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You Would Think That, Wouldn’t You?

I ran into an old acquaintance in the grocery store last night. We hadn’t seen each other in almost twenty years when we were students at the same college. He had flown in from out of province to visit his ailing father. Our talk followed the well-worn grooves that these conversations tend to slide into: what do you do, tell me about your kids, what about church, college seems like a long time ago, I guess we’re getting old, smile, wink, sigh.

Speaking of sliding into grooves… We very briefly talked about our faith trajectories since the mid-90’s. I suppose it would be safe to say that my categories have expanded or complexified a bit since then. His, it seemed, had not. At least not much. He expressed suspicion at certain institutions and ideas that I did not share. I pushed back a little, but only a little. I wasn’t in the mood for a deep conversation and I didn’t want to leave the pleasant confines of friendly banter that had been established. The direction that his life and faith had taken didn’t really surprise me. It was understandable—predictable, even—given what I knew of his background and disposition. At least that was what I was pleased to tell myself, as I trudged out of the grocery store last night.

Ah, but what’s true for others is surely true for me too, right? Has my life also not followed a fairly predictable trajectory, slid into some entirely foreseeable grooves? Born into a rural Christian context, a bit of education, a certain disposition, a specific accumulation of privileges and opportunities. Throw it all together, shake and stir, and you’d probably end up with a human widget that fairly closely resembles, well, me. Is this not true for all of us? Aren’t we all just sliding into the grooves laid out before us? No matter how much we might be tempted to believe that our lives are the heroic creations of courageous individuality and authentic self-expression, they’re not really. Even the imagined ideal that our lives should be the aforementioned triumphant expressions of individuality could quite easily be construed as just one more groove set before us, which we obediently slide into.

My kids are spending the summer as counselors-in-training at camp. It’s striking to listen to them talk about what is shared and how. When I was at camp, we all tried to squeeze our faith testimonies through the narrow gate of “I was once was lost (oh, so very lost… and depraved… and rebellious) but now am found.” Even if we weren’t as lost (or found, for that matter) as we presented ourselves. Now, it seems, the narrow gate has more to do with mental health issues and tortured identity negotiation. I think that in both cases there are real and important issues being traversed in real human lives. But there are also grooves being slid into. We work with the options presented to us, the categories modeled for us, the avenues we see others walking down.

The idea that who we are, who we want to be, and how we present ourselves is determined, or at least deeply influenced by our context is, of course, not exactly a new one. I remember lying awake in my room as a kid thinking, “I wonder what would have happened if I was born in Pakistan or Iraq or India… Wouldn’t I just embrace the religion and customs and assumptions that were given to me?” It’s hard to dispute the idea that social conformity plays a massive role in what all of us think and do in the world. Even nonconformity can, of course, turn into a kind of conformity. It’s just a different groove to slide down with its own sets of social rewards.

NASA-MARS2_2588852bA few weeks ago, the prominent sociologist Peter Berger passed away. I remember reading Berger in university and grad school and finding his work enormously compelling. One category of his that stuck with me was that of “plausibility structures.” Each one of us is formed in a sociocultural context where our beliefs and values take shape and are, over time and with subsequent influence from individuals, institutions, etc., rendered more, well, plausible than others. The way of Jesus seems plausible to me because I was formed in a context that assumed this to be true. The same would be true of a Buddhist raised in Thailand or a Muslim raised in Qatar or a gun-toting Republican raised in rural Texas or a latte-sipping Democrat raised in Vermont or a Disney-fied “everyone is special and your highest aspiration ought to be to be true to yourself” adherent raised pretty much anywhere in the postmodern West or with access to a Netflix account.

Taken to its extreme, the logic of plausibility structures could lead to a form social determinism where our beliefs and behaviours do little more than reflect our social contexts. And yet, we resist this idea. And we probably should. Conversions do, after all, happen. People change their minds. People inhabit their contexts differently. Most of us are prepared to acknowledge that we are formed by certain structures and assumptions that preceded us, but we resist the conclusion we’re determined by them. The idea that we are genuinely free agents dies hard. Perhaps the truth is just too unpalatable to embrace. But it’s undeniable, I think, that each of us has a hunger to be seen as more than the factors that shape us.

Jürgen Moltmann once gave a lecture where he outlined the following “nightmare scenario”:

I imagine that I step behind the pulpit in a church and preach in order to proclaim the Gospel and, if possible, awaken the faith. But those who sit in the pew don’t listen to my words. A historian is there who examines critically facts about which I am speaking; a psychologist is there who analyzes my psyche which reveals itself in my speech; a cultural anthropologist is there who observes my personal style; a sociologist is there who is identifying the class to which I belong and as whose representative he believes I am functioning. Everybody is analyzing me and my context, but nobody is listening to what I want to say.

Nobody is listening to what I want to say. This is, in the end, what we want, isn’t it? To be heard. To be honoured as a human being with something to say (even if it’s not necessarily new or revelatory). To be acknowledged as a particular person with a particular way of inhabiting and negotiating all of these grooves that we make our way through. Yes, we all come from somewhere, yes our views are formed by all kinds of influences that we barely recognize or acknowledge, no, we are probably not nearly as unique or heroic or individual as we might flatter ourselves to imagine. But we are still human beings with something to say.

I think the writer of Ecclesiastes was right. There isn’t really anything new under the sun. But maybe it’s the expectation of newness that is part of the problem. Maybe God and truth and meaning and hope are encountered not just in unshackling ourselves from the constraints of our social contexts but also in settling into the grooves and paying attention along the way.

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