Neither Skinner Nor Benedict

"Democracy is the name of a way of life of free and enriching communion."
- John Dewey (1859 - 1952)

The first time Unitarian Universalism changed my life with a clearly demarcated turning point, I was in 8th grade. This faith called me toward a greater possibility for human community. My Sunday School teacher one Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta introduced us to B.F. Skinner. It was 1972, and Skinner’s book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity had just come out.

I admired my RE teacher, and after our class let out, there on the church book table in the social hall was a copy of Skinner’s book for sale. So I asked my parents to buy it for me. I took it home and read it. Then I read his earlier book, Walden Two, describing a utopian community built on behaviorist principles. "Oh, God, yes!" I was totally a true believer. I was a 13-year-old Skinnerian behaviorist. I may have been the only one, ever.

I so wanted us -- people -- to have a clear, neat way for everybody to live together in peace and community.

A building at Twin Oaks commune, Louisa, VA
Four years later, I was 17. I learned about a commune in Virginia that had started up, built on Skinner’s principles – designed to be like Walden Two. I made my plans to go join it as soon as I graduated high school. I never went. It’s a long story, and it involves the arrival of a girlfriend in my life, but I never went.

As I grew older, as often happens, I made my peace with the messiness of life. I no longer expect or hope for a clear, neat simple utopia. I no longer believe in that particular model of greater human community.

But I still long for humans to work out a way to be together in peace and community. I think we all do.

I have chosen to pour the energy of my hopes into nurturing faith community rather than the more total community of a commune.

But as a church is not a commune, neither is it a monastery. I mention the monastery because, as the Roman Empire collapsed, many of the achievements of learning and letters were preserved inside monasteries – particularly Benedictine monasteries based on the Rule of St. Benedict, the 5th-century saint who wrote the rule book for monastic living. Alasdair MacIntyre, in the final paragraph of his 1981 book, After Virtue, conjured the image of monastery walls wherein civility and moral community could be preserved. He spoke of waiting for a new St. Benedict:
"It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. None the less certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct [one characterized by moral incoherence and unsettlable moral disputes in the modern world], we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict." (After Virtue 244-5)
St. Benedict of Nursa, 480-543
A new St. Benedict, even a "doubtless very different" one? I don’t think so. I'd say we are waiting neither for Godot, nor for a new St. Benedict. We, as the saying goes, are the people we’ve been waiting for.

And if the faith institution is neither a commune nor a monastery, then it must be a place of sustenance and of learning wherein we are restored and strengthened to bring the arts of hospitality and civility – the virtues which support and are supported by democracy – into the wider world.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Democracy and the Meaning of Life"
See also
Part 2: Balancing Interests vs. Creating Selves
Part 3: Big Problems
Part 4: Five Habits of the Heart

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