Really? The "Dismal Science" and the increasingly irrelevant discipline of theology?

Change in Small Groups

“The Psychological view of politics is that you can change peoples minds…the economist says that [a person’s] positions are fixed.” This is a quote from a recent podcast done by Planet Money. This being a blog that discusses primarily economics and theology I wondered how I would describe the way in which theology views politics, or more precisely the idea that one can or can’t change anything, most importantly their mind.

There are several ways to describe broadly a theological view of change. On the one hand, religion and religious groups tend to be inherently conservative organization. My favorite example from a Jewish professor I had was the tzitzit that are worn under the garments of Orthodox Jews. He tells how this was ancient Babylonian part of general clothing that was worn by Jews in that day and then continued to be worn because of infused theological significance. His example came from the Medieval Kabbalists who infused supernatural significance to everything. Nevertheless, religious groups tend to resist change. It took until 1960 for the Catholic Church to start using the vernacular instead of Latin in Church services (although I am sure if Lamin Sanneh read this book he would be quick to point out that the Catholic Church did allow some vernacular in the Slavic countries and in certain parts of the liturgy. Read: Translating the Message. No really, read it. Its great). You might think that the New Testament is a form of Christians being willing to change and try something different, but that is only partly true. Jesus never claimed to found a new religion. In fact, he said in Matthew that not even a jot or a tittle has been removed from the law. When his later followers were forced by circumstance to separate themselves from the 2nd Century Jews around the time of Simon Bar Kochba, they still kept the Hebrew Scriptures because in order for their religion to feel it had some legitimacy they had to connect it to something ancient. This still occurs in our day, look at the Latter Day Saints. They didn’t want to just totally reinvent the wheel (which they did in a lot of ways) so they connected themselves to Christianity and the Bible of the Old and New Testaments and then added on a bunch of laws in the Doctrine and Covenants and created something in many ways extremely different from their protestant predecessors.

You could continue to pile on theological examples like the idea of Original Sin or as Dutch Calvinists would add, the Total Depravity of Man (they wouldn’t have been politically correct enough to say “humanity”). Basically, humanity was born into a state of sin and this came from Adam that has affected every single human person born. But, this is also precisely where it is difficult to say whether, in Christian theology at least, theology believes that change is possible. It is in this very notion of original sin that Christians believe that people can change. Metanoia is the Greek word that is often translated repent. It is used throughout the Gospels and the Epistles and it means to precisely change ones mind. It is the bedrock for the Christian idea of conversion. Many people outside the Church and the religious pluralists tend to believe that religion is based solely on the country you came from. If you are from the West, you are a Christian because that is how you were raised. Or, if you were raised in Iran you are Muslim because that is how you were raised. Logically, these are patently flawed arguments but people tend to believe that religion is extremely static. But that notion belies the very foundation of Christian theology at its core. People can and should change.

The mantra of the Reformers of the 16th century was semper reformanda. Always reforming. The protestant church has an extremely hard time with this as an institution. As a large group, we always tend to try and regress towards the old ways. What was, is better. But on the individual level, we must believe that change is possible. It is the difficulty of a large group mentality over and against what occurs at the small group level. I think it is instructive that Jesus spoke very little about establishing the Church as a large institution. Institutions struggle to adapt to their situations.

Let’s bring this back to the podcast. Steven Smith in the podcast discusses this book, Manser Olsen – Logic of Collective Action, which I have never read. But, he talks about a footnote where it states that even an economist can recognize that change can occur when people get together in small groups to discuss what ever issue is at and. What a powerful notion! I find it difficult to deny the logic of incentive driving behavior and the selfishness and stubborn behavior that is evident in studying large groups of people. But for some reason, when people stand face to face minds can be changed. If anyone has read Immanuel Levinas, this is nothing new. He spoke frequently about the “face of the Other.” What a challenge this is from economics to theology. If even the seemingly steadfast rules of incentive can be broken when people gather together as individuals to listen, minds can be changed! Jesus also says something like this when he says, “when two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I with them.” Christ encourages people to gather together because there is power in these kinds of gatherings. What is interesting about that quote from Jesus is that it comes at the tail end of a discussion of what to do when people disagree within the Church! The podcast I have referenced at the top is talking about Congress creating a smaller group to deal with what is at issue in the larger body. Small groups can change minds.

I was working on a post about jobs, but I still can’t figure out what I want to say. I am going to go watch the Cards hopefully beat the Braves.


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