In any group there is a strong pressure to conform… coming to agreement in group dogma, group norms, group traditions, group taboos. Even in groups that focus on being open-minded, strong dogma, norms, and taboos build up enforcing what is acceptable open-mindedness and what is unacceptable. It is curious how close-minded “open-minded” groups commonly are. This happens in church along with pretty much everywhere else.
Years ago I attended a school named Cedarville College (now Cedarville University). It was a fairly conservative Baptist liberal arts school. I found myself hanging out with those people that did not fit into the school norms in some ways. These included the non-Baptists, the religiously or politically moderate (or liberal), those who pushed the limits regarding music, dorm rooms, or hair. I guess I really did not hang out with those who pushed the moral limits (hanging out with party-rs was as boring for me then as it is now). The strange thing is that I fit most of the social norms and abided by most of the social taboos of the school. I was a Fundamental Baptist, a political and theological conservative, and generally lived in a manner well within the guidelines of the student handbook (except that I liked jazz… can’t be perfect I guess). So why did I often hang out with people who were different and did not fit in? Was I, perhaps, an awkward social misfit? Undoubtedly. But looking back, It think there were a couple of more reasons:
1. I liked talking to people who did not always agree with me. It was nice that the people I was with were not bigoted but were open to free and open discussion. It helped challenge my thinking and improve my conversation skills. I had a friend, Al, at work years later who was talking during one of our “bull” sessions in the office. He said, “All our country really needs is to be run by and live by the Ten Commandments!” One of our other coworkers (atheist, or at least closed-agnostic) jumped all over this. “Oh… so we should criminalize coveting?” “Are we going to set up anti-graven image legislation?” … and so forth. Don’t get me wrong. Al was a very smart guy… probably smarter than myself. But he tends to listen to people he agrees with and spends time with others who like to say certain things that sound great to others who share a very similar perspective (bumper sticker or sound bite theology and politics). Al was a smart guy, but the Ten Commandments comment was not a smart thing to say… it is the type of statement one makes when one has not been challenged by other opinions and perspectives.
2. I think it helped me feel like I wasn’t simply a sheep in the flock. By hanging out with and talking with members of the student body who did not fit into the system, it helped me (as one who fit fairly well into the system) feel as if I was living by choice not by acquiescence. For example, I don’t drink alcohol. I have tried it before on a few occasions… don’t care for it, don’t really understand why some find it pleasant. I also am part of a denomination that strongly encourages people not to drink. Some go further and even argue that abstinence with regards to alcohol is biblically mandated. But I refuse to use the denominational or theological group norms for defining who I am and what I do. Rather, I choose to view myself as one who has a free choice. In that free choice I don’t drink alcohol because of who I want to be and who I don’t want to be. I have seen so many Christians (especially here in the Philippines) who live simple faithful lives. But then they get work in the Middle East and then drift into various sins and vices. Why? I would suggest that who they were and what they do was more defined by the social constraints. When these social constraints were removed by moving to the Middle East, they adjusted to the new norms. I am happy that I had the opportunity to interact in many settings with many different people to gain a perspective on who I am and who I want to be… more than who others want me to be. After all, if I am a Christian, I recognize that God designed and created me. So it is more important to find my guidance in Him than in the social group I exist in.
It is okay to have subcultures. If your church pressures you to wear a tie on Sunday, or pray at a certain time, or avoid certain books or movies… that is okay. A church is (supposed to be) like a family and every family has traditions and normative behavior. But a healthy church, I believe, would be willing to have groups that challenge the norms.
- Groups where there is not a presumption what political party one supports
- Groups where one has the right to be angry at God, or even question whether God is out there.
- Groups where different views on eschatology, cosmogeny, or pneumatology can be discussed without labels of “unChristian,” “unSpiritual,” immature, or heretic being bandied about.
Having such an openness doesn’t mean being wishy-washy or believing everything and nothing. It does require a little tolernance, and large amount of respect, and a huge amount of love for each other.
By the way… take the time to read the article “Who’s more Open-minded: You or Them?” It has a great “test” for open-mindedness. “The Best Test: A person is sufficiently open-minded if he can make strong cases against his committed belief.” Take the time to read the whole article… it is linked below.
- Who’s More Open-minded, You or Them? (psychologytoday.com)
- Liberalism, free-thinking, open-mindedness: The New Era’s Excuse To Accept Things We Shouldn’t? (clearhaven.wordpress.com)
- Open-Mindedness (evolvingape.net)