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,
The great English preacher John Stott
used to testify occasionally to his “strug-
gle 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 Eng-
lish 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
The blessing of Dissent
Christians are always supposed to be uni-
fied and avoid conflict, right?
to be unified, and conflict in its essence is disunity.
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, frus-
trating. 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 teaches things old and new with a
manageable amount of conflict at Regent College,
Vancouver. his new book Need to Know: A Vocational
Epistemology will be available next year
from Oxford University press.
Christ&CultureInCanada n BY JOhN G. STACKhOUSE JR.
the presence of
conflict is simply
of the devil.