Story and promise

A few years ago I came across Robert W. Jenson’s 1993 piece on modernity and post-modernity, and wrote some notes at the time that I thought I’d surface here. It was a helpful introductory piece for me to the topics of modernity and post-modernity, and why people use these words to describe our area and the recent past. Maybe it’ll be helpful for others, too.

First, Jenson’s thesis is conveyed to a significant degree right in the headline: “How The World Lost Its Story” addresses itself to the idea that western societies have tended to lose their cohering/cementing sense of meaning and purpose and are left with significant questions on how best to live and why.

Jenson talks about this struggle through the framework of “story and promise,” or put another way through the relationship between the story of this life and the promise of what’s to come. The “story of this life” corresponding roughly to the order and purpose to be derived from the chaos and randomness of everyday life, and the “promise of what’s to come” corresponding roughly to Christian or transcendent perspectives on eternal truth, itself pointing to a “something” beyond the immediate experiences of the present and thus furnishing reasons to create and conserve the order and structure of a society for both present and future purposes. Modernity was friendly to reason, but post-modernity appears not to be.

“Story and promise,” Jenson suggests held “modernity” together:

… [modernity] has supposed we inhabit what I will call a “narratable world.” Modernity has supposed that the world “out there” is such that stories can be told that are true to it. And modernity has supposed that the reason narratives can be true to the world is that the world somehow “has” its own true story, antecedent to, and enabling of, the stories we tell about ourselves in it.”

On “promise”:

In effect, the church could say to her hearers: “You know that story you think you must be living out in the real world? We are here to tell you about its turning point and outcome.” ….

One of many analogies between postmodernity and dying antiquity—in which the church lived for her most creative period—is that the late antique world also insisted on being a meaningless chaos, and that the church had to save her converts by offering herself as the narratable world within which life could be lived with dramatic coherence. Israel had been the nation that lived a realistic narrative amid nations that lived otherwise; the church offered herself to the gentiles as their Israel. The church so constituted herself in her liturgy.

Think broadly and regard “liturgy” as analogous in some sense to culture, or shared ideas, or observances that make a cohesive civilization possible by harmonizing its discordant parts into a whole:

[Today, many] simply do not apprehend or inhabit a narratable world. Indeed, many do not know that anyone ever did. The reason so many now cannot “find their place” is that they are unaware of the possibility of a kind of world or society that could have such things as places, though they may recite, as a sort of mantra, memorized phrases about “getting my life together” and the like. There are now many who do not and cannot understand their lives as realistic narrative. John Cage or Frank Stella; one of my suburban Minnesota students whose reality is rock music, his penis, and at the very fringes some awareness that to support both of these medical school might be nice; a New York street dude; the pillar of her congregation who one day casually reveals that of course she believes none of it, that her Christianity is a relativistic game that could easily be replaced altogether by some other religion or yoga—all inhabit a world of which no stories can be true.

“All inhabit a world of which no stories can be true.”

To think of the most basic and essential stories about reality as, at best useful, but most likely just necessary lies is nihilism, and it’s a weak basis for either getting any anything “real” or for creating or conserving any reliable social order. A friend of mine at Penn State used to almost consolingly remark to himself in moments when he was feeling dispirited, “Life’s a bitch, then you die.” This dark humor was basically funny at 20, but within a few years it becomes more visibly an abyss from which nothing good will emerge.

We convince ourselves no absolute truth exists, and at the same time that morale-boosting lies are absolutely useful—all while failing to recognize the irony in grasping at something transcendent while rejecting any permanence-outside-of-time as impossible.

If this is discouraging or just leaves you feeling angry or nihilistic, read Jenson’s whole piece for a holistic sense of what he’s talking about.

Subscribe for free to receive most posts by email. Consider subscribing as a Patron for members-only posts.