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SETTING THE SCENE This page intentionally left blank 19 1 THE STORIES WE TELL Jonathan Sacks This essay, in an earlier draft, served as an introduction to the seminar that gave rise to the other essays in this volume. In it I tell the story behind my book about religiously motivated violence, Not in God’s Name.1 It is a story about the nature of stories, how they help us to understand ourselves in relation to the world and other people, the behaviors to which they give rise, and the potential dangers they pose. Specifically, I want to draw attention to the intellectual and spiritual crisis that occurs when the stories we have told ourselves for many generations no longer make sense, when the world we encounter is not the one we had been led to expect, when, as it were, the latest chapter in the annals of time overturns our narrative expectations. That, I argue, is happening now to the West. The themes I touch on are large and controversial. For the sake of clarity and brevity, I have painted a picture in the broadest of brushstrokes . Almost every sentence could be challenged as an overgeneralization . Nonetheless I felt the need to sketch this larger picture to contextualize the conversation about how best to think our way through to a future more gracious than the one the twenty-­ first century has yielded thus far. I begin with a simple proposition: we are the story we tell ourselves.2 There is an intrinsic, perhaps necessary, link between narrative and identity. In the words of the thinker who did more than most to place this idea at the center of contemporary thought, Alasdair MacIntyre, 20 Jonathan Sacks “man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-­ telling animal.”3 We come to know who we are by discovering the story or stories of which we are a part. Jerome Bruner has persuasively argued that narrative is central to the construction of meaning and that meaning is what makes the human condition human.4 No computer needs to be persuaded of its purpose in life before it does what it is supposed to do. Genes need no motivational encouragement. No virus needs a coach. We do not have to enter their mindset to understand what they do and how they do it, because they do not have a mindset to enter. But humans do. We act in the present because of things that we did or that happened to us in the past and in order to realize a sought-­ for future. To explain even minimally what we are doing is already to tell a story. Take three people eating salad in a restaurant, one because he needs to lose weight, the second because she’s a principled vegetarian, the third because of religious dietary laws. These are three outwardly similar acts, but they belong to different stories, and they have different meanings for the people involved. Cultures are in no small measure defined by the range of stories to which they give rise or for which they make space. Some of these have a special role in shaping the self-­ understanding of those who inhabit them. We call such stories master narratives. They are about large, ongoing groups of people: the tribe, the nation, the empire, or the civilization. They hold the group together, horizontally across space, vertically across time, by giving it a shared identity handed on across the generations. Often, in the past, they were provided by religions : recorded in sacred texts, transmitted through education, and recounted ritually at specific times. It was these stories, about founders and followers and their encounters with God, that gave the great religions—­ the Abrahamic monotheisms in particular—­ their unrivaled power to bind vast numbers of people in a common purpose, dedicated to collective ideals. One of the most striking features of modernity as it emerged in the West is that it sought to do away with master narratives—­at least as an explanation of the human condition. Truth was no longer to be located in texts. Society was no longer to be regulated by religious rules. Other institutions could do the work once done by the church or its counterparts in other faiths. Narratives might still exist—­ though by now they were seen as “stories” bearing the same relationship to truth as myth did to science. Ironically, though, this entire process gave rise to...


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