” (Smith, 300). Indeed, for Smith, this interaction of the congruent with the incongruent triggers the religious imagination of humankind: “I would want to insist that it is precisely the juxtaposition, the incongruity between the expectation and the actuality that serves as a vehicle of religious experience” (Smith 301).

Based on this understanding of myth, Smith questions the widely-held assumption of the congruity of native thought and religion. For Smith, the assumed equation of myth with real life within primitive societies is methodologically questionable: “the categories of holism, of congruity, suggest a static perfection to primitive life which I, for one, find inhuman” (Smith, 307).  Rather, Smith sees myth functioning in much the same way amongst primitives as it does in more evolved societies – even amongst natives, the incongruity between expectation and actuality triggers a rational and creative thought process whereby these inconsistencies between the real and the ideal are acknowledged and dealt with. For Smith, myth “provides the native with an occasion for thought. It is a testing of the adequacy and applicability of native categories to new situations and data. As such, it is preeminently a rational and rationalizing enterprise, an instance of an experimental method” (Smith, 307). For Smith then, the falsely assumed congruity or static perfection of primitive life has served to conceal from scholarly consideration the native’s ability to think imaginatively: “I believe that this assumption has prevented us from seeing the craft, the capacity of thought and imagination, the impulse towards experiment that is awakened only at the point where congruency fails” (Smith, 308).

For Smith, this new understanding of the mechanics of myth calls for a redrawing of our cosmological maps. Under this new scenario, religion is no longer seen as providing the means for escaping the incongruous or “disjunctive” elements of reality. Instead, these elements are allowed to stand and are understood as the vehicles of religious experience themselves: “the dimensions of incongruity (…) suggest that symbolism, myth, ritual, repetition, transcendence are all incapable of overcoming disjunction. They seek, rather, to play between the incongruities and to provide an occasion for thought” (Smith, 309).

For Smith, religion is not a means of escaping the imperfections and injustices of the material world in order to connect with some perfect, transcendent realm. Rather, religion is a rational thought process that is triggered by the complex display of inconsistencies between the real and the ideal that we witness in our everyday lives. Our struggle to reconcile these incongruities manifests itself in the form of religious behavior. Smith therefore posits a view of religion as a fundamentally rational exercise performed by rationally-minded individuals, but does Smith go too far in rationalizing religion? Is there sufficient evidence to support Smith’s application of this theory even to primitive cultures not known to have such a capacity for thought and imagination? In other words, how are we to precisely understand Smith’s qualification of his essay as “’an exaggeration in the direction of the truth’” (Smith, 308)?

[1] Jonathan Z. Smith, 9004504928, Map is Not Territory : Studies in the History of Religion (Leiden : E. J. Brill, 1978), “Map is Not Territory,” pp. 289-309.


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