November 25, 2015
The church teaches that human beings are born essentially sinful and bad, but I think the idea that a newborn is stained with sin is dangerous; how can parents believe that their infant child is anything other than good?
—Matthew Fox, as reported in The Sun
Telling stories is fun, and around the holidays it is a bonding experience with family. We need to hear how great-grandpa fought in the war, and how our parents met, and how our uncle and dad goofed around together as kids.
But imagine that after hearing great-grandpa’s war stories, your cousin leans over and whispers, “He was never in the war.” Or finding out that your dad doesn’t actually have a brother, he was just making it up (or hallucinating.)
The factual basis of a story doesn’t matter to us—unless it involves us or people we know and trust. Many a career has been halted suddenly because the person was found out telling a false story about themselves. (The recent example of Brain Williams is well-known.)
Stories give us our heritage. They are an important source of identity. That’s why it matters whether or not they are true.
The religious story of fallen humankind is one example. Generations of children have been told that story, and now that those children are adults, their entire concept of reality is governed by it. It leads to a self-conception of being dependent on a god (because I am sinful I need a savior), it leads to viewing government and secular society as inherently evil (because full of sinful human beings), and it leads to a host of programmatic actions that limit the rights of minorities, women, the poor, and so on (because we must protect them from themselves.)
What if we replaced the story of original sin with a different one? I love the way the Roman Catholic priest Matthew Fox describes “original blessing”:
In a sense, the evolution of the universe is an original blessing to humanity, preceding original sin by 13.8 billion years. It seems to me that evolution has far more to say about who we are and where we come from—including our propensities for violence and war—than does original sin, which can be just a cop-out.
Sometimes religious liberals emphasize the value of stories and myths so much, they seem to miss an important dynamic: that the verity of the story is as important as the story itself.
When we read fiction, we are not concerned about whether the story is true, but about what it tells us metaphorically. (And of course, the moral of the story being metaphorically illustrated may be “true” in that sense.) But when we are telling stories around the dining room table about our family, background, and origin, we absolutely must be concerned about the verity of the story, and not just its metaphorical value.
If original sin isn’t factually true, its metaphors aren’t true either. Living by false metaphors will put us down false roads. False beliefs hardwire our brains, and affect us at a deep subconscious level, well after we may have consciously discarded them. Some salient examples of false beliefs based in false stories: men are created to lead their households, slaves are to be obedient to their masters, sex is destructive unless contained within marriage, bad weather is a punishment on the iniquity of a city.
We have all witnessed the apathy and utter disregard for human life that comes from that latter story alone. Think of Katrina and the way the poor areas of New Orleans have yet to recover.
Metaphorical stories are always based on a conviction that those stories are, at least at some level, factual. For example, we may not believe that the 10 plagues occurred but we tend to believe that the Israelites were actually enslaved by the Egyptians. Factually, it is claimed, we are all servants (i.e. slaves, the biblical word is the same for both) of God even if we no longer agree with enslaving other people. Therefore even though we may read biblical passages on slavery, we can look at those as metaphors of an underlying fact: that we are to be “slaves to Christ.”
If that underlying fact is not a fact, where does that leave the story? If grandpa was not really in the war, then in telling us so he is sick or sinister or silly, or some combination, but not worth basing our actions on. We would not want to invite the local VFW to commemorate his “anniversary” for example. If we are not actually “slaves to Christ,” then none of the biblical narratives about slavery carry any weight, not even metaphorically.
The factual truth of a story matters, if we are trying to base our actions on that story. The referent of a metaphor matters, if we are trying to base anything on the metaphor.
A new identity can only come from what is true. If we pay more attention to the stories we tell, especially the religious ones, and take the time and mental effort to inquire about their truth, we will end up with more solid footing on which to base our actions, our sense of self, and we may even connect better as families and communities. We also take away the power of religious narratives of violence and destruction when we show them to be false. Wouldn’t that make the world a better place?
The truth matters; be the person to help shine that kind of light on the world.
Take a GoodMinute
What might happen if we ask after the truth of our deepest stories?
As we spend time with family over the holiday, what if we gently inquired whether or not some of our deeply held stories are true?
If one of our deeply held stories is not factual, what might that mean for us?