Freedom and Community

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Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are children not of the slave woman but of the freeborn woman. For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.
Gal. 4:31-5:1

In Western culture, and, as we well know most powerfully in American culture, there is a pervasive and almost controlling disposition of independence and autonomy. The appreciation of tradition and community has long been in serious decline. Even in the public and political sphere there is, to various degrees, an acceptance of a spirit of libertarianism. Paradoxically enough, it is among large segments of the Roman Catholic population that modes of this individualistic thinking are becoming more and more influential and even pervasive. Generally, however, even among those who would disparage the libertarian ideology there is the continual defense and even assertion of personal “rights,” against the perceived threats of all those who are in any way different.

So extreme is this tendency not only to independence but to isolation that we may be culturally on the verge of recognizing the limits of this perspective. As the sociologist Robert Putnam and others are pointing out, we are becoming a society without community and thus, increasingly, a people that David Reisman has termed “the lonely crowd.”

Among the ever-present tensions of our dispositional life is that between privacy and communality. At different moments in a person’s life, as in a culture’s, the balance between the two shifts in one direction or another. Within our own religious tradition, we see this necessary and constructive tension always at work. In the past 50 years, we have at the liturgy proclaimed our faith in the first person singular (“Credo”), and then in the first person plural (“We believe”), and now again in the singular (“I believe”). Is it “our” belief, or “my” belief, or both?

A community is held together by tradition and common practice. As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof:

Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything. . . how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl . . . This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask how did this tradition start. I’ll tell you – I don’t know. But it’s a tradition . . . Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.

As his family’s story unfolds, we come to see the conflicts that arise among them based on the struggle between who their traditions tell them they are, and what the movements of their own interior lives are saying to them. Human beings depend on necessary customs and traditions to develop and mature, but at some point those customs and traditions (if they are to stay alive and flourish) must be appropriated in a unique way by each of their adherents . In our lives in formation, we pass from a phase of conformation as children, to self-formation in adolescence and early adulthood, and then, hopefully, to a place where we are capable of inter-formation. In inter-formation we bring our own inner life and freedom into a communal dialogue with the uniqueness of others in such a way that we continually give ever new and emergent forms to the customs and traditions that are the dwelling of our common life.

The struggle of the early Church between law and spirit is an ongoing personal and communal tension. Paul never knew Jesus in the flesh. His experience of the Risen Lord is the same as ours. And so, he realizes that life and faith come from the “inner experience” of knowing that “We have died and now our life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3) Paul is not anti- tradition, and certainly not a believer in a false sense of autonomy or independence, but he understands that traditions and laws have no life for us, unless we live them out of the Christ life that is our own deepest life. Paul understands, from experience, that it is in the spirit and not in conformity to what is merely external that our communion lies.

Now the grace which flows forth from God is an interior impulse or urging of the Holy Spirit which drives our own spirit from within and urges it out toward all the virtues. This grace flows from within, not from without, for God is more interior to us than we are to ourselves, and his interior urging and working within us, whether done naturally or supernaturally, is nearer and more intimate to us than are our own works. For this reason God works in us from within outward, whereas all creatures work from without inward. Grace and all God’s gifts and inspirations thus come from within, in the unity of our spirit, and not from without, in the imagination by means of sensible images.

Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, II, i, C

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