The Meaning of Being Human in a Community of Practice

By Levy, Sandra M. | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

The Meaning of Being Human in a Community of Practice


Levy, Sandra M., Anglican Theological Review


The unifying theme of these "essential reading" selections is that, in one way or another, they are all hooks that have been profoundly important to me as a person and as a priest. If I were going to impose order on these texts, I would place them in two groups: philosophical anthropology (that is, a systematic and theoretical account of being human) and related theology, and autobiographical accounts of the singular, with potential universal application for the Western Christian reader. Perhaps the unifying theme that holds these two categories of texts together is that they all speak to what I believe is a "convergent anthropology," that is, the meaning of being human in a social nexus or community of practice. I will argue that writers in the second category of books especially lay out aspects of universal truth in their accounts of their lives. In a special issue of this journal celebrating the ministry of women and their contribution to theology, approximately half of these books are written by women, yet they were (and are) important to me quite apart from that.

Philosophical Anthropology and Related Theology

All the books in this category are arranged chronologically in the order that I read them. Although that may seem an idiosyncratic way of proceeding, the logic of such ordering resides in their shaping of my own consciousness about human nature. I see each building on what went before.

The existential phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception (trans. Colin Smith, 4th edition, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967) has played a significant role for me in explicating the world of language and the creation of meaning through the articulation of lived, incarnate experience. A student of Husserl's along with Martin Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty broke with his teacher over the essential importance of lived, or existentially derived, meaning. In their perception of the world in which they live, he argues, humans embody meaning pre-linguistically, but fulfill or give shape to that basic meaning through verbal articulation. This primary level of perceived meaning is, in fact, a property of the body, analogous to gestures and a sense of ones physical surroundings. Thus, for Merleau-Ponty, language is a way of "singing" or articulating the world in which we inhabit a place of significance. Although it is true that the language that we learn is comprised of words with common meaning, as "sediments" of past expressions, the actual nature of language is revealed in acts of expressing rather than in past expressions. "There is, in Merleau-Ponty, the movement from silence to speech, but that is not a movement from non-meaning to meaning; it is rather a movement from the implicit to the explicit, from ambiguity already pregnant with significance to the expressed significance of speech. If meaning is 'born' it is because the perceived world is already pregnant with that possibility."[dagger] In fact, it is in the articulating of lived, perceived meaning in dialogue with another that novel ideas are expressed best and meaning is created. This is not an easy text to read, but rewarding for the patient scholar. Much of contemporary theology, such as the theological anthropology of Karl Earth (particularly his doctrine of creation and his understanding of creation and covenant in volume 3 of Church Dogmatics), is consistent with Merleau-Ponty's analysis of the role of language in community.

In the field of the sociology of knowledge, Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality (New York: Anchor, 1989) is a classic text. First published in 1966, it is still in print and I highly recommend it to all concerned with the power of religious community for faith maintenance. For these authors, the most important vehicle of reality-shaping and maintenance is conversation, along with the taken-for-granted contextual world within which conversation takes place and reinforces the reality perceived. …

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