Primer on Meta-Narratives

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the ideas of “liberalism”, “conservatism”, etc. And most have probably heard of stuff like Marx’s historical dialectic.

But all of these represent a broader class of what I will call meta-narratives – narratives about narratives. They are attempts to explain why the narrative of history is the way it is. (I first read the term meta-narrative in a book by John Holdane, called An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Religion, but I’d had it in my head without a name long before that.)

There are a great number of meta-narratives to choose from. The question, to my mind, is which, if any, should a good Christian endorse? What is the nature of the Christian meta-narrative?

Well, to start with, I’ll consider the two meta-narratives I listed above, liberal and conservative. The problem with both of these, I think, is that they just don’t seem to fit the facts.

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Liberalism cannot be true, according to Christian belief, because man is fallen, and he is simply not progressing of his own accord to a perfect society (the eventual destination of the upward-pointed era). And we also believe in the fall of man, but the story of liberalism is that of man continuously climbing upwards.

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Conservatism is tempting for one who, like me, does not like many aspects of today’s society. However, there are real problems with it as well. Firstly, do you really want to claim that the introduction of Christianity to the world was truly a bad thing? That the graph kept going down even after 33 AD? And yes, many aspects of the modern world are bad – but we shouldn’t have an idealized view of ancient times. Many aspects of today’s world are an improvement upon the past.

Well, then. These are the two most well-know meta-narratives, mainly because they are both simple, easy to understand, and tempting to adopt. But they are not only simple, they are simplified. The world just isn’t like that, exactly. Before I start constructing a Christian meta-narrative, here’s a few more to think about.

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There is, of course, the simplest of meta-narratives – “there are no meta-narratives”. This is the maxim of the postmoderns. They say that trying to find grand patterns of rising and falling in history is a hopeless task. Men, it is said, often try to find patterns where there are none.

The Christian problem with this is that, we believe, God does have a plan for the human race. It may be that much of history is just our milling around waiting for the Last Judgement, but there is some sense of change. The world changed in 33 AD.

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The cyclic view of history is that “history is doomed to repeat itself”. Great empires rise, grow decadent, and fall. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The problem with this is that history is not eternal. It has a beginning, and it will, eventually, have an end. And some sort of process is clearly being made – technology is increasing ever more rapidly, population is growing exponentially. Something’s happening.

Well, so much for narratives that I think are completely wrong. let’s start thinking about a Christian narrative.

Intensifying Cyclicism
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Enter the revised version of cyclicism – intensifying cyclicism. This is the idea that history is repeating itself, but growing ever more important. Hitler was worse than the Renaissance Popes were worse than Nero, but the United States is better now than it has ever been in the past, and it has always been better than any other nation in existence.

This isn’t particularly anti-Christian, I don’t think. It tells nicely the story of “rise, fall, redemption, rise, fall redemption” that played out so often in the Old Testament and the New. Something like this is quite a possibility. Though the confusion between secular and religious progress seems like a problem.

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This can be fixed by saying that history is not the story of stuff getting “better” or “worse”, but of different aspects of human life getting better or worse, with the sum total of humanity staying about the same.

It will probably have to be a feature of any eventual ‘correct’ narrative. The question is, should we as Christians even care about the secular half of the narrative? Or should we only worry about the religious half? So far I’m leaning towards an intensifying cyclicism with Tocquevillian modulation.

Still, we have not confronted a major difficulty. There is a historical – not mythic – event that has to be placed somewhere, and which, it cannot be denied, permanently changed something.

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Are we just going to place that at the top of one of the crests? Or at the bottom? What?

Here are some attempts that place focus on one definite time in history. Perhaps they are possibilities.

Golden Age
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There are two problems with this. Firstly, the height of the Church was not the death of Christ, it was the 13th century. Or so one might plausibly claim. The death of Christ was the founding of the Church, not its apex. Unless we are to believe that the founding was also the apex – that the Church has been in decline ever since it was founded. But that seems like a very anti-Catholic belief to me, even if some Christians are able to hold it.

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So maybe Christ’s death wasn’t the high point of Christianity in the sense that everything’s been downhill since then. But was it the low point? The ‘literary’ model – that name comes from the fact that Hans Urs von Balthasar’s interpretation of Christ’s death has been called literary – would say that stuff gets worse, there’s a climax (which is at the bottom not the top on this graph, because it graphs goodness not intensity), and then the plot is resolved.

The thing is… the plot wasn’t resolved. Christ was raised, we were redeemed, but now we have to live our lives, fundamentally changed, yes, but still living life on earth. And we have been for two thousand years since then.

I don’t have an answer. My best guess would be oscillation, which begins by calming down, but then at Christ’s death begins intensifying again. But I really don’t know. I know what it has to capture – I know what the facts of history, secular and salvatory, are – but I don’t know quite how to fit a narrative into it, except the very basic statement that it’s a story of “creation, fall, redemption”.

Perhaps the answer is that we shouldn’t try to fit meta-narratives onto things. That sounds like postmodernism, I know. And I really don’t want to be a postmodern. But I can see why it is tempting.

If this seemed like it rambled on a bit, it’s because I started writing it a couple months ago, then finished it a few days ago, and the focus of the piece changed a bit over that time. Sorry about that.


2 Responses to Primer on Meta-Narratives

  1. The Imugi says:

    This is a fascinating post, but I’m not sure how well it captures the reality of things. I am a non-Christian, but I know many Christians who have aligned themselves with a particular meta-narrative paradigm.

    For example, take libralism: what if you have a Christian who thinks that while the Fall represents a definite low point, since then, the lot of human beings has been improving slowly, with an exponential improvement occuring in 33 AD? The rising amount of Christians worldwide would certainly suggest that a version of this view is compatible with a certain version of Christianity.

    Or, take cyclicism: naturally, to a Christian, history has a beginning and an end. So why can’t it have a repeating pattern in the interval between the Alpha and the Omega? Perhaps Salvation is also Salvation *from* the cycle of history, but in order to save us from history God had to enter into this cycle. Or perhaps the events of 33 AD open up a new pathway: the Christian meta narrative, and the meta narravite of us godless pagans? ;)

    I can think of others. :D Also, why does the lack of a meta narrative have to be algined with postmodernism and the abandoning of reason? Could it not be that while God has a plan, it is inaccessible to human minds?

  2. Urs says:

    1) The end of liberalism would be at the end of the world, where perfection is achieved through God.

    2) In intensifying cycling, I must disagree with you saying “The United States will always be the greatest nation in existence”, because Rome fell, and so the United States will fall even …intenser…

    3) God may have a goal for humantiy, but does this plan have to follow a pattern? Post-modernism works.

    -just some thoughts.

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