Sometimes a sermon stops me in my tracks.
For a regular church-goer, church can feel very comfortable. Regular routines unfold as I watch. Familiar music wraps me like a security blanket. Smiles greet me. Words wash over me like warm waves on a seashore.
And then I hear the minister’s voice saying, “Maybe we are a little too comfortable here in church.”
He wasn’t talking about physical comfort, of course. He wasn’t suggesting we give up our upholstered chairs and go back to sitting on stiff wooden pews. Or that we turn off the heating system and shiver through the coming winter. Or even that we should feel uneasy among the other worshippers.
No, what we’ve grown “too comfortable” with is the culture that our church lives in.
We tend not to be aware of that culture. The same way the fish probably aren’t aware of the medium they swim in. I doubt if trout have philosophical epiphanies about water.
But unlike trout, we can consider the culture we live in with a critical eye.
Don’t get me wrong—I much prefer this culture to most of the alternatives. I don’t want to live where a week in hospital can wipe out my savings. Nor do I want to live where there are no hospitals at all. I don’t want to live where a ruthless dictator keeps any kind of dissent under his thumb, nor where equally ruthless ideologues turn government into anarchy.
Still, it’s not perfect. As Winston Churchill once described democracy: “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms…”
John Kenneth Galbraith popularized the term “conventional wisdom,” in his book The Affluent Society, back in 1958. He used it to refer to commonly accepted notions that are rarely scrutinized for their accuracy.
In our culture, conventional wisdom uncritically endorses competition. Also economic growth, lines of command, having power, and climbing the ladder.
I went through most of my life convinced that if someone offered me a promotion, I had to take it. Even if I wasn’t suited for the job. The whole point of working was to move onward and upward, wasn’t it?
I went through most of my life believing that I should eat everything put on my plate. It never occurred to me that I could ask for smaller helpings.
I went through most of my life believing that winning mattered. I told myself I wasn’t competitive, but who wants to be a loser? Whether in a game or an argument, I wanted to come out on top.
But maybe losing matters just as much as winning. Only when I realize I made a mistake, in hindsight, can I re-examine what I might have done and learn from it.
Perhaps life is a constant succession of course corrections.
Conventional wisdom always contains some truth. That makes it comfortable. Which, as economist Galbraith noted, enhances its ability to resist any serious consideration of alternatives.
Whenever we treat our culture’s conventional wisdom as holy writ, we should feel uncomfortable.