Then King Solomon summoned into his presence at Jerusalem the elders of Israel, all the heads of the tribes and the chiefs of the Israelite families, to bring up the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Zion, the City of David. . . .
When all the elders of Israel had arrived, the priests took up the ark, and they brought up the ark of the Lord and the tent of meeting and all the sacred furnishings in it. The priests and Levites carried them up, and King Solomon and the entire assembly of Israel that had gathered about him were before the ark, sacrificing so many sheep and cattle that they could not be recorded or counted.1 Kings 8:1,3-5
rom our neighborhoods, to our wider local communities, churches, and even nations, we are faced these days with the burning questions of can we hold together and what is it that has the power, as the motto of the United States declares, to make one out of many.
As we continue to read the scriptural account of the making of Israel we are constantly reminded that these tribes become a people only in relationship to the common God who calls them and makes a covenant with them. Their cohesion as a community is totally dependent on their commitment to and responsible living out of the covenant God has made with them. They flourish together to the extent that they are “gathered,” sometimes literally but at least figuratively, “before the ark.” It is here that they are re-membered as a people, from all the places where they have been scattered.
The 20th century Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan had envisioned the possibility that technology could make of our planet a global village. Yet, we are discovering that a geometric increase in our absorption of information does not necessary result in stronger relationship or strengthen the bonds among us. We are, of course, just beginning to discover the profound effects of our new technologies on our individual consciousness and our personal interrelatedness. Yet, at least in these early stages, it is becoming apparent that greater connection is not an inevitable outcome, as our sense of isolation and tribalism actually seems to be increasing.
Perhaps the limited experience of my own life form can serve a deeper comprehension of the the social and political effects of developing technology. As long as I can remember, members of my own community would testify from experience that what they would term their “best” experiences of community life often occurred in those assignments which were most remote and distant from the most familiar and comfortable locations. The reason for this seemed to be their reliance on each other to provide the environment that could hold them in such a way as to satisfy their most basic needs for security and relationship. It was not only their remoteness but their poverty that distinguished these community settings. The greater the need for each other, the greater the quality of presence and relationship.
Now it was not that the need of these brothers for community and friendship was any greater than that of any others. It was that there was, in these distant and remote places, less distraction from their personal and unique experience of themselves and their own needs and desires. I have always been a very shy person. So, it is not easy for me to be out and around large numbers of people I do not know. In the era prior to the cell phone, I would have to experience my discomfort in a setting where I was surrounded by strangers and then have to take responsibility to choose what to do, to make contact or not, to speak or to remain silent, to acknowledge the others’ presence or to ignore them. Now, I often take the option I share with others to escape my own sense of estrangement by reading the newspaper or checking a website on my cell phone. We now carry with us a way to evade the experience of our own bodies and psyches in uncomfortable and unfamiliar social situations.
The inherent problem here is that those inner stirrings are manifestations of our deeper truth and reality. Our need for others is both biological and spiritual. As created in the image of God, we are created as a community. We are not made for self-satisfaction and self-fulfillment. In our bodily and our spiritual natures, which are not separate, we are drawn by need, desire, and aspiration toward each other.
This is not mere neediness in the negative sense that makes us a burden to others. It is, in its depth, a mutuality and reciprocity of attention, care, and love. The measure of the proper and moral use of technology is whether its use enhances or diminishes our deeper and more distinctively human qualities, of whether it strengthens us in spirit and truth or encapsulates us in our own illusions and fantasies.
One manifestation of a deeper humanization and spiritualization in us is our capacity to express and to share with each other our greater aspirations. There are many motivations for being related to others and also for separating from them. We can seek the presence of others out of fearfulness and neediness that makes us a burden to each other. Or we can do so out of the “need,” which is more the aspiration, to worship together, to give thanks and praise for life to the One who has gifted us with our lives and with our common home.
The other day in speaking with a friend we were discussing what it is that most deeply attracts us to another person. We agreed that it was seeing in that other something that awakened in us an aspect of our own truest and deepest call. It is not that we are alike in every way, or even mostly alike. We may be, in fact, very different personalities. But our deepest friendships are with those who evoke in us those ways of being and doing that constitute our own truth. This deep kind of friendship among very different kinds of persons lies in the fact that at some truly significant level we share “a core story,” an “ultimate ground that gives meaning to the collective figure.” This is what is related in the gathering of “the entire assembly of Israel” with Solomon before the ark.
As we’ve heard and read for weeks now in both Samuel and Kings, the core story of Israel is God’s choice of them and covenantal relationship with them. They are most themselves when they are praising and thanking God with all their hearts, and souls, and strength. When they forget or lost contact with that core story, then they begin to fragment and dissipate. As Carolyn Gratton writes, “When the main focus of a group or a relationship becomes confused and fragmented, my involvement becomes fuzzy also, and then remote.” Often members of my own small religious community have found themselves in such a confused and fragmented position. Having, perhaps temporarily, forgotten our core story, we have tried to make a certain work or particular ministries the source of our connection and community. But this will ultimately never succeed, for particular ministries and styles of work are never an adequate appeal to our most fully human aspirations. Deep connection, community, is the result of a continual shared summons to each member to become more fully who he or she is called to be.
Similarly, our national “community” is threatened because there is no community possible through mere self-interest and resentment toward others. It is enormously difficult to create a common way among highly disparate persons, persons, as the Book of Revelation says, “of every tribe, and tongue, of people, and nation.” This is, of course the radical nature of Christianity. It says our “common life” is based on a common love that transcends all of these differences. But what of a political situation that does not share this faith perspective? Perhaps as ironic as the words of Thomas Jefferson were, given his status as a slaveholder, he understood that the formation of a single political entity would require a sharing of “self-evident truths.” As I experience it, for some decades now our political class has ceased, with a rare exception here and there, to summon us to the shared vision, the core story that has the power to unite us. “We hold these truths to be self evident . . . .” “We the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity . . . .” Imagine a practice political platform for strengthening these core aspirations. It would be impossible today to suggest we are working toward securing “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” without a radical policy for the reversal of climate change. It would be impossible to pretend to be working toward the establishment of justice without true criminal justice reform, or better transformation. And it would be blasphemy to proclaim interest in the promotion of “the general welfare” without a concerted effort to address the scandal that is our economic inequality and our institutional dysfunction.
Personal experience and history constantly remind us that community cannot be built on the foundation of self-interest and personal greed. It must be built on an “ultimate ground” that alone can give meaning to “its collective figure.” Community and communion require a transformation of consciousness that profoundly comprehends that my own well being depends on the well being of each of the others. Every form a “core story” takes must be a reminder of this truth. And that “core story” must be held before us always as our reason for being and for being together.
Religious communities and other gatherings of believers need this kind of collective value-clarification just as much as any other group. What makes a faith group healthy for its members and good for the wider church? What keeps such a group oriented to the kingdom that is coming? The guide needs to find out how the persons who seek guidance are already participating in intentional groups with perhaps unrealistic expectations of what such a group might be able to offer. It seems clear from experience that certain groups can and do enliven an individual’s faith, allow him or her to be more than just a designated role, and mediate that individual’s deepest hopes for his or her life. What makes a group able to be so helpful?
One necessary condition seems to be this: a group must hold on tenaciously to the wider vision for which it was brought into being in the first place. When a group consciously and continuously renews its shared core story, when it repeatedly expresses afresh the ultimate ground that gives meaning to its collective figure, then the members will be able freely to make sense of their ongoing personal story in its light. As a member, I must be able clearly to articulate my community’s central passion and prioritize my desires in harmony with the zeal of our corporate desire. When I cannot do that, I lose focus. When the main focus of a group or a relationship becomes confused and fragmented, my involvement becomes fuzzy also, and then remote.Carolyn Gratton, The Art of Spiritual Guidance, Chapter 9