Editorial, Pennine Platform No. 80

Whether in newspapers, in gossip, in history, in novels, drama, films, legends, fairy tales or myths, we understand ourselves and the world we live in by telling ourselves stories. It is through such stories that we transmit our culture and social mores from one generation to the next. Language is our primary socialised way of picturing and sharing pictures of the world, and story is natural to language. At a minimum, a sentence has a subject and a verb – typically somebody does something. String a few of these sentences together and you get a narrative. We are hard-wired to try to make sense of things and we call such a narrative a story when it is coherent, providing some sort of model of a possible world, and providing some sort of resolution at the end to the issues it has raised. Thus the child’s narrative, “Our dog got lost. Dad found him”, constitutes a basic story: an agent (Dad) does something to resolve a problem – the dog getting lost.

But note, there is an implicit story behind the story. ‘Our dog’ and ‘Dad’ imply a family situation that is disrupted and the story is about the restoration of this sense of order. In a not too dissimilar way, one important strategy we have for making sense of a poem is to reconstruct a plausible back-story since story is a model of something making coherent sense to us.

Religion deals fundamentally in stories. It is not just that meanings are expressed through them, but that story, of its nature, its disclosures and closures, demonstrates and constitutes meaning, persuading us that ultimately meaning must exist. Thus language asserts meaning, asserts that life, which it images, has meaning.

But it is also the nature of story to be ambiguous, to allow of multiple readings. Many of the stories of religion are poetry, not least in the sense that they require the reader to make up further stories to make sense of them. To argue that God does not exist, if it is not to be jejune, must assert a concept of God-ness in order to claim that it is not instantiated. Most arguments that God does not exist are arguments that a god answering to a jejune concept of God-ness is unworthy of existing. For example, the Old-Man-in-the-Sky is an unworthy concept of God and is unworthy of existence. Which raises the questions, what sort of God might be worthy of existence? What stories would we tell of such a God?

© Nicholas Bielby, 2016

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