More thoughts on community from recent readings...
On Encountering the Other—Hauerwas (The Peaceable Kingdom):
“We acquire character through the expectations of others. The “otherness” of another’s character not only invites me to an always imperfect imitation, but challenges me to recognize the way my vision is restricted by my own self-preoccupation. This kind of community in which we encounter another does not merely make some difference for our capacity for agency, it makes all the difference. From this perspective we are not the creators of our character; rather, our character is a gift from others which we learn to claim as our own by recognizing it as a gift. Our freedom is literally in the hands of others. I am free just to the extent that I can trust others to stand over against me and call my own “achievements” into question. It is from them that I learn the story that gives my life a purpose and direction.”
“This love that is characteristic of God’s Kingdom is possible only for a forgiven people—a people who have learned not to fear one another. For love is the nonviolent apprehension of the other as other. But to see the other as other is frightening, because to the extent others are others they challenge my way of being. Only when my self—my character—has been formed by God’s love, do I know I have no reason to fear the other.”
One of the many aspects of my understanding of myself that I’ve had challenged in recent years is my individualism. I think many of us possess a kind of fervent individualistic spirit; it's partially cultural. One obvious (to me) danger of such a general life attitude is the tendency toward defensiveness and fear.
I find that I often fear what I don’t know, and my response tends to be to defend what I do know. If somebody possesses a lifestyle or a worldview that is different than mine, I more often respond with suspicion than receptivity. Rather than allowing another’s way of being or understanding to challenge me, push me, possibly even reveal the shortcomings of my own view, I tend to resist, fearing that what is really happening is not an invitation to more deeply discover Truth but a personal attack.
I’m not totally sure of the significance of this. It causes me to suspect I’m not as wired for community as I’d like, that my response to the diversity around me is not curiosity but resistance. I don’t want to realize I’m wrong about something, because than maybe I’ll overreact and assume I’m wrong about everything. And when I am threatened in this way, it is easy to react with violence, attacking others, pushing them away, belittling their way of life, disrespecting the work God has done in them, failing to see others as a gift to us and instead seeing them as enemies.
But the kind of love I think I’m after as a follower of Christ is a love where we welcome others, giving them the right and privilege of shaping us. We choose not to deceive ourselves into thinking we are “self-made persons" but recognize that who we are has been shaped by countless forces around us, be it genetics, culture, and most obviously the communities and families and friends who’ve been a part of our journey. We are free and responsible people, yes, but only to an extent. We haven’t become who we are in a vacuum, in isolation, but in a community of people whom God has used to shape us.
I don’t simply think of being a Christian as reflecting that I’ve chosen a particular worldview that I believe gives me a sense of hope, or salvation, or inner peace. I understand myself as being a part of a historic community that--at its best--lives at peace with one another, is willing to give and receive insight, critique, and guidance to and from one another, and possesses so deep a respect, compassion, and acceptance of others, within that community and without. A community that, by living in such a manner, shows the world what life could be and will be. The question of how well I (and we…I know I’ve waffled between “I” and “we” in my language here) actually do this is another matter.
But I know the vision I’m pursuing and where I believe God is taking me, shaping me into someone who is not afraid of what I don’t understand, what is foreign, someone who recognizes my life is a gift and not of my own making, and someone who knows how to function in community with others because I approach every person with gratitude, humility, and honor, knowing I’m not encountering a “mere mortal” (Lewis) but someone who God can and will likely use to further shape me if I receive the "other" with hospitality and curiosity and gratitude, rather than violent defensiveness or fear.
These are the ways in which Hauerwas’ insights push me and challenge me. Idealistic? Yes. Realistic? I hope so, because helping others become the kind of people through whom God can be encountered and enjoyed, and becoming myself such a person—this is what I’m devoting much of life and career to. That is, of course, in addition to my devotion (addiction?) to fresh coffee, fine wine (my palette really can’t yet differentiate between fine and poor wine, I'll confess), and dark chocolate (superior in taste and nutrition to milk chocolate). I suppose I have both lofty pursuits and simple ones; balance seems appropriate.