Thinking the world is “just” leads to fear of change

My father is nearing retirement as a pastor in the United Methodist Church. On a drive last night, he told me about a study of different church communities’ ability to cope with change done some time in the 1970’s. The study found that the stereotype of stodgy old congregants who resisted change in their communities wasn’t accurate, and instead it was the ~40 year olds at the time who most heavily resisted change and handled transitions poorly.

The theory behind this was that these young heads-of-family felt like the world was established with rules that they had followed and struggled through to succeed; everything they accomplished or owned, they had earned. These people were all born during or after the second world war — today’s baby boomers — into a stable, competitive consumer society that supported that worldview. The older generation, however, had been through much more. They had survived two globally destabilizing world wars and seen inventions of technology like the airplane and telephone that transformed reality. They saw peace and society as fragile and precious, and they recognized the world was as always constantly transforming.

Thus the older generation welcomed new ideas in the church while the 40-year-olds thought change would bring an end to the church. The seed of difference between these two groups is that the 40-year-olds believed that the world is “just” — the universe has a list of rules that define clear values and morals, and people will either be winners and losers according to how they follow the rules. To the elders, the rules of the world did not appear to reward hard work (some people worked very hard and met miserable ends, some people broke the rules and thrived), and those rules kept changing. In a world that isn’t just and is full of suffering, they tended to approach life with more compassion and a tolerance of a ambiguity.

Originally written 9/6/2016.