Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Community: Day 2
Today we discussed two of our texts--Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam and Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They make a pair, complementing one another quite well. Putnam is a contemporary American political scientist playing with social theory; Bonhoeffer is a German pastor during the second World War. Bowling Alone is a thorough analysis of the decline and renewal of American community; Life Together is a manual of what Christian community does together.

Putnam's key theme is something he calls "social capital":
By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital--tools and training that enhance individual productivity--the core of social capital theory is that social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so to social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups (19).
Throughout the book he explores the decline in participation in the politics, civic engagment and religious institutions. While his perspective is purely sociological, he recognizes a high value in religious communities:
Faith communities in which people worship together are arguably the single most important repository of social capital in America... Religious institutions directly support a wide range of social activities well beyond conventional worship (66).

It's purely a pragmatic view he has of the role of religion in communities:
Churches provide an important incubator for civic skills, civic norms, community interests, and civic recruitment.
It really is a shame that Putnam doesn't show any more interest in religious communities. That's a fascinating idea--the associative nature of churches and participation in other communal activities. But he never really hits the nail on the head as to what makes churches such catalysts for involvement. Just what is the unique nature of a church that inspires participation in the rest of the world?

This is where Bonhoeffer comes in. He identifies the unique character of Christian community as the presence of Jesus:
Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only though and in Jesus Christ (21).

I particluarly like the goal that Bonhoeffer sets for Christian community:
And that also clarifies the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation. As such, God permits them to meet together and gives them community (23).

In this, community is not something manufactured but a grace from God. I just like that image that I'm carrying your salvation to you, like a little wrapped present, and you're carrying mine. He's also very wary of the motivations for community, fully aware of the loneliness of some people that drives them:
The person who comes into a fellowship because he is running away from himself is misusing it for the sake of diversion, no matter how spiritual this diversion may appear. He is really not seeking community at all, but only distraction which will allow him to forget his loneliness for a brief time, the very alienation that creates the deadly isolation of man (76).

Bonhoeffer sees a symbiosis between time together and time alone:
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone (77).

He saw that solitude benefited the group dynamic:
Blessed is he who is alone in the strength of the fellowship and blessed is he who keeps the fellowship in the strength of aloneness (89).

For Bonhoeffer, the Christian community is guided and shaped by prayer, intercession and Scripture reading.

After all that talk about social networks, social reciprocity and social capital, I couldn't resist a viewing of The Godfather this afternoon. Somehow, I'm going to have to swing a Godfather reference or two into my research paper.

I'm thinking I'm going to write about the ancient near eastern concept of the beth-ab (the father's house), the single most important social network in the Old Testament and its implications in interpreting the New Testament ekklesia (Church) as well as on contemporary Christian community.

Tomorrow we discuss Lohfink's Jesus and Community.

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posted by Peter at 11:15 PM
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