Monday, January 22, 2007

One-Two, One-Two: Universalism and the Numerology of Stories

Imagine how three members of a growing church might describe their recent history.

The first one tells this story: "We were outgrowing our building and knew that we had to do something. We considered all sorts of options and eventually decided to knock out the back wall and build an extension. It cost some money, but we managed it and now we have some breathing space."

The second member tells it this way: "I thought we should go to two services and not spend a lot of money on a building, but other people had all kinds of grand ambitions. They had the votes, so their side won and my side lost."

The third member says this: "The first proposal was to buy a piece of land on the edge of town and build a whole new building, but when the cost estimates came in, we realized we'd have to go way into debt. So then some other people said that we should just make do with what we have: Go to two services, wedge another desk into the office for the new administrator, and so on. Well, that wasn't very satisfying either. So we looked into expanding the building we have, and while that wouldn't be as wonderful as the new building, we figured that we could swing it with a capital campaign, without going into debt. As soon as that proposal was laid out, it was obviously what we were going to do. It got approved by a wide margin, and it has worked out pretty well."

So: Three stories, all describing the same basic event, all including and leaving out different details. None of the stories is false. But which story you tell determines to a large extent how happy you will be in that church.

The Numerology of Stories
The three stories differ in many ways, but from the point of view of a story-teller one difference stands out: They each have a different number of characters, a different number of points of view that you need to understand to follow the story.

The first member tells a one-character story. The single character is the congregation: we. We had a problem. We looked at possible solutions. We picked one, and now the problem is solved.

The second member tells a two-character story. The congregation has two factions: One lost and the other won. The separation continues, and you can't help wondering when it will rise up to bite them again.

The third member tells a three-character story, in a thesis-antithesis-synthesis model. The third point of view captured some the virtues of each of the first two, and allowed the situation to resolve back into a one-character story: After some conflict, the congregation is united and moving into the future.

Marriage counseling stories often show the same pattern. In the beginning the couple was telling a one-character story: We did this. Then it broke down into a two-character story: I did this and she did that. And then the counselor introduces the marriage itself as a third character, a character that each spouse can surrender to without losing. So, for example, maybe I would never quit drinking to please my wife, but I would quit to save my marriage. The marriage is a third character in the story, and I'm not in conflict with the marriage.

So here's the point I'm trying to make with these examples: Stories have a numerology. One-character stories are different from two-character stories which are different from three-character stories. When people argue past each other, it's often because they're telling a story with a different numerology. My story doesn't translate into your story, because I have a different number of characters.

Changing the Numerology
Imagine that you're the second church member listening to the first member tell his one-character story: "We did this. We did that." You were at those meetings he's talking about. You felt alienated from what the group was doing, and you argued against it. But in the story he's telling, you don't exist. How's that going to make you feel?

My second point is that if you change the numerology of someone's story, you change their story in a fundamental way. A conflict story can become a resolution story, or vice versa. Now, how do you do that? Well, it's much easier to add characters to a story than to take them out. The second member is not going to be pulled back into the congregation by the one-character story. He's not going to say: "I guess you're right. I wasn't really there. I didn't really protest. In the true story I don't exist."

No. You change the numerology of a story by adding characters to it. The alienated church member is much more likely to be convinced by the three-character story, in which some of the wisdom expressed by the second character was understood and implemented by the third character. "You did exist. You did protest. You influenced the ultimate decision. And you are and always have been part of the whole that is now moving forward."

You see, Two can become One only by annihilation, by conquest. But Three can become One by transcendence. Marital problems don't end because one spouse wins and dominates the other. They end because the two transcend their individuality by identifying with the third character, the marriage.

Religious Conflict
You would expect numerology to play an important role in religious conflict, because different religions write different invisible characters into their stories. Sometimes those characters play a constructive role. Christian marriage counseling, for example, can take advantage of the fact that both spouses already believe in a transcendent third character. The counselor can say, "Stop asking what you want or what she wants, and start asking what God wants for your family." Sometimes it works.

Some people wonder what that Higher Power is doing in 12-step programs, because He, She, or It doesn't need to have any specific qualities. It's really simple: the Higher Power changes the number of characters in the story. That's it. That's all it has to do.

Or think about prayer. If you're sitting in a room by yourself, it's not really safe to explore your neediness and your helpless and your pain, because you might just collapse into a puddle. You might not be able to pull yourself together and go face the world again. But if God is in that room with you, everything changes. Even as you probe the depths of your weakness, strength continues to be part of the story, because God holds it.

Of course, it's not all one way or the other. Sometimes religion's invisible characters play a destructive role. They justify wars or murders or all kinds of cruelty.

Liberals and Conservatives
The biggest conflict in religion today is between liberals and conservatives. I'd like to suggest that their conflict is largely numerological: Although everybody tells all the number-stories at one time or another, liberals favor one-character stories, while conservatives like to tell two-character stories. (Notice that to talk about conflict at all, I've had to shift to a two-character story: liberals vs. conservatives. This, I believe, is why the conservatives seem so much more comfortable fighting the culture wars than liberals do.)

In my view, religious liberalism really came into its own the day that the first Universalist decided that there is no Hell. Because that means that the human story can be a one-character story: Instead of some people taking the path the Heaven and some people taking a different path to Hell, we're all muddling along on the same path. The Cosmos isn't a two-character story of God vs. Satan or Good vs. Evil.

This came clear to me a few months ago, when Evangelical leader Ted Haggard was in the middle a scandal about drugs and gay sex and prostitution. James Dobson made this comment to Larry King: "He, obviously, was, again, at war with himself. He was involved in activities that I think horrified him. He said that he fought against it, but he also knew what he believed. It was not hypocrisy. It was a struggle between behavior and the belief system."

Dobson is talking about one man, and yet he tells a two-character story. That had never struck me as odd before, but as I looked back through the conservative religious writings I had read before, I noticed how typical it was. The fundamental fact about Dobson's cosmos is that it is split between Good and Evil. And that fault line runs through every single person. Dobson takes for granted that each individual is at war with himself or herself. Haggard's case is simply a more extreme version of the human condition.

By contrast, I very seldom hear religious liberals tell two-character stories about their inner psychology. We tell two-character stories about why we can't lose those last five pounds, but usually not about our most important life choices. We typically see ourselves muddling through our lives trying to do good things. Sometimes we succeed; sometimes we fail. But a conservative Christian living the exact same life would tell it as a two-character story: "I have a good side and a bad side, and they're at war. Sometimes the good side wins. Sometimes the bad side wins."

The same pattern scales up to planetary size. We want to talk about how humanity is going to avoid annihilating itself -- a one-character story. And they want to talk about the Global War on Terror.

Now, in this essay I'm not going to explain why I prefer the liberal tendency. I do, and I assume that the readers who are drawn to my writings probably do too. Instead, I want to consider what we can do to further our cause. I hope I've made it clear why we will never turn conservatives around by shouting our one-character story over their two-character story: When we try, they think we're claiming that Evil doesn't exist. And they know Evil exists, because they've been telling its story their entire lives.

Instead, we somehow need to introduce a third character into their story. We need to add a character, not subtract one.

And that, I am sorry to say, is as far as I've gotten. For now, I have to leave the rest to you. When you talk to conservatives, when you watch them on TV, when you read their words, listen for that two-character story. And look for your chance to add a transcendent third character who can pull the story back to unity. If you come up with something that works, let me know.


kim said...

Well, you introduce a third character in Right and Left Together -- What Religious Liberals and Conservatives Have in Common. Can we use that in any way? Good, Evil, Emptiness....

Doug Muder said...

Interesting point. The third needs to be an attractive character, though, so maybe Fullness.

Eastern religions, of course, have a nonduality message and offer third characters like the Tao. But I don't see Dobson's followers going for that.

smellincoffee said...

"And look for your chance to add a transcendent third character who can pull the story back to unity. If you come up with something that works, let me know."

Taken out of context, that's the perfect line for a religious person to start trying to proselytize you. ;)

schempp said...

I liked the points you made in your talk at UU Bedford on Sunday, January 28.

Thomas Paine's courage is certainly the most neglected of our Founding Fathers. It has to be remembered that he died in poverty, not respected for his work.

I agree with your perspective that, with Paine, we owe a responsibility to promote "Common Sense" as well as "the Age of Reason".

Imagining a world that never was but which might be, as Robert Kennedy said in eulogy to John Kennedy, is a great stirring to try to fulfill such a vision.

Unfortunately, there are those in tribal outlooks who have a vision of a messiah's coming to "save" us from ourselves. The Imperial outlook is pretty much the same.


PeaceBang said...

I love the concept of introducing the third character. Keep at it! I eagerly await the next installment.