When I was in junior high, my best friend and I had the same sweatshirt—it was soft and oversized (hello, 80s), black with a large GUESS logo across the front, Superman style. Not only did we have the same sweatshirt, but we would also purposely plan to wear it on the same day. We were signaling affiliation to one another through our coordinated fashion. Matching shirts was our confidence in friendship, our assurance of belonging, our surety in acceptance.
My teen self was practicing outwardly what has become second nature for my adult self. While I no longer call my friends to coordinate matching shirts, my attempts to coordinate are still in play. Instead of matching fashion, it’s more about the alignment of ideals and stances to be affiliated with certain groups of people or schools of thought.
This switch from coordinating fashion to coordinating ideas has been on my mind since recording our “Thinking Together” episode. That conversation explored the ways that our group affiliations shape our mental frames in ways we cannot see or sense. We become predisposed to respond to life based on our family of origin, our professional status, our faith background, our friendships, and more. All these things have a say on the filter that produces our opinions and stances—we are pre-programmed toward a certain viewpoint, or at least a certain set of views. Although we presume ourselves to be rational, free thinkers, we give ourselves way too much credit.
In his Cultural Liturgies series, James K. A. Smith pulls back the curtain on our supposedly autonomous thinking. Smith argues that we have dispositions toward certain opinions about our world and the people in it. And this disposition “is always sort of bigger than me—it is a communal, collective disposition that gets inscribed in me…. it inclines me to constitute the world in certain ways” (Imagining the Kingdom, 81).
We are communal beings who think in relation to a collective, whether we realize it or not. (Teen girls are not alone in this.) And so it’s important to consider which groups have an influence our mental frame—these things are at work in us, affecting way more than just our fashion choices.
Our internal disposition directs us to respond to everyday concerns in a certain way. It affects our response to the homeless man on the corner. It informs our political stances. It dictates our use of time and money. We’ve internalized a certain set of ideals and these become our standard for right behavior, resulting in
“actions generated by the dispositions I’ve acquired that have me the kind of person who is inclined to respond in certain ways in certain situations because I’ve absorbed a sensibility that ‘makes sense’ of the world—and to functionally ‘see’ the world in that way is already a practical, ethical take on the world” (Imagining the Kingdom, 87).
And as much as we might want our Christian faith to hold the most sway upon our mental frame, it too is shaped by cultural forces. We have run our faith through our cultural filter and sanctified our stances.
But all is not lost: Humility leads us to the cross, where we die to the need to be right and the need to be affiliated with the right camps. It’s possible that some of our predisposed stances align rightly with Jesus. But all of us need His work of redemption to infiltrated the deepest layers of our being and set right the things we do not even see as wrong.
Awareness is half the battle, or so they say—and in this case, I’d fully agree. Being aware of our potential for error is a good place to start. And then acknowledging every person’s innate desire to belong and to be correct helps us see how alike we really are. We dress ourselves with certain opinions and ideals because underneath is a human soul longing for acceptance and belonging.