Imagined No More
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
I recently listened to the audio version of Homo Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It is a "big idea" book written for a popular audience that attempts to trace the origins and development of humanity and human society. For those interested in considering or debating such questions, I strongly recommend it.
One of the things that Harari discusses is the move from smaller tribal organizational units to larger societal groups--the kind of cohesion that can come to exist and persist despite the fact that not everyone in the collective can personally know or recall each person. To achieve this, it seems, human beings need the cognitive ability to imagine and conceive of a larger reality: the nation, civilization, or empire. A shared story like this allows us to hold it all together in our heads. These things exist because we believe they do. And we believe they do because our imagination helps them to exist.
In this way, imaginative fictions bind us together into groups that exist beyond what we can personally see. Shared images, ideas, priorities, and values are the building blocks of such collectives. All this, of course, echoes what Benedict Anderson has said regarding nationalism in Imagined Communities.
The larger story of the nation is what has helped many people groups organize and coordinate efforts. These positive benefits can serve the nation well and help it succeed. Alternately, if the imaginings of the community take a different turn, its demands and purposes can follow paths both dangerous and destructive--demanding too much from the individual or seeking the removal or subjection of anything or anyone that is not considered part of the nation. History can certainly provide us examples of that. And then, of course, there are many who would say that the very existence of any metanarrative (a larger story that seeks to describe the whole nature of reality) can by its very existence be oppressive to those who do not fit within its calculus.
When I think about metanarratives and imagined realities, I look at the contemporary state of our country...and I wonder. There seems to be increasingly little cohesion to what "America" is or is supposed to be. We can see, in this electoral season, at least two competing visions of the nation in the choices before us. Even that obscures the fact that underneath the surface of Democrat versus Republican are a panoply of positions that reveal the fractured state of our imagined world(s). Maintaining a nation in such a season is a difficult endeavor.
While one answer to this apparent shattering of cohesion would be to return to an older national metanarrative, I do have some concern. Because, looking back at American history, we know that the kinds of stories that we have told about ourselves in the past have left out or wounded a lot of people. Simply going back to the 1950s is not a realistic option. And even if it was, there are significant portions of our population that would not stand to benefit from such a revived imagined community. Just ask an African-American during the Jim Crow era.
It is possible, I suppose, for a new story to be developed. A new collective image of who and what we are as a nation. What that would be is likely a conversation for another time. Even just this morning I saw columnist David Brooks take a stab at discussing the values of a possible future. To be sure, such a project may have promise. But at the same time, concerns remain. If older metanarratives succeeded even as they diminished, rejected, and oppressed other voices, who is to say that our new ones might not do the same?
The alternative raises big questions as well. Can a community exist without a shared story? I am becoming convinced that the answer to this is "no." Stuck then, between dissolution of imagined communities and the possibility of "narrative dictatorship," the state of the nation as nation remains an open question.
As I think of this, I remember as well that the nations that currently exist have not always existed. There is no guarantee that they will be there in the future. Both imaginations and realities change. What I do know, however, is that as a Christian believer I also belong to community that has persisted through the rise and fall of many collective societal fictions. Empires, philosophies, movements, and nations have come and gone while the Church has continued on. Its shape has changed, surely, but is has not gone away. It is supranational and transtemporal. It has a clear central core--Jesus Christ--even as it is an eminently translatable across cultures.
The imagined community of Christianity, unlike nationalism, is not a fictive thing. It is rather the reality which we see and perceive in our mind's eye by the work of the Spirit. At the center of it all is the Truth that is Christ. While over time our imagination has made Christianity into many things--not all of them good--God in Christ has persistently called us away from these incomplete fictions. God does so even now.
The Church is not the nation, of course. And in that there is a blessing. For inasmuch as we who follow Christ pray for the well-being and transformation of the communities and nations of which we are a part, we know that they are not the end of the line. That they are collective stories that pass with time. That, as Augustine reminded us long ago, the City of God and the City of Man are not the same thing.