On seeing… clearly (or “how I found out I had ‘presbyopia’ and used that as a metaphor for talking about the Presbyterian church)

My recent trip to the optometrist also included a routine check up, where, it turned out my eyes are aged the same age as the rest of my body. Older. And so, I have ‘presbyopia’ — which is a apparently very common condition, but brilliantly named given my occupation as a Presbyterian minister.

Presbyopia has the same greek root as Presbyterian — ‘elder’ — I have elder eyes.

Eyes that according to the diagnosis are suffering from a physiological insufficiency of accommodation associated with the aging of the eye that results in progressively worsening ability to focus clearly on close objects. Symptoms include difficulty reading small print, having to hold reading material farther away, headaches, and eyestrain.

Inflexible. Unable to focus on close objects. Tired.

Sounds like the Presbyterian Church alright…

I’ve written a couple of recent pieces about the pastor drought and what might be causing it in our neck of the woods, and about why I’m (still) a Presbyterian anyway, and in some ways I wish I’d had this diagnosis, and so, this language, earlier. 

We Presbyterians have presbyopia.

As a denomination we’re increasingly unable to recognise what we’re not seeing because we’re old, inflexible, and tired. Incapable of seeing what’s right before our eyes, and, like me, unaware of what we’re missing. We’re probably not good at reading small print either… 

For various reasons our denomination in Queensland is at something of a cultural crossroads. The ‘pastor drought’ is biting, so there are vacancies popping up all over the state, and filling those vacancies from within the state will perpetuate the problem. There are good things happening in some healthy churches, but some of our larger churches have grown beyond the size our system is capable of accommodating and beyond the size that most pastors are equipped to lead. We, as a denomination, have been wedded to pragmatism in our ‘business meetings’ and even in local congregations, outsourcing theological thought to committees who then deliver reports that most of us are too busy to read or engage with properly, and we haven’t made great business decisions because very few office bearers in the denomination, or members of the courts of the church have been trained or equipped to operate businesses — most of us have been trained to exegete the Bible, and some of us have vaguely relevant pre-Bible college experience that is rapidly fading in the rear view mirror, the elders who could be joining our business meetings as a denomination — those with business acumen — are excluded as a function of our meeting times, and our operating rules haven’t found ways to both affirm a theology of male eldership and broaden these courts to consistently include the voices and wisdom of the other 50% of the population. We’ve become stuck in our way of seeing the world, and the world is changing. We’ve lost focus. 

Presbyopia. 

Recent events have been a bit like the eye tests you do at the optometrist where you suddenly realise you’re not seeing what you should, and so we’re conducting ‘reviews’ and ‘think tanks’ and bringing in ‘fresh eyes’ to set ‘new directions’ (the previous ironic title of our denominational rag). But how can we be sure this won’t be a case of the blind leading the blind?

If, and let’s stretch the Presbyopia analogy just a little further for a moment, if the phenomenon of ‘old eyes’ kicks in at around 40 (you know, around my age), then seeing clearly might not just involve people in their late 60s (boomers) inviting people in their 40s (xers) to the table. It’s quite possible those ‘younger’ elders won’t just bring the wisdom of age and experience, but eyes that are already becoming inflexible precisely when we need to shift our focus. 

There are things that are good, true, and beautiful that come from having a denomination where age and experience are valued; elders are an essential part of any community (and family). But there comes a point in the life of a family not only where we don’t let grandpa drive the family car, but when a parent turns to their kids knowing that their eyes might see things with a little more clarity. 

Let me just make some bold assertions (propositions even) for a moment, and feel free to push back if you think these are unfounded. 

Pragmatism of the sort that is producing problems at a local church level and at an institutional level is wedded to a certain sort of modernism; especially a modernism connected to technology and technique. The cultural dilemmas facing our denomination are fundamentally an outworking of an uncritical adoption of modernity not just as a framework for assessing and talking about truth and morality, but for operating in the world. 

1. The shifting cultural landscape and the erosion of the church’s place in society is a product of both our uncritical embrace of modernism, and the failure of modernism to win the hearts and minds of the culture (and, perhaps even the failure of modernism to present a fully orbed understanding of what it means to be human, or to have meaning, or to know truth).

It’s not just that the culture has shifted way from truth (and by that we mean become post-modern and post-Christian), it’s that the shift to modernity was already a destructive shift away from truth and we didn’t see it while we were making the shift (think the disenchantment of Christian belief, where we’re blind to the spiritual realm, and our becoming wedded to pragmatism in our ethics, rather than, say, virtue or working from principles that might produce an action that was ‘right’ but less immediately effective).

An example of this is that modernism is big on authoritative institutional voices, so, we adopted this posture and voice as Christians, specifically as conservative church institutions (not just Presbyterians), when speaking to the world about moral, political and social issues. These areas of life are typically not reduced simply to pure rationality or propositions about science/nature/natural law (like marriage), but that’s the posture we adopted — and people were keen to take away our drivers license because we looked like the equivalent of a 95 year old escapee from a nursing home stealing a car and rampaging through the streets at 10 kph. We did this while simultaneously undermining our institutional credibility (around, say, institutional child abuse and even church finances). Then, as we realised the shift was happening we doubled down on pragmatism. The ‘culture wars’ approach to politics is this paradigm taken to extremes; where suddenly it doesn’t matter what action we take, so long as the outcome we believe is ‘good’ is achieved. Within the Presbyterian Church of Queensland this pragmatism plays out both in terms of how we typically talk about achieving ministry success (more bums on more seats in flashier buildings with better AV capacity), and in how we approach decision making in our courts where questions tend to be about methodology, resource distribution, and wisdom rather than about theological consistency, and where theological thought when it does happen is outsourced to an increasingly smaller group of experts because we don’t have time for that in our ‘business meetings’.

2. Pragmatism, as an outworking modernism, that mostly looks like finding the right lever or silver bullet or ministry model isn’t going to fix this shift.

It won’t fix our internal issues if our internal issues are, in part, that we are institutionally wedded to modernity and to pragmatism, and it won’t fix our external issues if we think the way to respond to the shifting culture is to simply present the unadorned propositional truth of the Gospel (or if we do adorn it, to think that the best way to adorn the Gospel is in pragmatic ways that imitate the ‘excellence’ we find in business and marketing manuals with good technology and technique). 

3. Embracing post-modernity, especially its suspicion of institutions and its paradigm of deconstruction of institutions where reconstruction work is typically aimed around the subjective experience of an individual, isn’t the answer either.

Institutions are good and necessary. Individuals suffer from presbyopia (or plenty of other conditions that limit true seeing of the world). There is truth at the heart of Christian belief that can be expressed propositionally (just not exclusively propositionally). Narratives are powerful, but not only subjectively so. This is where maybe a shift to meta-modernity (or post-post-modernity) would be an interesting step to embrace institutionally.

4. The children are our future (and also our present), and so are adults without presbyopia, maybe they should help set our direction, especially if they can see more clearly than we can.

Our church structures are set up to be conservative (and there’s some wisdom in that so long as we’re conserving the right things), but one way this plays out is that the ‘rooms where it happens’ to borrow from Hamilton typically exclude anyone at low risk of actual presbyopia, and probably also anyone at low risk of metaphorical presbyopia as well (not to mention, in the main, that they also typically (though not in all cases) exclude women of all ages).

There are now a couple of generations below Gen-X who’ve been grappling with cultural changes, and some people in these generations are exceptionally thoughtful and committed Christians who’ve navigated the challenges and tensions in their own lives that we’re now trying to recalibrate our denomination to respond to because we’ve realised we’re not seeing as clearly as we should. Any review process worth its salt won’t just include the next generation down — those who’ve been waiting patiently to become the establishment — but all generations. Instead of viewing these younger generations with suspicion, as though anybody not wedded to the methodology of modernism (propositions and pragmatism) has become worldly (without critically assessing our only ‘becoming worldly’ as an institution that is thoroughly modernist), maybe we could listen to them. One way this ‘suspicion’ plays out, like so much else, is when the modernist v post modernist thing kicks in in debates about sexuality and, for example, the language used to describe one’s experience, where anything ‘post-modern’ is dismissed as squishy or dangerous theological liberalism, when what is possibly happening is a shift in how language is used from prescriptive to descriptive. There are other ways too, but I feel like I need some evidence to support these assertions and one of the first places I think this modernist/post-modernist schism became apparent to me was in the furore surrounding a review posted here some time ago about a thoroughly modernist book tackling sexual ethics produced by another thoroughly modernist institutional Christian publisher.

We need grandpa no longer in the driver seat, and the fresh eyed learner driver to navigate this road trip and keep the car from breaking down or crashing.

5. If we’re serious about a cultural review and ‘think tanks’ and substantial institutional change we need to invite people who are clear eyed (and so under 35) into our processes, and these discussions.

Otherwise we’ll have the blind leading the blind to more of the same, but also, in my own actual (and metaphorical) experience, it’s energising to see the world through fresh eyes. The optometrist was right that my tired eyes were making the rest of me tired too. It’s invigorating both to get glasses that correct your vision and take up some of the strain, and to hear from voices younger than you who help you see the world with a little more clarity.

Two of my favourite parts of the last two years have been regular catch ups with my ministry trainee, Matthew, who consistently probes and prods me to see the world differently, and reading his blog as he’s ventured into publishing some of his thinking for a wider audience. I trust I’m also operating as ‘an elder’ for him, but he’s navigating a thoroughly different world to the one I knew in my twenties. For another eye-opening experience, get a hold of Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites for an account of the way the spiritual and cultural landscape has shifted past the kinda hard secularism and skepticism that so much stuff by people over 35 (me included) assumes is the default paradigm, into something quite different.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

One thought on “On seeing… clearly (or “how I found out I had ‘presbyopia’ and used that as a metaphor for talking about the Presbyterian church)”

  1. Its crazy how i dont completely understand, the entire article, hell i dont even understand some of the words, but i feel as i read that their may be more than one finger on the pulse here.

    Personal reflection seam to saden My heart, just as age may be a prerequisite so to is academic requirements and as a young and rather not so academly gifted Member of our Church community, i see clearly the need of the Older Gen to be a helpful foundation reminder of why we do what we do ( to be firm when they need to and to loosen grip when they should) but i feel the tention as elders fail to give way to Young (albeit at the cost of mistakes) to step up and lead the local churches are declining, while there full of Young enthusiastic, God fearing member who just need some discipleship and Trust.

    Thanks Bro, we appreciate your Help.

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