This fall semester I am teaching a course on theology and suffering. The course is titled “Sin, Suffering, and the Silence of God.” It is a course I teach every few years, so it was on the schedule for this fall long before Covid-19 swept across the world. The students in this class are amazing–they always are. It is a seminar for upper-level Religious Studies majors and it is cross-listed for Counseling students. The students who take it want to be there; the class gives them a space to ask questions they want to wrestle with.
This year, as we have begun the fall semester in a hybrid format, meeting in small groups, once a week only, masked, and socially distanced, a course on suffering takes on a different level of meaning. We began the semester acknowledging our individual and collective losses. We have, in only a few short weeks, lamented and grieved together.
Our class meets in the evening; we started on the prayer labyrinth but have had to move because the cicadas are so loud in NC this summer and fall that they drown out our conversations. One Monday evening we were discussing various theological responses to the problem of evil–ways theologians have tried to address the question of why bad things happen if God is good. One of the quieter but deeply thoughtful students in the class said, “I don’t know. But last week I took a casserole to my mom’s friend. Her husband just died. I couldn’t say anything. And I felt awkward. But I handed her the casserole and told her I was sorry.”
Of course, there is nothing magical about a casserole. But there may be something magical about living in authentic community. And coming together over shared meals and conversation is a great way to create, sustain, and nourish community. One of the most important components of community is a shared notion of telos or purpose. This is why members of sports teams and performing groups such as bands or dance troupes often form life-long bonds. In working toward a common telos we find something in the other that we recognize as a sameness in ourselves.
Bonhoeffer is speaking of Christian communities like churches, but the same is true of college and university campuses. A lot of smaller liberal arts colleges market themselves (probably rightly) as being close-knit, family-like communities. Lenoir-Rhyne University, where I teach, certainly does. But communities are not made up of all like-minded people. Much of the strength and beauty of college campuses comes from their diversity–diversity of language and culture, diversity of thought and ways of being in the world. This diversity can, and often does, become divisive.
Community, however, cannot just be about likeness. In his book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests that while it is easy to love the idea of community, living into the actuality is far more challenging. And he warns that if our love of the dream of community overpowers our love of those with whom we are called to be in community, we will destroy the very community we seek to build. In the abstract what Bonhoeffer says sounds great. But when faced with real people with whom we strongly disagree, Bonhoeffers words can pose quite a challenge.
Braver Angels recently hosted a debate about the question, “Is Cancel Culture Erasing Free Speech in America?”
One of the initiatives Lenoir-Rhyne is focusing on this fall is “With Malice Toward None” created by the organization Braver Angels. With Malice Toward None seeks to de-polarize our communities and create spaces for civil discourse as we head into (and then out of) what is perhaps the most divisive election cycle in living memory.
In addition to several key speaker events (all on Zoom), Lenoir-Rhyne is hosting voter-registration events for students, embedding questions of social justice and politics in our First Year Experience courses this year and hosting a number of small group (socially distanced and masked) conversations across campus to encourage students to clarify their own beliefs and learn to engage in civil dialogue with colleagues who are in a completely different political space.
Our institutional hope is that in working towards the common telos of creating, nurturing and sustaining a community of people who strive together for the common good even (and especially) when we do not agree on what that good is, we will learn what it means to love one another well.
For Further Reading: Jason Mahn has written about neighbor love in “Neighboring and Sheltering in Place” and “The Economy and Ecology of Neighbor Love.” See also Esteban Loustaunau’s “The Power of Proximity.” On the topic of suffering see Richard Hughes’ “Finding Vocation in Loss, Suffering, and Death” and Cynthia Wells on “Suffering and Vocation: A Matter of Perspective” (drawing upon the writings of John Neafsey). On community, see Jeff Brown’s two-part series on Wendell Berry and Vocation.
Mindy Makant is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Living Well Center for Vocation and Purpose at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina. She is the author of two books, The Practice of Story: Suffering and the Possibilities of Redemption (Baylor, 2015) and Holy Mischief: in Honor and Celebration of Women in Ministry (Cascade, 2019). For more blog posts by Mindy, click here.