THE BLOG

Conflicting Ideologies and Entangled Narratives

04/02/2012 12:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2012

Humans today, perhaps more than at any other time in history, are caught up in a web of entangled narratives. Globalization and communication technologies have brought a 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. These stories structure our thought and behavior in many profound ways, both political and personal.

"It's all a question of story," wrote Thomas Berry in his 1989 work "The Dream of the Earth":

"We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story."

Not then, and not now. The problem continues.

Instead, we argue about truth, beauty and goodness based on competing religious, nationalistic, ethnic and ideological 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. What intellectual tools can help to mediate between these competing narratives?

In his 2003 book "Moral, Believing Animals," Christian Smith offers a dozen examples of contemporary metanarratives, each presented in about 200 words. There's the American Experiment narrative, the Capitalist Prosperity narrative, the Progressive Socialism narrative, the Scientific Enlightenment narrative, the Expressive Romantic narrative, the Christian narrative, the Militant Islamic Resurgence narrative, the Unity with Brahman narrative, the Liberal Progress narrative, the Ubiquitous Egoism narrative, the Chance and Purposelessness narrative, and the Community Lost narrative. Even competing schools of thought in sociology, economics and psychology assume the form of metanarratives.

Embodied in these narratives are symbols and meanings that acquire motivational power -- the religious icon, a flag, a book or a people. Each generation reinterprets these narratives and their symbols, even as each generation is also constituted by these received stories. People are not passive recipients of these narratives but active interpreters.

Let us examine in detail the Community Lost narrative. Smith writes:

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.

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 appears in many religious and cultural idioms. In Sri Lanka, we see this narrative in romantic readings of the Mahavamsa and the idealization of "tank, temple and paddy field." 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.

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 eco-romantic narrative appears incompatible with much of modern technology, but that does not prevent environmentalists from using the latest laptops or 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 (the Buddhist understanding of life as a continuous cycle of empty emotions, desires and experiences).

The idealized past of the Community Lost narrative contrasts sharply with progressive, future-oriented narratives -- the Scientific Enlightenment narrative, for instance, or the Capitalist Prosperity narrative. One can argue with this nostalgia narrative, 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.

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 writes. 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 longer stories of entire disciplines. There are hagiographies of great scientists of the past. And there is the new cosmological narrative of a dynamic universe and an evolving planet, an evolutionary epic that we call Big History.

Thomas Berry and others have argued that Big History is just what we need -- a functional cosmology that provides a shared sense of meaning and purpose as humanity confronts global challenges. Big History also has the advantage of being progressively true. But the contents of science must be distinguished from the interpretation thereof. Many understand the Chance and Purposelessness narrative to be the only interpretation of science, as stated below in the words of Bertrand Russell:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man's achievements must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins -- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.

Does the scaffolding of truths as discovered by contemporary science really put our transcendent aspirations "on the firm foundation of unyielding despair"? Of course, this is not a scientific statement and could never be proven as such. Russell's view of science is rather a popular metanarrative in the 20th century, one that is prima facie in conflict with the spiritual intuitions of most of humanity and thus creates the perceptions of a necessary and self-defeating conflict between science and religious metanarratives. This perception undermines both public understanding of science and the necessary evolution of religion.

This Chance and Purposelessness interpretation of science is also disproven by the actual lives of scientists, who are generally dedicated to noble purposes and a lot of hard work. Perhaps thinking of his former student, Alfred North Whitehead wryly observed the inherent irony of Russell's interpretation. "Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless," writes Whitehead, "constitute an interesting subject for study." The meaningless reading of science and history is one plausible interpretation of Big History, but it is not likely to win many converts. It also guarantees that Big History will never fill the role of a functional cosmology.

The larger problem is that once we are 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. We are caught in a bubble of solipsistic rationality. We then select facts and the interpretation of those facts carefully based on our metanarratives. Any particular metanarrative becomes difficult, if not impossible, to refute.

So how do we decide which stories are worthy of our affirmation and support? Which narratives have 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? There is no simple way to adjudicate between competing metanaratives. And if there is no possibility of mediating between metanarratives, then we are left with the prospect 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 21st century.

The first step, of course, is to recognize the problem. I turn next to the theory of interpretation to see if there might be a way out of this relativistic impasse. Big History -- a critical realism with regard to the facts of science -- will help us transcend our many entangled narratives and appreciate our local and partial narratives anew from the vantage of science and history as a unified body of knowledge.