The Question of Cohesion

cohesionI recently had a conversation with a married friend about the routines and habits of the single life.  He had recently spoken to a relative who often lived far away from his spouse; the spouse had been a very real example of the role routines play in helping someone often alone feel a sense of what Comment editor Brian Dijkema would call integrity.  The term is often used of the correspondence between one’s interior life and exterior actions, which is why the concept of cohesion is good, too.

In his upcoming editorial for the journal of public theology, Dijkema asserts:

In many ways, of course, we are thriving. Our lives and our work might look okay in any given moment, but in the quiet of the night, or as we walk out the door in the morning, we sense, as Jonathan Chaplin notes in this issue, “a disturbingly elusive sense of dis-integration.” We feel it when we come home from work and ask ourselves the question: “What did I do today?” Or, when then child doing her homework asks: “What does my physics homework have to do with that beggar I saw on the street?” When the chemist asks: “Should I make this compound?” When we step out of the polling booth, we ask: “Is that it?” Or, as you say your prayers before heading to bed, you look back on your day, and count the ways in which your words, your deeds—your desires—are painfully subluxated from what you want to do. Why did I do that again?

Points for working in “sublimated.”  These are good questions to ask, for sure.  But if we ask them regularly, if we never answer them in the first place, we should admit something is wrong.  They are canary questions in an existential coal-mine.  And Dijkema, as so many others, feels that something is deeply and deceptively wrong with our life together today.  Fragmentation and isolation are words that Dijkema uses . . . and that are words often used by others today.  Dijkema sees this happening on multiple levels.  He continues:

We experience this fragmentation both personally and politically. The individual’s lack of a sense of cohesion has its mirror image in institutional isolation. Given that to live in a modern society is to live in a differentiated society, and given that Christian social thought has articulated the goodness of such differentiation, how can we live well when such differentiation becomes fragmentation, compartmentalization, dis-integrating us as a society but also personally or existentially? We typically understand integrity as living an authentic life—a life where one’s actions are consistent with one’s beliefs. But that is not enough. Indeed, understanding integrity in this purely individualist way leads to the social vision of coherence proffered by liberal individualism. It just happens that this vision ends up leaving the individual lost and disconnected from others, from meaning, and, as Patrick Deneen notes, from both the past and the future. The fractures appear permanent, maybe even eternal.

And so the return to the dangers of the “individualist” way of life, which is something, too, disagree with.  Which can sound frustrating coming from the mouth of a single guy.  I like Dijkema’s use of concept of differentiation, particularly as it applies to cohesion.  But I also witness and experience firsthand that damage that can be done by fragmentation, compartmentalization, and dis-integration.  And I fight against it every day, even when I’m spending time by myself (like now, as I write this at the downtown Starbucks after a busy day at work).

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These concepts and questions will be important for a church or Christian community attempting to make sense of the popular culture.  They will also help us call into question our assumptions about the viability of community amongst between married couples, couple with families, and singles.  I was in a meeting just yesterday where it was clear to me that we have real work in understanding the weird forms of isolation right in front of us (with the isolation of the family perhaps being the weirdest and most-difficult-to-pin-down of all).

You can read all of Dijkema’s editorial here.  It’s a good deposit for what should be another great issue of a great journal.

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