What does it take to make a community?
What does it take to make a community? One of the best thinkers alive today trying to answer this and related questions is Oliver O’Donovan. He attempts to answer this question most directly in his book Common Objects of Love. Although not an easy read, O’Donovan’s book rewards careful and repeated reading. In keeping with O’Donovan’s field of expertise, political theology, the stated goal of Common Objects of Love, is to answer “the question of what unifies a multitude of human agents into a community of action and experience sustained over time” (1). The short answer to this question is given in the title of the book. Human agents are formed into communities as a result of their common objects of love.
O’Donovan covers much territory in his book, such that a single blog post could never do justice to the breadth and depth of his thought. What I would like to do is highlight a single quote in order to stimulate your own thoughts on the matter. O’Donovan stands in the Augustinian tradition, and his book can be understood as an exposition of a single passage in City of God. Augustine stated that a people is “a gathered multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love” (20). As a group of individuals comes to love that which it perceives to be the good, it becomes “part of a community that is not constructed to accomplish some task but is given in the very fact that we cannot but love them” (19). Not all loves are the same, but are differentiated as better or worse loves based on “the adequacy of their grasp of reality” (23). This love which builds a community resides in all human hearts, even in the hearts of those in hell, whose objects of love result from their inadequate grasp of reality.
Augustine’s quote has profound implications in both the micro and the macro levels of human experience. An example of O’Donovan’s thesis is the community experienced by those at a sporting event who agree to share with other attendees their love for their favorite team. This common love binds the group together into a community, albeit a shallow and temporary one. Another more significant example is the mistake of young lovers who assume that their reciprocal love for one another will be sufficient to create a lasting bond between them. Augustine’s point is that real community only exists if there is some common object of love among those in the relationship. In other words, in order for a marriage to last, each spouse must share a love for some other thing besides the other spouse, and this shared love is what gives shape and perseverance to their relationship. As Christians, we would assert that a shared love for God is that which should bind the married couple together.
Augustine’s definition of a community might also be applied to larger groups such as denominations and even whole nations. How can true community and unity of purpose be formed when a denomination appears to be divided into various factions each with their own agenda? One way to begin the process of community formation is by identifying what are appropriate common objects of love. This difficult analysis must precede calls for joining arms in a common purpose, for such attempts at unity in action will ultimately fail if there is not also a unity in the objects of love. All would state that we share a love for God, but specifics must be given to this assertion. What conception of God? What conception of the calling of this God upon our lives? What appreciation (or lack thereof) of the community’s existing tradition? The answers to these questions cut to the heart of the divisions in our communities.
What are the common objects of love in your friendships, your church, your denomination, your nation?