That’s Not Our Ethos!

I’ve noticed that in conversations surrounding the culture and ecology of churches and their adjunct institutions the word ‘ethos’ comes up, a lot.  A proposal is made and it is either consistent with or runs against the grain of our ethos.  Institutions through time establish certain protocols for their existence that aren’t always made explicit in statements.  Ways and means of being and moving and becoming together in community are often not explicit, not always brought to conscious awareness.  Philosophers and sociologists call this ideology (in a good integrative sense), the tacit dimension or background belief.  ‘Ethos is a Greek word originally meaning ‘accustomed place’, ‘custom, habit,’ equivalent to Latin mores.’

We all swim in ethos; it’s the medium we assume for life together.  If we didn’t have a shared integrative ideology then we’d spend endless amounts of time trying to get to go. Think of the convention of traffic lights – green means go, red means stop and yellow means speed up.  We share a world of tacit conventions, even in our arguments.  When you’re new to an institution or culture figuring out the ‘ethos’ takes time and it can be harrowing when the world you assume isn’t the one in motion.   It can be awkward and dangerous learning to drive on the other side of the road.

I preached at a church and after church a man dressed in leather shook my hand at the door and thanked me for the service with a four letter word I hadn’t heard at the church entrance before.  I said in what must have been to him an uncertain voice, ‘well, thank you.’  Apparently, he hadn’t been socialized into the polite middle-class ethos of church.

I also remember a student from Taiwan taking me aside and telling me that the ethos of the classroom in Taiwan doesn’t exactly line-up with our participatory practice in North America.  Asking teachers questions was, for him, disrespectful; the professor is the expert and so questioning the professor is impertinent!  I love the Taiwanese.

I’ve been thinking about ethos because we have new people coming into our school this fall; students, staff, faculty and board members.  All of them will be figuring out the ethos of the school.  It is mightily disorienting when you are new to a place.  Some of our ethos is written down, most of it is not. The non-discursive, socially embodied rules of engagement can seem Gnostic, available only to the few who know the secret unspoken tradition.

Philosopher Paul Ricoeur noted that ideology in the good sense, integration, quickly becomes ideology in the bad sense, dissimulation or pretense, when those in the know use it to preserve privilege or to keep new ideas in harness.  Ethos can be a threat to thoughtfulness when it becomes dogmatic boilerplate, when we police the new thing with uncritical appeal to ethos.

New people in any organization are a fund of creativity and newness. They cause us to question our ethos.  They challenge us to make explicit what we take for granted in our working and being together.  I think that’s healthy – real welcome into the community will change us!  Ethos isn’t once for all.  Ethos isn’t dried, hardened and set.   Ethos can change, or better still, be reformed according to the Gospel of the Crucified One.   Jesus often started his stories in the familiar world of his hearers only to overturn it.  When he said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like’ he was about to conjure up a world unlike the regnant ethos.

I’ve noticed I use the term ethos when I am a little frustrated at non-compliance to the world I assume and would rather not subject to interrogation.  Sometimes ethos stifles and constricts and functions as a power play. ‘O, that’s not our ethos.’

Christian hospitality requires openness to those who come into the community.  Christian wisdom appreciates that other people who don’t assume our ethos can see things we can’t.  I remember the church historian Martin Marty once saying to a group of clergy; ‘When you are new to a congregation write down everything you see in the first few weeks because after that you can’t see it anymore.’

At VST we are called to thoughtful, engaged and generous Christian faith.   The thoughtful piece requires that we are vigilant about the tendency of ethos as integration to become ethos as uncritical adherence to a status quo that stifles.  A Gospel ethos, rooted in the radical hospitality and generosity of Jesus, is an open one.   It is open to the colourful diversity that is birthed by the Triune God.  And it is open on the basis of the explicit theological conviction that God is always already active in the world making all things new, including our ethos.

Richard Topping



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