Community + God: Inextricable?
I’ve been thinking about community for a good twenty years now; around the same amount of time that I’ve been thinking about God. I realize now that my ponderings on these notions are actually one and the same; my search for community has always really been about my search for God. It was always a search for the spaces that bring a sense of wholeness, of belonging and meaning, and therefore of the sacred in our lives.
Having been born on a small Portuguese island and moving to Canada as a very young child meant that—similar to a great many Canadians—love-ties and geography have never fit neatly together. Community and home weren’t something given to me so much as they were something to find and create, and a big part of that process was about finding myself. But here too, the categories are not neat and orderly; who I was at twenty is different from who I am now. Our person grows and evolves, or at least it should, and what we love and how we order our lives changes over time. Our human experience is dynamic and complex, and so too are the places and communities in which we dwell across time.
But in the constant flow of life, there is also the longing for rest and home: a place of deep relationships, where we are understood and loved—without trying, and with all of our imperfections. A place where our intentions weigh more than our mistakes, and our fragilities matter less than the condition of our heart. A place where charity abounds and time slows, where love cultivates and transcends.
There is something primordial and sacred in this longing, for it is both ever-present and unsatisfying. It is ever-present despite the increasing pace and distraction of life. And there is a restlessness in this longing because we seem to seek something that is always just beyond our view. We begin to consider whether this place is really a place at all. Perhaps it rests more accurately in the longing of our hearts and our imaginations. Perhaps this longing is really a longing for the sacred, but it plays out somehow in our imaginings of community.
There is a mysterious link between the primordial human need for love and home and the ability to transcend community. The local is somehow integral to what lies beyond. Perhaps it is as Edmund Burke explains: “To love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle . . . of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” To understand community, one must therefore begin by understanding the needs of the human person: What does it mean to be human? Where do we find love and belonging? What kinds of communities cultivate human flourishing? How does this proceed to love of country and mankind?
Early on in asking these questions, I reviewed various literature sets: creative communities, complete communities, healthy communities, thriving communities, to name a few. Each of these outlines components of the ideal community, but the ideals are often described in utilitarian terms: How do things look and how do things work? What mix of lifestyle options or services are available? To what extent is the community walkable, and how often do neighbours interact with one another? Valid questions, yes, and useful to various kinds of community developers, but I was longing for a theory that rested on a fuller and richer understanding of the human person—the plight of the human person within community. For this I needed to look elsewhere.
I became intrigued with the work of Amartya Sen, an Indian economist and philosopher who was interested in the problems of society’s poorest members. Sen’s Capability Approach offered a methodology for understanding human development that was defined less by the availability of means to the good life, but rather by the individual’s capacity to achieve the kind of life he or she has reason to value. In other words, Sen was honing in on preferential choice and moral agency, a radical idea for those studying and ultimately trying to serve the poorest of the poor. Reflecting on this early focus in my work, I realize now that Sen’s emphasis on the deep needs of the person, to include the ability to pursue “what matters most,” has certain important parallels to the more recent discourse on conscience rights. The notion that our development and policy thinking should be informed by an understanding of the deepest things that make us human seemed intuitively true and important to me, and for this reason Sen’s work held deep appeal.
Fast-forward a number of years, a number of children later, and a different season of life, and my research began to focus more on education policy, with questions of community and the human person still at the very centre of my thinking. We are now in a different time. Western society is in a state of frenzied unrest. While we’re increasingly connected, many have become more lonely. While we’re increasingly educated, many cannot find meaning and purpose. And while we become increasingly good at navigating a world of dizzying social mediums, many crave a time with more simplicity and less distraction. A human scale to life seems increasingly at odds with life itself, and the most prevalent pathologies show themselves now in the daunting numbers of people suffering from mental-health disorders, addictions, and loneliness.
The human spirit quietly witnesses all of this outward clatter. And I see human development now as a long and coherent journey of the human spirit in search of belonging, meaning, a sense of wholeness, and the divine. I see the journey continue now in the plight of my children and in the children around them; in their loud and interconnected world and in their schools. And perhaps a bit of weariness and fatigue has settled in midlife—because I understand also the need to retreat and cocoon in the familiar. Not necessarily so that I can stay there, but so that I can find nourishment before I venture out again. It seems to me that at this particular juncture in time, it is longing for deep community that silently, almost subconsciously, gains momentum in the collective human spirit. And I think about all of this now in relation to educational policy, school culture, and our children.
Educational reform must be the most political of all reforms. Conversations about educational reform rarely begin with the needs of the child, despite the popular claim. Instead, ideological positions are normally staked far in advance. Institutions have been built—and large ones. We’re no longer starting from ground zero, and powerful interest groups on both sides of the ideological fence are vying for moral superiority and political victory.
But let’s try for a moment to imagine a clean slate—without all the structure and noise. And let’s imagine an educational system that respects the deep needs of the human child for love, belonging, and the sacred. There are a great many philosophers and educational thinkers that have begun exactly here. “Man is a person,” Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain once wrote, “who does not merely exist as a physical being. . . . The true end of education, therefore, is to guide man in the evolving dynamism through which he shapes himself as a human person” to form the inner world of a human being—what Margarita Mooney describes as “the conscience of the person that can perceive and respond to a transcendent reality.” The process of education is at root, she explains, “a process of growing and reaching. . . . We long to accompany each other on our quest for the infinite.” And more recently, Pope Francis addressed the participants at the International Conference for Leaders of Catholic Universities by explaining, “Today, we need to remember more than ever that all teaching entails questioning the ‘why.’ . . . Education reduced to mere technical instruction, or mere passing on of information, becomes an alienated and fragmented education. To believe that we can transmit knowledge without concern for its ethical dimension is essentially to abandon the task of teaching.” Education is therefore as much about reaching and contemplation as much as it is about memorizing and knowing, perhaps even more so. It is about understanding the things of the world and then reflecting on our part within it.
But where do we find these schools—the schools that understand and cultivate the inner needs of the child? And from a policy perspective, what are the needed conditions for their success? I see the deeply rooted needs of the child in school not unlike my own for deep community. Surely, a community of real and deep learning must also be one of trust and charity, for the process of learning itself is fraught with failure, but the child must learn to continue and reach despite this. And this is important not only for the child but also for society itself, for—recalling Burke—to love the little platoons is a first principle that then proceeds to love of country and mankind. Deep community, human flourishing, and our reaching for the divine are intricately connected, whether one reflects back on life, or envisions forward in terms of the needs of our children and their schools.
What do the realities of today mean—with their complexities, speed, and interconnections—for the human development of the child, and what does this suggest for our educational models? The Cardus Education Survey has, for nearly a decade, collected a nationally representative sample of data from twenty-five- to thirty-nine-year-old graduates of public and independent schools in order to understand their perceptions, choices, and life patterns across a number of important domains. Our data makes clear that independent schools often offer thick and coherent communities where families and school members collectively understand and live out a set of shared liturgies and ways of living, and where meaning is expressed in these shared norms of behaviour. The coherent and yet particular nature of these communities, together with their deep alignment with family—the child’s first community—comes together to provide further coherence, safety, and opportunity for the child to flourish spiritually and relationally. There are some very valuable lessons to be learned here about the conditions for well-being. Cardus Education data has consistently demonstrated that independent-school graduates, and especially Protestant-school graduates, were much more likely than their public-school cohorts to look back favourably on their high-school years. They were much more likely to report having teachers who cared and were in strongest agreement that their high-school was close-knit. They also generally felt more prepared for relationships in life. In addition, these graduates were also less likely than public-school graduates to feel helpless in dealing with life’s problems and more likely to report having much to be thankful for. In short, while their contributions are often overlooked, many Christian and other kinds of schools operate as distinctive “spaces of grace” that nurture belonging, meaning, and purpose for developing hearts and minds.
Taking all this together, and despite the need for improvement in all school sectors and schools, our data points to the dehumanizing potential of a large and monolithic public system that no longer serves the deep needs of many of our children in a deeply plural society. While recognizing the value of a great many public schools and public school teachers, our aim at Cardus is not to diminish the public system, but rather to expand it to include support for traditionally independent schools. In this way we seek a reconceptualization of what is considered “public” to reflect and leverage the deeply held convictions, particularities, and capacities within society, and because a one-stop-shop never serves all well.
In our frenzied and complicated world, as we look at the perplexing statistics on youth well-being, there is perhaps nothing more important at this moment in time than understanding the conditions for child flourishing. Paradoxically, as our capacity for choice and speed expands in Western society, there is a countering and seemingly primordial need for rest, ritual, and deep relationships. We crave a human-scaled life. The search for belonging, meaning, and truth is a universal one, shaped and enabled over the centuries by communities—faith and otherwise—of shared liturgies and understandings. Our longing for community is mysteriously connected to our longing for the divine, and more than ever, the public debate on education needs to begin here.