Updated: Mar 25, 2020
A primary need of humanity is to belong. We all need that sense of being part of something greater than just me, of having a people group to identify with. However, one of the most disturbing things about belonging to any group, whether it be racial, national, religious, or gender, are the certainties on specific issues that morph to become all-pervasive ‘truth’ within that culture; otherwise known as groupthink.
Groupthink is when everyone’s opinion falls within the approved framework; questioning or deviation is considered aberrant, to be avoided at all costs. What evolves from that certainty are set-in-concrete answers that cannot be challenged, regardless of up-to-date information to the contrary, new discoveries, or further insights and understanding.
The Germans have a brilliant word that sums up the way in which each generation differs from the previous one. Zeitgeist means the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time. As the world changes, it’s vital that the Church is willing to engage honestly and without alarm in open conversations. Unless Christians are spiritually and emotionally mature enough to willingly participate in discussions around issues which are of primary importance to the world we live in, our refusal to do so gives all the appearance of someone with their fingers in their ears singing lalalalala… De-Nial ain't just a river in Egypt! The God who is always doing something new invites us to observe our world from His perspective. He doesn’t need us to defend Him. On the contrary, He asks that we represent Him by showing His love and mercy.
He's a God of justice but He never pointed His finger in judgment. He never heaped shame and condemnation on anyone. He reserved His censure for the religious who excelled in legalistic rhetoric but whose own lives couldn’t stand up to the kind of inspection they directed at others.
Isaiah 43:19 For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.
We love this verse, but we don’t take it personally. Most of us have no idea of the degree to which our doctrines and creeds have become a dry wasteland, no longer lifegiving. We can see how they could do with a new river running through what has become their wasteland, but we fail to see how shrunken and dried up our own traditions, practices, and lifestyles have become. We delude ourselves that what we learned and discovered up to now is all there is to know.
A fish doesn’t know what water is.
God regularly challenges us to think beyond what we’ve known. Peter is a prime example. I’m sure Peter felt like he’d been slammed by a truck when God began to discuss the changes He was making to the Clean Food act cited in Leviticus 11. All Peter’s life he’d eaten only kosher foods. Now God was doing a new thing, encouraging Peter to amend the belief system of a lifetime. 21st Century people fail to realise that this was not just a diet modification for Peter. The penalty for Jews to partake of the food God now encouraged him to eat was 39 lashes! This retribution was measured out against dietary delinquents until at least the end of the first millennium AD. The command to change the way he ate symbolised a cataclysmic shift in his fundamental mindset regarding who was of value to God.
Peter’s vision about what to eat now was also about who he could eat it with.
Jews were forbidden to eat with Gentiles, but in doing a new thing, God encouraged Peter to be one of the innovators of fresh revelation.
When God does a new thing, He tells it to people everywhere. Some have the courage to explore and investigate what He is saying, some prefer to swat their reservations away and hunker down deeper into their groupthink. It’s a tough gig for those who emulate Abraham and Sarah as God beckons them to leave the known and the secure in order to explore the unknown; much trepidation is involved. Certainty, even if it’s incorrect, is seductive in its power to make us feel safe. Wrestling over questions with God is scary, but as Jacob found, it leads to maturity.
God’s instructions to Peter to eat like a Gentile built on the initial revelation he had in Acts 2:17 where He hints the future by saying He will pour out His Spirit on ALL flesh… not just Jewish flesh. Peter's obedience models living by progressive vision, revelation building upon revelation. It’s intimacy with God that brings revelation, not knowledge of a set of rules which one refers to occasionally.
It’s hard to change entrenched thought patterns. My husband used to say: The only way to dislodge a mindset is to apply pressure - and he was right. Pressure is the external tool God uses to journey us from doggedly hanging onto old groupthink, and into the unknown where we must pray, study, scrutinise and discuss in order to really know what He says. That’s incredibly nerve-wracking for everyone concerned, maybe especially the onlookers.
Pressure forces us to think about and ask questions we wouldn’t have let ourselves consider before. To live out an honest, mature faith, a person must struggle at times to work out whether what we’ve always understood to be true is actually true. Those seasons are difficult and fraught with fears and there are no guarantees of the outcome. Courage is required. The questioner who steps with apprehension into unknown territory where set-in-concrete answers are no longer enough, will require every scrap of resolution they can muster to be able to explore with integrity the concepts and belief systems they once took at face value.
And it is God who leads us to do that because even if, after all the studying, investigating, and discussion, we arrive back at our original answer, we will have come to that conclusion through spiritual and intellectual integrity. The alternative to rigorous wrestling with God over our questions is to merely repeat parrot-fashion answers that have been spoon-fed to us by those who’ve been spoon-fed by others.
It’s vital to the integrity of our belief system that we examine issues ourselves, as opposed to adhering to convictions our groupthink has declared to be so. The latter is the reason why many Christians and churches have clung to doctrines that absorbed the zeitgeist of their generation, enabling racism, slavery, gender discrimination, abuse of the planet, subordination of females, economic greed, and abuse of the poor, the marginalised and the disenfranchised.Cognitive dissonance is the term used for verbally professing one belief, whilst living the opposite. For example: a vehement, pro-life stance toward abortion stands in stark juxtaposition with agreeing to policies authorising cruel and inhumane punishment of post-birth people seeking refuge from untenable life circumstances.
If pro-life doesn’t relate to all life, it isn’t pro-life.
Many pockets of the Church suffer severely with cognitive dissonance in multiple areas. Only as the Church on our watch makes intentional choices to engage with the issues the world is facing can it hope to have the credibility Jesus has. He was never afraid to step out of line in the sight of the religious observers. In fact, He welcomed the opportunity to call them out on their groupthink.
Nevertheless, setting aside time-honoured answers in order to engage and understand the zeitgeist more fully creates alarm and distress to those who are enculturised to never question the groupthink, making the need for courage in the enquirer even more crucial. The fear of not belonging is a potent enticement to capitulate again to groupthink.
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More next week. DISTURBING THE PEACE Part 2 - Courage to Stand Alone