Last week, in my on-going exploration of unity in The United Methodist Church (and, by extension, contemporary society more broadly), I introduced a model of unity based not on some shared characteristic that applied to all in a group, but rather a bunch of overlapping characteristics. I called this model unity through relationship and networks, though it might also be called the aggregate model of unity.
This week, I want to say a little bit more about the role of relationships is promoting and sustaining unity. While this role holds true for unity in general, it will set up what I want to talk about next week, which is the role of networks in the aggregate model of unity, a topic which depends on recognizing the relational nature of all unity.
The picture I showed last week for how the aggregate model of unity works looked like this:
As I talked about them last week, the smaller circles represented shared characteristics. Yet it is perhaps more appropriate to think of them as social circles or social groups. Such groups may be (and often are) defined by shared characteristics. Yet merely having a characteristic in common with someone else is not always enough to foster some sense of togetherness or unity. For instance, “innie” and “outie” bellybuttons can be shared characteristics, but do not usually form the basis for social unity (though I realize that somewhere out there, probably on the Internet, there may be an “Innie Bellybutton Club” that is based around just this thing). While this is a somewhat flippant example, the point remains that unity is not merely a function of having some shared characteristic.
That’s because unity is a relational quality. United describes the nature of people’s relationships with each other, and it is ultimately relationships was form the basis of unity, not shared characteristics. People are thrown together by sharing some characteristic (whether it’s rooting for the same sports team, attending the same church or school, working at the same job, living in the same neighborhood, or something else), and that shared aspect of their lives may be enough for them to develop some sort of relationship (classmate, coworker, neighbor, etc.) Nevertheless, one can have a relationship with someone without it being particularly characterized by unity. How many people work at or live in places where they feel little attachment to those around them or, worse, find themselves at odds with those around them?
Hence, shared characteristics can serve as the basis of unity only in so far as they can create substantive similarities that lead people to really relate with one another in a positive way. These relationships then add up to community. Thus, shared characteristics can create communities, but they are (as all communities are) imagined or constructed, not given by the mere fact of sameness. It’s the relationships that ultimately make the community, not the common characteristics.
Fortunately, finding communities or social groups united through relationships by some characteristic they consider salient isn’t hard to do. Such groups are all over in the church and the world. In The United Methodist church, there are congregations, conferences, and caucuses. In the world, there are clubs and organizations, friend groups, fan clubs, neighborhoods, etc. Not all may give each of these groups the same degree of salience, but usually there are some groups people feel an affinity toward. Yet all of these groups, to the extent that they are salient, are so because those who are members of them have taken a shared characteristic and turned it into the basis for real, positive relationships, which are the context for unity.