You don't get to choose who is in the pew with you. And that's a good, even great, thing.
In the modern world, “The question of identity has changed from being something you are born with to a task: you have to create your own community.” Here’s the problem: “communities aren’t created, and you either have one or you don’t.”
So argued one of the world’s major sociologists, Zygmunt Bauman, who died a couple weeks ago. I quote him because I think his insight tells us something about the Church. The Church is one of the few places that gives us a community, and because of that, it’s one of the few places we can really learn charity.
Our liquid identities
Bauman’s best known for his idea of “liquid modernity.” It’s his term for what is usually called “postmodernity.” Once, we had settled identities and belonged in settled communities. Now, we live with “the growing conviction that change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty.”
Because we don’t live in communities, we replace them with social networks. He spoke about social media to El Pais, but what he says is usually true of our circle of friends and what we think of as our real life.
The difference between a community and a network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you. You feel in control. You can add friends if you wish, you can delete them if you wish. You are in control of the important people to whom you relate.
We don’t learn what we should learn. “It’s so easy to add or remove friends on the internet that people fail to learn the real social skills, which you need when you go to the street, when you go to your workplace, where you find lots of people who you need to enter into sensible interaction with.” Most people
…use social media not to unite, not to open their horizons wider, but on the contrary, to cut themselves a comfort zone where the only sounds they hear are the echoes of their own voice, where the only things they see are the reflections of their own face. Social media are very useful, they provide pleasure, but they are a trap.
The trap and the Church
The Church provides one of the few places left that’s more like a community than a network. Even the town or neighborhood is more the place your home is located than a community. Outside of work, which runs by its own rules, you live your life with the people you like, which usually means people very much like you.
Of course, the Church is somewhat of a social network. We all agree on some unusual beliefs and some culturally eccentric practices. We usually share a lot more than that, not least economic class.
Still, in the average Catholic parish you find a lot of people who are not like you in any way other than being Catholic. You wouldn’t think to invite them into your social network and they wouldn’t invite you into theirs. You find many with whom you have nothing in common besides the Church — and, you both may sometimes feel, not even that.
They’re wealthier or poorer, more or less educated than you. They may be of a different race or ethnic group or age than you. The Church mixes cradle Catholics and converts, townies and new arrivals, Democrats and Republicans (even socialists and libertarians), extroverts and introverts, lovers of chant and “On Eagle’s Wings,” people who save their money for the ballet and others who save for the hockey game, some who love theology and some who don’t see the point. Often your grasp of the world differs so much you might as well be speaking different languages.
That’s a gift. With these people, people you did not choose and would not have chosen, you plan CCD classes or the RCIA program, figure out how to pay for the new furnace and whether to raise money to clean the stained glass or fix the organ. They tell you what to do when you help with the parish fish fry or the rummage sale. You have to talk to them at meetings without mentioning your favorite apologist or complaining about “On Eagle’s Wings.”
That’s one of the great things about the Church, and especially the local branch. It’s a community you didn’t choose. You can’t control it. It forces your horizons wider. You have to learn to love these people, or a least to act lovingly, when you don’t want to. The Church’s life teaches you charity in a way you couldn’t learn from your social network. Just try to agree on a CCD curriculum with someone who loves “On Eagle’s Wings” (or if you like it, with someone who loves chant).