Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Going Against the Tribe, or How Not to Be Popular at Dinner Parties

It seems to me that whenever two or more people gather to do business, or to congregate around an idea, a stifling GroupThink sets in. Any deviation from the norm, or anything that questions the fundamental paradigm or Unquestionable Presupposition makes people distinctly uncomfortable.

This makes reasonable discourse nearly impossible. There are ways of dismissing almost every idea with the wave of a hand, or a sit down and shut up.

This can even be true (maybe especially true), when the questioner shares the basic core commitments of the others of the group. Yet, asking, "Is this really a given?" will make one distinctly unpopular.

I see this in my own line of work a lot. I pastor in an evangelical church, connected together for accountability and oversight with other churches. A church that desires to take the Bible seriously is a good thing. But, a church that comes to view policies and procedures, originally intended to further that mission, as important in and of themselves, has lost sight of the Primary Thing.

Unquestioned assumptions, it seems to me, of all churches these days are these:

  • Big churches are the best of all, and growth is always desirable. (nevermind that Jesus turned some willing disciples away).
  • A church must have a Grand Building, with all the accouterments, to be effective.
  • We plant churches where the people are who can afford to support them.
  • Most of our money should be spent on OUR program, not the needs of others.

Challenging those fundamental assumptions is a recipe for alienation and loneliness.

And, one has to be very careful of his own motivations. Simply being the fly in the ointment, and then being shut out because of that, is an invitation to pride --doing the right deed, but for the wrong reason is truly the greatest treason, as Eliot said.

Yet, one must constantly challenge his own presuppositions, and the presuppositions of whatever tribes with which he associates himself: political orientation, religious affiliation, national citizenship. The cold light of truth needs to be shined upon all things.

But, it also needs to be noted that diagnosing a problem is very easy: Health care is too expensive and should cost less! Yes!! Energy production is filthy and fuel is scarce --we need a clean abundant alternative, yes!!! Positive and workable solutions are far more difficult.

I have boundless respect for my mentor in the ministry. He is one of the greatest minds I have ever known --not just in theology, but of wide-ranging interest. A man of bedrock convictions, he lunched regularly with several other theological luminaries in Grand Rapids, one of whom was the legendary outspoken atheistic pastor of the self-proclaimed liberal church. That friendship raised quite a few eyebrows, in our church and others, to be sure.

I once had the temerity to ask him why he did what he did. His answer has shaped me. He said, "He keeps me honest." In other words, we need people to challenge our set patterns of thinking. And, we, who are on the inside of any given group, need to help the group see where its unquestionables may, in point of fact, be questionable indeed.

In the current political climate, I am grateful for liberals who have the temerity to question their own movement. I may disagree with them greatly on political matters, but it is refreshing to have some thinkers who do not march lock step with their own tribe. I would single out for mention NPR's Juan Williams, the always-readable, sometimes-infuriating Camille Paglia, and Jacob Weisberg of Slate magazine.

These people are not easy to live with. My Classical Greek prof in college said you would not want to invite Socrates over for pizza for this reason. We take great comfort in the things we take for granted. But, nothing ought to be taken for granted --we are test all things and hold fast to what is good.


  1. "And, we, who are on the inside of any given group, need to help the group see where its unquestionables may, in point of fact, be questionable indeed."

    Can't you just imagine what it must have been like to be a devout Jew, a pharisee or a saducee, and then have John the Baptist come along as well as Jesus? Also, Paul. Wow! I often identify with the Jewish people that Jesus preached to and I think if He were to appear in our churches today, we'd have the same reaction to Him that the Jews had because He would challenge our absolutes and throw out so many of the things that don't matter but we cling to their importance. Those that rock our boats are never quite likeable, but they must be appreciated.

    Ok. Now, if you're going to be this prolific in your blogging I may not catch them all. But I will try. I do enjoy a good discussion!

  2. I am learning that writing about anything helps me think about everything better, and thus helps sermon writing.

    I hope I get some more readers! Tell your friends!!! :-)

  3. And you are right. It's very easy to love a rebel from a few centuries' distance.

    Would we really love Luther if he were around today? Would Jesus fit in any of our churches?

  4. Ha! You may quote me in any of your sermons! Although, since I am a rebel, you could get tossed out on your ear! :) Can't you just see the looks on our faces when Christ tells us we should be loving the ones we're hauling in for criticism? Ouch. I'm sure I'd be in the crowd of goats on that one.

  5. I just found your blog thanks to Katie! I love it and think you should put it in the newsletter. In regard to assumptions, I think oftentimes folks become so defensive because it reveals what those assumptions are grounded in: pragmatism, prevelance, and preferences. When one realizes he/she is holding to something not rooted in principles and purpose but simply what seems to work, what is popular and what feels good, he/she realizes there is no true substance to what he/she holds true.

  6. "the cold light of truth" a crisp statement in the hot traditional South. In a way, I cannot claim democrat or republican or claim only presbyterianism (although a strict Calvinist at heart) Every situation or thought or perception must be filtered through truth, even if it goes against the grain. "Anything dead can flow down stream, only something alive can go against it." How sad the many I see everyday simply flowing downstream with no rhyme or reason to their momentum. Yet we want to curse the one who stands up and strains to go the other way! May I always be an upstreamer, maybe my profile name should be salmon....

  7. Okay, anon --I wish I knew who you were!