Pushing a non-violent metanarrative

Yesterday evening, I led a prayer meeting linked to the "30 days of prayer for Islam" campaign sponsored by the Evangelical Alliance in Germany. The growth of Islam in Europe is a hot topic in Germany right now, especially after the recent arrest of three would-be terrorists, two of which turned out to be German converts to the Muslim faith.

How do we react to the fact that another truth system is gaining ground? Looking at it in a purely postmodern/relativistic way, it shouldn’t matter too much. Someone has another idea of truth — so what? As long as I am allowed to keep my own version, I shouldn’t be concerned too much. But of course, I am not buying into that …

First of all, I think there might be some real danger in a large-scale Islamization of Europe, at least in the long run: If one day, Islamic political interest became dominant in our country, I fear that the choice of your own truth and your own religion would be done away with rather fast. Fortunately, this frightening perspective does not seem to be realistic any time in the near future. Still, Islam is growing in Germany.

The second, and much more important reason why I think we cannot sit back and do nothing is because we do have a metanarrative to defend. I’ve argued before that I don’t think we can live without one, and that we have the best metanarrative there is — and a non-violent one, at that. The question then is, how do we face the growth of a new belief system in a non-violent way?

I tried to illustrate the proper approach at church yesterday evening by imagining what we would do if the local Islamist union (yes, we do have that in Freudenstadt) set out to build a large mosque in our city. I proposed two possible responses:

  1. We could gather all believers from our city and go for a large protest march, leading from the building city right to the mayor’s office. We could carry signs saying "We don’t need no mosque here!" and "Let them build their mosques in Turkey!" (and while we’re at it, the logical next step would be something like "All Muslims are terrorists, anyway" and "Send all foreigners home". The result? Well, the non-believers all around would be confirmed in their view that all religious folks are completely insane, anyway. And we would have resorted to the very violence that caused the total rejection of metanarratives in postmodern thinking. Not good, then.
  2. We could let them build their mosque. Why not, actually? They have the right to do it under our constitution (with it’s guaranteed freedom of religion, which is a great treasure we don’t want to lose), anyway. At the same time, we will go back to our church and pray for the Holy Spirit to act through us in a new, mighty way. We would then devote all of our energies to proclaiming and living our own (better, even best) metanarrative in a positive way — and see to it, that God’s work is so clearly expressed in our private and church lives, that nobody even cares to go to the new mosque, because they’re all coming to us to see what God is doing. How about that for a non-violent defense of a metanarrative?Of course, having said that, it becomes apparent that the ideal approach would be to implement solution (2) even right now, without waiting for a specific "threat" to arise. Why not push the metanarrative just today — but in a positive, non-violent way. We’ve got the best message there is, so why hide it?

pre/anti/para/post — Whither Pentecostalism, when modernity is on its way out

Mainstream Evangelicalism is basically a modernistic movement — there’s no doubt about it. In many places, Evangelicals have become synonymous with Evangelical Fundamentalism. Along with liberalism, its eternal foe, fundamentalism is deeply entrenched in the modern way of reasoning coming directly out of the European Enlightenment. But where does Evangelicalism go when its underlying modernistic epistemology is disappearing? Most interestingly, large parts of the wider Evangelical movement seem to cling to modernism with all their might — steering themselves ever wider into a neo-fundamentalist trap of irrelevance to the new, postmodern culture.

While I firmly believe that Pentecostalism is and always has been part of the Evangelical movement, this is a good moment to note a decisive distinction: Pentecostalism never really was modern. Label it however you want, I for one prefer the term "para-modern" that Ken Archer argued for in his 2001 book A Pentecostal Hermeneutics for the Twenty First Century. Now, this would seem like good news and an open road ahead for Pentecostalism, where it not for many Pentecostals‘ strive to become "more Evangelical", which often brings us dangerously close to the neo-fundamentalist Evangelical. Do we really want to go there? Or might the "way out" for Evangelicalism’s current cul-de-sac be in the very Pentecostal part of its fold? Certainly, the early twenty-first century does seem like a bad time to finally jump on the modernist bandwaggon and adopt what we’ve been spared so far.

The „right“ community

So, in the postmodern world, truth is somehow defined by the community — "local" truth, that is. This is a necessary step, because postmodern thinkers do not believe in the autonomous, thinking self anymore (does that sound like a contradiction, or what?). But then, who or what defines the community? It cannot be the sum of all its individual members, because they are undefinable, in a flux, ever-changing, nothing, really. The only thing that I can up with is that the community is somehow defined by a shared, local truth. But see, here we have a problem. The community defines the truth which defines the community. At the end, both community and truth become totally arbitrary, meaningless values. And we all succumb to the usual postmodern depression, fall into Derrida’s abyss, or whatever …

But, wait! Maybe there’s hope. There’s one community — yes, you guessed right: I am talking, as usual, about the Spirit-filled community — which is not defined by a circular (non-)definition, but rather by an external standard. The Spirit which indwelles all of the believers is the defining factor of the community and the source of its truth (which, we claim, is more than just local). So this community is different. It is unique. Maybe it is the "right" one.

Now, that sounds awfully exclusivist (and, therefore, oppressive). But, is it exclusive, when there are no other candidates to be excluded?

The endless chain of meta^n-narratives

How can you seriously reject a metanarrative? Postmodern thinkers who do claim it is terrible how individual "local" narratives elevate themselves to meta-narratives beyond the
scope of their community context and claim to be universal, thereby judging other local narratives inferior. I’d say, by the same standards, the meta-meta-narrative of postmodernism, which elevates itself even higher, beyond all supposedly universal meta-narratives, judges them inferior and even oppressively rejects them as false, thus claiming to be the only true narrative itself, should be regarded as more horrid. But, in saying so, am I not creating a meta-meta-meta-narrative? Then, again, if I was, you’d never be able to tell me, because your statement would constitute a meta-meta-meta-meta-narrative. I think I’d better stop right here. Isn’t this ridiculous?

The God, who came into the cave

In The Leap of Reason (1976), British philosopher (I refuse to call him a theologian) Don Cupitt uses a modification Plato’s well known allegory of the philosopher in the cave to demonstrate the absence of meaning in all God-talk. In Cupitt’s cave, there are no shadows of the outside world on the walls, simply because the cave does not have an opening. Living in the cave, an observer does not have the slightest indication of the very existence of something like an "outside world." In the language of the cave’s population, vocabulary about such an outside world is therefore not needed and utterly meaningless.
Don Cupitt’s analogy actually does work very well in the artificial world he has constructed for his example. What is missing, however, are parallels to the real world. For here, in our real world, there is no closed cave — at least, not any more. Not since the God from outside has decided to come into the cave and reveal himself through his son Jesus Christ, who opened up the way into the world beyond for us. Read Hebrews 1:1ff, and talk about meaningless God-language!

Paul Ricoeur on the constant core of the self

In another chapter of his book, Thiselton shortly expound Paul Ricoeur’s model (mainly based on Time and Narrative, vol. 3) of self-identity. Ricoeur touches on the age-old quest for the “constant core” of the self, the element which links all individual experiences, impressions and moments into a coherent person. The basic problem has always been, that the self, as far as we know it, is anything but constant. With every moment, every experience, and every new element of learning the self is changing (This assumption is actually the very basis of the so-called “hermeneutical circle”). Yet, we always speak of this ever-changing self as “the same person.”

In RicoeurÂ’s model, there is no constant, unifying core of the self. Yet, at the same time, it is not reduced to the helpless self of postmodernity, either. Rather, there is something which provides an external structure to self-identity: narrative. The self cannot be understood apart from its temporality, its embedding into an ongoing narrative, whose plot helps to determine who exactly the individual is at any given time.

I find RicoeurÂ’s model attractive for a number of reasons:

  1. It provides good reason to abandon old dualistic models of the human being – seeing that the efforts to split a person into elements like body and soul usually just mark the attempt to find the one element that could be the “constant core.”
  2. It makes all the more sense once the right narrative is chosen: I am who I am not because of any constant element in my personality. I am who I am because I am part of GodÂ’s great narrative, in which he has chosen to love this ever-changing self as my person.
  3. It contains a further important parallel to Christian soteriology. While the self is always constantly shaped by its experience and by the unfolding narrative plot, Ricoeur allows for a special case: a major change or shift in the plot of the underlying narrative may lead to a complete “reconstitution” of the self. Now, wouldn’t the moment where you are transformed from a sinner to a saint in the eyes of God have to be considered a major plot change? What is “reconstituted” would then be the “new creation”/the “new man” the New Testament is always talking about.

Thiselton on textual interpretation and the self

Continuing my reading of Thiselton’s Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise, I have come upon a very interesting series of points on textual interpretation. Thiselton presents a model that seems to reverse the usual direction in interpretation, which moves from the — supposedly objective — interpreter towards the text as an object to be examined. In a chapter, which he entitles "Five Ways in which Textual Reading Interprets the Self", he offers the following list:

  1. First of all, the text conveys information and impressions about the author to the reader. This, however, seems to be a rather subordinate function in Thiselton’s model.
  2. As the text talks to its reader, it has an effect on the person of the reader himself. Of course, this point (as well as all of the following), seems especially important when we’re talking about a Biblical text, where the word of God is certainly supposed to have an effect on the reader.
  3. As soon as the text begins to touch on the realm of the self’s understanding, the reader begins to learn new things about himself by means of the text. In the words of Ernst Fuchs, the text first becomes the translator of the self before the self can even begin to translate the text.
  4. Next, the interpreting self reveals a lot about himself through the interpretation. People can be seen as belonging to a certain community, for example, just by looking at the way they will handle a particular text.
  5. Finally, the text transforms the individual. In hermeneutical terms, the text — or rather, whatever the reader gathers from it — becomes part of the reader’s set of presuppositions, pre-judgements, and prejudices, which will influence his reading of any other text from now on.

So far, I am not entirely sure what to make of Thiselton’s list. I’ll have to think about it. To be sure, it presents an interesting alternative to the one-sided empiricist view of textual interpretation which stands at the basis of modernity. However, while this might provide a much needed counterweight, I think it’s jumping the ship on the opposite side: What I am missing is a clear indication of the role the informational content of the text is supposed to play in the whole of interpretation. Of course, Thiselton does say a couple of words on this in the last paragraph of his chapter, namely, that a certain understanding of informational content might even be a prerequisite for transformation. Yet, I still get the feeling that this is not enough.

As so often, the truth between the two extremes seems to lie somewhere in the middle (Shannon Buckner should love this: "It’s all about balance …").

How can a meta-narrative not be oppressive?

I have already mentioned (in one of my replies to Brad Andersen) that I cannot but see the Christian story as a meta-narrative. Its claims to exclusivity, universality, and absolute truth are completely incompatible with the post-modern portrait of a "local story" within a community. Yet, I do think that the story of faith, i.e. the story of the Spirit-filled community, is able to escape the post-modern criticism against meta-narratives for a number of reasons.
One of them has just re-surfaced in my reading of Anthony Thiselton’s Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise: In chapter 3 ("Do All Controlling Models in Religion Serve Manipulative Purposes?") Thiselton refers to the New Testament, to Luther’s "theology of the cross", to Bonhoeffer’s writings and to Jürgen Moltmann in order to show that the Christian story is not promoting power and glory for its proponents. Criticism levelled against it from the days of Nietzsche through Heidegger, Foucault, and Rorty, has therefore no base: The Christian community is not seeking to promote itself above all other communities.
Rather, it is seeking to promote Jesus Christ, the liberator, who sets people free from oppression. But, that’s already another argument …

Über Christoph

Christoph Fischer (* 1978) ist Pfarrer der Evangelischen Landeskirche in Württemberg auf der Pfarrstelle „Erlöserkirche“ in Albstadt-Tailfingen.

Christoph ist verheiratet mit Rebecca. Gemeinsam haben sie drei Töchter.