Aristotle, George Vaillant, and Cafechurch

It’s been a little while since I worked on my apologia pro vita sua thread – more than time to return to it. I had a bash at this article over the weekend, and ultimately didn’t like it much, which is why this is a bit later than usual – I’d rather be late with a reasonable post than on time with a bad one! Sounds trivial when I write it, but it was a struggle to admit it to myself yesterday.

So far I’ve talked about the conversation and the book which serve as basic intellectual spurs for my quest; my experience of suffering at Lorne, and  the 5000 year conversation. The next topic that occurs to me, in my unsystematic, impressionistic way, is the value of community, leading to a first pass at the vexed question of what church is for, and why I bother with it.

I wish I had a good, clear, punchy story to tell about this. But by its very nature, community doesn’t lend itself to punchy stories. Its work is slow and incremental. So instead, let me tell you about two communities that I am involved in.

The whole experience of infertility is awful. This isn’t really the time to bang on about it, but take it from me: it’s dreadful. One of the worst things about it (apart from the frustration of such a basic desire) is how isolating it is – it’s very hard for people outside the experience to know what to say, and, because it drags on for such a long time, it’s hard for even the most supportive people to keep on being sympathetic.

To meet this basic problem, Anne, with another woman, and with support from the counsellors at MIVF, set up a group called Moving On, a support group for people who have been failed by IVF and are facing a life without children. We run a few open sessions a year and social activities. Over the six or seven years I’ve been involved, it has been a real place of healing for lots of people. It turns out that there is something extremely therapeutic about sharing your stories and journey with other people, people who intuitively understand what you are going through; indeed with people who are going through the same thing.

It has been a powerful source of community for me, but as the grief of infertility becomes less acute, the community which has supported me through it has also become less vital. It will always be important, because the grief will always be lurking, ready to leap out at me unexpectedly, but the grief of infertility is no longer the fundamental fact about me. Moving On is community gathered around a common purpose, and that is a good and worthy thing, but that strength is also its limitation: it is not a place where I feel accompanied in the rest of my life.

My Caféchurch story is not a million miles from my Moving On journey. It had been going a year or so before Anne and I joined, and we found it at a tough point in our lives. We had just arrived in Melbourne (where we knew basically no-one), I was unemployed (a feature of my life which seems to crop up all too often), and we were beginning our infertility journey. Add to that the series of awful experiences that befell us over the next few years (house severely damaged in a storm, fatal car accident, etc), and we were in as bad a state as I can ever remember being. The community that Caféchurch supplied was absolutely vital in building a viable life here, and it was a place where my faith was deepened, both through challenging and supportive conversations and experiences.

Of course, a church is not a therapeutic community, but there is a level of similarity. In both cases, people are sharing their lives together, trying to make sense of the tidal wave of experiences that life throws at us. There are a lot of other things that could be said about this, because the differences are instructive, and can be subtle, but the basic point here is that I think that church needs to have this sense of shared life, shared journey for it to be church at all. If, like me, you see life as a spiritual quest, then we are all adventurers together, and if there is one thing I know about adventures it is that they are safer, and more fun, undertaken in company.

A sense of shared journey – that’s the key for me, and something which sometimes seems missing in churches where aim seems to be to shove a pre-digested truth down the throats of passive consumers, where everything is static, all the questions have already been answered, and a decidedly un-generous orthodoxy rules.

The thing about community is that it can be very powerful, and, because the corruption of the best is the worst (Corruptio optimi pessima for fellow showoffs), damaging church experiences can be very damaging indeed. I have heard some terrible stories, as well as having been on the receiving end of some very ungracious behaviour myself. Nonetheless, I believe that these stories and experiences are ironic evidence of the potential power for good of community, and, while some experiences of church are so bad that one can only make a run for it, it is still worth trying to find real, authentic, questing community.

Finally, a little bit of science to back all this up. George Vaillant, head of the Harvard Grant study, a longitudinal study of life outcomes, argues that in what he terms the Decathlon of Flourishing “it was a history of warm intimate relationships—and the ability to foster them in maturity—that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.”   He included church communities as an important source of these relationships. Of course, this isn’t news – Aristotle defined humanity as “community living life forms” (zoon politikon – or, more literally, creatues who live in cities), and so we wind up where we began – back at the 5000 Year Conversation.

I like to think that, were Aristotle to visit Cafechurch, he might not find it entirely alien: a community searching for truth together, and, even though, he came from such a different culture, he would recognise that quest which defined his life still being pursued today.

A question for you: Where have you found authentic, questing, worthwhile community in your life? What made it that way?

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