We are born into community. We grow inside another human being and spend the first few years of our lives in absolute dependence on that person and on the others who closely surround us. The ones near to us provide us with more than our bodily needs. Our very self - our sense of who we are - is primarily built as we see ourselves reflected back in the words and behaviour of others.

Before we can talk, this reflection is, obviously, non verbal. It is kinesthetic. In the way we are held, in the regularity with which we are fed and cleaned, in the warmth -physical and emotional - of our surroundings, we find the earliest information about the world and how we relate to it. Later, we listen to the words said to us and about us. Later still we observe, and with a growing theory of mind, are able to perceive other people as separate personalities with their own points of view, and we are able to build ourselves by comparison, identification and imitation. As our perception broadens we take on the mores of our family, tribe and culture. Sometimes a sudden shock or a moment of revelation can have a deep and lasting effect on our sense of self, but usually it is the words and actions of others, repeated day after day, year after year, which forms who we are, and gives us a sense of being a separate entity with a distinct and unique personality.

The stories told by others about us shape us when they become stories we tell to ourselves. We are, for example, impervious to our schoolmates calling us "loser" right up to the point that we acquiesce and say to ourselves, "yes, I am a loser". We are reflected back initially from a small group of people, but the range of "reflectors" gets larger as we grow older. Firstly it consists of our mother and the rest of our family; then our wider family, and our peer group. Then the various sub groups we identify with, the heroes we try and emulate and the general voice of our culture. The process of building a self follows a fairly predictable pattern, spelled out in detail, and with differing emphases by, for example, Piaget, Erickson, and James Fowler. I don't want to go into too much detail here, other than to point out some implications for our spiritual development:

1. Spiritual development is impossible without community. It doesn't matter, I suppose, what that community is, but we will not grow as people in the values we aspire to unless those values are reflected back to us. We therefore need a community where people are at least trying to do this.

2. Spiritual development is ALWAYS ethical development. We are reflectors for all those we come into contact with, and are therefore partially responsible for their sense of self. It MATTERS how we treat them.

3. There is nothing in our sense of self that is unchangeable. The stories about ourselves that we have learned to parrot from others can all be changed...

4. ...and from 3. it follows that there is nothing in our sense of self that is, ultimately, permanent. "We shall all be changed, in the twinkling of an eye..."

5. You need your sense of self to grow as a sentient being, but don't go getting too attached to it. Don't go getting all protective and indignant about your "real self". One day you will need to put it aside as a butterfly puts aside its cocoon.


Simon said…
I think your butterfly analogy is a useful one. Our identity as a caterpillar serves a useful purpose, but if we cling too closely to it, we will never achieve our full potential.
Anonymous said…
" Spiritual development is impossible without community. It doesn't matter, I suppose, what that community is, but we will not grow as people in the values we aspire to unless those values are reflected back to us." ???? Come on Kelvin, of course it matters what sort of community one is in! There are far too many communities where the values work to harm - either by negating worth - of the individual "Loser!" - or even of the community within the larger society.
Then there are communities where the values are very strong - but which you or I would hesitate to ascribe to - and which can also, therefore, damage the individual who wants to make a different set of choices. Bill feels very strongly about this in The Virgin In the Garden, - it is what motivates all his participation in the WEA - as you are presumably discovering as you read it....
VenDr said…
Of course you are right, it matters what SORT of community one is in, which is what, I was trying, clumsily, to say - that what is important about the community is precisely that it reflects back the life giving values that your need to grow into but that this can happen in a range of different communities - or not as the case may be

Of course in the best of all possible worlds the church is always one of those life giving places to be, but as we know, Bill's assessment of the church as a life giving community is too often quite accurate.
Simon said…
Hi again Kelvin - I had to come back because this has been bugging me. I haven't studied this area in the way that you obviously have, but is spiritual development really *impossible* without community? I can see that a nurturing community will be helpful, but is it really vital?

The way I see things, we are born with an innate sense of what is right and a connection with the divine. As we grow, and the community around us teaches us to identify more with our egoic self, we tend to lose that connection. As it imposes its own sense of values upon us, we tend to rely on that and lose faith in our own instinctive 'knowing'.

Later, if we find a nurturing, spiritual community, it may help us to find our way back, but like the prodigal son we are returning to something from which we have strayed, something which has always been ours though we did not know it.
Anonymous said…

You write, "1. Spiritual development is impossible without community."

But where is the community? "Community" must mean a willingness to meld with others, to accept that others may be right, to back off the assertion of my needs to recognise other's needs are as important as mine, big etc. In every parish I have been in, with one exception I think, I have had to cope with, "I will belong to this parish as long as I get what I want. If someone else gets what they want at some other time, that is none of my business; When I am here I get what I want or I withdraw." Such a position is hardly belonging to a community. It might be called physical presence.
To be a member of a community is to be knocked about a bit.
Thinking as I write, isn't this the present tension in the Anglican church, and Lambeth in particular? "I will join with you as long as my values are your values." Community cannot be a group of people who agree on all things. Community must be a people who are willing to have hard corners knocked off to achieve the greater good.
Community, yes. The response is not a shout of 'hallelujah' but a hesitation at the possible cost.
Bill Schroeder
Vendr said…
Simon, I agree with what you say, it's a matter of definitions. We are born into Eden, where God walks in the garden in the cool of the day. We are one with everything, and we are, in a sense alone - there is no real boundaries between us and every thing else that is. We are not supposed to stay there,however and to move away requires the development of a sense of self. We become - we ARE; we develop this illusion of selfhood by way of he community which surrounds us. Inevitably the developing sense of self means we unlearn - we overlay - the truth of what we really are.

This state is not static and he quest to develop our self and to protect it, especially from the frightening reality that it is all actually an illusion, occupies most of humanity most of the time. Inevitably, sooner or later, we are all get challenged to move on. The self is a Chrysallis in which the real purposes for us develop: which is the unlearning of what is false, and the entry again into the sense of oneness from which we all started - only the reentry comes from a new perspective: we carry back the wisdom and awareness we have developed in a lifetime of struggle with the world.

The process by which we make this movement - the shift from what William Blake calls Experience to Second Innocence is what we call religion. To make the shift requires a community and this can be either formal or informal. Take a look at your blogroll - it is a sort of informal community of those people you have selected to speak to and listen to - those who will reflect back to you the ideas and concepts you know you need to move onwards.

Without a community are ideas are merely possibilities that are never realised (ie made real) or we run great dangers - of becoming inflated and destroyed as our ego shapes what we think and twists it to its own ends. I think that the safest communities are the great world faiths where most of he conceivable traps of inflation have been long since worked out, but what do you do when the great faiths no longer seem to speak in ways which assist people on the path to growth? - his is precisely the situation for many in my wider community, the Anglican Church, right now.