Why the Church of N. America will always be (mostly) like it is

The church of N. America will always be (mostly) like it is today.  When those who think as individuals read a text that is communal, there is always going to be an issue. 

I know that there is a real danger in painting in broad stokes and speaking in generalities. I normally steer clear of such dangers but once in a while you find something that allows you to wade out onto the normally thin ice with a certain measure of confidence.

I recently finished a term paper on Alisdair MacIntrye’s opus After Virtue which is his attempt to reclaim the Aristotelian notion of character formation within community (to oversimplify a bit). In preparation for writing the paper I went back over some classics like John Rawls and Michael Sandel (the communitarian) and others.

It just so happens that I have also been reading a lot of post-colonial critique during this year and I have a growing suspicion that I wanted to throw out there:

We have individuals (products of the enlightenment) reading a text that was written in a communal framework (a product of a communal society).  That provides a fundamental discrepancy that will never be resolved. It will always provide a disjointed experience and thought process that lacks continuity.

Let’s not pretend that we can think another way. We are heirs of the enlightenment – this is our operating system. We can download a new program like ‘christianity’ but it is operating within the individualist code. Talking with my friends who are from non-European descent (Native American, Pacific Islands or certain Asian communities)  it is clear that there is no simple conversion that an individual can undergo and simply start thinking in communal terms. We are cultural creatures and this is our culture.

It shows up when we read the Bible. It shows up when we talk of government (democracy) economy (consumerism), status, value, worth, choice, success, identity, rights, laws,leadership and … well nearly every other aspect of Western society.

The famous example of Philippians 2:12 admonishing us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” is but a drop in the pond. It’s not just that the English language doesn’t have a plural ‘you’ (unless one counts the ya’all of the Southern US) but it is bigger than that. It is that we think in individual ‘you’s and there is no way around it.

This will always be an issue. So even when somebody talks about character formation, spiritual community, or some ideal of communitarian discipleship (be it Hauerwas, the Radical Orthodox, or any other innovative group) in the end, the church of N.America will always look mostly like it does now. The reason is that this individualism we think in is not all that compatible with the communal thrust of our very scriptures – and that is unreconcilable at some level. It can not be resolved because we can no more stop thinking as individuals than that Bible can stop encouraging community.

 

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31 comments
blaurock
blaurock

This is a terrific post but not one I fundamentally agree with.  Whilst I accept the specific point that an individualistic reading of a communal text is deeply problematic, I very much doubt that if we're all still here in 50 years U.S. Christianity wil be basically the same.  

 

I am writing from the Uk, the oldest industrialized country in the world.  We are deeply enmeshed in profound parallel cutlural shifts from Modernity to Postmodernity and from Christendom to Post-Christendom.  We have experienced massive numerical decline.  What growith there is focuses on Emerging Churches, our culturally diverse cities and fresh expression of church.  In most cases, Christianity on the way up marks a departure from Christendom precedent.  Whether it's any more communal is a matter for debate.  What is clear however, is that the new Christianity will have to get used ot a more marginal status and to a 'low impact' future: http://radref.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/giving-ground-loss-and-renewal-after.html  I assume broadly that today's Post-Christendom UK will be rather similar to omorrow's Post-Christendom U.S.A.

 

Change is coming (for the church as well as the host culture) but I suspect that change is driven by factors beyond our control.   If we are to navigate the ecological crisis I suspect we will have to make the painful transition to a more corporate way of thinking.  Whether McIntyre is right to anticipate a new and doubtless different St.Benedict is another matter.

HeatherGoodman
HeatherGoodman

Well....  perhaps those communal thinkers didn't have it all on the ball either.  Perhaps there are things about christianity that only communal thinkers can truly nail tight, but perhaps there are equally things about Christianity that only individuals in a free society can really grasp too....

realdamienparks
realdamienparks

Bo. great thoughts here. I would like to also point out the ways in which many churches in N.America tend to do "spiritual formation" in an individualistic understanding. The megachurch small group movement from years past seems to be the way churches meet the needs of individuals under the umbrella of a "communal society". It was simply a means towards individualistic outreach. Also, it seems as though the priority on the individual conversation experience has left the N. American individualistic church completely without any understanding of communal sanctification. Finally, I think the N. American church misses out on cultural communal understanding of the scriptures AND the N. American church is so rooted in being the "haves" that we can completely have no clue what it means or meant to be the "have nots". Great post Bo.

HannahHeinzekehr
HannahHeinzekehr

Wow, I'm late to this conversation, but I find this post really fascinating, especially coming from a denominational background that prides themselves on community focus, but that is clearly struggling today to understand what consensus, community discernment, etc. looks like pragmatically. I realized how short we Mennonites/Anabaptists can fall when I was in the midst of a conversation with someone inquiring about our tradition who said, "So, from what I can gather, you guys have a very individually-focused faith. How do you work at communty?" I was totally taken aback, because that's in fact the opposite of our denominational "self-definitions," but there it was. It's challenging to get away from the dominant "I."

Maria Kettleson Anderson
Maria Kettleson Anderson

Once in a while I read a thought that is truly new to me but that I wonder how I missed -- and I know it will change big pieces of my view of the world. This post is right there! And "thanks" isn't the right response ... I'm thinking a groan works better for this one. ;)

burl
burl

Eric said: "She was in a store with her mother when a woman began to ask them what they thought of a dress. How it looked, would it look good on her etc. When she walked off my wife asked, “Who was that?” My mother-law-responded “Oh, honey, I don’t know.” and acted like it was the most natural thing in all the world!" I am in Baton Rouge and can absolutely confirm that that was a common interaction down south.

burl
burl

ANW (Alfie Nugget of Worth) Alert! "The actual world, the world of experiencing, and of thinking, and of physical activity, is a community of many diverse entities; and these entities contribute to, or derogate from, the common value of the total community. At the same time, these actual entities are, for themselves, their own value, individual and separable. They add to the common stock and yet they suffer alone. The world is a scene of solitariness in community.

eric
eric

You mentioned the Southern "you all" thing...VERY interesting because 1) I would say the South is much more "communal" than most other areas of the US. My wife is originally from the South, but has been away for years. She was in a store with her mother when a woman began to ask them what they thought of a dress. How it looked, would it look good on her etc. When she walked off my wife asked, "Who was that?" My mother-law-responded "Oh, honey, I don't know." and acted like it was the most natural thing in all the world! 2) Recently reading through the NT I realized that the phrase "you all" is through out Paul's writing and most likely that is where the phrase comes from in the South. As we know, there is a little church every 1/4 mile there... Just sayin'...

burl
burl

Nugget Alert! "So to-day it is not France which goes to heaven, but individual Frenchmen; and it is not China which attains nirvana, but Chinamen.

burl
burl

My thoughts on this subject led me to begin a reread ANW's _Religion in the Making_ I recommend you guys join me. You will find so many of Alfie'd golden nuggets like "The great religious conceptions which haunt the imaginations of civilized mankind are scenes of solitariness." I think ANW applauds the what he sees as religion evolving from the social to the individual. The OP here may be seeing religion in a reverse manner from Alfie.

Nate
Nate

Yeah, 'cause the Roman Emperors never had anything like a cult of personality going for them... ;) If I might split the difference with you (and you might well say that I'm not allowed), I'd say that SETTING OUT to be "the next Benedict" would be great folly: that's a designation for later generations to confer. In the meantime, I'm inclined to teach in ways that I'd want students to remember and to live in ways that neighbors might want to emulate. I do so not because I feel entitled or even likely to become such a memory-nexus but because such a proleptic (do I use that term right?) view of my own actions means that I'm more likely to take the everyday seriously. In that rhetorical mode, I can get behind Macintyre's project. But I'm also more given to "doing the same thing over and over" (to misquote, more than likely, your citation of Hauerwas in a TNT session) than you seem to be.

TimHeebner
TimHeebner

So, Bo, is your issue that we, born and raised in the individualistic enlightenment culture will never truly be able to understand the communally written scriptures - and therefore we need to first, understand that, and second make adjustments to enhance our individual thinking ways to attempt to incorporate the communal aspects that inspired the culture the scriptures were written in? Or are you saying that we are totally wrong in our individualistic ways and we need to "repent" and go back to the way it used to be, although part of your point is that we will never be able to do that (mostly)? If so, to me that means that God will never be able to get through to us "enlightened" souls until society and culture gives up on any thoughts of individualism.

Nate
Nate

Certainly I'll agree that our own age pictures itself as pluralistic. But as far as I remember the history (and it's been a decade now since I graduated seminary, so do be patient), Benedict himself wasn't promoted from on high but started out as the sort of lateral movement that you seem to be imagining. So I'm not sure that the sort of influence possible in the sixth century and in the twenty-first are as radically different as you're implying (or I'm inferring). For that reason, I can easily enough imagine someone's becoming a Benedict of sorts, one more community-organizer in his own day who becomes a shining light in generations to come. But I'm a traditionalist that way. :)

Nate
Nate

I see your point, Bo. I would contend, though, that the late Roman-imperial period was at least as pluralistic as our own, perhaps moreso, given that there's not any sense of globalization in that period. But I'll admit that the "our age is pluralistic, and the medievals were monolithic" riff is one that's quite likely to make my head explode every time I hear it. :)

Nate
Nate

One more thing, Bo--and I apologize for not including this before I posted that last one--how do you see the relationship between this critique of individualism and Jack Caputo's call for a radical theology that's beholden to no tradition? I promise this is not a trap--I just don't have the first clue where one would start bringing those two streams of critique together. I find Merold Westphal and other such far more compelling than Caputo's catalog of "Tillichian radicals" for precisely this inability on my part, but I'm willing to read a good argument why I'm wrong to do so.

Nate
Nate

Bo, as per usual, you have the license to say that I'm getting you entirely wrong. Alright. Caveat out of the way. :) I sense in your OP a fatalism that doesn't fit well with my own sense that political and pedagogical change are not only horizons but responsibilities for human beings, especially those called to the Christian way of being human. I've read Macintyre's After Virtue once or twice, of course, and I see his call not to despair that the monasteries are gone but to remain "waiting, not for a Godot, but for another--doubtless very different--St. Benedict" (263). Now I'm about to make too much of a book-ending aphorism. Ready? I'd argue that holding out the horizon of a very-different Benedict means that very-difference must at least be possibility of imagining differently. I won't speak for "the church" across the whole blasted continent, but I do hold that, among the small circles of people who call me fellow-worshiper and other small circles of people who call me teacher, there must be some place where we can wait faithfully rather than idly. Other than that, as I'm sure you've guessed, I really like Macintyre's diagnosis of things in AV and in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, and I tend to think that the "Hauerwas lives in a silo" saw gets his actual work entirely wrong. But then again, I'm never sure whether I've become enough of a nonviolent made man to be a real Hauerwasian Mafioso.

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

@travis - I am up to something with this :) When we talk about it on the TNT in 2 weeks I have an idea - its not a good one but it is a proposal/critique that has action points! @ burl - I am not Orthodox and I don't live in Russia so I can not speak from that place. Part of what I am hesitant to do is to import my expectation and impose my forms of measuring. You make some good points that I will take under consideration but I want to be careful about your initial set-up. -Bo

burl
burl

Bo, and all Why restrict the self-conscious individual agent acting in self-interest as an insurmountable hurdle for N America alone? Communism has/had a go in Asia. Are the Russian Orthodox pew-fillers today more community-directed after a 75 yr cultural experience of ‘from each’s ability to each other according to their need’? If not, could this be a universal aspect of nature? Are more socialistic nations seen to provide higher per capita charitable relief to the world than more individualistic nations? It is for human, as for all the creatures, only natural to act as what Fr. James Felt calls a ‘Primary Being’ in his metaphysical work to fuse ANW w/ Aquinas http://www.scu.edu/scujesuits/profiles/felt.cfm?p=3081 My religious upbringing heavily stressed post-Vat-II community awareness, but it is also the case that as the nuns drilled into my mother, and her into me, ‘just because someone else jumps off a bridge, does that mean you should?’ We sang kum-bay-ya and a myriad of forgettable feel-good-about-others tunes, went out into the playground and bullied each other just as before. It is inherent in ANW’s ‘the Many become One, and are increased by it,’ that it is fundamental in natural to locate agency with the individual – an individual immersed in a social umvelt. How society manages to influence and help lure the direction of the superjecting vector of the individual act towards a more peaceable kingdom and not a more fragmented, atomistic social order is not a matter of geography. It is the perennial and ubiquitous problem of ALL life.

Travis Mamone
Travis Mamone

And now comes the million dollar question: How do we break the cycle? How do we divorce our culture's individualism from Scripture? No, I'm not playing devil's advocate. i really want to know!

dmf
dmf

yes I know that you know better but there is a lot of unintentionally ironic essentializing in much post-colonial writing and not enough attention to ethnographic and social psychology studies. I'm not sure there are ways out of Wittgensteinain word games as Wittgenstein wrote of them but that's not so important here, silos (as in some medieval monastic keepers of the flame nonsense) is of course a bad idea but some version of the new monasticism may be required as it is really hard to change, maintain, and remain reflexive about new habits so we will need much more serious commitments to each other and our goals than we currently have, and we need more practices like centering prayer and communal work to get com-passion deep in our bones so that it is manifest in all of our actions. The buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has some helpful books about how to turn all activities, including brushing one's teeth, into vehicles for compassion, and one doesn't have to become a buddhist to treasure the idea of turning one's life into a prayer , an amen of gratitude for being-loved. Justice can be an outpouring of love but love will sustain in its absence (and as Caputo teaches us it will always be absent, beyond our grasp) and attempts at justice and other forms of social work without love are counterproductive. keep up the good work we badly need you younger folks to get us on the right track and carry this into the future. This might be the new list of characteristics of a "fallen" nature for everyone interested in making changes in human interactions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

dmf- well played! a) you don't have to tell me that culture is not set in stone :) but better safe than sorry b) I used John Dewey and Hauerwas in my McIntryre paper. Good reference c) you are right about teaching a cartoon version of 'being nice' to our christian youngsters d) so glad you threw in the conservative/nostalgia aspect of Hauerwas. We can not afford to retreat into Wittgensteinian word games and ecclesiastic silos -Bo

dmf
dmf

Bo, "Culture" isn't set in stone, pardon the pun, there is no deep program/psychology/mindset that all Americans share now or ever (short of a medium like the Holy Ghost how would this kind of transmission happen?), we certainly tend to reward/raise/train people to work on their own and for their own but we can and often have done otherwise, you might be interested for example in John Dewey on education/socialization (especially with his work with Jane Addams) that said the tendency to work/care for those "like" us is about as close to a universal as one will find in anthropology, and so I read the biblical teachings against identifying with family/parents, tribe/nation, and even temple, as calling for an opus contra naturam, and for this narcissism-without-end as Derrida called it to be overcome, to truly be born-again, would be a literal miracle and the start of something post-human. Luckily for us there are of course lots of kinds/degrees of narcissism and with proper socialization we can slowly habituate ourselves to be more care-oriented but only if we find some degree of inner peace first otherwise all that we do will be twisted even if on paper it conforms with a sense of community service. So we need to stop with the cartoon versions of the bible and start teaching kids to cooperate and to cultivate peace and compassion in their lives, inside and out. This would of course require a community of adults who were willing to sacrifice much of their own ties to the wider economies, to hold each other accountable, to be models for each other and the youth, and that's not so far from Hauerwas' idea of resident aliens (minus his conservative/nostalgia of course).

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

WELL SAID. That is what I am talking about! Thank you. There is no 'unencumbered' self or 'pre-social' self (except in theory) that is not determinative in the Western mind. It is just the way it is. So our christian text exposes that ... unless we work really hard to spackle over it with a thin veneer of english vocab ;) but the crack is still there ! -Bo

Gil George
Gil George

Yeah buddy! Having grown up in various communities, this gap is extremely visible to me as well. There is a sense that we will always place the value of the individual over the value of the community. In my opinion hierarchy actually feeds this by placing certain individuals as being more valued than others. My community is deeply important to me, but the query that sits in my head is: Am I willing to sacrifice some of my self-determination for the good of my community?

Greg Jarrell
Greg Jarrell

Dead on. So much of our language traps us in this individualistic mindset, Jesus as "personal Lord and Savior" being the chief offender. Funny that that is now the evangelical test of orthodoxy, when it has no precedent whatsoever in scripture or church history until very recently. The confession "Jesus is Lord" common among ancients had a way different meaning.

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

You make solid points.. but I'm gunna stick to my guns here! In a media age, with a cult of personality and a post-utopian (the 2oth century ruined that idea) mindset : I just don't see a new Benedict being ABLE to emerge. :( but that may just be me -Bo Those three things are too different (media age, cult of personality, post-utopian)

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

I certainly wasn't say that about the medievals - I am aware of the multi-religious nature of that early Roman world. My point is that within the tradition now there is a pluralistic mood/need. SO anyone why would have enough influence to be considered a new Benedict would have to be so different from Benedict as to not be all that comparable! That is why I think MacIntyre's expectation is never to be fulfilled. It would probably not be ONE person and it would certainly be so different than Benedict that we wouldn't recognize it as such. p.s. I love riffing with you -Bo

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

Nate - grate stuff. I will work my way backward: - I am not doing what Caputo calls radical theology. I am accountable to a community and as a practical theologian am not doing abstract philosophical work. ;) - I argue in my paper that there is no new Benedict coming for 2 reasons: a) it would probably not be one person these days but a group or collective. b) in a pluralistic age (which is what a Benedict would have to address in order to have the influence) it would no longer be recognizable as a Benedict within a singular tradition. Thus if we had one, she would not be recognized as a Benedict but as something else. - Lastly, I get what MacIntyre is up to and I am not surprised that you like it :) My point is that the individualism that IS our operating system (program language) is not critique but assumed and that gives it an unquestioned hold on the mind that might want to address it. We need outside voices ... but the hegemonic nature of the Western mind and thus Christian tradition is not too accommodating for such a witness. I'm not trying to be fatalistic, it just seems to me that this is the way it is going to be in my lifetime and thus is my environment in which to engage. My only point is that we should not pretend the Bible was written in this same program language. It wasn't. So there is an inherent falseness about the whole thing creating an intrinsic gap that needs to be bridged.

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

Good one! that confession of "Jesus as Lord" is a perfect example. A) it meant something very different in its initial context B) it has become a litmus test of individualist-christianity. how odd -Bo

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

While we are on the subject - just look at the way we train pastors. From admissions, to test scores, grades on papers, debt, and the ordination track ... it is individualism all the way down. But the scripture they are to preach ... is not (?) doesn't that seem odd.