The local maximum is the point at which you cannot go any further without first walking away from the thing you have been committed to. Like when a car manufacturer comes up with a successful package (Ford Escort; Vauxhall Astra; VW Golf) and brings out improved versions of the same model over many years. Most churches have developed the package that works for them, and occupy a local maximum; where the local maximum is more successful (on whatever criteria you choose to measure by) than surrounding churches, the ‘rightness’ of the local maximum is reinforced: God is blessing this approach, so it must be the one that pleases him most.
Kester links the idea of the local maximum to the observation of six stages of faith, where the local maximum is found at stage 3: robustly held beliefs, never closely examined, whose rightness is derived from external sources (i.e. loyal members of the church don’t question the vicar). Stage 4 is a disturbing time, where deeply held convictions are called into question, and, ultimately, must be left behind as one follows a sense of being called on to new things by God. [Perhaps this is akin to Peter Rollins’ idea of faithful betrayals, such as the apostle Peter needing to take, kill and eat animals declared unclean – and thus prohibited – by God in order to remain faithful to God?] Beyond stage 4 is stage 5, a humble place where the complexity discovered in stage 4 is held in tension as a thing of beauty, and mystery is valued; a place of the simplicity that lies beyond complexity, as opposed to the simplistic-city of stage 3. Kester uses the analogy of a mountain range, where the local maximum is the highest peak you have climbed to so far. Here one has, I suppose, three choices: to stay put; to walk back down the path you have climbed (to walk away from faith, perhaps; a negative experience); or to walk back down the other side of the peak into the next valley, so as to climb the next peak. From the point-of-view of those who remain at the top, to walk down at all may well be seen as failure, or betrayal: stage 4 is often mistaken for a backward step; often a lonely experience.
The reason this resonates with me is that I am currently walking away from various local maximums. I’m not walking back down the path I have come, having decided that this journey was a wrong turn in the first place; but down the other side of the mountain, along a path I haven’t walked before, into the valley and, in time, to climb back up another local maximum…beyond which, if I will dare to keep on following my Guide, there will lie other valleys and peaks. I’m not saying that the local maximum I’m leaving behind is not worth the climb – I’ve learnt so much; seen so many views; walked with other climbers, both more and less experienced than I on the path – and I still see value in those at the top helping others to climb the slope. That, for now at least, is the call of some of my friends; but my call is to head on down the far side. And that has cost me; and will cost me more before I am through. Which is why I appreciate there being people just up ahead taking the time to clear the path; to chart the ground; to drive in Signs…thanks for the book, Kester.
The Complex Christ , church , emergence theory