conscience and community

In matters of faith, belief, and religious affiliation, how to we reconcile our individual conscience with the beliefs and values of the specific community to which we belong?

In this question lies what has driven most of my interest, passion, and query as a Christian - the relationship between the individual and community. One only has to note this blog’s subtitle or scan my masters thesis to see my interest on the topic.

Well, today I came across two reflections on the topic that I feel are worth noting:

1. On her blog, Dora Dueck reflects on the recent news of popular author Ann Rice’s de-conversion from Christianity (not from Christ). Dora does well to report on Rice’s own reasons for disassociating herself with institutionalized Christianity. I also appreciated how Dora takes Rice’s stand as a challenge for us all to actually hold to our faith with conviction - “nail our convictions to the wall” as Dora implores us. And it’s out of Rice’s example, that Dora raises such an important question: “what’s the relationship between community and conscience?”

Referring to the tedious process by the Mennonite Brethren community (my clan as well!) in addressing the role of woman in church and society, Dora rightly wonders if there are times when following one’s own conscience is in fact the “right thing to do.” It’s one thing to celebrate community, but Dora’s post, I think, reveals an unfortunate lip-service to community evident in many organized religious groups, including our own. To our own detriment, we don’t wrestle with the implications of individual/community dynamics in a culture as diverse as ours.

2. On his blog, Phil Rushton connects the division of the 16th century Reformation with his own personal journey, sharing how the constant division in church history makes it difficult for some - himself in particular - to find a faith home. The emphasis on community by denominations, perhaps a bit ironically, is exclusive in nature (Phil shares this experience of exclusion with both the Mennonite Brethren and the Reformed Church). Phil’s post highlights well the ease at which groups split from the larger community of Christians often over nonessential theological issues. The same could be said for individuals leaving a local church.

And so like Dora, Phil points us to some critical questions: “When should truth trump unity? or When should unity trump truth? On a more personal level: What issues cause me to create divisiveness at church? Are they worth compromising unity over?”

Through both their stories and questions, Dora and Phil highlight an age-old tension I just can’t escape in my consideration around what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus: is Christian faith and practice primarily individual or communal? And while we may be quick to say it’s both (which I believe it is), in practice we rarely, if ever, acknowledge this. One always seems more important than the other.

So I ask one more question: Is there a way we can say both the individual and community are needed and actually mean it in word and practice?

I’ll let that sit for a bit, and then explore an answer later this week.


Anonymous said...

"Is there a way we can say both the individual and community are needed and actually mean it in word and practice?"

If there isn't, we're in trouble. And if we don't do our best to discover/recover/implement it, then our communities will continue to be places where the voices of some individuals are marginalized. Perhaps a simple place to start would be to examine what, exactly, we mean when we use the word "community." I think Phil is doing this, to some extent, in his post. Does "community" refer to a place where everyone is expected to think the same (or at least the same enough)? Is "community" a wide open concept with virtually no connection to some kind of orienting story or ethical framework? Somewhere in between?

At the very least, I think we ought always to err, in our conceptions of community, on the side of generosity, inclusivity. I think there are good theological reasons for this, but on a simply pragmatic level it keeps people in conversation. If we're worried about people (especially younger people) leaving the church in droves, it makes sense to do what we can to make our communities places where dissent and honest (sometimes even frightening) questions are welcomed and taken seriously. It also makes sense because sometimes this is where the prophetic voices that call the community to bigger and better things come from.

David Warkentin said...

Hey Ryan, good points. Always comes down to definitions. The key here, however, is our definition of community is intimately (literally!) related to how we relate to one another both in Christian community and in the world in general. There is no abstraction for community.

Which what makes answering my question, I think, so challenging. We can't prescribe an easy solution. I like what Dora suggested in a comment on her blog regarding the practice of friendship or company. This approach takes some of the formality out of community that is so unappealing for many.

In response to your call for inclusivity - which I resonate with (surprise surprise) - the question will inevitably be: what about accountability? Any thoughts on that one?

Anonymous said...

Well, everyone ought to be accountable to ME and MY views, of course :).

The "according to who?" question is a big one, I know. Maybe even one of the biggest. I suppose that this is where the whole idea of discerning things like scripture, tradition, human experience, and reason together in community, while acknowledging our inherent limitations as human beings, and all that jazz comes in. But I know that even getting people to agree on this as a starting point is difficult. Often, it is precisely how (or if) we think about some of these things (i.e., the role of reason, the value of tradition, the epistemological implications of the fall, etc) that is the source of conflict and disagreement in the first place!

So my answer is: I don't know.


David Warkentin said...

Thanks Ryan, but "I don't know" doesn't make for a very good blog post!

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