By John G. Stackhouse Jr.
“Necessity is the mother of invention” is a nice way of saying, “We don’t generally bother to think new things until circumstances compel us to do so.”
Organizations die that aim only at being “five per cent better than last year.” Teams get beat by running the same plays that worked well last season. Generals lose wars, as the saying goes, by skillfully fighting the last one. Why are we not more creative?
Creativity comes in response to a challenge, not to a cloudless day at the beach. Innovation arises out of the threat of competition or obsolescence, not out of a board meeting filled with mutual congratulations on another job adequately done.
The great English preacher John Stott used to testify occasionally to his “struggle to think Christianly” about the issues facing his congregation and his nation – and, indeed, of global Christianity. Such intellectual wrestlings were provoked by what Stott called “PIM” – namely, “pain in the mind.”
It was a phrase beloved of certain English evangelical intellectuals in the mid-20th century (Lesslie Newbigin liked it too), who were constantly working to get their minds around Scripture and tradition and reason and revelation and church and world. Thinking new thoughts was, even for these brilliant leaders, often not so much joyful artistry as sorrowful discipline (Hebrews 12:11).
How much more pleasant it is to avoid pain, including “pain in the mind.” How much more comfortable and comforting it is to encounter a new thought or a novel practice and dismiss it out of hand. How much time do we spend instead visiting websites, listening to podcasts, watching programs, viewing videos, and reading books and magazines that only reinforce what we already think?
Our steady resolve not to learn anything very much different from what we currently think we know shows up in families, churches, and other societies as the horrified repression of all conflict. Indeed, in some Christian traditions the presence of conflict is simply equated with the presence of the devil. Christians, after all, are supposed to be unified, and conflict in its essence is disunity.
In some Christian traditions the presence of conflict is simply equated with the presence of the devil.
Except that it isn’t. Conflict is, instead, to be expected in any situation where people take part in a matter of mutual interest and bring to it diverse thoughts. When you think about it, that’s actually quite a lot of situations.
Conflict can be lessened only by decreasing the amount of interest we feel (we’re hardly going to argue about something we don’t care about) or by decreasing the amount of dissent we tolerate. If we elect the latter, we are in grave risk of squelching creativity and, much worse, quenching the very Spirit of God.
Conflict can, of course, arise out of evil motives – grabs for power and status, hatred of enemies and sheer contrariness. And conflict can blaze out of control, making things much, much worse instead of better.
New things also are not intrinsically better than old things. If traditional thoughts or practices seem right to us, and have served us well, we properly resist being bowled over by the latest fad and refuse to change just because someone happens to be unhappy about it.
Novelties and conflicts simply and always inhibited will not disappear, however, but will go flow hot underground, weakening some groups into collapse while eventually exploding others into chaos.
Instead, our families, churches, and other organizations should encourage divergent thinking and even welcome conflict, but get it out in the open and then put it to work by channelling it into courteous, careful and constructive conversation. “Speaking the truth in love” once again proves to be crucial to Christian communication and community.
We can’t improve if we do not generate better ideas. And we will not generate better ideas if we refuse to acknowledge genuine problems that face us – necessities that might provoke us to inventive thinking – or if we refuse to tolerate the creative disruption of truly new suggestions.
Pain in the mind is, yes, painful. Conflict is, yes, frustrating. Avoiding or suppressing them, however, means we stay just where we are, just as we are – until, alas, we find ourselves unequal to the challenges we refused to meet – and we perish. FT
John Stackhouse is a Faith Today columnist who teaches at Regent College, Vancouver. It was recently announced he will move to Crandall University in Moncton. This article first appeared in Faith Today. Read more of this columns here. Subscribe to Faith Today for the best price ever until the end of February, and never miss another Stackhouse column!