Three Aspects of Metanarrative

In my introductory post (now the page named “Postmodern Quakerism?”), I spoke of two types or aspects of metanarrative, which I’ll call cultural metanarratives (“a global or totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience” — John Stephens) and self-metanarratives (“the normally-invisible, intuitive internal structure or orientation that shapes our thinking, feeling, and being in the world”). I now want to add a third: the religious. Religions provide their own metanarratives, grand stories that shape and are shaped by both the cultural and self-metanarratives which define the worldviews and identities of their adherents. With the early Buddhist tradition being the notable exception, those grand religious stories are metaphysical meta­narratives: the worldview they present is legitimized by the metaphysical or supernatural myth it inhabits. Such religious metanarratives can provide legitimation for the cultural metanarrative, the two becoming ever more thoroughly interwoven and interdependent, evolving together in a sometimes tense but overall complementary relationship.

Some forms of religion, however, propagate a metanarrative that functions to critique and subvert the normal cultural story and the self-metanarrative it fosters and relies upon. In that context, Zen Buddhism and Quakerism come to mind. I’ll think in print about those two in the next post.

2 thoughts on “Three Aspects of Metanarrative

  1. But Zen Buddhist metanarrative did not critique or subvert the cultural metanarrative that led to Japanese militarism before and during WWII. In fact, it supported that cultural metanarrative without hesitation, and all the major Zen teachers and authorities, including D.T. Suzuki, enthusiastically embraced the war effort, including the invasion of Nanking.. But then, Zen in Japan had always been the spiritual path of the warriors, the Samurai, who were employed by the provincial lords to fortify the prevailing cultural metanarrative of despotic rule.

    • Robert, Zen traces its origin to the legendary Bodhidharma, who would later be credited (probably incorrectly, but the connection is telling) with founding the martial arts. From Bodhidharma’s time, beginning when Huike cut off his own arm and presented it to the master in order to be accepted as a student, Zen has a history of violence. Its literature contains many exemplary stories of violence (Nansen’s cat, for example) and of physical and psychological abuse of students by masters. (See Ernest Becker’s Zen: A Rational Critique for a critical analysis of that relationship.) Later, it would be associated with the samurai. For any who were unaware of the nationalism and militarism of some prominent 20th-century teachers, Brian Victoria’s 1996 Zen At War was, well, enlightening. Of course, Zen and Quakerism are and always have been extremely different orientations to life.

      But all of that is well-known, as is the fact that rogue systems, probably in order to survive, become assimilated, “co-opted,” into the larger systems they initially reacted against: Zen and Quakerism are excellent examples of that. Even so, they continue to have the potential, each in its own way, to challenge the individual practitioner’s culturally-created sense of self — for good or ill. Focused on other topics at this time, I am not interested in critiquing those challenges or their possible outcomes here, but I thank you for bringing up the issue of assimilation, which is, I believe, something that we Friends may do well to reflect upon.

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