Battling meta-narratives. Say what you will about postmodernism, but the po-mo concept of narratives as manipulatable memes comes in very handy. The twentieth century French philosopher Jean François Lyotard declared the death of meta-narratives (“an overall account of things that enables people to find belief, pattern and meaning in their experience”*), but his analysis has proven to be not quite right. The meta may be wounded but narratives did not die. Rather, like any self-respecting Hydra, when one narrative was lopped off, three sprang back in its place.
It appears that human beings cannot live with dead meta-narratives, and many of us just gotta have one or two.
Allow me to hurriedly distinguish between meta-narratives and stories. One meta-narrative that I grew up with as a Protestant Christian is that Jesus Christ died for my sins. This is a meta-narrative because for those who believe it — and I mean really believe it — life, death, time, meaning, and purpose are all defined. When I was ten years old or so, I could run down the list and answer all the questions about life’s meaning.
That’s a meta-narrative. A person can have several at once. Another for me was that the U.S. of A. was God’s intended purpose all along to save the peoples of the earth from Satan-worshiping communists. In the end, America would save the world and bring everyone to Christianity.
You get the idea.
The myth of the Hydra, on the other hand, is contained in many stories. But no narrative and certainly no meta-narrative. Stories are not narratives (I don’t think, but maybe I’m wrong — it bears thinking about).
When I became an atheist at 18, my childhood meta-narratives died, and I instead embraced several smaller narratives, including science, art, and cosmopolitanism. I was a Humanist, I discovered. But Humanism is not a meta-narrative. We Humanists embrace nuance, mystery, and shades of gray. That sort of thing just won’t add up to a meta-narrative.
Often in human affairs, meta-narratives are like those Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robot toys. Two and only two are in the ring. No nuance. No mystery. No shades of gray. And only one will win.
The meta-narrative of liberal democracy, like the meta-narrative of fundamentalist Christianity, is no longer meta. Rather, it has fractured into many narratives: Left. Right. Center. Far left. Far . . . you know all this. No need for me to explain. You also know that in order to govern hundreds of millions of people, a meta-narrative comes in handy.
The Ukraine-Russia war has shown that fractured narratives can re-coalesce into larger narratives. The Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots are back on the international stage. The American would-be autocrats have egg on their faces at the moment.
Will that last? Not if the war doesn’t last. Will democracy be . . . uh . . . back on the ropes again? Good question. Perhaps we — like our forebears after they watched the Second World War kill hundreds of millions — will attempt to at least attempt civility. Maybe we will (at least in principal) agree that liberal democracy is a better way to live and let live than autocracy.
Maybe. Time will tell. Time always tells.
Coffee and Wisdom: a Humanist Look at Theological Questions