As my title suggests, it is possible to live as a people ‘together’ without actually being physically together as we are experiencing during this covid-19 pandemic. That may sound counter intuitive. Yet the Christian understanding of community, fellowship and being the Church is by definition counter intuitive to the modern ear. Nevertheless, it is true and real. How so?
As Christians, we imagine, think of, and perceive reality, the world, even time, in a very different way than everyone else (or, at least, we should). Let me begin to explain what I mean by summarizing how the typical modern person imagines the world and his place in it. To do this, I’m going to draw on Charles Taylor’s award-winning book, The Secular Age. Taylor argues (and I think he is right), that it is easy and natural for many of us today to ‘not’ believe in God. Yet, just a few hundred years ago it was inconceivable to not believe in God. How has this happened?
It is because, as Taylor says, we now assume we live within an ‘immanent framework’ of the world. Let me explain what ‘immanent framework’ means by way of illustration. It is as if we see the world and our place in it as fish do in a fishbowl. A fish’s whole world, existence, and what gives it a sense of purpose can only be found within the fishbowl. Although there is a reality, a world, space, and other living beings outside the fishbowl, the fish cannot imagine it exists. Likewise, the typical modern person today cannot imagine anything beyond what we touch, see, hear and feel exists, such as God, heaven, angels etc. We see the world, universe, and our place in it, sort to speak, ‘horizontally’ that has no ‘vertical’ dimension to it. In other words, what you see, hear, touch and feel is what you get.
How does this ‘immanent’ framework of the world and our place in it manifest itself in our lives? There are many examples, but let’s start with how we decide what is right and wrong. If you ask the typical modern person today, ‘why do you think you should do this and not do that,’ the typical answer is ‘because it is the right thing to do’. If you press the person and ask, ‘why is it the right thing to do,’ the person will likely say, ‘because it just is’, or ‘that is just what I feel is right’. Notice the circularity in the argument? Most people just assume this or that is the right thing to do or not do. Why? Because we can only discover moral meaning within ourselves. Our imaginations do even consider there is something beyond the horizontal framework (such as God) of what we see, think, touch and feel. What we think is right or wrong is somehow ‘just there’.
Another example is where people believe they can find happiness, purpose, and flourish as human beings. People assume we have to discover and work out these things for ourselves. Our goal in life might be ‘being the best person one can be,’ ‘raising your children to be good citizens,’ or, ‘acquiring a certain social status and financial security’. It does not even enter most peoples’ minds there is Creator God who wants to engage and relate to us. What I find odd is I have met plenty of people who truly believe they are achieving their self-imposed goals in life. Yet, how can one know when you have been the best person one can be? Who determines what that should look like? When do you know you are a good enough citizen, or made enough money? Who says when enough is enough? For answers all I can hear are crickets.
The last, and particularly relevant example to our covid-19 times, is the repeated message I hear (and I am sure you have heard it too), from politicians, community leaders, the media, even large corporations that ‘we are all in this pandemic together’. But how is that we are actually in all this together? I simply do not see it. Yes, we may have similar experiences of what it is like to live in isolation. Still, I cannot claim to know what many health care workers working in hospitals or those working in nursing homes are going through. I certainly cannot say to them, ‘we are in this together’. How can we be ‘in something together’ when the ‘in something’ is physical isolation? I can’t be isolated with someone when I am isolated from them! By definition I am not with them in community, but rather alone.
But when your understanding of the world and your place in it is shaped by the God of the Gospel, the one who came and continues to come to us through the Holy Spirit in the person of Jesus Christ, then community is still possible and very real without being in the same physical space. How so? We have just celebrated Pentecost, the first coming in power of the Holy Spirit into peoples’ lives. What was it that made that first group of people a church community? It was not their physical connection. Instead, it was the Holy Spirit that made them brothers and sisters in Christ. Since the same Spirit of God continues to come and be with us today all of us at St. John’s are still together as a community by faith although we cannot be physically connected. Every time we pray and worship in Jesus’ name (even though it is online), the Holy Spirit is holding us together as God’s people. Just because we do not see, touch and hear Jesus does not mean He is not present and real. Likewise, just because we do not see, touch and hear each other does not mean we are not in community, held together by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.