Religion, Spirituality, Narrative, and “Aspirational Identities”

In recent decades, changes in the social and religious landscape—including the expansion of available options and shifting boundaries of identification —have fueled interest in the topic of religious identity. How, scholars ask, do individuals construct and maintain a coherent sense of self given the growth and increasing complexity of the contemporary “spiritual marketplace”?

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How do people integrate their religious identities with other, often competing, social roles and group memberships? Recent reviews have advocated for a narrative approach, suggesting that this perspective can help illuminate how individuals resolve the tensions and complexities associated with identification and meaning in modern social life. Narrative identity theorists view the self as organized and ongoing project defined by the ability to “keep a particular narrative going”.

Individual’s self-stories, it is argued, help to locate the individual in both time and space, providing structure and coherence to complex and changing individual lives. Storytelling and narration then are considered acts of self-formation, practices in and through which individuals construct and maintain their identities. Moreover, these narratives, while personally meaningful, are drawn from available cultural resources: the plot lines, metaphors, and underlying grammar made available in different social and cultural contexts.

On religious conversion, for example, focuses on how religious adherents integrate past affiliations and the conversion experience itself into a coherent and continuous self-story. Narratives have been shown to play a role in both accounting for and in accomplishing religious and spiritual change.

One key element of narrative theory, however, remains under-emphasized in existing research: narratives not only “plot” the past and present—integrating events and experiences into a coherent story-line—but also project forward into the future, suggesting where the storyteller is heading. In fact, the self is defined, from a narrative perspective, as a “working theory of who one is, was, and will become”, which includes not only “a selective reconstruction of the autobiographical past” but also a “narrative anticipation of the imagined future”.

A coherent sense of self, then, requires not only an account of “how we have become” but also of “where we are going”.

A sense of direction and destination is consequential. Starting in the works of Mead and Cooley, scholars of identity have suggested that imagined futures inform and shape current self-understanding and individual action just as much as the past. As Bauman writes, “Destination, the set purpose of life’s pilgrimage, gives form to the formless, makes a whole out of the fragmentary, lends continuity to the episodic”.

“Destination, the set purpose of life’s pilgrimage, gives form to the formless, makes a whole out of the fragmentary, lends continuity to the episodic”.

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