Friday, June 17, 2011

The Story and Other Stories

Radical Centrist Manifesto IV
II. Centered on Jesus, Part 2: The Story and Other Stories

Lesslie Newbigin was a missionary and bishop in South India. He is a favorite of mine. In describing his experience in evangelizing people of other faiths, Newbigin said, "I approach them by saying I would like to tell you my beautiful stories about God and I would like for you to tell me your beautiful stories about God." It is a wonderful approach exhibiting a welcome humility, generosity and hospitality. It acknowledges that whatever beautiful truth we think we have to offer the world; we are bound to find beauty and truth elsewhere.

There is indeed beauty and truth elsewhere. I have read and reread the Damapada and the Tao te Ching. I've read the Analects of Confucius and the Bhagavad Gita. I have learned much from Buddhist authors like Thic Nhat Hahn, Ajahn Chah, and Sharon Salzberg. I sometimes pray using a Christianized version of metta meditation. As for beautiful stories, I've particularly enjoyed Journey into the West featuring the impetuous Monkey along with the Ramayana and Mahabharata and others. I confess I have not read the whole Koran. I have, however, spoken in person and exchanged beautiful stories with Moslems (what I said in one of those instances is here). I have been inspired, informed and edified by many of these beautiful stories. I believe that the Holy Spirit sings in and through many of them. Listening carefully and respectfully to their wisdom can be edifying.

It is tempting to leave it at that. It is tempting to claim that all these stories along with the ones Lesslie Newbigin told about Jesus and Christianity are equally beautiful and equally true. It is a popular approach. Among some who identify as "progressive" it is something of a shibboleth. But it does not actually work. I have written elsewhere about The Impossibility of Religious Pluralism. When we try to claim all stories are equally beautiful, we are just ignoring the fact that we actually have in the back of our minds another overarching story that incorporates all those lesser stories and that we consider even more beautiful. We use our own overarching story to measure the relative beauty and truth of other stories. There is no escaping this.

I know we have been told that we live in an age in which there are no metanarratives. I do not believe it. Everyone lives by some metanarrative. I doubt it is even true that there are no longer public metanarratives that we hold in common. I suspect we have just become less conscious of the metanarratives by which we live. And that is a problem.

Christians believe that all creation is part a central beautiful story spoken by a three-personed God who is love. This story centers on the self-emptying incarnation of God in the person of Jesus. Christians believe that to be the most true and most beautiful story. All other beautiful stories participate more or less in that story and are measured by it. It was always Lesslie Newbigin's hope that in exchanging beautiful stories others would be persuaded to see this and make the story of Jesus their own.

Christians should not embrace an exclusive, hermetically sealed version of truth that can learn from no one else. Christians would do well to look more carefully at the beauty of other stories and be open to learning from them. But still we claim that the story of Jesus Christ is at the center of all. He is the Way, the Truth, the Life. We claim - humbly, reverently, and gently if we are to be true to the story - that Jesus (as interpreted by scripture, the creeds, and the lives of the saints) remains Lord and the measure of all other stories.

That is not just the case with other "religious" stories. It includes the beautiful stories we are told by Wall Street, Madison Avenue and the Pentagon. It includes the beautiful stories of America and every other nation-state that would claim our ultimate loyalty. It also includes the beautiful stories we tell ourselves to justify ourselves or to affirm our own prejudices. Accepting the idea that all stories are equal, actually serves the purposes these other powers and keeps them off the hook.

Let us be prepared to see the beauty in all stories. But let's not kid ourselves or others that we believe all stories are equally beautiful and equally true or that we do not ourselves have a story that we live by and believe to be more beautiful and true. Christians centered on Jesus Christ should not be embarrassed to claim that we have a story to live and to share - the most eautiful story of all.

I came across the following related quotation from Newbigin:
I more and more find the precious part of each day to be the thirty or forty minutes I spend each morning before breakfast with the Bible. All the rest of the day I am bombarded with the stories that the world is telling about itself. I am more and more skeptical about these stories. As I take time to immerse myself in the story that the Bible tells, my vision is cleared and I see things in another way. I see the day that lies ahead in its place in God’s story.
A Word in Season: Perspectives on Christian World Missions
(h/t Writing in the Dust)

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Related: Beyond Velcro and Teflon, there is a Shepherd


Robert said...

This is exactly right. Post-modernist interpretation does not do away with meta-narratives but inevitably assumes its own meta-narrative(s) that simply goes unacknowledged and unspoken by those who implicitly hold it. There is either ignorance or dishonesty on the part of those who adopt the position that they believe all meta-narratives are equally true or useful or beautiful. The end result is an attempt to leverage a philosophical and moral power and suasion for post-modernism that is completely unwarranted and nonsensical. It's a philosophical shell game.

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Robert.

I think a good deal the thinking in this area is not so much dishonest as self-deceptive. It is based on a sloppy sentimentalism and the delusion that we don't have to choose one story over others.

Paraphrasing something I heard William Willimon say: We are heirs of a tradition, i.e., the Enlightenment onwards, that presumes to weigh and measure other traditions while pretending that it is not itself just another tradition (story).

I am post-modern enough - to the extent that I even understand what that means - to accept that there is no "objective" place to stand outside of a particular story by which to assess all stories/traditions.

Robert said...

But Matt, the issue isn't objectivity but truth. Here is a truth: Jesus is Lord. Whether I acknowledge this truth or not, whether it is in my story or not, it remains true and Jesus remains Lord of me and everybody and everything else. Even the statement that there is no objective place to stand outside particular stories in order to asses those stories and traditions is made on the implicit basis that one is able stand outside and make the assertion that there is no place to stand outside. This is an epistemological hall of mirrors. There are some assertions we are bound, in all humility, to make even though we don't have the absolute knowledge of God. It is not a matter of objectivity but the risk of asserting truth. And sloppy sentimentalism can be a mask for bad faith, as those two brilliant atheists Nietzsche and Sartre told us.