On the love that preserves or destroys.
The community isn’t a mode of being, much less a “making” of the individual subject. It isn’t the subject’s expansion or multiplication but its exposure to what interrupts the closing and turns it inside out: a dizziness, a syncope, a spasm in the continuity of the subject.
Roberto Esposito, Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community (1998)
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but that they had everything in common.
When I was in college, I spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of an interstate. If there was something that called me home – a holiday with the family, a long weekend – I would travel the two hours of distance between Manhattan, Kansas and Kansas City by means of I-70. The interstate cut through miles and miles of prairie fields rolling farther from either side of my little beige Ford Escort than I could see. It felt to me like a suspension in space: for two hours, I would sit and, though moving, be still, the tall grass outside my windows continually different and the same. I would let whatever music I had playing wash through my brain, out my mouth, or at times I would forget it was there. I would contemplate the interstate, the in-between of that constant stretch of time that separated the kid I was becoming in Manhattan from the kid I had been, to which I was returning, in Kansas City.
Not only a difference in space, or a difference in my sense of episodic time, when I traveled the interstate back then I moved between different local constellations of the people who I felt had formed me. Back home, there awaited my immediate family, contributors to the signature of blood in my body, those whom I had known for a larger sum of time than any of the strangers who became friends or the friends who became dear friends or the friends who became people I used to know. Family is there is from the origin, and a lot of the time, if we’re lucky, they will be there until the last things. Subtract my father, my mother, my sister, or my brother, and there is no remainder of me – I am because of them.
Back home there awaited also the remnants of the other people I grew up with – folks from the church and the Christian school in which all the years we consider pre-adulthood winded down for me. Those groups were a mixed bag, a patched fabric with original threads, threads lost, and new threads woven in different seasons. Every group loses its form and reforms. This process of transformation weaves itself constantly through each self who enters and exits the weave of different lives. Threads cross. Threads touch and lose their touch.
This was how I interpreted my home to myself, using concepts like “duration” and “remnant” but also “alienation” and “loss.” A part of this self-styled hermeneutic came out of what was happening for me at college, on the back end of that interstate, during those years. I was meeting different people, joining different groups, encountering unfamiliar ideas or familiar ideas in unfamiliar ways, settling into and unsettling myself from different – what you might call – “communities.” Some process of becoming that had wormed itself into my interior life from the years at home had continued to play itself out for me at college, at times unfolding myself so that what was inside became expressed, embodied, and what was going on outside intervened in my thinking, my feeling, my sense of my place in the world.
To put this more concretely, I was gradually losing my Christian faith.
Yet loss is a strange way to put this, in a universe in which everything transforms, unendingly. Even Paul – the man who told Christianity its direction in which to move – understood the necessary shifting that plays itself out in this life. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” (1 Corinthians 13:11) A mind tends toward transformation. Although, even for him, this transformation involves a loss, a “giving up” on the things he once cherished. He consoles himself with a goal: the perfection of love, the hope that past this murky mirror before us eventually awaits a moment in which we will see in full. This is a way to direct our transformation. We believe that this change is headed somewhere particular yet undefined, and so we define our journey there with a single lamp unto our feet – a very small light, but enough to get us walking, enough to tell us where the next foot should fall.
This is the way belief can govern in our lives, one quotidian footfall after another. Faith makes it worth it. Faith asks us to trust the process. It asks us to trust in the one we infer to be guiding us. When we apply our hearts and minds to faith, we put our trust in the hidden God, and this trust assures us that what is hidden will one day be seen in full. And so we keep walking – walking and waiting. I could say, apropos of that typological community that also awaited a land of promise, we wander.
For Paul, the seal of this promise of a coming fullness introduces itself to us as love – the one entity in all of existence which never fails, never changes, never asks of us that it be given up. Faith in the hope of the coming Kingdom, backed by the promissory note of love. When we feel the love we have for the people we live among, we are told that this love is only a shadow of the love to come. Our love becomes symbolic. God crouches within the interpretive act, causing me to picture this singular, this peculiar love I feel for my friend bled through with a translucency that would allow me to look right through it toward some future etched in invisible light behind the experience I feel to be my reality. My reality is not Reality. My love is not Love, but it’s a tiny pictogram: keep gazing. God’s love makes us hungry for an experience that simply does not arrive underneath the ceiling of this life or this epoch and so drives us to an addiction to a substance which we could not afford even were to sell everything we have, and yet we are asked still to sell all.
The walk of faith, hope, and love led me to and through several interwoven communities at college. We called these “communities” because to us they consisted of small groups of individuals who shared a common heart and mind. We read love in similar ways, within the guiding limits of certain creeds. The semester that I arrived at Kansas State University, my roommate and I got up at dawn every morning that we could (this tapered off as the semester drew on) and followed our path to Danforth Chapel, a small sacred site within the secular institution, connected by a hallway to the larger All Faiths Chapel. There we prayed over the student body, sang songs to the God we loved, and imagined to each other the streets on our campus crowded over with the dancing bodies of every student, praising the same God, loving the same future. This was how we chose to enact the love we were promised, and this daily ritual brought the two of us together, gave us something to share, a space within time to share something.
We attended all-campus prayer gatherings with representatives from the various other Christian communities. We wandered our way around state-funded educational buildings and residence halls, asking the Lord to appropriate to his community the individuals inside. We asked that the others would experience the peace of Jesus Christ, that they would believe in Jesus Christ as their saving Lord and governing Savior. We stretched our hands with desire toward those limestone structures, stretched our hands toward a promised community that would flood the whole Earth, in which all God’s children would be born again as his children with a trust in the same figure to whom we had committed our allegiance. For us, the common which comprised our larger community of faith was a love that had come and was coming soon, a belief that we owned which was true and would soon reveal its truth, and a life set out like a path before us that we could each walk with our own two feet.
This core thought of community invites me to consider my path away from a life of faith in conversation with a book that attempts to understand what community is and how it works – Robert Esposito’s Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community. In Communitas, Esposito shows that the appropriative impulse within our community-seeking – this tendency to grab a thing which we can share, to say that this is ours, that this is what belongs to us in common – is actually the impulse that drives community to its own destruction. To define an essence, a creed, an eschatology, as the principle of our particular community, by necessity, closes off our borders to the outside and the Other. It protects us from that wilderness in which the monsters outside weep and gnash their teeth. It makes us limit our love, not to those among us, but to whatever representative principle or figure it is that we have said brings us together. We love our God, our boundary, and by extension we love each other.
So what happens when we disaffirm the representative core? What happens when we lose our trust in God, when we feel that decisive betrayal in his disappearing act? Here I return to the language of loss through which I have articulated my transformation. I cannot shake the loss I feel partly because it is a loss which I have caused and which does not belong only to me. To remove yourself from a community is to wound both the community and yourself, because neither remains wholly the same. Esposito names it this way, “…the wound that we cause or from which we emerge when we ourselves are changed when we enter into a relation not only with the other but with the other of the other, he too the victim of the same irresistible expropriative impulse.”
In giving up on faith, I enter into relation with the community of faith’s outside, its wild other. I leave the Kingdom of God for the Gehenna beyond the gates. But this is because we have built gates in the first place, informing ourselves what belongs to us – these creeds, this hope, this particular construction of love – and what does not belong to the beasts of the outside. I have no choice: to lose faith in the creeds is to fornicate with a contagion. There is a love which is stronger than death, a love which knows precisely what death is, to whom death belongs, and so preserves itself against the touch of death’s givers.
Esposito says that what our closed-community formation forgets is the originary debt we owe one another. None of us constitutes a proper whole, none of us are independent. There is an interstate which cuts across all individuation, assuring us that we are always transforming, always incomplete, always owe something of ourselves to another, an Other.
The doctrine is correct when it says that the gift of God is eternal life, because God is a gift which we allow ourselves to appropriate to ourselves, upon which to define ourselves, and on the basis of which to define our protective boundaries. Eternal life protects us from death, tells us what life is, and defends against the outside of that life that ever encroaches. Remember who you are, who your Lord and Savior is. This will save you.
But to deny that God by transacting with his enemies is to commit the sin of Judas. Christianity assures us that the way of Judas is self-destruction, our satanic innards splayed out over the rocks beyond the city gate. But this is the narrative emanating from religion’s myth of community. What if the walls had fallen, the city gate a non-issue, and the teams of with-me or against-me not a force at play in our relations with one another? In this post series – presuming I stick to my intended route, the lamp of the hope I have for this writing – I aim to consider what is common to us and what is made uncommon. I want to try to understand my wandering away from faith – my sense of betrayal and my failure to believe – in conversation with Esposito’s theory that community is not a thing but rather a no-thing which unites us in our incompleteness, which forces our transformation in light of the debt we owe each other, the gift of ourselves that we must give and that we receive in the act of giving. Because there are a multitude of us out here in this outer dark, and we have nothing in common.