Saturday, March 03, 2007

Universal Language -- Community as a Case Study

i continue to think about this idea that the vaguenesses and ambiguities of the common phrases used by Friends sets us up for both passing "like two ships in the night" or colliding like two ships each of which thinks it's on a parallel course with the other.

The word "Community" is one I've been thinking about since I read Lloyd Lee Wilson's writing about it.

Community can mean a gathered group--people who are brought (or come) together for the long term and for an increasingly intense and intimate relationship with one another (and with God). They learn together, support and forgive one another, are joined by a shared experience that is shaping them in a common way, through a common process, integrating them to something larger than they are.

Community can also mean a group of people who share an interest or concern of some kind, though, and whose relationship does not extend beyond that. The idea is not so much to grow together as to grow along side one another in regard to that shared concern or interest. People are not so much interested in one another as whole beings, or in growing toward one another or like one another as they are in one or a few aspects of one another's lives--the shared interest or concern.

The phrase "Yankee fans for peace!"--a sign I reccall seeing on a march in the late sixties--illustrates. It justaposes two of these latter types of community, and shows the lmitations the members place on the commitment to a shared interest. Being a Yankee fan I do not expect those who share that interest (and lately a concern) with me to be growing along with me in the sense that I expect with those with whom I am involved in the Friends Movement. We are not developing and shaping an all-encompassing mutual identity.

We share some memories and experiences, some hopes, an orientation. We can educate one another and mutually re-inforce one another and add to the richness of our mutual involvement in our shared interest but our relationship does not, and it is not intended to, mutually transform and conform us.

It certainly may heighten our tolerance of one another and even contribute to an improvement of our relationships with one another, perhaps preventing confllict that might arise from interests and concerns we have about other things that we do not hold in common. It's a good thing that a Republican and Democrat, for example, can sit next to one another and talk about Thurman Munson and Billy Martin, telling stories and rehashing shared memories in a friendly way, but it is unlikely that it will reconcile them to one another in a shared political outlook or to influence their ideas about child rearing, personal transportation or the "right" sharing of world's resources.

I am learning that Friends conceive of their participation in the Movement as membership in both types of community. Almost all Friends share a common interest in worship (both programmed and unprogrammed), in that experience and discipline (although if asked to talk about what that experience means or what it accomplishes one will find a range of answers that are not consistent with one another). As involvement with one another grows from that, if it does, I see it developing from "shared interest" toward "integration." There is a continuum, often progressing from that based on what is a shared spiritual orientatoin into something less obviously so.

The fact is that for some the worhip community becomes the neighborly community, the social community, the recreational community, the support community, even the economic community--all beginning with that initial shared spiritual interest or concern which has expanded and taken more and more aspects of its members lives under its care (and, yes, control) as the members become more like one another, more conformed to that which they all hear and to which they respond and are conformed. This is a community in which seekers become finders--either of something that is recovered or of something new.

For other Friends, however, the value of community is that it is a group of people who are protecting and guarding a space in which participants are able to explore, develop and express an individual spirituality, to hear and heed diverse voices--free from any limits or barriers. it's a safe space, the community is--and it is an interest and concern for that safety alone that holds this community together. it is an alternative space--alternative to the conventional political, social and even spiritual spaces available in our culture--but it is not a defined alternative space, at least not beyond the design that no one has the authority to place any limits or requirements on anyone who wants to occupy the space beyond ensuring the degree of toleration that is necessary to empower individuals to pursue their mutual interest in and concern for unfettered (and quite possibly perpetua)l seeking.

Obviously people can construct arguments that celebrate and justify both kinds of community. And they do. The literature of the Movement that concerns itself with Universalism (epitomized perhaps by John Punshon, Ralph Hetherington and Pink Dandelion) is there for all to read. I have my own take on this but I am not, at this moment, being its champion. I am sure that even those who don't know me can tell, for what I have written, here, where I am on this.

My intention, here, is just to point out what is becoming increasingly clear to me: if we do not keep in mind that Friends often have two entirely different things in mind when they use the same word (or phrase) we become vulnerable to conflict based on misunderstanding. Of course, it's also true that as we come into a greater awareness of the fact that we mean different things by the same words we become vulnerable to conflict based on understanding.

I am carrying all this around as I attend an FWCC regional gathering here in Portland, this weekend. I do not have any great opening about all this and I probably never will have. But I know as I move around in the Friends Movement I have a greater awareness that there are so many different things that are being said using the same words. I think that's different from people using a lot of different words to describe the same thing. Both lead to confusion--both require a good deal of sorting out. I do know, though, that although it may be true in one sense that the vagueness and the ambiguity holds us together, it is equally true, in another, that it tears us apart.


david said...

Might I make a paradoxical observation?

The strength of a community is in those members with the weakest attachments to it. Consider a parallel. In a Catholic or Orthodox church community there are priests, monks and nuns who share an intense passion for faith, service to the church and prayer to their God. But they remain the minority. If they were the only ones, it wouldn't be the church but a monastery. The church is composed of a variety if folks with varying commitments including visitors and window shoppers. Its these folks who give the community its character and it these folks who contribute the funds so the priests and monks and nuns can contribute the sweat equity to building the community.

Similar situation presents with Friends. The "integration folks" and the more passionately involved "common concern folks" are our priests monks and nuns (more often in my experience, priestesses, nuns and monks actually). They in part for the sake of those not as integrated and passionate about the cause. Its when they forget this they start to become an inner circle or star chamber -- not healthy.

Lots of application here: for example -- how we complain its the same set of folks sitting on all the committees. Not in itself a bad thing but rather the way we are and always will be. The issue isn't whether the same folks are doing all the work but rather whether the process is open enough to allow people to move into more active roles.

Apostle Paul reminded us of this in a number of his letters (especially Corinthians). Its been an issue for thousands of years. Likely hardwired into how humans beings function in aggregates.

piotr said...

"I have a greater awareness that there are so many different things that are being said using the same words. I think that's different from people using a lot of different words to describe the same thing."

What to say for us, european people speaking french and living in Europe, but i feel me quaker.


Rex Barger said...

I find it helpful to go to a word's roots to help me understand how to use it. The word 'community' means 'together unity', but that is not an entity, that's a goal (comm-[or as I prefer: come unity, makes it a prayer). But it can never be a fact because that 'unity' has to include us all. So when I make a
commitment to 'community', I am making a commitment to constantly try to reach a universal consensus on the nature of reality, one person at a time. I don't expect to ever reach it, but I believe that (if I don't give up) my efforts will bring us closer&closer to that goal.
I also believe that, unfortunately, even if we should ever reach universal consensus on a statement of the nature of reality, that still would not guaratee its accuracy; we will still have to keep putting it to the test! Let's always put all things to the test & throw out whatever doesn't work, but keep testing what does seem to work.

Whitney Johnson said...

Thank you for your thoughts. I found them thought-provoking, and have thus commented on them with a link back to your blog.

Scot said...

I appreciate your thoughts on community. As I reflect on this, I am trying to figure out a way to assess where our meeting is with this, and what type of community we seek as individuals and as a group.

Indeed, community has been defined in many different ways, and one would argue that the onset of the internet itself has caused much rethinking about community. I do like what Stan Grenz has stated about community, "...God's purpose in this activity [his work in the world] is the establishment of 'community' - a reconciled people who enjoy fellowhip with him, wtih one another, and ultimately with all creation" (Grenz. 1998. Created for community. p. 23).

This notion of enjoying fellowhip with the creator and creation as I go more deeply into community is a nourishing one.

Paul L said...

Timothy -- I hope you've seen

Martin Kelly's
post on the same theme.