Almost all religions and philosophical systems have embedded within them an overarching narrative that provides the framework for how one answers questions like, “Who am I?” “What’s my purpose?” and “Where is all this going?” The structure and shape of this narrative is essential for answering these questions. Thus, if you change the narrative, you change the answers to these big questions.
A simple example of this is helpful. In our modern context, people tend to think of history in terms of progress. We look back on the nineteenth century and bemoan the state of medicine and social/ethical problems (war, slavery, racism, etc.) and thank God that we are no longer like those hopelessly “backward” people. We look back even further into the medieval era or the ancient world and are often aghast at how barbaric those people were. We stand proud looking at how far we’ve come. History is seen in terms of progression. With some exceptions, things generally get better and better as things move along. The 19th century was better than the 18th century. The 20th century is better than the 19th century, and now the 21st century is the best of all, even if we have some bumps along the way.
But this isn’t just about how we view history; this narrative has a future orientation as well. The purpose of human society and even individual life is progress, onwards and upwards. This sense of the unstoppable march of progress is used rhetorically when people say things like, “We don’t want to be on the wrong side of history” or “Why are we still doing this? It’s [insert current year].”
This narrative of progress will answer the questions from above in the following way:
Who am I? I am on the way. I am a work in progress. I am not ultimately complete and can never be ultimately complete. I have no destination or even fixed location, but I have a direction: progress. (cf. modern obsessions with self improvement and the fluidity of individual identity)
What is my purpose? I am an agent of change and progress. My purpose is to be a participant in moving things forward, making things better, more just, more equal, etc. The individual’s value and significance is for the most part found in how successful they are in “making the world a better place.”
Where is all this going? Society moves upwards as things continue to get better and better. The vision might be a more just society or a more technologically advanced society, whatever the particular focus of the individual is. There is an understanding that the individual here and now will only reap some of the benefits of this progress, but the hope is that the individual will be a participant to lay the foundation for the future benefits to be reaped by those that will come later.
Do We Need Metanarratives?
When we see how these kinds of narratives or metanarratives influence our thinking, the immediate impulse can be to want to rid ourselves of these narratives completely. We may ask ourselves why we should have these narratives at all.
For better or worse, these narratives are essential for answering the bigger questions in life since they provide a framework for beginning to make at least some sense of all the competing and chaotic data and information that we’re bombarded with in our lives.
For example, imagine that someone had taken a storyboard and cut out each square from the storyboard. To make sense of the various images, you have to put them into a narrative, an order that gives structure and thereby meaning to the various images. This is what these overarching narratives do for us.
Additionally, it’s not possible to completely reject any kind of overarching story of the world. It’s possible to be lost and without a strong overarching narrative for a while, but as human beings we are naturally inclined to look for patterns and order even where there might not be. This is why it’s easy to look up into the clouds and see things, even though the clouds are randomly shaped.
Not only that, but life is a whole lot easier with a metanarrative. This is why in the political system in the United States we have two parties, representing roughly two ends of a spectrum from liberal to conservative, whatever those actually mean. We like these breakdowns because they allow us to find a team to identify with. It allows us to have quick answers and positions for issues as they come up without having to wade through the information and the complexity of these issues ourselves.
One of the problems of course with these overarching narratives is that they almost inevitably leave out certain parts of the data.
For example, take the narrative of progress discussed above. If we focus on the more scientific/technological strain of this metanarrative, there is a common narrative about the conflict between science and any kind of superstition, especially religion. One of the watershed events in this conflict is often the trial of Galileo over his support for a heliocentric model for the solar system. The story is often told that Galileo was suppressed because his views, which he had arrived at through the pure method of science, contradicted the dogma of the church, which blindly held on to the authority of the Bible. However, this narrative ignores several complicating factors.
First of all, astronomy at the time was far less advanced. Astronomers had far less data available to them and there were in fact mathematically viable models for geocentrism. This was not science verses religion but old science versus new science.
Second of all, the common narrative ignores the fact that the issue was more about a dispute over Aristotelian philosophy than the authority of the scriptures. Of course, there are various proof texts that one might pull out to argue for a geocentric solar system (e.g. the sun standing still in Joshua), but the real source of these ideas was from the Greek philosophy of Aristotle and others. As a result of the scholastic period (and especially Aquinas), the Roman church in the 1600s had wedded herself very closely with Aristotle. As a result, the Roman church was not very receptive to ideas from scientists that contradicted their understanding of Aristotelian cosmology. The scriptures are not terribly interested in many cosmological questions, but Aristotle was.
Finally, the common narrative also ignores that Galileo’s trial comes in the midst of the Catholic Reformation. In some ways one could argue that the issue with Galileo was less an issue of religion versus science as much as it was the Roman church holding tightly on to authority and control in the wake of a period of losing so much control and authority during the controversies of the Reformation. (See more here)
Now, this is all to say that when we look at things up close, we can see that there is often more nuance than we might be led to believe if we just look at something from a distance through the lens of our favorite narrative.
But why bother with a metanarrative in the first place? Why view things through a lens that distorts what we’re looking at?
The problem is that it’s not that simple. It’s not a question of whether or not we operate with these narratives, but what are the narratives through which we already view the world? We want to identify these narratives, these perspectives, not so that we can remove them (although we may decide to replace them), but so that we can be aware of them. It’s as if we all have horrifically bad eyesight and we have various pairs of glasses available to us that allow us to see but also distort the world slightly. Not wearing glasses at all is not an option. We won’t be able to see anything. Thus, what we want to do is be able to put on the glasses, but be aware of how they might distort our vision. We might know that one pair of glasses gives everything a greenish tint and another pair of glasses elongates everything. Additionally, if we are able to switch between glasses, for comparison’s sake, then we are able to view the world through different distortions. This will be harder, but immeasurably better than the person who only wears one pair of glasses and is convinced that their glasses aren’t distorting things at all. This person will think that they are seeing things without distortion, which is potentially the most dangerous place to be in.
In summary, metanarratives are an unavoidable part of living in the world. They answer basic questions such as, Who am I? What is my purpose? and Where is all this going? Most narratives in our lives go unquestioned and are assumed. One way of putting it is that these are the sorts of things that we tend to think with, not think about. It’s impossible to get rid of our overarching narratives, but we do want to be aware of them. Finally, there is a distinctly Christian narrative, but unfortunately, most Christians have in ill-formed or distorted version of the Christian narrative. This is something that will be explored in part two.