Christian Existence and Modern Existence. 2. The disappearance of Community – ‘Why Mrs Thatcher was right’

Modern Existence and Christian Existence
2. ‘There is no such thing as Society . . .’ Why Margaret Thatcher was correct
The Erosion of Community and why it matters
Community, Economy, Technology, and Creation


‘He [Adam] moved contrary to his nature, madly (ανοητ0ς) and of his own initiative, making a bad use of the natural faculty which had been entrusted to him in his constitution with an eye to the unification of what was separated, so as rather to separate things united’ Maximos the Confessor. Quoted in ‘Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses’ Jean-Claud Larchet Volume I, p65

So last time we stood back in a sense from where we are to look at the historical developments which led to the developments of Science in the West – we should I think note that its deeper roots lie in the Arab World, and that coming into contact with Islam in the world of ideas in the C13 in Europe was part of the background to that which we talked about last time.

And my assertion is that the Modern Philosophy, the presuppositions upon which ‘Modernity’ is is one of ‘things apart’. To take but a single example form the life the the Church – our Synods. Here a list of Issues are discussed. That they may be somehow interconnected and that we cannot understand any of them is isolation, not only from each other but indeed from the wider culture we inhabit – either does not occur to us, or trained as we are to think in a manner of disconnection we don’t even go there, putting it in the two hard box. I can imagine a way in which we might progress better in this regard which is to consider everything at once and ask – well how do these things mutually inform one another? How might our consideration of Baptism – to pick one example from our last general Synod – affect our understanding of the Clergy Care document we also considered. For me one of the most frustrating things about the Synod was that we discussed Baptism with one set of presuppositions and philosophical arguments, and Clergy Care with another set – both of which were actually mutually contradictory . . . The Clergy Care document in a sense undid the best intents of the discussion of Baptism . . . but we didn’t notice 🙂

Well over the coming weeks I want to explore Technology, Economy, our relationship with the Creation, and Community. But if we are to think about these things better, it is going to be a bit messy for they are in Reality deeply woven together. Technological change affects our relationships with one another = Community – and also affects Economic things and of course impacts on the Creation. Things Are woven together. So although over the next few weeks we will major on one theme – the others will come into play.

But before all that – to root our conversations we need to say from where we start. And an aspect in wider conversation about the state of things that is missing is this ‘What does it mean to be a human being?’ What is a Person? If we live in a world where it is apparent that people are highly significant, after all almost everything we see and hear is some form of human artefact, and what is more that anything we do affects people – what Are people??

Now I put out there a couple of contemporary examples of why this is a very pertinent question and perhaps no moreso than Now. First let us think about AI – Artificial Intelligence – one of the if not the fastest developing areas of not only research but technological applications. Elon Musk the owner of the Tesla Corporation which is into driverless cars says ‘Humans must merge with machines or become irrelevant in the AI age’ Put another way, some humans are making things which will do away with the need for humans. Musk says ‘[a] more immediate threat is how AI, particularly autonomous cars, which his own firm is developing, will displace jobs.’ So clearly to be human is not to be responsible for anything . . . As I suggested last week – the Modern Age is profoundly inhuman, despite some seeing it as the age in which the Human having thrown off the shackles of ‘superstition’ is coming of age.
I was discussing this with someone a few weeks ago who said – well obviously humans will need to move into the caring professions – yet as I told her, initial feedback from research on robots in care homes is that the tiny amount of empathy that they appear to show is more than enough for people who have lived in virtual isolation. In other words their sense of sociality is so weak that a robot appears to fit the bill . . .

Or another example – that of the human pig chimera or hybrid. This development was announced in January and involved injecting human cells into a pig embryo. the human pig hybrid was grown  to about four weeks old. Now I read about this in the paper – but what struck moe even more forcibly than my horror at this, was the almost total lack of horror expressed in the comments under the article . . .

Just What is it to be human? It would seem that the Anglican solitary Maggie Ross may possibly be correct in her assertion that “the human race is sleepwalking towards extinction”

Yet, There IS HOPE – Christ and Him Crucified, if we will but attend to what is. As I suggested last Time – Christian Existence is the most profound expression of what it is to be human. That we may look at cultures down through the ages – with the possible exception of our own and find common forms of expression of what it is to be human – a Truth revealed to us in Jesus Christ. The God-Man. Revealed in Glory upon the Cross. Held in position between God (more broadly – the divine – Spirit) and that God’s Creation (or The Earth, the soil – Adam let us not forget means ‘mud-man’ 🙂 ) AND is also held between Neighbour and neighbour.

I think that this IS a great starting point for discussing Christian Existence – the question ‘What is you account of the human – or more personally, ‘Who or What do you think you are?’

And it is that horizontal dimension which I want to focus on today – or ‘Community’ – whilst gently insisting that we cannot begin to comprehend Community without understanding that in some sense the Creation is also our neighbour. (There will also be a brief comment here in the context of Dairy Farming about ‘Pastoral Care’ 🙂 )

and I wish to do so by telling a few stories

Firstly to recall something I read a few weeks back – and I cannot for the life of me remember where!! 🙂 It was an account of those ancient people, the Inuit who inhabit the Northwestern part of what we call North America, and their existence upon the Land. When the Inuit go out to hunt they do so in The Wilderness. The Wilderness is a place of Reality and Truthfulness. It is Red in tooth and claw. The Wilderness can kill you. Yet this is  also Home to these people. They are not disappearing into the bush for a weeks tramping – their lives depend on this PLACE and on each other. It is Context for their lives and unlike we Modern people – their sense of being One with Creation is very strong – as one writer puts it, their inner and outer worlds are woven together – we might use the word – Sacramentally. Somehow the Place is part of who they are (as is the case for pretty much all non-Modern cultures) Only we hyper mobile Moderns are people who imagine we might know ourselves apart from Place. (cf mihimihi and whakapapa)

When they go out to hunt, they are of course alert. The Wilderness of course is Other, it must be approached with a degree of reverence and Awe and over thousands and thousands of years these people have used their senses to alert them to what is happening around them. And this knowledge they share – indeed they MUST share, to stay alive. Not around the camp fire after a successful hunt, but through apprenticeship AND most critically when out hunting.
To think you have noticed something ‘not right’ – ‘out of place’ – a potential source of danger and not to tell those with whom you are, for fear of being thought a fool, is thought amongst these people to be akin to murder. It is to put the psychological safety of your inner self ahead of the physical safety of the others, separating yourself out, denying your own truth which can only be known with others in place – and can be punished by exclusion from the community – cut off from the people, to use the language of the Tanakh. And to be so cut off as we know from the scriptures is a sentence of Death. Life was experienced as a profound Sharing of everything. Which we might call a profound self-forgetfulness.

So you are out there and you think you may have seen something – So the prophet Ezekiel “O Son of Man, speak to your people and say to them, If I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take one of their number as their sentinel; and if the sentinel sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people; then if any who hear the sound of the trumpet do not take warning, and the sword comes and takes them away, their blood shall be upon their own heads. They heard the sound of the trumpet and did not take warning; their blood shall be upon themselves. But if they had taken warning, they would have saved their lives. But if the sentinel sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any of them, they are taken away in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at the sentinel’s hand.”

‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.’

Jesus says that the Great Love is to Lose your life for your friend. Not to open one’s mouth for the sake of the others, because one fears for oneself is as Jesus says to try and save your life, and thus lose it . . .

I think that it says something for the individualism of this age that these texts do not resonate – I think the Inuit might understand them better than we do!  And we may think regarding the history of these isles how Maori whose lives had been richly and often violently interwoven, HEARD the gospel – and were staggered that the modern europeans they encountered seemed not to understand the message they delivered . . .

And as a measure of how far we have perhaps come from this – how odd the gospel of the forgiveness of sins sounds to us – indeed we have to try and rework it, not because it is untrue, but because we do not live lives of mutuality where we are dependent on one another. So as i have said before, the Orthodox ahead of Great Lent forgive every other in the Church for all the sins they may have had committed against them. One commenter was bold enough to express his befuddlement – ‘but I can not really think of anything I need to forgive others for . . .’ To which the response came back ‘that is because you do not live close enough to them to Love them.’ Love is unclose and personal – it is Real it is NOT an idea. it takes on flesh in the substance of our shared existence. (It is interesting at best to notice how it is used in such an abstract manner nowadays – not sharing bread, but social revolution . . . ) Without at least a degree of mutual interdependence  – forgiveness is a meaningless word to us. So we look for another gospel . . .

Now just to point out – in that story we have a profound interweaving of people with one another in a life or death mutual interdependence and in relation to the Land

Well lets move on and my remaining stories illustrate something of what has happened in the Modern era, this era of disconnection.

First, I want to read you something from Wendell Berry. Berry is an essayist, a former English Lecturer who gave it up to go back to The Land. And he farms in Kentucky. He is best known for his essays, but his novels are also very well worth reading for their accounts of lives in Context – people in Place

The extract I’m going to read is from an Essay called, perhaps unsurprisingly ‘What are people for?’ 🙂 [From the book of the same name. Pub North Point San Francisco First Edn 1990. p123]

And as I read you may wish to pay attention to how the themes of community, Creation, Economy and technology are woven together.

Note the UnPlacing. Decisions made far away apart from context, ‘in government offices, universities, and corporations’ “There are too many people on the farm” I’ll return to that “Too many people” in a moment

A second unPlacing – urbanisation – “millions of Rural people moving from country to city” – In 2009 the human race statistically [because we’re Modern] become Urban – for the first time in the human story – although with roots in the Rural communities had felt this change form afar off. It is getting harder and harder to say this, for those with best access to the media all live there –  but cities do us no good. Individuals may and do thrive there, but not Shared lIfe  the scriptures do not speak well of cities. What is more it seems that as humans, the Mass is not what we are made for.  Research on the size of primate brains shows that humans cannot live a meaningful existence in a community of more than 150 and before technological change made such a difference this seemed to be the natural limit on sizes of communities – one in which shared existence was possible – which of course has an impact on what we mean by the size of a healthy church, one in which life together is a real possibility . . . perhaps why larger churches ending up having small groups. The loneliness of modern urban existence amongst so many may well be a psychological response – we cannot cope with trying to make so many connections – also of course the ‘loneliness of Facebook”
but note also the unPlacing of people with respect to ‘The Land’ . . . so the abstraction that is ‘the environment’ – or the way in which hardly anyone grows their own food . . . That these then become as it were ‘issues’ is part of the problem . . . food and its production and the care of creation become largely abstract things. Ideas, Causes, campaigns etc etc – this in itself is another  form of disengagement. Berry talks with great knowledge about the specificity of The Land – every inch different – needing different care, suitable for different crops etc.

Note next the language of economic efficiency and how accustomed we are to this – as if being human was about being efficiency – and also the primacy of the financial economy in determining the Good. Both forms of Alienation – this time from ourselves – We’ll return to this next week
And with that depopulation – the loss of ‘care’ takers. My brother did some research a few years back. It’s results were not convenient to prevailing ideas about ‘the economy’ and so have not been worked through. He was interested in the relationship between how well a farm did and the number of its employees. Now we all know that the most expensive component of a system is the human 🙂 As a teacher we were regularly told by the powers that be, that our salaries were the chief financial problem the city council faced. Fewer teachers, more resources of reaching . . . or so we were told . . . But what Richard found was that the more people a farm employed, the better the condition of the land, the healthier the cows and lo and behold the more income generated . . . Why? Because as he said – their were more eyes . . . I’ll come back to this story next week – but for now, you may wish to ponder the question of pastoral care in the church . . . the more eyes, the better the care 🙂

To a story about my Grandma. My grandmother was born in 1913 – in the village of Kirkby Lonsdale, then in Westmoreland until the people in London thought it inconveneint. When some years later my father’s work meant we came to live in Kirkby Lonsdale, this was quite helpful to me, when I was accused of ‘not being local’ for unlike some, I could point to the house in the village where she was born and the hotel and stables where my great grandfather worked for a time. Yet it was not long before his own father released the family farm in South West Cumberland, and so my grandmother moved to The Green, a tiny settlement on the edge of the town of Millom, a centre for iron production, due to its proximity to fast running water and the sea – which was a significant means of transport of the raw materials even as late as the 1920’s. Note the account of Place

Life in that community was explicitly hierarchical. To her dying day she could tell you who sat where in church – from the Lord and Lady of the manor at the front, to the labourers at the back. Grandmas family – yeoman farmers, owning their own farm were towards the front of the middle 🙂 this was a close knit community in which place in community conferred on the one hand deference, but also on the other obligation. Whenever anyone in the village was ill, the Lady of the manor would visit, taking round a basket of vegetables, for often illness and the cost of doctors would mean  insufficient food for a family. And every Christmas the whole hamlet was invited to a big party at The Big House.
Similarly, in the midst of the three farms in the hamlet, there was also a small ‘tied’ cottage. Owned by the iron works, it housed the man who looked after the water pump which carried water from the fell to the works. He had seven children and as my grandmother put it, they were poor as church mice. But they never went hungry – which would have been a source of something unknown to us now – social shame – something we are well adjusted to flee from. Rather fresh eggs, milk and butter as well as vegetables were regularly given to the family. it was a form of truly Social Security. The Social, Community dimension provided the security.

Now of course life was not an idyll. My grandmother also NEVER forgot a neighbour coming into their kitchen one morning – ‘Bill! My girls off ill, can I have your Betty to make the butter!’ And off she was sent without a by your leave, for several hours of hard labour . . .’

but then Life in community is not a dream. It is a reality in which we are held in place and thus might grow as human beings – but its hardship means if we can we seek to avoid it . . . and so to the unreality of our modern existence and something I think I’d never hear myself say, I agree with Margaret Thatcher . . . Speaking to Woman’s Own October 31st 1987

“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”
Now Margaret Thatcher was in fact right regarding society. Where IS society? Where might I encounter society – what is its human face?? Surely we can do better than the poor hapless soul sat behind the counter at WINZ?? Of course, it doesn’t exist, it is a set of arrangements at best.

This problem of the abstract form of human relating, called society has been recognised for over two hundred years!! [Tonniës – Gemeinschaft – Gesellschaft] Here is the Danish philosopher and observer of the urban scene – Søren Kierkegaard – “only when the sense of association in society [for the purposes of this argument ‘Community’] is no longer strong enough to give life to concrete realities is the Press able to create that abstraction ‘the Public’ [Society after MHT], consisting of unreal individuals who never are and never can be united in an actual situation” Now Kierkegaard’s argument is rooted in a further argument about the necessity of hierarchy. So he says “In order that everything should be reduced to the same level, it is first of all necessary to produce a phantom, its spirit, a monstrous abstraction, an all-embracing something which is nothing, a mirage – and that mirage is the public.” This present age p33 This disappearance of the hierarchical means no one is responsible any more – for the King in ancient times was responsible – see how for example Moses had EVERYONE coming to him to sort out their problems . . .

Because we can only talk about the abstract, because with Kierkegaard ‘the sense of association in Community is no longer strong enough to give life to concrete realities’ then to say ‘my life is with my brother – or we are all mutually interdependent is only an idea, an abstract in a world of abstracts. . . .
Now again, in a sense Margaret Thatcher was also right when she said ‘It’s our duty . . .to look after our neighbour.’ We would all nod in agreement – but perhaps today unlike any other we may well ask ‘But who is my neighbour?’, or perhaps better ‘WHO is my neighbour?’ In a world of the Abstract other – Society – The Public – The poor – The hungry – where do we meet the neighbour??

Christian existence has nothing to do with the Abstract. ‘My life is with my brother’ is no mere idea – it is Reality and if we do not have Life with one another in a way in which our mutual interdependence takes on flesh, Where it becomes visible to The World that not to Live Together is death – then we have no gospel – indeed we have become people ‘cut off from’ one another. This is Not to become ‘political’ except in the deepest sense that polis is of the people  – that sharing bread with our friends (the hungry we encounter) is giving flesh to Gospel – not as an abstract idea but a Fleshly Reality.
This is one of several reasons why ‘talking about issues,’ so common in Church circles, is a modern distortion or indeed a rejection of that Existence. ‘I was hungry and you formed a committee to discuss my plight’ as one writer puts it. The problem of hunger, the problem of Climate change, the problem of marriage – etc etc etc – all in the abstract and an exercise in avoiding the other which is so very very easy in the city where money divides rich from poor, the advantaged from those who would benefit from their help. As we will see next week money is a huge part of the issues – Money is both an instrument of division and then it is the tool of sustaining that division – things apart.

Communities are places of obligation and entitlement woven together – or where we learn to love our neighbour as ourself – to see to use older expressions that our lives Are woven together – not in an abstract way – as in ‘If we all don’t start living differently then the Climate will collapse – this is to us where we are in our place, intangible – it is just an idea – it is abstract.

Hardship and difficulty  – the fact that when we seek a life in connection we find it not at all easy – are if you like the crucible in which Community – or Shared human existence – or Koinonia may well form. Our existence as humans is cruciform – Christian existence is necessarily in ‘Community’ where our mutual obligations to one another reveal our inner poverty and through the suffering of this, Life is born – the healing power of Christ is released

Next time – Economy and the move away from Community – Money and Work

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.