Conventional Wisdom, Cultural Christianity, Imperceptible Assumptions, & Predictable Outcomes

Posted on September 21, 2010

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“It was John Kenneth Galbraith, the hyperliterate economic sage, who coined the phrase ‘conventional wisdom’. He did not consider it a compliment. ‘We associate truth with convenience’, he wrote, ‘with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal well-being or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life. We also find highly acceptable what contributes most to self-esteem.’ Economic and social behaviors, Galbraith continued, ‘are complex, and to comprehend their character is mentally tiring. Therefore we adhere, as though to a raft, to those ideas which represent our understanding.’

“So the conventional wisdom in Galbraith’s view must be simple, convenient, comfortable, and comforting—though not necessarily true. It would be silly to argue that the conventional wisdom is never true. But noticing where the conventional wisdom may be false—noticing, perhaps, the contrails of sloppy or self-interested thinking—is a nice place to start asking questions.”

(S. D. Levitt & S. J. Dubner, Freakonomics; a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything, pp. 85-86)

In a previous post, “death of a cult”, I questioned if there is any real similarity between the early church, established by the disciples of Jesus and the American church of today. While reading the quote above, I was startled by a realization. I posit that the American church has conveniently evolved through following conventional wisdom to nicely “fit” into our culture. Conventional wisdom is the wisdom of the age. The wisdom of our age here in American has some very foundational values at its roots. By values, I mean those basic beliefs that we live out everyday. As they have become habitual in everyday practice, we make them non-negotiable fundamentals of our religious practices. Most often, they become an invisible part of our religious environment; imperceptible assumptions that have become unquestioned realities; but that are, never-the-less, human constructs.

Let me be clear. Rather than love and justice, compassion and service being the foundation of religion in America, religion instead has aligned with the foundation of our culture. Instead of being “set apart” for “works of service” and “laying down our lives” for others, we have become the “world”. Here is, for me, a short list of imperceptible assumptions that have become unquestioned realities in our churches, rendering the church largely irrelevant and powerless:

  1. Comfort and convenience
  2. Consumption: pay your money and receive your services
  3. Mitigate risk and be safe
  4. Target markets: segregation in the name of the comfort and convenience of familiarity
  5. Certainty: Human constructs we call theological systems and ecclesiastical regulations and practices define everything (so we are more comfortable by being certain).
  6. Mediation of experiences we call religious. Preachers and professionals, programs, theological beliefs, religious talk, material things (like buildings, books, etc) and stories of the saints give us second-hand experiences and protect us from dangerous, life-changing, direct experience of the holy.
  7. The church is the building with all of its “products and services”, programs, worship entertainment, outreach; complete with paid staff (to deliver services so we consumers don’t have to) . . . even worship itself is called the “worship service”. . . As we consume these things, we ease our guilt and lull ourselves back to sleep. (“Wake up, the world’s on fire!!!” Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet)

As I see it, spiritual experience, the nature of which Jesus spoke and the early church followed, had a very different set of foundational beliefs:

  1. Jesus calls us to be willing to leave EVERYTHING. Family, friends, home, whatever it takes. Letting go and losing all is foundational to surrender.
  2. Living simply was exemplified by Jesus’ life of wandering and homelessness; leaving the kingdom of heaven totally inaccessible by those that cling to riches (parable of the rich man and the Story of Job).
  3. Discovering the gifts that God gives us and using them daily in service to humanity is what we are called to; and not just on the Sabbath. Our divine purpose on earth and a meaningful life is found in our contribution, in giving our gifts freely and daily.
  4. The church is a “house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17) not the most segregated time of the week. The “target market” is replaced by all nations, all people, all races, all beliefs, all economic groups, all abilities . . . all means all. A place of welcome and inclusion.
  5. Theology should be driven by awe and wonder, not “making sense”. God is too big to fit in your brain. God is too big to fit in a book. He wishes only to fit in our hearts. Allow for mystery and paradox. We don’t have to “know for sure” or systematize theology. Once we “know for sure”, all learning is stopped dead in its tracks. We don’t have to “make wrong” (others) in order to “be right.”
  6. Spiritual experiences can not be second hand. God has no grand children. We must remove all form of mediation in order to directly experience God. Words, thoughts, ideas, rituals, songs, icons, and people all get in the way. We don’t go through “things” to get to God. The curtain has been torn apart. We can have spiritual experiences directly. But first we must get ourselves, our egos, our wants and wishes, out of the way and be open to anything and everything grace brings to us.
  7. The church is the people. The building is simply an unnecessary, but convenient meeting place. Programs must give way to relationships. Paid staff must give way to all serving being done through the whole body of Christ. Worship “service” becomes a celebration of a week full of community life; breaking bread daily, praying together daily, serving the poor daily.

Originally posted November 1, 2009. This is Pre-Quaker thinking, believe it or not. The original posting was one month before discovering there were modern day Quakers right here in Grand Rapids! After re-reading this, it is no wonder that I felt so “at home” when I started meeting with them for worship in silence. For some reason, I had this sense that I had been a Quaker all my life and just didn’t know it.

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