WILLIAM W. JELLEMAWilliam W. Jellema is a member of the faculty of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. degree from University of Edinburgh. Prior to his new appointment he taught in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Alma College, Michigan.

Almost everyone in our American colleges claims to be either a Protestant, a Roman Catholic, or a Jew. Professed adherence to one of these groups now seems to be part of the American way of life. To accept such religious nomenclature may have little to do with one’s morals, however, and nothing at all to do with one’s religion.

Two gods govern the lives of most dormitory denizens on our campuses. Since their names are not recorded in either the Old or the New Testament (although in Bible times they may have masqueraded under other names) neither appears to be the Deity of Christianity or Judaism. Yet from those gods issue the commandments which regulate many moderns both on and off the college campus.

The first god is The Crowd, its religion, that of conformity. From the brand of lotion for our sunburn to the salve recommended for conscience, we are urged to conform, to be like, to be just like, everyone else. Even worse, to be like everyone else simply for the sake of being like everyone else. No matter where the crowd stands or why it stands there, the important thing is to stand with the crowd, to become part of the standing army because the army is standing.

Cult Of Conformity

In his book, The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman pictures the adherents of what might be called the “Cult of Conformity” as having built-in radar sets which constantly swivel to pick up opinion signals from the crowd. Their radar mechanism senses subtle shifts of thought to which the conformists quickly adjust. According to Riesman, the old rhyme

This little piggy went to market

This little piggy stayed home

This little piggy had roast beef

This little piggy had none

This little piggy went “wee, wee, wee” all the way home

is no longer valid. Today, if one little piggy goes to market no little piggies stay home. All little piggies have roast beef if any little piggies do, and they all chorus together “wee, wee, wee.”

Conformity is not the only American college religion; The Crowd, not the only modern god. The god of conformity has a consort who, though opposite in sex, is similar in species. Younger than the god of conformity, more attractive and, typical of the sex, more subtle in her ways—and therefore more dangerous—this is the goddess of nonconformity.

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Conformity And Nonconformity

While the god of conformity is found almost anywhere today, the co-ed goddess of nonconformity is more selective of her worshipers. She generally confines her activity among the intelligentsia, among those who recognize the destructive powers of the god of conformity and therefore resolve to avoid him as much as possible.

But nonconformity sets up its own rigid standards, too, and thus becomes just another brand of conformity. The man who stands up and says “no!” for the sake of saying “no” is simply the yes-man seen from behind. The story is told of the man who was so eager to avoid being a conformist that instead of combing his hair from front to back, he combed it from side to side—and suffered the embarrassment of having people whisper in his nose.

The Call For Transformity

The biblical ideal is “transformity.” “Be not conformed to this world,” said the Apostle Paul, “but be ye transformed.…”

One of the frustrations in describing transformity is that no standards of this world apply. The standards of conformity as well as those of nonconformity become meaningless. As the world judges things, the transformed man is now and again a conformist, at other times a nonconformist. In reality, however, the standard of the transformed person transcends this apparent vacillation. For him conformity is not inherently evil, and nonconformity necessarily virtuous—or vica versa. The transformed man has status with God. In Him he finds that profound acceptance which rescues him from the misery of seeking status and security in the crowd either as a fidgety chameleon or as a sore thumb.

While the conformist sees the importance of his relationship to his fellows, he sees it only vaguely and in such a way that he ultimately destroys both himself and the group. When the group becomes a mob it refuses to take responsibility for itself and yet devours the responsibility of each individual participant. In the words of Glenn A. Olds, a man lost in the crowd becomes “a cipher with the rim knocked off.” According to Waldo Beach, the chief doctrine of this religion is justification by adjustment; and the prayer of the adherent is … that I may be acceptable in thy sight, O gang, my strength and my redeemer.”

The Kinsey report’s great impact on the conforming public was its reassurance of conformists that their sexual behavior was not abnormal. Guilt feelings for many had not involved a righteous God in whose eyes their action might be wrong, but rather the fear of being abnormal or atypical. With relief these persons now discovered that they had in fact been worshiping their god, conformity, and he even condoned this particular liturgy.

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Nonconformity is just as powerless to discover real values as conformity, because it depends for its existence upon a conforming majority and is simply “different.” Even Riesman falls into this trap when, in defining autonomy (his answer to conformity), he states that it “must always to some degree be relative to the prevailing modes of conformity in a given society.…” The nonconformist, no less than the conformist, is struggling for prestige and security. The only variation between them is that the nonconformist seeks status through difference from, rather than likeness with others.

Nonconformity, it is true, may discover the existence of the self. But self, like fire, while one of man’s most valuable discoveries, has the power of destruction if its true meaning and proper limits are not also discovered. It is wonderful to be able to say “I” and so to distinguish oneself from the rest of the universe, but sin, too, focuses most sharply in the “I’s.”

The nonconformist concept of the individual is that only by challenging the beliefs or mores of his society can the individual discover himself. This is a distortion of the Christian view. The individual, as emphasized by Christianity, may indeed challenge his society’s values; but he may also support those values or carry them into a “new frontier” without jeopardizing his individuality. Individuality is not so much a treasure to be stolen or pried from the clutches of a conformist-conscious society; rather it is a stature given by God and recognized by one’s fellowman.

The real question is: What will you conform to? For a person inevitably conforms to something, if only to his own image of what he considers true nonconformity. (Some who have done this have been more bound to their eccentricities than the average man to his conventions.)

“Be ye transformed,” said Paul, “by the renewing of your minds.” It is tempting to suggest that the reference here is to the liberating influence of education. Paul, however, was thinking of something else. He was thinking of a mind so renewed that it seeks and follows the will of God. “Let this mind be in you,” he said elsewhere, “which was also in Christ Jesus.” The mind of Christ was a mind supremely conformed—not to this world and this world’s conception of conformity or nonconformity to the ways of men, but conformed, rather, to the will of God the Father.

To profess adherence to God’s will is sometimes popular, sometimes unpopular. But such evaluation is not important. God’s will is not a matter to be accepted or rejected because it is either popular or unpopular. The real question is: Will you be conformed to this world (as either a conformist or a nonconformist) or will you be “transformed, by the renewing of your mind” in order to discover and follow the will of God?

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