The Narratives of Religion

An excerpt from Chapter 7 of The New Sciences of Religion: Exploring Spirituality from the Outside In and Bottom Up (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) Page 136 - 143

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What are we to make of all these sacred texts with their complex origins? How should we read them today? Is there some truth to be found therein, as their followers so fervently proclaim?

One option for scriptural interpretation is to read the Bible and other sacred texts as rich sources for archetypal stories. Here, we draw on some of the insights of Sigmund Freud, C. G. Jung, Claude Levi-Strauss, and their many followers. In this approach, the conflicts and dynamics between the characters in the Bible, the Jataka Tales, the Bhagavad Gita, and other scriptures are psychologically profound but not literally true. Of course, such an approach finds large portions of these scriptures irrelevant in the contemporary context and also accords them the same status as other myths, fairy tales, and great literature from around the world. This approach seeks contemporary, true-to-life profundities in sacred stories but does so with an eye to ambivalence and uncertainty, conflict and catharsis, and the construction of powerful symbols and shared meanings.

We also find in scriptures codes of moral conduct. These can be analyzed independently of the mythological context for their wisdom and practicality. Of course, there is often a large gap between the ideals preached by religions and the real behavior of religious persons. Nevertheless, the moral teachings of religion may be a source of ethical intuition worthy of serious philosophical and empirical reflection.

Finally, we find in scriptures metaphysical points of view, which may be philosophically important, independent of the larger mythological framework in which they are originally presented. For instance, on each day of creation in Genesis 1, God repeats the word tov, meaning "good." On the last day of creation, when "God saw everything that he had made," including the humans, God pronounces the universe tov me'od, or "very good" (Gen. 1:31). In its parts, the universe is "good," and on the whole, the universe is "very good." This is a normative orientation to the universe; independent of whether there is a creator God and independent of the new scientific cosmology, this is a really interesting philosophical question. What does it mean to say that life is good or not? How might one live differently based on how one answers that question?

It is interesting to observe that the way humans tend to answer these big questions is through stories. If we zoom out again and think about the whole phenomenon in the broadest categories, we observe that humans are profoundly storied creatures. For generations, humans gathered around hearth and fire to tell and retell stories. Much of cultural transmission was in the form of storytelling. Today, people are more likely to gather around the cool glow of the television, but we are no less storied. Some imaginary calculations of the amount of time and money spent today on the entertainment, news, and publishing industries should give us pause to think about how central storytelling is to our humanity. To this we can add everyday interactions with friends and families, in which we recount events and share gossip. By my rough estimation, we spend perhaps 50 percent or more of our waking hours in storytelling. Humans make stories but, in some sense, are also made by our stories.

Many contemporary thinkers have argued that there is a deep narrative structure of human thought.3 The psychologist Jerome Bruner argues that "it is through narrative that we create and recreate selfhood, that self is a product of our telling and not some essence to be delved for in the recesses of subjectivity."4 Narratives are not just a matter of individuals creating their inner and social self; narratives are also what bind societies and cultures together. They are how we integrate events and actions through time into meaningful patterns. They specify cause-and-effect relationships and organize these into coherent wholes. Narratives tell us which events and actions are significant and which can be ignored. The interrelationship of events in our lives is explained by these narratives.

Stories always have normative content, describing what is important, what is unimportant, what is better, what is worse, what is good, and what is bad. Our sense of meaning and purpose and our values and motivations are based on these narratives. Charles Taylor argues that stories about self and society are how humans construct the "horizons of meaning" that form the critical background for social relations and life choices. Narratives always represent a kind of movement in moral space. They are our way of constructing coherence and continuity in our lives.5

Moral reasoning is not as much a matter of propositional logic and rational choice as some modern philosophers have argued;iv rather, we make moral judgments based on the analogical applications of powerful stories.6 Whether it is the story of the Ring of Gyges, the Good Samaritan, the Jataka Tales, or the story of our revered grandparent, we apply these mini-narratives to new situations in the course of our life. If we do the right thing, it is generally not because of a lot of philosophical reflection and rational cost-benefit analyses, but rather because of a moral teaching we learned from a story. Mini-narratives are nested together into larger stories, stories within stories. It is stories, all the way down.

The most important stories that humans tell, retell, and reframe are the ones people do not generally recognize as stories at all. These are referred to as "metanarratives." These master stories are the stuff of ideologies, religions, nationalisms, and cultures. People do not even recognize them as stories but rather tend to take them as an unarticulated background, the taken-for-granted truth, the way things really are.

In discussing religion and politics with someone with very different assumptions and beliefs, the debates can quickly become heated. There is a profound gap between the parties in such debates, so much so that they often do not agree about the relevant facts, let alone interpretations of these facts. For instance, a fundamentalist Muslim will refer only to the Qu'ran, the Hadith, and his particular reading of world history as relevant background for the debate. A fundamentalist Christian will refer only to her particular understanding of the Bible. A Communist approaches economics and world history with a very different set of assumptions from that of a free-market capitalist. Palestinians and Israelis have very different understandings of the relevant histories and facts regarding the history of their conflict. In Sri Lanka, there are the tragic competing narratives of the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists and the Tamil separatist nationalists, each with its own reading of history and a long list of grievances. In these moments of profound disagreement, both sides are confronted with incomprehensibility of the other's worldview and assumptions. In such arguments, one has the distinct feeling of beating one's head against a wall. "How could someone else be so stupid and stubborn," one tells oneself. They, the Other, do not even recognize what is obvious to you. They must be irrational, evil, inhuman -- so begins the escalating spiral of ideological violence.

Entangled Narratives

Modern humans, perhaps more than at any other time in history, are caught up in a web of entangled narratives. Globalization and communication technologies have brought the world of differences into our living rooms, classrooms, and communities. People wage culture wars within and between civilizations based on these narratives, religious and otherwise, which, for the most part, they do not even recognize as stories. What intellectual tools can help to mediate between these competing stories? People disagree about the good life and, in so doing, tend to demonize those with different visions of that life here at home and around the world.

Christian Smith explores these conflicts in Moral, Believing Animals. In a chapter titled "Living Narratives," he offers a dozen examples of contemporary metanarratives, each presented in about 200 words -- the Christian narrative, the Militant Islamic Resurgence narrative, the American Experiment narrative, the Capitalist Prosperity narrative, the Progressive Socialism narrative, the Scientific Enlightenment narrative, the Expressive Romantic narrative, the Unity with Brahman narrative, the Liberal Progress narrative, the Ubiquitous Egoism narrative, and the Chance and Purposelessness narrative. Not only do explicitly political and religious movements have metanarratives, but even competing schools of thought in sociology, economics, and psychology assume the form of metanarratives. These short statements of competing worldviews make for an excellent seminar discussion or role-play for students. I imagine it would also be a useful exercise for world religious and political leaders.

What one discovers very quickly is also disturbing on a deeper level. There is no simple way to adjudicate between these competing worldviews and world doings. Given a certain set of assumptions, any particular metanarrative becomes difficult, if not impossible, to refute. Indeed, once captured by a particular worldview, it is possible to rationalize just about anything and everything within that worldview. Soon, all facts seem to bolster one╒s assumptions because the facts that matter are dictated by the narrative. This is what I mean when I use the term "solipsistic rationality." People tend to select facts and the interpretation of those facts carefully based on their metanarratives. Smith writes:

The problem with a narratological understanding of human persons -- and probably an important reason modern people resist thinking of themselves as ultimately storytelling and believing and incarnating animals -- is that it is difficult rationally to adjudicate between divergent stories. How do you tell which one is more deserving of assent and commitment than others? The American Experiment narrative will probably appeal to more readers of this book than the Militant Islamic Resurgence narrative. Why? Because objective, empirical evidence proves that it is a truer story? Not really. For what is evidence is itself largely made significant, if not constituted for us, by our narratives.9

Let us examine one of the metanarratives from Smith's book in detail. This is the narrative of the Community Lost, and it appears in different religious and cultural idioms:

Once upon a time, folk lived together in local, face-to-face communities where we knew and took care of each other. Life was simple and sometimes hard. But we lived in harmony with nature, laboring honestly at the plough and in handicraft. Life was securely woven in homespun fabrics of organic, integrated culture, faith, and tradition. We truly knew who we were and felt deeply for our land, our kin, our customs. But then a dreadful thing happened. Folk community was overrun by the barbarisms of modern industry, urbanization, rationality, science, fragmentation, anonymity, transience, and mass production. Faith began to erode, social trust dissipated, folk customs vanish. Work became alienating, authentic feeling repressed, neighbors strangers, and life standardized and rationalized. Those who knew the worth of simplicity, authentic feeling, nature, and custom resisted the vulgarities and uniformities of modernity. But all that remains today are tattered vestiges of a world we have lost. The task of those who see clearly now is to memorialize and celebrate folk community, mourn its ruin, and resist and denounce the depravities of modern, scientific rationalism that would kill the Human Spirit.10

This is a nostalgic narrative of the tragedy of modernity, industrialization, and globalization. It offers a backward-looking romantic view of history. In the old days, people were better, life was better, local communities mattered. The basic structure of this narrative is repeated by many Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and other cultural idioms. In Sri Lanka, we see this narrative functioning in romantic readings of the Mahavamsa and the idealization of "tank, temple, and paddy." There is also a potent contemporary ecological version of this narrative articulated by some in the environmental movement, who might have us all return to Neolithic village life.11

It is important to emphasize that humans can hold multiple narratives, sometimes mutually exclusive. We mix and match. The conservative Roman Catholic narrative is incompatible with the narrative of liberal democracy, but that does not prevent most conservative Roman Catholics from being enthusiastic supporters of liberal democracies. The Christian narrative appears incompatible with capitalist virtues, but that does not prevent Christians from living the bourgeois life. The ecoromantic narrative appears incompatible with much of modern technology, but that does not prevent environmentalists from using soon-to-be-obsolete laptops and flying around the world to enjoy ecotourism. The Theravada Buddhist narrative is incompatible with Sinhalese nationalism and militarism, but, of course, that is just like samsara. Each generation reinterprets these narratives in different situations, even as each generation is also constituted by these received stories. People are not passive recipients of these narratives but active reinterpreters. Embodied in these narratives are symbols and meanings that acquire motivational power -- the religious icon, a flag, a book, or a people.

The idealized past of the Community Lost narrative above contrasts sharply with progressive, future-oriented narratives, for instance, the Scientific Enlightenment narrative or the Capitalist Prosperity narrative. This nostalgia narrative is woven into many of the fundamentalist religious movements today, whether in the East or West, the North or South. One can argue with this nostalgia, but evidence alone cannot compel someone to believe otherwise. Like all the narratives Smith describes, it involves a certain reading of history and a certain set of assumptions about what really matters in life.

As the historian Eric Hobsbawn reminds us, "History is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies. . . . If there is no suitable past, it can always be invented. . . . The past legitimizes. The past gives a more glorious background to a present that doesn't have much to celebrate."12 Of course, history is another form of storytelling, narrative in structure, always ideologically oriented toward some present reality and context in which the author lives, thinks, reads, and write. That is why the rewriting of history will never end. In a hundred years, people will still be writing new books about the American Civil War, the French Revolution, and the Anuradhapura kingdoms of ancient Sri Lanka, offering new insights and interpretations for new times.

Even science is a bundle of stories. There are short stories about particular research projects and the history of entire disciplines. There is the new cosmological narrative of a dynamic universe and an evolving planet. And then there are interpretations of these scientific stories, a distinction we will return to in the next chapter. Smith presents the Scientific Enlightenment narrative in this abridged form:

For most of human history, people have lived in the darkness of ignorance and tradition, driven by fears, believing in superstitions. Priests and lords preyed on such ignorance, and life was wearisome and short. Even so, gradually, however, and often at great cost, inventive men have endeavored better to understand the natural world around them. Centuries of such inquiry eventually led to a marvelous Scientific Revolution that radically transformed our methods of understanding nature. What we know now as a result is based on objective observation, empirical fact, and rational analysis. With each passing decade, science reveals increasingly more about the earth, our bodies, our minds. We have come to possess the power to transform nature and ourselves. We can fortify health, relieve suffering, and probe life. Science is close to understanding the secret of life and maybe eternal life itself. Of course, forces of ignorance, fear, irrationality, and blind faith still threaten the progress of science. But they must be resisted at all costs. For unfettered science is our only hope for true enlightenment and happiness.13

This Scientific Enlightenment narrative must be distinguished from the content of science. The facts of science do not necessarily result in this interpretation, as we will see below. This metanarrative of scientism becomes one of many possible metanarratives competing for our allegiance. We can chose the Christian narrative, the Islamic Resurgence narrative, the American Experiment narrative, the Capitalist Prosperity narrative, the Progressive Socialism narrative, the Community Lost narrative, the Expressive Romantic narrative, the Unity with Brahman narrative, the Liberal Progress narrative, the Ubiquitous Egoism narrative, the Chance and Purposelessness narrative, or many other foundational stories all tinged with a religious-like faith that structures what we see as true and good. We find ourselves at a relativistic impasse. There appears to be no way to adjudicate between the narratives of Palestinians and Israelis, of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists and Tamil separatists, of Islamic militants and the West, science and religion, the future utopic enthusiasts of progress and the nostalgic utopic conservationists of nature and tradition. If there is no possibility of mediating between these metanarratives, then we are left with the prospects of brute force being the last judge between ideologies, political parties, nations, and religions. If might makes right, we will all be losers in the twenty-first century.

How, then, do we understand passionately held commitments to different religious and ideological worldviews? I would call the discussion above observational. With the exception of certain scientific knowledge, and even then only provisionally and quite narrowly, there is no immediate way to adjudicate intellectually between competing metanaratives. These stories structure our thought and behavior in many profound ways, both political and personal. We have reached the so-called postmodern moment in scholarship. This relativistic impasse is actually philosophically mandated by rational analysis and reflection in the context of our contemporary world.

Which of these stories is worthy of our affirmation and support? Which narrative has the power to convince, convert, and transform? Which religion does one choose? Whose politics should one support? Which stories of self, society, and cosmos are we willing to risk all for when push comes to shove? I turn to the field of philosophical hermeneutics to try to find a way out of the relativistic impasse. I believe the philosophy of interpretation offers us a way out and a path forward. In the end, I will advocate what I call "intellectual nonviolence" or, more simply, humility. This path is not without risk, but it offers the greatest promise for discovering truths that transcend our many varied stories. In the next chapter, I will argue for the possibility of a more all-encompassing metanarrative, in part by embracing the evolving scientific cosmology, which affirms but also transcends the many competing narratives mentioned above.

4. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989). Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, trans. Kathleen and David Pellauer McLauglin, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 1985, 1986).; Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

5. Jerome Bruner, "The Narrative Creation of Self," in The Handbook of Narrative Psychotherapy: Practice, Theory, and Research, ed. Lynne E. and McLeod Angus, John (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002).

6. Taylor, Sources of the Self.

7. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971).

8. Paul C. Vitz, "The Uses of Stories in Moral Development: New Psychological Reasons for an Old Education Method," American Psychologist 45 (1990).

9. Paul Ricoeur, "Hermeneutics and the Critique of Ideology," in Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, ed. John P. Thompson (New York: Cambridge University Press, [1973] 1981).

10. Smith, Moral, Believing Animals, 87. viii Ibid., 85-86.

11. Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era (San Francisco: Harper, 1992).

12. Eric Hobsbawn, On History (New York: The New Press:1997).

13. Smith, Moral, Believing Animals, 71.


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