The Little Stories We Tell Ourselves

“When I look around the Catholic Church, I just see a lot of older people, mostly white men, and diversity is important.” Such was the snippet, from an on-camera interview, I heard being given by a woman, probably in her early forties, filmed outside on a park bench, a very “natural” setting, except for those who have to make their way around all the camera gear. The poor woman was sitting at what must have been a very uncomfortable, awkward side-angle on the bench, not a position that anyone would ever actually sit, undoubtedly so that the shot would look more “natural.” One of the very oddest things about modernity is the degree of artifice we employ to simulate an ersatz sort of “naturalness.” The results, however, I fear are that we are simply further alienated from reality as it truly is.

I was not interested in “listening in” on this woman’s “private” interview, although it was difficult not to given that it was being conducted along a public walkway. But I couldn’t help thinking as I passed by: “What church do you go to? I’ve been to a lot of Catholic churches across the country, and I’ve never seen even one that fits that description.”

So what was going on here? I’m guessing that it may be this woman had one of those little “stories” going on in her head of the sort that post-modern theorists call a “meta-narrative.” This is a simple story that stands in for all the messy facts of history and to which we tend to reduce all the messy facts that come our way. Reality is grand and complex; our minds tend to be rather small and our experiences limited.

We tend to prefer theory to reality because theory is simple and changes easily at our whim. It’s amazing what I can do with geometrical figures on paper. It’s much less amazing what I can do with actual brick and mortar or wood and nails. We tend to prefer meta-narratives because they’re simple, they don’t confuse us, and by means of them we can gain a certain sense of control over a confusing, chaotic, and complex world.

This tendency is understandable in its own way. We strive in natural science to reduce the complexity of phenomena to a few, basic simple “laws.” The question is whether that approach works equally well in every walk of life? The virtue of natural science is supposed to be that every theory must stand the test of time; it must “measure up” to all new data. If it can’t be reconciled with some new information, then there is a problem, and the theory is supposed to give way before the brute fact of reality. Not only does that not always happen in natural science, it too often doesn’t happen with the little meta-narratives with which we’ve simplified our world.

Uncertain

So, for example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people who teach theology express their vocation as taking the rudimentary, unexamined Christian faith of their students and “shaking it up” a bit to try to give them a more sophisticated Christian faith. That’s a noble enough goal, I suppose, although it’s not one I’ve ever aspired to, but there is one big problem: high school and college students don’t for the most part have a “rudimentary, unexamined Christian faith,” what they have for the most part is absolutely no knowledge of the Christian faith at all.

You can easily test this. Ask them to finish this triad – Abraham, Isaac, and who? They can’t. Ask them what “Pentecost” is. No idea. One year, a student raised her hand and said, rather sheepishly, “Prof. Smith, you are using a word I’ve never heard before.” “What’s the word?” “Baptism.”

There’s no “shaking up” a “simple faith” among students such as these. We have to begin at the beginning. You can’t “shake up” a shaker of dice if there are no dice. Anyone who goes into a modern theology classroom ready to “shake up” some “simple faith” is hunting in a forest with no animals. So why do theology instructors keep telling themselves this story decades after “simple faith” disappeared from the classroom? Reality has been replaced by meta-narrative.

I’ve been reading historian Herbert Butterfield’s wonderful 1931 book on The Whig Interpretation of History. This is the sort of history done by the historian who “tends in the first place to adopt the Whig or Protestant view of the subject, and very quickly busies himself with dividing the world into the friends and enemies of progress.” Historians looking for such “progress” in history, complains Butterfield, “can easily select those facts that give support to his thesis and thus eliminate other facts equally important to the total picture.”

Do we not often do the same? We select those facts that support our preconceived narratives and eliminate or ignore other facts equally important to the total picture. It’s not so much that the narrative is entirely untrue; the problem is that it’s only part of the truth. Liberals and conservatives both engage in this kind of easy simplification, which is why both sides can claim with the exact same sense of moral indignation that the other side is being bank-rolled by “rich elites.” The truth, of course, is that both sides have their rich donors; it’s just that when they’re bankrolling the other side, they’re “rich elites,” when they’re supporting our side, they’re trying to “win back the country.”

It is easy to condemn with deep moral indignation those who are the supposed “enemies of progress.” But as Butterfield writes: “One may be forgiven for not being too happy about any division of mankind into good and evil, progressive and reactionary, black and white; and it is not clear that moral indignation is not a dispersion of one’s energies to the great confusion of one’s judgment.”

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas. His book Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners is available from Emmaus Press. his latest book, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary was published in 2019 by Cambridge University Press.



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