On Choosing Our Stories
For whatever reason, God made human beings inside of time. We are creatures of linearity, of cause and effect. We experience events in single direction. There is no going backwards, not even in memory; for when we remember things, we are creating a new story in our minds, one that becomes hazier and more indefinite the further removed we are from the events in question. Even if we were to somehow invent a machine to take us backwards in time, the time-traveller would, paradoxically, still be moving forward in his own story.
Story is the operative word for us time-bound creatures. In order to make sense of our chronological accretions, and in order to have any sort of identity at all (i.e., to answer the question “Who am I?”), we must take that successive series of events and turn it all into a narrative. We move from a mere “what?” to a “so what?” We ascribe value judgments to the things that have happened and to the people we’ve encountered, and we give ourselves hope for what might happen in the future. All of this becomes a grand, living play, with ourselves living as the main character. We are heroes prevailing against (or falling victim to) the forces of evil. Our stories develop their own plots and arcs, even individual acts, and the curtain does not fall on the drama until our bodily eyes are shut for good.
We all have our own history, but we also have a shared history. Our lives criss-cross with one another everyday, jumbling our histories together. We also have our own interpretations of those histories, thus, we each have our own narrative. These narratives are sometimes—or perhaps often—contradictory. A crowd in protest pits itself heroically against a corrupt administration. That same administration believes itself as nobly holding out against the whims of a pernicious mob. This is the same event with two different stories.
All of this is not to simply say that people remember things differently and have different ideas of good and bad. That is self-evident, or at least, it should be in our digital era, where everyday we hear a multitude of discordant voices. My point is this: we all have our stories. None of us are above that construction.
It’s tempting for some in our age of materialism and science worship to believe they somehow are above the concept of story, that their empiricism grants them an Archimedean point to objectively observe events and phenomenon unhindered by their own biases and perceptions. It’s an ironic part of their story, but a part of it none the less. There are others, like some post-modernists, who understand perfectly that we all are wrapped in our narrative. They, however, take the tragic step of dismissing the possibility of objective truth and objective goodness simply because there are so many contradictory interpretations of truth and goodness, and they dismiss the possibility that our individual stories might perhaps be part of something greater. Some rarely question their stories at all, if they even realize they have one.
Not every story is watertight. Our memories fail, our emotions affect our judgements, and the how and what of our knowledge-gathering—our epistemology, in other words—might be too weak to account for the larger, more complicated parts of our story. This last piece is key. How do we account for questions like Why do I exist? and Why does anything exist? Many stories have no room to fit in such massive queries. They’d burst at the seams. Some people remain innocently ignorant of those questions. Some purposefully avoid them for the damage they’d do to a narrative.
I have come to the conclusion that there are only two perfect stories, only two narratives that can wholly account for our lives and our existence. One is a materialism. The other is Christianity. One of these must be chosen in the end, if we demand our stories account for all things.
In the first story, all is accidental. Meaning cannot be attributed to cosmological events; there is no inherent message content to nature and no intended purpose. However our reality came to exist (a fluke of quantum mechanics seems to be the prevailing theory), its genesis was no act of volition by anyone, let alone a transcendent, eternal being. The formation of our solar system was a coincidence, and so was the formation of our planet. That Earth formed large bodies of water and an atmosphere was an astronomically unlikely accident. That microbial life formed was still more unlikely. That these microbes morphed into upright creatures who formed societies and told stories is impossible to even fathom. Yet here we are.
Now, adherents of the second story—Christianity—do not necessarily object to the succession of events above. We certainly disagree on causation and meaning, but many of us are more than willing to concede that building a human is a process that could very well take millions, if not billions, of years.
However, in this first story, where all is accidental and all is meaningless, we arrive at a problem with the plot: the very idea of good and evil, of morals that transcend individual or tribal preferences for event outcomes, is itself accidental. We may, of course, certainly cast our “us versus them” subplots as “good versus evil,” but this is an arbitrary whim, not an assertion of objective truth. It is an aside, a whimsical fairytale within the main story. This is the vital thing about the materialist story: all morals are random and artificial constructs. Nobility, justice, and goodness are accidents of accidents of accidents. They have no meaning and no power, save for when we collectively play along.
And there is no reason to do so, once the lights fall on the scrim and the empty backstage is revealed. Indeed, I have every incentive to transgress the rules of society, to rewrite the play in my favor. Perhaps I will play along, at least for a time. I will be the honest bank teller who secures the trust of the manager, then empties the vault—and why shouldn’t I? “Theft is wrong,” you say, but “wrong” itself is meaningless in our story. “Right” is what we pretend it is, and I have imagined that theft is what is right. I have no obligations to others, and any objections to my deeds are merely sentiment, or perhaps only sediment: the movement of atoms. We as a tribe may collectively agree that it is more beneficial to our community as a whole if we adhere to such rules, but a transgression of the rules cannot be said to be a violation of a supreme moral law. Anyway, it would benefit me most to play along as an upright citizen, enjoying the advantages of society by day and reaping the rewards of lawbreaking in the dark of night.
We may craft philosophies and dogmas and laws that demand I do not do these things, but I only obey such things at the whim of my story—and there is no absolute authority to judge me for it. This is the sum of the story of materialism: all is meaningless, and I have no obligation to the demands of others. I do what I want, because there is no reason not to.
It is obvious that this view is repulsive. At least, I hope that it is obvious. However, besides Christianity, I find it the only honest view. Our politicians and judges may speak of this and that evil or this and that good, but they are always telling a story, and a poorly formed one at that. The Obergefell Supreme Court decision last year, for example, is hailed as one of our society’s greatest moral achievements in recent years. But in the materialist view, it is only an accident of an accident of an accident, and has no inherent moral value to it. That great swaths of society claim it as a moral victory while likely having an artificial anchor of morality themselves is, to say the least, a peculiar thing. In the end, believers of this story must acknowledge that it is a fiction, all of it—society, morality, ethics, goodness—and that they have no duty to play along. If the materialist decides not to be a bandit, it is purely for selfish reasons.
The other story is Christianity. I do not have space for a proper defense of why I believe this is the only viable alternate to the horror described above. The short of it is this: rather than an infinite regression of quantum burps causing and collapsing universes at random, there is a singular, ultimate Being, and this Being is what (who, rather) caused our universe. The Being is not merely causal, but willful and personal (in the sense that it has personhood). This Being, which we name God, spun our universe from nothing and made sentient creatures with a purpose, which was to know him. Our personal story in this grand arc is the adventure to unite with this Being, to be welcomed home by him, and to assist others along the road. There is a turning towards God, which we call good, and a turning away, which we call evil. These orientations are absolute, and neither time nor the whims of humanity can change them.
We shall be brought to account by God for our turning away, of which we are all guilty. There is good news, however: God himself entered the story. He took the stage and threw open the door that leads us to him. He is himself the door, and he calls us to knock, enter, and be recognized.
These are the only two stories that can be lived in full intellectual honesty. In the first, it is as the materialists say; there is no God, no Heaven and Hell, and no judgment at the end of all things. The rules that govern are our hearts, minds, and bodies are mere accidents, and our laws and ethics shift across time and across borders. Today’s noble rebel is tomorrow’s tyrant, or perhaps just his neighbor’s tyrant. There is no final tallying of our deeds. There is no progressing to a better tomorrow—”better” itself is meaningless. The materialist may think he is a part of something greater, but this is only make-believe.
The other story is that of God and the great drama that reconciles his creation to himself. This is the story I believe. In the end, it is the only story that accounts for all things, while allowing goodness, truth, and beauty to be meaningful and not illusory.
Photo by Samantha Marx at Flickr Creative Commons. Used under (CC BY 2.0).