A Clash of Stories: Humanism and Christianity


(system) #1

This is my reaction to my first assigned reading for the class "Scripture" (HONS 214H) at Andrews University.

"All human communities live out of some story that provides a context for understanding the meaning of history and gives shape and direction to their lives." -- Craig Bartholomew & Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture (2004), p. 12

I like this. Whether or not we think about it much, whether or not it's clearly defined, our world view provides a fundamental "story" which can contextualize our experiences if we let it. Human history, the story of civilization, for example, greatly enriches one's perspective of society and self. The metanarrative -- creation or evolution, if you will -- provides an even more grandiose, if distant and abstract picture.

"If we allow the Bible to become fragmented [rather than a coherent story], it is in danger of being absorbed into whatever other story is shaping our culture, and it will thus cease to shape our lives as it should." -- p. 12

This reminds me of the book UnChristian (2007, David Kinnaman & Gabe Lyons), which explore the postmodern clash internal to Christianity.

"The biblical story is a compelling unity on which we may depend, and each of us has a place within that story." -- p. 12

Convince me.

"We need some sense of the 'big story' of the world before the meaning of any event in our lives makes sense." -- p. 16

Yes and no. The big picture is titillating, but it's also important to look at where the rubber meets the road. Abstract beliefs are highly ethereal. My abstract ideas of career, for example, don't hold a candle to real-world experience. Application is where the bugs are worked out of any system. But both are useful:

"Individual experiences make sense and acquire meaning only when seen within the context or frame of some story we believe to be the true story of the world." -- p. 18

Hitherto the authors are essentially defending the integrity of philosophical pursuit, maintaining that one's metanarrative is integral to life, conduct, and quality thereof.

"Because of the individualism and consumerism central to the Western cultural story, divorce is often portrayed as something rather positive." -- p. 19

I find the dichotomy they set up between Christian and Western perspective to be oversimplified. Divorce is always bad, even if a postmodern would be quicker to encourage the termination of an unhealthy relationship.

"The basic story assumed in much of modern Western culture is humanistic and has its roots in the European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The belief that human reason is the measure of all things and that 'knowledge is power' permeated European society. People believed that through science and technology alone, and utterly apart from God, humankind could build a perfect world... It is a false story, in stark contradiction to the truth of the biblical story... The modern Western worldview is not the only such grand story available. There is another, better, and truer way in which to see our world." -- p. 19

Well then. We're not mincing any words now, are we? He's right, though, at least regarding the humanism. The highlights of my historical narrative all entail progress: amoeba to mammal to homo sapiens, stone age to bronze, and industrial revolution. Now we're coasting up a veritable singularity of economic development, with some hope invested in the potential of computers to turn us into literal demi-gods.

Yes, it contradicts the Bible because the scriptures did not clearly predict or espouse a philosophy of boot-strap progress, but instead a surrender. I will become a scientist, not because I'm chasing some utopian ideal that God was supposed to take care of, but because the utopia, far from being a "fake story," is already here, and I can already do some pretty cool things (Like, say, drive to work), because "knowledge is power."

That said, I am willing to consider the possibility that, as a young person exploring the world, I may be over-eager to chuck the abstract metanarrative and go strictly by my experience, which is admittedly limited to my corner of my subculture.

"To be human means to embrace some such basic story through which we understand our world and chart our course through it. This does not mean that individuals are necessarily conscious of the story they are living out of or of the molding effect that such a story has had on their thought and actions. for instance, many college and university students of our time are living sexually promiscuous lives. They may live this way without thinking much about why they do so. Hence, they are not at all likely to see that the story within which such conduct is approved is heavily indebted to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Sigmund Freud, and other such thinkers of past centuries. Their views of marriage and the human person underlie the changes in attitude toward sexuality that took place in the 1960's and onward." -- p. 21,22

One flaw that all perspectives must be cautious of is the temptation to view all historical/other points of view as mishaps traversed on the way to one's current, "right" perspective, or to project one's own view onto other subcultures. "Kids have been getting jiggy with it for thousands of years," one might say, "it's perfectly natural. We should be glad to live in a more enlightened era, where these arbitrary religious suppressions can be exposed for the farses that they are." One who defends his paradigm in this way fails to empathize with the very real and deep cultural philosophies held by the "other," with paradigms that have and can be defended with equal vigor.

I face my own temptation, as a humanist affirmed by peers, wider culture, and the scientific community at large, to summarily dismiss all this ethereal religious talk as flawed, innapplicable, and irrelevant to my lifestyle. But, after reading this assignment, I do find myself inclined to take care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and to keep a wider eye on my "story" in the more grand historical context. I feel "right," but so does everyone else who takes part in this four-dimensional (Present and historical) crux of the postmodern conundrum that is diversity.

"It is often difficult to be sure that our isolated experience has given us the complete picture of anything complicated." -- p. 22

(A few closing remarks on the reading: Their proclamation of the scriptures' coherence begs the question of whether any "fragmented" work will appear falsely coherent to the synthesis of anyone who studies it for a lifetime. Also, they will need to demonstrate remarkably more enlightened empathy (Not necessarily sympathy) for secular humanist thought, of the sort that might encompass a science student such as myself, if they are to redeem their credibility and/or convince me of anything new. The best way to debunk something is to demonstrate a good understanding of its real meaning, not to demonize a straw man.)


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/918