Socially Determined: A Follow-Up to My Last Post on "Who Will I Be"

My friend Brian Borcher's disagreement with my last post (that the primary question is not "Who will I be?" but rather "What will I do today?") has been carrying my thoughts since yesterday, and I wanted to respond again to it and to clarify something else from that last post.

First, the clarification: I was "waxing poetic" on Gideon's place in my life, and although he was in the center group of friends over the last year on-line (and I believe I was one of those in his center group of friends on-line) there were many other people for both of us that we interacted with just as frequently as each other in all our on-line channels. In saying that he was at the center of who I was and who I had become, I was referring to the power of each of those chosen central friendships, and not elevating my place with him or his place with me above those other friendships that we each had that was similarly focused and that had similar time spent. In addition, I was specifically talking about the social dimension of life that I will address next here, and not about my primary faith commitment or about my primary family commitments and their centrality. The place of the Triune God at the center of each believer's life is unquestioned, or they are not truly believers; and the centrality of our spouse and children to each of us is just as unquestionable socially.

Second, my musing on Brian's problem with my question and his correction of it: As I see it, this is one of my primary paradigm shifts in the last 5 years. I would have been in agreement with Brian before that shift, but now really don't believe any of us CAN align ourselves with the purposes of the universe and choose to act in ways that fit without also choosing our friends and communities . . . and choosing our friends and communities ALWAYS includes choosing the roles we will play there. As I taught Bethel for these past 4 years, it was clear that the Bible teaches a communal faith, not an individual one; and as I have read and observed life over the same period, it has been clear that sociological forces are the most powerful forces on every element of our identity and experience, and that that is as God intended and intends.

So the illusion that I can detach from all others and attach to God directly is just that: an illusion. Even if I become a hermit like the early desert fathers or like other examples since then, I am attaching to my memories of others and their views of life. Detaching from others to solitude is necessary for spiritual growth and for learning to hear and feel the Triune God apart from others; but even in that exercise I am simply detaching from those who fill my little world of busy-ness to attach to the great cloud of witnesses that is the CHURCH from beginning to end and from East to West. I am never truly alone with God, for I was created a social creature.

We are born into a social world where our roles are imposed by others, as are our beliefs and values. To choose my roles, beliefs, and values, I must also change my community. This is born out in many spheres of human experience and study.

So when I got up this morning to print and use today's lectionary from the PCUSA, I joined myself with a multitude also practicing that discipline of reading for today. And when I engaged in my Ignatian meditations upon "seeking the grace", I joined myself not only to the women in my own Christian Life Community, but to a whole community over years and miles that have gone through the same exercises. And when I engaged in my other forms of prayer - old and "new" - I joined myself in community with all those others who are and have practiced the same forms and thoughts.

And then when I turn around and interact with my family and those at work and those I call friends -- both face-to-face friends and on-line friends -- I make choices about who and what is indoctrinating me into their values and view of life. I need to be deliberate about my choices, both in who I engage and in who I neglect, because they will be the ones -- both today and over time -- who choose the answer to my question "What will I do today?"

We are primarily social creatures, and all religions acknowledge this. It is a distortion to believe otherwise.

Both Jewish and Christian faiths of every flavor over every century have been faiths of communities and families, not faiths that could be practiced in isolation. There is no greater choice we make each day than our choices about whom we will engage and whom we will avoid. The social choices are our greatest moral choices, from which all matters of identity, cognitive belief, and action will flow.

If you are "stuck", consider changing your communities and friends.

If you are depressed or angry, find friends who will mediate those emotions for you and help you feel life in a positive way.

If you are joyful and productive, give thanks to God for the people in your life, and give thanks to them for the way they have enabled you to experience life.

My question "Who will I be today?" should be expanded to "What social environment and what roles in that environment do I choose today, and out of that, what will my actions be?" We do not get to choose our own identities, but our identities are a function of our social choices. I am not me. I am who I have been made to be by the interplay of the actions of the Triune God through community and my responses to that world. (And even Jesus' primary definition of "obedience" and "disciple" was a social definition, as He exorted us to love each other.)

Who will you be today?


At Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 8:33:00 PM PST, Blogger Brian Borchers said...

Ah, but I'd say that our choices of "friends and communities" aren't in the realm of "who am I?" but rather in the realm of "what will I do?"

I think it's true that these choices are important, since chosing badly can cause us lots of psychic and even physical harm while good choices can help us just as much. However, I'm not ready to say that my identity is defined by who I associate with.


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