Advantages of a Meta-Narrative

Why are so many people abandoning religion?

On one hand, religion is not serving their purposes and needs. They see judgment and doctrines that have undermined Christian values that are hypocritical in presentation. They see a lack of kindness on the part of clergy or harsh judgments from congregants and say who wants to belong to a club like that? They see homilies that do not serve their purposes and empty rote rituals that have no meaning for them. They see condemnation rather than mercy.

On the other hand, the foundations of religion can help establish a context for spiritual development that can help in solving problems. Some people may see the value of staying fit and eating healthy every day, but they don’t necessarily see the value of establishing a context for spiritual development.

Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar writes about the idea of a “theo-drama vs. an ego-drama.” A “theo drama” is a narrative established based on a spiritual foundation of belief in God. The individual focuses attention on what God means to him for any given purpose throughout the day, and how he may be a servant of God. The “ego-drama” is when an individual draws from his own will and denies any sense of spiritual foundation for addressing the world.

These dramas are narratives that help shape an individual in dealing with the daily challenges of life. In literature it is called a meta-narrative. A meta-narrative is a story within a story that helps shape beliefs and ideas in the construct of life. The Bible is an example of a meta-narrative. The Gita and the Upanishads are examples of meta-narratives. Relating our lives to bigger stories helps us with context for our own stories. I’ve heard of individuals using the pages of literature as meta-narratives as well.

Having taught theology for many years, I’ve had students tell me at the beginning of the year that they just can’t relate to an ancient text. I wonder sometimes if they’ve been introduced to techniques that can help them see how to relate to them? I wonder if there was a meaningful evaluation of what the texts had to offer if they would see how a helpful narrative may inspire to see things new with a fresh perspective of hope and relevance.

Many people are throwing the baby out with the bathwater because they view the fire and brimstone narratives and the portrayal of a figure like Jesus from the eyes of a minister who views him as a judge and jury, and a condemner of sinners rather than a merciful friend who loves unconditionally. 

I’ve seen young people become disaffected angst-ridden nihilists, and it makes me sad. I heard about a former student who is trying to find the answers. He left the school, was on the run from the law and dug in deep into a life of crime and finding a family in gangs. His narrative is now informed by the laws of the street and the rules for survival.  An “ego-drama” of will informs his conscience which is a kill or be killed struggle.

Such approaches to life through the ego-drama perspective poses problems for future survival and makes life harder than it needs to be. Such individuals may address problems from the level of the problem rather than from remaining above the problem. Address problems from the level of the problem and there is no resource from which to function and help in solving that problem. It’s easier to become lost. 

I realize the problems are more complex than just establishing a context for a narrative. It’s hard to remain above a situation when the situation presented is desperate. Some people are coming from impossible situations and lose hope, so they look to other channels for answers.

They break up with their partners and the story is over and may become depressed. They face uncertainty and don’t know what direction to walk on their spiritual path. There is no blueprint from which they can gather their wits and see that there are stories to help them establish an inner context that can help them rise above challenges through virtues and persistence.

I’ve also seen students come from humble means and develop a “theo-drama.” There is a sense of purpose and pride. There is an empowering movement to see something more in each and every text, and a spirited approach to a problem knowing that an answer is awaiting such optimism and ready to feed the brain with a wholesome new understanding.

Miraculous narratives are created. Moves are made and inner reserves of potentiality are created from which to draw hope and faith. I’ve been witness to students who rise to meet the day with a deeper quest of understanding, embracing uncertainty with the full knowledge that the sand of adversity forms the pearl of being – even in the midst of dark foreboding dire circumstances being faced at home. It’s quite a thing to witness when it unfolds before your eyes and inspires a tremendous a sense of awe and respect.

Every person is facing an existential crisis in his/her life. Spiritual development can help shape our purpose and lead us in a direction that will take us out of that crisis. Reaching out to others in community who are facing those challenges themselves can help people see they are not alone. Those communities and the dialogues we create within them are critical to helping us go deeper.

I understand why people abandon church, but I question what narrative is informing their conscious awareness of something more?

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