A Foretaste! Transforming Leadership Practices: Community as an Organic Solidarity
This post continues in a series of topics on the nature and purpose of Christian community, a key precursor to the discussion of leadership practices in the church.
Twenty-two years ago the nation watched in horror as the tragedy of the Branch Davidians played itself out on television. Government officials, relying primarily upon psychological and sociological explanations, tended to treat the stand-off in Waco, Texas as a hostage situation. They appeared unable even to entertain the idea that these people were not being held against their will (at least the adults), but were ready to die for their beliefs. In a secular society, it is difficult to imagine that anyone could take religion that seriously! After September 11, 2001, with the attack on the Twin Towers and the subsequent fight against al-Qaeda, and especially with the recent brutal murders committed by ISIS, Americans have a different perspective. They have become all too familiar with the reality that some people are willing to give wholehearted dedication, even to the extent of embracing martyrdom, to a cause they believe to be greater than themselves.
While it is certainly not appropriate to compare the Branch Davidians with the horrendous behavior of ISIS, they do both represent relatively cohesive and disciplined groups. Throughout history, there have been groups usually with a religious commitment, that view themselves as an organic solidarity. Such religious groups or cults stimulate questions about community: what is the appropriate relation between individual and group, choice and obligation, freedom and commitment, self-preservation and self-sacrifice? In the effort to discover the nature of Christian community, we turn from the model of community where individuals limit their freedom by entering into a social contract in order to maximize their self-interest, to consider the model of community as an organic solidarity where the unity and well-being of the social whole takes precedence over the interests of the individual.
Community as an Organic Solidarity.
Contrary to the model of community as a contractual association, this model recognizes and appreciates the wholeness and interrelatedness of reality. The most influential philosopher of the nineteenth century. G.W.F. Hegel regarded “reality as a single whole composed of lesser wholes organically related to each other and to the larger whole of which they are parts.”1 The individualistic mechanical philosophy of society began to be challenged by a theory of community which stressed the common good of the whole.
While in the contractual model freedom means doing as one pleases without interference from others, in the organic model freedom means becoming one with others. Joining with others is not a necessary evil but a positive good. Personal freedom and fulfillment come from contribution to and participation within the whole. Drawing upon the metaphor of the nature and development of biological organisms, the individual parts—in and of themselves—are seen as having no independent worth. Apart from the organic whole they are lifeless, functionless, isolated units. Thus each part has significance and individuality to the degree that it functions in a particular way within and for the whole organism. It is only in practice, in actual use, that differences between individual parts of the organism become important. The emphasis in this model of community is upon the unity and harmony which arises from the organic interdependence and social cooperation of the various parts as they contribute to the growth and accomplishment of the whole.
The Perils of Collectivism.
By advocating that “individuals in their desire, will and conduct, conform to the universal, and become a link in the chain of the whole,”2 this approach can lead to collectivism. The danger is that the uniqueness of the persons who enter into relation with each other will not be appreciated or protected. The popular writings of George Orwell (1984 and Animal Farm) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) vividly portray totalitarian societies within which human diversity is reduced to subhuman uniformity. In 1958, Huxley warned against a society where the Will to Order—“the wish to impose order upon confusion, to bring harmony out of dissonance and unity out of multiplicity”3—took precedence over individual freedom. Within the new Social Ethic that Huxley feared was emerging, the ideal person would be the one “who displays ‘dynamic conformity’ (delicious phrase!) and an intense loyalty to the group, an unflagging desire to subordinate himself, to belong.”4
There has been a long history of struggle within Western societies between collectivism and individualism. The discussion has often been framed as a choice between two extremes: either “an ant hill in which all function mechanistically (totalitarianism)” or “an assortment of spider webs in which each reigns supreme (anarchy).”5 Yet the group and the human person are intimately bound together; neither can exist without the other. Writing in 1849, the theologian Orestes A. Brownson expressed the tension: “Community without individuality is tyranny, the fruits of which are oppression, degradation and immobility, the synonym of death. Individuality without community is individualism, the fruits of which are dissolution, isolation, selfishness, disorder, anarchy, confusion, and war.”6
The Role of Religion.
The nineteenth century French sociologist Emile Durkheim believed that every group had a religious dimension. Whether a small cult, a mainstream Christian congregation, or an entire society, the group “generates idealizing symbols and communal rituals that guide it and hold it together.”7 According to the organic model of community, religion functions to provide a common set of beliefs, ideals, and practices that supply an overarching sense of identity and solidarity. Within a nation-state the religious commitment may not be directly related to a particular religious tradition, but may reflect a more generalized “civil religion.” A distinction is made between the religious substance which supports civic responsibility, and forms or beliefs of a particular religion which are a matter of personal choice.
While religions freedom—the separation of church and state—is a key aspect of the American republic, it was assumed by the founders that there were common moral values (liberty, justice, charity, personal virtue) that were grounded in a religiously oriented, but non-church-sponsored, civil religious system. Benjamin Franklin summarized the “essentials of every religion” which he believed contributed to this civic morality: “the existence of the Deity; that he made the world and govern’d it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing of good to men; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, ad virtue rewarded either here or hereafter.”8 Not only within the United States, but within other societies as well, there is a constellation of ideas and standards—a civil religion—which seeks to provide social integration and cohesion as well as to legitimate cultural values.
The Challenge to the Church.
While most mainstream Christians reject the collectivism of the cult or of a totalitarian society, they are often unaware of the effects of a civil religion which fuses religious language and civic values. Although there may be no “established” church whose doctrines and practices are enforced by civil power, it is still assumed that churches are to inculcate ethical standards to undergird the public welfare. As Western societies become more privatistic and fragmented, the desire for some sort of cultural binding moral force will grow.
Yet particular religious traditions do not currently exhibit either the ability or the resources to provide cohesion, integration, and identity even for their own members. It is a given reality now that large numbers in the Western world believe in God but do not regularly attend church services. They assume that it is not necessary to be committed to the worship, life, and practice or a specific congregation in order to be religious or indeed, to be “spiritual.” Contemporary persons may be believers, but increasingly they are not belongers. These new patterns of belief and practice presents both a challenge and opportunity for the church.
The danger is that as people travel from church to church or faith to faith, they will find a God of their own making, the theological substance and prophetic vigor of faith replaced with a spongy homemade folk religion. This vague and uncritical religion of individuals does not challenge, but indeed supports and reinforces civil religion—“religion-in-general.” An implicitly accepted and untested civil religion which functions at a high level of generality, runs the risk of becoming idolatrous or demonic as its beliefs and rituals are determined by the majority (or those who claim to speak for the majority) within a given society.
In this situation the church has the opportunity to make a significant contribution by modeling a critical and creative form of community where individual freedom and initiative contribute to and are influenced by the concern for the common good. What is needed is a community grounded not in “the essentials of every religion” but in the particular: the biblical witness to the redeeming and transforming power of the Triune God.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What is meant by community as an “organic solidarity”?
- How can fears of “collectivism” block the appreciation of community?
- Describe “civil religion.” How does having “In God We Trust” on currency express civil religion?
- Where do you see evidence of civil religion within your congregation? Within the larger society?
- What challenge does civil religion present to the church?
- What opportunities does civil religion offer the church?
1 Frank G. Kirpatrick, Community: A Trinity of Models (Georgetown University Press, 1986), p. 62.
2 Georg W.F. Hegel, “The Civil Community,” in Theories of Society, Parsons, Shils, Naegele, Pits, eds. (MacMillian Publishing Co., 1965), p. 112.
3 Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Re-Visited (Harper & Brothers, 1958), p. 27.
4 Ibid., p. 31.
5 Leonard Sweet, “Can a Mainstream Change its Course?” in Liberal Protestantism, Michaelsen and Roof, eds. (Pilgrim Press, 1986), p. 245.
6 Quoted in Robert Bellah, The Broken Covenant (Seabury Press, 1975), p. 118.
7 Herbert Richardson, “Civil Religion in Theological Perspective,” in American Civil Religion, Richey and Jones, eds. (Harper & Row, 1974), p. 166.
The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.