One of the most impactful spiritual experiences of my life growing up in the church was a gathering every summer sponsored by the Synod of the Sun where youth and adults would gather on the campus of Trinity University in San Antonio for a week-long workshop of play, worship, and small groups. As the years have gone by (too many years!), I have come to realize that what made this a deeply meaningful event was the simple experience of community together.
All of us could likely identify those spiritual highs in our life as being connected to an experience of community in some form or another. It is in community that we are accepted and loved for who we are. It is in community we are accountable for extending this same acceptance to others. In other words, community is where Grace comes alive for us all.
I am more and more convinced that the root of our dysfunction and disillusionment in our politics and society today is a loss of community and a sense of the common good. In 1985 Robert Bellah in his book “Habits of the Heart” foreshadowed these struggles in our hyper- individualistic nation to find and build community. In 2000, sociologist Robert Putnam in his book “Bowling Alone” shared the alarming decline of social participation in the various communities/groups/institutions that undergird a connected society (Kiwanis Clubs, Bridge Groups, churches, bowling leagues, etc.) This collapse of the common good has been coming for quite a long time.
To be clear, I am not trying to evoke a sense of community rooted in some mythology of the past where we imagine our society in the good old days. The truth is that one of the underlying dysfunctions of community in our past has been the intentional exclusion of women and people of color. True community does not simply tolerate diversity, it embraces it!
The challenge in these divided days is how to create and find community. Our trust in the “Other” is almost nonexistent and we find ourselves feeling unsafe in our conflicting disagreements about the common good. One strategy has been to adopt the age-old strategy of not talking about religion or politics. This might get us through the day without the discomfort of disagreement, but it doesn’t really lead to the common good we all yearn for in our society.
Peter Bloch describes community as a conversation. Maybe the way forward is to start by having a conversation together as risky and challenging as that may seem. Maybe the first tentative step towards the realization of the common good comes by simply staring to talk with each other. If we don’t start, then who will?
Grace and Peace,
P. Alex Thornburg