Time, Narrative, and Pluralism

As my first quarter of graduate school comes to an end, I thought I would share a few things that struck me these past few months. I do not wish to make sweeping claims about the interfaith movement, but simply hope to apply what I study to my work as an activist in the interfaith youth movement.

The concept of a “narrative identity” at first look seems simple. Our “narrative identity” compiles the experiences in our lives into a cohesive story. In reading the 20th century theologian Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative this quarter, I struggled to apply the concept in a way that felt particularly important to my work as an interfaith activist. I recently re-read Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground after hearing Dr. Patel speak at the Chicago Tribune Tower, and the light bulb went on.

I study religion and archaeology from the Ancient Near East. I also work as an activist in the interfaith youth movement, particularly under the guidance of the Interfaith Youth Core. Studying both the traditional and revisionist narratives of the origins of Islam, the past has become relevant to the present for me. One narrative, the story portrayed in Professor Fred Donner’s book Muhammad and the Believers, highlights the cooperative and tolerant society in which the first Muslims lived, amongst Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. Inscriptions found in the Hijaz region of Arabia even suggest that the first Muslims did not feel compelled to distinguish themselves as particularly Muslim, rather, they concerned themselves with piety to God. This conflicts with popular narratives of Islam used today, which suggest the beginning of Islam was violent and intolerant of infidels. Knowing this, and looking at the many examples of pluralism in Sacred Ground, we see how important narrative becomes in shaping our history as individuals and as members of communities, and moreover, how narratives can be manipulated to show what we want. More than ever, I think it is important that we, as young scholars of religion seeking to create and promote religious pluralism in the United States and in the world, understand and utilize our own narratives to combat intolerance.

Paul Ricoeur’s thesis in the three-volume Time and Narrative essentially states that as human beings, we recognize our mortality and the temporality of everything in our lifetime. Nothing is permanent. Ultimately, our lives are limited by time. Feeling uncomfortable with this notion, every human, regardless of religion, race, native language, NFL team, music preferences, needs a way to deal with this discomfort and fear of death. We turn to narrative because composing our story and sharing it with others, in a variety of media outlets (text, visual art, etc.), allows us to leave something behind that outlasts our physical self. Throughout our life, we build and re-figure what Ricoeur calls a “narrative identity”: a self-awareness of events and moments we encounter throughout our life, which tie together in a meaningful way. Communities build narratives as well, as every member of a community shares particular beliefs and interests. Our narratives constantly intertwine with those around us. Knowing this, I find the most important thing we can do to lead a movement is to understand our own narrative and the narrative of those we wish to include in the movement, in this case, the interfaith movement.

Reading Sacred Ground, I realized this is exactly what Dr. Patel is doing. He profiles a diverse array of people- those who contribute to pluralism, those who contribute to prejudice, and a few that do a little bit of both. The most striking thing about the individuals he details is not necessarily their beliefs and actions now, but the events and moments in their lives that led them to these beliefs and actions. The story about Bob Roberts growing up in a conservative Evangelical environment, believing communists to be the enemy, believing Catholics did not know Jesus, certainly constitutes a narrative lacking pluralism. The event that led Bob to begin working for pluralism, a stark change from childhood, is his trip to Vietnam. In meeting people, learning their narrative, and becoming a part of their narrative, the “evil communists”, in turn became part of Bob’s narrative through personal relationships.

The significant part of Bob’s story is his understanding of the important moments that created and shifted his narrative identity and the appropriate action he took. This sounds abstract, but if we reflect on our story and the moments that tie our narrative together, we can see what has lead us to our beliefs and actions, and we can connect with others who have done the same. That said, isn’t this the way to fight hatred and intolerance? The old saying, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” merits a second look. Knowing the narrative of our “enemies”- those who wish to condemn Islam as terrorism, Catholicism as corrupt, religion in general as backward and brainwashing- would allow us to understand why they feel this way in the first place. Many times, we know the answer generally- a lack of reason to think anything otherwise. Only knowing what we see from the television and read from the newspapers, it is no wonder religion gets a bad rap. The only way for those of us, the “choir” as Dr. Patel calls those versed in interfaith cooperation, to preach beyond the comforts of our fellow believers, is to know how to connect with the skeptics, and moreover, the downright disbelievers. The people like Pamela Gellar, whose voices scream the loudest songs of intolerance- what in their narrative brought them to this hatred? How can we push our narrative, our stories of pluralism, beyond the dominant narrative of disbelief?

I can’t make any sweeping claims about how to advance the interfaith movement, because every day, I wonder and hope I am doing some miniscule thing to do so. In studying Ricoeur’s philosophy on time and narrative and what it means to be a human being, and connecting with the characters in Dr. Patel’s book, I believe we should first look at ourselves, at our story. Why is it that we want this movement to grow? I asked myself this very question, and was taken aback that I couldn’t formulate an answer right away. I talk so much about my faith as a Buddhist and how this facilitates my work, but in navigating through my own narrative identity, I realize it is so much more than my personal faith practice. It’s my basketball team sticking up for me in 6th grade when I was banned from a tournament because I wasn’t Japanese. It’s my friends in high school accepting me amidst differing political views and socio-economic statuses. It’s my Turkish host family, showing me nothing but real kindness when they had so much to wonder about me, the blonde, Buddhist university student with an obnoxious laugh and dry sense of humor. These friends of mine were willing to learn about me and in turn, learned about embracing difference. I did the same, engaging with them. In every case, we find more in common than in difference. We cannot recruit new voices to the interfaith movement without knowing our own narrative and knowing how to utilize our history to engage others. In the interfaith movement, we are building a communal narrative of pluralism. The narrative grows stronger the more stories and moments we contribute, and most essentially, the more effectively we utilize these stories to be relevant to us today.

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5 thoughts on “Time, Narrative, and Pluralism

  1. Wonderful essay Jem. I disagree with Dr. Patel’s reasoning — I don’t think narrative is a particularly compelling way for people to medicate their fear of death, and I think our focus on our personal & collective narrative is much more likely a social tool, that helps us form group identity as well as find a sense of purpose in a sometimes random and unpredictable world.

    However, I think that you make some great points. My work has often focused on the Neopagan, polytheist and spiritual humanist communities, and narrative is a problem for these groups. All of those movements are both new and highly individualistic, meaning that there is often no cohesive narrative binding them together at all.

    How do you feel that group narrative arises from diverse individual narrative? Should it be cultivated intentionally, or must it arise organically?

    And do you think this lack of cohesive narrative is normal for a movement in its early stages? For example, did early Islam lack an identity just as much as neopagans do today?

    1. Hi Drew,

      Thank you so much for commenting. One clarification (my bad), the thesis that people use narrative to feel more comfortable with temporality is actually Ricoeur’s thesis in his books Time and Narrative. Dr. Patel probably would agree with you that narrative can be used as a strong social tool to unify communities. I personally would focus on using narrative as a way to unify rather than separate, especially in the interfaith movement, and I think one way to do this is to recognize our humanity and our perhaps discomfort with death and change.

      Great questions, which I can offer my thoughts on… As far as diverse individual narrative, I think you mean how do groups of diverse individuals form a collective narrative? I think this happens all the time, based on some unifying story, event, or belief that ties the narrative together. I think we can intentionally create narratives (we do this in the interfaith movement; choosing particular stories that highlight pluralism), but I also believe many times, these narratives arise sub-consciously. I think it is quite normal to lack a cohesive narrative in the beginning of a movement, because we are not sure of the direction it will take. It’s really interesting you ask about Islam, because a few scholars have written about the first Muslims as lacking a specifically Muslim identity- they seemed more concern with being pious toward God than distinguishing themselves from other faith traditions.

      1. Thanks for your reply Jem, and the clarification about Ricoeur and Patel.

        I agree that we sometimes try to create narrative, and other narratives arise unconsciously or “organically” so to speak. I suspect the most powerful and enduring narratives are the organic ones, which makes it a challenge to try to develop narrative. I suppose it’s similar to trying to “make” a video go viral — you can do certain things to maximize your impact, but whether you’ll hit the zeitgeist often seems mysterious and unpredictable.

        I haven’t read the works about early Islam — do we have a theory on how early Muslims went from this loose association around an idea to having a more cohesive group identity?

  2. Hey Jem,

    It is great to connect with this article in many aspects, not the least of which is the pleasure of knowing you and being a former fellow with you at the IFYC. I like this notion of narrative identity, but especially the idea that our existence and narrative is more appreciated through the linking of narratives throughout the ages. Yes, our narratives alone are sacred and beautiful. But, when we can see our faces and hearts, struggles and triumphs, in cultures and spaces throughout time, the essence of our existence is linked to a more historical thread of sacred creation.

    Dr. Patel, the interfaith movement, the Divinity School at U Chicago, and countless other entities are learning to weave and be woven. All in unique ways, do we take this journey. But, ultimately, I think that the themes you put forth in this article tap into a very important part of what could take this interfaith movement to the next level. So, thank you for that and for opening me to new ideas and paths for my journey.

    Peace to you on yours,
    Nic

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