Tuesday, 21 March 2017

‘Beyond Perceptions’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part four)

The third chapter of Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ explored how categorising erects false divisions and barriers between the ingroup and the outgroup. In this fourth chapter, Cleveland pushes her analysis further to show how ingroup perceptions harm interactions with the outgroup. She notes that ‘the tendency to cling to rigid and oversimplified categories of other groups quickly leads us to exaggerate differences between us and them. We want to be perceived as different from them so we exaggerate our differences with the other group’ (p. 67, italics original). Again, the process of categorising helps to conserve mental energy and is not inherently problematic; but the danger lies in focusing so much on those things that make the ingroup different from the outgroup that any commonalities are erased. Cleveland continues,

This natural inclination to obsess over the characteristics that distinguish our group from other groups is exacerbated by the fact that we spend the majority of our time with fellow group members who confirm our beliefs, culture and way of life. The only people who are contributing to the important conversations of our lives are the people who already happen to agree with us! As a result, we’re likely to adopt more extreme and inflexible opinions about our way of doing things. (p. 70).

Cleveland labels this as ‘perspective divergence’ or the ‘gold standard effect’:

Basically, the gold standard effect leads us to believe that not only are we different from them, but we are also better than them. (p. 70).

This is where ingroups assign certain values to themselves in order to make their particular ways of being and acting the norm by which other subgroups or outgroups are measured. Within the body of Christ, this effectively means that our way of being Christian is better than any other way of being Christian—if there really can be any other way, of course! But this leads to cross-cultural confusion and antagonism:

We can’t understand why the language, opinions, actions and characteristics of other Christian subgroups are so different from ours. We also can’t understand why they think that they know what is best for the body of Christ when clearly the opposite is true. We each have our own perspective on the situation, and our perspectives are very different. (p. 71, italics original).


if two church groups [let’s say progressives and conservatives within the Church of England] believe that they best represent the larger body of Christ and automatically require the other group to live up to their unspoken [and spoken, I would say] standard, they can easily misunderstand and devalue the other group’s viewpoint.
These dynamics lead to disastrous crosscultural interactions. Not only do we distance ourselves from our group’s rivals, we also have the audacity to think our increasingly extreme opinions, unique characteristics and distanced group members wholly and accurately represent the larger group. In this way, different groups are further marginalized because they are perceived as “out of touch” and “incompetent.” Meanwhile, we are convinced that we have a perfect grasp on reality. (p. 73).

The gold standard effect prevents the ingroup from listening to the outgroup, even when the outgroup has something vital to say. Thus

the sinister effects of normal categorizing—inaccurate perceptions, inaccurate metaperceptions, false interpretations and memories, group polarization and perspective divergence—are working to maintain homogenous church groups and widen the divide between different church groups. These processes need to be overcome in order to begin to create meaningful interactions between differing groups and ultimately break down unbiblical divisions. (p. 74).

It’s clear from what Cleveland describes that the ‘sinister effects of normal categorizing’ must be transcended. This, I would suggest, is part of what it means to be a new creation in Christ: to overcome whatever remains part of the ‘present evil age’ (Gal. 1:4) so that we can live the life of the age to come in the here and now. Once more, Cleveland doesn’t go into much detail in this fourth chapter about how to transcend our natural but fallen cognitive processes other than to call for an intentional focus on the things that unite than the things that divide—namely, the fact that all Christian ingroups are part of the larger body of Christ. ‘If Christians focus on similarities between themselves and culturally different Christians and keep in mind that their identity as Christians is more important than other cultural identities, then they should naturally begin to like culturally different Christians’ (p. 75, italics original). Cleveland also commends good old-fashioned empathy, of trying to see and feel things from another person’s perspective. She concludes,

Focusing on shared characteristics and taking the perspective of the other are small but powerful steps that will lead us toward unity. Together, they can overcome the divisions caused and maintained by categorizing processes gone awry. (p. 77).

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