by Mike Metzger & John Seel
A difference with a distinction
What’s the difference between Esperanto and E*TRADE? Other than the fact that you’ve probably never heard of Esperanto, there is a deeper difference between the two. It’s a difference with a distinction. Esperanto helps only a handful of people, while E*TRADE is part of a revolution that is forming culture in today’s world. If you want to change the world, what drives this distinction is worth understanding.
Ludwik Zamenhof invented Esperanto in 1887 to be a universally used language. “He borrowed Latin roots and laid down strict rules for pronunciation that would make Esperanto easy to learn,” writes Andy Crouch.1 Yet, if it’s so easy to learn, how come only a handful of Internet geeks find it to be helpful? The users of Esperanto mistakenly assumed that ideas are like raindrops – wherever they fall, crops flourish. Studying how the American agriculture system changed the world puts this myth to rest.
Colonial farmers learned early on that rain is necessary but insufficient. Solutions were birthed in university-based departments of agriculture that provided advanced research for growing crops. But these threads of theory had to be stitched into the practices of farmers in the field. This was the job of the Agricultural Experiment Stations. Every county in the US has a weaver called a county agent who stitches sufficient technologies (seeds, methods of plowing, etc.) into the fabric of the farmer’s work. The American agriculture system is why the US became the world’s breadbasket. It changed the world.
The advent of computers and the information revolution has also changed the world. But it all began in the university-based department of Aristotle. He theorized what are called “first principles,” of which the law of non-contradiction is the foremost. Aristotle said that opposite assertions cannot be true at the same time. Gottfried Leibniz wove Aristotle’s thread of theory into everyday life. In 1666, he developed the idea of binary systems, a foundational technology for computing. John Atanasoff, a physics professor at Iowa State College, took binary systems a step further and built a prototype binary computer by 1939. This provided practitioners like David Ewing the sufficient system necessary to change the world. Ewing founded E*TRADE.
But what does this have to do with faith communities seeking to change the world? To be candid, most of our efforts, while noble and necessary, are insufficient.
A few faith communities are acolytes of academics who use words like “worldview” and Weltanschauung. Weltawhaaa? Good stuff, but I call them Esperanto Evangelicals. They assume ideas are like raindrops – wherever they fall, cultures flourish. But fixing systems requires a fabric more than mere threads dangling from academic departments.
Far more faith communities, however, disdain academic ideas as too esoteric and “impractical.” They prefer stitching together peer networks of other churches and organizations. These associations are necessary but insufficient because they see solutions to social problems almost solely in terms of individual voluntary activities – missions of mercy to the poor, the homeless, the addicted. Christian Smith, a sociologist at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, notes that, “Worthy as these projects may be, none of them attempt to transform social or cultural systems, but merely to alleviate some of the harm caused by the existing system.”2 Fixing systems requires a fabric stitched together with threads from academia and associations.
This isn’t news to those who know history. Changing a culture requires cross-stitching substance (academics) with systems (networks), according to researchers such as Randall Collins (The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change) and Michael Mann (The Sources of Social Power). The 19th century abolition of slavery was the work of the Clapham group and the powerful networks they represented, not just William Wilberforce. Collins writes, “It is the networks which write the plot of this story; and the structure of network competition over the attention space is focused so that the famous idea becomes formulated through the mouths and pens of few individuals.”3 Today’s cultural network, represented by education, art, media, and entertainment, is collectively controlling the conversation. The likelihood of Judeo-Christian ideas once again becoming institutionalized, according to Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, depends on its access to resources, its ability to mobilize capital, its legitimacy (being taken seriously by the leading gatekeepers), and its organizational capability to create structures by which ideas gain societal traction. Otherwise, we only help a handful.
This is a big challenge for faith communities. Many assume if people’s hearts and minds are converted, they will have the right values, they will make the right choices and the culture will change in turn. It explains why they direct their primary efforts to evangelizing individuals and miss the importance of institutions. Culture is not primarily the result of individual choices, but reality-shaping institutions. Please understand; the renewal of the hearts and minds of individuals is not unimportant. But history tells us that it is just not decisively important if the goal is to change the world. Changing the world is not measured by the size of a cultural organization or by the quantity of its output, but by the extent to which a definition of reality is realized in the social world – taken seriously and acted upon by actors in the social world. Being taken seriously means that ideas derived from the Judeo-Christian faith form all spheres of society and fill the headlines, not just the religion section of the paper. Otherwise, we’re Esperanto enthusiasts who help a few but have an existence that is essentially meaningless to the economic, political, and cultural dynamics of our everyday lives. As Jerry Seinfeld used to say, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just want more. What about you?
1 Andy Crouch, “Christian Esperanto: Why we must learn other cultural tongues,” Christianity Today, April 2003 (vol. 47, no. 4), p. 105.
2 Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From It’s Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), p. 73.
3 Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 78.