I second the motion: Against “A Sense Of”

In Matt Wiebe’s latest post Against “A Sense Of” he writes:

“We’d like to cultivate a sense of community” is a nauseating phrase. It’s not that I disapprove of community, but rather that we’d settle so readily for a mere “sense of” it. We desire a sense of belonging, but seem unable to pursue belonging proper. We must resist our tendency towards a mere “sense of” things and follow the arduous path towards the real.”

Permit me to indulge in a rant of agreement.

The language of “a sense of” leans towards some sort of emotivist Christianity. I am part of a small Mennonite University and the most common comment given by students in interviews about the University is “I love the sense of community.” This begs me to ask: Is that all there is here? A “sense” of community? I thought we WERE actually a community! Or even when a person finds him/herself overwhelmingly welcomed into a community, any community. People exclaim: “What a sense of hospitality!” as if hospitality and community are things we feel rather than things we participate in. We ARE a community. We ARE the body of Christ, because God gives us to ourselves. We receive and participate and become the community. We don’t “sense” God’s presence; rather, as Rowan Williams puts it,

“For God to create is for God to ‘commit’ to his action, his life, to sustaining a reality that is different from him, and doing so without interruption. If I might offer an analogy…think about an electric light burning. The electric current causes the light to shine, but that doesn’t mean that the electric power is something that was around only at the moment you put the switch on, so that the light itself is a rather distant result. On the contrary, the light is shining here and now because the electric current is flowing here and now. In the same way, it is the ‘current’ of divine activity that is here and now making us real.” (Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) 35.

In short, “a sense of” points to our lack of trust in God’s work in the world. We don’t “sense” God’s work in the world (as if it is something “out there”); we are God’s work in the world.

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4 comments on “I second the motion: Against “A Sense Of”

  1. Theophilus says:

    Are not our senses our God-given ways to engage with the created world? We become aware of the world around us via sensory inputs. What I find interesting here is that the use of “a sense of” language buys into the notion that the senses are unreliable. It’s a kind of faux-humility that assumes that because we cannot have complete knowledge, we cannot be sure of anything at all. I have trouble squaring that with an embodied, sacramental faith. Too many essential Christian practices – baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the preaching of the Gospel – are sensory practices for me to shrug off the value of the senses.

  2. Kampen says:

    I’m not criticizing the physical senses, as in taste, touch, smell, sight, sound. Rather, I am against a “sense of Christianity” wherein we do not identify ourselves as the body of Christ. In other words, it’s not that “because we cannot have complete knowledge, we cannot be sure of anything at all”; rather, we can be sure that we are the body of Christ, and it is because we are, that we are also the practicers of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the preaching of the Gospel.

    What my worry with “a sense of” community, hospitality, unity, peace, you name it, is that we are settling for a muttering of the Gospel instead of the proclamation, the good news, that it is.

    I don’t want dualism, and I think “a sense of” will take us there.

    • Theophilus says:

      All true. I think I found the expression “a sense of community” to be unjust to the senses, while you found it unjust to community. It is very likely both.

  3. mattwiebe says:

    Kampen: thanks for your rant of agreement. This has been a particular pet peeve of my for some time.

    Theophilus: While I find your defense of embodiment and the physical commendable, I think you’re stretching the language here into a shape other than its general, everyday use. I understand the manner in which “a sense of” is used to be derivative; to be somehow less than or an echo of the real thing signified. Using this language is less about denigrating our senses and more about distancing our involvement with the thing in question.

    I also think that it helps people to fill up their pompous quotient. Saying “we’d like to cultivate a sense of community” sounds far more sophisticated than “we’re building community.”

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