Disciples on the Way
Bloomsbury, November 2010
Several years ago I was giving an academic paper – at a conference where Ruth was present. And … I was arguing for a particular interpretation of a prevalent French philosophy. And for the fans of this philosopher, my paper evoked a bit of a reaction. But I remember noticing at the time, that my own reading of Jacques Derrida’s philosophy was not being faulted on its own ground. Instead it was challenged by appealing to Derrida’s own life. “Have you read his autobiography and understood who he is?” -
“I don’t think you’ve factored into your reading, his background as a marginalised Algerian Jew.” “I’ve met Derrida,” one particularly difficult interrogator said, “and he’s not like that at all.” (I subsequently have become good friends with that interrogator on the back of that sentence!) But, the facts of my interpretation were not challenged – instead, they were placed within the wider context of the life of the philosopher I was studying. In other words – what this difficult question time led to, was the implicit statement that, in order to understand the facts of his philosophy, you have to get to grips with the story of his life.
Well, we begin a series of Disciples on the Way – on the subject of story. And by story, I don’t just mean how stories are written and what makes them good or not. By story I mean an awareness of who we really are and what the world is really like.
Everybody lives with implicit myths about ourselves and the world we live in. And we live in an era where stories have little value beyond entertainment. It’s ironic, that in an age of modernism and progress and certainties and values, humanity felt it had outgrown the need for story. Fact, is what we want, principles and values to live by. Stories – myths – this is the stuff of primitive culture, and humanity has progressed beyond them. Stories now, are simply entertainment. Myths and stories used to be the basis of our cultures – but now, even in Christian circles – this is no longer true. Stories have been demoted: Even in sermons, stories have become illustrations, warm and simple ways of communicating cold hard facts and principles and values. If you have a good brain, and can think in the abstract, all stories can do is break the sermon with a few amusing anecdotes.
So what counts, at the heart of the universe, are objective facts. And we must educate ourselves, and use our brains to help us apply these truths. And what happens then – all our humanity is squeezed into the service of our minds. We must use our minds to deduce from eternal verities out there, the way we live down here.
And what about other ways of experiencing people and the world. What about emotions and feelings – for example? What do we do with intuition – which often proves true to our experience of the world? What do we do with intuition? We call it “women’s intuition” and make it secondary to the real business of objective truth.
The great irony is, of course, that the age we live in that values facts and principles and justice and ethics and morals over story – is based upon a huge myth! The myth – as unfounded as any in history, and as dangerous as any in history, that there is objective truth out there – which we need to learn, master, and apply to real life.
There is a great scene in the film Gladiator, where Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher and emperor, is confronted by his son. And his son says to him, “you wrote to me once, listing the four chief virtues. And as I read, I realised none of my virtues were on your list!” Who chooses what the chief virtues are? Who determines what counts as justice, and rationality, and truth? Who decides ethical principles, and morals? All of them, every foundation laid by the modern era, is based upon a story. All the great values and virtues of our day, are based upon myths about who we are and what the world is and what is good for us.
The point about story, is that when it works most powerfully, it becomes invisible. It is not an objective truth sitting out there waiting to be understood. Story forms the invisible lens through which we understand and make sense of everything that is out there. But we cannot see it. And this is, perhaps, what makes the world such a dangerous place!
When we make decisions on the basis of objective facts, we delude ourselves. We make life decisions based on all kinds of factors, and then go in search of a principle or pillar or a foundation to smuggle our personal decisions through responsible, objective reason. When we go to war with Iraq, when we execute a dictator, when we abort a baby, when we make budget cut-backs, when we produce a Corruption Index. Consciously or not, whatever our decisions are based on, they are not based upon objective facts.
However, they are always, ultimately, based upon stories!
Stories of who we are:
Stories, about where we came from, where we’re going, what the obstacles are and how we get there. In the bible, - for instance, there are creation myths that speak of where we have come from. A new heaven and a new earth is where we hope to be going. The obstacles to that are injustice and sin. And how we overcome those obstacles is with the strength to resist, to stand and at to struggle for justice – that comes with the aid of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God here and now. But this is only one story about who we are.
Anglo Saxon England nobility: Who we are? We are descended from the gods, don’t you know? Where we are going? We are going to glory … to join are ancestors in the great mead halls of the after life. What are the obstacles? Fear of the world out there, of the warring nobles, feuding households, wolves at the gate and monsters in the forest. How do we get there? By protecting our slaves, so they work well for us, make us richer and therefore stronger, so that we may be more successful in battle…
Mid 20th century: Where have we come from? We are a random product of genetic mutations, who happen to have developed a social and moral consciousness. Where are we going? On and on and on and up and up and up. Technological and economic progress will make me richer and happier, and the world a better place. What are the obstacles? Laziness, superstition, corruption, nuclear war. How do we overcome them? - by voting for Margaret Thatcher…
Of course, these are oversimplified examples. But whoever we are, as human beings we live in the middle of a story – the story of who we are and how we fit into our world.
But the point is, whatever facts and principles and morals we might choose to live by – however objective and eternal we might insist them to be – will always only ever be in the service of these larger stories about who we are and where we are:
So, for instance, if you hear the words, “Here comes the bus”, you might think – well, that is straightforward and difficult to mis-interpret. Here comes the bus – it means, the bus is coming. But words in themselves do not have any meaning. Words only derive their meaning from their relationship with other words in a sentence, in a paragraph, in a situation. So – if you have been stood outside in the rain and the dark for 20 minutes – and you finally see a convoy of double-deckers coming your way all with your number on it … then, Here comes the bus – is said with a sigh of relief. But what if you’re 2 year toddler has just run into the middle of road and voyage of discovery! The word “here comes the bus” has an element of urgency about it! If you’ve been arguing over a bus timetable, and you can say “here comes the bus” – it is a vindication that you were right.
Questions for Discussion:
1. How would you describe the foundation myths of our own age?
Where do we come from?
Where are we going?
What are the obstacles?
How do we overcome them?
2. Do the myths that shape us change from one generation to another? What factors in the world are likely to have changed our understanding of ourselves?
3. Do scientists work on the basis of stories, or on cold, observable facts?
4. Recent Hollywood films have heroes no longer killing people, but killing robots (the new Star Wars Trilogy) or drones (as in Iron Man II) – but in children’s films, heroes no longer send countless people to their deaths. Is this a good thing? How does it reflect or change the myths by which we understand our place in the world?