The following is Part III of a talk I gave on April 2nd at the St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at the Antiochian Village. The full talk is entitled “The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism.” Read Part I and Part II. There are six parts in all.
We use the word community to mean a lot of different things these days. We talk about “community” in terms of race, partisan politics, academics, etc., but it is more and more rare to hear community used to refer to a group of people who all live and work and worship in the same place. At issue here is really communion, the coming together of separated people to share a common life. That is what communion and community are fundamentally about.
But where globalization takes the most hold, community is erased. Yes, we still have friendships and other relationships, but now we base them more and more on “things we have in common.” What we have in common is less a truly common life of interdependence with our neighbors but more often common interests, common ideas. On the whole we don’t harvest in common, shop in common, worship in common, and work in common with the people who live around us. What we now have in common is something intangible—ideology and preferences, rather than place.
The people I work with, worship with, live with, study with, and shop with may all be entirely separate groups of people. And the tenuousness of those relationships therefore depends on the maintenance of my behaviors in those disparate realms of activity. Some of them almost even preclude the possibility of relationship. I often see people I recognize in the places I go, but I have no idea what their names are, and in some places, it would probably be considered rude if I were to approach them. And if I no longer go to a particular store, I may never see someone I see there ever again. If I change churches, I may lose touch entirely with someone there.
We supposedly live in a “global village,” but if so, then it is a village where no one knows each other’s names and where no one sees each other, yet we trade bits of information and currency. That’s not like any village I’ve ever heard of. We are being presented with the illusion of community, with the virtual reality of community, yet without the solidity of it, the incarnational warmth and nearness of real community.
Why is this a spiritual problem? Why does it matter that our economies, our lives and our relationships have been so transformed? Does that somehow mean I can’t be saved, that I can’t grow in the image and likeness of Christ?
The Incarnation bears many implications within it, and place is one of them. Christ was not incarnate in a universal body killed upon a universal cross in a universal city. No, He had one body, taken from one woman, crucified on one cross in the one city of Jerusalem.
Christianity was always meant to be local, evidenced by the many small churches built in many places throughout its history, rather than this ridiculous, monocultural, globalist idea which insists that churches should resemble rock-n-roll arenas that seat thousands. Every street corner was meant to be sanctified. We were not meant to drive out of the suburbs and fill up some massive stadium in order to have a mass trance in group hysteria over a rock-n-roll band that puts Jesus’ name into otherwise secular songs which (badly) imitate the pop music of the monoculture. Yes, Christianity is a universal faith, but it is not a mass faith of faceless consumers who buy into a bland religious product.
Of course, even if you’re not a believer, the truth is that the time will likely come when our currency’s bottom will drop out or we lose our ability to travel easily and cheaply (due to a spike in transportation costs, most especially of oil). When either or both of those things happen, it will be the relationships you’ve built in your community which could not only save your life but allow you to grow and thrive while the rest of the country flails about. (It will also be the death of the mega-churches.)
More and more, I’m starting to suspect that, even if a life defined by globalization is not an outright obstacle to salvation, it is probably an impediment. The reason I think this is that what globalization has effectively done is to de-humanize us. When God made us, He made us as communal beings, people in communion with each other and also with the place where we live. When God made man, He placed him in a garden. He did not plug him into an Ethernet port. And when man sinned, the consequences of that act included exile from his place.
So we know that place has a lot to do with humanity as God created us. And sin means exile. Exile is one of the key elements of the Fall of mankind. And as Orthodox Christians, we believe that salvation consists precisely in getting up from the Fall and returning to Paradise. Another way of putting it is that salvation consists in becoming fully human. Death and corruption entered into the world with the first Adam, but the New Adam, Jesus Christ, inaugurates eternal life and incorruption. And if we are to become like the New Adam, then that means we are becoming fully human. We are not only being divinized by our contact with the divine, but we are also becoming truly humanized by that contact.
But globalization’s dehumanization of mankind introduces a new kind of problem for our theology. While the great revolution of Christian theology was that God became a man, that divine Incarnation was not only possible but the very center and height of human nature’s potential, then what happens when we lose sight of what it means to be human? The miracle of Christianity is that, through the humanity of Jesus, we access His divinity. But what happens when we cut off our access to humanity?
In some sense, I believe we have now entered into a new stage of evangelism, one in which we must not only preach the Incarnation—that through God’s humanity in Jesus we can access His divinity—but now we have to start even earlier in the chain. Now we have to show what it means simply to be human. Because if we do not know how to reach humanity, then we are cut off from divinity, and the Incarnation’s awesome power is nullified for us.
The good news of the Gospel is that Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection can save mankind. But if we are losing the very object of that salvation—mankind—then how can we be saved? We can see the repercussions around us already. Have you not noticed that those whose lives are the most thoroughly defined by the virtual, electronic reality often have the least interest in doing things like getting up from the chair and going to church?
Now, what I am saying is by no means a condemnation of all electronic communication, international shipping and commerce, etc. But when we unthinkingly embrace such things and allow our lives to be reshaped by them so profoundly, should we not consider the spiritual consequences? Is not our age one in which the primary question facing us seems to be “What is a human being?” Whether we are discussing abortion, homosexual desire, bioethics, cloning, euthanasia, and so on, it is clear that we have now reached an age in which humanity is becoming more and more uncertain as to just what it is. With lives so permeated with interchangeable technological parts, it seems almost inevitable that we would begin to look at ourselves in the same way. Without a true understanding of our humanity, then we cannot see the tragedy of sin. And if we do not see our sin, then salvation becomes irrelevant to us.
What this means for us as Christians who desire to live the Gospel and to preach the Gospel to others is that we now have the task of articulating a vigorous theology of humanity. We have arrived upon an age when we will have to show ourselves and the world just what it means to be human. Because if we do not, then we have cut ourselves off from the one conduit toward divinity that God gave us. When we look at Jesus Christ, before us stands the perfect Man. But what good is His perfection to us, if we do not even know what a man is? The Gospel’s miraculous good news is that God became a man. But if we have forgotten what a man is, then how is this good news?