We need stories. Since ancient times, we have turned to stories, tales, and myths in order to articulate our understanding of the cosmos. Not only do these narratives enable us to describe reality, they portray humanity’s place and purpose in the creation. Stories help us figure out the world, describe norms and ideals, and give us guidelines as to how we are to successfully navigate through life.
The modern era, spurred on by huge leaps in scientific discovery, sharply criticized this need for stories as being a childish, outdated attempt to craft a sense of order, safety, and control over life and creation. Modernity enthusiastically embraced deductive rationalism as the unerring replacement for narrative; it believed science would give mankind supreme control over his world.
Postmodernity, the period that has followed upon the heels of subsequent scientific uncertainty, embraces the need for narrative, but claims to have debunked the idea that any of these tales have objective truth. Postmodernism has reconciled itself with the fact that human psychology exhibits the need for stories, for “mythology,” if you will (which is defined by Merriam-Webster.com as “allegorical narrative”). Thus, especially over recent decades, we have seen the emergence of culturally pervasive ideas of narrative as a means through which individuals and societies give structure and meaning to the cosmos.
Psychology has especially embraced the concept of “personal narratives” as a helpful way for people to construct meaning and purpose in their lives. The book pictured here, entitled Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities, is just one example of this trend.
Postmodernism—always the umbrella worldview for popular psychology—stresses, however, that objective truth of the narrative is not only irrelevant, but, by necessity, nonexistent (in other words, what matters is telling the story that works for you, not necessarily the story that is fully accurate). Under the tyranny of postmodernism, relativism reigns supreme, and dismisses all ideas of objective and transcendent ideals as absurd. Nonetheless, secular psychology acknowledges the human need for narratives, and the constructing of such narratives has not only been adopted as a means of mental therapy, it has been encouraged enthusiastically; even postmodernity grants that human beings who have meaningfully constructed narratives are “psychologically healthier” than those who do not. It is important to remember, however, that even with this adoption of narratives it is considered anathema to make any claim that one narrative is more “true” than another or that there is a single, all-encompassing narrative that is Truth, spelled with a capital “T.”
This postmodern approach is utilitarian in the sense that it appears to work, much of the time, with respect to personal, individual narratives. In other words, “What is true for you—based upon your individual, unique personality, experiences, and inclinations—works for you, and similarly, what is true for me, works for me.” As long as we can mutually conclude that our narratives do not cause any harm to one another, it appears the social contract has been fulfilled, and all seems well and good.
Where the apparent utilitarian value of this falls apart is that, when we leave the realm of personal narrative behind, and begin to deal with the larger narratives of society (culture) and the physical world (science), the idea that there is no truth produces dire consequences, not just on a theoretical and philosophical level, but in the practical realm. The problem is this: when dealing with personal, individual narrative, then it can seem to be accurate that I can construct any story about myself and my life that “works” for me (that makes me feel happy and imbues my life with meaning). It may appear quite plausible that anything I choose to make the “mythology” of my existence, as long as it serves the purpose of satisfying my need for a story and does not seem to negatively affect anyone else, is fine. Once the question passes beyond the individual and the personal, however—once the issue of narrative comes to encompass others, the wider world, and how all things function in that wider world—this approach reveals a serious flaw. For, while it might be true that I can tell whatever story I like about myself and my life, a functioning and healthy society demands that this story have some correlation with actual fact, and that the behavior of individuals must still work itself out without negatively impacting others. Imagine each of us as a perfectly formed puzzle piece…except that in this scenario, none of us belong in the same puzzle because no universal puzzle, no true “reality,” exists!
Thus, an individual may believe that it is acceptable within the parameters of his own personal narrative to lie, cheat, steal, or even kill. However, as a society we nevertheless do not and cannot condone any behavior that ensues as the logical consequence of believing such things. Universally, we condemn lying, cheating, stealing, and murder, even though we may disagree about the specific behaviors that constitute them. Shortsightedly, we often allow the personal narratives of individuals to define such behaviors in arbitrary ways. This sets the precedent that such matters are inherently self-defined, and do not stem from any transcendent ideals or norms. Then, we are shocked when people do actually self-define such behaviors, and begin to feel justified not just in the little white lie, but much bigger lies, such as plagiarism or the falsification of experimental data; people begin to feel justified not just by taking that pen or box of paperclips from their workplaces, but in embezzling large sums of money; people feel justified not simply in small, illicit sexual acts, but make a practice of wholesale serial adultery; people feel justified not simply by giving way to violence in the heat of the moment, but by carrying out premeditated murder. We set the precedent by permitting people to define their own truths with respect to behavior and then we are shocked when those definitions do not meet our expectations—when they fall short of the “standards” we all acknowledge and yet which postmodernism keeps telling us do not actually exist.
Those who hold the moral beliefs of the major world religions attribute their expectations of appropriate behavior to the transcendent truths of their faiths; those who claim no part of any religion and instead embrace the teachings of the secular worldview still find themselves in the position of acknowledging that, although they grant no transcendent truths, mankind must pretend such transcendent truths exist; that is, they end up concluding that mankind must construct such a narrative in order to have a moral, stable, and functionally productive society.
Although the latter view, based so much on the secular theories of psychology, denies the possibility of the transcendent truth of such narratives, it is worth examining an underlying inconsistency of such thinking. Psychology acknowledges the real congruence of many human desires with actual things which fulfill those desires, and are linked not simply with human desire, but with the fulfillment of human survival and potentiality. Many of these are expressed in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, described by theorist Abraham Maslow in the 1940s. An expanded version of his original pyramid appears below:
Let’s take a look at this more closely, examining each level of the pyramid. Maslow was interested in what motivated human behavior, but I would like to highlight something else that characterizes his theory. As you look at the pyramid, notice that very real, concrete elements exist to fulfill the needs identified. Physiological needs include things like basic bodily functions, such as the desire to eat. Now, no one denies that to meet the need for sustenance, food exists! Similarly, safety desires include the wish for security and shelter. No one denies that shelter also exists. Humans likewise have a deep desire to belong in community, and to love and be loved. No one denies that communities are real, and that love exists between people.
As we progress up the pyramid, the elements required to meet these needs become more emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. And yet, if the pattern established on the lower levels of the pyramid continues consistently (and there is no reason to suspect the pattern to break down), then just as there truly exist real entities to fulfill the needs at the basic levels, there should truly exist real entities and states of being to fulfill the needs at the higher levels. Simply because we have left the realm of the purely materialistic as we progress upwards, it does not necessarily follow—as postmodern relativism would argue—that the elements necessary to fulfill those needs suddenly become imaginary, fictional constructs of our own personal narratives that have no correlation to a universal reality.
Thus, if we continue consistently in the pattern, we deal a blow to relativism. If we have a need to know and understand, then a “reality” must exist for us to come to know and understand. If we have a need to become self-actualized—even if just understood at its simplest level as being “fulfilled”—then there must exist a “real” state of being which provides that condition of actualization to human beings. If we have a need to transcend ourselves, then to be consistent we must say that just as there is food to meet the need for hunger, so also there exists Truth with a capital “T” to meet the need of the desire for that which is transcendental.
Postmodern reductionism believes that the only thing which is “real” is the material world. Yet it also, through its ideological brainchild, psychology, has not only acknowledged, but embraced the credibility of Maslow’s theory. It is inconsistent for postmodernism to uphold the validity of this theory on the materialistic levels while then denying that it should make sense for the pattern to continue up the pyramid. The pattern is that the need correlates with an actuality that meets the need. The transcendent Truth that postmodern relativism denies so emphatically, if examined from this perspective, must not only exist and be “real,” but must be fundamental to humanity—to its survival, progress, and ultimate fulfillment, on an individual as well as collective level.
What this reveals to us is that there is a larger “metanarrative” that transcends and supersedes personal narratives. This “metanarrative,” this Truth with a capital “T,” can be understood as a True Myth—that is, it is not just a story: it constitutes absolute reality. It not only exists, but is knowable, reachable, and attainable.
C. S. Lewis asserted that this True Myth IS Christianity: Absolute Reality correlating with Absolute Truth at every level, from the highly spiritual to the moral to the very depths of the physical creation.
Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from…an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified…under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle…To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become)…Those who do not know that this great myth became Fact when the Virgin conceived are, indeed, to be pitied. But Christians also need to be…reminded that what became Fact was a Myth, that it carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less… We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting in our theology…For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, the poet in each one of us no less than the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.
– God in the Dock: Myth Became Fact*
*Lewis, C. S., God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970. p. 66-67