Friday, 5 September 2008

Telling Stories


The stories we find compelling reveal something to us of the tensions in our lives. Perhaps even more revealing are the stories we ourselves tell. Think of the incidents that happen to us in the course of an ordinary day - there will be dozens and dozens of them. Most of these will pass into oblivion but some we will pass on to others in the form of the stories we tell when asked "how was your day?" We won't tell everything that happened to us, but a carefully selected sample. Why these few? And the incidents we choose to tell are never reported exactly as they happened: we select details, emphasising some parts and ignoring others. We minimise, or even omit entirely some of the characters present and play up others. We expand the timescale in parts of the story and contract it in others. Think for example of what is meant in the middle of a story by the phrase, "and then..." (or such similar phrases as "what happened next" or "next thing I knew". This can mean "instantly", or "soon afterwards" or even perhaps "a day or two later". The characters objects and events which make up a particular story can be visualised like so:

All the elements of the story have connections with all the other parts of the story, all exist more or less simultaneously, and no one has ascribed greater or less value to any of them. In telling the story, we emphasise some parts over others, and arrange the story into a "plot" - into a time sequence of our own devising, which may or may not roughly follow the temporal sequence of events as they unfolded to us. So our told story, constructed from the events will look like this:
The story like pattern of the anecdote we tell is our own construction. We are all writers and composers and artists as we recount the events of our day. The selection of the event and the way we construct the event into a narrative discourse will be extremely revealing of who we are and what our current concerns are.

This is not where the importance of narrative ends though. Our lives are narratives: they are a continuous story stretching back over the period we have been alive. And in remembering and telling the story of our own lives a similar process has taken place: we have selected, forgotten and shaped the events of our past and we have imposed a pattern ; shaped the multifarious incidents of our lives into a meaningful plot. What informs this shaping? And the history of humankind is a story. And the history of the planet is a story. And the history of the universe is a story. Who is imposing the pattern on these? Who is selecting, emphasising, forgetting, shaping what IS into a time bound pattern?

15 comments:

Tillerman said...

"If we agree that the bottom line of life is happiness, not success, then it makes perfect sense to say that it is the journey [Story] that counts, not reaching the destination"

- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1934 - )

VenDr said...

I don't think the bottom line of life is happiness. I think it's truth. But the conclusion would be the same in any event, perhaps more so.

Tillerman said...

I don't think the bottom line of life is truth. I think it is love. Paul writes that in the end only love will remain and I believe this to be true, so for myself perhaps truth and love have an equivalence? if so, that would make me happy.

VenDr said...

Jesus, before Pilate summed himself up by saying I have come to bear witness to the truth and to his disciples he said you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. He also enjoined them to love each other as he loved them. Love? Truth? The same thing? aspects of the same thing? Whatever we arrive at after chasing that particular unsolvable semantic knot round and round the mulberry bush, it is the process of life which is important, not the attainment of some ephemeral goal like "happiness". We are in what Keats called This Vale Of Soulmaking, undergoing the process of strengthening ourselves that we may, as Blake said, Learn to bear the beams of love.

This idea of existence as a process lies behind the philosophy of Heraclitus and the Process Theology of Whitehead and his followers. It is why I think of narrative as an important indicator of the nature of reality. Perhaps also, as an important indicator of the nature of God. Everything we know of is in process. Is God also, in process?

VenDr said...

PS. Paul said Faith Hope and Love - these three remain. Three aspects of truth? A list, but perhaps not an exhaustive list of aspects of truth?

Anonymous said...

"Everything we know of is in process. Is God also, in process?"

In relation to His creation, I guess you could say so. But as Palamas argued, if we know God, it is in His (uncreated) energies, not His essence. Classical Christian theology has never thought of God as being 'in process' or in a state of change but as immutable; 'without parts or passions', as those misunderstood words of the 39 Articles put it. Thomas Weinandy of Blackfriars, Oxford, has recently reasserted divine impassibility, against a trend (from Moltmann and others) arguing for divine passibility - which does *not mean that God does not suffer in the order of His will (as opposed to the order of His being). Classical biblical-patristic theology (endorsed by classical Anglicanism) holds that God in Himself is perfect, timeless and unchanging.

Love can never be contrasted with truth but must be grounded on it.

Anonymous said...

... or as the Bard put it in Sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds...

VenDr said...

Well of course I can't argue with the Church Fathers, after all what do I know about the essential substance of God? But of course, for that matter what do the Church Fathers know about the essential substance of God? I'm guessing, and so are they.How can any of us know anything of the great mind that is outside of time and space? What we can know of God is what God has chosen to reveal: in the Old Testament God reveals himself as a verb, not a noun - as an action, not as a thing. In the New Testament God reveals himself as a person. So the guesses of the Fathers,to the extent that they imply substantiality to the godhead, do seem at odds with the scripture . Meister Eckhart (who, had never read Moltmann) says God is no-thing and I think his guess may be more accurate. God is not substantial.

But then again, so the physicists now tell us, even substance is not substantial.

Anonymous said...

"What we can know of God is what God has chosen to reveal: in the Old Testament God reveals himself as a verb, not a noun - as an action, not as a thing. In the New Testament God reveals himself as a person."

Kelvin, I do not think God is any less 'personal' in the OT (where He speaks, thinks, feels, loves, hates, acts etc) than in the New - where He is tri-personal. (And there's the clue: if Christian theology doesn't begin and end in a trinitarian way, it will go seriously awry - as Bultmann and his epigoni have done.)
The eighteen descriptors for God that John of Damascus drew together in 'The Orthodox Faith' (infinite, eternal, simple, spiritual, invisible, uncreated etc) were not 'guesses' but summaries of biblical dicta systematically organized; and most of these terms are properly speaking apophatic: they do not tell us what God is but what He isn't. Calvin affirmed all this in his Institutes, where he argued (on NT grounds) that our knowledge of God is relational or personal, not knowledge of God's essence. It could not be otherwise. Calvin's theology is actually deeply rooted in Greek patristic thought.
The Nicene Creed affirms that the Son and the Spirit are 'of one substance ('consubstantial') with the Father'.

Anonymous said...

Here's a link, if you're interested, to John of Damascus, 'Exposition of the Orthodox Faith'.

http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/33041.htm

John was a most remarkable man, serving in the Caliphate, and the first to offer a highly perspicacious Christian critique of Islam as a kind of Christian heresy. That's worth bearing in mind when reading his 'Exposition', because heresy can do negative service in highlighting truth.

VenDr said...

I don't have any problem with any of John of Damascus' 18 descriptors. I do have a trouble with the Nicene creed, and have done for some time on just the phrase you have quoted - not because it is untrue but because it is a nonsense. That is, God is not substantial - so how can two parts of the godhead be "of the same substance"?It's like saying that the Father and the son are the same length or are of equivalent weight or are the same colour. "Substance" loses all meaning when thinking of God.

Tillerman said...

Anon: "What we can know of God is what God has chosen to reveal: in the Old Testament God reveals himself as a verb, not a noun - as an action, not as a thing. In the New Testament God reveals himself as a person."

Anyone who searches in the Old Testament for my definition of God will be looking in vain.

".. there are six hundred passages of explicit violence in the Hebrew Bible, one thousand verses where God's own violent actions of punishment are described, a hundred passages where Yahweh expressly commands others to kill people, and several stories where God irrationally kills or tries to kill for no apparent reason (for example, Exod.4:24-26)."

I and many others make the conclusion that violence is the most mentioned activity in the Bible and as Karen Armstrong explains this violent God is "Like the old Sky God, this deity is so remote from humanity and the mundane world that he easily becomes 'Deus Otiosus' and fades from our consciousness".

It is entirely possible to look upon the person of Jesus and see some expression of the nature of Love portrayed (whether this person is God is another question), but in the OT, I don't think so.

As for trying to define the essential substance of God, what a fruitless occupation - I find it almost impossible to talk about God - this 'something' is beyond everything - language, love, time, space, beyond any possible human conception - to claim to know its substance is an act of hubris.

Tillerman said...

One of the big problems that Christianity has to overcome is this endless debate and navel gazing over belief and the nature of God if it is to have a future.

One of the reasons Buddhism is so attractive and is making such big inroads into western culture is that it doesn't talk about the nature of ultimate things that we cannot know at our current level of evolution i.e. God. What it DOES do is outline a form of Spiritual PRACTISE, something that is practical. Something one can engage in - meditation, mindfulness practise.

It is in the Practise that one aspect of Spirituality ie transcendence,the numinous, is experienced. And it is an experience, not a set of philosophical treatises, or creeds.
Another aspect of Spirituality is experienced in community and relationship - this sorely needs developing in churches.

This statement in Brian McLarens book 'Finding Our Way Again' is useful ".....Buddhism presents itself as a way of life, and Christianity presents itself as a system of belief"

What one 'believes' and the enforcement thereof has been at the root of 2000 years of Christian abominations to rival anything this so called Yahweh ever did in the OT. Go and read of the trials of the philosopher Spinoza and his parents, it will make you weep - and their problems were of the milder kind inflicted by a "Christian" Europe.

What is required to move this human "Story" forward is a new Spirituality - a RADICAL spirituality that is based on giving ordinary people practical tools, strategies etc to help them develop their spirituality.

Christian belief since the time of that old fool Constantine and his state mandated religion, combined with the nutcase, vicious suppression of competing views has been a disaster until post enlightenment times.

If this human 'Story' is to continue with any Christian contribution at all and be writ large upon our futures Christianity will have to embrace the Doing more than the Saying and radically revise its systems of belief. It needs to remove its paternalist world view regarding other religions and start listening and learning.

Anonymous said...

"I do have a trouble with the Nicene creed, and have done for some time on just the phrase you have quoted - not because it is untrue but because it is a nonsense."

So it's true but nonsensical? Or do you mean it's untrue and nonsensical? Or is it only 'nonsensical' to our limited understanding?

"That is, God is not substantial - so how can two parts of the godhead be "of the same substance"?
[Actually, Kelvin, you seem to have forgotten the Holy Spiirt here!]
It's like saying that the Father and the son are the same length or are of equivalent weight or are the same colour. "Substance" loses all meaning when thinking of God."

No, that isn't what it means. 'Substantia'/ 'phusis' in classical theology is close in meaning to 'essence' (roughly, 'what makes something itself', 'nature'). Length, weight, color etc belong only to the created world of spacetime. They amy be posited of the incarante Son but not God in His eternal immanence, which is tri-personal, infinite, and all-loving.
The three Persons (hupostaseis) share the same essence. Arius denied this and lapsed into sub-biblical heresy.
The inner-trinitarian relations are the really tricky question, still dividing Western and Eastern Catholicism.

VenDr said...

I mean that in making a statemtn on the essence of God the creed is neither true nor untrue. Just absurd. In the same way that it is neither true nor untrue, just absurd, to speak of God the Father and God the son, and yes, if you like, God the Holy Spirit being the same weight. I can see that the intent is to say that the nature of the son is the same as the nature of the father but as the essence or nature of God is beyond our knowing, how can we possibly make a sensible statement about that?

You said earlier:
""Everything we know of is in process. Is God also, in process?"

In relation to His creation, I guess you could say so."

Surely that's all we have to go on. We can only know God insofar as God is knowable to created beings through the creation and by way of the created means of perception open to us. All these - creation, creatures and senses of perception - are in process. How can we know God as anything else other than in process?

As the website you helpfully directed me to says,
"No one has seen God at any time; the Only-begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him . The Deity, therefore, is ineffable and incomprehensible. For no one knows the Father, save the Son, nor the Son, save the Father Matthew 11:27 ."

And further, speaking of our knowledge of God, it goes on to say, "Many of the things relating to God, therefore, that are dimly understood cannot be put into fitting terms, but on things above us we cannot do else than express ourselves according to our limited capacity;" All our God language is thus approximate and incomplete. How absurd then, for the Church to have been divided for centuries on the nature of the relationship within the Trinity.