Loneliness and even estrangement we are familiar with, but isolation? Is this too strong a term to describe the ways in which sin afflicts our common life? The skepticism of this nomenclature, I think, is twofold. First, it may come from a fear that this prioritizes sin as a fundamental reality of creation rather than grace. It is, after all, only because God sustains the world that we are able to name isolation clearly, as a falling away from our intended state as creatures. We were created for communion with God, and isolation is what we settle for and, as we shall see, unwittingly calibrate our experience of church to. But in order to see the way home, we must name the problem for what it is.
The second reason to be skeptical of the term isolation to describe the human condition may come from associating isolation with an extreme situation: that of prisoners in solitary confinement, of nomads living without another human soul. But these are simply isolation—as a theological reality—taking a dramatic physical shape. Isolation, as used in this book, refers not merely to a phenomenon but to a state that dictates how we in turn view the self and the activities that we do. Isolation names a condition in which, because of sin, the human exists divided from others and from God. Because of this division, we share a common world sustained by God, but we view one another as competitors in that world, each of us closed off, threatened by all others, and sustained fundamentally by our own efforts.
While loneliness describes a feeling that ebbs and flows with the presence of others, isolation—a pervasive state—better describes our state under sin, even when we are in the presence of others. Loneliness is, in other words, the harbinger of isolation, sending a message to remind us that this feeling of distance from others that we endure temporally is an echo of a far more serious situation. In using the term isolation throughout this book, I am naming the way sin permeates the world and the ways this condition then leads us to structure the world to try to overcome or compensate for that condition.
It is isolation that better describes the complex way in which sin divides human beings from God and one another, distancing them from the goodness and benefit of the God who is our source and from others, through whom we receive these good gifts. It is isolation that describes the distance between humans and the earth, the unfamiliarity and antagonism that one creature exhibits toward another creature. It is isolation that names the experience of life as being bracketed by an almost inescapable aloneness, even if others encounter a semblance of who we are or if we experience relief from loneliness for years on end.
Describing creation in this way does not mean that we do not share a common language, heritage, or interests, nor does it entail denying that creation is upheld and sustained by the God who is working for its reconciliation. It means that, theologically, humans live in ways that are always seeking to overcome a perpetual distance between us, to restore communion where there remains rupture, and that we frequently attempt a restoration which misunderstands the problem.
The Problem of Seeing Isolation
Popular discussions have tended toward viewing isolation as something that is “out there,” perpetuated by cultures that trade in individualism and self-discovery, fraying the best of our social bonds and shared values. But this is not the whole truth: isolation, as a feature of creaturely life under sin, afflicts the church as well, and the ways in which we practice church.
If isolation—the state in which we exist, dividing ourselves from one another and from God—permeates even the life of the church, then we can see isolation appearing in our church life in two different, polar-opposite forms. Following Bonhoeffer, we can see that there are two faces to isolation: that of the crowd and that of the individual.
Isolation and the Crowd
In the crowd, the person obscures their isolation by joining their voice with a collective that covers them, providing them with a shelter against being alone. As we shall see, this frequently comes hand in hand with strong leaders who promise vision and shelter from this isolation, bringing additional problems. It may seem counterintuitive to name isolation as present in collectives. But as Augustine reminds us, this social form hides internal divisions, frequently set aside for tactical successes, such that the most powerful of empires are but imagined communities construed to stave off the tide of isolation that will not be set aside forever.
To see Augustine’s point, one need only look to the ways in which the dynasties of Scripture are undone by those closest to them, or to the ways in which the intimacies of the church are the occasion for egregious harms: if members are not mediated to one another in Christ’s body, even the most valued social bonds will revert back to the law of Adam, of prioritizing the self over against all others. The best and most natural of bonds—of family, of marriage, of friendship—will disintegrate, apart from God’s knitting them together.
Isolation and the Individual
If crowds are one face of isolation, the triumphant individual provides us a different face. For if the crowd hides our isolation and lack of connection in one way, individualism is its mirror image, championing what the crowd hides. Individuals—who must make all decisions for themselves—find themselves thrown into the world, with only the courageous able to navigate it, on the strength of will and fortitude. In this form, isolation appears as the demand to take on the burden of the world, carrying the weight of being self-made and self-sustained. While there is certainly value in speaking of personal agency and virtue, of the singular Daniel who defies an empire or of the Paul who preaches to the mob, this obscures the fact that Daniel is not Daniel by himself, nor is Paul the singular figure against all odds; rather, they are bearers of a community, shaped by and representing a covenantal people. The courageous individual, as construed in contemporary discourse, is more our accommodation to the fall, making the best of a bad situation, than a person functioning as humans were meant to.