Understanding Community as Communing

An excerpt from ‘Peacefulness – Being Peace and Making Peace’ from Scherto Gill.

In this chapter I explore a different way of understanding community – community as communing and focus the discussion on those conceptions of community that stress the relational nature of our being. I argue that this relational way of being is being-with which finds its source in the mystery of being human, in our intersubjectivity.72 This is where peacefulness lies and where being peace begins and making peace in the world becomes possible. Embedded in the conception of peace in this book is an active and even proactive form of relating which rejects a static and passive way of being in the world. Indeed, as I shall illustrate through the different ingredients of communing, our relational way of being peace is the basis of political activism, cultural innovation and social transformation towards a betterment of humanity.

To deepen our understanding of community as communing, this chapter first investigates such questions as: ‘How do we understand our being as being-with?’; ‘What does it mean to be in a community through being- with?’ and ‘How will being-with each other and being-with the ultimate or divine Other change our being-with the world?’ It then proposes a set of key aspirations that not only illustrate how we might commune with all that is, but also keep alive the idea of the wholeness of being, at the heart of which lies the flourishing of all (that is, humankind, other beings and the planet), including the flourishing of our relationships. Finally, by reflecting on how these different values can be creatively nurtured, pursued and lived in the day-to-day lives of people, this chapter highlights the salient connection between relationships, dialogue and peace in the world.

Understanding Community as Communing

There has been an overall assumption that community is good and desirable, if not an imperative to our way of being together. Sociologists, philosophers, psychologists, peace researchers and educationalists are amongst those who have promoted the notion of community. The idea of global community is even more inspiring as a vision of peace and harmony amongst the diverse people on the planet. Although there is not an ultimate definition of community, there are, however, compelling and convergent ideas emerging from the different conceptions of community.

Amongst them is the proposal that our being is fundamentally relational, that community reflects the social and interdependent nature of our being. In this sense, our being is always already ‘being-with’. The word ‘with’ really captures the essence of our being – a genuine coesse, (co-being, or being- with), a mutual presence or co-presence, which is found in love, trust and respect for each other.

For the purposes of our discussion, we distinguish three kinds of being- with: (1) being-with others; (2) being-with the divine Other; (3) being-with the world, including the social and natural world. I will now turn to each separately and then will later bring them together to discuss community as communing.

Being with others: Human life is simultaneously material, emotional, intellectual, social, moral and spiritual and comprises diverse experiences, activities and processes. As life itself has intrinsic value, then so does the person who is living such a life. This points to the moral nature of being human, central to which is an acceptance of other people as moral beings who are equally worthy of our love and respect, however different they may be from ourselves.

At the same time, being human involves being aware that we are finite, and our ways of being, our practices and worldviews are always situated in our histories, memories, collective wounds, religious teachings, cultural traditions and communal journeys. So it is imperative for us to engage with others and their otherness, and to be in relationship with others in order to overcome our limitedness and to transcend the human condition.73 In this way, our growth is not only enriched by those others we encounter, but it is also codependent on the growth of others and the development of humanity as a whole.74

This inherently relational way of being human challenges the predominant Western individualism, a mentality which tends to put ‘me’ first, and gives priority to the individual’s self-interest, self-perfection and self-actualisation. What is favoured in the individualistic orientation is competitiveness, dominance, control, fear of others and fear of difference, hence the resulting separation, alienation and annihilation, as well as the constant risk and threat of violence. People, groups and society will experience a lack of peacefulness whenever there is too much self-absorption and self-obsession. Where relationships are encouraged, and even at all possible, they are largely instrumental, aimed at serving a goal for individual pursuit or success. This also means that relationships are part of the cost-effect calculation: “How much time and money will it cost me to develop a relation- ship with X? And what will X offer me in return?”

By contrast, the relational vision of one’s self is not situated in a static way of being, instead, it is the locus of ‘all intelligible action.’75 Thus, peace depends on the care devoted to relationships and relational processes. In this way, the self should never be understood as a singular bounded individual, but instead, each person experiences him or herself as a relational being, the meaningfulness of whose existence is intimately connected to that of others.76

When understanding our way of being from such a relational perspective, we can see that the person is a participating subject whose being and acting is achieved through relationships with others and our co-presence in the world, an illustration of being-with.77 The notion of a participating subject implies that as a person, we view ourselves as a being among beings. This affirms that each of us is an end in him or herself, rather than an object in the world. Here participation involves the presence of one’s self with other persons, other beings, and with the world. Gabriel Marcel calls this disponibilité, or availing. This is achieved when we are communing with others, in an interdependent and mutually constitutive relationship.

This leads us to suggest a further point that each person is also a contrib- uting subject, where we view ourselves as a being for other beings, whose relationship with others is realised through a form of care, respect, and deep concern for others in the world. This caring can also be directed at one’s self. As Parker Palmer points out, our self is the only gift we can offer to others, and whenever we listen to our self and give it the care it needs, we are at the same time caring for others.78 We contribute through our being and availing ourselves to others, through our growth and development, our synergetic relationship with others, and through our service to others and to the world at large.

Other thinkers have characterised this way of being-with as the fellowship of men and women. For instance, Scottish philosopher, John Macmurray, draws our attention to the irreducible importance of the other in our own life and in our own being, stressing the intersubjective nature of trans- cendent human conditions.79 He maintains that the presence of the other is imperative in our own being a person and claims that there can be no person whatsoever, without two persons in relation. Macmurray suggests that to be in relationship with someone, such as to love another person, means that we are aware of the other “more and more completely and delicately”. This relationship is not instrumental or what he calls functional, instead, it defines the natural way that we take delight in the other’s exist- ence for its own sake. Being-with others, according to Macmurray, is the only way of being human.

We can further elucidate this ethical nature of being-with by using Martin Buber’s exploration of an ‘I-thou’ relationship.80 According to Buber, we humans possess a two-fold attitude towards the world: the ‘I-Thou’ and the ‘I-It.’ The ‘I-Thou’ relationship stresses the mutual and holistic exist- ence of two entities. It is an encounter of equals who recognise each other as such. The ‘I-Thou’ relationship contains a dialogue. By contrast, the ‘I-It’ relationship emphasises the other being as an object to be used or instrumentalised, and experienced as a means to an end, failing to recog- nise the other as an equal or of having equal worth to oneself. The ‘I-It’ relationship contains no dialogue and, instead, it involves distancing where the division between the two is accentuated and the uniqueness of ‘I’ stressed. As a result, the ‘I’ is separated from the self it encounters. The latter is a reflection of the crisis of being in a modern society, as already discussed, where an emphasis on the self makes it more and more difficult for us to encounter the Other, including God or anything divine (see the next section).

So being human is being in communion (in a non-religious sense) with other human beings. This ‘I-Thou’ relationship determines our being itself to be a form of meeting, communing and dialogue. This brings us back to Marcel’s vision that sees each of us as a participating subject. In this sense, our life itself becomes an encounter and dialogue. Likewise, to be in the world as a contributing subject is to collaborate with others in service to goodness for each other and for the world. This two-fold orientation towards self as a pathway to transcendence and transformation in the world reflects the true essence of being-with. So long as we are actively living out our life as human beings, we are already in community, in communing. Communing is action-oriented, which stresses the proactive nature of our being-with.

Thus community is a form of communing where individuals engage in the mutuality of relating and relatedness, as equals. According to Macmurray, being equal has nothing to do with having or possessing things of equivalence, such as equal abilities, equal rights, equal functions or any other kind of de facto equality. This equality means that within a community, no person will treat others as a mere function or a role-occupant. The equality is intentional: it is an aspect of the mutuality of communing and relating. It depicts the essence of love.

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