Metanarrative is the grand, underlying story that a culture tells itself to understand its meaning and purpose.
It provides a comprehensive account from which to interpret historical events, experiences, and social phenomena based on an appeal to universal values.
In most ways, metanarrative is another word for worldview.
THE MEANING OF CULTURE
The root of the word culture relates to the soil. To cultivate is to grow. Our understanding of culture, therefore, originates in agricultural metaphors. Cicero was the first to employ and popularize the word, writing about the intellectual, political, moral, and religious soil needed to cultivate virtuous people.
In the broadest sense, the term culture implies the patterns of social behavior and norms found in human societies, including the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, and habits of the individuals within these groups. Culture influences and shapes people's self-understanding and even the minutiae of life, including how we dress, eat, and greet one another.
Culture arises from the people. It is embodied and engendered. The relationship between a culture and its people is mutually constitutive, with individuals being formed by the culture in which they live and then shaping the culture through their actions (individually and collectively). Therefore, culture is always dynamic.
Culture is rooted in narrative. Much of cultural narrative is mythic, meaning foundational, often symbolic underlying plots, metaphors, and stories that help people make sense of their world. Since meaning-making tends to be considered a philosophical or religious enterprise, many cultural narratives have been religious.
Culture is also multivalent, consisting of entwined and interwoven subcultures of ethnicity, religion, nationality, economic status, and place. As such, systems theory is often the best approach for understanding cultural dynamics.
Anthropology, history, and philosophy generally speak of Eastern and Western cultures. By the East, we mean the cultures of the great civilizations of China, India, Japan, Korea, and their surrounding areas. By the West, we mean the cultures of European societies and those nations and regions where its influence was established through immigration, expansion, trade, and colonization (North America, Australia-New Zealand, and to some extent, much of Africa and South America.)
However, such distinctions always suffer from inexactitude and ambiguity. Is Russia Western or Eastern or something else? How would we culturally describe the Middle East and its rich history? Is Japan today Western or Eastern? Argentina seems thoroughly Western, but what about Brazil? Given culture's complexity, scope, and richness, we must be careful not to over-generalize, recognizing our inability to explain any particular culture fully.
THE PROGRESSION OF METANARRATIVES WITHIN WESTERN CULTURE
Our purpose here is to understand, even if only superficially, the underlying worldview of the West, its core ideas, and narratives. The following overview is quite generalized with broad sweeping strokes for the sake of brevity. Let me repeat this for emphasis, the following survey is highly generalized.
Any culture has layered narratives being told and enacted simultaneously. Some of those narratives are practical, economical, political, and religious. A metanarrative is a primary or core story, the prevailing one that most people understand and participate in and through to some degree.
The foundations of current Western culture are a hybrid of the influences of the classical world (mostly Hellenism and Roman influences), the religious worldview of Judeo-Christianity, and the pre-Christian influences of the Celts, Gauls, Germanic, Slavic peoples, and others. These forces engaged, clashed, and changed one another. The metanarrative of Rome, the pinnacle of the classical world, can be summed up as the divinely ordered imposition of peace through conquest and reculturation. Rome ruled because the gods wanted it that way - Romans believed themselves divinely appointed to rule the world and impose their ways.
With the collapse of the Roman Empire, Christianity emerged as the dominant cultural force. The first few hundred years of Christendom required dealing with the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of Roman dominance. However, new ideas took hold shortly after the dawn of the new millennium, resulting in the Renaissance. This was a period of artistic flourishing, practical invention, and a focus on the human person and the affairs of this world. While Christianity remained the metanarrative, underlying narratives of beauty, human dignity, and the growing awareness of personal interiority took shape.
Renaissance led to the Enlightenment, a period of learning, discovery, and the emergence of early forms of science and its methodologies. The cultural emphasis was on reason and what it could accomplish as it studied the natural world. Romanticism was a reaction to the Enlightenment, attempting a re-enchantment of the natural world, rendered flat and mechanical by reductionist trends in Enlightenment thinking. During this time, Christianity is still the dominant cultural story, but strands of naturalism have begun emerging.
As the Enlightenment shifts into its later stages, Liberalism steps forward as a political and philosophical system based on the rights of persons, self-determination, and limited government. Within Liberalism are the seeds of open, democratic, capitalist nation-states and expanded notions of human rights that characterize the West today. At the same time, scientific advances led to new technologies pushing toward industrialization. Eventually, naturalism mounted an ongoing challenge to Christianity's supernatural worldview. Thus the roots of secularization.
Currently, Western culture appears to be emerging into a post-Christian, post-secular situation where supernatural religion has been debunked, but the various forms of secular humanism have been found wanting.
Our present context sees multiple intellectual trends and projects searching for ways to re-enchant the natural world and provide humanity with poetic narratives of meanings. Here one can point to clusters of ecological and green, New Age, neo-pagan, pop psychological, and watered-down forms of Eastern spirituality. Many aspects of the Woke phenomenon could also be grouped here. And current forms of Christianity (in its end stages) are also among these movements. Overall, it would be accurate to characterize most of these efforts as essentially new forms of Romanticism.
At the same time, refined versions of secular humanism have taken on technological and futuristic themes and are blending with transhumanist visions. With the advent of the Internet and especially social media, cultural narratives rooted in technological metaphors have advanced rapidly. Artificial Intelligence will supercharge this ideology sooner than most think. Many are beginning to refer to these trends as the ideology of the Machine. Also used, but less common, are terms such as the technetium, metaverse, and technocracy.
By examining some of the cultural phases mentioned above, we can better understand the context of our current cultural situation. Therefore, let's explore some of the cultural trends in more detail.
THE CLASSICAL IMPERIUM
The classical world’s achievements are impressive. Greece and Rome gave us the origins of democracy, philosophy, the rule of law, and the notion of the human individual as a person. Yet that same classical world also gave us slavery, fierce tribalism, frequent military conquest, and abundant forms of dehumanizing imperialism.
Today, we often overlook that the same people who brought us the foundations of justice, democracy, and the rule of law also practiced infanticide, the subjugation of women, and slavery. The same people who gave us early notions of human dignity also engaged in public forms of entertainment that included the blood-soaked barbarism of gladiatorial combat and the public execution (various forms of torture and feeding to wild animals) of criminals and the marginalized.
Despite the erudition and achievements of the Greco-Roman world, the culture it helped spread was violent, abusive, and in many ways, harsh. Women were viewed as inherently inferior. Many peoples of the world were viewed as being naturally slaves. In the classical world, the poor and lowly mattered little, sex was often used to dominate another, regardless of gender, and life for the average citizen was difficult.
"The ancient Greco-Roman world was a harsh slave society with little interest in humanitarian considerations. Is there a single case of humanitarian prison visiting throughout pagan antiquity? Did anyone organize relief for the survivors of Pompeii? In a largely pitiless age, it is scarcely surprising that Christianity had appeal." – Don Cupitt, The Meaning of the West
The Romans adopted and then adapted earlier Hellenism, spreading it far and wide throughout the empire. With imperial armies, governors, and law also came imperial ways, values, and ideas, the totality of which is sometimes called the imperium.
Roman culture was polytheistic, highly structured, and elitist. The epic poems of Homer's The Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid express the religious-cultural metanarrative of classical Rome. The narrative revolves around the divine influence on the birth of Roman civilization and its being predestined to rule the world, establishing lasting peace through military conquest. In this story, the Emperors are quasi-divine, and the gods favor Rome but require elaborate, ongoing sacrificial rituals.
Civilizations and cultures change, and few, if any, empires or imperium last forever. The Roman Empire endured for almost a thousand years and eventually decayed from within, collapsing due to the inner rot of corruption, economic inequality, military overreach, and the violent grind of its daily life. Those from the north who began pushing into the Empire around 376 CE sacked Rome a hundred years later.
The incursions merely hastened the inevitable decline. However, the string of defeats led to a cultural and religious crisis - the gods had abandoned Rome.
FROM EMPIRE TO CHRISTENDOM
Christianity started as a marginal faction of religious rebels and misfits seen as subversive by the imperial elites. The Christian sect, committed to the ideas of an itinerant Jewish rabbi cultural revolutionary, was considered dangerous because their values directly challenged the imperium of Greco-Roman culture.
Christians refused to offer ritual homage to the emperor or participate in public-pagan sacrificial meals. Christian values stood in a critique of those of the empire. Justice through peace, not war or violence. Concern and care for the poor, lowly, and marginalized. A sense of the dignity and value of all persons, not just the elite. Mercy, love, kindness, compassion, and mutual care as a way of daily life – the witness of the early Christian communities slowly won over converts and aided its growth and endurance. It also earned it the occasional wrath of Rome.
Eventually, the outsiders became insiders. It is hard to say whether Christianity would have developed into a global force without Constantine, but it had grown beyond a marginal collection of small communities. Constantine’s official sanctioning of Christianity cemented its eventual integration into the empire and cultural dominance.
When the Empire collapsed, the church gradually filled the vacuum. The dominant cultural narrative of Imperial Rome, condensed in the epics of the Iliad and Aeneid, was gradually replaced by the narrative(s) of the gospels and biblical writings. Christianity, at least as understood in those periods, became the underlying force of a new Imperium.
Studying the newer historical accounts of this period reveals the rapid and startling collapse of Roman polytheism. Within two generations, many Pagan libraries had been burned, and nearly all Pagan temples were dismantled or turned into Christian churches. Today's institutional forms of Christianity should note the rapid pace of religious and cultural change. What takes centuries to build can often fall apart within a decade or two.
Much happened on the long way home from the coliseum. Christianity became the dominant Western cultural influence for the next 1,000 years. While Christendom wasn’t always faithful to its founder's vision, it did produce a more humane culture overall. And despite the crusades, inquisitions, religious wars, and persecutions offered the world a more compassionate vision rooted in love, mercy, and kindness. This moral vision remains, albeit imperfectly, influential today.
With Christian influence came the first hospitals, the end of infanticide, the rise of universities that typically started as a cathedral or monastic centers of learning, somewhat improved literacy, moderate cultural improvements for women, and greater provision of food and care for the poor, and needy.
Despite Christendom's shortcomings, the culture of daily life under Christianity was a marked improvement compared to that of the Greco-Roman culture and its baseline harshness.
ENLIGHTENMENT & SECULARIZATION
The Christian West (influenced by the classical vision) developed the Renaissance's humanism, the Enlightenment's focused reason, and the later emergence of science, technology, and industrialization. And yes, the Church resisted many of these developments.
Within the massive cultural shifts of Renaissance, Enlightenment, and even Romanticism is the refinement of hallmark ideas of human dignity, the rule of law, democracy, tolerance, freedom of speech, human rights, and a market-based economy - the various expressions of the worldview of liberalism.
The multifaceted Enlightenment that birthed modern science also motivated the spread of a naturalist mindset. And it is this naturalist mindset that played a significant, but not singular, role in secularizing the West.
Naturalism, at least in its soft, methodological form, is an application of the principles of the scientific method to assertions, essentially the notion that our factual claims require justification.
This significantly impacts religion or at least supernatural forms of it. For, when presented with claims of miracles or divine action or message, individuals operating from a naturalist mindset ask for proof – evidence, repeatability, explanation – they will seek to verify the truth of the claims. This inclination is not ideological or inherently anti-religious; it’s simply how evidential reasoning functions.
It's vitally important here to call attention to the complex, speculative, and even fantastical nature of much of the Christian tradition. Jesus' ministry and gospels morphed into a vast tradition of abstract metaphysics, detailed descriptions of God in three persons, and libraries overflowing with thousands of volumes of books on sacraments, revelation, the power of the church, the privileged position of theology, as well as works on angels, demons, exorcism, justification, and morality.
When the supernaturally-laden, extravagant Christian tradition with its expansive trajectory ran into the focused, evidential reasoning of naturalism, well, let's say the intellectual and cultural wreckage is still scattered across Europe and North America. As a result, Christianity and its institutions have been in decline over the past 400 years. And the rate of decline appears to be accelerating.
Naturalism has prevailed over much of Christianity. However, secularization is not the result of naturalism alone. The radical cultural shock of two horrific world wars fought mainly in Europe, the cradle of Western civilization, has also played a significant role. The roots of secularism are complex and include many other factors.
Overall, the cultural conflict has resulted in a metanarrative of secular humanism, meaning a worldview shaped by affirming human dignity and freedom but justified without appeals to supernatural realities. In many ways, secular humanism is essentially liberalism without religion.
Along with the scientific method, naturalism, and evidential reasoning comes the decline in variations of mythopoetic thinking that formed the pre-scientific world. We moderns explain and tell our history differently than our ancient ancestors. The modern mindset leans toward the factual, the literal, and the logical as explanations for things. Today we see the world through these lenses.
Secularism drove Christianity out of the public sphere and into private realms. Most forms of religion have experienced the same. Fading is also myriad forms of superstition, magical thinking, and enchanted metaphysics.
There have been many benefits of secularization—pluralism, increased liberties, scientific and technological advances, the promotion of democracy, and so on.
However, a weakness of secular humanism is that it resists not merely supernatural but also transcendent insights about humanity and the world. As a result, secular humanism cannot claim a privileged position for itself compared to any other worldview. Postmodernism has reinforced this tendency. The result is a pervasive relativism that slowly undermines liberalism. There is much value in secular humanism, but unfortunately, the narrative system cannot sustain its better insights.
THE POST-SECULAR ERA
Western culture continues evolving, and many scholars claim we have entered a post-secular phase. Post-secularism refers to a range of theories regarding the persistence of, or nostalgia for, religious belief. As the disenchantment with secularism grows, awareness of the underlying yearning for meaning and purpose grows.
Jürgen Habermas is widely credited for popularizing the term. He argues that secular humanism has been morally unsuccessful in forming a unitive metanarrative for the West. He dates the arrival of post-secularism to just after the Second World War, therefore in the late 1940s. Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age also describes a similar arrival into the post-secular period.
The intellectual and cultural systems of secular humanism – liberalism and naturalism predominantly – while having benefited Western culture abundantly, lack the normative abilities to produce a unitive social ethos. Instead, these systems, without a supportive religious-spiritual (meaning existential) metanarrative, tend to fragment society, reinforcing individualism, materialism, and atomization.
Habermas sees the need to transition to a post-secular culture where secularism and spirituality find rapprochement and learn to tolerate and appreciate each other. Both traditions should attempt to learn mutually from one another while respecting each other's rightful autonomy.
Habermas argues that to engage in this dialogue; two conditions must be met: religion must accept the authority of secular reason, the findings of the sciences, and the universalistic egalitarianism in law and public morality of secular liberalism, and conversely, secular reason must not set itself up as the judge concerning religion's task of meta-ethics and meaning-making.
Habermas' argument is more sophisticated than often given credit for. Habermas believes that a fruitful rapprochement can only occur between non-reductionistic forms of naturalism and non-supernatural forms of religion. His vision is one of a secular liberal political order, morally and existentially informed by spiritual insights, understood as existential wrestling without supernatural claims. Habermas has challenged reason to clarify its relation to religious experience and to engage religions in a constructive dialogue to find pathways for collective meaning. At the same time, he is challenging spirituality to move beyond magical thinking and focus on themes of human meaning.
Unfortunately, the prevalent ideas of postmodernism have frustrated Habermas' desire for meaningful rapprochement. Postmodernism has rendered every claim to universality — spiritual or secular — unstable by rejecting foundationalism. Every perspective is open to contestation from multiple perspectives, none of which can be recognized as foundational or authoritative.
Therefore, we either affirm postmodernism and abandon all hopes of providing the West with a new, beneficial metanarrative, or we acknowledge the essential contributions of postmodernism, understand their limits, and move beyond its more extreme claims and consequences to retain any structures of meaning.
And here is where Metamodernism enters the conversation.
Metamodernism is an emerging movement that hopes to synthesize postmodernism, modernism, and premodern ideas to allow the generation of metanarratives that may move the culture forward in a unified and meaningful manner.
Metamodernism seeks to avoid the reductionism of modernism and the relativism and nihilism of postmodernism. Metamodernism negotiates between modernism and postmodernism by submitting that the first principles of modernism and postmodernism need not be seen as opposing one another but can be operative simultaneously within a single individual or group of individuals.
One aspect of metamodernism of particular interest to our project is its approach to metanarrative. Metamodernism acknowledges much of postmodernism's challenge to any metanarrative that offers itself as durable or authoritative. But metamodernism, with a sense of irony, winks at postmodernism and then works to craft metanarratives.
If one lacks the foundation from which to judge the claims of any metanarrative, as postmodernism asserts, then one is free to engage in the creation of metanarratives as an artist working with a blank canvas. The goal shifting from one of foundationalistic justification to creating beautiful stories of inner cohesiveness capable of captivating humans in a holistic sense, appealing to not only reason but emotion and existential searching.
This means that any metanarrative capable of taking hold in the post-secular, postmodern culture must not violate the tenets of science and liberal naturalism, as well as evidential reasoning, but also must be poetic, beautiful, and existentially and morally alluring. It must therefore participate in the metamodern rapprochement of post-secularity and religion.