The featured track from the metal band Tool’s new album is titled “Pneuma,” which means “breath” or “spirit” and the opening lyrics reflect a particular biblical motif of unity:
We are spirit
Bound to this flesh
We go around one foot nailed down
We’re bound to reach out and beyond
This flesh become Pneuma
We are will and wonder
Bound to recall, remember
(We are born of)
One breath, one word
(We are all)
One spark, sun becoming
Word-Flesh. Immanent-Transcendent. These theological and philosophical pairings are not intended to be abstract constructions but rather serve as a way of framing the human condition. As Teilhard de Chardin, SJ reminds us, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” In a meta-cognitive kind of way this reminds us of how we recognize what is recognizable about ourselves as individuals and as part of a collective entity. Many communities speak to having a unified front or an authentic sense of togetherness despite numerous differences, the way an athlete overcomes a career threatening injury. Likewise, families themselves are a microcosm of “unified chaos.” They emulate the way numerous obligations, agreements, and conflicts somehow overcome the challenges of time to emerge as a unified whole, however imperfect and flawed. But that’s the nature of relationships; they’re messy and complicated, like sausage-making. The quest for unity is not linear or simple; it is fraught with detours, distractions, and doubt.
I often describe my approach to school as a “systems thinker,” most likely a reference to Peter Senge’s work in organizational learning. Since most of my academic background is in systematic theology, I tend to view things in a way which recognizes the potential influence of each aspect of an organization. In a theological discussion, for example, you can’t talk about God unless you talk about human nature and you can’t talk about human nature unless you talk about the impact of freedom and sin, etc. So too we can’t talk about the unity of oneself or of a community without its parts, without the challenges and flaws that make it a uniquely distinct entity. In short, it’s not reasonable to conflate unity with agreement. Unification does not mean that conflict or disagreement have somehow dissipated into the ether of community-building but rather views this mosaic of differences as a collective whole.
“One breath, one word…” go the lyrics from “Pnuema.” Breathing is a habit we are usually unaware of. We are rarely fully aware of our breath unless it is shortened after rigorous exercise or in need underwater. But it requires intake and output, giving and taking, critiquing and supporting. To be unified about any issue or problem is more complex than we realize. But there is a grace in knowing the journey toward it is a priceless spiritual investment in ourselves and those around us.