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.
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.