There’s discouraging news again this month in my Episcopal denomination. No, not feuding seminary faculty and administrators—though that is truly awful—but another report of declining membership. Earlier this year, the Presbyterian Church (USA) reported similar membership losses. You can find the same sort of data on the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the United Church of Christ (UCC), and just about every other mainline Protestant denomination.
Heck, even the Southern Baptists and other Evangelical churches are losing members, which tends to give the lie to stories suggesting that decreasing religious membership is caused by the progressive leanings of mainline churches.
There’s much to consider—er, worry about—here for congregations and denominations. But I’m not sure that an overly-simplified narrative of decline, loss, and lament gets the story entirely right. And I say that as someone in the story business, as someone who knows how important the stories we create and share are—especially when it comes to shaping who we are and who we are becoming.
As a researcher, as a writer, and as an educator, I spend the bulk of my time reading stories, listening to stories, and, from these, crafting new stories. When all is said and done, the story of my life is stories. And, if you will forgive the presumption, so is yours.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” is the first line of Joan Didion’s famous essay “The White Album” and the book of the same name. Our stories help us to understand complexity and contradiction. They help us to cope with suffering and loss. They allow us to work through complex moral issues—“to find the sermon in the suicide,” as Didion put it.
But there’s more to it than that, in fact. For our stories are not merely tools for meaning-making or utilitarian instruments that can be set aside once some clarity has been obtained and picked up again should it fade. Ultimately, our stories are us: they are all stories of the self, however much they meander across locales, gather and discard various characters, shift plots or genre, and experiment with different moods, styles, and meanings.
Twentieth-century philosopher Paul Ricoeur was an early articulator of the concept of “narrative identity,” which allows us to understand the self not as a fixed personality, but rather as a developing, interactive story. Ricoeur wrote:
Narrative identity is not a stable or seamless identity… Just as it is possible to compose several plots on the subject of the same incidents…so it is always possible to weave different, even opposed, plots about our lives. …In this sense, narrative identity continues to make and unmake itself, and the question of trust that Jesus posed to his disciples—Who do you say that I am?—is one that each of us can pose concerning ourself
According to Ricoeur, the story of the self is the self itself. Identity (including religious identity) is the story we tell of ourselves over time. It is a story that changes—sometimes slowly, sometimes dramatically—and even contradicts itself. Whoever I say that I am is always “true,” no matter how the story ultimately unfolds.
Keeping the Story Going
The sociologist Anthony Giddens applies the ideas of Ricoeur and others to today’s postmodern world, where we’re all aware of the various ways in which lives are fragmented. Most lives are no longer lived in one place, with one job, among one relatively unchanging group of people who all belong to—were born into—the local parish. Instead, we are spouses and parents here; thinkers, creators, doers there; friends, companions, neighbors somewhere else; and so on. In many situations, the daily ebbs and flows of ordinary life across domestic, commercial, social, digital, and other locales pushes Didion’s prized activity of making meaning through stories somewhat down the priority list.
Given this, Giddens argues that what is most important to people—what makes us feel more secure and “authentic” in our identities—is not so much meaning as coherence. “A person’s identity is not to be found in behavior, nor—important though this is—in the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going,” writes Giddens.
The story of the self that is the self seeks coherence more than anything. We want our work to connect to our personal values rather than challenging or undermining them. We want our family life to be enriched by spiritual practices, not interrupted by them. We want our friendships to be honored as important sources of richness and nourishment, not cast aside as incidental in light of other more socially formalized relationships. We want, that is, to keep the story going—to be recognizable as characters in our own story, from setting to setting, from relationship to relationship, from commitment to commitment.
This notion of narrative coherence has profound implications for the nurturing of religious and spiritual identities that historically were solidified in denominational and congregational membership and enacted in very specific locales at designated times. It means, for one thing, that traditional models of membership, with their associated denominational labels and worship practices, have less and less meaning in postmodern lives that play out in a largely postchristian, religiously plural world.
Given this scenario, what might it mean to worship in, say, the Congregational tradition without the press to identify as “Congregationalist” or “UCC”? How would we support ministry and mission if those activities focused less upon increasing membership and more upon inviting people into relationships that enrich their life stories, as well as our own? What if we expanded our definition of “worship” to include everyday—but nonetheless grace-filled—engagements with family, friends, and strangers? Everyday acts of kindness and mercy? The ordinary calls for compassion and justice that punctuate our work-a-day lives? How would such practices connect and make more coherent religious and quotidian experience?
Wherever You Are, You’re Always Already There
The priority of narrative coherence in self-identity means that two modes of shaping religious or spiritual identity are fading. The first, as seems clear to everyone, is religious identity through formal membership in institutional religions. The second is the kind of “seeking” behavior that scholars like Robert Wuthnow have identified among the Baby Boomers and some GenXers. The Pew “Nones on the Rise” study highlighted this trend when it asked, “Are You Looking For a Religion that Would be Right for You?”—and a whopping 88% of the religiously unaffiliated, or “Nones,” responded, “no.”
But the question is misleading, in that it is predicated upon Wuthnow’s notion that people either “dwell” in a religious tradition or “seek” one within which they will eventually dwell. Pew’s own research, in fact, suggests that most people are not looking for a, single, fixed religious home, but rather are interested in multiple traditions insofar as they enter into the ongoing story of the self.
One of the people I interviewed for my forthcoming book on the spiritual lives of the religiously unaffiliated described the way these different spiritual strands come together in a coherent life story in this way:
I like to think I’ve grown spiritually over the years. Sometimes I look at some of the things I used to be into—‘The Angel Years’ when I was in my twenties, for instance, or the Native American drumming—and I can’t imagine putting my energy into that today. But at the time, it meant something. It helped me, I guess, to feel that I was surrounded by all these ‘angels.’ I learned some things, including that believing in angels is like believing in magic fairies. You know, I was such a “New Ager.” I was into that for sure.
And then I moved on. I tried different things—Twelve-Step groups, therapeutic touch, meditation. I was an Episcopalian, sort of, for a couple years. Now I practice yoga and I meditate regularly. I’m really a None. Or, maybe an All-of-the-Above. I guess None is what’s working now. But parts of all of the rest are still there one way or another. If I need them, if they make sense, they’re there for me.
How do we make space in our denominations and congregations for people who are interested in being “an Episcopalian, sort of?” How are our communities open, flexible resources when people need them, when they “make sense” in their own stories?
The Rev. Peter Wallace, an Episcopal priest, commented on this the other day, wondering if we could make more space in our churches for doubters, questioners, and unbelievers seeking peace, companionship, and other social goods—all of which may have spiritual meaning for us in the Church, but not the same kinds of meaning for others—without succumbing to the impulse to scratch the membership itch. “Perhaps,” said Wallace, “we should find a way to open our doors wider to welcome more of these folks who may be ‘religious but not spiritual.’”
It’s a start.
The story of the self as spiritual or religious continues when we enter into the lives of others socially and relationally. It continues when we become characters and locales in the life stories of others, rather than expecting them to take up our stories, wholly unedited, as their own.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples. Such questions can be part of a membership quiz, a qualifying exam. But they can also be a way of encouraging the sharing of stories and—especially for churches whose identities are not defined exclusively by membership numbers—the creation of new, collaborative narratives that enhance coherence, security, and faith.