I don’t much listen to music when I run or work in the garden; instead my iPod is full of sports, science and politics podcasts. The sports shows I subscribe to are completely partisan and lean toward all things Boston, but I much prefer an ideological mix when it comes to politics. I especially enjoy the podcast from the PBS News Hour where Mark Shields and David Brooks talk over the events of the week. Last week Shields said something in regards to the various GOP candidates that I thought was quite insightful. I’ll paraphrase him here: when parties are feeling secure, they look for converts, when they’re feeling threatened they look for heretics. How true…but how odd at the same time.
I began to mull this idea over as I drove south toward Plattsburgh, New York and again and again I came up with compelling examples of this phenomenon. Shields’ point seemed to hold not only with regards to political parties, but with regards to entire religions, nations, denominations, political factions, and even individual congregations. In times of threat and crisis our deepest tribal habits kick in and rather than throwing open the gates in the hopes of building strength through coalitions and numbers, we hunker down (sometimes literally) and inspect our foxholes to be sure that they are free of traitors and atheists. There are hundreds of studies that verify this phenomenon and dozens of thoughtful commentators who try to help us think the data through and come to some kind of broad synthetic understanding of its implications. I’ll pause here to point readers toward Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict, though there are many other texts that make similar cases.
I won’t be taking us down the fascinating rabbit hole of cognitive science and the study or religion, or it’s close cousin moral psychology. Instead, I want to focus on a frightening implication of what is a well-documented scientific fact. See that bold sentence above. Look at it again from the perspective of the aging mainline churches or any shrinking congregation you might have in mind…that’s scary stuff. Because if it is correct, then by the time most congregations and denominations wake up to the fact that they’re dying, it’s already too late to save themselves. Times of crisis are those times in which we are least able to examine ourselves and the ideological boundaries that we have erected. One must make hay while the sun shines, or to use a more biblical metaphor, let's look to Matthew.