Telling a New Story (2)
We may feel a need to tell a new story because the old story no longer works at a localised point. A colleague recently published something saying too many people are dying without Jesus... as though that meant they are bound for hell. That part of the traditional expression of Christianity just does not work for me. It makes God a monster... We need to deal with those “local” or specific instances where the story runs aground against our reality.
But there can be a much wider problem, and that's what I want to deal with in this article. We can arrive at a moment when none of the old Christian story works. We are like the politician who gets up one morning and can see no reason to continue. The fire, the purpose, the passion, are all gone. Why was I ever committed to this? The question is unanswerable. The whole story just ceases to work. This can be a sudden or a slow development, but one day there is no motivation. The story ceases to have any hold on us.
This is not because of grief or exhaustion. After a week or two's holiday there is no getting back on an even keel. The story has gone. It has lost its reality. I suppose it is a bit like a mid-life crisis. Why do I even go to work? I need money to pay the bills and to eat; that's the only reason. Life and work can become a misery in such a situation.
In this loss of story there is a sudden chasm – an unanswered empty space. What does life mean?Why keep going? What is the purpose of anything? These are the questions that have used religious faith as an answer and anchor. It has been a much more profound anchor, much more refined and sophisticated, than the anchor based in having a better car and getting a promotion, but the loss is just the same.
It may be worse, because the person concerned has already likely come to their faith because they have already seen the futility of getting a good job, or more things, as a reason for living. Already they have suffered a great dissatisfaction and disillusionment. And now their answer to that, the old story of our faith, has also become a false God; just as false as an owning an mrx or the getting of a PhD, or having a growing congregation. It becomes something they no longer believe in. It does not answer their questions, or satisfy their longings.
For me there are only two responses when life ends up in a situation like this. If such an emptiness persists beyond a break, and a few good sleeps, I either rebuild or I give up. Giving up for me is money or booze; i.e. anaesthesia. At worst it would be suicide. But I cannot go on pretending there is no problem.
Rebuilding, that is, beginning to tell my own story, is not easy. One thing I have learned is the limitation of the expert. At some point I have to get beyond accepting the explanations of the minister, or the scholar, and make the story my own. I have to be sufficiently well versed in the story to be able to tell it in my own words. If I am quoting doctrine, it is not my story. If I have learned the theology of Luke rote from Fitzmyer or some other commentary, it is not my story. I need almost to be doing midrash; putting my spin and interpretation on things the way Matthew reworks the story of Jesus with the traditions of Moses, for example. Commentaries will help of course; I can't insulate myself from the wisdom of other readers, but I should know how they are influencing me and then be telling my own story.
Remember the words about Jesus: he preaches with authority, not as the scribes teach. (Mk 1:22) He spoke with authenticity. He was not a mere tradent. Although grounded in his tradition, he told his own story.
There seem to be two complementary emphases we could take in learning to tell our own story of the world. In our current situation we often tend to see these two approaches as competitive. I think this is a false dichotomy, which self serves the religious interests of the traditional religionists and their opponents. But I want to at least touch on the dichotomy that is popularly presented to us because it will let us see some limitations and dangers.
One approach to retelling our story would be to take a strongly science and evidence based approach to understanding reality. We will seek to understand in the most precise way possible, arguing, reasoning, experimenting, re-experimenting, testing.
This approach is probably unavoidable for most of us in our society unless we are determinedly contrarian. Our whole heritage is steeped in rational laying out of arguments. Scientific experimentation, the testing of hypotheses, has been an incredibly powerful technique for gaining knowledge about things. Some would argue that we are no longer easily able to think mythologically.
Today we have lost the ability to think mythologically, as people by and large did in the modern world. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scientific rationalism made such huge strides and achieved such astonishing results in the west that reason and logic became the only valid means of arriving at truth. The more intuitive approach of myth was discredited. As a result, in popular parlance, a “myth” simply means something that is not true. That means that we interpret our scriptures in a wholly literal way, instead of seeking the metaphysical and allegorical interpretations that mystics, kabbalists and theologians relished before the advent of modernity. Not surprisingly the mythos of the Bible has become incredible to many people. Karen Armstrong pp 23 "Suggestions for a Second Axial Age" in The Once and Future Faith, by the Jesus Seminar, (Polebridge Press 2001)
That means that we interpret our scriptures in a wholly literal way, instead of seeking the metaphysical and allegorical interpretations.... even though I know about this, the tendency to strongly literal interpretation is almost a part of me. I cannot step around it easily, and return to the old ways of seeing and telling. I am a product of our times.
Even so, we are not always good at thinking scientifically. We move rather too easily from hard experimentation to apparently reasoned argument! I mean we often seem to think because we lay out a reasoned argument, it is somehow scientific! A lot of argument is mere opinion, and has no basis in fact, or support from scientific experimentation. It is often logically fallacious, driven by prejudice or fear. It repeats opinion and stray Internet articles and is prey to urban myths.
A lot may be gained by carefully reflecting on just how we are interpreting and talking! Are we evidence based, or merely opinionated? Is our argument reasonable, congruent, fallacious, self serving, or even understandable?
The problem I have with “science” alone as a way of telling my story of the world is this. It sounds a great idea. My story will be evidence based and rational, I decide. But description, even in the most detailed fashion is not the same as knowing, or finding meaning. Reducing something even to its tiniest parts does not exhaust its meaning. It may even hide its meaning. It often says nothing about purpose.
Extreme reductionism and physicalism takes us back to our component chemicals. It leads, I think, to a sterility and determinism none of us can live with. We have to add value. And there is nothing wrong with that. It is good to be adding value to things in an environment where we are very clear on what are the values we are adding.
In the less extreme application, science is an enormous boon to telling our story. The insights of psychology give us great understanding of what drives us and protect us from a great deal of story telling based on fear or security needs rather than more grounded and considered reasons. Biology gives us insight into the lack of efficacy of prayer in causing physical outcomes, sparing us a lot of emotional heartache and guilt, and spurring us to some fertile thinking about why we pray and what drives that instinct. Theology without science would be immeasurable impoverished.
So science has its limitations. It is about independently reproducible results. It is about making hypotheses which either stand or are disproved. So there are areas where science becomes less competent. Aspects of emotion, and aesthetics, and moral choices, are much less manageable and measurable and predictable, than the physics of a steel bridge. It is not that a scientist can say nothing about these things, as much as that we are not satisfied with the scientific story. It feels as though it is lacking. It is not the whole story.
For these reasons, when my old traditional story of faith, with which I grew up, is in ruins around me, I do not try and start the rebuilding with science. All through university as I studied science, I was unable to make any headway. It was not enough.
I begin, instead, with the only things that remain firm when I doubt everything else. Those two things are beauty and compassion. They remain even when nothing else makes sense.
Beauty is that which moves me to tears and wonder. It holds me. When I was totally turned in on myself in deep depression, wondering if suicide was the best option for the sake of my family, beauty is what took me outside, walking up into the hills, still able to see something worth living for. Beauty is the force that sees pattern when the brain says nothing is worthwhile or has meaning. It is the soul's antidote against nihilism and anomie. It is the contradiction of worthlessness and hopelessness and pointlessness.
Beauty is necessarily in the eye of the beholder. It is prone to narcissism. It will be warped and distorted by my tribalism and selfishness. Compassion is the moderator of beauty. Compassion does this because it considers the other as of equal value. Compassion is the conviction that I am not worth more than any other person. It begins to flow into my recognising my place in the world, amoeliorating my anthrocentricity, and growing respect for non human life.
Understand I do not pretend these things are a philosophical foundation you will find somewhere in a book. They are what remained, and remain, for me during illness, during loss, during grief, and when everything else seems to have evaporated and become insubstantial. They are the basis on which I can rebuild my story because I have found they have remained constant.
They are, of course, strongly influenced by the Christian tradition from which I come. They are, however, independent. When I am struggling, thrashing around out of my depth, breathing in water, these two things are still here even when God disappears.
Some traditional views of God understand “him” as the ruler/king/lord who needs to be appeased or we go to hell. That's one of the old stories. After the experience Christians call grace, this God becomes something that can only be described as love... “womb-love” one of my colleagues called it. There is a sense of deeply transcendent beauty... the old story calls it “glory.” It is a sense of beauty beyond measure.
It's not so different from what I feel contemplating a landscape, or being down on my stomach watching the intricate working of an ant carrying a huge load, or looking at the grain in wood. There is a mixture of awe, of pathos and sadness as I am aware of the limitations and inevitable destruction of everything I know, even myself. And the mix has a deep hope for something better, and a wordlessness when I watch the evening star. There is a great depth and well of feeling...something that is there in sex- not the pleasure- but the longing, and all that feeling that cannot be expressed. The desire to be more whole, to be better, to be connected. A desire for oneness.
Of course all this can degenerate into mawkish sentimentality, and a kind of narcissistic enjoyment of one's own melancholy. One of the things science does is help keep the balance. It tests our sentiment and warns us when we are unconsciously driven by fear. It lets us know when our stories are so removed from physical reality that they direct us away from reality rather than inform us.
Compassion works as a similar balance.
The cyclic movement between beauty and science makes life bearable. Science without wonder is barren. Wonder, without science and compassion, is always at risk of becoming self serving sentimentality. Seeking beauty infused with compassion is directional for me. More of this is better. In this context the story of Jesus is a model for compassion.
The thing about “aesthetic compassion” is that there is no recipe. It can't fully be summed up like some point by point argument for the existence of God, or a list of instructions for building a bridge. It cannot be proved on paper, or with a computer simulator. It can only be lived.
Our understanding can grow, and be refined, but in the end this life has to be lived to be proved. Living the story, living compassionately, living aesthetically provides its own proof. It makes the story real. I am no longer appealing to some authority, some philosopher, some ancient text. Instead, I am living and experiencing what I am saying. This seems terribly sloppy and imprecise coming from a positivist and rationalist influenced mindset that appeals to experts, and authorities, and experimentation. But try a life lived only according to appeals to experts, and authorities, and experimentation. When that is experienced, then a life anchored by the authenticity of one's own experience seems pretty good and desirable!
So why church, and why Jesus, and what do you do with all the crap that seems to accrete around church?
To begin with, I think I am kidding myself if I think I am going to start retelling my story from scratch.
Why am I a Christian? Because I prefer to keep the tradition I have, rather than discarding it with the bathwater and then trying to make something new from scratch. When we pretend that we can simply leave the past behind and start anew we deceive ourselves: just look at the way China worshipped its 'Communist emperor' Mao with all the devotion and spectacle they offered to earlier ones. Even an atheist is in dialogue with the past, willingly or unwillingly. James McGrath
So I cannot do anything but start in our my own heritage. However, in retelling the story, there is a difference. The difference is that the heritage is no longer a wall keeping other wisdom out. It is a home base from where I can work and travel.
Jesus comes with the religion. He is the distinctive factor for Christianity. Traditionally, we say Jesus shows us God. Practically, here is the story of a life which entrances me. It is counter cultural, iconoclastic, compassionate, free, strong, against empire... which is at root of so much evil in our society. He is a man for our times. He is also not Gandhi or Mandela. What I mean is that there is a figure who is removed from us. A figure with that certain elasticity we need to use as a role model. We can tell stories about him, elaborate and argue in a way that the more recent histories and the imperfections of Gandhi or Mandela prevent.
When it comes to the crap, we sort through it. We respect it as heritage, but take only what is good and insightful. The church has always done this. It is our calling, not a sin or a lack of faith.
Andrew Prior 2010