Morality, Hermeneutics, Community and Group Error

Reflecting on my last post and on your comments I'd like to add some additional analysis and clarifications.

When community is deployed generally three things are being discussed and, in my opinion, this conflation of meanings is a part of the problem involving the overly loose deployment of "community" as a theological response. Specifically, the category community is used to address the following areas:

1. Relationality: "Community" means to live in relationality with others.

2. Hermeneutics and doctrine: "Community" means to read scripture and speak about God in a way that is accountable to the church, the community of God (however you understand that).

3. Moral discernment: "Community" means to discern moral issues in a way that is accountable to the church, the community of God (however you understand that).

These areas are often conflated and I think we need more care in separating them. Broadly, the category "community" is being used in the same way across the domains. That is, community is the claim for a degree of interdependence and accountability. To reduce human pride and increase human compassion I am to live in relationship with others. To prevent deviant readings of scripture I am to lean on the Voices of the church, both living and dead. And, finally, to prevent deviant moral practices I must summit my moral choices to verdict of an adjudicating community.

To this point I have no quibbles with "community." I think all reasonable people see the deep wisdom here. Mutual accountability is vital. But my concerns in the last post were voiced to suggest that beyond this facile deployment of community there needs to be some deeper reflection.

First, note that my concerns in the last post have to do with domains #2 and #3. In my comments about friendship I hope I was clear that I have no issues with relationality. I do, however, prefer the words friendship, solidarity, and fraternity over community as they keep the issue focused on domain #1 preventing confusion with the other two domains I have issues with: Doctrine and morality.

Regarding domain #2, hermeneutics and doctrine, the issue I raised is how the deployment of "community" can be used to shut down prophets. I used the case of Martin Luther, but I could just have well used Jesus. Both were accused of stepping outside of tradition, the communal voice of Scripture. I, personally, have seen this time and time again: Community is used as a theological club to beat novel readings of Scripture back into the grooves of orthodoxy. I am not suggesting we get rid of the notion of tradition and communal readings of Scripture. I'm only suggesting that the deployment of "community" in doctrinal disputes can be a power play, a theological accusation where the prophetic voice is bullied, theologically, into silence.

Similar concerns are raised for domain #3, moral adjudication. It is true that our moral decision occur in a network of human relations. Morality is intimately involved with communal justifications for one's behavior.

But groups, we know, can go astray. A group's moral code (think if Hitler's Germany) can become deviant. Were a prophet to rise up in critique of the group the prophet's moral sensibilities would be radically "off" from the group. Again, in this case the group could deploy the theological category of "community", noting the "off-ness" of the prophet's moral code, to shut down or eject the prophet. In this case the deployment of community is an evil and not a good.

In conclusion, my concerns about community are primarily about doctrine and morality and the very real possibility of group error. The facile deployment of community is at risk of boiling down to Richard Rorty's infamous statement that truth is simply whatever your community lets you get away with. As I've stated, this notion of communal consensus has three related problems:

1. No way to handle group error.
2. The exclusion of prophets.
3. A power play used against dissenting voices.

To deal with these issues I would suggest that community is never deployed without the dialectic of prophecy. That is, we stop speaking solely of community and speak of community and prophecy. For example, we replace a sentence such as "We read Scripture communally" with this: "We read the Scripture communally and prophetically."

That is, we do theology both within community and against the community.

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9 thoughts on “Morality, Hermeneutics, Community and Group Error”

  1. "To deal with these issues I would suggest that community is never deployed without the dialectic of prophecy."

    Aren't you trying to have your cake and eat it too?

  2. Probably. But I'm really after something fairly modest: The falliblizing of community (as a theological category) and granting that the sole individual standing against or contra community can be the voice of God.

  3. Surly one of the greatest themes of Scripture is the wilderness or alien experience of the prophet in preparation for his calling.

    Abram could even be read as being called to form an alien nation; that is, a nation not of this world, symbolically represented by God's requirement for him to leave Ur to do God's bidding. Joseph as the alien going into Egypt. Moses in the wilderness in preparation for leading Israel out of Egypt. The entire nation in the wilderness in preparation for entering the Promised land. Exile to Babylon. How many of the Major Prophets? How many of the Minor? (I can think of several, but don't want to try to put a number on these...) John the Baptist. Jesus. According to The Letter to the Hebrews, all Christians. The great historic diaspora of the Jewish people.

    Richard, you say "...I'm really onto something fairly modest..." I think it's fair to say that you are modest, but your point is not: It's crucial and central, I think.

  4. I think the sticky thing is when community is viewed too narrowly.

    It is true that community at a given time may wrongly resist an individual or minority voice within it--but over time, that dissenting voice gains more and more strength if it speaks the truth, even in the face of communal resistance. One could look at the growth of Christianity as an example of this.

    It is also true that community in a given place may be so twisted that the truth cannot take root--but ultimately the broader community acts as a corrective, if the truth is alive there. One could look at the fall of Nazi Germany as an example of this.

    So I don't think I see community and prophecy as being checks and balances. I see authority and prophecy as being the checks and balances within community. So I would see "we read the Scripture communally" as synonymous with "we read the Scripture authoritatively and prophetically."

    (I am waffling on whether "tradition" is more what I am after than "authority," but I don't think it is...)

  5. anonymous,
    I appreciate the focus on the wilderness experience, both individually and prophetically. I good book I read recently about the interplay of wilderness and community is Rowan Williams' Where God Happens.

    That is helpful. Prophecy only really makes sense in a communal setting. Still, it think the notion of prophecy helps enliven the concept of community when they are folded into each other. I've not read widely in these areas, but in my experience prophecy hasn't been deployed nearly as much as community has a lens on the Kingdom. I think this is because prophecy has no clear analogue in the Trinity and Trinitarian thinking seems to be the main mode of thinking about Christian community these days.

  6. I can't remember who said it but he said it well- "The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community (even if their intentions are ever so earnest), but the person who loves those around them will create community."

    I attended the COC for five years, not only attended, but was completely involved in all their programs and service work. I stayed "faithful" as faithful as one could be, so to speak, but just a few months ago I found myself going through some hard financial times. So I took on two jobs and found myself working on Sundays. Two months passed and not ONE person called to see why I wasn't coming to our small group or to services. Not one person. Then when I saw someone from my small group at my job, which was at a cafe, they acted like they didn't really know me. Sure I got a Hi, but that was it. I had regular customers treat me more like family then that person did. Lets just say I was pretty hurt about it for awhile. Finally I called an elder and told him I was no longer going to be going to church there any more simply because it was too out of the way and inconvenient with my current circumstances. As it turns out he didn't really believe me and so wanted to discuss it further. We did. As it turns out from our discussion it became clear to me that the problem lies with what I quoted earlier. It seems to me that the leaders and those that follow them are so concerned with the"organization" and making it a community, that they have no time to be concerned with the people in that organization. In other words if you don't conform to their agenda in making it a community then you are shunned, and when you leave there won't be any phone calls if that makes any sense.

    Jesus once told the law abiding pharisees concerning the law of the sabbath, "the sabbath was created for man, not man for the sabbath."
    I think that rings true with us today-the church was created for man, not man for the church. Until we grasp that and really understand and practice that, will community be alive and kicking in our churches. Until we really start loving those around us and accepting people as God does, we won't have what we crave-a deep loving fellowship; a real sense of community.

    So as of right now, I attend a different church where I don't know anybody. For some reason I find it refreshing because there is no pressure to be their best friend or to conform to their standard. I go, I worship, I listen, I commune, I go home and continue to build on that for the rest of week, without being distracted with trivial programs that only edify the home church, or trying to be someone I am not.

    Thanks for letting me put in my two cents.

  7. I agree completely with Mark - prophecy is one of the things that makes community a living thing which evolves rather than a stagnant category.

    Category 3 is too liberal for me. Our moral decisions don't merely occur in a network of human relations. "My moral choices" are not mine - the idea of submitting my moral choices to the verdict of an adjudicating community suggests that it is possible to be radically separated from community.

    That said, I agree with the basic point, just not how you got there.

  8. Roxanne,
    That's a sad, but all to common, example of the Bystander Effect: In groups too often individuals don't step out in a group to do the the little relational things that mean a great deal to people.

    I understand your point. But I don't think my point is too liberal. Obviously, big moral sins are listed by God in the bible. But not uniquely so. Most ancient peoples worked with laws similar to the 10 Commandments. The point is "morality" is simply the way groups agree to conduct their communal business.

    But is this sidelining God? Yes, it is a bit. Because if God tells you to kill someone your community will likely disagree and trump your claim. In America they would claim you were mentally ill.

    But here we might think of the claims of SK's Fear and Trembling: Isn't true morality transcending group norms in faith? My post would suggest that in some cases this is what a prophet does. But my sense is that even prophets have to be persuasive to the community. Thus, here again the communal adjudication is critical.

    But your point is well taken. I just wanted to note how critical communal agreement is to morality, even for commands coming from God.

  9. Sorry, the word liberal covers a multitude of sins!! I meant liberal in the liberal/communitarian sense, not liberal in the biblical interpretation sense!

    so I disagree with 'The point is "morality" is simply the way groups agree to conduct their communal business.' not because I think there are clear and objective laws set down for us, but because I don't think groups "agree" (in the sense of form a decision, I'm not talking about whether their points of view coincide) - so "morality" is simply the way groups do conduct their communal business. Indeed, it may be more helpful to dispense with the word "morality" and talk about norms and understandings instead.

    As for "true morality", I think that's less about transcending group norms - which I think it's impossible to do - and more about making the right decisions about whose side to take when different communities within an overall community are in conflict with each other.

    My theology/politics/all-round world-view is an odd mix of communitarian virtue ethics a la Alisdair MacIntyre, a cross-centred liberation theology a la Gustavo Gutteriez, traditional non-conformist values, consequentialism and social determinism (with a pseudo-Marxian class analysis, if that's not apparent within the other labels). Hopefully that isn't merely the most pretentious sentence ever penned, but also gives you some handle on where I'm coming from.

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