Every person’s life is a story that is set in the context of family, community, culture and time.
We live in a world that is both wonderfully delightful and frightening in the complexity of its challenges. While we seek fairness, justice, love and fulfillment, we are often confronted with injustice, unpredictable natural disasters, suffering, divisions and hatred where the innocent and marginalised suffer disproportionately. When we choose to know what is going on and confront the realities and the messiness of life, it is difficult to see it and still love it. In this information saturated age, where the complexities and challenges of life are so visible, many disengage in order to protect themselves from being overwhelmed because they find it so hard to respond in a morally meaningful way (Garber, 2014, p.68). They become stoics. Others who ‘see and know’ step away from history and their responsibility for the way that history unfolds. They step away from the tragedies and heartaches of life to protect themselves from being hurt by becoming too close to what will inevitably bring pain. They become armchair critics of all that is wrong with the world. They become cynics. If we are to avoid the paralysis of stoicism and of destructive cynicism and debilitating sorrow, we somehow have to make sense of the world – not only of our own lives but of life (Garber, 1996, p.56). Garber says that we need a story that provides a lens through which to understand what we see so that we can still be responsible and act in love in the messy world (Garber, 2014, p.82).
Garber says that we need a story that provides a lens through which to understand what we see so that we can still be responsible and act in love in the messy world.
We are all born into a story: we are born into family histories, grow up into social histories, and live our lives among others who are living our story. Few people live their story without some sense of purpose, whether that purpose is to excel at a sport, to do well at school and get a good job, to invest in their children and family, to fight for a cause or even to make a lot of money. For those who try to live without a sense of overall purpose, the loss of a personal telos (object, aim, meaning) creates a severe crisis of identity and a loss of a sense of interlocking stories and relational responsibilities. It results in a fraying social fabric that fosters cynicism and a changing sense of responsibilities to others (Garber, 2014, pp.222-224). Those people do not flourish.
For humans to flourish, their story needs a 'telos' or purpose. Evidence suggests that they need to keep their telos alive by being part of a community of character, one that has reasons for being, one that can provide coherence between the personal and the public worlds. They also need a plausibility structure (a set of beliefs grounded in a bigger story that gives their life meaning) and they need support for their plausibility structure that makes sense of their world (Garber, 1996, pp.158–159). In every generation the most honest people have always understood that if there is not a story to make sense of their story, then why not eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow they die (Garber, 2014 p.128).
Stories can also show how people live with complexity and live lives of commitment that are being worked out in a time and a place.
In our imaginings and in our longings, at our best and at our worst, we are people whose identities are formed by a narrative that begins at the beginning and ends at the ending – the story of scripture itself, of creation, fall, redemption and consummation – but from beginning to end we are torn by the tensions of our humanity.
Augustine argued that human beings are story-shaped people, stretched between what ought to be and what will be. In our imaginings and in our longings, at our best and at our worst, we are people whose identities are formed by a narrative that begins at the beginning and ends at the ending – the story of scripture itself, of creation, fall, redemption and consummation – but from beginning to end we are torn by the tensions of our humanity (Garber, 2014).
A coherent worldview
For our story to provide a lens through which to understand what we see and to answer the important questions about who I am, what I am here for and the meaning of life, it needs to be coherently part of a bigger meta-narrative which must give life meaning and purpose. Christians believe that this meta-narrative is the story told in the Bible. The Bible sets out a vision of cosmic history from the creation of the world to its consummation, of the nations which make up the one human family, and the one nation chosen to be the bearer of that meaning for that nation (Newbigin, 1989, p.89). Newbigin says the Christian faith is primarily to be understood as an interpretation of the story – the human story set within the story of nature (Newbigibn, 1989, p.13). It is a story that is about what is true for everyone and for all time (Newbigin, 1989, p.92).
The Bible meta-narrative is based on transcendence; God the creator and sustainer of the universe is independent from his creation, entered the world and has given instructions about how mankind should live. Garber puts it this way:
'God has fashioned a cosmos out of love, called out creatures made in his own image, that could know and understand love – obligated by their very existence to know and understand love, called to know and to do, to see themselves as actors in history, as responsible for history; having as their central calling to know and understand and love God, each other and the creation' (Garber, 2019, p.90).
Mankind can ‘know’ how to live in a way that allows our story to be coherent with the meta-narrative written by God. This may not, however, be in-agreement with the assumptions that the culture we are born into takes for granted. Every society depends for its coherence upon a set of what Peter Berger calls 'plausibility structures', patterns of belief and practice accepted within a given society, which determine which beliefs are plausible to its members and which are not at any point in time (Newbigin, 1989, p.8).
For those who have pledged themselves to live within the plausibility structure of historic Christianity, the decision to become a part of the lives of others is a moral imperative ... it is situated within the worldview founded on coherence and truth, and learned in relationship to those whose own commitments are embedded in the worldview.
For those who have pledged themselves to live within the plausibility structure of historic Christianity, the decision to become a part of the lives of others is a moral imperative ... it is situated within the worldview founded on coherence and truth, and learned in relationship to those whose own commitments are embedded in the worldview (Garber, 1996 p.173). Knowing can never be morally neutral but is always morally directive. We must not only know rightly but do rightly (Garber, 2014, p.97). We are called to love our neighbours in the complexity of their lives, to form habits of heart that keep our loves alive, where duty becomes delight, and where what we know becomes what we love – even in this terribly complex world full of wonder and of wounds. The ‘knowing’ also gives a reason or context for seeing what one believes. This is found in God's covenant with his people which offered a relationship with God based on the revelation and a resultant responsibility. God revealed that He wants us to know Him and that He wants to know us, and out of love He wants us to know who we are and how we should live (Garber, 2014, pp.92-93). Knowing this gives us meaning, purpose, responsibility and accountability (Garber, 2014, p.97).
It is important to connect our story with the meta-narrative and to form a worldview that is coherent for the whole of life: from sexuality to politics to economics to arts (Garber, 1996, p.138); a worldview that makes sense of the complex challenges the world presents to us; a worldview that is more than optimism; one that is based on hope but depends on truth. The worldview presented in biblical Christianity does just this. It is expressed throughout the stories in the Bible.
Newbigin, L. (2014). The Gospel in a pluralist society. [New edition]. London: SPCK (SPCK Classics).
Garber, S. (1996). The Fabric of Faithfulness. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP.
Garber, S. (2014). Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP.
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