Religion and the End of Grand Narratives

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Ernst van den Hemel of the Research Consortium sIMAGINE (Utrecht/Amsterdam) gives fresh perspectives on ancient European traditions and their possible future.

One of the goals of the first annual conference of the European Academy of Religion (5th-8th March 2018 in Bologna) is, in the words of its organizers, ‘encouraging stakeholders in Europe in addressing the post-secular resurgence of the role of religion in the public sphere.’

It has become a predictable aspect of postsecular theory to proclaim the return of religion and the failure of secularization narratives. In that sense, it is refreshing to see the European Academy of Religion contained many panels that moved beyond critiquing older grand narratives and that work towards new narratives: Where can we find inspiration for narratives to accommodate the new forms and roles religion takes in the 21st century? How can we move beyond an academic framework that repeats critique?

The panel ‘The Future of the Grand European Narratives. Political, Theological and Philosophical Considerations’ organized by the interdisciplinary research platform “Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society” (University of Vienna) in collaboration with the international consortium sIMAGINE (based in Utrecht/Amsterdam), has outlined some of the sources of inspiration that can do just that and presented views from different, complementary perspectives. All contributions had in common that they faced the question how to deal with the notion of „end“. Are there forms of mediation which can deal with this topos and transform it prolifically – either by means of cultural mediation or means of irony, transgression, passover, opening of new spaces – or does the notion of “end” produce forms of terror, exclusion and paralysation?

Transgression or Regression?

One of the poignant examples is the ecological crisis. In a world that is rushing into a depriving of natural resources, in which we have already transgressed established boundaries, narratives i.e. in academia are frequently conceptualized to lead into various tipping points – points of no return – that are intertwined in a highly complex earth system, marking and end of what is known to us. However, it is surprisingly more rare to find narratives, images or even language to describe a world beyond such an ostensible end. Being confronted with a situation like this, what would happen if we choose to turn to the narrative of Passover (the passing-over-a threshold)? What happens if we think of depleting natural resources not in terms of an ending but as an entering into something completely different? What happens if we remember that the covenant between the steadfast and trustworthy God and his people is still valid today – how would this impact our views and our behaviour today and in the future and how would it shape our future narratives?

These observations towards special ways of dealing with the notions of “end” leads us to interesting insights in contemporary populist movements, that also use an end of time narrative. The term Judeo-Christianity is predominantly used to express an idealized past that needs to be protected from immanent changes in the future. This not only brings to light that religion plays an important role in contemporary nationalist movements, it also provides new urgency to the challenge to provide alternative frameworks and narratives that open up towards multiple futures.

Cultural, literary and artistic mediation or terror?

Inspiration from religion should not only be sought in providing coherent narratives but can also be found in different approaches to Scripture and religious traditions. This provides renewed relevance to literary studies and a more creative and artistic approach to narrative. Literature is perhaps more than anything aimed at a pure possibility of language beyond the scope of narrative and descriptive uses, nevertheless bound to their traces and their precarious possibilities. After the end not only of grand narratives, but also, in literature, after the end of the language in which they were formulated, we stand with a language after its own end, a language that has survived the use it has been intended for.

Hence, it does make sense to look at the way texts choose to end. A paradigmatic author for such an endeavour certainly is Franz Kafka. He worked on the temporal and historical juncture where grand narratives ended and their language lingered on, possibly until today. The last sentences of Kafka’s’ fragmentary text “The trial” prove to give a condensed account of a language slowly departing from the protagonist and his death, surviving them and taking the reader into close scrutiny. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben works with the elemental words from this sentence, including the notions of gesture, of survival and of shame, the affect that indicated the departure of a language sure of itself and its subjects.

Going beyond the end of grand narratives also puts the mayor task to religions to reshape, reintegrate and to re-narrate the end of narratives in their own counter-narratives. According to Hegel the modern narrative of freedom shifts into ultimate destruction in terror, which marks the point where absolute freedom transcends any narrative. Terror, therefore, is the most nihilistic attitude possible because it negates its own mediation. Hence, it erases its own story. For Hegel religion was still able to create a counter-narrative of freedom not at least through artistic forms of mediation. Current terror attacks are directed against the inhabitants of public spaces, thus turning the universal sphere of freedom into unliveable spaces. Against this background, the question arises if religion is still able to make terror less terrifying by re-integrating the dead into public spaces. An aesthetics of public spaces as spaces of vulnerability shared by the living and the dead could be a contribution of religions to a new political agora after the end of the grand narrative of absolute freedom.

Biblical mediations of the Notion of “end”: Letter, Apocalypse and Irony

One can think of Christianity as providing a more complex source of inspiration for a shared framework than the linear narrative of moving from beginning to end. The New Testament can be seen not only as a narrative, but also as a letter, an address, in the call-and-response kind of communication that brings intersubjectivity to life in often new, open-ended and surprising ways. Specific Christian writing started with letters (first letter to the Thessalonians) and the order the New Testament finally got, shows a transition from narration to the form of letters. Narrating history in Christian terms means to undergo a process of addressing history to recipients thereby transforming a narration of history as impersonal fate to a story addressed to people who are expected to respond to this narration. Today we not only seem to have lost every personal form of writing within the sciences because writing more and more tends to be directed only to anonymous reviewers but also the grand narrative of “history”, that is the cosmic narrative of entropy, has completely lost its human dimension as humanity disappears in cosmic processes of Billions of years. Maybe it could be regarded important to regain characteristic features of the form of letters also for contemporary attempts to give a narration of our history / story.

Another form of how to handle the topos of the end in a mediating way is demonstrated by the apocalyptic tradition within the bible. They represent an image of the world that includes all kinds of time. This includes the origin as well as the end and all spaces – heaven and earth. However, they are not molded from brutal great narratives, but of a narrative about the end of brutal great narratives: the aesthetic programs, meaning images and symbols, that accompany all great empires that are built upon in violence, and secure their power, are being waved goodbye in the apocalyptic texts through irony. The end is therefore transformable into a sphere of being told as the end of a specific political, social and religious world order and power structure. It is irony which establishes the necessary distance towards these power structures and that makes it possible to question them, without having to use terror in order to do that. In this way, thresholds are created towards a new perception of world, in which the singular and the individual narratives of humankind are provided with a space. In the end of the apocalypse therefore is not an end as such, but the opening up of new possibilities.


Thus, if we list the ways in which narratives continue to shape contemporary imaginations, the question is not whether narratives will influence our future, but rather how narratives will do so. Ranging from irony, to apocalypticism, from terror to comedy, the need to revisit the narratives that frame our present is urgent, as is the need for creativity to re-imagine our future.

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Rat-Blog Nr. 6/2018