Narratives and Metanarratives

As my last post indicated, I’m currently reading James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. He’s helping me to understand the phenomenon of postmodern philosophy much better than any other tutor I’ve had previously. He is actually familiar with each author’s writings (particularly Derrida) and is therefore able to get beyond the sound bytes that most people lump postmodernism into.

Now, on the topic of metanarratives, I’ve written about one Christian response to metanarratives that rejects what Lyotard calls the postmodern “incredulity towards metanarratives.” Since Christianity itself is a metanarrative (a big story by which we understand reality), we cannot join postmodernism in rejecting metanarratives.

Smith says that this is actually a misreading of Lyotard. Lyotard begins by distinguishing between “narrative knowledge” and “scientific knowledge,” with the former being “grounded in the custom of a culture and, as such, does not require legitimation… Legitimation in terms of demonstration is not demanded but rather is implicit in the narrative itself as a story of the people.” (Smith, 66) Scientific knowledge (scientific here is used in a very broad, loose sense), on the other hand, is found within a cultural pluralism and cannot rely on any kind of narrative cultural homogeneity. Instead, scientific knowledge appeals to reason, a supposedly universal stamp of legitimation. Smith comments:

This move generates what Lyotard famously describes as metanarratives: appeals to criteria of legitimation that are understood as standing outside any particular language game and thus guarantee universal truth. And it is precisely here that we locate postmodernity’s incredulity toward metanarratives: they are just another language game, albeit masquerading as the game above all games. Or as Lyotard puts it, scientific knowledge, which considered itself to be a triumph over narrative knowledge, covertly grounds itself in a narrative. (67)

So, science (again, broadly speaking) claims to have transcended narrative, but postmodernism exposes this as a narrative itself. A metanarrative is therefore a narrative pretending that it isn’t one at all. This is the real problem for modern notions of reason and the various sciences birthed out of this narrative.

This critique opens up some new vistas to explore, as well as some old ones. It has its opportunities, as well as its problems, which Smith details:

What characterizes the postmodern condition, then, is not a rejection of grand stories in terms of scope or in the sense of epic claims, but rather an unveiling of the fact that all knowledge is rooted in some narrative or myth… The result, however, is what Lyotard describes as a “problem of legitimation” since what we thought were universal criteria have been unveiled as just one game among many. If we consider, for instance, the reality of deep moral diversity and competing visions of the good, postmodern society is at a loss to adjudicate the competing claims. There can be no appeal to a higher court that would transcend a historical context or a language game, no neutral observer or “God’s-eye view” that can legitimate or justify one paradigm or moral language game above another. (69)

Although this seems to throw open the doors to relativism, Smith makes some further poignant observations:

But is this situation as bad as we think? Are we lamenting the loss of what was a very modern hegemony of America, for instance? Is our situation really all that different from the situation of the apostle Paul or Augustine? Should we be trying to establish a common myth for an entire nation—a Constantinian strategy—or should the church simply be a witness amid this plurality of competing myths? (70)

I’m still chewing on this myself. What do you think?

5 responses to “Narratives and Metanarratives”

  1. Matt,

    Where or how to begin to comment on such a topic …

    I think the beauty and gift of deconstruction is that it shows us our creative and poetic involvement in the narratives that we think/tell/live by/etc. I guess it also shows us that we are often caught up in the narrative constructions of others (and busy constructing for others), and it gives us opportunity to reflect on what we find that has been constructed in our context that is both of our doing and that of previous generations.

    Can we escape narrative frameworks about ‘reality’, or attain unmediated knowledge? I tend to think not, although theoretically some possibility must be left open. The problem with Christian metanarratives is that there seems to be the tendency by some Christians to deny the need for interpretation at some point – that interpretation is not needed for some crystal clear metanarrative suppositions. I suppose the problem I have is that we don’t seem to able to escape the hermeneutical circle of interpretation, and so we need to admit it.

    Behind each metanarrative, Christian ones included, is a supporting meta-metanarrative if you like, that provides a basis for the one being supported. Even for those who want to base their metanarratives on ‘pure revelation’ of some type, the problem of how to think about, speak about, or act on these revelations brings in the problems of interpretation and translation. So I think some degree of ‘suspicion’ of metanarratives or at least ‘questioning’ is often warranted … we can perhaps push to far into questioning or skepticism I suppose, but how to find these lines? Satan is often a question-asker and skeptical doubter in scripture, but then so is Jesus in a way – questioning, probing, transforming and subverting common wisdom. So I don’t think a hermeneutics of suspicion is without warrant, while I also think that the other half of it is a sympathetic heremeneutics of understanding that is oriented to the ‘fusion of horizons’ that Gadamer championed.

    I think if we don’t get paralyzed by the above ‘realities’, as overwhelming as they are at times, we can embrace the inescapable situatedness of our existence and the co-creating responsibilities for narratives that we have with others. If God reveals himself, in various ways and times, we still need to make sense of (interpret?) our experiences and those of others (or lack thereof), and individually, together, and with divine input/encounter, we form our continually evolving narratives. I’m sure this makes some folks uncomfortable – it makes me uncomfortable, but an attempt at some sort of fideism or timeless, changeless, interpretless narrative is no answer.

    Jamie Smith’s PhD thesis “How to Avoid Not Speaking” playfully references in it’s title Derrida’s work “How to Avoid Speaking.” I think one of the big questions that needs to be grappled with, for those who give any creedance to the insights of deconstruction, is how to then speak and act. The quote you mention at the end of your post is a pointer I think. The possibility of one uniform ‘common myth’ or ‘common story’ for a nation or otherwise, seems to be problematic on a number of levels, which I will not attempt to elaborate here.
    The provisional suggestion of being a ‘witness’ among the plurality seems like a better direction …

  2. Matt,
    These are thoughtful posts. Many thanks for openly wrestling wqith some of these important issues.

    I have had several contacts with Jamie and appreciate him as a person devoted to Christ, as well as a fine scholar.

    Lyotard’s critique of meta-narratives may well be helpful if mn are defined as narratives that claim to explain everything. On this definition, the Bible is not a mn, but rather a mega-narrative, as Merold Westphal is so fond of saying. Yet, if one does not accept Lyotard’s definition, perhaps one can continue to refer to the Bible as a mn. Vanhoozer attempts this in a chapter and a response to Jamie and Merold in Christianity and the PM turn.

    If you’re interested, I have recently published a paper written with a biologist: “Scripture, Science and Hermeneutics,” in the European Journal of Theology XV 2006 1, 35-49.

  3. My head hurts after this one bro. Seriously, I don’t know how you so faithfully post on this thing. Good on you.

    How do metanarratives differ from apriori? They seem so similar in the way they are overarching supports for belief and claims about ourselves and the world.

  4. Jer: Thanks for your comments (and lending me the book!). I don’t have much to say to anything specific to say in reply to what you’ve said, other than that I agree with what I understood and am intrigued to look a bit further into the rest. Jamie Smith’s PhD thesis sounds interesting indeed.

    Greg: I might have to get my hands on the book you mention. It’d be great to hear Smith, Vanhoozer and Westphal interacting on these issues. I’d also be interested in your article, but I don’t have the $ for a subscription.

    Tony: Metanarratives and a priori indeed seem somewhat similar, providing the structure/foundation for further exploration. Where metanarratives are critiqued is in thinking that they don’t have anything underlying their reasoning (they posit themselves as “narrative-less”), whereas a priori knowledge, for those who acknowledge it can be attained, are (in most cases) much more forthright about their presuppositions.

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