Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Expectations and Definitions

So life continues to roll along and I continue to have a little more to do than I can actually reasonably keep up with. This is actually a good and pleasing state of affairs, just mildly frustrating from time to time when I find I've failed to measure up to someone else's expectations... particularly if those expectations were never articulated to me. And I think that's what I want to talk about: expectations and definitions.

The first article I had to read as part of my Master's program in Conflict Analysis and Resolution was an excerpt of a book by Ted Gurr called Why Men Rebel. The article introduced me to the idea of relative deprivation, and more specifically of aspirational deprivation. Relative deprivation occurs when you perceive a discrepancy between where you're at (your "value capabilities") and where you feel you should be (your "value expectations"). Aspirational deprivation occurs when your value expectations rise and your value capabilities don't.

The excerpt went into a lot more detail, but I remember being really struck by these concepts. I got the idea of relative deprivation right away: I lived it every day. Aspirational deprivation made total sense, as well... an almost inevitable by-product of a consumer society, and on a personal level, a by-product of being surrounded by people who really did seem to have things a lot easier than I did, at least financially.

Over time, I came to see relative deprivation as being broadly applicable to pretty much any interpersonal situation involving anger. There was almost always a way that I could frame what had happened between two people in conflict as being essentially about one or both persons failing to behave according to the expectations of the other. These expectations were almost always unstated, often because one or both parties assumed that these expectations should be obvious to any sane person. I could even often track myself doing this, although being aware of it really didn't change my behavior when I was really pissed off. Even when I knew I was being unreasonable and unfair, I could feel that there was absolutely no budge within myself on certain expectations. The other person should simply accept that *my* way was the *right* way.

In truth, I don't think it's reasonable or healthy to always question one's sense of right and wrong in situations like these. We have to have core beliefs, cognitive anchors that root us and shape our sense of the world around us. Right or wrong, I don't think we can function cognitively over the long term without *some* instinctual beliefs that we don't --and won't-- question. This applies to our expectations of the behavior of others. If we believe that it is inappropriate to punch a random person standing at the bus stop in the face, then an unstated assumption that this behavior is wrong --and outrage when witnessing (or experiencing) such behavior-- is completely appropriate and healthy. If we had to go around questioning assumptions as basic as these on a daily basis... well, we probably just wouldn't go outside for fear of what others might do.

But I think we do often go too far... and that many of our most virulent fights over theology are because we lack a sense of perspective and humility about our expectations of the beliefs and behavior of others. Right now, after a long hiatus, I feel like I'm witnessing a return to some conflicts around doctrine that are violating one of my core assumptions. I thought that I'd moved into circles with Christians who understood that *all* theology --liberal, conservative, postmodern, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, emergent-- is basically like using a pickaxe to carve a 6 inch ivory statue. Our theological words, concepts, and spiritual and liturgical practices are the tools we have at our disposal to approach God, but they're clumsy, blunt, and poorly suited to the task. We are limited by being on this side of the veil, and we only really get to Him at all because the "Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words." (Romans 8:26 NASB)

I thought that the theological/church world I was in now was a world where no one would take aim at another's beliefs, or their lack of faith. At our best, we are all struggling with the weight of our humanity. At our best, we are all struggling to push past the internal chatter of our day-to-day existence and to the quiet place where God can speak to our heart. And at our best, we are still often failing to get to Him, failing to pray, failing to trust.

Why don't we extend the same grace to one another that we extend to ourselves? None of us truly understand how faith works. We are all doing the best we can to follow in Christ's way and to live out the Will of God. Why don't we listen to one another with patience, and throw away the expectation that we will agree on matters of theology? Why don't we pray together, and throw away the expectation that we will pray in ways that make each other feel comfortable and safe?

I'm not suggesting that there is no truth, but I don't expect we'll all see or talk about this truth the same way. I believe there is a God. I believe that Christ is the Son of God and that when He died on the cross He bridged the gap between God and man. I believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world and that He inhabits people and situations in ways I don't really understand. I content myself --sort of-- with T.S. Eliot's section of The Wasteland where he describes the Road to Emmaus:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
But who is that on the other side of you?

This is generally how I see God --the Holy Spirit-- working in my life and in the lives of others... out of the corner of my eye. But that's enough. I know He's there and working.

I do expect that it won't be enough for others. I know darn well that when I state my beliefs like I do here that they sound ridiculously over-simplistic to some people or barely Christian to others. But I try not to take that personally. I am doing my best and you are doing your best to describe the Indescribable. I don't hold the expectation that my language or doctrine will be the same as anyone else's, and I'm always pleasantly surprised when I find people who *do* appreciate the way I talk about God.

I don't understand why it should be any other way.