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(Grateful?) Cognitive Minorities

I count it a good Sunday morning at church when I leave the building empowered with good ideas for living well. Among other things, I think, the Sunday morning service ought to provide people with tools for interpreting their experience (at an individual or collective level) through the lens of the biblical narrative. Church ought to be a place where people can go to have both the world, and their beliefs about it (religious or otherwise) rendered in intelligible terms, and in a manner that both challenges and encourages the way in which they participate in it. No small task, to be sure, but this morning’s service managed to accomplish all of these things, benefiting greatly from a little “outside help.”

Today we were joined by two Mennonite Brethren leaders from Québec, Éric Wingender of École de théologie évangélique de Montréal and Charles Martin, the moderator of the Québec MB Conference. Together, they provided us with a window into the religious culture of Québec , as well as a timely challenge regarding the nature of the church’s influence in the broader culture. The province of Québec, much like the Greater Vancouver area, is an overwhelmingly secular environment—one in which a public profession of Christianity is likely to be met either by bemused apathy or open hostility. Québec’s situation differs from other parts of Canada due to the historical influence of the Catholic Church—an influence which, according to Martin and Wingender, is widely perceived to be a negative one. The Quiet Revolution in the 1960’s—a period of accelerated secularization in Québec culture—figures prominently in the collective cultural mindset. Christianity is perceived largely as a thing of the past, a relic from a period of Québec’s history that is best forgotten.

So how is one who continues to believe that Jesus Christ really does represent the clue to history to respond in a cultural context such as this? Peter Berger used the term “cognitive minority” to describe those in the modern West who believe in the supernatural despite powerful social and psychological pressures toward secularization, and while Wingender did not use this term, Christians in Canada—whether in Montréal or Vancouver—will likely resonate with Berger’s explanation of it:

Whatever the situation may have been in the past, today the supernatural as a meaningful reality is absent or remote from the horizons of everyday life of large numbers, very probably of the majority, or people in modern societies, who seem to manage to get along without it quite well. This means that those to whom the supernatural is still, or again, a meaningful reality find themselves in the status of a minority, more precisely, a cognitive minority… By a cognitive minority I mean a group of people whose view of the world differs significantly from the one generally taken for granted in their society.

In a context where the absence of belief in God is assumed, confidently self-identifying as “religious” isn’t always easy. Yet the fact that Christians no longer enjoy the status of “cognitive majority” is not necessarily something to be bemoaned. The message of Martin and Wingender in today’s service was that the overwhelmingly secular context in which many Canadians find themselves might just give us the chance to take a fresh look at how the nature of the gospel message ought to affect how Christians engage with the broader culture.

Both men strongly advocated a re-imagining of Christian influence within culture, moving away from the top-down approach those in Québec are so familiar with, and toward a “bottom-up” mentality, where Christians exercise influence through love of neighbour, compassion, building community, and seeking not only to present Christianity as a plausible “cognitive option,” but to demonstrate its truth in everyday life. On this view, the main issue is not “how do we take back what we’ve lost?” (especially when what we “had” might have been acquired illegitimately or immorally in the first place), but “what unique opportunities to reflect God’s redemptive gospel are made possible by our position as ‘cognitive minorities?'”

The text Wingender preached from this morning was Matthew 8:18-27. In these verses, Jesus displays two apparently contradictory ways in which God has worked and continues to work in the world. In 8:18-22 Jesus responds to a teacher of the law’s declaration to follow Jesus wherever he goes with an enigmatic description of the nomadic and uncertain nature of his ministry on earth. Wingender interpreted the “foxes have holes” statement as an expression of God’s peculiar and less-than-obvious way of working in the world. God “hides” himself from us in that he comes to us in unexpected ways that we find confusing and unsettling. Then, in the calming of the sea in 8:23-27, Jesus displays his power over nature, working in ways we are more accustomed to expect from a deity. This, Wingender referred to as God’s “revelatory” nature. Thus, God simultaneously hides and reveals himself from us. And the appropriate human response to God’s paradoxical manner of working in the world is trust.

So what does this have to do with how Christians, as “cognitive minorities” ought to think about and respond to culture? Simply put, God’s way of working in the world will sometimes seem strange to us. The loss of cultural influence by a once-dominant Christianity may not seem like a good thing—it may even seem to be something that God might have some interest in preventing. It certainly doesn’t seem like the most obvious way to “make disciples of all nations” (Mat 28:19).

But perhaps here in Canada we are entering or in the midst of a season of “hiddenness” as opposed to “revelation” with respect to how institutional Christianity relates to the broader culture. Perhaps the church’s mode of being in the world at times reflects the God they are called to image, operating in different ways—now advancing, now receding from view—in different historical contexts. For roughly 1500 years, God’s name was proclaimed or “revealed” by a culturally dominant church, which had both positive and negative consequences. Now, with the rapid secularization of the West, maybe the time has come for the “hidden” face of God to be proclaimed by a church who is humble, penitent, open to dialogue, and committed to loving our neighbours as ourselves.

I’m probably guilty of any number of exegetical errors in the preceding, but I am, at any rate, grateful for the message communicated by my French-Canadian brothers this morning. Both seemed deeply committed both to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to embracing the challenge of representing him to a culture that seems, on the surface to have had enough of God. I’m grateful for their reminder that wherever we find ourselves—Québec, Vancouver, or anywhere in between—we must realize that God does not work according to the straightforward linear models of “progress” by which we evaluate “success.” He reveals. He hides. And we trust.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    Ryan while I laud and agree with the sentiments you express regarding the potentials church sevices can and ought to have, I respectfully suggest that they are the lesser thing.

    Should not the first thing be a personal encounter with Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    There can be and are holy places where the spiritual meets the physical, where more is revealed than is hidden.

    We were promised a “spirit of truth” by our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ most high. His parting gift, His legacy. If we do not seek to encounter this Spirit in dialogue, through worship, what does this say about the limitations of our belief? What does this say about the limitations we place on our Lord?

    “Enlightenment”, wholly rational mindsets, have discouraged supernatural relationships between God and His people and to that extent they must be made subordinate.

    The only arguement neccessary to belief is to be in the presence of a person who is knowingly in the presence of the Lord.

    Yours in Chist, Always,


    January 28, 2008
  2. Paul Johnston #

    …Christ, Always…

    January 28, 2008
  3. Paul, do you think that learning how to interpret our experience through the lens of the biblical narrative does not represent a “personal encounter with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” A form of dialogue and worship? I did not claim that these things exhausted the possible content of a given church service, but I’m not entirely sure what you consider them to be “less” than? Are you referring to some kind of mystical experience?

    Re: “The only argument necessary to belief is to be in the presence of a person who is knowingly in the presence of the Lord.”

    I think we’ve discussed this before, but I just don’t agree with this statement. Human beings are notoriously unreliable interpreters of experience (even their own). God certainly speaks through human experience, but I’m not prepared to say that this is “the only argument necessary to belief.” Some people clearly (and, I think, quite properly) require more.

    January 28, 2008
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Ryan, for me the phrase, “learning how to interpret our experience through the lens of the biblical narrative”, requires some serious “unpacking”. So much so, that even after lengthy discussion, we might still be left with having to agree to disagree. Consequently I’m going to leave that discussion alone.

    In any case my point is that while such endevours are both appropriate and useful, they are less than a direct experience of the Lord Himself. Through a Catholic Eucharistic experience the believer, in a right state of grace, not only ingests bread and wine but literally injests the Body and Blood of our Lord. A real manifestation of our Lord’s being made present within the believer. A radical and outlandishly audacious claim to be sure but one that I think resonates with the truth of God’s power as presented in Scripture.

    Likewise in most Roman Catholic churches you will find a simple, otherwise unassuming room known as the “Blessed Sacrament”. In it resides the real spiritual presence of our Lord Jesus Christ. In this place we can knowingly worship and dialogue with Him. We have the Tabernacle, the spiritual abode of God our Father. We have prayers directly engaging us with the Trinity through the real presence of the Holy Spirit. We have miracles, we have visions and visionaries, we have many who speak in tongues, we have many who heal, we have those who exorcise…In short we have the whole cacaphony of “voices in the wilderness” whose incessant “noise” is but “foolisness to the Greek”…but when you think about it, when you really think about it, it sounds like a much more accurate “biblical lens” than any academic rendering I’ve ever heard.

    Making the study and dissemination of Biblical exegis the first priority, renders God impersonal. Experiencing God directly, through community, assisted by church authority and scripture makes God personal. Makes God come alive in the believer….

    As for your last comment, I think you have rightly “outed” me. God speaking through human experience is not the only arguement, though I certainly think it is the best.

    January 28, 2008
  5. Well, I suppose it’s not surprising that a Mennonite and a Catholic would differ quite significantly regarding the nature of the Eucharist. I remain suspicious of the claim that human experience is the “best” argument for belief. There are far too many people out there who have, down through the ages, claimed to be experiencing God directly who have done abominable things in God’s name or seem just plain crazy for me to accept that this is the most reliable way that God makes himself known.

    January 28, 2008
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Ryan, I don’t honestly know anything about what makes Mennonite worship different than Catholic. I’d be interested in reading about it sometime though…hint, hint…

    What fuels my participation on blog cites like yours is a desire to see a reunification of Christian peoples, before God. Given the secular fascination with atheism I find it troubling that we seem to spend a lot of time and energy speaking to those whose only objective, is to undermine us. I think it would be better if we let them be. I think the greatest conversion tool we have with these types of people is to leave them alone with their ideas. While at the same time coherently and consistently living ours.

    I wish we spent more time speaking amongst ourselves, affirming jointly held truths while working towards reconciling our many differences. I think that is God’s work for any who write in His name.

    I know all the above has nothing to do with the discussion at hand, It just makes me feel better to say it. 🙂 While at the same time perhaps giving you a better sense of the character of a man strange to you other than through your blog cite….

    With regard to your last response isn’t an academic rendering of faith just another form of “human experience”. Are you argueing agaist human experience per se or just about the type of experience you are comfortable with.

    His peace be with us always,


    January 30, 2008
  7. The only reason I brought up the Mennonite/Catholic distinction was because you appealed to a specifically Catholic understanding of what goes on in the Eucharist (“the believer, in a right state of grace, not only ingests bread and wine but literally injests the Body and Blood of our Lord”) as an example of “a direct experience of the Lord Himself” which was more important/valid than what I expressed as appreciating in a church service.

    I agree that an academic rendering of the faith is a form of human experience, but I understood you to be contrasting some kind of personal religious experience with, I suppose, my overly rational approach to it? That is the context of my comments regarding human experience. I’m not “against” human experience, whether it makes me comfortable or uncomfortable. I just don’t think it’s a kind of trump card which absolves us of the responsibility to take the concerns of our neighbours (including atheists bent on undermining Christianity) seriously.

    January 30, 2008
  8. Paul Johnston #

    Sorry brother, I’m not trying to piss you off. If we disagree, it is over emphasis not content.

    Ryan, do you think it is possible for a human being to have a direct relationship with Jesus? And if it were possible, where would that relationship be ordered relative to other Christian endevours?

    January 30, 2008
  9. Dave Chow #

    Hey Ryan,

    Just for your reference, here’s a definition of ‘anabaptists’ from the online Catholic Encyclopedia:


    (Greek ana, again, and baptizo, baptize; rebaptizers).

    A violent and extremely radical body of ecclesiastico-civil reformers which first made its appearance in 1521 at Zwickau, in the present kingdom of Saxony, and still exists in milder forms.”

    Found on:

    Ryan, this is a note of clarification. Not intended to fuel a fire, or provide some incendiary thinking. However, there certainly are some differences between Catholics and Anabaptists as one can see from the article online!

    Peace to you.

    January 30, 2008
  10. Dave Chow #

    Back to your article. Well put, Ryan. I do believe that the church is now being called to live as “the seasoning” or biblically, the salt of the earth.

    Christendom made Christian culture the main course, when in fact, the real deal is supposed to be our Triune God Himself.

    I too, appreciated Eric’s call for us to live incarnationally. Living out what we believe. What a concept! That’s truly living a life of faith and trust in One who holds our future in His hands.

    January 30, 2008
  11. Fear not Paul, I’m not angry at all. I’m sorry if I’ve somehow communicated to you that I am.

    “Ryan, do you think it is possible for a human being to have a direct relationship with Jesus? And if it were possible, where would that relationship be ordered relative to other Christian endevours?”

    Yes, I do. I think that it is a somewhat strange and utterly unique kind of relationship, and is experienced differently by different people, but I certainly think it is not only possible but essential. I can’t say where I would order it because I don’t conceive of it as being something separate from “other Christian endeavors.” I think it is what makes anything that might be called a “Christian endeavor” possible in the first place.

    January 30, 2008
  12. Dave, thanks for the link and the (mild) exhortation.

    (You are certainly among the “milder” of the “extremely radical body of ecclesiastico-civil reformers” I’ve come across…)

    January 30, 2008
  13. I have to say, that is a wonderful definition! Were I an anabaptist, I’m not sure whether I’d be honored or offended by being labeled a “milder” persistence of anything…

    Wonderful discussion. Thanks to all…

    January 31, 2008
  14. Paul Johnston #

    Hey, Ryan re #11, I think we agree on something…….no really…do we??? 🙂

    Thanks also for the generosity of the response. Honestly, Ryan you had said nothing overt that indicated offense or anger. I guess I was reading between the lines and read them wrong. Sorry.

    February 1, 2008
  15. No apology necessary Paul. As always, I enjoy the dialogue.

    February 2, 2008

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