Monday, September 15, 2014

I Think This Is about Paradigm Change and Comfort

            Over the past two years I’ve written several times about my transition from the Evangelical Christian Reformed Church to the Liberal United Church of Canada. To give you some idea of just how liberal my current congregation is, consider its tagline: United, Unlimited, Unorthodox. This congregation, and my new denomination, is a big switch from my Evangelical roots.

            One of the biggest changes I’ve had to embrace is actually very hard to define. It has to do with what I know and don’t know and what use it is. The easiest way I can get at it is, I think, by making up an analogy based on shoemakers. My grandfather made both regular and orthopedic shoes, my great grandfather owned a wooden shoe factory, and many other ancestors made and fixed regular shoes as far back as I can trace.

            There was a time, of course, when shoemakers all made their shoes from scratch. I still have some of the forms my grandfather used. Just being a shoemaker took a lot of expertise. I know from bits of family lore that his expertise involved designing and sewing and cutting and gluing and a good understanding of many kinds of orthopedic problems. He made special trips to Belgium to get the right kinds of leathers. Attaching soles to leather or cloth so that they didn’t come off was very difficult. His was a hard skill to learn, full of insider knowledge, much of it passed down from father to son.

            Now imagine that one day—say in 1950, when my grandfather was at the height of his powers, the Nike shoe company somehow time-travelled and came to his Dutch town. I think it is safe to say that his business would have taken a huge hit. Say what you like (or don’t) about Nike and most other modern shoe companies, they know how to make good, comfortable, shoes. Their labs and researchers and production lines have improved the kind of shoe that is available to us in many ways—fit, materials, ease of walking, weight, and so on. And, relatively speaking, since they're mass produced, they are cheap--especially if having a name brand doesn't matter that much to you.

            Well, if Nike had come to my grandfather’s small Dutch town in 1950, his special expertise, his insider knowledge, his years of honing his skills, his contacts with other shoemakers—all of it would almost become useless overnight. Mass production backed by much greater insight into materials and how feet work would have made his shoe shop obsolete overnight.

            And so he’d have to change his career. And what then? He knew shoemaking from scratch, but he didn’t know carpentry or auto repair or accounting. He wasn’t educated enough to be a teacher or pastor. The fact is, if he lost his ability to make shoes almost everything he knew--as well as his tools and shop--would be almost useless.

            Well, that’s a bit like what happens when, as a pastor, you change denominations. Belonging to something like the Christian Reformed Church is an “insider” business. Many of its unique theological concerns just don’t have much traction anywhere else. Predestination? The Ubiquity of Jesus at the Lord’s Supper? The ordo salutis? The historicity of Genesis? All of these are nonstarters in most Liberal church settings. The confessions? All but unknown. The Christian Reformed Church’s unique history—Christian Day Schools, Kuyperian influences, Groen van Prinsterer, Dooyeweerd, The Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority—also mostly unknown. The theological traditions and their concerns raised by that history—the pietists vs. the doctrinalists vs. the transformationalists—it all seems quaint. Exegetical rules that hold sway in the Christian Reformed Church seem irrelevant in the United Church since the presuppositions about what scripture is, about what we can know of authors’ intentions, about how objective any interpretation can be—all the presuppositions are just different. 

            I sometimes feel as if I’m a late nineteenth century shoemaker dropped into the twenty-first century Nike reality. The specialist knowledge I had as a Christian Reformed pastor, the familiarity I had with its small group of pastors and theologians, the craft of doing theology in that perspective—very little of it translates very well to my new setting. Communication between my old and new paradigms is—as philosophers sometimes say—incommensurate.

            Mind you, I’ll never regret the excellent education I received in that other paradigm. I still respect many who work in that paradigm deeply, even if I changed my mind. And now, turning to the concerns and presuppositions at work in the new world I’m now a part of, I also feel a bit at sea. I don’t know the theological roots of this new tradition nearly as well as I knew my old roots. I certainly don’t know the politics or people or procedures like I used to. The outlook, the preoccupations, the vision and hopes and dreams are all different. 

            I’d add that looking back now, I’d say that as a Christian Reformed pastor, I never realized—or, rather, over time I only slowly realized—how narrow and tribal my concerns, battles, ideas and ministry usually was. We were engaged in building our own Maginot fortress, oblivious or condescending about the fact that the world all about has changed, so that as well thought out and sturdy as our fortress was out front, the backdoor was completely open to paratroopers and flanking manoeuvres.

            My new setting suffers some of the same, in reverse, I guess. In both settings I’m a bit taken aback at how clubby we are in churches in our own theological family and how closed we are to thinking outside of the boxes we’ve constructed for ourselves. In our day-to-day life and in how we actually work at the priorities we’ve set out for ourselves we mostly carry on as if our local, denominational specialist knowledge is the most important thing ever. Meanwhile, other Christians in other traditions shrug their shoulders and think our preoccupations are all a bit strange—if not totally out to lunch. They smile, politely but dismissively, when we talk about those preoccupations.

            There is a great deal of comfort that goes with always staying at home, spiritually and academically. If you can make a living playing with your favourite hobbyhorses—and win respect from people you care for while doing so—why change? I ask myself that sometimes. It wasn’t easy, and there are no guarantees that having made the change I’ve finally figured it all out. I clearly haven’t.

            It’s a loss. It’s weird. But paradigm change does happen.


  1. This was a fun post. I'm always quite interested in your journey for exactly these reasons.

    Human culture inhabits communities, whether they be a family or a town or a denomination or a nation. Layers and layers of culture. I'm reading Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern world. Mongol culture was just as particular. Ideas about blood, dead bodies, family, authority, what constitutes obligation between friends and enemies, etc. All culture.

  2. So that raises the hard questions. Can we strip the culture away and say what is essential? I've been meditating on this a lot of late. Some (in some cultures) would say, "well, that's easy! Christ crucified and risen!" I disagree, however. But if not that gem I grew up with, what then? Where is the bottom, the floor? Not that I don't have lots of ideas . . . but there's more blogposts and a book coming on that! Thanks for your always helpful, interesting, and kind reflections.

  3. Keep writing, John, and see where this leads.


What do you think?