Developing three themes from the podcast episodes
Working together, particularly outdoors, is a wonderful way to build team spirit. The ability of shared work to create bonds stems from its material, physical aspect. All human community depends on the material world; our unique, individual souls can only communicate and relate by means of our physical bodies. We participate in many different, overlapping communities, all based on physicality, from families to neighborhood to nations. Eating together is almost a sacred thing; even the very word “companion” derives from “those who share bread.” Even in the supernatural realm of salvation, where we might expect a greater focus on the spiritual, we are redeemed by Christ “God in the Flesh” who walked and spoke with us, died and rose in the body, and founded a visible, material Church that is joined by means of the sacramental use of material elements.
As we attempt to build community, we need to keep in mind that humans are both (spiritual) individuals and (physical) social beings. Cults and totalitarian regimes do not allow for the proper freedom of the individual, but an excessive focus on the individual can warp our understanding of society. Today, we’re in danger of building over-spiritualized, intellectual cliques of people “just like us”, instead of genuine communities based on physical proximity, with all the diverse “messiness” of opinion and outlook that this entails.
As physical beings in a material world, we experience fear, including fear of the future. In podcast two, we briefly discussed the phenomena of “prepping”: preparing to survive natural disasters or societal collapse, typically by stockpiling food and weapons in a remote location. I certainly don’t want to dismiss the concerns about the future which motivate prepping; the future does look dark and preppers correctly note that our society lacks sustainability and resilience. Most of us couldn’t function with an extended blackout, let alone societal collapse.
Despite the looming possibility of hard times ahead, I think that prepping is a deeply flawed reaction. I could make many practical arguments against classic prepping; to mention just the most obvious, preppers tend to have an obsession with apocalyptic scenarios involving sudden and total social collapse, sometimes to the exclusion of more probable situations. There are also many philosophical and spiritual problems with “prepping” as generally practiced. (For one thing, large stockpiles of food are suspiciously reminiscent of the rich fool in the Gospel parable, who has food saved up “for many years”!)
I want to focus here on the prepping attitude towards the future. The prepper does have a point: the current state of society is seriously flawed in many ways. In fact, the instability that concerns the prepper is merely a symptom or result of flawed conditions in the here and now; the current state of our society is not desirable, regardless of whether or not it might break down in the future. We should start living differently right now, instead of waiting till for our dysfunctional lifestyles become impossible. “Right living” is almost always composed of actions which are beneficial on many different levels. Getting to know one’s neighbors may indeed be a good preparation for facing disaster together, but that’s a very backward way of looking at it! By all means, raise vegetables and learn skills, not because of future-oriented fear, but rather because of a desire to live rightly in the present. Like the Rich Fool, we do not know if we’ll survive the night, and thus a single-minded focus on the future is out of place for the Christian. “Prepping” has been a cultural phenomenon since the sixties; in that time, many preppers have come and gone, dying before they were able to put their stockpiles into action, wasting the resources** that could have strengthened their communities and fed the poor . . . not to mention providing them with “treasure in Heaven!” (Not that we should become “spiritual preppers” trying obsessively to “earn” Heaven by stocking up merits. Nobody can “earn” Heaven. Just as community based on trust is better than individual stockpiling at providing earthly security, we’ll ultimately enter Heaven through trust in the mercy of God. If we obsessively focus on “avoiding hell” our spiritual life will become stunted and legalistic; a better focus is on loving God and neighbor in the present moment. Both Heaven and hell start now, as C.S. Lewis points out in The Great Divorce.)
The prepper’s preparations are disconnected from day to day life; a similar lack of integration is one of the defining marks of the modern world. Our lives are scattered, fragmented, compartmentalized; work over here, recreation over there, religion and politics and friends and neighbors and relatives and education all neatly placed in separate compartments. This lack of integration creates stress and overload in life, and can lead to a deep lack of integrity; different sets of principles are operational in each context, leading to a lack of moral and intellectual consistency.
As we build community, we need to strive for integration, taking care that our projects knit back together the shards of life instead of producing further fragmentation. As mentioned in the podcast, our projects should not be “one more thing,” another compartment, another thing to “do;” instead they should provide an overarching framework, bringing neighbors back together, working and praying and playing together in a particular, local place, in that present moment which is the only one we truly possess.
*T.E.O.T.W.A.W.K.I.: an acronym meaning “The End of the World as We Know It.” Used by prepper and survivalist groups.
**None of this, of course, applies to prudent precautions against bad weather, power outages, or other routine situations. For instance, the government recommends keeping a few weeks of food and water and some other supplies on hand. Sensible precautions of this sort are actually an act of charity, ensuring that you do not become more problem for society to deal with in a stressful time. This is very different from stocking years of food for a “black swan” event which may never come.
“If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.”Psalm 139:8
Suburbia has many structural flaws, as we discussed in the last podcast; but no matter how flawed our environment may be, God is with us.
A few years ago I caught a bus to make an all-day visit to a local adoration chapel. The bus route lay through miles of suburban sprawl; shopping malls, gas stations, parking lots, car dealerships; imposed, artificial order and tacky tidiness, interspersed with litter and overgrown weeds, bits of land that nobody took care of (not that anybody actually cared for the lawn around the car dealership or the sign for the shopping mall; all the kempt landscapes were just one step away from abandonment or neglect.) From an elevated section of roadway, I looked out over vast residential areas, isolated by convoluted roads and HOA fences; hundreds of roofs all alike, too new for trees to have softened their outlines, bleak under a wintery sky. As I walked from the bus stop to the church, I crossed a freeway overpass roaring with traffic; superficial attempts at upscale design of curbs and medians contrasted with utilitarian electrical transmission towers and the all-pervasive litter. The church was in keeping with the setting; an oddly shaped, hulking building, islanded in a sea of parking lots and lawns. By the time I got to the chapel, the waste and dysfunction and sheer folly of the surroundings had thoroughly depressed me.
Yet as I slipped in I was washed clean by that indefinable feeling of peace and stillness that lives in places of prayer; He was there. And so were my brothers and sisters in Christ; all day long a steady stream of adorers came to visit the Lord, dropping out of their roaring suburban traffic and busy, fragmented suburban lives into the stillness which is a foretaste of eternity. Before I left that day, I had received the most intense experience of God in my life.
If we can’t find God while living in Suburbia (and in the persons of suburbanites), we are unlikely to find Him elsewhere; for without having found Him, all our attempts, our community building projects or model villages, will merely expand Babel. God is here, right now, not far away or long ago. And we are here too, with all our glaring evil and surprising good. We will not leave ourselves behind by moving to a new setting; if we are lazy, distracted, tepid, callous here and now, we’ll be so elsewhere.
Instead, the new world we’re called to build must flow from a change of heart, as Peter Land pointed out in the last podcast; all the change of scene in the world won’t cut it. A spiritual writer once said “We are given no encouragement at all to entertain our feeling that if only we did not get these headaches, if only we had nicer neighbors, if only we knew how to pray, if only we were more humble, everything would go swimmingly. We do not have to work out how to get ourselves into a good position for having a relationship with God . . . The newness inherent in any situation of encounter with God is brought by him, not us.”
All things work for the good for those who love God, even such bad things as suburbia; and from the hearts of those who love God good things flow forth . . . including a world that is better than suburbia!