Not in my lifetime did I imagine that neuroscience and the Anabaptist construct of “community” would come together as a paradigm shift “away from the cult of the individual and back to nurturing relationships,” as one planner of a recent weekend seminar on “Attachment Theory” put it.
The experience was mind-spinning. I was not only awe-struck by the presentations of high-profile experts in the field of brain research, but also with the fact that the three-day conference, “Conversations on attachment: Integrating the science of love and spirituality,” held at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), Harrisonburg, Va., drew not only 700 students and practitioners in the field of psychology, but 500 people from the local community, mostly with Mennonite/Brethren roots, looking at new developments in human behaviour.
“We have cracked the code of love,” said Sue Johnson, author of the popular Hold Me Tight, with her endearing British accent, in her opening keynote speech. “We are designed to live in community and in close relationships. Love is not an intoxicating mixture of sex and infatuation, but rather an emotional bond with others to give us safe haven from the storms of life.”
Well, duh, didn’t we know that already, we who have honed this thing called community over five centuries? Why should this be such startling news, such a welcome observation from a group of academic experts outside of our religious system?
Precisely because we have gotten a bit shoddy about practising it, that’s why. Just read the painful stories told in our main feature, “The ministry of war,” on page 4, and know that we may have fallen away from the very thing that has held our faith system intact through so many migrations, adversity, persecution, and, yes, our own internal divisions.
Has this thing we call community gotten so familiar that we have forgotten how it is supposed to work? Have we been so presumptuous that we think it is automatic and natural in our interpersonal and congregational relationships, and forget that they, like our bodies, need constant care and nourishment to give life and energy to our faith expression?
To take a step back and see how we treat each other at times would suggest that, yes, we do just that. And more. Has the culture’s emphasis on individualism, and our own experience of making it against all odds, made us inattentive to the fragility of community? At this conference the North American myth that says personal strength is embodied in a lone individual making his or her way self-sufficiently through life, pretending not to need long-term, committed relationships, was challenged.
One of the speakers even tapped into our deeply held love of singing—congregational singing in harmony, no less—as a metaphor for this new wave of nourishing relationships. Quoting from his book Mindsight, Daniel J. Siegel, a Harvard Research Fellow at UCLA, spoke of the importance of social “integration” by describing a choir in which “each member of the choir has his or her unique voice, while at the same time they are linked together in a complex and harmonious whole. One is never quite certain where the choir will take the song, but the surprises simply highlight the pleasure of a familiar, shared melody.”
What was so inspiring was to see faith and science come together in such a forceful way. Throughout the conference, EMU philosophy professor Christian Early offered brief, heartfelt responses following the major speeches, often tying modern scientific insights into love with the 2,000-year-old teachings of Jesus. “It is good for us to live in community,” he said. “It is exhausting for us to live in isolation from each other.”
In all honesty, however, he noted the dark side: “Community can also be harmful. Strangers cannot betray us. It is those closest to us who can betray us.” As a result, we must cultivate “habits of repair,” in order to heal harms that have been done, in addition to learning how to love in healthy ways.
Habits of repair are what we need most right now when unity breaks down in the congregation, when pastors or professors are not dealt with redemptively, when employees in our church-related institutions feel devalued, or when families are conflicted. “Caring relationships are as necessary to human life as air, food and water,” the new research suggests.