A Little Conformity Might Do Us Good

These days, and among younger generations, one of the worst insults you could heap upon someone is to call them a "conformist."  This is the age of individuality, being your own person, and not caring what other people think of you.  Becoming one's own unique person is the goal, and any hint that you are borrowing identity or beliefs is an insult.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the non-conformist culture is in the realm of religion.  For more and more people, it is a sign of weakness and conformity to be involved in organized religion or to claim a traditional, already established religion as one's own.  Instead, in order to be a unique individual, people create a hodge-podge of beliefs, coming up with a new name for what they believe, or they may even start their own religion.

There's one big problem with the idea that we choose our own path, think for ourselves, and find our own beliefs: It's not true.

The fact of the matter is that our context, relationships, and experiences have a huge influence on us, almost to the point of being determinative.  Sociologists have known this for a while; the rest of us have missed it. Sociologist Inagrace Dietterich once wrote,
"The modern emphasis on the autonomous self too often ignores, or even denies, the formative power of the various communities in which we participate.  We assume that our "habits of the heart" - the notions, opinions, commitments, and desires that motivate, order and guide our lives - are chosen and formed in isolation from other human beings and social realities....[But] the question is not whether we will be socialized, but what kind of society will have its way with us."  
As the old (and biblical) saying goes, "There is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9).  Any time we "think for ourselves," we are merely processing knowledge, data and thoughts that have been passed onto us by someone else.  (It's kind of like making a recipe: the result might look unique and impressive, but it's really just age old ingredients prepared in a certain way). As we age and "become our own person," we are often merely becoming an adult version of our younger self and we still live and repeat the same patterns we learned there. Couples who do counseling with me are often shocked by the connections I'm able to make between their behavior patterns in their family of origin and the current relationship.

Similarly, any time we become our own "spiritual individual," we are merely rearranging what's been passed down to us and what we've been exposed to.  Everything is borrowed.  If we come up with something that's new to us, it is just that: new to us, but trust me, it has been thought of before, and we were only able to think it because of what we have gleaned from others.  I would argue that "free thinking," as the term is used in our culture, is not possible.  We all operate within what Peter Berger called "plausibility structures."

In a Christian Century article dated Sept 1, 2011, Lillian Daniel wrote a masterful piece about this phenomenon of people saying they're "spiritual, but not religious" and rejecting anything that seems to be "organized religion."  He talks about a man who came into his office to announce his departure from the church and that he had come up with his own beliefs:  Daniel writes, "He dumped this news in my lap as if it were a controversial hot potato, something shocking to a minister who had never been exposed to ideas so brave.  Of course, this well-meaning Sunday jogger fits right in to mainstream American culture. He is perhaps by now a part of the majority."

Daniel goes on to say something that rings very true with my own experience:
"If we made a church for all these spiritual-but-not-religious people, if we got them all together to talk about their beliefs and their incredibly unique personal religions, they might find out that most of America agrees with them. But they'll never find that out, because getting them all together would be way too much like church. And they are far too busy being original to discover that they are not."
There is truth to the tongue-in-cheek quip that non-conformists are all alike. Sure, they might have a few personal tweaks here and there and motives that are genuine, but it's all taken from the same ingredients, and if you have your "own religion" or you have rejected religion all together, you are no less influenced by your context than I am. Your influences have just been different. I remember as a teenager getting a kick out of the so-called "goth" dress that some of my fellow students were donning. When asked, most of them would tell you that they are dressing that way in order to assert their individuality. I'm not ridiculing them, but it was always amazing how similar they all looked.

There's an important distinction to be made between "default" and "choice" when it comes to people's beliefs.  For example, there's a big difference between an atheist by default and an atheist by choice.  A default atheist is someone who was perhaps raised in a non-religious home where God was never discussed, so even though they might often hear people speak of God and faith, it's just not part of their contextual framework.  An atheist by choice, on the other hand, is someone who - regardless of their background - has critically engaged the question of religion and belief and made a decision to be an atheist (though often in opposition to a default religious context).  But due to our culture of individuality and non-conformity, people often end up rejecting their default belief system simply because it's the default, not out of careful consideration. It's important to own our beliefs. Contrary to the attitude of Christian apologists who try to beef up our young people with ready answers to the intellectual challenges they'll face in college, it is quite healthy and necessary for people to go through a period of disillusionment and questioning with respect to their default belief system. This can and should happen. But there seems to be this idea today that we're supposed to leave our default belief system behind, whatever it happens to be.  If we don't, we're being submissive conformists.  I've seen people leave Christianity simply because it was their "default"--what they were raised in--and they don't see a way to move from default to choice without also moving to another religion (or none at all).  Like many young adults, I've also made the journey from default to choice. It involved much questioning, doubt and anxiety. But for me, it did not involve leaving the faith I was raised in altogether, nor did it have to.

I applaud the way today's cultural trends have heightened our awareness of a bad type of conformity; that is, mindless submission. But I think we've lost the value of another kind of "conformity."  The good kind.  I think the valuable truth we're missing in this hyper-individualistic culture is that we were made for community, and that our faith journey finds fulfillment and meaningful expression in the context of community.

This false idea of the autonomous individual can be found just as strongly present in the church as outside it. You hear it in Christian theology through phrases like "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" (a phrase found nowhere in the Bible). We see it in the way the church is treated like a dispenser of religious goods and services rather than a collaborative effort in faith formation. We've totally lost the communal aspect of faith development and even salvation. That's why Christians today are confused when we read verses like Acts 11:14 or Acts 16:31 that talk about whole households being collectively saved.  In fact, the Bible is chock-full of examples of God relating to, teaching, and shaping people in the context of a community or people group. Whenever God did relate specially to an individual, it was for an eventual communal purpose. Churches have strayed a very far distance from the early church as described in Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 4:32-35, so much so that groups of Christians who do operate as the early church is described are often not referred to or thought of as a church.

When we see ourselves as totally autonomous individuals and act as competing, individual kingdoms, nothing gets done. This is why ministry (and other things that involve working with volunteers) feels so much like herding cats these days. We need to experience conformity again, in its good sense.  Modernity and the focus on the individual were not a completely bad thing; to be sure. It heightened our awareness of personal rights and freedoms and that we should never force people to do something. However, it has gone way too far, and it's time to reclaim and live in awareness of our mutual dependency.  It requires putting some personal preferences aside and holding our beliefs tentatively, and many are not willing to do that.  But it's community where we "spur each other on toward love and good deeds" (Heb 10:24-25). It's where we learn the value of mutual submission (Eph 5:21). It's where we seek and find truth.  It's where we bring together our gifts and talents to accomplish more than we ever could on our own (Romans 12:4-5). Jesus prayed that all believers would be "one" (John 17:20-21).

In short, I think a little more "conformity" might do us some good.

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