by Al Maxey

Issue #99 ------- January 17, 2004
What people fear most is taking
a new step or uttering a new word.

Fyodor Dostoyevski (1821-1881)
"Crime and Punishment"

Neophobia and Neophilia
Examining Emotional Extremes

Seneca the Younger (5 BC - 65 AD) declared there were two great "foes to tranquility -- the inability to change and the inability to endure." These concepts are not necessarily oppositional, as reflection will reveal. There is no denying the fact of the former, especially, in the psychological makeup of man. Change is often viewed with both suspicion and fear. For some, these feelings can quickly become pathological ... even fatal. Phobias are a powerful force which can all too soon leave one emotionally, physically and even spiritually ruined, if not correctly countered. Machiavelli (1469-1527), in his classic work The Prince, observed, "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things." New is risky, and people often fear it.

When the NEW invades one's comfort zone, challenging one to CHANGE, this can be an extremely traumatic experience for those individuals or groups who are emotionally or spiritually timid. When that timidity becomes more negative than positive in nature, it takes on the various qualities of a life altering phobia. A famous psychologist by the name of William James (1842-1910) did a great deal of study in this area, and in the course of his research coined the term Neophobia. By definition, this simply means: "a tendency to dislike anything new; fear of novelty; the fear of new things and new experiences; an abnormal and persistent fear of almost anything new." Changing from the old and comfortable to the new and uncertain can be a life altering experience. But, can the fear of such change also be a life threatening experience. Can neophobia actually be a factor in the decrease in the quality and quantity of one's physical existence, or a factor affecting the effectiveness of a group of people? There is evidence to suggest this may be true.

Several studies have been conducted using various animals to determine if neophobia can be related to decreased length of life. In a counseling research periodical I receive, for example, one study showed that "animals identified as 'neophobic' had a 60% greater chance of dying." These animals also produced more stress hormones when confronted with that which was unfamiliar to them. The scientists reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that "this finding provides strong support" for a similar "model of fear-associated temperamental differences in humans." In a study performed at the University of Chicago, researchers discovered that the average lifespan for neophobic rats was 599 days, compared with 701 days for neophilic rats. (A neophiliac is one who more readily embraces that which is new and different; they do not fear change, but actually enjoy it.) "This is a critically important piece of research," according to researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. "We knew a lot about individual neophobia differences and health outcomes, but no one ever looked at lifespan. This fills in a key piece of the puzzle." Simply put, this research strongly suggests that a lifetime of phobic stress can take an accumulated toll on health, and seems to result in decreased lifespan.

Put in layman's terms, fear of change can literally be life-threatening! When faced with something new or unknown, humans tend to exhibit a wide range of responses, varying from paralyzing timidity to unhesitating exploration. The former can be characterized as neophobic, the latter as neophilic. Both extremes have their inherent dangers, as well as their benefits. Rats who are neophobic, for example, are less likely to eat poison introduced into their environment, or to become caught in traps. On the other hand, they live shorter, more stress-filled lives. Obviously, the ideal is a balance between the two -- a healthy caution for that which is new, a willingness to explore the matter, and a willingness to change or embrace the new if such is called for. It is just as damaging to be addicted to change for its own sake (neophilia) as it is to be fearful of anything outside one's comfort zone (neophobia). Desmond Morris, in his classic study Men and Apes, observed, "There is a perpetual struggle going on inside the brain, between the fear of the new (neophobia) and the love of the new (neophilia). The neophobic urges keep the animal out of danger, while the neophilic urges prevent him from becoming too set in his ways."

The application of this study to the church is rather obvious. There are those within the universal One Body of believers who are clearly neophobic. If it is new or different or innovative, if it requires any kind of change from "the way things have always been," then you can bet they are opposed to it. Those who favor such change are generally castigated as godless "change agents." On the other hand, there are clearly those who are neophilic. Some within this latter category will advocate virtually any kind of change, simply for the sake of change. Both extremes are irresponsible.

The neophilic extreme (in its negative sense) can perhaps best be perceived in the Athenians of the first century. Luke tells us that "all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new" (Acts 17:21). These were lovers of anything NEW. Thus, it is not surprising to read that Paul found "the city full of idols" (vs. 16). They were willing to embrace any new god that came along. They even had an altar with this inscription: "To an unknown god" (vs. 23). They thought themselves learned, when in fact they were basically just gullible.

The neophobic extreme (in its negative sense) can perhaps be best perceived in the militant group of Thessalonians who hounded Paul from place to place (Acts 17:5-13). Paul had brought new information that they needed to process and ponder. Instead, they pounced and persecuted. They stirred up the crowds and ran him off. They had no desire for anything different than their comfortable religious rut. For them, change was out of the question, and anyone promoting it was the enemy.

The perfect balance was seen in the Bereans -- "Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed" (Acts 17:11-12). Were they gullible? Did they accept anything new or different without proper investigation? NO! Neither were they resistant to that which was new. They received it eagerly and scrutinized it in light of the Scriptures! This is the balance that we need in the Body of Christ. We must be neither neophobic nor neophilic .... we must, instead, possess a Berean spirit -- openness to that which is new, willingness to examine it through the lenses of the Word, and readiness to alter our lives, embracing radical, yet responsible, change if such is necessary. Thessalonians and Athenians abound in the church ... Lord, give us more Bereans!!

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Texas:

Thank you for keeping your Reflections handy to dig us out of our comfortable ruts before they become graves. How we spit and sputter and divide over things unimportant has to be the greatest deterrent to sharing Christ with a lost world. Folks can't see our good works because we have become tinkling cymbals and sounding brass. How we must grieve the great heart of God! Let's love one another with a pure heart fervently and so fulfill the law.

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Brother Al, You old "change agent" ... you old "rabble rouser." I am trying to think of the other terms those poor beleaguered souls that call themselves preachers of the Gospel use to try to get under your hide, but they evade me at present. (BIG GRIN) I have just finished reading your article on Fractured Fellowship, and to me the worst offenders are those referred to above --- the "if you don't do as I SAY you are a lost soul" people. They use their opinion as the gospel truth ... the "I am right and you are wrong" type of person. I am thinking that the worst thing about all of us, i.e., human beings in general, is our ability to judge our fellow brother or sister as wrong according to our own personal thinking ... hence, the attitude "You are wrong and I'm going over here and play in this other sand pile." We all have it, and it tears us asunder and prevents us from developing a true love for all of our neighbors, and for our brothers and sisters. To me it is a sin that we have to fight off and correct. We have to develop an all encompassing love for each other that will stop the "fracturing syndrome" that we so easily get into if we are not careful. As always, you are on target ... Thank you, and full speed ahead!

From a Minister in Alabama:

Brother Maxey, I am currently the pulpit minister for the ----- Church of Christ. My close friend, Dallas Burdette, referred me to your website. My brother, your website is a breath of fresh air for us ministers trying to bring about change among God's people. Your Bible studies are very thorough, and I especially enjoy reading your debates. I just completed your studies on the translations. This study was mind opening. What version do you consider to be a more accurate translation of the Scriptures? I thank God for men like yourself who are willing to challenge those dominant personalities within the Body of Christ in order to attain a greater understanding of the Word of God.

From a Reader in Texas:

I have seen divisions where brethren on both sides really loved each other deeply. The problem was not lack of love, but a failure to understand grace. Had it been understood that the grace of God could cover both sides in a disagreement, they would not have had to divide. The greatest mistake in our history is thinking that our unity is based on agreement about "the issues," instead of understanding that God saves us in spite of our misunderstandings and differences. If I, being imperfect, must depend on the grace of God to cover my own sins, surely I must allow that same grace to apply to my differing brother. If we would pay as much attention to Romans 14-15 as we do to our hairsplitting issues, our problem would largely be solved. So I would say it is not always lack of love (though sometimes it is), but failure to understand the grace basis of our unity. I think our 19th century pioneers understood this better than our 20th century brethren. We got off track a hundred or so years ago and brethren are just now beginning to see that we can have unity without uniformity.

From a Reader in Nevada:

God does indeed bless me with your writings. I found your latest when I opened my email this morning. I have been enjoying your messages, but have been so busy I have not had the time to be polite enough to write and thank you. So I now send you a great big all encompassing "Thank You." I usually read the readers' responses first. Just my curious habit. And, sure enough, some are still after you. In this way they attack the spirit of Jesus. The reader in Alabama is really coming off the wall. I thank God that He brought me "from" that kind of thinking.

From a Reader in Indiana:

Brother Al, We have been reading the Reflections every time you send them out. We really enjoy getting them, and look forward to each copy. We have in the past agreed with most, if not all, the things you teach and write about. The last one we received today, and again it was right on target. We will be looking forward to the next issue of Reflections, and I know, even before we get it, that it will be good. Thanks for staying in touch with Christians around the world; hopefully things will change and we can all love and worship together someday. We really get excited about the things you write. Our prayers will be with you always. Keep up the good work you are doing; we know that it is working in many peoples' lives.

From a Reader in (Unknown):

I appreciated your article "Fractured Fellowship." I believe you have hit the nail on the head that focusing on the Royal Law of love is the key to healing these many divisions, not just within the churches of Christ, but also between the church of Christ and other members of the ekklesia that love, honor, and worship God and love their neighbors. Thanks for your thoughts in Reflections. I save them all for later use in my studies or for sharing with my brothers and sisters around the area. In the words of brother Leroy Garrett, "Soldier On!"

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, I just finished reading Issue #98 on "Fractured Fellowship." There are probably many of your readers who have been involved, in one way or another, in a church split. A dozen years ago, the church I attended split. It was painful and took a long time for many of us to move on. Many in that church went off and tried other denominations, as I did. Eventually, I came back to my heritage (Church of Christ) after coming to terms with the loss and pain connected with that split, and after much searching and finding a body that was not too legalistic. I read the response from the reader in Louisiana who said in part, "My background is conservative Church of Christ, but about a year ago I began attending a nondenominational congregation after our congregation split." I could have written that identical response a few years ago. My parents had the same reaction when I "left the church." But, I want to give that reader some encouragement. The spiritual journey ahead will be interesting, freeing, and will likely result in incredible spiritual growth. Al, thank you for your Reflections.

From a Reader in Texas:

As a fellowship of people, we have, by our legalistic approach to the gospel message, dishonored the very name we carry -- Churches of Christ.

From the Editor of Watchman Magazine:

Sir, your quote of the statement of purpose in Watchman is incorrect. It may have been inadvertent, but it is very misleading. You wrote that the purpose of the magazine was to be "THE mouthpiece for brethren all over the world..." This indicates a desire to be the official mouthpiece or organ for the brotherhood. This is an abhorrent concept, and one I would fight against with all my ability. In reality, the statement reads that the purpose of the magazine is to be "A mouthpiece for brethren all over the world." I have had one other misread that statement, asking, "who do you think you are, setting yourself up to be THE mouthpiece for brethren?" When I corrected him, he apologized.

From a Reader in Kentucky:

Al, This is interesting. I had never really looked carefully at Watchman Magazine's statement of purpose. "The militant defense of truth in our generation." Al, I would never argue that we are not fighting a war (against the forces of Satan). And I would argue that we should be continually fighting this war and not be lukewarm. However, what is interesting to me is that this word they have chosen to use is not really viewed in a positive light in our language today. Just one look in some dictionaries can confirm this. For instance, some synonyms for "militant," according to Merriam Webster's online thesaurus might be: contentious, gladiatorial, pugnacious, quarrelsome, scrappy or even pushy. I wonder if the editor would substitute any of these words for "militant" in his statement of purpose? I would argue when one thinks of "militancy" in the context of religion these days, these synonyms would come to mind for most people, rather than anything more positive!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Fractured Fellowship was great! It seemed to echo some points in a book I've been reading by Henry Chadwick called, "The Early Church." On page 51 he states that in the middle of the 2nd century things began to change within the church. He writes, "....from vitality to formalism, from freedom to rigidity, or even from a lay democracy to a clerical authoritarianism." Does history repeat itself? When I read about the early restoration movement, I see how excited, free, flexible and autonomous the churches were. Now we have watchdog groups, brotherhood regulators, and doctrine police patrolling the streets. There is a formal orthodoxy that must be adhered to in our brotherhood. If one minister deviates in the slightest, he must face the inquisitors. This has led to stagnation in our brotherhood. We now look at ourselves instead of looking at the lost world. Al, keep the articles coming!

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Last night I read your Reflections #15a, 23a and 71, all dealing with music. As I mentioned early on in our conversations, and as you pointed out in these Reflections, adopting your view would involve shifting hermeneutics. Not something that I personally will rush into nor enter into lightly. But it is telling that your reasoning is logical and consistent with the hermeneutic you use. I don't always find that. Of course, this hermeneutic will no doubt make allowances for differing opinions of the "tried and true" like: a cappella music, weekly observance of the Lord's Supper, and others. But, perhaps it isn't a bad thing if people come to appreciate our cherished traditions, like weekly observance of the Lord's Supper, without having to make it a salvation issue for everyone. You have given me much to consider.

From a Reader in (Unknown):

If we would only get busy in the church teaching ones who do not know Jesus as God's Son, we probably would be so busy there would not be time to fuss over matters of opinion. My husband and I have several matters in the Scripture that we do not have the same thoughts about. We just agree to disagree and move on. Later, sometimes, when we have studied more, we will come back and agree on the issue. We worship in a rather conservative church, and were raised in it, but we have studied for ourselves and have come up with some different ideas instead of merely listening to the preacher and taking his ideas as law. When some of our brethren at church talk ugly, we just go on and let God take care of them. My husband was an elder for about 20 years and recently resigned because of his age. You and I may not agree on everything in the Scripture, but we can agree to love each other and not be ugly about our points of disagreement.

From a Reader in Mississippi:

As you wrote today in your "Fractured Fellowship," our brotherhood is tearing itself apart. The extremist voices are polarizing our people in the churches of Christ. I appreciate very much your reasonable voice that won't compromise on the essentials of salvation, and, yet, can distinguish between gospel and tradition.

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