People who love community destroy community

In 1939, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) published a treatise entitled Life Together. Bonhoeffer argues that communities often disintegrate because we put too much emphasis on a “wishful image” of what community should feel like — an expectation that predictable and eventually collapses under the messy reality of actually spending time together. (Bonhoeffer 2004[1939]:35)

When the experience of living in regular proximity to other people does not match one’s “definite image” and idealized expectation, the consequence is a feeling of disillusionment. And if the expectation is not adequately reformulated, the social fabric itself begins to unravel. Thus, writes Bonhoeffer, “The sooner this moment of disillusionment comes over the individual and community, the better for both.” (Ibid)

The greatest challenges (and detriments) for a community, are the expectations of its own members. As soon as you or I envision the notion of “community with others” we have an instantaneous picture in our minds that represents our definition. If other people fail to live up to this expectation, then the expectation itself becomes a wand of destruction, which resentfully and manipulatively tries to coerce others into its mould. Our idea of community destroys community. The more we love our idea, the greater the devastation will be.

As a pastor and theologian, Bonhoeffer explained,

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial. (Ibid 36)

It is not difficult for abstract ideals to undermine relationships. It is like embarking on a family vacation with the goal of making a special brand of memories together, or confusing the love of the honeymoon with the love of one’s spouse. The more specific our designs are for the futures and behaviour of other people, the more impossible it will be to coexist with them in genuine, mutual respect for who they already are.

In other words, it is quite possible to love our ideas about marriage, family, friendship, and community more than our spouse, children, friends, and neighbours. In fact, it might be far easier to love abstract ideas floating around in our heads than it is to love actual people who have their own ideas about how things should be. And the more in love we are with the abstract ideas, the more difficult it will be to accept and love the real thing.

If the deck of your social cards is being regularly reshuffled, it might be worth asking yourself if you care more about your expectations for other people than you do about the people themselves who seem to consistently fail them.

(An earlier version of this post appeared in Caesura Letters Volume VI: Great Explorations.)

Share · Tweet

Dinner Conversation

A lady sits down at a table. She checks her phone, then peeks at the menu. She leans back in her seat. It is quiet.

A man joins her. They make small talk about gas prices, the unusually cold weather, and the latest faux pas committed by some celebrity. The exchange of pleasantries is simple, warming, inviting. But ever simple.

Is any discourse ever in vain? Does not even the most superficial chatter of conversation pave the way for deeper connection? Without the jovial, how could the serious even exist?

He speaks. She speaks. The narrative of their verbal transactions follows a rigid script, one written by the agencies and forces that pen the strokes of popular culture.

Of course, no human discourse has ever transpired outside of human culture. Why then does the genre of gossip and tabloid talk strike us as less valuable than the ruminated prose of academics? Is there not a place for all this creative human articulation, regardless of how banally inconsequential it might be?

What do you make of their conversation? How do you describe them as people if all you ever hear from them is this cornball regurgitation of the weather and surface-level commentary on the routines that comprise everyday life? How do you regard their thoughtfulness or intellect?

We know that the intervals of our existence are lived in the weather, on the waves of pop culture and in the banter of politics. Yet we somehow know there must be more to talk about. We demand it. Perhaps our obsession with the weather, pop culture, and today’s tech toy bespeaks our obsession with something that we hope exists beyond it all. Or perhaps we’re too lazy, too insecure, too unwilling to risk the vulnerability to talk about those others things.

Oh well. What’s trending on Twitter today?

Share · Tweet

I Heart Your Icon

Dave Humphrey recently wrote a post on the possibility of expressing love online. His question, essentially, was this: can humans genuinely express love (deep friendship, appreciation) to one another over the medium of digital communication?

Reflecting on his post reminded me of some statements made by Hans Urs Von Balthasar in Love Alone is Credible, written long before the days of email and Twitter:

In order to gain an insight into humanity, the individual must encounter an other. The human being exists only in relation to others; he truly is only in the reciprocity of an I and Thou. [Think: Martin Buber] The otherness of the other is a fundamental fact that he must acknowledge if there is to be any possibility of forming a harmonious community in the commonality of human nature… we must recognize that the actual individual human being is not merely the key to nature as a whole, but also the sole object of philosophy: philosophy is in the end nothing other than anthropology. It therefore follows that “the new philosophy is founded on the truth of love…Where love is lacking, there can be no truth.” Only in the love of the other as other, wherein I passes wholly beyond itself into the sphere of the Thou, can we find the way from man to mankind.

Or, in briefer synopsis, Balthasar recaps:

Man sustains himself—indeed, he first comes to himself—in an encounter. When one man meets another face to face, truth comes to pass, the depths of human existence come to light in spontaneously, in freedom and in grace.

This interplay between love and truth was recently alluded to in beautiful, poetic conciseness by my friend Luke Hill in a short piece entitled On Truth and Knowing:

Truth must be known, not as facts are known, but as lovers are known, partially, fleetingly, uncertainly, overwhelmingly, undeniably, impossibly. It can be known only with a knowing that never defines or delineates or delimits, that never assures or guarantees or promises. It can be known only so far as we are in it. This is why we can never have the truth, why we can only ever be in the truth, and even this is beyond all guarantee.

I wonder if human, face-to-face interaction is itself the greatest practice of truth in which we can engage. Not a linguistic or philosophical truth, nor a truth governed by the properties of mere human premonition (like our arguments of objectivity), but a kind of truth that is, as Luke Hill muses, something that we can only be in, but never own for ourselves.

Returning to Humphrey’s contemplation on whether love can be expressed online, I believe it is worth noting that we can never be “in” digital communion with other people. (Digital communication, yes; digital communion, no.)

Even in person — even when face-to-face with Thou — my pride, prejudice and presuppositions can tragically objectify Thou into an It. The internet paradoxically amplifies my own human insufficiency of perspective: on the internet, the Other is always an It; and it can never actually be the Thou that it merely represents. In essence, we all turn into avatars of ourselves and the only thing we can genuinely love of the other is the icon of Thou, but the icon itself is itself an It. On the internet, we can only love what images and words represent, but not the images and words themselves, for they are nothing but vectors of values.

Intuitively we would say that the greatest expressions of love occur when the masks are diminished; but the internet is itself a continual masking of pixels and language. In the real world we do the same thing, often projecting inauthentic metaphors of our own character into our conversations and ways of being with one another. However, when face-to-face, beyond the veil of pixels and the emotional firewall of written language, the self meets another self in a human way that transcends the fiber optics of the words you are reading now.

Share · Tweet