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who needs the church/the wisdom of crowds

May 19, 2009

In Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner reflects on what Judaism meant and continues to mean to her from the perspective of a conversion to Christianity.  She writes, "practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity".  To love God is to keep the commandments, to repeat the basic practices of the faith.  

Have you ever awakened on a Sunday morning and you sensed that you did not feel like going to church?  We do the practices, not because we always feel like doing them, but because they are, in the words of John Wesley, the ordinary channel of God's grace, the stream by which God's mercy flows.  As Lauren Winner writes, "your faith might come and go, but your practice ought not waver."

This goes against the grain of our culture.  I recently listened to Marva Dawn on about a fundamental change in our culture.  She asked us to imagine that a young person loves classical music, goes to I-tunes on the Internet, and downloads a few favorite pieces.  Now contrast that with the following:  a child is given an instrument, first the parent may have found her way to a music store, or consulted with a teacher or a friend about a particular instrument; a child is given an instrument, and then the parent locates a music teacher, who will help the child to learn; at some point the child may meet others who play the same instrument, or the child may play with a group of other musicians who are learning. 

At some point the group may perform in some public setting, and so friends and family show up to hear the music, and in the process they come to appreciate it.  The child, along the way, progresses.  Maybe the child, along the way, hears a master musician who plays his instrument, hears a piece that he has come to know, but in a whole new way.  It may that in the beginning the child did not really want to do all of this.  But over time the child is actively engaged in creating music.  In time, the child, who might be an adult now, may grow to love music. 

To love God is to engage in a specific set of practices: inviting a neighbor to church; studying the Bible, singing in a choir; serving with the homeless; tithing 10% of our income.    We cannot continue to carry out these practices in our own strength.  We need the help of God and we need each other.   The proverb is correct, "it takes a village", and John Wesley wrote, "I shall endeavor to show that Christianity is essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary religion is to destroy it."

But again, this goes against the grain of our culture, which is more about the individual.  This year I heard a fascinating speaker, James Surowiecki, who insisted that there is more wisdom in a group of people than in the brightest individual, that a large group is smarter than the person with the most education and credentials.   He makes the point in a number of ways, the most memorable being about the series "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?"

Imagine that there is a lot of money at stake, and you have a multiple-choice question with four possible answers, and you are stumped, you don't know the answer.  You have three options:  two of the four answers can be removed.  This gives you a 50% percent chance of being right.  Or you can phone an expert, someone you have chosen who is really intelligent.  The data suggests that this person gets the right answer about 65% of the time.  There is one other option.  You can ask the audience, a random group of people who showed up to watch the game show.  Can you guess how often they are right?  91 % of the time.

We are sometimes inclined to think that we know it all, and yet there is wisdom in the crowd.  But for our purposes it is not only about being smart or intelligent; it is more basic than that.  It is about our need to be connected to others.  

There was a heresy in the early church which insisted that religion was all about having a secret knowledge.  But the first letters that circulated among the early church, and some argue that John was written as one of the earliest gospels, came from a different direction.  To know about God is important.  But to love God:  that is the essence...but that is not all of it!  John defines love as communion, the experience of community.    A significant obstacle to community is individualism, well documented by the sociologist Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, whose simple but astute observation is that more people are bowling than ever before, but fewer people are involved in bowling leagues;  We are bowling, but we are bowling alone. More of us are downloading or listening to classical music, but fewer people are playing it, or showing up to hear it.  Interestingly, this work appeared prior to the onset of social networking and virtual relationships, trends that would seem only to reinforce his point. 

In the gospel we discover that  Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, and so we are connected.  And so a part of our conversion is into the communion, the body, the believers, the household of God, into, if you will, "the wisdom of the crowd".   Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a Nazi prison cell, reflects on the communion that we share with each other, and on our temptation to take our life together for granted:

"It is true that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded by those who have the gift every day.  It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brothers and sisters is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed.

"Therefore, let the one who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God's grace from the bottom of his heart. Let us thank God on our knees and declare:  it is grace, nothing but grace that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brothers and sisters."  

Sources: James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds.  Lauren Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer,  Life Together

 

 

 


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