The last few days I have witnessed what you could call a parochial version of the war on Christmas, which is raging, according to some at least, in the US. A city council in Flanders decided that it was inappropriate to have a nativity scene on display in the city hall, since that would imply a breach of the separation between church and state. The result was a flurry of reactions on social media. One of the topics was, to my amazement, the true meaning of the nativity stories. Does the manger scene stand for the way we, in the West, treat refugees? No, according to some, because Joseph and Mary were not fleeing from war, they were just on their way to fulfill their civic duties, obeying the decree that everybody needed to be registered. Others questioned the importance of the nativity stories, because these are mere fairytales. Many were confused when they discovered that there is more than one account of Jesus’ birth.
Another discussion on Twitter, into which I was drawn myself, was about the relation between God and humanity. An op-ed writer and author of a book (in Dutch) on the importance of secular Enlightenment values in a plural society suggested on Twitter that religious believers always put their God before their fellow-humans. I argued against this, offering a list of examples where Scripture clearly indicates that serving God without caring for the poor, the weak, the wounded, etc. is not serving God at all. A story like the parable of the Good Samaritan shows how Christ saw the command to love God and to love your neighbor as intimately connected. But, the counter argument went, this is not the same as giving priority to humanity. I think there is a point in that, but I do not believe it implies that Christianity is flawed. What we see clearly now, due to global warming, is that giving priority to the human is not enough. Perhaps the most promising way to translate into secular terminology what Christian tradition is about, is to say that what is central in Christian faith is not God, nor humanity, but creation – i.e. the whole of life on Earth and/or in the Universe, the global or universal ecological community. Christianity – as many religious traditions – points us to the inherent relational character of reality. To believe in God, Christians believe, is to answer positively on the open question of how to be a neighbor to other creatures. Obviously, atheists have their own sources of inspiration, and they can act as ‘neighborly’ as Christians. I do not in any way doubt this. But whether one position is morally superior to the other is, in my view, a pointless discussion.
What is remarkable in these two discussions, I think, is that it has become extremely difficult to discuss symbolic language. The nativity scene discussion generated quite a few historicizing accounts, looking for the historical date of Jesus’ birth, debating whether or not the Magi really came from the East, and so forth. In my discussion about whether God or humanity has priority in Christian faith, a side comment was made about the cruelty of God in some of the Old Testament stories. In both cases, it seems, there is a need to know how to deal with stories. It reminds me of what I have read, at the end of my phd-research, in a book by Jerome Bruner. Bruner argues that narrative skills, knowing how to find meaning in a story, are crucial for humans. He insists that we have to learn narrative skills as rigorously as we learn how to apply the scientific method. What he means by that, is that education in what we could call ‘narrative fields of knowledge’ – he mentions literature, social studies, history, and poetry – should be as much about how to think narratively as education in science should learn how to think scientifically. In other words, rather than “[…] “gotcha” exercises in finding the preemptive story, or as rhetorical exercises in pushing a partisan point of view”, education should “learn something about how to think history” – or, I would add, how to ‘think literature’, ‘how to think art’, or ‘how to think religion’ (for the quotes: See Jerome Bruner, The Culture of Education, p. 91.).
This is not a marginal point to make, I believe. If we succeed in teaching next generations the necessary narrative skills to recognize meaning in religious stories, these stories will be capable of empowering humanity to critically engage the context of their society. This, in turn, will point humanity to possible pathways to a wholesome future for all life on our planet. In sum, religious traditions guard the cultural inheritance of our species, which is capable of stirring our imagination, and which allows us to move beyond ideological constructs. But we cannot draw from that inheritance when we do not have the reading keys to do so. Without narrative skills, revelation – the ongoing dialogue between God and humanity – is subdued, and human ideology steps in. That is why, I believe, religious education, and education in narrative skills, is crucial in our struggle against fundamentalism – whether it is religious or atheist fundamentalism. Religious traditions can, when we respect their narrative nature, help to build pluralistic society, while sharing and respecting Enlightenment values.