Cultural Narrative

Culture and Religion

Defining our basic terms is part of good communication. And the entire thrust of plain spoken theology is about improving how communicate with the culture and one another. So, let’s define some terms. 

The Nature of Culture

Culture refers to the way of life of a given people at a particular time. Included in an understanding of way of life is a the notion of a worldview, the general convictions, moral understanding of a people and how these affect behavior, dreams and aspirations, social customs, habits, and styles. Culture is the complex of ideas, metaphors, symbols, language, habits, values, technology, and art that flow from a people. 

The origins of the word culture derive from the Latin word for cultivation – implying an agricultural metaphor. Culture rises up, emerging from a people, like crops cultivated in a field. 

Culture has a spontaneous character to it, in that it is engendered by a people and not fully planned or forced. Culture can be reflected upon and influenced, but its complexity and depth resist deliberate efforts of control. Culture isn’t a static reality. Cultures are affected by both forces encouraging and resisting change.

The Nature of Religion

Religion appears to be an evolutionary adaptation within humans for optimizing the continuation of life. Religion, ideally, does this by encouraging humans to achieve personal wholeness and social coherence. These penultimate goals support the ultimate goal of viability – for both the individual and the species.

Humans pursue these goals in a uniquely human way – through extra genetic means of symbolic culture. Religion is at the heart of symbolic culture (myth, symbols, metaphors, rituals) and may be understood as an attempt to convey contextual meaning, that is, a narrative account of who we are, where we came from, and what we are for – as well as practical wisdom – trusted strategies  and skills that lead to flourishing and living in harmony with reality and others. 

The notion of meaning has multiple contexts from the linguistic to the psychological. In its broadest sense, meaning relates to comprehension and understanding – the human ability to make sense of out of the world. In more specific, existential terms, meaning relates to human purpose and self understanding – wrestling with questions of ultimate value, significance, final causality, identity, origins, and ends.

Religion speaks the language of meaning, claiming to offer insights into human purpose and significance. In terms of religion’s practical prescriptions – these constitute a body of wisdom on how to both become aware of and fulfill, the purpose of our being. In this sense, religious meaning is often entwined in questions of teleology and teleonomy.

Religion and Culture

Religion has played a significant role in every known human culture with only the present day West deemphasizing it’s influence. For most of human history religion has interfaced with culture forming and expressing the existential view of a people.

Religion historically played other roles, too, including attempts at controlling outcomes, appeasing gods, and protecting the people from misfortune. For the most part, in the West today, the controlling aspects of religion have faded in favor of the existential.

Today, religion is more about meaning and less about trying to influence the weather or achieve other practical outcomes. In this sense, modern religion focuses more on questions of human purpose and behavior – matters of a culture’s mores and values – and offering mythic metanarrative aimed at providing foundational stories of meaning, purpose, and identity for a people. 

Culture, in turn, influences religion, as there exists a dynamic relationship between the larger culture and its component structures and institutions. It would be a mistake to presume that religion stands outside or above a culture. The humans who comprise the culture live across and within the interconnected social structures that constantly interact and shape one another – religion being no exception.  

Finally, the use of the term Western culture primarily refers to the way of life and all that entails of the peoples of Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. It has its intellectual roots in classical Greek and Roman thought. It has been highly influenced by the ideas of Judeo-Christianity. And it has been further shaped by periods of refinement that include the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, and beyond.  

Mythic Narrative as Unifying Cultural Story

Cultures tend to unify around stories. When people understand their lives in the context of the bigger story, they tend to share common meanings, identity, and purpose. The stories we tell ourselves and have told to us matter. 

Cultural study and analysis has generally observed that cultures tend to express the more profound aspects of their shared worldview in terms of narrative. People within a given culture share some sense of being part of an ongoing story that informs their sense of purpose, place, and identity. Most cultures engage multiple narratives, but there often tends to be a metanarrative that serves as a foundation of meaning and purpose. 

There seems to be a natural relationship between culture and narrative, in that culture is a human byproduct, and that humans respond powerfully to story. Human beings are storytelling, metaphor-using, beings who convey their deepest convictions and truths through myth and narrative. Myth in this sense doesn’t imply fiction, fantasy, or fairy tales, rather it means an animating, underlying epic. Myths are our grand stories – the facticity and historicity of which are besides the point – that convey perennial truths.

We find our most profound meanings in stories that we tell ourselves, stories that help us make sense of the trajectory of our lives (even if the stories are mundane) and to situate our lives in the context of the lives of others (our families, our local communities), as well as locating our own story within a broader, more comprehensive narrative ascribed to at the cultural level – be that comprehensive narrative religious in nature or not. Meaning encapsulated in narrative is so foundational for humans that even attempts to do away with meaning, end up telling stories of meaning. 

At any given time, a culture will be informed by and equally forming a variety of stories, some competing with each other and others reinforcing one another. Yet a cohesive culture has a unifying, accepted primary narrative that acts as the foundation that grants an overarching and connecting sense of meaning for a people. 

Among Western Culture’s earliest influences were the myths of ancient Greece and Rome. These myths included the stories of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid – works of Homer and Virgil – that took on a sacred character for the people of those societies. It’s in relation to these masterworks that the West develops and expressed its ideas concerning fate, fortune, character, personhood, success, war, peace, and justice – central components of a worldview – woven together into interconnecting narratives that became the Western story – one that spoke intimately about the meaning, purpose, place, and identity of the people of the times.

Prominent works such as the Aeneid provided narratives that unified Western culture, tying together various meanings and themes into a broad metanarrative. Romans read the Aeneid and saw themselves in the epic poem, understanding themselves as part of the same narrative unfolding – Rome’s divine destiny to bring peace and order to the world through military conquest. The Romans were a divinely chosen people with a world mission. 

Classical Hellenistic-Roman narratives – part of the bedrock of Western culture – were gradually eclipsed by the Judeo-Christian narratives found in the Bible. From Judaism comes insights and convictions of human dignity, social justice, the linear unfolding of history, and monotheism. Christianity builds upon these foundations and draws out of them further emphasis on mercy, generosity, peace through justice, and love understood as agape and kenosis

The Bible eventually eclipsed the Aeneid, supplanting the earlier narrative of adventure, war, and bravery with it’s narrative of redemption and ethical monotheism – of the establishment of peace through nonviolent justice and love. Judaism and Christianity offered a similar sense of divine election and world mission to a people rebuilding a collapsed Empire and civilization.

Christianity plays a central narrative role in Western cultural development from the collapse of the Roman Empire up through the modern period. However, the predominance of the Biblical narrative in the West begins to slowly erode with influences that can be traced back as early as the Reformation and through the Enlightenment and into the modern age. The scientific method, liberalism, the development of critical hermeneutics and exegesis, and new understandings of what constituted history all influenced Western self-understanding and began to change the central cultural narratives.

By the early 19th Century, it became clear that a new social order was dawning – rooted in democracy and individual liberty, as well as separation of church and state, along with enhanced emphasis on individual conscience and personal theological belief. The dizzying pace of Western cultural change, fueled by new ideas as well as industrialization, science, and technology – religiously climax in Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God. This bold statement summarized the coalescing changes underpinning the secularization of the West.

The varied seeds of demystification and secularization had sprouted, with the emerging crops of de-Christianization. In the past few decades, the cultural eclipse of Judeo-Christianity has come into sharper focus. There is growing, general acceptance that we live in a post-Christian age, meaning that Christianity has lost much of its cultural influence – at least in the industrialized West – and a result, many Christian communities are declining in size and appeal.

Some are calling the Post Christian age, the postmodern age. Postmodernism is a complex theory, but essentially it argues that many of the philosophical, especially epistemological, foundations of Western culture are now obsolete. Postmodernism challenges the validity of foundationalism, realism, the possibility of objectivity, and even notions of correspondence understandings of truth. 

With the advent of postmodern thinking, some understand cultural narratives as no longer dominant or pervasive – meaning cultures don’t require a unifying narrative to ground meaning or common purpose. It’s beyond the scope of this work to fully argue the merits or demerits of postmodernism. In general, we will proceed from the conviction that the postmodern movement offers valid insights, but does not fully negate the role of cultural metanarratives – a detailed discussion of such would comprise an entire book, if not more. 

Still, it does appear that at least one postmodern observation is correct – the West no longer has a unified, underlying narrative.

Most people have become less aware of the value and power of stories. We no longer think mythically. We still respond to stories, because that simply part of human nature. But we tend to think factually today, not mythically. Myths are more than a collection of facts. Accurately describing how we see the world is important. Understanding how things work is vital, too. I’m not arguing that facts aren’t necessary. But we also need to realize that a scientific description of the world isn’t strictly speaking a story. 

As we have progressed – achieving remarkable and many good things, producing amazing technologies –  we have lost the underlying sense of our meaning, cohesion, and significance. Today God – the great symbol of meaning and significance – is dead. Our meanings appear to have been reduced to largely material concerns – which, granted, are important – but which don’t speak to the fullness of human purpose, either. 

Human progress has been a good thing, and there remains much to be done. No one is arguing to return to the days of disease, famine, and poverty that continue to wreak havoc mostly in poorer countries. Yet there remains an underlying, gnawing sense, that with all out iToys, marvels, media, and achievements – we should be happier. It seems contradictory that so many seem to be bordering on despair in our age of worldly wonders.

I believe that in large part, we’ve lost a common concept of human flourishing. We’ve lost sight of ways to happiness and well being that can only be found in mastery not of the world, but of ourselves. A recognition of the importance of self-formation, of self-control, restraint, and education for the sake of virtue. We’ve forgotten the human flourishing also comes from goodness. 

We’ve lost our way because we’ve lost our story. We live in the day and age of competing, even contradictory plots. Shatter the shared mythic narratives and symbols that provide a culture with its basis for unified collective thought and action, and you’re left with a society in fragments, where ego and idiosyncratic personal agendas are the only motives left, and communication between divergent subcultures becomes impossible because there aren’t enough common meanings left to make that an option.

Social science and psychology clearly show that humans are meaning making and meaning responsive creatures. Without meaning and purpose, we become confused, even depressed,  and even suicidal.

As our once central myths erode, the West suffers from an increasing anarchy of meaning and value – an amythia – and is trending toward nihilism. Nature abhors a vacuum. There are other meta-narratives competing for the West’s allegiance and adoption. Many of these have already been influencing the culture for some time – myths of progress, individualism, consumerism, nationalism, and so on.

While all cultures are dynamic, always undergoing change, contemporary Western culture seems to be in a definite period of transition with a pronounced conflict of ideas concerning fundamental issue of meaning, morality, and identity. We are a culture without a story.