You may have been wondering why you have not heard from me in a while, and the truth of the matter is that I have not really known what to write about. I have been working through a sort of existential angst. It is not depression: I have suffered from that for much of my life and we know one another well. This is something entirely different. It is more akin to what St Ignatius called the dark night of the soul: wrestling, like Jacob and the angel, with difficult spiritual issues. And key among the issues that have been bothering me for a while now is the fact that human society is, essentially, a lie.
When it comes right down to it, only the fragile power of our collective imagination prevents communal life from descending into anarchy. Society works only because of our common stories. Humanity has subjugated the planet not because of its superior intelligence, not because of any natural advantage over other animals, but simply because its stories allow it to harness the potential of its collective strength.
All communal animals are able to survive and thrive because their functions in the group are programmed into them genetically. Ants and bees are utterly incapable of resenting their roles as workers or soldiers or queens. The existence of a hive will never be endangered by a solitary ant who dreams of being other than it is. Each ant will invariably act as its genetics dictate. Natural laws lend structure to communal life.
Not so with humans. There are no absolute laws of nature that bond us. If anything, our biological tendencies towards mimesis generate conflict rather than preclude it. Unlike other communal animals, we need to invent reasons to co-operate; we are not pre-programmed to do so. More than that, we must convince ourselves that these reasons are transcendent in some way. We need to, because the stakes are high: if we see through the charade, if we realise that what keeps social order is simply a myth, chaos is bound to follow. And so we opt into a collective mythologising of overarching metanarratives: we recite religious creeds or sing national anthems or constitutionalise ideologies like human rights or capitalism or socialism or democracy. And we defend the veracity of these fiercely. We must, because the alternative anarchy would be too terrible to bear. We depend on our stories for our very survival.
The very fact that we need to write these stories down and codify them in legal principles that we can all abide by is proof of their unnaturalness. If human rights were a natural law, we would have no choice but to obey them. But they are not. So we have to write Bills of Rights and have policemen to uphold them. Money only works because we all collectively agree to the myth: a few coloured pieces of paper (or, more accurately in the modern world, a few bytes of data in a computer) are not equivalent in value, objectively speaking, to – say – a kilogram of sugar. The Ten Commandments are not universal laws. If they were, there would be no need to inscribe them on stone tablets and implement a penalty for disobedience. No bee needs to be reminded not to murder other members of its hive; no ant needs to be threatened in order to prevent it from disobeying its queen. They simply do not. Natural laws prevent it. Humans have not been so lucky. We need to invent stories to bind us, to keep us from killing each other. And because the laws that order our societies are born in our imaginations, they are extremely fragile. It helps tremendously to mitigate against that fragility if we can all accept that these stories have a higher origin than the human imagination. We need to accept that our taboos are commanded by God; that it is a self-evident truth that all are created equal; that love conquers all; that cultural roots are important. Humans are incapable of co-operating on the sort of scale we do in the modern world without these.
But humans are clearly not created equal. As with any other animal, some specimens are better suited to survival than others. Some are healthy and clever and strong, others die forgotten in wretched poverty. A very tiny percentage of the world’s population is born into sufficient privilege to have the opportunity to forge a comfortable existence from their position on top of the food chain, while the vast majority are no better off than the animals to which we have come to regard ourselves as superior. It seems clear to me that whatever lofty ideals we may subscribe to, like human rights, or love, or peace, or socialism, at the end of the day we serve these narratives only because they enable us to bridge (or better, ignore) these glaring inequalities and live together relatively peacefully, not because these narratives are intrinsically true. These stories are the glue that keeps us together; when we stop believing in them, things fall apart.
This seems to be true not only on a communal level, but on a personal level as well. From what I can see, humans are essentially narrative beings. If our social cohesion depends on the integrity of our collective narratives, then our individual mental health is a function of our self-narratives. We have made sense of our external worlds by constructing narratives to explain our experiences, and we make sense of our internal worlds by evaluating our particular roles within those grand narratives. While society at large may have handed our scripts to us, we elect how to play those parts, if we choose to play them at all. I suspect that mental health depends on how appropriate we believe our roles are, and how well we believe we are playing them.
Which brings me back to my current space. I know that I am not depressed because my feelings have nothing to do with the personal narrative. Rather, it is the collective one that I am wrestling with. I am tired of the stories. More precisely, I am tired of how people behave in response to their stories. As globalisation and the perspective it affords causes more and more people to challenge the validity of their narratives, others respond to threats to the narratives by defending them aggressively. I understand why Evangelicals respond with hostility when I question the infallibility of Scripture; it makes sense to me that members of a cultural group will violently defend against challenges to the legitimacy of their traditions; I accept that even liberal humanists, feminists, vegans and social justice warriors can become militant in defense of their ideologies. Every social group, no matter how peace-loving their creeds may be, can become violent when their stories are exposed as stories and not universal truths. And I can forgive them for that. They are victims of forces beyond their control. But my willingness to forgive it does nothing to mitigate the fact that I hate the senselessness of the violence our stories engender in us. And I am coming to loathe religion, politics, culture, ideology because of it.
Worst of all, I see no hope for change. How can the world be otherwise? The stories are so integral to who we are and our capacity to function as a species that we cannot ever simply dismiss them. And so it seems to me that we are doomed always to be diminished by our stories but never able to escape them either. Simply put, in its present state, humanity repulses me (honesty time) but I do not see how we can be other than what we are. How, then, do I begin to reconcile a humanity that seems irredeemably trapped in its own nature with the hope of the Kingdom of God that Jesus promises? Because, when all is said and done, I still believe in Jesus. And not just because I am deconstructing but battling to let go of that one last strand of faith, as some have suggested. I am genuinely convinced that 2000 years ago a character called Jesus rose from the dead. I am satisfied that while the evidence may not point conclusively to that interpretation, it is certainly a viable explanation for the phenomenon that is early Christianity. And if that is true, if Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, that fact changes everything. If, as those early Christians believed, this resurrection inaugurated a new world order, promised hope, where is that hope? I hope to find out.