Tribalism and Your Church

Rick Mattson Uncategorized 15 Comments

Does the name Ludwig Wittgenstein mean anything to you?

It should. Wittgenstein was a mid-20th century philosopher who gave us “language games.” That is, the way communities use language is similar to a game, and every community gets to make up its own rules of the game.

Two other philosophers of note, John Dewey and Richard Rorty, added a pragmatic twist to language games: Every group should strive to do what works for them. There’s no need to conform your group’s “rules” to any external standard, such as objective truth.

After all, no such standard exists.

On college campuses, this whole landscape is often called tribalism. What it means for Christian students/faculty is that we’ve been relegated to being one tribe among many. One shaper/creator of reality among all the rest. One language game alongside dozens of others.

Tribalism has gone beyond the postmodern university and has settled into mainstream culture. Thus the church is one of the many tribes out there, like one of a thousand flocks of geese, nothing more.

What does this mean for outreach? For evangelism at your church and mine? Two possibilities:

  • We could work to regain our rightful “Voice of Authority” in order to shape our culture from a position of strength. This choice seems a dead-end to me. On campus, for example, it rarely if ever works.
  • Accept our cultural demotion, act like one of the tribes, and commend Christian faith to a needy world from a posture of humility. Talk across the table with neighboring tribes rather than down to them.

In my view the Christian tribe should be the most humble, the most truthful, the most respectful, the most daring, the most artistic, the most fun, the most intellectual, the most emotional, the most supernatural, the most caring, the most interracial–the most compelling. . . of any tribe on the planet.

These qualities would revolutionize our outreach. What do you think?

Comments 15

  1. If this were facebook, I'd put a thumb's up. I especially like the last paragraph – becoming the type of tribe you describe requires energy, creativity, and courage. We can't be content to be an isolated, self-serving tribe.

  2. Rick, hi, my dad, Howard Van Cleave, pointed me to your blog because you'd mentioned LW. I like your idea of becoming a tribe that gains converts by the quality of its lifestyle–its “form of life” (to use another of Wittgenstein's dark phrases). I think you're probably right that that is the only effective evangelism. (Here I think of St. Francis when he says preach the gospel always and use words only when necessary.) Would you predict that Christians should be able to become that kind of tribe–that is, a tribe whose members live better lives than the members of other tribes?

    And, to exploit another (later) Wittgenstenian theme: How do we even draw clear boundaries that distinguish the Christian tribe? Must I believe in supernatural beings in order to be in this tribe? Or could I become a humble, honest, respectful, caring, etc. member without the belief in the supernatural?

    I guess the main question is: What is the connection between the attributes that you cite and any of the particularly religious beliefs (e.g. that God exists, perhaps that Jesus died for my sins)?

  3. I live in a large, somewhat insular, mission community on the other side of the world, a community which demonstrates both the positive and the negative aspects of tribalism.

    Internally, in relation to each other, the community is loving, ready to assist in a thousand ways, artistic, interracial, fun, etc. It is truly a joy to live and work among them. Tribes, in the third-world on-the-ground sense exist to enmesh and nurture their members.

    But tribes also exist to define their own boundaries, fight off enemies and punish deviants. This community displays some of that characteristic as well, the kind of approach to the world that those who take your first option follow.

    An element of xenophobia which seems present in the most politicized elements of evangelicalism in the States is present here as well. I have found myself pushing back against the norms of belief and expression over the last few months. I've tried to promote just the kind of modified tribalism that you describe as your ideal, and in most of those same terms. It seems an uphill battle that wears on a body. But the longer I stay here the less inclined I am to worry about ruffled feathers and the high dudgeon expressed in response.

    Anyway, just to say, it seems to me that this tribalism has become a dominant feature of evangelicalism, at least as it is adumbrated in absentia here in PNG, and its not always a pretty thing.

    I think Christianity needs to become (again), not just one tribe among many, nor the dominant, overlording tribe, but one that sets tribalism on its head, that works to extend its boundaries to include the world through enticement, winsome speech and self-giving action, not warfare, bombast and condemnation.

  4. Rick, I also give a thumbs-up to your recommendation. Boyd would agree, and would note that the first option is an effort to preserve or restore Christendom, but not an effort to promote Christian faith and practice.

  5. Rick, I think that you are onto what my favorite theologian discovered when he returned to England after being in India for two decades. Leslie Newbigin outlines such ideas in his little but powerful book, Truth To Tell: the gospel as public truth – in the last chapter 'Speaking Truth to Caesar' Have you read it? He drives home the point that Christianity no longer has the privileged position he once had and now must compete with other religions by demonstrating itself worth of allegiance.

  6. It's hard not to embrace the second option. It is, I believe, the original intent, the original message, and the original position of the early church.

    I especially like 'the most' theme that relates to art, fun, intellect, professions, racial interaction, etc… This expansive, desegregated articulation of our best possibilities is inspiring and I believe hits at what God intended for us to be. This is not to dismiss our inherent and inescapable flaws, but does inspire us to strive towards the full Christ-endowed being we hunger for.

    A tribe who is successful at pursuing this vision would be a radically powerful force.

    I suspect that there is something about our flawed nature which motivates us to create these insular tribal units described in the first option – probably anchored in our inherited tendency for pride, for selfishness, and the other aspects of original sin. They are the more common, and I suspect that Wittgenstein and others have struck upon a kernel of truth related to how we tend to interact as humans. Their observation and assessment reflecting that the first option is the common human experience inside and outside the church.

    To be the second community, all memebers would have to be constantly vigilant in order to minimize the subtle motivations powered by our sinful nature, and live together in the manner described by our Lord in regards to our response to the inevitable failures of us achieving the ideal amongst this community of true believers.

  7. To Deanna: Yes, isolation hurts us. Have you heard of the concepts of “bonding” and “bridging” in this regard? Bonding is internal tribal care. Bridging is extending externally to other tribes. I hope to write on this soon.

    To Silentio: You ask whether I think Christians could actually aspire to the ideal tribe that I describe. Call me naïve (others have), but yes, I think it is attainable. At a fundamental level it will require a deep integration of faith into all areas of life. The university students I work with keep their spiritual life mostly segmented from their studies, relationships and work. It’s all privatized except for evangelism. Contrast the few students who integrate in a profound way. They are naturally humble but confident, and are able to take the lead in holistic outreach. That is what I wish for all.

    As for the supernatural element, here’s where I’m really a traditionalist. I don’t think anyone can sustain deep Jesus-likeness unplugged from Jesus’ (ontological) power, which entails involvement in a community of faith. We run against ourselves too quickly; we run up against our own resistance.

    To Paul Minter: I had not heard the word xenophobia applied to American evangelicalism, but the shoe fits, at least for the white segment. We spend much effort establishing and securing our supposed rightful inheritance, which often excludes outsiders.

    Prof. Soong Chan Rah at North Park Seminary reminds us, however, that the new evangelicalism must take account of its own ethnic diversity. When the white church embraces this fact theologically and sociologically, evangelicals could flourish, extending our boundaries in the manner you suggest, and thus becoming more hospitable to the foreigner.

    To Jim Gustafson: Yes, I remember the distinction Boyd was making between Christendom as a powerful institution and Christianity as a lived reality (my summary). Your comment last week harmonizes with this distinction as well. I would also add: Jesus did not “impose” himself on you or me.

    To HVC: Seems I always read ABOUT Newbigin but never read him directly—except for 30 years ago when I made it through most of Foolishness to the Greeks. If I remember correctly, LN says our strongest apologetic for the faith is the existential embodiment of Christ in our midst (again, my summary). Is that correct?

    To Heindoc: Yes, Wittgenstein seems to be cautioning us against a monolithic understanding of the landscape. He reminds us of the plurality of communities and their diverse habits of language and belief in the actual world. And without referring to “metanarratives” and “power relations” (that I know of), he sets up the tribal environment by relativizing epistemology to communities.

    It can also cut the other way, however, as you point out in your comment from last week’s blog. The rule of non-imposition is, itself, imposed on communities, and is thus self-defeating.

    However, it’s my experience on campus that those who impose and police the rule are not attempting to make a non-circular philosophical case for their position. Rather, they work for pragmatic and political ends.

  8. I highly recommend Newbigin too. You might like “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.” It fits with the work you're doing on campuses. Also his text on missional theology, “The Open Secret,” is great.

  9. One obvious point:

    Who said the we had to belong to the “tribe” (meta-tribe?) which says “Christianity is just one of the tribes”?

    Is there a third choice beside cultural imperialism or a postmodern rejection of all metanarratives?

    Your point is well taken from a pragmatic evangelism perspective. Humility, etc are clearly what is needed in today's world.

    But as one of your answers to a comment suggests, there is something more and that something revolves around the Church (I don't mean 'congregation'). The Church cannot, by its nature, be just another tribe.

    If the Church remembers that it is not the case that it has a mission, but rather that God has a Church for *his* mission, it will avoid both being another tribe and acting imperially.

  10. To Charlie: I would agree that from our perspective we are not simply another tribe. And insofar as this perspective aligns with God's, we are correct in our understanding.

    But from the university's and secular culture's points of view, we are but one tribe among many.

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