by Brenda Watson
from Signs of the Times No. 70 - Jul 2018
Shakespeare could take for granted nurture in Christian beliefs which gave validation to those values of truth/integrity, justice/goodness and respect for all/compassion which his plays communicate.
Those who see and love Shakespeare may imbibe these values, but they need to be clearly articulated and consciously nurtured for the many to be similarly influenced.
In the modern world these values are no longer firmly grounded. Historically they represent the branches and fruit of a tree that has now been mostly axed, or to vary the metaphor, they have been transferred to a site not strong enough to support them. For the new site relies not on any understanding of Christian belief which used to supply the cement for holding society together, but on a vague expectation, supported by reason and the rule of law, of general goodwill among humans.
Hywel Williams, writing in 1999 about his History of the World, notes: ‘Ours is the age which has seen the end of the grand narrative in the arts and sciences.’ The taxi-driver who asked Bertrand Russell ‘What's it all about then, Bert?’ and failed to get an answer, may be apocryphal but it is also revelatory. Our economy may be global, but not our explanations. Christian, Positivist, Marxist, Freudian: all have had their day in the sun of acclamation as they offered an illusion of total understanding.
The sense of a vacuum at the heart of Western civilisation is palpable today. Can its Grand Narrative be revised so as to correct what has been amiss?
Mention of a Grand Narrative, however, is likely to raise many hackles. Readers of articles on Pyrotheology in Modern Believing (57:4) may agree with the post-modernist dismissal of all Grand Narratives. Yet isn't postmodernism functioning as a kind of Grand Narrative itself, portraying all traditions as no more than power-machines in competition with each other? It holds that there is no possibility of attaining truth but only of existential quest that can never be satisfied but only lived.
Postmodernism can be critiqued on many grounds. For example, it proclaims the abandonment of truth yet it does so claiming that that is true; its central notion is therefore self-refuting. The articles referred to above speak of the need for embracing uncertainty with remarkable certainty! Moreover, postmodernism is obsessive in failing to see other factors operating other than the pursuit of power and its ramifications. To assume that this is the only valid perspective from which to view the world is clearly partisan.
In the real world, as opposed to that of the armchair critic, a Grand Narrative is essential to hold society together. Accepting pluralism has to be on the basis of what is shared and agreed, otherwise the danger is anarchy, not community. The West appears to have failed here. As Jeffrey Stout in his far-ranging book Democracy and Tradition noted: ‘We are not used to discussing what, if anything, links us together.’
Yet a kind of consensus is at work, permitting the regular, everyday use of the term ‘the West’. Anthony Woollard, in Signs of the Times October 2016, speaking of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, asked:
‘How far do we use that trinity of ideological changes as itself a grand narrative to be idolized?’
Steven Pinker in his new book Enlightenment Now is confident that all we need is what the first Age of Enlightenment gave us: science, reason and humanism. He fails to see the limitations of this austere trio.
Any improved Grand Narrative for the West needs to correct at least three flaws such an overview. The first concerns its failure to nurture, so far as possible in everyone, those values truly foundational for any thriving civilization. These may be expressed as the classic values of commitment to search for truth, justice, compassion and beauty. They constitute the life-blood of any genuinely-claimed democracy.
Yet despite its elaborate and expensive education systems and marvellous, hitherto unknown, means of communicating through media and internet etc., the West has instead tended to highlight ideological political values capable of supporting gross individualism. Values such as freedom of speech and tolerance are not of universal application because they depend for their validity on deeper values being in place.
The truly foundational values discourage one of the greatest dangers facing civilization: dogmatism. The Grand narrative which is needed should be minimal. It should acknowledge levels of uncertainty requiring on-going courteous disputation with an emphasis on the word courtesy.