Thursday, June 28, 2012

Christian Smith, "The Narcissism of Small Differences"

Christian Smith:
There is something very strange about the Reformed Protestant world in which I grew up and which I have since left. By “Reformed Protestant world” here I mean circles of conservative Presbyterianism represented by institutions such as Westminster Theological Seminary, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the “neo-Reformed” movement, and so on.

I am sure that these dynamics apply in many non-Reformed and non-Presbyterian circles, but I limit what I say here to them, since I know them best.

Almost all of the people that I know in this world are really good folk. I owe a great deal to them. But for some odd reason, they do love to make huge controversies out of minor issues. The smallest points of doctrine become major subjects of storm and battle. Endless attention and energy gets spent on matters that, with a bit of distance, are clearly tempests in teapots.

Doctrinal controversy seems almost to function as a form of community entertainment, something to prevent things from getting too boring. So, various of them continually “bringing charges against” others of them in their congregations or presbyteries within the denominational “court systems,” which seems to be a never-ending source of interest.

I have always chalked up these pervasive making-mountains-out-of-molehills tendencies to a kind of subcultural trauma suffered during the early-twentieth-century modernist-fundamentalist battles, in which the conservative Presbyterians were trounced in the 1920s—and in particular to losing Princeton Theological Seminary to the liberals (which gave rise to Westminster Seminary).
A kind of post-traumatic-stress syndrome beset the conservative Presbyterian subculture from that trauma, it seems to me, which gave rise to the kind of nervous “doctrinal legalism” that continues today. (Limiting “leadership” to [de facto] white males—the homogeneity of the composition of annual General Assembly photos published in denominational magazines is astounding!— cannot help either, seeing how that tends to skew discussion more toward “principles” than relationships, but that is another story.)

Recently, however, I came across a concept in psychology that I think sheds illuminating light on the tendencies described above: the narcissism of small differences. Now, I am no advocate of allowing psychology to colonize Christian truth—far too much of that has already happened in both mainline and evangelical Christianity. But the narcissism of small differences is too revealing to be ignored.
The term was coined by Sigmund Freud (which unfortunately means that those who most need to understand it will be the least willing to take it seriously). The basic idea is this: groups of people are often most sensitive and snotty toward those who they are most socially alike.  

Human groups do not have their fiercest conflicts with those who are quite different from them. Instead, they display the greatest pettiness and viciousness in fighting those who they look the most like.
For the rest, click HERE. 


1 comment:

  1. yeah this was interesting. not too familiar with american presbyterianism, but i always thought reformers were very much alike when i was little.

    we all tend to make issues of non-issues... takes time to grow out of it, but some never do.