How God Created Us
First written in 1983, Imagined Communities illustrates the trajectory of the world’s understanding of how it functions politically as the author, Benedict Anderson, reasserts his premise in the revision of 2006, and with even more relevance today in 2015. Acknowledging that many of his comrades with a Marxist bent predicted an end to nationalism, Anderson offers a radical (then perhaps, not now) proposal that it’s only the beginning of new era based on identity as a nation. Defined as “an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign,” a nation becomes the new way of “linking fraternity, power, and time meaningfully together.” Nationalism reflects humanity’s attempt to understand and function in the world that serves the purposes of how God created us, but which unfortunately becomes perverted and distorted.
In my first scan of the book, I could not connect to what Anderson was communicating, particularly as I tried to assimilate what this book had to do with our next DMin class. Truth be told, my first thought was “what does nationalism have to do with theology and leadership?” But then this phrase caught my attention: “The great weakness of all evolutionary/progressive styles of thought, not excluding Marxism, is that such questions are answered with impatient silence.” These questions deal with the reality of death and immortality, purpose and meaning, destiny and the ordinary. Similar to lights turning on in a dark crowded room, I discovered the significance of Anderson’s book – he articulates what followers of Christ already know about humanity. We are a broken people who are attempting to make sense of our world by finding community, living on beyond this world, wanting to be part of a bigger story, needing everyday connections, and sharing what we hold in common. Nationalism addresses in conversation, not silence, the desires of our hearts. The next few paragraphs describe these desires, foreseeably similar to the desires that make the church.
First, humanity needs community. Yet, there are “limited” places of that community, as described by Anderson. As a result, lines are drawn in various ways in order to hold onto the sense of community. Interestingly, that community doesn’t necessarily need to know everyone, rather it’s the shared and common practices with the perceived historical understanding that build the community. Studying church history this last quarter, I found great comfort in knowing God isn’t so concerned about whether we have lots of denominations or not. He’s more concerned about us coming together. Does that not remind us for Christian and non-Christian alike, we need community that is based on something beyond ourselves?
Second, mortality and death are inevitable. As humans, while we would rather avoid acknowledging that (although that avoidance is probably more dominant in Western culture), we do know that we want something beyond this life. We long for a legacy, hoping that what we’ve contributed here on earth goes beyond this short time. Being a part of a nation allows for that contribution to continue. Likewise, that same desire is addressed by Christ, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake he is the one who will save it.” (Luke 9:24) We need to have something other than this life to look forward to.
Third, humanity lives in story – the story of life, the story of one another, the story of the past, the story of what’s ahead. We can’t live only in our own story by ourselves for very long as it has little to no meaning. We want to be part of a bigger story. Through nationalism, we have something more to which to give our lives through the synergy of others sharing in that story. Not that the Seattle Seahawks (it’s a football team for those of you not familiar with US sports) are a “nation,” but I’m overwhelmed by how many people the last few months are wearing green and blue in Gig Harbor which is nearly an hour away from the epicenter of the Seattle Seahawks. Yet, the jerseys, the colors, the Seahawk players much less the game plays and percentages, all seem to create a sense of being part of a bigger story. Mind you, my lack of enthusiasm does not mean I won’t be rooting for them as they are the best team in the NFL right now. J Enriching our own lives by being connected to a bigger story, we discover greater purpose and meaning.
Finally, the use of the newspaper as the liturgy of 1983 is a fascinating concept. Anderson quotes Hegel in noticing that the newspaper becomes the morning prayer. The paradox, as Anderson points out, is that while it is done in private, it connects everyone in its performance done on a regular basis. Is that not what liturgy creates? It is a private experience based on it being done by all of those who are part of that community. In 2015, that liturgy is partitioned into various forms of social media, but it still occurs, just not in the church (typically). The common practice in an everyday setting creates a new “sovereign” word about the greatest importance for that community, nation.
While I find it fascinating that Anderson landed on an “ism” (unlike other “isms” as pointed out by him) that addresses the political systems that seem to reflect humanity’s predilections, it is even more fascinating to me that he actually addresses the deepest of human desires. I’m reminded of Meister Eckhart’s words, “God has created all things in such a way so that they are not outside God. All creatures remain within God and enveloped by God.”
 Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of nationalism, Revised Edition, Revised ed. (London, Verso, 2006), 6.
 Ibid, 36.
 Ibid, 10.
 Ibid, 35.
 Swan, Laura. “A Sense of Wonder.” St. Placid Priory, February, Spring-Summer (2015), 1. Print.
16 responses to “How God Created Us”
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Your reflection on denomi-nations is interesting. I tend to agree with Eckhart that “everything belongs,” and I see denomi-nations as a theo-concession to our limited embrace. For me the challenge is no longer an idealized unity, but the admission that even what appears divided is only a human distinction. It’s really tough to go deep when the social imaginary is not shared — yet its important to go deep. Thus the concession.
Len – when you say “go deep” – can you elaborate on that a bit more? I appreciate your words on the concession we make.
So, Mary, would you say that Anderson reluctantly concedes that nationalistic identity is here to stay because people just really really need a sense of community? That nationalism sort of is the new religion that binds people together in the absence of religion? Or do you get the sense that he affirms the existence of nationalism as movement in the right direction?
As I stated in my response to yours (which was brilliant, as usual), I’m not sure if I got the right sense of Anderson. But from what I did comprehend, I felt like he wasn’t actually making a judgment one way or another. It’s kind of like my friend who had to stand up to some folks who said we’re genetically determined to be conservative or liberal. Herself more conservative in a conservative crowd could have kept quiet. But she felt it was important to point out the true “operating system” of political choices. She wasn’t necessarily stating which one is better.
I think Anderson does a great service by revealing for how God created us to “desire” community.
I love that you pointed out Anderson’s newspaper and liturgy comparison. That was a powerful illustration for me and years down the road when I’ve forgotten all about this book I will still remember that thought. We are all “connected in its performance done on a regular basis.” And I bet to feel a part of the community in Gig Harbor you need to regularly keep up with the latest Seahawks happenings. It’s just sad when the greatest importance for a community is something that doesn’t really matter.
Go Bucks! To live in Central Ohio means you are a Buckeye fan. OSU football is a dynasty in Ohio. If you work or live here, you must be a fan. Being a Buckeye means that you are a part of the community. It is the way central Ohioans identify with each other.
Mary, you state, “Through nationalism, we have something more to which to give our lives through the synergy of others sharing in that story.” Imagine the synergy if whole communities united together for Christ in the same way that Buckeye fans do for an OSU game! OH…
Dawn – today in church (Seahawks game starts at noon), our pastor got up and said “Today we will celebrate a victory” as he looked around the congregation, many of whom were wearing blue and green jerseys. Everyone cheered, excited about the game. Then the pastor responded, “And then we’ll go home and watch a football game.” How true you are on the celebration will be when we all bow before the King. 🙂
As I was getting my haircut the other day, my hairstylist, a strong Christian, was complaining how his church changed the time from 6pm to 4pm on a Saturday night to accommodate the Seahawks game. I wrestled with that decision as I realized how easy it is to start to identify with a sports team. So as a church do we capitalize on that? Or stay with our own “liturgy”?
Mary, Great thinking. I have thought often about how there are 20 minute daily behaviors that i bet radically shape us beyond what we know. Connecting with the newspaper as a liturgy makes so much sense . . . religious activity, common source of information, thought, and reflection, all shaping identity and belief systems. You can almost see “denominations” within the print-faiths . . . you have your Wall Street Journalers, Your New York Timers, and your USA Todayers across the US all believing in the same “god” but coming at her from different angles creating different followings. I believe some even go to “service online” and catch live-stream messages from pastor/prophet/priest CNN, FOX or msNBC. 🙂 While we may want to call that all political . . . I believe due to how God created us that it is much more spiritual than we may think. I kind of believe what we give ourselves to with such patterns is what become our “god” and “faith” and that is something I think Anderson addresses by silence and concludes or leads to a process of secularization. ???
Agreed, Phil. What we “give ourselves to” is why it’s imperative that we are aware of what influences us all the time. I finally landed on a dissertation topic (took a long time for me) and it has to do with growing old gracefully. I struggled with it because I didn’t want to acknowledge it. But when I started to become “aware” how quickly I turn to wanting to become young again, mostly in the physical sense, I realized what I had given myself to was not as Christ would have me focus. That’s why I appreciated Anderson’s assessment – while certainly not an advocate for religion, he actually states the need for Christ more eloquently than a lot of pastors; he just doesn’t use those words.
Mary, What impresses me about your writing is how reflective you are. The longing for community is certainly a meta theme of this book, and it’s certainly a theme throughout the ages. That longing for community shows up in how people connect, be newspapers or twitter, and how people share their lives together be it religious or nationalism. People can wrap their journey around a football game, a political cause or one of a hundred “isms”. It’s our calling to live in such a way that people see Jesus as compelling.
I have a friend who is a strong James Allison/Rene Girard fan. Those two (one a priest/the other a philosophical anthropologist) articulate that we actually desire those things in life that we see in another. In fact, for Girard, after studying all the world religions, came to Christianity because he realized it made the most sense by realistically looking at humanity. I think that’s the kind of reality Anderson is speaking to – we were created for community. What Anderson doesn’t offer, however, is an answer to how we don’t pervert or distort it.
It is interesting to see the way conformity can increase a sense of belonging. One person wearing a football jersey down the street would look strange, but when everyone sports that team colors, we are drawn together. This seems so innate that we see kids coming home from preschool wanting the get the same shoes or backpack as their playmates. This reiterates the fact that we are created with a need to belong to something bigger and outside of ourselves.
Great point, Brian. I hadn’t considered that truth about conformity. We see it all the time, most pronounced in the youth. But the reality is, we all do it in one form or another. Now it’s making sure that conformity doesn’t lead to isolating others.
Good point Mary, Often, people are so focused on trying to fit in or impress others that they turn their back on those relationships that are the most beneficial and healthy. The model of community that Christ gives us is one where those who don’t confirm not only fit in, but are welcomed openly.
God bless you Mary, sorry it took so long to get back to you its just one of those months for me. I too dealt with this inherent imagined community because it a sense of belonging connected through many different things. In “Imagined Communities” I found that language and the “national print language” has alot to do with this belonging. And the greater and more accepted the language the more feeling of nationalism one seems to have when they use it. Great Job as a wells