On Community

Dr. C. T. Kurien, son of Late Rev. V. T. Kurien - one of the most revered pastors of the CSI and former faculty of the UTC, is one of India’s well recognized Economist and a retired professor of the Madras Christian College. He also served as the Director of the Madras Institute of Development Studies. He is also one of the Board of Governors of the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore. His economic discourse and studies are greatly informed and influenced by his Christian faith. His incisive articles on Christian life and Ministry are always valued.This note is very contextual. I have just finished reading and reviewing Stephen Marglin’s The Dismal Science: How thinking like an Economist undermines Community. Soon after that I have received a letter from a dear old friend bemoaning the present state of the Church of South India and suggesting that this “unrealistic union called CSI” should be demolished and each congregation should accept responsibility to manage its own affairs.

Marglin was one of the bright young economists who came to India in the early 1960s “as a missionary” (conscious of America’s global mission that Kennedy reminded young Americans) he says, with the message of the possibilities and procedures of economic development. They were advisors to the Planning Commission and their message consisted of elegant and abstract economic theory, sophisticated models couched in high brow mathematics. They were delighted that young Indian intellectuals were enthusiastically accepting the message.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Marglin felt that as part of his missionary calling he had the responsibility to get to know the belief systems and ways of life of the heathens. So, he went out to a village near Delhi and along with missionaries of another order – The Ford Foundation advisors – interacted with farmers. He was surprised to learn that the farmers did not have any hesitation about the use of fertilizers or technology that was new to them – a picture very different from what he had been led to believe about farmers in underdeveloped countries. But says Marglin: “I learned something infinitely more valuable: an entirely different way of knowing and being in the world from anything I had imagined. I experienced something very different: not that people lacked all sense of self or individual interests, not that people acted without rational deliberation, but that people lived their lives in deep connection with others – in short in community” (emphasis added). Marglin the missionary had something of a conversion experience!

That wasn’t entirely surprising. For one thing he came from a social and cultural background not particularly noted for people living their lives “in deep connection with others”. But more important, he was trained to accept the notion of homo economicus, one for whom rationality consists solely in protecting – no, indeed maximizing – one’s self-interest, maximizing satisfaction or utility if one is a consumer and maximizing profit if one is a producer, the only two kinds of agents or participants a certain branch of economics recognizes.

This theory, known in professional circles as ‘Neo-Classical Economic Theory’ is probably the most rigorous theoretical system that economists speak about and is noted for its internal logical consistency demonstrated through impeccable mathematical steps. One of its persistent claims is that it is ‘universally valid’ because of the allocation of scarce resources among unlimited wants is considered to be the universal economic problem. Hence it is also claimed to be culturally non-specific and a neutral science that can be applied to any policy problem – or at least the economic dimension of any policy problem.

The day to day application of this theory is illustrated in terms of the working of the market where the buyer is shown to be protecting and maximizing her self-interest (by bringing the price as low as possible) and the seller is claimed to be protecting his self-interest (by trying to get the highest possible price). This presentation of the market transaction (which does not usually happen in most real life market transactions, especially in ‘advanced countries’ where the prices are “given” and bargaining is considered to be vulgar) is supported by a couple of out of context quotations from Adam Smith, claimed to be the father of economics: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love”. And, “By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote them”.

Marglin’s complaint is that if this is the way economists are trained to think – that self-interest is the most rational motivation and that it is also the best means to promote social welfare – it certainly undermines community. And the book is something of a quest for community, looking into history, epistemology, philosophy…

I shall concentrate on the relationship between economics as a discipline and community as an experiential reality. One thing that Marglin is surely aware of, but does not adequately deal with is that homo economicus is not the way economics deals with human beings: rather it is the discipline’s claim (frequently not explicitly stated) that homo economicus is a requirement for the logical exposition of a theory of economics. It is an axiom, an assumption, similar to, for instance, ‘unlimited wants’, whose real life validity will not be claimed to be of concern to the science.

In the second half of the 20th century, it was this theory that was being taught at least in most parts of the Anglo-American world, including former Anglo colonies like India. This is what I initially learned in the Madras Christian College and later more rigorously at Stanford University. I was not comfortable with it either as a student or as a teacher. [Though I am writing about community and not about economics I may briefly indicate why I was not comfortable with what I had learned and what I had to teach. First, my early life experience was in a household that produced practically all its (limited) requirements and hence the producer-consumer distinction was not what I had experienced and hence what I couldn’t accept as ‘universal’. Second, I turned to the study of economics hoping that I would be able to understand the phenomenon of mass poverty and it did not take me long to realize that an economic theory rooted in alleged, but untested individual psychological propensities would not be able to deal with it effectively. I learned and taught this theory under protest and finally resolved my tension in my last major work, Rethinking Economics, 1996]

Marglin’s problem is more deeply rooted. He does not see the necessary distinction between economics, the discipline and the economy, an experiential reality. The latter does not exist as a separate entity, but is, as I have stated in another of my major writings, The Economy, 1992, society’s arrangement for the provisioning of the material needs of its members. If so, the economy is invariably and inevitably socially embedded and can be carved out only analytically as a separate entity.

It follows then that if economics is truly an attempt to study real life economics, it must, of necessity, reflect its societal dimension and cannot be made to be rooted in preferences of (isolated) individuals. To put it a little more strongly, an individualistic economics is conceptually invalid because a socially embedded economy is essentially “communal” in nature and so if economics as a discipline is an attempt to understand real life economies, it cannot become individualistic however appealing that may be to derive certain logical propositions. If this is grasped, even the market, taken to be the symbol of individual interactions, can be seen and treated as an institution that enables an individual to interact with the rest of society – very much of a community organization! It cannot be forgotten, however, that when you have money in your pocket, it is so easy to forget one’s social dependence. When you buy something and are tempted to think that it is your choice and nobody else’s business, or at best a deal between you and the seller, just think of the hundreds and thousands of human beings whose effort made it possible for you to buy what you wanted.

This underlying, but often hidden, societal dimension of day to day life is what I would designate as a minimalist recognition of community. “No man is an island” – except Robinson Crusoe (for a while) who is the patron saint of Neo-Classical economics.

I now move towards a more comprehensive understanding of community. The sense of interpersonal interaction that underlies the minimalist notion of community is often given a more positive and wholesome meaning when it is treated as a fellowship. A community, then, is seen as a group of people with common something that binds them together – a common bond of language, a common purpose like environmental protection etc. Individuals that constitute such communities come together because of what they have in common which transforms them into a community; they are no longer a sack of potatoes. They not only are together, they support one another, encourage and strength one another. It is a temporal process. Initially in spite of what they have in common and even when they know that they have something in common, the fellowship element is likely to be feeble. But it grows as interactions through meetings and activities increase. The bonds of fellowship become stronger and individuals find it an enriching experience. Often the best in an individual is seen and realized through such fellowships, whether the fellowships are natural ones like the family, caste etc. or ‘association of persons’ who come together for specific purposes.

But the transformation that people experience in and through such communities is not always positive or progressive. Retrogressive elements begin to emerge sooner or later. Frequently it is associated with organizational matters. The group, community, fellowship or whatever one designates it, requires a minimum of organizational ingredients: leadership, rules, authority etc. These then get interwoven with decision making and then with power. Each of these has a progressive and retrogressive dimension. It may be a matter of perception or interpretation, but because the individualistic element is invariably present, differences arise. Are rules been followed or bent to suit particular interests? Is leadership being used for personal gains? Is authority being misused? Is power being used arbitrarily? Are funds being siphoned off? Are too many people, particularly those who raise awkward questions essentially free-riders? And so on. Some members of the group may be indifferent to these issues and feel that what unites the group is strong enough to overcome some of these natural but minor aberrations. Others may feel that those in authority are indeed destroying the very foundations of the fellowship. They may feel frustrated and hurt.

I have come across this kind of situation frequently. More than three decades ago I had a close academic associate who was an ardent member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He was an intellectually convinced Marxist, but what attracted him more to the CPM was what he perceived as the simplicity and sincerity of the comrades, particularly the leaders and the equality and fraternity among the members. He also spoke about the common ideology, the common vision and common purpose that bound the fellowship together. “I feel more at home in the Party than in my family”, he once told me, and I know he was quite honest about it. But a decade later things had begun to change. For whatever reason his enthusiasm had waned; his exuberance had become subdued; and he appeared restless. Something had gone wrong somewhere in what was once an ideal ‘fellowship’.

My friend who wrote me the letter about the CSI is still waiting to be taken note of! He probably was an enthusiast about the historic union of churches in 1947 (I haven’t checked this with him) but 60 years later felt disillusioned about what the CSI had turned out to be. As an analyst, I would say that the church (should I say the Church?) is in many ways a human fellowship of the kind I have described above. It gives its members a sense of belonging. In Bangalore where I live and into which many people, young and old, of diverse economic standing and professional interests migrate, I have noticed that the first thing that many Christians do is to find out the appropriate church (and even a suitable prayer group) to become members of. Language that one is most comfortable with (not necessarily the mother tongue) economic criteria and several other factors enter into that choice, and there is a rich variety to choose from also, ranging from the many congregations of the main churches as well as the ‘sects’ and single person-leadership independent ‘non-denominations’. And, in many of these ‘fellowships’ there is plenty of mutual support, and I have no hesitation in saying that this is a very legitimate function that such groups (let me use the appropriate expression and call them ‘congregations’) perform.

But, and this is what puzzles and worries many faithful and sincere Christians, including my friend-- the churches also seem to fall into the same trap that many secular organizations sadly demonstrate. I don’t have to go into details. The CSI as a body faces many accusations now, of power struggles, arbitrary decision making, including vengeful transfers, corruption and more. A number of bishops face civil and even criminal charges in the courts of the land. Is the solution to be found in demolishing the unrealistic union called the CSI and making each congregation independent the remedy, as my friend has suggested? As an analyst, again, I would say that that is no solution, because there is plenty of empirical evidence that ‘independent congregations’ too run into the same sort of problems. I would also say that arbitrariness and corruption should be exposed wherever one finds them, including the church. However, the problem of the church as a community is much deeper.

That leads me to a third understanding of community. I find it in the life and teaching of Jesus. Jesus, I believe, was facing a situation similar to what Christians today are confronting. The Jews of his days must have been a stronger religious community with a greater sense of ‘mission’. But some how, things were not going well in that community. Jesus, surely, put he blame to a large extent on the leadership. But the remedy he suggested was not to disband the community, but to move on to a new community, a community that goes beyond the awareness of others and a sense of interdependence that tones down self-interest; and even the sense of closeness with others, or a fellowship that transforms self to some extent. What Jesus was teaching is that a transcendence of self is necessary to experience the fullness of community. Jesus taught and demonstrated that true experience of community is possible only when the self becomes fully available to others – “love thy neighbour as thyself”. It is an emptying of oneself – “go and sell all you have and give it to those who need it”, not for the salvation of your soul, but for the sake of others. Through his life Jesus showed that it is a costly business; but then part of being for others is not to count the cost and expect no reward. Let me add also that the transcending of self is not an out of the ordinary ‘spiritual’ experience removed from the temporal aspects of daily life, but something that can and should become a reality in the normal course of daily living.

At least two more aspects of this sense of community that transcends self deserve attention. The first is that it has to be all inclusive – love even your enemies – and in this sense goes beyond the second sense of community which by definition has – have to have – boundaries and thus tends to be exclusive. There is always the other that is left out – Christians and nonchristians, for instance, the latter often not even deserving a capital letter!

Second, therefore, is that genuine community is possible only when the self is transcended, but when all bounded communities too are transcended. Paradoxical as it may appear, it has to transcend everything till the (only) Other is experienced – love God with all your heart, mind and soul. It is in this sense that this transcendence can be claimed to be a ‘spiritual’ experience.

It is my conviction that this is the community, the communion, that Jesus proclaimed and exemplified – not just another community (other than Jews and gentiles of his times) but a new way of life that constantly, deliberately strives for an all inclusive, all transcending community, consciously aware that here on earth we will not fully experience it.

The tragedy of the church, as I see it, is that it does not recognize its role as a foretaste of this transcendental Community and readily degenerates (if that is too strong a word, limits itself) into the second sense of community with some creedal statements and rituals as differentia specifica. It then defines its ‘mission’ as the effort to bring all others into its fold. Is it surprising then that having consciously or otherwise chosen to remain at the level of the second sense of community, it manifestly shares the characteristics and dynamics of such communities?

C. T. Kurien
Sept. 2009


Samuel Mathew said...

very interesting article. The article has a lot of questions answered. I wonder how may people read this??

jeevan said...

every body in csi ought to read and carefully study this beautiful article. jeevanand john.puthiyara.calicut

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