Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

C.S. Lewis and Community

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As Americans, we value the freedom to choose. We honor the initiative and individuality of each person. We value independence and self-reliance, and this is a good thing to some extent.

Yet our culture is becoming increasingly focused on self, as illustrated by the recent media attention regarding the millennial generation. Cindy Perman, writing for USA Today, observed,

 A recent study shows the “ME ME ME” generation didn’t just spring up overnight. The shift toward “me” has been going on for a couple of centuries as society moved toward an urban setting from a rural one and with the rise of technology and the availability of education.

There are many benefits to living in a society that values individuality so highly, but it is also helpful to think of our uniqueness in the context of community. If we use our distinct gifts and talents to serve others, we will be able to leverage our differences to productively help each other.

Though written over half a century ago, C.S. Lewis’ essay entitled “Membership,” addresses these exact concerns over the tension between individuality and community. Though Lewis is describing membership in the Church as the Body of Christ, his view of community can inform the way that we relate to others in our workplace and in society at large.

Membership in the Church

As Christians, we are members of one Church, all working toward the same goal: glorifying the Lord. We function as a community.

Though there is a sense of unity, the community highlights our individuality. Lewis says,

The Christian life defends the single personality from the collective, not by isolating him but by giving him the status of an organ in a mystical body.

1 Corinthians 12:21-22 compares the church body to the human body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.

Just as that single organ cannot function without the rest of the body, the rest of the body cannot function without that organ. Likewise, becoming part of the church body and using your particular gifts and talents to serve others will simultaneously bring you into community and highlight your individuality.

Membership at Work

A functional organization seeks out people with many different capabilities. Moreover, the best teams within that organization are not comprised of disconnected individuals, but of members as Lewis defines them:

It must be most emphatically stated that items or particulars included in a homogenous class are almost the reverse of what St. Paul meant by members. By members ([Greek]) he meant what we should call organs, things essentially different from, and complementary to, another, things differing not only in structure and function, but also in dignity.

For example, to publish a magazine, it’s not enough to have good writers. You also need someone who can market your publication, someone who knows how to solicit story topics, a graphic designer, etc.

Because of their different skills and capabilities, each team member has a different comparative advantage, meaning that they can each do certain tasks at a lower cost and in a shorter timeframe than anyone else.

At work, we celebrate the fact that we each have different strengths, interests, and abilities. These help us to support each other as a team.

Membership in Society

Secular society does not reflect the Church perfectly, nor should it. It often ignores the differences inherent in each individual in an attempt to establish equality among everyone. Lewis explains:

What we should call the members of the club are merely units. A row of identically dressed and identically trained soldiers set side by side, or a number of citizens listed as voters in a constituency are not members of anything in the Pauline sense…we mean only that he is a unit, that he is one more specimen of some kind of things as X and Y and Z.

But even in society at large, we constantly demonstrate our uniqueness and our need for each other.

Markets can help us do this. On one hand, they are compatible with the depersonalized equality inherent in today’s Western society. We often do not know who we are trading with, yet we trust them to provide us with honest service and a good product.

At the same time, markets allow us to leverage our differences. Through them, we are able to exchange the goods and services that we can easily produce for products that are more difficult for us to produce. Market trade celebrates our individuality by allowing us to serve each other through our unique gifts and talents.

In his essay, C.S. Lewis described the Church as a community which requires and celebrates individuality, even as each person becomes more unified with the Body of Christ. Though this model for community is most complete in the Church, we can use it to redeem all areas of life, including our daily work and our interactions with society at large.

How can we build community in the Church, at work, and in society at large? Leave your comments here.

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  • anarchobuddy

    I’m wondering, and anyone is welcome to answer, whether you see community as an inclusive or exclusive institution. I had always thought of it as the former, but when someone described marriage as a community of the latter, I am not sure what to think.

    • keshelman

      Thanks for commenting. I think that it can be both, depending on the institution. Marriage is obviously exclusive. The church SHOULD be inclusive, although sinful people often make sure that is not the case. I think that while there are some communities that are naturally inclusive, you still must work to take advantage of that. If you want to join a group of friends for instance, you have to show that you want to spend time with them and share both the joys and hardships of friendship. I hope this helps.

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