The one and the many

The problem of ‘the One and the Many’ is an ancient philosophical one which seeks to understand the unifying element behind all the diversity we experience.

For our ancestors in medieval times God was the source of all that exists and the only problem was how created things share in his being.  Many today, in our secular age, do not believe in God and so they seek some other explanation for the origin and existence of ‘the many’.

I only mention this issue because it can be seen as the broad background for a more pressing interpretation of the relationship between the one and the many today.  I refer to the relationship between the individual person and the community in which they live. African writers remind us that Ubuntu teaches the direct opposite of the rational western concept of individualism: ‘I think, therefore I am’.  Ubuntu says, ‘I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am.’ ‘I am’ because I am a member of a group.  Pressing the concept further we might say: if I step outside the group I no longer am.

At first sight this community consciousness is admirable and at its best the community cares for all its members.  It provided a ‘welfare state’ long before the concept was used to describe modern developed societies.  The problem is it takes unusual courage and risk for the individual in the community to think or act outside the community norms.  Nazareth in the time of Jesus was probably just such a tightly knit community and when he announced to them the coming of the Kingdom we are told they were enraged.  ‘Who does he think he is?  He is one of us. We know his parents and his brothers and sisters.’

Jesus replies, ‘no prophet is accepted in his own country.’ It was a threat to the community that ‘one’ of theirs should stand out from the ‘many’.  But we can quickly see that if individuals do not stand out and speak up nothing will ever change.  Somebody has to break the iron grip of custom and tradition when these paralyse a community or a whole country.  I suspect we have all had the experience, when a question is asked that carries consequences depending on how it is answered, where people look around the room to see what others think before they respond.  We bury ourselves in the group rather than saying or doing what we believe.

When God calls Jeremiah he charges him (he almost threatens him), ‘Do not be dismayed in their presence or in their presence I will make you dismayed.’  The call to speak and act as I believe I should is always going to be hard.  But there is no other way to make progress in our personal lives or in our politics.

3 February 2019          Sunday 4 C

Jeremiah 1:4…19        1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13      Luke 4:21-30

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