We take for granted the solidity of world around us, and yet we also understand, even if only abstractly, that the way we experience it is profoundly shaped by our acculturation. The world we see is a social construction, and while this doesn’t mean that the world is arbitrary, it does mean that it is a lot more malleable than we ordinarily suppose. When the construction changes, as it did when the medieval construction broke down to make way for the modern, our experience changes. This is not a process that moves quickly. It happens slowly from generation to generation.
We're now living at a time when the modern construction has broken down, and we live with it out of habit rather than thriving with it. And so now we have a special opportunity and responsibility to frame something new. But it can't simply be something that is made up out of one's fantasy. It has to make sense. It has to have plausibility. It has to have "cultural legitimacy."
One of the main consequences of the shift from matter to mind consequent to the fall of the modern rationalist/materialist narrative is that “believing” no longer has the pejorative connotations it once had. It’s possible now to entertain metaphysical questions in a way that it was not even thirty years ago.
Since Kant metaphysics has been suspect; it was perceived by the mainstream of western thought to be about believing something rather than really knowing it, and “believing” until recently was considered a weakness of mind. And for lots of people whose habits of mind are still modern, it still is. But one of the pillars of the postmodern critique of modern rationality has been that most of what we think we know is really only what we believe. Our truths—even scientific facts like our model for the atom—are just provisional metaphors that have meaning only insofar as they fit into a larger metanarrative which we have assimilated unconsciously or which we have chosen in a kind of leap of faith.
We might take the leap of faith into communism, feminism, positivism, or any number of other isms if we think it provides the most compelling narrative to give our life meaning and purpose, or to provide a coherent frame to organize our experience and our longings. But just as modern physics has taught us that there is no there there at the heart of the atom, there is no objective, rational grounding for accepting any particular meaning narrative.
Nihilism and Materialism are as much belief systems as trinitarian monotheism. Different people have different criteria that confer legitimacy on their chosen or acculturated belief systems, but ultimately they are subjective criteria that one "believes" are more valid than others, and so everything depends on the quality of the soul which makes the subjective judgment about legitimacy. What is obvious or self-evident to the Amerindian shaman is quite different from what is obvious to the M.D. treating your kidney stones. I would argue that both see things that are true that the other does not see, and what they see or don't see is determined by what they believe.
Most people accept unthinkingly the meaning frameworks that are implicit in the social world to which they belong, even when the values of one contradict the values of another. I'm sure there were at least a few executives at Enron who accepted the implicit or explicit Social Darwinian corporate narrative that directed policy there and then went home to their families where a fundamentalist Christian narrative was dominant. One set of beliefs for work; another set for home and family.
Others of a more thoughtful temperament might carefully examine the undergirding assumptions of the narratives that organize their various worlds and choose to live a life without contradiction by adapting one side of the contradiction so it can work more in tune with the other. Or by just rejecting one or the other. But in doing so he's making a choice that involves a leap of faith of one kind or another. There are no purely rational choices, only choices for narratives that are more or less plausible.
The postmodern thinkers recognize this, and while I don't buy into the nihilism that many of them think is the ineluctable consequence of their critique, I find what they are saying interesting nevertheless because their mood of "deconstruction" reflects accurately the spirit of our decomposing age. I have the same relation with Marxism. I find much value in its critique of capital, but I reject the materialistic metaphysics. It's one thing to diagnose the illness; it's another to prescribe a healthful remedy.
So the question for me is whether a saying No as the Marxists and postmodernists say is possible to join with a Yes which the Christians have said. And it starts with the acknowledgment of the opportunity now being afforded to us because we are at a new stage of cultural development in which believing has become rehabilitated—it’s at the heart of the Romantic impulse as it continues to operate in the popular culture. ‘Believing’ is one of the best things you can do. “You gotta believe” is a commonplace in our sports and pop psychological worlds. We are constantly admonished to believe in ourselves and to believe in one another. And the assumption that lies beneath these admonitions is that our believing it’s so will make it so if we have enough faith. Believing is what gives life meaning and purpose. It doesn't matter really what you believe, just so long as you do it one way or the other.
Now I don’t want to equate this popular idea of believing with the deeper and more mysterious phenomenon we recognize as religious faith, but it bears a family relationship to it. The practical benefits of belief have a long heritage from St. Augustine’s De utilitate credendi, to Pascal’s “wager” to the pragmatism of William James, to the prescriptions of our current health care professionals who have noticed that people who have religious practices live happier, healthier lives.
This is just another way of saying that the metanarrative precedes the ethical. What we believe shapes how we live, whether our beliefs are superficial or profound. Whatever narrative we ultimately choose opens up certain possibilities and closes off others; it shapes what we can see and what we are blind to. But most important, the narrative we choose points to and defines that which we most deeply long for. Every narrative is shaped in one way or another by hope. Even nihilism. If you live with a materialistic narrative, your longing focuses on materialistic goals; if a spiritual narrative, spiritual goals.
And so what we believe is pretty much all we have when it comes to meaning, and we see now a huge marketplace of conflicting belief systems. In politics there is a blue state cosmopolitan narrative or belief system and in red states a traditionalist narrative that is quite different, and both define the divide which is at the heart of a culture war that has been going on at least since the Scopes trial in the twenties. The structure of these two narratives is something that I've been trying to understand over the last couple of years. Neither works for me, but there is far more potential, because more flexibility, in the cosmopolitan group than in the traditionalist group. Flexibility and adaptability are essential values in a culture undergoing the shift we are now suffering.
So I hope I can count on the flexibility and adaptability of my readers as I try to make my case for the plausibility of my beliefs. And I hope I've made the case to day for the idea that there are worse things that you can do than to believe something. The bottom line is whether your beliefs lead you to live a fruitful life or one that is sterile and puerile.