Rooted Sideways

"Strictly speaking it is incorrect to say that the single individual thinks. Rather it is more correct to insist that he participates in thinking further what other men have thought before him.” —Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia

One can look at this in both positive and negative lights. Negatively, we’ll never have an original thought. Everything we think and wrestle with is contingent and formed from time immemorial before us. We may rearrange the words, and thus arrive at some new shadings or nuances, but essentially everything has been thought of before. More ominously, these patterns that we inherit may be racist and sexist, prejudiced to the core, modes of thinking and acting that appear normal unless they are countered by different patterns.

Positively, we are connected with our past and with everything that has been expressed before. And that means, in like manner, we may continue to have an influence on those who come after us, who read what we write and think about what we have said. This is an argument for choosing our formative societies wisely or, more realistically, for experiencing, with eyes wide open, a variety of societies.

Karl Mannheim (1893-1947) was a Hungarian-born sociologist, who was one of the co-founders of the sociology of knowledge. His best-known book, Ideology and Utopia, argued that our ideas and ideologies are products of our times and of the social status of those who hold them. Knowing that this could lead to a harmful relativism, Mannheim proposed instead “relationism,” in which we understand that our ideas are limited and that we must trace them back to their roots in our history to see how they have influenced how we relate to society. He broadened the concept of ideology beyond its political roots to include how we arrive at ideas and how those ideas mirror our life and times.

This idea can be fruitful for religious groups who take the time to recognize that their conceptions about God, religion, social and religious behavior, and culture are rooted in history. In my view, as an Adventist Christian, it calls me to recognize that my beliefs are born in history and can be traced back to their sources. It both gives me a link to the past and helps me to recognize that my group and I don’t hold the key to all the secrets of life. It builds in epistemological humility without sacrificing awareness of what we owe to our forebears.

Mannheim says we think in patterns that are established by our societies. Which patterns become the dominant patterns? How do they change? He says that groups of people, scattered along the social strata, will not change unless there is tremendous upheaval to their way of life. Only when there is a conflict of ideas can change be possible — and even then, the ideas must somehow impinge on us or push us into radically new ways of thinking and seeing.

Mannheim again: “As long as the same meanings of words, the same ways of deducing ideas, are inculcated from childhood on into every member of the group, divergent thought-processes cannot exist in that society.”

I think it’s questionable if we each are imprinted with the template to this extent or if every person in our group falls as easily into these patterns. Most of us can remember some who stood out — often the quiet ones — in our school or college years because they would not follow the stream. I found them interesting, even admirable, and later came to think of them as remarkable for their independence of spirit against the pressures to conform.

Nevertheless, Mannheim is right, I believe, that for the most part we fall into a comfortable sharing of rituals, symbols, references, and habits that mark us as belonging to the same tribe. The question is, how do we think and act in new ways? Perhaps more to the point: what would prompt us to question that which we are?

Recently, I went to a reunion at the college I had attended in England back in the 70s. Aside from the delight of seeing people I had known almost 50 years ago, there was also the more sobering effect of hearing the stories of their journeys of faith in all that time. Illnesses, deaths of loved ones, divorce, reversal of fortunes — we had not escaped these molders and shapers of experience. Tentatively, at first, and then more confidently, we began to open up to each other about our faith and our doubts. Many of us had worked for our church denomination’s educational, medical, and religious organizations for decades, and now we were verging on retirement or had already ventured into it.

The stories emerged, blinking in the sunlight, over the weekend. Consistently, as I listened I found myself thinking of the (somewhat) innocent youths that we were all those years ago, compared to the (somewhat) more experienced persons we are today. The people that we were and are presently serve as bookends to the volumes of years in between; over the weekend we found we could distinguish between the bookends and the books.

Some of these friends had worked in many different cultures and countries around the world, moving in and out of places as disparate as Rwanda, London, Iceland, and Michigan. All of this while raising children, finding homes to live in, establishing gardens, and getting the car fixed. Others had remained teaching or pastoring — or both — in one country, while seeing their societies evolving, changing, growing ever more diverse and sometimes more polarized.

Over the weekend you could see clusters of people together, laughing, leaning in to listen, pausing to remember something and then going on with a chuckle, knowing that what they were trying to retrieve would return to memory after the conversation was over. In any given group of four or five people there could be a combined total of over 200 years of work and service. And now these people were sensing gaps between what they had done and experienced and what they had hoped their church might become. They had diverged from the theological and social boundary markers they had been raised to guard because those positions were stationary, and life moves on. It was not that those beliefs were now invalid, but more that from day to day, in living and working with people, the larger concerns of compassion, patience, and humility had edged those beliefs to the periphery. Now they were wondering if they were alone in this or if there were others who also felt these gaps. They were like people who set down their burdens to travel lightly with the essential provisions.

“I believe in absolute truth and absolute contingency, at the same time,” says Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss. On this side of the bookends, and at this stage in our life journeys, we are down to the essentials. They are essentials because they have been proven through experience to be useful for making one’s way through life faithfully and with care for others. “And I believe that Christ is the seam soldering together these wholes,” continues Wiman, “that our half vision — and our entire clock-bound, logic-locked way of life — shapes as polarities.”

At times we change our minds and our lives, decisively and consciously, at the same time we are being changed passively and incrementally over time. When we pause to look back, it is then that we realize how different our outlook presently is from the other end of the bookshelf where we began.

Mannheim says we only break out of the conventional ways we were raised to think in through horizontal or vertical mobility. Horizontal mobility is where we change locations or even countries without changing our social status and, in this way, we come to realize how differently people think and live. Vertical mobility is where our social status ascends or descends rapidly, and this, says Mannheim, “is the decisive factor in making persons uncertain and skeptical of their traditional view of the world.”

In conversation about this with a friend she remarked that those of us who find ourselves in these gaps have not radically stepped away from our Adventist roots and from our social context as she has. Viewed from the outside, our unease is trifling and our “gap-mindedness” comes from being too close to the trees to see the forest. Yet, there are many in this position who have paid dearly for their honest doubts and who are viewed with deep suspicion and distrust by those who hold power inside the Adventist religious organization. Depending on one’s vantage point, we have moved an inch or a thousand miles. In practical terms, this means that some in power in our church may already regard us as “outside the camp” with no possibility of being accepted back in. By contrast, some of those I spoke with at the reunion thought of themselves as at the boundary — but still within the circle. Most striking was the feeling that no one in authority should define us out of the church by drawing the circle tighter and thus excluding us. Being woke means being responsible for one’s actions.

Mannheim asks, “how it is possible that identical human thought-processes concerned with the same world produce divergent conceptions of that world…May it not be found, when one has examined all the possibilities of human thought, that there are numerous alternative paths which can be followed?”

One of the central metaphors of the New Testament is the idea of a spiritual communion with enough room for many different kinds and ways of serving and living. It is an expansive view rather than a constricted and exclusive position.

“There are varieties of gifts,” says Paul, “but the same Spirit. There are varieties of service, but the same Lord. There are many forms of work, but all of them, in all (people), are the work of the same God. In each of us the Spirit is manifested in one particular way, for some useful purpose (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).”

There were some I spoke with who had found spiritual succor in other faith communities. They talked of being accepted, of simple caring and friendship, of the delight in finding shared spiritual communion. While they were not about to abandon their Adventist roots, it was invigorating to realize that spiritual sustenance could be found outside the camp.

Gary Gunderson writes in his Deeply Woven Roots, “Although we’ve been told for all our lives that we should put our roots down deep, actually, the healthy trees send them sideways…At the microbial level, the roots live together so intimately they literally function as one organism so that the light from one, the food from another is shared — even among different species. At least in healthy forests, a healthy community it is. Where are your roots tangled with others? How are you reaching sideways?”

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods.

Photo by Stephen Leonardi / Unsplash.com

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8938
1 Like

Ah, if only Wm Millercould have read Daniel in the Hebrews. Ah, if only two farm boys had read and understood The Book of Hebrews. And if Ellen White had been raised outside of Pentecostal Methodism. If Bishop Ussher had understood at least carbon 14. To our day if only Ted Wilson had more than a doctorate from a school of nursing. (With research done by the staff of the White Estate)

8 Likes

True learning takes place only when there is a change in behavior. We are reaping our own lack of diversity, creativity and openness.

3 Likes

We do inherit all sorts of things through our genes and from our culture, as well as all that we have ever read or seen. It all gets woven together in our mind and ends up being how we think. This amalgamation of past and present gets shaken and realigned only in the presence of “a tremendous upheaval … when ideas somehow impinge on us or push us into radically new ways of thinking and seeing”. That’s what the gospel is supposed to do, isn’t it? Is that not what being “born again” means? What has to happen to do that? Can we bring this about? Is this what is meant by “hungering and thirsting after righteousness”? When this upheaval happens to us, we end up having the "mind of Christ " I Cor. 2:16. Of course, modified by our own personal background, I suppose.

This takes us to the second part of the article, where there are revelations as we get to share the interim of our lives and experiences. Very often we find out that most of us have gone down some unexpected paths; and none of us are the same as we were. The peripheral people we knew have soared to unexpected heights; and the high flyers may have disappeared.

This, in turn, takes us to the present issue of church cohesion. The fact that all these people, as they have had various experiences and formed variant patterns of thought and life, have still gathered together to share the meaning of their roots. They value their roots- if, perhaps, in their unique ways. The present church climate is trying to marginalize those who are not in lock-step with some form of Adventism that has petrified in its roots; and wants us to sign on the dotted line as if church membership is just another business contract.

The only way this church will be of any use in these troubled times, is when it allows the Spirit to work through its various members - each fulfilling its unique place in the already awakening kingdom of God.

5 Likes

Sorry Barry but seems to be seductive “inclusive talk” that preempts the fact that there’s only one true God and Kingdom found in Christ. Isa. 45 & 52 & Jn.3: 18. “The 3 Angels Message.”.
Cheers

1 Like

Yes and there are more: Romans 5; Eph 2: Phil 2: 5-11; Hebrews; Rev 4 and 5. Ps 24 and more

1 Like

Maybe you are right? For example. Paul’s salvation by faith in contrast with James salvation by works, display the “different ways of serving and living.” Peter’s desire to cooperate with the Circumcision Party verses Paul’s refusal to cooperate and determination to condemn. John’s statement that “God so loved the world” and Jesus’ teaching that love to God and man are two great laws verses John advice that “If anyone comes to your meeting and does not teach the truth about Christ, don’t invite that person into your home or give any kind of encouragement. Anyone who encourages such people becomes a partner in their evil work.” (John 3)

Conclusion: there is room in the tent of faith for more than one viewpoint. In my heart I know this is true, but I also wish it was not. I would like to believe in one absolute, unchanging, eternal right way, with all other viewpoints as condemned. Instead we all live with questions.

2 Likes

Frank, exactly! And that is where faith and communion come into play. Where two or three are gathered, the Spirit is in the midst. We need each other in order to live and move and have our being in God. I think we respond to God both communally and independently.

1 Like

So well said, Sirje!

Sorry if I’m inserting unasked.

Pat, I’d like you to imagine you were born somewhere in Asia, into a Muslim/Hindu/Buddhist family who never heard of the 3 angels - dark day - stars falling over New England, USA. You grow and live there making pottery or whatever - eating locusts or some other unimaginable creatures as normal diet - growing old and being burned on a pyre. Does God reject you because the accident of birth placed you out of reach of the little bump in Christian history called “The Great Disappointment”?

Perhaps, I misread Barry. It seemed to me he was including other religions than Christian in the community get together. Perhaps he wasn’t.
My answer, perhaps wasn’t worded the best either. My intent wasn’t SDA focused but God’s view of other religions in the OT and how that along with Jn. 3:18 relates to the real intent of everything that SDA’s think is unique in their delivery of “Three angels message” It isn’t new at old but the everlasting gospel of Isa. 52:7 that pronounces “our God Reigns” and is fulfilled in the kingdom of His dear Son. Those believing not in Christ are already under judgement…It has/is come.
Religious/religion inclusivism is not known in Biblical salvation. That is different from various Christian church members in fellowship.
I know that is uncomfortable to some and is likely the reason “you will be hated of all nations for my namesake.” Mt.24. That’s the message and I will allow God’s Grace in Christ to take care of all the “exceptions.”
Regards

PS. I want to make it clear I do believe in secular pluralism/inclusivism…just not blended over to include religious inclusivism, which in reality destroys all.

1 Like

Thank you for a most insightful essay on the variety of ways in which the difference in the life experiences of a few friends that shared a weltangschauung at a certain time come together 50 years later and find themselves noticing the different gaps that mark each of their lives from then to now. Your meditation on this insight opens for me also a fast territory to be explored. Thank you.

1 Like

Patrick, I was suggesting that we can find and make friends with people from all walks of life. Perhaps most naturally we would find friends in other Christian communions. But being a Christian doesn’t preclude sharing an appreciation for spirituality in other religions as well. My main point is that over the course of a life time we inevitably change and develop. In fact, in different stages of life our spiritual needs also change, as do the ways in which we are able to use our spiritual gifts.

2 Likes

Thanks Barry and if I read you wrong, pardon me. I am certainly not opposed to discussing “spirituality” with other religions and I enjoy fellowship with others in the Christian community. My point, having lived in every major religious community in the world remains to be this point.
Only Christ is the unique/only means of salvation for humanity when remaining faithful to the NT Christian faith. After seminary I took 4CPE units before doing Chaplaincy work. There are enormous subtle pressures in society & CPE to simply look at all “spirituality” as equal. While I certainly admire the right and zeal of others in their journey; and, as a chaplain chose to facilitate that freedom, I suggest, it is essential that Christians maintain cognizant of their unique calling. Jn.3:16-18. Postmodernism, “the world spirit” and “spirituality centered focus”, I suggest resist that idea.
Thanks for many positive thoughts that I do agree with.
Regards,
Pat

3 Likes