Lesson 11: Giftedness

Lesson 11: Giftedness

Bowling Alone by Robert PutnamIn 2000, Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone. It has quickly become a classic for understanding modern American community. His thesis is that our nation has lost our sense of the common good, because technology inherently promotes radical individualism. He used the breakdown of voluntary groups such as bowling leagues, social clubs, fraternal organizations, and churches as his primary example and he blamed their demise on people preferring to be entertained by the television in their living rooms.

This breakdown is terribly significant for Christians because we have always understood that losing the common good precludes a community from making ethical decisions. Passage after passage in the scriptures calls for unity built around a common story about the steadfast love and mercy of God. Without this, decision-making becomes the selfish choosing of options totally on the basis of how they will help me get what I want for myself.

Chittister addressed this situation when she compared a spiritual community to an orchestra or a family. Each participant has a significant and singular part to play in the group. Each is responsible for using their gift for the common good. She makes clear that this does not mean individuals exist for the group. On the contrary, groups exist for individuals. However, balance is necessary so we never reduce the totality of the whole or deny the singularity of the part.

The orchestra illustrates how each participant has a different but essential part to play if we are to make beautiful music together. Everyone counts if we are to attain harmony. Everyone can and must help carry everyone else. We defined wicked zeal as believing you alone have the truth and it is your God-given duty to impose it on others. In the orchestra, this would be thinking your part is the only one that counts and playing so loudly that the result is noise rather than music. Decent spirituality realizes the symphony of life is not about one size fitting all.

The family recognizes we are all fragile, some more than others. So it is based on everyone taking care of one another. Each has different needs that matter as well as different gifts that can minster to those needs. The idea is never to insist on demands that make life harder, but rather to work together, helping one another get through difficult times and tasks.

Too often in our society, music has become a spectator activity and family has become isolated persons with individual schedules that prevent even eating together. Chittister believes this places responsibility on our leaders to restore community. They are to be like the conductors of our orchestras in order to bring the gifts of each part into harmony; or, like parents who bring the family together in order to express love and share gifts with one another.

Although we do not have the authority of the 6th century abbots, we can find some guidance in the Benedictine Rule. It claims that we should elect our leaders on the basis of their wisdom, not their age. That leader, then, is to serve rather than rule. He is to be more interested in mercy than judgment. Always open to counsel, he should listen with the ears of his heart to what even the youngest members of the group think and feel. This is not listening to the crowd so you can exploit them, but listening to each person so you can serve them. Leadership is not about entitlement or exploitation.

Putnam later modified his thesis when people convinced him some that voluntary groups are selfish and destructive as people gather to promote hate and benefit for themselves alone. Many believe that is the form community has taken in our time. If your group does not give you exactly what you want, you leave the sports team, the corporation, or the congregation to find a group that does, and usually that means one that gives you more money and power.

The result has been the climate of fear that pervades our society. If you listen with your heart, you hear clearly that immigrants, minorities, young students, the LGBTs, the physically or mentally challenged, and women are frightened. Chittister believes this has resulted from the indecency all around us, especially in those who claim to speak for Christ but refuse to acknowledge that the Judeo-Christian message has always been about regarding the widow, orphan, and alien in our midst as children of God, our brothers and sisters.

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