In his famous Kenyon commencement address novelist David Foster Wallace relays the story of an older fish asking two young fish, “How’s the water?” As the young and confused fish swim away one turns to the other and asks “What is water?” Wallace’s point is that we do well to look carefully at our most basic realities that are so obvious we can easily miss them. Such is the case with thinking about, teaching, and practicing civic hospitality, and with fundamental truths about our human nature. Below are three insights about our human nature and some consideration of what follows for civic hospitality.
First, we humans are rational, speaking, reason-giving, and thinking creatures, but we are also feeling, affective, emotional creatures. We reason and think, feel and experience, but we are not merely brains on sticks nor emotions and appetites run wild. Christians have good reason to reject a view of humanity as disembodied and cerebral on the one hand or primarily materialist and sensualist on the other. We are bodily persons, breathed into existence by God as matter and spirit, commanded to love God with our soul, strength, mind, and heart, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Second, and related to neighbor-love, we humans are relational creatures. We are made to live well with others, and we can know this not only from God’s word but also from general revelation. The Greek philosopher Aristotle notes that we are social creatures, equipped with speech to reason with each other about the good life. And the first crisis in scripture is not Adam and Eve’s disobedience but our aloneness. “It is not good for man to be alone,” God declares in Genesis, and so we know our flourishing somehow requires living well together.
Third, we humans both share commonality and live with difference. We share a common nature insofar as we are all made by God in his image, and yet we belong to particular groupings as well: families, tribes, nations, churches. These particularities are often creational and good, though given the tragic reality of sin and our finitude we humans are prone to mistreat those “outside.” As Christians we both share a connection with every person insofar as we are all image-bearers and yet we are also a people called apart whose citizenship is found in the city of God.
What follows from these insights is the crucial importance of civic hospitality as a virtue to be cultivated and practiced by Christians living amidst commonality and difference in a pluralistic democracy. Because every human being is an image-bearer with dignity we owe each other respect as we work out how to share our common spaces together. Because we are fallen and finite we often see important things differently despite our common human nature and because of our particular identities and belongings. We don’t exercise hospitality when we take care of our own; rather, the need for hospitality presupposes difference. The promise of civic hospitality is that it can help bridge those differences in our common spaces, yet without destroying them.
Because we are thinking creatures who reason together and are formed and informed by our experiences and feelings, we do not just rely on our intuitions nor do we acquire the virtue of civic hospitality by mere calculation or memorizing formulas and techniques. Because we are relational creatures, we are shaped not just by the ideas in our own heads but by the practices we engage in alongside others. Because we experience both commonality and difference we need to intentionally work at practices that enable us to love our neighbor. This curriculum is designed not only to help us and our students better comprehend truths about the sort of creatures we are, but also to cultivate the virtue of civic hospitality through shared, intentional practices and exercises so that we become more empathetic, discerning, charitable, and welcoming.