Metanarratives 2

Some further thoughts on why the Bible is not subject to the postmodern critique of modern metanarratives. The following is largely a case of thinking out loud. I would appreciate any comments or criticisms that people might have. We might be wise to distinguish macro-narratives from meta-narratives. They are not necessarily the same things. Metanarratives are not distinguished primarily by their size, but by the level of discourse at which they operate. The Bible is not a metanarrative because it is a first-order, not a second-order, narrative. The Bible is not a philosophy of history — it is history. However, it is a macro-narrative that serves to shape, transform and renarrate other narratives.

A first-order narrative is just a regular narrative, whilst a second-order narrative (or metanarrative) is a narrative about narratives, as it were. Second-order narratives function to position, legitimize and reflect upon the character of first-order narratives. The metanarratives of modernity (which postmoderns criticize) functioned to legitimize modernity’s project. Modernity’s metanarratives appealed ‘to universal human reason as the ground of their legitimation.’

The metanarratives of modernity attempted to claim the god’s eye view for mankind. They were foundationalist in character. Whilst some forms of theology have sought to legitimate themselves by appeal to universal human reason, most contemporary forms of theology have rejected any such appeal. We don’t appeal to universal human reason or experience, but operate in terms of a rationality and experience that is particular to the narrative that we inhabit as Church.

Further differences can be seen in the fact that the Christian narrative is one given by revelation and received by faith, rather than constructed by (supposedly) autonomous reason. Such a narrative is not self-legitimizing, as those of modernity were. The metanarratives of modernity were motivated by the desire to be as God. The Christian narrative lets God be God. Rather than legitimating us, such a narrative powerfully criticizes us. Whilst postmodernity can rightly point out that the truth claims of modernity were all too often nothing but veiled power claims, the Christian narrative is not necessarily subject to such a critique. The Church is also openly confessional and has no pretensions of neutrality or autonomy.

Some people have rightly observed the manner in which Christianity has on occasions been hijacked by the powers and used to legitimize their power. Sadly this has happened far too often. One can still see the same thing taking place in many parts of the Church today. However, this is not a problem that is intrinsic to the Christian faith itself. When the prophetic voice of the Church is silenced (whether it is silenced within or without the Church) the Christian narrative is not being allowed to function as it ought. When the Church’s prophetic voice — both within and without her borders — is allowed free rein it serves to continually throw our self-legitimization and self-justification into question. As Thomas Torrance observed:—

By the very act of putting us freely in the Right and Truth of God, justification tells us that we are in untruth…. By being put in the truth with God we are told that Jesus Christ is our Truth, that we have to look away from ourselves, our concepts and formulations, to him alone, and that therefore we dare not boast of a truth of our own. This applies, however, not only to all prior knowledge, for at every point in our ongoing theological thinking and speaking we have to let our knowledge, our theology, our doctrinal formulations, be called into question by the very Christ toward whom they point, for he alone is their proper Truth.

The Church has, in many respects, been unfaithful in its prophetic calling. It has transformed the Christian narrative from a narrative designed to liberate us from the narratives of the ‘powers’ into yet another mastering narrative.

One of the very significant features of the Christian narrative, by which it is differentiated from the metanarratives of modernity is seen in the fact that the Christian narrative has yet to be completed. A narrative that is still open cannot be used as a master narrative in the sense that modern metanarratives (e.g. Hegel and Marx) could. We cannot impose such an open story upon reality as a means of power or legitimization.

The being of the Church is problematized by the ascension of Christ; the Church now exists in the liminal already / not yet time. Any self-legitimization project on the part of the Church will generally proceed by some sort of easing of the eschatological tension in which it finds itself. One way of going about this is by normalizing the being of the Church and problematizing the being of the ascended Christ.

This has clearly taken place in many quarters of the Church. As Mark Searle observes, one of the ways that the narrative of the Church has come to function as a metanarrative akin to those of modernity (although Searle doesn’t use that terminology) is by means of individualization and dehistoricization. Individualization tends to project evil and salvation outside of the historical process. The depoliticization of eschatological references by treating them as concerned with the destiny of the individual alone and the loss of orientation towards the future, have led to an uncritical acceptance of existing social structures. Even the past is ‘ideologized in support of the status quo’.

He goes on to point out the role that ‘reification of the real’ has to play in this process. Rather than seeing the ‘really real’ within the social and historical process, it is projected into some parallel, yet disengaged realm, which is then mediated to us through certain narrow ‘channels’. Such a view clearly serves to maintain a power claim for an elite within society. Within this approach of reification the concept of the kingdom of God, for example, is spatialized: it is ‘up there’ instead of ‘ahead’. He sums up: ‘Christianity is faithfully understood as “utopian praxis” insofar as it is about the Kingdom of God being “at hand” and thereby calls all other kingdoms (“reality constructs”) into question.’

As an aside, it is worth questioning whether the resistance that there is among many Reformed people to the reforming of such documents as the Westminster Confession of Faith may be in part due to the very content of those documents. The Westminster Confession of Faith is, frankly, individualistic, dehistoricized and reifies key concepts (e.g. ‘covenant’ becomes an abstract concept mapped onto history, rather than a concrete historical entity and ongoing task). As such is a perfect example of the sort of document that is designed to sustain a static, irreformable power structure, whether or not its framers intended it to function as such.

The Church is not without a metadiscourse. The language of the Church has an ‘inter-textual’ metalinguistic role to play in relation to our natural language. It serves to correct, reposition and transform our natural language (as a macro-narrative). This is the role of the Church’s language that theologians like George Lindbeck seem to be focusing on.

The language of the Church also has its own ‘intra-textual’ meta-linguistic level, that of theology. Theology is, as Alexander Schmemann argued, supposed to act as the conscience of the Church — her ‘purifying self-criticism’.

As James Smith, interacting with Dooyeweerdianism, argues, the Church’s own first-order (confessional) language (which is informed by, but not to be confused with, the Church’s second-order language — theology) is that which serves to position and inform other narratives in our world. In this respect, one could say (as John Milbank does from time to time, e.g. Theology and Social Theory, 1) that theology needs to function as a metadiscourse or metanarrative (Smith, in unpacking Milbank, distinguishes between theology1 and theology2 — the superscript numbers referring to levels of discourse — and claims that it is theology1 that functions as the metadiscourse in relation to other narratives and sciences). Nevertheless, as I hope is clear by now, such a metanarrative or metadiscourse is not to be confused with the metanarratives of modernity. The two types function very differently.

If Smith is right, and it is theology1 that functions as a ‘metanarrative’, then we seem to be employing the term ‘metanarrative’ in an equivocal sense. Modernity’s ‘metanarratives’ are second-order narratives (as theology2 is), but the term ‘metanarrative’, when applied to the first-order confessional discourse of the Church (as it stands as the queen of the sciences) seems to carry more of the sense of ‘transformational narrative’ or ‘macro-narrative’.

In concluding, a very salutary warning is given to us by Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas observes that many of the problems that we currently face are the result of the Church’s unfaithfulness, by which its prophetic message became ideologized and was used to prop up and legitimize unbiblical power structures. We must beware of too easily allowing the ‘prophetic’ voice of postmodernism to play the role that the Church ought to be playing. The Church has resources to criticize its own mistakes that go far beyond the resources of the postmodernists. The ‘prophetic’ voice of postmodernism will never be able to expose the idolatry of modernity to the extent that the Church can. Postmodernism is still in the thrall of many of modernity’s idols. We should not ultimately entrust the task of ridding us of our idols to idolaters.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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5 Responses to Metanarratives 2

  1. Paul says:

    I’m very much new to theology, philosophy and the reformed world. So I hope it’s not too much of a pain to mention the word ‘Federal Vision’.

    From your understanding of the people involved, would you say they are attempting to work out the “concrete historical entity and ongoing task” of the covenant?

    I ask, because I’m from a purportedly non-denominational background, and I really like what I am seeing in posts like this from you and from men like Douglas Wilson and N.T. Wright.

  2. Al says:

    In my understanding of the various people within the ‘Federal Vision’ conversation there is a clear stress on the covenant as a concrete historical entity as opposed to a detached and abstract theological concept. N.T. Wright is also extremely clear on this. ‘Covenant theology’ for Wright is very different from that which usually goes under that name in Reformed circles.

    Wright’s view of the covenant is clearly one that sees it as an ongoing task. He is fond of using the illustration of an unfinished Shakespearian play to make his point. The Church does not have a selection of ‘timeless truths’ (like an abstract doctrine of the covenant and doctrine of salvation) but has a concrete narrative that it is called to inhabit and live in terms of. This article is well worth reading on the subject.

    I am not sure that the point is quite as strongly expressed in Wilson and certain others within the FV conversation, but they certainly seem to be wanting to move in a similar direction. AAPC2002 certainly had a number of strong statements of the need to speak in terms of a concrete redemptive historical narrative as opposed to merely speaking in terms of abstract theological concepts and ‘timeless truths’ of salvation.

  3. Paul says:

    Thankyou. Yes, the ‘timeless truths’ is one thing I have seen Tim Enloe, criticise.

    At the moment most of my acquaintance with all of these issues (Reformed and Covenant Theology, issues of Narrative, the emptiness of the modernist project) has being from blogs and articles like the one you just linked to. I may have missed this, but I wonder if you would have any recommendations of books that have being provocative or shaped your theology in a ‘good way’. Excluding the past few reviews.

  4. Al says:

    If I had to recommend one single book it would be Peter Leithart’s Against Christianity.

  5. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2005-2006 | Alastair's Adversaria

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