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Volume 14, Issue 3: Incarantus

Knowing is Community

Douglas Jones

Individualism is hard to see, and Modernity wants to keep it that way. Rene Descartes didn't even have to argue for his individualistic approach to knowledge. By then, everyone accepted it as reality; they accepted that reality was most fundamentally made up of individual, atomistic things—horses, guns, minds—all floating on their own power, not dependent on anything else to exist. Things could be made out of smaller individuals, but everything fell apart naturally into individuals, not one big Oneness or natural collectives. To exist was to be an individual thing. And so Descartes could write in his famous modern creed, "I will now close my eyes, I will stop my ears, I will turn away my senses from their objects. . . . and thus, holding converse only with myself, and closely examining my nature, I will endeavor to obtain by degrees a more intimate and familiar knowledge of myself. I am a thinking thing" (Meditations, 3,1). And nearly four hundred years later, contemporary analytic philosophy, still playing within Descartes' dictates can make the same individualistic assumption. Robert Audi writes, "Some beliefs arise from other beliefs. . . . What I conclude—the conclusion I draw—I in some sense derive from something else I believe. The concluding and the beliefs are mental."

In both these cases and all their friends in-between, it's as if only individual minds exist; they are the source and final court for anything to count as knowledge. Individual beliefs, one stacked on the next, count toward knowledge, and individual minds tell us what is possible and impossible. Consequently, they only see individuals in the world. Collectivity, corporateness, community, covenant, are just shades. And anyone who questions the primacy of individuality will be counted arrogant.
But Christianity is all about questioning such claims (and so it always appears arrogant to Moderns). And yet, Enlightenment individualism is simply a Trinitarian heresy. Some philosophical views take refuge in the opposite Trinitarian heresy—oneness, pantheism, monism. The Enlightenment prefers to exalt plurality, the individual. Neither view gives any place to a true Trinitarian one-in-three and three-in-one; they can't handle drama. An individualistic approach to knowledge isn't a transcendent neutral method; it's just another Modern prejudice.
The Incarnation speaks directly to this aspect of knowing as well. Incarnational reflection on knowledge certainly wouldn't just jump to the opposite side and deny all individual aspects of knowing. The Incarnation is the expression of the Trinity, and the Trinity guarantees a place for both unity and plurality and genuine individuals. (Christian medieval reflection on individuality helped bring the overthrow of Hellenism.) Each person of the Trinity is a unique individual interdependent with the others. The Incarnation itself was a unique and individual expression of the full Godhead as Man. But this individuality is never autonomous, it is relational and interpenetrating.
Previous aspects of poetic knowledge discussed in this column have often shown relational or communal aspects: knowing is doing, presence, story, loving. But the communal also plays a normative role in knowing. In the Incarnation, Christ came from a society (the Trinity) to represent another society (the Church), and, through the Spirit, the Incarnation also lives through this community. He lives through the Church as a teaching tradition (Jn. 10:35; Jude 1:3; 2 Thess. 3:6), as a source of sacramental life (Jn. 6:35; 1 Cor. 10:16), and as a real judicial authority (Acts 15; Eph. 4:11).
This ecclesiastical community is an interdependent body, with no foot or eye or tooth or brain able to stand on its own (1 Cor. 12:12ff.). And this interrelationship carries over into our understanding of knowing. We often give lipservice to community, but then act like individualistic Modernists. We assume that we can live apart from friends and relatives, set up teachers, believe novelties, interpret Scripture, and truly know things all by ourselves. But the reality is that Christ promised that the Spirit would lead the Church into all truth, not lone rangers (Jn. 16:7_13). We are to live in communion with the Church now and with the fathers of the past, as tangled as that sometimes might get.
We reflect the Trinity by being designed to live and know in community. Descartes imagined he had an lone-ranger mind, but in truth it couldn't stand on its own; he depended upon the world around him—bread, sunshine, water, trees—and even the very language in which he wrote was a communal product of centuries. Individuals are built to be interdependent; we are designed to fall outward into others and have them fall into us, all the while retaining our uniquenesses. We absorb and are absorbed.
That is why Scripture can say, "Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners" (1 Cor. 15:33). Our Modernity often blinds us to the weight of this sort of command. We think we can always stand on our own strength despite any close association with paganism, whether college, entertainment, business, or friends. But we are built to morph toward the dominant community. That's why being in the right community is crucial to knowing. If we're not interdependent with the right people, namely a healthy covenant community, then our knowing will be skewed and become more twisted over time—a kidney or heart implanted in an auto engine grinds down pretty quickly.

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