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A Conversation Concerning Community

Karl Clifton-Soderstrom and Judy Peterson discuss this year’s campus theme, “What Is Community?”


Clifton-Soderstrom and Peterson are key players in the campus-wide inquiry into the issues surrounding community. In the interview that follows, they discuss the matter from the perspective of their complementary disciplines, philosophy and theology.

Tell us about your role in this year’s campus theme, “What Is Community?”

Karl Clifton-Soderstrom: I am the director of general education at North Park. As part of our mission, the General Education Committee helps plan the Campus Theme Lecture Series.

Judy Peterson: University Ministries is also championing the campus theme, "What Is Community?" A majority of our chapel services throughout the year will consider the Christian call to community, the cost of community, and how to form community outside of comfort zones.

This year’s theme question is obviously an issue of definition, and the word is used in so many ways. How do you define community?

Karl: I define community as the social architecture that nurtures empathy and obligation among strangers in their movement toward friendship. Two thinkers come to mind. The Greek philosopher Aristotle makes an interesting claim in his Nicomachean Ethics that I find both helpful and challenging: "Friendship seems to hold states together, and lawgivers to care more for it than for justice . . . when men are friends they have no need of justice, while when they are just they need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is thought to be a friendly quality."

Martin Luther King Jr. makes a related claim in his Facing the Challenge of a New Age: "But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends."

Judy: Community is one of the ways in which we bear God’s image. God has always known community, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have existed together from the beginning. We commit to the work of community because we are committed to bearing the image of God well in this world. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct from one another and yet still one. There is no hierarchy among them, no power struggles between them, and no need to be first, and therefore no need to have a second. I believe we need to pursue mutuality and equality because a community that contains a hierarchy of human value or worth cannot bear God’s image well. 

The campus theme question might be answered differently by those in various disciplines (sciences, sociology, history, politics, etc.). How do we establish which answers are foundational?

Karl: That all depends on what you mean by foundational. In one respect, physics has access to something foundational in terms of the basic building blocks of our material universe. In another respect, theology has access to something foundational to our understanding of our deepest spiritual desires. Disciplines compartmentalize the complex reality we experience for the sake of gaining insights that a broad view alone could not accomplish.

I think of the old proverb of the four blind men who are each asked to describe an elephant, though each person touches a different part: the tail, the legs, the ears, and the tusks. Each of their descriptions is true, though conflict arises when one assumes authority over the rest. The members of a university should have some sense of the whole alongside their focused views. Thus a university achieves community when it fosters dialogue among the disciplines within an ethos of collaboration and humility. In a Christian university, I would add, there is some sustained hope to the unity of knowledge, that indeed, to use the proverb, there is an elephant and not just legs, trunks, tail, and tusks.

A primary component of the dictionary definition of “community” is unity, common interest, or joint affinity. How might this be understood broadly to include issues of the environment, health, or economics?

Judy: The work of being "with" in Christian community often boils down to the fact that we are committed to being with one another in spite of the fact that at times our only common interest or joint affinity is Christ and His Kingdom. Our diverse backgrounds and affinities; our different specialties and qualifications; our distinct convictions, culture, and class will often cause us to reach dissimilar conclusions on issues of environment, health, economics, and politics. Perhaps in reminding ourselves of our similarities we will all be led to make decisions about the environment, health, economics, and politics with a view to caring for other humans in the same way we would want to be cared for.

Karl: Aldo Leopold, in his important essay "The Land Ethic," claims, "All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts." I think that perhaps the unity that an environmental, economic, ecclesial, or political community can possess is consistently based upon the practice of interdependence. A group can have a fair amount of ideological diversity, but without interdependence it does not function as a community. Likewise, a collection of like-minded people can resist their interdependence so much that there exists no real community. 

Next Steps

Return to the Winter 2012 North Parker online.

Learn more about this year's Campus Theme.