Hard-Wired for Redemption
The concept of redemption has occupied my mind for quite some time now, partly, I suspect, due to my interest in the problem of evil. The existence of evil forces serious reflection on what it means to be a human being—both in terms of what and how we think about evil, and what we do about it. Human beings have the capacity to both imagine and work towards improvement—to bring goodness out of evil, truth out of falsehood, beauty out of ugliness. From my perspective, this redemptive capacity is one of the most important and praiseworthy elements of human nature.
Consequently, I was intrigued by this article in the New York Times this morning. Apparently, psychologists are discovering the importance of narratives—particularly redemptive ones—for mental health and well being and in constructing an adequate understanding of personal identity. People seem to have an innate need to integrate themselves into a larger story, and that story is, more often than not, a story of progress, optimism, and improvement. We seem to need to understand ourselves as a part of an ongoing narrative of redemption.
Some psychologists have argued that “this meaning-making capability—to talk about growth, to explain what something says about who I am” begins in adolescence, and the extent to which one successfully develops this capacity often determines how civic-minded and involved in the community one will be in adulthood. Those who have the capacity to integrate negative events into broader, more positive narratives will exhibit a more healthy understanding of themselves and display more positive behaviour in the present.
Of course, the benefits of this new scientific insight are analyzed largely in functional terms. The questions raised at the end of the article have less to do with what the apparent necessity of integrating one’s story into a redemptive narrative might mean than with how this information can be used:
The implications of these results for self-improvement, whether sticking to a diet or finishing a degree or a novel, are still unknown. Likewise, experts say, it is unclear whether such scene-making is more functional for some people, and some memories, than for others.
Self-improvement remains the elusive goal. And I suppose this is good, to a point.
The question that comes to mind (especially after reading Dawkins, Dennett, Harris etc over the past couple of weeks) is why human beings might need to locate their stories in a broader one with a redemptive trajectory. From a Christian perspective, this data is readily explainable: people understand themselves in terms of redemption because redemption is both necessary and available. Our need to locate ourselves in a broader story that is moving in a specific direction is believed to correspond with an objective fact about the universe, and to point to a specific God who has always been in the business of redemption. From a perspective that assumes a form of scientific materialism, I’m not so sure.
The article ends with a fairly strong affirmation of the centrality of the importance of narratives for proper human functioning:
But the new research is giving narrative psychologists something they did not have before: a coherent story to tell. Seeing oneself as acting in a movie or a play is not merely fantasy or indulgence; it is fundamental to how people work out who it is they are, and may become.
This research raises a whole bunch of interesting issues, but due to the reading I’m doing for my thesis right now, all roads seem to lead to atheism, apologetics, and the problem of evil. The apparent human need to understand ourselves in terms of a redemptive narrative could simply a bewildering evolutionary misfiring which we can, nonetheless, incorporate into the ongoing process of understanding our world and manipulating it for our purposes. Or it could reflect the actual state of affairs in a world where moral imperatives are “stitched into the fabric of the cosmos,” which was made to tell a better story, and is being led in that direction by a redemptive God.