One of the perennial questions on this blog when it is asserted that worldviews/narratives cannot be founded empirically/scientifically (which isn’t however, to say that both those aspects don’t play a part) is, “Well, then how do we know which narrative is true?” Leaving aside the huge presupposition contained in the question (which is that we can only know what’s true empirically/scientifically—so aren’t you really saying that every narrative could be true or conversely all false?), there are ways to evaluate differing narratives that don’t reduce to simply saying something like, “all the evidence and science are on the side of…”. Such a statement merely begs the question.
One of the ways to reflect upon differing narratives is to ask these questions: What is this narrative’s cultural footprint? How has it made the world a better or worse place? Of course, remember, anyone using the terms “better” and “worse” already presuppose what such should mean and one is already using those terms within a narrative that gives those terms meaning. But assuming those terms mean what is commonly meant in modern Western democracies, how does a narrative stack up, so to speak, as far as its impact on a culture/civilization?
Allow me to take a quick detour here before going further. Even if we could point to the many good things a narrative has produced, this is never to say that we are not aware that any given narrative has also had negative impacts on a culture. It is always a mixed bag. When pointing out a good, it should never be without an awareness of the narrative’s dark side. So please, I am well aware of the Crusades, Inquisition, and various other dark moments in Christian history. I’m not interested in a comparison sheet of which narrative has the darker history. That road goes nowhere. I say upfront, every narrative has failed at points, is failing now, and will fail in the future.
There is one key feature of this duality (positive/dark side) that we must keep in mind however. I would argue that the dark side of the Christian narrative has always come about because of those claiming the title (Christian) but divorcing themselves from the very core teachings and tradition of the narrative, or “reading” that core and tradition in a literal/wooden manner. They read in a way that stresses “law” over “spirit” and cares more about purity and power than it does people. In doing so, they are rebels and traitors in a way. The very narrative they claim their own actually condemns them. I would suggest that all fundamentalism (whether secular or religious) falls into this category.
It follows then that this is an additional way of evaluating a narrative. Does its dark side actually flow directly from its core and tradition or is it a betrayal of that very core and tradition? I will give an example: Christians are prohibited from committing murder. Even if a law were passed and majority rule established that one could legally kill, let’s just say, any person from the islands of Fiji, it would still be morally wrong for a Christian. If he were to kill a person from those islands, he would know he had acted outside and contrary to the narrative of the Gospel. Even if he feigned ignorance, the greater Christian community would condemn the action as a betrayal.
Conversely, consider the narrative of scientific materialism. It is neutral as to ethics or morality. There is no “ought” there is only the “is.” This is not to say that one could then say, “Well, even though there is no “ought” let’s create a way to live in community so that we don’t “eat” each other. Here is the difference though. That element, the “ought” is something that has to be added. It is not something inherent to the narrative. The narrative itself is silent. In principle, there is no reason to ask why one couldn’t logically make the claim then, that, since there is no “ought” one “ought” to be able to do whatever his will and power enable him to do, even if that means dominating others, and name it “good.” It is consistent and flows from the premises (there is no “ought”) of the narrative. Agree or disagree, the logic is there. It is not an inherent contradiction to the core of the narrative.
So I think there is a difference when we talk about the dark side of narratives, even when we admit all narratives have them. Sometimes the dark side flows from a betrayal of that very narrative at its core. In other cases, the dark side could be logically attributed to flowing from the very core of the narrative. Another example is with a narrative like Nazism. We should not be shocked that the Holocaust could happen under such a narrative. It logically flows from the core of that narrative—or the space that is created by the narrative for that very thing to possibly happen and be seen, by those believing that narrative to be true, as “normal” or the “right” thing to do. By the same token, we would be shocked if the Holocaust had happened if people like Dietrich Bonheoffer (or even just more moderate German leaders) had been as powerful politically as Hitler. Why? Because it would be such a complete and utter betrayal of the very narrative Bonheoffer believed.
Getting back to the main point however, the other way of evaluating a narrative that differs from one’s own, is this idea of cultural footprint and whether the good accomplished appears to outweigh the bad. Again, nothing like this “proves” that Christianity is true in any empirical or scientific sense, but that is not the point anyway. As noted, no narrative (including philosophical naturalism/empiricism) is “proved” that way. But we can ask, “Have these ideas, more often than not, proved to have good consequence over bad ones?” Any narrative has to be able to move from the abstract to the concrete in the sense of the “rubber-meeting-the-road” culturally, politically, legally, and educationally at some point. Regardless of any abstract arguments we might muster, we should be able to point to something concrete and say, “Yes that over there, such is a result of interpreting (seeing) the world a certain way— and that result, in people’s lives, is and has been a good thing.”
I think the “good” things pointed out in this essayare such things. These are the things that make a narrative “true.” If these elements were missing, regardless of any other empirical or scientific support a narrative may have, it would still be a false narrative.
To be clear, I’m not saying that only the Christian narrative has produced good things. Many narratives I would ultimately disagree with have also produced good things—they’ve left a positive cultural footprint in many areas. For instance, the narratives derived from the Greek tradition as shown in the works of Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato. I’m simply saying that at some point we need to be able to observe what a narrative actually produces in the lives of a culture over time. It is one “empirical” way of evaluating narratives. This doesn’t remove it from the realm of interpretation. One person may see a church providing free education and medical care to orphans, but only see “indoctrination” and control—thus interpreting such to be a negative impact. None of this is “objective” or neutral “evidence” to be offered as “proof.” Putting that aside, I think a reasonable person will see my point that, on the whole, we can observe what a narrative has produced culturally over time and make a general assessment of whether or not it has had a more positive effect than negative or visa-versa.
Narratives have consequences. What are some of the positive consequences of your narrative–such that they can be linked directly to that narrative?