In a dusty pueblo not far from Gallup, New Mexico, the Zunis were noisily celebrating the end of winter. Costumed dancers wearing animal-skin cloaks, feathers and shells hurried through the dark streets, their faces hidden behind colorful masks, their bodies painted in ancient designs. The dancers crowded into houses where they performed to the driving beat of drums, mimicking the movements and stories they had seen acted out year after year after year, since they were children.
Each of the dancers played the role of a spirit. Their dances retold ancient tales of the creation of the world, the rise of human-kind, the birth of evil, and significantly, the birth of the Zuni people and their long journey to that special part of New Mexico they call home.
These ancient traditions keep the Zuni anchored. They explain the nature of the world and the duties men and women have to themselves, their clan, to the Zuni people and the world. These rituals, and the belief system they illustrate, form a strong foundation that holds Zuni society in right order and balance by informing individual Zunis of the duties and attitudes that create harmony in life.
Just like the Zuni, every one of us adopts a framing set of beliefs that describe life’s purpose and our duties to ourselves, our family, our nation and the world. These framing beliefs may have been handed down to us by our elders or adopted from the library of competing ideas that define modern secularism.
Framing stories establish our life agendas.
Whether we live by traditional stories or take the free market approach by acquiring stories of our own, once we have adopted a framing story, we think and act in ways consonant with that story. Our values, attitudes and actions will be rigorously predictable; they are simply new chapters written from the same book.
Framing stories can deceive us.
Commitment to a particular framing story persuades us to reject any truth that doesn’t fit our framework. To preserve the integrity of our beliefs we may adopt a “don’t confuse me with the facts” bias, rejecting any evidence that contradicts our story. Framing stories can illuminate, but they can also lead to provincialism and the soft bigotry of a closed mind.
There are lots of framing stories to choose from. “Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead for our sins” is the framing story I live out, but “there is no God” is another framing story that is, on its face, equally valid.
Democrats have adopted the “Bush is the worst president in history and has led us to rack and ruin” framing story, while Republicans embrace the “I don’t agree with everything the President has done, but the country is in great shape” framing story.
One of Pope Benedict’s framing stories is that all human life is sacred, as evidenced in statements like this:
All society, and in particular the sectors associated with medical science, are duty bound to express the solidarity of love, and to safeguard and respect human life in every moment of its earthly development…
Contrast that with the framing story adopted by many in the modern environmental movement, and famously articulated by Agent Smith in the movie The Matrix:
Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.
Objectivity is largely a myth. What we see and experience, we filter through our framing stories. And we assume the framework on which we’ve built our values and beliefs is truth, which gives us license to reject whatever contradicts that story.
I believe in truth. I believe it is possible to discover truth and live by it. I also believe that truth is not always black or white, but sometimes grey.
Certain kinds of truth can be discovered through laboratory experimentation. Others can be teased out in complex mathematical proofs. But there are some truths that are inherently clouded by human bias.
Judeo-Christian thought gets around the problem of human bias by claiming that there is a God who stands outside of human experience and acts as an impartial observer. But to learn what God knows depends on God’s willingness to communicate, to pass on his knowledge to us.
Enter revelation. God speaking to men and women down through history, to Abraham, to Moses, to Elijah, to David.
And finally, in the ultimate act of self-revelation, God himself came to earth for a short time in the person of Jesus Christ, the remarkable Galilean teacher, the cornerstone of Christian belief. If God, the impartial observer was in fact Christ, the Jewish teacher, then Christ is the very embodiment of truth.
The One who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, [came] into the world. He came into the very world He created, but the world didn’t recognize Him. He came to His own people, and even they rejected Him. But to all who believed Him and accepted Him, He gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn — not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. So the Word became human and made His home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen His glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. — John 1:9-14, The Apostle John writing, NLT
This is the Christian framing story. This is my framing story.
Photo credit: National Park Service, Chaco