On Reformations

Related to my recent post about institutions, individualism, and deference, I started thinking today about reformation, whether it be theological, corporate, institutional, political, etc. There is a tendency, it seems, both within the academy and without, to believe that the way to contribute meaning to the world is to enact reformation. We champion the cause of innovators and history-makers. We rally around the new voices and the radical thinkers. We seek out ways in which to reject the former, the popular, and the established in order that we might build up something new, being consistently encouraged to believe that new is always better.

I fear that we have bought in to the “new is better” myth with an unchecked gusto, and have now become wary of anything that appears to be stable. “Status quo” are now evil words. Postmodern thought has encouraged us to shake our foundations and to reclaim the ability to create and contribute knowledge from the oppressive power of institutions. Hence, we are set up to believe that reformation is the greatest good.

It seems to me that this has led to a short-changing of critical engagement with existing knowledge. Instead of looking to established knowledge in order to engage it fully, decide what is worth keeping, and decide what is worth revising, we seem to have found that it is easier to flat-out reject any established knowledge and then build up our own body of thought in its place. We are so hungry for change for change’s sake that we would throw out baby, bathwater, and bathtub rather than run the risk that things might stay the same.

I suspect that few of the true reformers in history sought change in order that they might be called reformers. I also suspect that many reformers throughout history were reluctant reformers – reforming not because they wanted to make change, but reforming because they felt they had no choice. No doubt many thinkers today would claim that they, too, are seeking change because they have no choice. I simply wonder how deeply today’s thinkers have meaningfully engaged with the entities they seek to change, and how many of them have begun this process with enough self-awareness to distinguish that which needs to be changed on a universal level and that which they seek to change solely based on personal preference. Can we claim “reformation” with integrity if we are actually fighting to do things “our way,” or in order to fulfill our own needs and wishes? Or does reformation imply something bigger than ourselves, something bigger than change itself, and something more profound (and perhaps with a greater sense of regret) than merely indulging our human tendency toward reactivity and rebellion?

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