The Importance of Modesty (New Year’s Resolutions)

In my most recent post, I argued how important it is to teach narrative skills, in particular in religious education. Jerome Bruner refers to narrative skills as the ability to understand and apply the methods of ‘narrative fields of knowledge’. He points to literature, poetry, historiography, etc., as examples of such fields, but I think it is obvious that religion could be included in this list.

What Bruner rejects, is the transmission of fixed, pre-determined meaning in narrative fields. But what are the narrative skills needed to avoid this kind of education? Bruner discusses this in chapter 7 of “The Culture of Education“, titled “The Narrative Construal of Reality”. In short, it’s about consciousness, as he explains on p. 147:

We live in a sea of stories, and like the fish who (according to the proverb) will be the last to discover water, we have our own difficulties grasping what it is like to swim in stories. It is not that we lack competence in creating our narrative accounts of reality – far from it. We are, if anything, too expert. Our problem, rather, is achieving consciousness of what we so easily do automatically, the ancient problem of prise de conscience.

This requires three elements. We need to experience contrast and confrontation, and we need to practice metacognition. Contrast, Bruner explains, is what we experience when we find two different accounts of the same event equally reasonable. This, he adds, “wakes us up”, since it urges us to look for the reasons behind the differences between the accounts. Confrontation is, according to Bruner, the discovery that a narrative account of reality does not merely differ from other accounts, but conflicts with them. It is, thus, a stronger, or intensified, version of contrast, and Bruner warns that it could result in feelings of anger. Metacognition is the ability we need to overcome such anger, resentment, and conflict as results of contrast and confrontation. Bruner sees metacognition as ‘thinking about thinking’, which, therefore, enables us to understand not only how we come to narrative knowledge ourselves, but, also how others come to their narrative reality. In short, metacognition offers (p. 148): “a reasoned base for the interpersonal negotiation of meanings, a way to achieve mutual understanding even when negotiation fails to bring consensus.”

Bruner holds to the priority of science as a way to knowledge about the world. Although one might think his confidence in science as a way of “predicting and controlling his (humanity’s) environment” is a bit too optimistic, I do agree with him that the scientific method offers us indispensable knowledge of a kind narrative methods can not offer. But, and Bruner admits this in the conclusion of his chapter on narrative, we live in a world of narratives, and education should enable us to be aware of this. The aim of teaching narrative skills should not be, I think, to point out the illusionary character of narrative  knowledge – which, Bruner claims, would be as ideologically narrowed as religious fundamentalism – but to understand its true nature.

Religious narratives do not offer a fixed meaning, although this seems to be a default expectation, shared by many, about such narratives. It would need another blogpost to develop the idea of constant dialogue that is at play between humans and their religious traditions in what theologians refer to as ‘revelation’. Suffice it to point out that I believe it is a clear case of hubris – perhaps paralleling the hubris in the story of the Tower of Babel? – when one claims to have come to a final exhaustive understanding of what is deemed God’s free Word. That would imply, after all, that we do not need to turn to God’s Word anymore, but to the supposedly final human interpretation of that Word. This is the stuff fundamentalism is made of.

What we need instead of hubris, is modesty. Adam Seligman argues for this modesty in “Modernity’s Wager“. In this book, Seligman analyses what he sees as Modernity’s failure to come to a balanced understanding of the relation between self-identity and authority. He sees the current atomistic view on self, and the modern conception of society as the result of a satisfaction of interests between atomistic selves, as the main causes for modern society’s inability to become truly pluralistic. What we need to remedy this, he argues, is a revitalization of the idea of the external, constituted self. Although I am hesitant to follow Seligman in his negative appreciation of the turn to intentionality and individuality in Western moral thinking, I do think he offers important suggestions for religious education in the conclusion of his book.

One of the possibilities for religious traditions to reposition themselves in a world marked by the Enlightenment, Seligman suggests, is to take the road of “perpetual dialogue with the dictates of reason and with its justificatory procedures”, which will lead to “the emergence of a self-reflective faith where reason is no longer alien, but integrated into its very domain”(p. 132). I do not agree with the implication of these quotes that religion needs to learn from secularity how to integrate reason. Reason has been a crucial part of religion throughout its history. Seligman himself points to the importance of Axiality, as a phase in the evolution  of religion. And, moreover, there are theological reflections pointing to the importance of critical thinking in the development of a religious tradition. But I do agree that the dialogue advocated for by Seligman, when characterized by Bruner’s ‘contrast‘, ‘confrontation‘, and ‘metacognition‘, could result in tolerance towards other traditions, other narrative realities. When we become able to commit ourselves to the narrative knowledge of our religious tradition, while remaining modest about its epistemological claims, we will be able to build a pluralistic society.

Our times, it seems, need a religious education that fosters a epistemological modesty in people, based on the confidence they have in their mastery of narrative skills. Supporting that kind of education is, you could say, my New Year’s resolution.

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