How Narrative Might Save Our Lives

This post was inspired by a wonderful little discussion, posted on YouTube, between two people about how we might begin to contemplate the existence (or non-existence) of God. In the clip – which you can watch below – Robert Lawrence Kuhn, a public intellectual and philosopher, interviews Philip Clayton, a Religion & Philosophy professor, asking how to consider the question of the existence of God.

Clayton, a theist, begins by admitting that in our scientific age, there are many substantial reasons to doubt the existence of God. These reasons include: the existence of evil; the often haphazard quality to human life and the universe in general; other cogent, in some cases observable, explanations for the universe’s complexity, like evolution and physics; the fact that many world religions contradict and theological concepts each other and in many cases are mutually exclusive; and the lack of direct proof when G-d has had so many chances to prove Herself (Clayton doesn’t list all these reasons in the video, but he would be very familiar with them, among with many others). All in all, it makes very good sense for an open-minded thinker in today’s age to at least question the existence of God.

Clayton goes on to note that, throughout human history and in just about every culture, human beings have had a deep-seated interest in God, belief in God, and/or yearning for God. This yearning does not in itself prove that God exists. Part of evolution might have been a belief in God occurring in our grey cells – a random mutation that, it turns out, was helpful to our survival, and so it reproduced in a great many human beings. Even so, says Clayton, it is our preoccupation as human beings to ask what life is all about – and this preoccupation with the “something else” of life – theology, morality, meaning, etc. – is our destiny as conscious, mortal beings. Clayton suggests that, whether we are theist or agnostic or atheist, we continue to seek “intimations of transcendence” within all our human experience – seeking out whether there is this “other realm” beyond the purely material.

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I went on a long walk and thought about this video. Unfortunately – spoiler alert – I didn’t come to any firm conclusions as to whether or not God exists. But I did have a long train of thought about what it means to be human, and what might save us in these dangerous ecological times. I’d love to share it with you, dear reader, if it’s of any interest.

Let me begin with what may be a contentious statement: the scientific mindset, viewed purely from the standpoint of long-term human survival, has been a bit of a disaster for us as a species. It has been wonderful in many ways: we live longer, we live more comfortably, we have incredible gadgets like this computer I’m writing on, we can travel the world (pre-Covid, anyway) or connect with one another via the internet. But our survival as a species is now threatened, and science and technology are largely to blame. I say this as a lover of science, with no glee whatsoever. But it’s not our outdated, often violent religious dogmas, nor our terrible factionalism and ignorance, that are melting the polar ice caps, splitting the atom in our nuclear weapons, spewing carbon dioxide into our air or heaving millions of pounds of plastic into our oceans. Science and technology have made it possible for us to destroy our own home. They haven’t necessitated us doing that – science and technology are merely instruments – but they have enabled it. Perhaps science and technology will enable us to save it again, in the future. I personally believe science and technology absolutely must be part of our attempt to re-green our world. But climate scientists themselves are less than sanguine about our ability to “turn back the clock” with some clever technological fix. What’s done cannot be undone.

“Scientific mindset” can mean a great many things. I use the term here, loosely, as a tendency to focus on the observable world; the use of the scientific method; and a general life-philosophy of “making the most” of the material world, whether that be a happy life, or a productive company. This could be contrasted with the “religious mindset”, which (loosely) tends to have at least a partial focus on the non-observable world; is a little less inclined to the scientific method, embracing other methodologies of thought; and has a general life-philosophy of alignment with greater realities. The two are far from completely mutually exclusive: many is the scientist with religious faith, or the theologian who seeks to get the most out of life.

As someone who loves science – and doesn’t particularly want to go back to living in caves – I feel a twinge of guilt that, in this time of climate panic, there are moments when I find myself wishing we had never come up with the scientific mindset at all. Over the last ten generations – since the Industrial Revolution – we have scarred and paved the earth, filled the air and oceans with junk, change the ecology of the earth hugely and irrevocably, and imperilled our grandchildren’s lives. In our defence, we didn’t really know what we were doing. It all happened in the evolutionary twinkling of an eye, just two centuries or so. And it’s not as if pre-scientific human beings were that much nobler than we were. They just couldn’t do as much harm nearly as quickly. Species extinction has followed the introduction of human beings for countless millennia, we now know. The idea of pre-technology peoples living “in harmony with the earth” is a bit of a romantic fantasy – there was significant awareness of sustainability with regards to our relationship with our food sources, but even so, wherever we went we changed our surroundings radically. The emergence of factories and chemistry meant we could do this on a previously unimaginable scale.

I don’t suggest we do turn our backs on science. I do propose – tentatively, as a hypothesis – that perhaps the religious mindset (or something like it, as we shall see) is a better bet, for our survival as a species, than the scientific mindset. I’m only a very amateur mathematician, but a belief in “getting the most out of life” – multiplied by seven billion – sounds unstainable to me. A yearning towards alignment with larger reality is not necessarily a sure-fire winner, but it seems like it has a great deal more potential.  Possibly, what would save us now as a species – along with technological and political fixes – is a spiritual revolution.

Before going into detail about what that revolution might entail. let’s detour into a little religious anthropology, and what it means to be a human being.    

What makes us pretty special as a species – along with our nifty opposable thumbs – could be described as our ability to imagine. Our minds are full of images. We can recreate memories from the past in our minds, or come up with possibility for the future. We can create images of things that never existed, like unicorns and alien spaceships. Our minds are also full of words, some of which represent images (it’s a little more complex than that – words like “the”, “virtuosity” and “paradigm” do not correspond with a single image – but let’s not get bogged down in philosophy of language, fascinating though it is).

We can pretty easily come up with a theory for how an imaginative species like us would “come up with” religion. We feel the wind, and imagine “a magic woman who makes the wind.” We might attribute qualities to such a being – her backstory, her appearance, how she blows the wind into being, and so on. Sooner or later, people come up with the idea with a being that created the whole world. Contrary to some 19th century religious historians who believed the Abrahamic faiths “discovered” monotheism, most aboriginal faiths can be described as “monotheism plus”. Most faith systems, in addition to other Gods, contain the idea of some initial God who created everything – usually a somewhat distant presence, often some kind of sky-father figure.

Obviously, the fact that human beings have within us the idea of God(s) does not make this idea real. We can think of different possibilities. One is that there are no divine beings, no otherworldly reality, and human beings simply made it up with our fantastic imaginations. A second possibility is that there is a God or gods, who placed imagination in our minds so that we might reach out to Her. Sceptics, don’t scoff all too loud: while I’m sure it may seem outlandish, it’s not a logically inconsistent idea. And Occam’s razor can cut both ways on this one – which is a simpler scenario, that complexity created the idea of God, or that God created complexity? At the very least, the question is debatable.

There is a third possibility (and there may be many more than that), that our imaginations came about as a result of random processes of evolution, but that, nevertheless, there is another reality beyond what is perceivable, and which our imaginations can help us conceptualise, if not sense-perceive. This is obviously true in a very basic sense: electro-magnetic forces and gravity cannot always be seen with the naked eye, but thanks to our imagination, which plays a huge rule in science, and thanks to the scientific method, we can be pretty confident they are out there. We don’t think of these forces as being spiritual these days – though in the 18th and 19th centuries, when many scientific pioneers were spiritually-minded, the distinction was more muddied. In any case, we can conceive that our imagination can open up new realms of discovery, beyond our everyday experience. Perhaps – though not necessarily – an encounter with some sort of ultimate or divine reality.

Again, none of this proves God’s existence in the slightest. We can’t say that God exists just because we are capable of having the idea of God.

If the religious outlook is a safer bet for our continued existence than the scientific mindset (a big “if”, but for the sake of argument) – so what? Surely we wouldn’t want to invent a bunch of gods and goddesses just to hedge our bets against the excesses of the last two hundred years. And even if we would want to, could we? How do we make ourselves believe in something we don’t believe in? It seems an impossibility, as well as an offense against the human spirit.

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I’ve never been a big proponent of asking non-religious people to “get religion”. Looking back over the history of religious violence and intolerance, religion can fairly be described as at best a mixed blessing, at worst a terrible curse. Besides which, I’m not an adherent of the view that one religion has all the answers, while all the others are wrong. So how could I tell people to get religion when I can’t tell them which one?

What I do humbly suggest is that, with curiosity, we examine the scientific mindset – which has improved our world in so many ways, even as it has imperilled our future to some degree. While science will henceforth always be a part of the human experiment (I pray, no pun intended), can we finesse the scientific mindset a little bit, to enhance our future chances of survival? Can we slow down the factories a tad, the carbon-spewing system which is continually fed by our own collective desires and impulses?

A related question is whether the scientific method is making us happy. I would propose the answer is “not entirely” – but that is not to claim that being religious is always necessary, or sufficient, to human happiness. But there does seem to be a massive rootlessness and dissatisfaction to modern life – perhaps that’s just the human condition, but I suspect the demise of religion is a factor. Studies have shown that religious people are, on average, happier than non-religious people. That doesn’t make religious people “right”. And non-religious people can be perfectly happy without adhering to any religious dogma whatsoever.

Instead of asking folks to “get religion”, I wonder if it might be helpful for all of us, religious and non-religious alike, to consider the role of narrative in our lives. By “narrative”, I mean the stories that give our lives meaning. These stories can be real or imagined. The way in which these stories confer meaning on our lives is complex. If you say “Jack is my brother”, this is a simple fact. But it may also be a narrative. Perhaps you and Jack have had a close relationship for twenty years, then had a bit of a rough patch, then connected again. You may have many fond memories of Jack that make your heart smile. Being Jack’s brother is more than just a fact: there is a story there of ongoing relationship, that is one of the touchstones of your life.

Alternatively, being Jack’s brother may not be overly meaningful for you – perhaps the two of you are not that close, for whatever reason. There may not be much of a story there. Or you may choose to keep that story at a distance – maybe with good reason.

Religion is part of the narrative aspect of our lives. If I live with the understanding that Christ died for me on the cross, the narrative of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection affects me at a very deep and profound level. Even the parts of religion that aren’t a “story” – the more seemingly philosophical aspects of religion – can be part of the narrative of our lives. Perhaps my own experience of Theravada Buddhism is more focussed on the four noble truths that about the life story of Siddhartha Gautama, or the historical development of the faith. Nevertheless, my own experience of suffering over the years will no doubt play a major role in my lived experience of those four noble truths.

Narratives can be vocational, like the stage manager for whom the theatre is a lifelong source of support and meaning. They can come from shared experience: just about everyone who lived through World War 2 was profoundly affected by it, in one way or another. Narratives can be hard to put into words. The experience of being next to the ocean puts us in touch with the rhythm of the waves, with the timeless interplay of the watery deeps and the ethereal skies, with the confluence of life around the edges of memory as the smell of the salt hits our nostrils – but we don’t need to put language to all that to appreciate it.

There are also the narratives of books and stories, fictional and non-fictional, that can help us gain new perspectives on our own lives. But I want to stress that, as I hope the above examples make clear, being affected by narrative is more than just being an avid reader (as wonderful as that is). Someone who doesn’t read at all, who draws meaning from her connections to her family, and her sense of the sacred, can be, and often is, as deeply affected by narrative as the bookworm.

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Like its close cousin, the religious mindset, the narrative mindset can be contrasted with the scientific mindset. Narrative is a different approach to truth-finding than the scientific method. The truth, in the narrative aspects of our lives, is not advanced quite so much by hypothesis and proof, but much more by resonance with past experience, and by a sense of self and Other being gradually formed over time, like a sculpture emerging from the clay. While the narrative mindset often (but not always) deals with the events of the observable world, narrative tends to draw more from invisible and/or unquantifiable realities in its pursuit of meaning-making. Invisible, non-quantifiable qualities like love, a sense of purpose, the moral universe, kindness are always brought into play in the narrative process. Also, the narrative mindset is generally less acquisitive – by the time something becomes a story, the material aspects of it are already gone, so you can’t “get” it in the way you might accumulate worldly things. Instead, the narrative mindset involves alignment. Through narrative, we feel a part of something larger than ourselves. We are not “just” ourselves; we are someone’s spouse, a practicing Hindu, a child of the sixties. These aspects of life become integrated with who we are. They are not a possession; nor are they merely a titbit of knowledge about the world. Narrative is an ongoing process of alignment and realignment; a way of relating to a universe larger than we are.

As with religion, science and narrative are far from mutually exclusive! Most scientists have a narrative relationship with their fields, seeing themselves as part of the story of the history of discovery. Many feel an incredible sense of awe and connection to the cosmos, through the practice of science, as well as other areas of their lives.

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The scientific mindset is, one might say, a godsend. It has helped make our world a better place to live in – for us human beings, at any rate. And there’s no while species extinction has been a terrible ramification of our science and technology, there is no reason why the principles of science cannot be applied to improving the life of our non-human cousins. Indeed, many biologists, ecologists and zoologists are doing just that.

What I humbly propose is that we continue to employ the scientific mindset in moderation, and simultaneously, we heavily encourage the narrative mindset as a means to living a happy, healthy, ecological sustainable life. Religion has been a grounding narrative in human life for countless millennia, and it will continue to be. But it has never been the only source of the mindset, and it certainly won’t be in future.

In order to better explain why narrative is so essential to human flourishing, I invite us to imagine three types of human existence. I term these narratively deprivation, narrative limitation, and narrative abundance. We may well be in all these states of being at some time in our lives. While narrative abundance is generally preferable to narrative limitation or narrative deprivation, it’s much too simple to say we “level up” from one state to another. Really, it’s best to take this loose model with a grain of salt. It has some basic similarities with both Ken Wilbur’s spiral dynamics and Viktor Frankl’s theory of meaning, and I acknowledge the debt to both. I include this rough model here not as a binding template on the infinite varieties of human experience, but merely to try to help justify why narrative is so vital.

Narrative deprivation: The state of narrative deprivation is when there are very few, if any, stories that give our lives meaning. We don’t feel especially connected to anything purposeful or life-affirming. To be narratively deprived is to feel adrift in the world – we don’t feel like we “fit in” to the world around us. And yet there is no wider or greater reality that connects with us either. Even if we know the stories of one or more religions, religious narratives feel hollow to us. We may be someone’s son or someone’s mother, but that fails to provide us with comfort, or even with a sense of who we really are.

Narrative deprivation does not refer merely to the number of stories in our lives. Almost all of us in the modern world have access to thousands of stories – TV shows, news stories, advertising narratives, and so on. Many of us can access more stories at the touch of a button, if we want to. But when we are in a state of narrative deprivation these stories are at best a distraction. We are stuck in the world; and what is infinitely worse, is that it is not a world we want to be in.

Hallmarks of narrative deprivation might include:

  • A sense of profound frustration with life – even when things are going well – and a lack of resiliency when things go poorly.
  • A strong turning to the scientific mindset, in the sense of a hyper-focus on the empirical results of “getting more.” Life is about getting more money and possessions, more “likes” and loves, more affirmations of the ego. We want to be able to see that we’re doing well in life, in some sort of observable and quantifiable way. What this looks like can very from person to person – but whatever the goals, there tends to be a fairly strong recurring dissatisfaction involved.
  • An inability to focus on the “outside-this-world.” We may more-or-less believe in ideas like friendship, and love, and justice, but they only hold our attention for a moment or two. In fact, we may increasingly find it hard to focus on any sort of longer, more complex stories at all – it’s easier just to check our phone, isn’t it? This includes the very complicated story of our turbulent emotional life.
  • In narrative deprivation we are often susceptible to obsessions – drugs and alcohol, but also behaviours like workaholism or co-dependency. In this model all of these single-minded pursuits could be described as forms of narrative limitation – see below.

Narrative limitation: Narrative limitation describes when we have one or more guiding narratives that are actually quite a powerful, directive foundation for our lives. However, these narratives often close us off from large parts of the wider universe and of ourselves. We often come to a state of narrative limitation from a state of narrative deprivation: we are so eager for some kind of guiding narrative, that when we get one of any efficacy, we cling to it with all our might. From my perspective, this clinging is both understandable and morally justifiable – at least at first. But if we cling so long, and so tightly, to a given narrative that we actively exclude or denigrate most of the rest of the perspectives available to us, it can prove somewhat constrictive to our flourishing. It can also make it harder to connect with others, closing us off from those who have a different, and valid, narrative conception of the cosmos.

For example, many people of faith wonder how in the 19th century so many devout Christians could be slaveowners. From this model, it could be that some of these slaveowners were narratively deprived – they professed Christianity, but it didn’t mean much to them, and was really just a convenient way of appearing a pillar of society, while pursuing more power and wealth. Others, however, were probably quite genuine about their faith. They saw in Ephesians 6:5 and the “children of Ham” narrative as justification for their actions – and clung to their own view of Christianity as proof that they were good and righteous people. This involved a good deal of “closing off” from threatening narratives – not only other religions, but any version of Christianity that questioned the righteousness of human beings owning other human beings was active dismissed as illegitimate, even abhorrent. Any tendency towards compassion or self-questioning brought about by proximity to human misery was wiped away by a firm adherence to a narrowly defined faith, as well as a convenient scientific (mis-)understanding of racial taxonomy. Some slaveowners may have been quite happy, with a secure (if blinkered) faith and a sense of purpose in the world. But their happiness is not much help to those around them.

Not all limiting narratives are unjust; far from it. The so-called “victim mentality” can be a limiting narrative, which implies absolutely no moral fault in the one who holds it. I may very well have been victimized – and if so, acknowledging the fact of what happened to me, and that it was not my fault, that is so often vital to my healing and self-empowerment. The “victim narrative” is a limiting narrative only insofar as it prevents other narratives from helping in my flourishing. There’s nothing at all wrong with acknowledging that I have been hurt, and that it wasn’t right. But if this sense of victimhood is preventing me from enjoying my life as a board-gamer, or a member of my family, or as a devout Muslim, it might behove me to explore whether there is a path from narrative limitation to narrative abundance. This narrative abundance can – and quite possibly will! – include my being a victim as one of many aspects that makes me who I am.

We see limiting narratives all over the place in our world. Narrow constructions of faith that feel threatened by the mere presence of anything unfamiliar. The career success stories of people who feel dead inside. Romantic relationships that are more about our need to be in a relationship, any relationship, than the quality of the relationship itself.

Even drug addiction is a narrative of sorts. Part of the terrible attraction of addiction (on top of the ever-present chemical, physical addiction) is that is can simplify a life that can be quite complicated. As Irvine Welsh describes it through his anti-hero narrator Renton in Trainspotting: “I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?” When your presiding interest is heroin, all you need to worry about is securing your next fix. And a lot of life’s limiting narratives are like that – they simplify a complicated life.

Hallmarks of narrative limitation can include:

  • Intense attachment to a particular narrative. The difference between narrative deprivation and narrative limitation is often a stark one. When we are in narrative limitation, we have found something radically stabilising and/or life-affirming in a narrative, and we recognise how valuable this is. The narrative or narratives provides a lens to give meaning to every aspect of life. Our narrative may well serve as the keystone which integrates all the events, emotions, relationships, and ideas of our life.
  • Intolerance to other narratives. Sometimes, because we are so attached to our particular narrative, we can find other narratives threatening or unhelpful. We might disparage alternative narratives, and discourage friends and relatives from adopting them.
  • Threatened by ambiguity. When we are in narrative limitation we are able to access some of the life-giving, non-quantifiable realities that are outside the scientific paradigm: things like the joy of friendship; the framework of the moral universe; a sensed awareness of where one is headed (in this life or the next); or a sense of alignment with the universe. However, one distinguishing feature between narrative limitation and narrative abundance is that in narrative limitation, ambiguity is seen as off-putting or dangerous. We cling hold fast to our situation changes, it can be very painful and challenging if our formerly secure framework doesn’t seem to apply to where we are now.
  • Equilibrium and stability prised. When we are in narrative limitation, we can often find life is steady for long periods. This is in part because in narrative limitation we often tend to value stability a great deal – we have found a way to relate to the larger universe, and we would like to preserve it. While I’m not sure there’s anything fundamentally unhealthy about prising stability, sometimes it can lead us to ignore disconcerting information or emotions. Sometimes these fester under the surface of our consciousness, until we (sometimes) shift radically from one narrative to another, or shed a narrative and go into a difficult state of narrative deprivation.

Narrative abundance: Narrative abundance describes the state wherein we are supported by flexible, adaptive narrative that give meaning to our lives and help us to thrive. We feel a sense of connection with something larger than ourselves, that helps us even in the midst of hard times. We are relatively open to new learnings, new experiences, and new people in our lives, while not jettisoning the wisdom of the old. Our lives are genuinely meaning-full.

For those of us who like to have a self-image of being successful, we may like to automatically we are in a permanent state of narrative abundance, since in this model it clearly seems to be the “preferred” state of being of the three. Speaking for myself, when I reflect more deeply on it, I find that, for all my spiritual training, I am quite often in a state of narrative deprivation – and narrative limitation is not unfamiliar to me either. Again, this model is far from cut-and-dried, and it’s probably best to resist calcifying these loose categories too intently.

It is, however, worth asking ourselves the question: what sorts of relationship to the narrative aspects of our lives are most conducive to human flourishing, on the individual and on the collective level?

Hallmarks of narrative abundance might include:

  • Openness to other narratives. This does not mean that in narrative abundance we actively embrace every narrative out there. We may adhere to one particular faith, for instance, or have hobbies to which we devote thousands of hours, while other pursuits are of little interest. But in narrative abundance we don’t feel especially threatened by other perspectives, or find a deep-seated emotional need to disparage them. In fact, we are often curious about unfamiliar narratives, asking to learn more about them, even if we do not embrace them personally.
  • Embodied and otherworldly. In narrative abundance, somehow we find ourselves able to live in this world – we often find meaning in the simple things of life, eating, breathing, being out in nature. At the same time, we feel a connection with the “larger realities” mentioned in this essay. Our relationships with others are important to us, as is our relationship to invisible realities like purpose, justice, moral beauty, and belief.
  • Narratively abundant people are generous. This one is extremely important. I don’t mean only financial generosity, though this usually is a part of it. When we are living out of narrative abundance, we are better able to participate in generosity in the spiritual sense of kenosis and non-attachment. We can let go of outcomes when things don’t go our way, allow others to be victorious or right. We are more open to change: we have better resiliency, and less clinging, when we need to change course – or even, alter our perspective on the universe.
  • Not as threatened by ambiguity. Abundant narratives are both strong and flexible, because they have been developed over time and in a variety of contexts. They aren’t knocked aside by the slightest breeze, but at the same time they are able to shift and adapt to new information. Consequently, when we are in a state of narrative abundance, we often find ambiguity and uncertainty to be fascinating, rather than threatening.
  • Open to occasional crisis. I felt it important to include this hallmark, lest narrative abundance be mistaken for life success – these are not one and the same. Although abundant narratives are both strong and flexible, the authentic life often includes both external and internal crises – what John of the Cross referred to as the “dark night of the soul”. Anyone in their eighties or nineties, no matter how well-grounded they may seem to the impressed acquaintance, will let you know of times in their life that have challenged them and shaken them to the core. What distinguishes those in narrative abundance is that they are receptive (perhaps not immediately – for who truly welcomes a crisis – but over much mulling and time) to the narrative changes that come with an authentic life. Instead of denying there is a problem at all, or resisting the challenges to one’s underlying narratives, or giving up, the person in narrative abundance incorporates the new experience, and emerges from it, eventually, with a renewed abundance.
  • Happier with less: People living in narrative abundance can be extremely ambitious or not very ambitious at all – but either way, they tend to have a spring in their step, one which doesn’t stem so much from success and failure, as it does from a life of meaning. Their experience of profound connection is more important than any amount of accumulation of wealth or worldly pleasures.

I can’t say definitively whether God exists. What I have tried to do in this little, very imprecise sketch, is highlight the importance of the pursuit of meaning, outside of the scientific paradigm – not just for life happiness, but to our survival as a species.

About bobjanisdillon

Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, husband, father, three-chord guitar wonder.
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