Storied Nature of Human Nature
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, Carl Jung, Claude Leví-Strauss, and others. 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 for their wisdom and practicality independently of the mythological context. Of course, there is often a large gap between the ideals preached by religious texts and the real behavior of religious people. 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, 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” (Genesis 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. What does it mean to say that life is good or not? How might we live differently based on how we answer that question? These are interesting philosophical issues worthy of serious consideration.
It is also interesting to observe that the way humans tend to answer such big questions is through stories. 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 or the computer screen, but we are no less storied creatures.
Consider the amount of time and money spent today on the entertainment, news, and publishing industries. 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, we are also made by our stories. In The Republic, Socrates tells his interlocutors that “Our first business will be to supervise the making of fables and legends, rejecting all which are unsatisfactory; and we shall induce nurses and mothers to tell their children only those which we have approved.”
Many contemporary thinkers have argued that there is a deep narrative structure of human thought. 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.”
Narratives are not just a matter of individuals creating their inner and social selves; 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, and they explain how the events of our lives are interconnected. They are our way of constructing coherence and continuity.
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. Philosopher 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.
Moral reasoning is not as much a matter of propositional logic and rational choice as some modern philosophers have argued; rather, we make moral judgments based on the analogical applications of powerful stories. 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 lives. 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 referred to as “metanarratives.” These master stories are the stuff of ideologies, religions, nationalisms, and cultures. People do not generally recognize them as stories at all, 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 who has 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 to the Quran, the Hadith, and his particular reading of world history as relevant background for the debate. A fundamentalist Christian will refer 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 their 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 asks 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.
How, then, do we adjudicate between the many different stories that humans create and are created by? This drama is played out daily between family and friends, politicians and pundits. As we will see, it is no simple matter to decide whose metanarratives are worthy of the designation true, good, and beautiful. Recognizing this conundrum is the first step. I hope to convince you that Big History—understanding the set of all scientific facts as a new metanarrative—can help us along the way.
Originally published on the Huffington Post Religion Section, 2012/3/15.