Communities are not Artificial Constructs

Jake Meador on the problem with the de facto liberal view of what a community is:

The claim of liberalism’s defenders is that the crisis of our day is something less comprehensive than the liberal social order. So we can resolve the problem without tampering too much with the markets or modern ideas about religion or free speech. The sources are fine, they tell us. The problem is something different. You can distinguish, we are told, liberal proceduralism from liberal ideology. You can attack some lesser form of idolatry or false religious belief and retain our current market systems.

To which the post-liberals respond: The logic of contemporary progressivism is that human communities are artificial constructs. Identities are not given; they are manufactured. Any community that hinders the work of an individual narrating their own identity across their life is thus unjust and evil and should be socially marginalized at the least. This is the justification for progressive extremism on abortion and their historically unprecedented sexual revisionism.


Places and Spaces

I’ve read and watched two things today that have my mind humming with old ideas re-presented in new contexts.

The first is from Wilfred M. McClay at Comment:

As we have become ever more mobile and more connected and absorbed in a panoply of things that are not immediately present to us, our actual and tangible places seem less and less important to us, more and more transient or provisional or even disposable. Sometimes it almost seems as if we are moving toward a nomadic existence as plants without definable roots, perpetually forgetful beings who draw our daily sustenance from what is far rather than what is near. We rely on the ubiquitous satellites that encircle us and the resultant computer clouds that feed and absorb our energies. We do this rather than drawing sustenance from the actual people before our eyes, and the specific ground beneath our feet, and the stories and memories that form our lives in community. We forget the things that make our places distinctive, and concentrate on the things that make them interchangeable.

(Note: I struggled not to copy and paste the whole essay. You should read the whole thing).

The second is from a talk by Andy Crouch:

A couple takeaways:

1. When we abstract our material and tangible experiences, we implicitly alter our conceptions of personhood and leave ourselves vulnerable to powers that would impose their will upon us. Abstraction is as reductive as materialism. Abstraction, however, is not just the sin of the ivory tower. It is located within tech. industry and our cultural obsession with convenience. For Crouch, one of the problems that emerged from the Industrial Revolution was the replacement of human work with machines. Ostensibly, technology allows us to off-load human work so that we can live lives of uninterrupted pleasure. The result is a vision of humanity unfettered from the work that produces tangible goods. In a word, we become “consumers,” and so we are at the mercy of those who provide the consumable goods.

2. One of my favorite parts in McClay’s essay (not included in the above quotation) is his image of human beings as gardeners and pilgrims. These are competing extremes within the human psyche and within philosophy/theology of personhood. McClay points out that the gardener can’t subsume the pilgrim aspect of our nature, and vice versa. The two must always be held in tension. But, McClay emphasizes, our present cultural moment leans too much in the direction of pilgrimage–both in secular (i.e., technological conveniences) and religious contexts: “We cannot flourish without rootedness, and we should not let the pilgrimage element in our faith become a pretext for relegating all our attachments to meaningless shadows, a world in which there is no there there, only a vague spiritual beyond.” Paradox is at the heart of human experience, and our tendency is to try to eliminate one of the competing aspects. After all, paradox is both uncomfortable and inconvenient–two words our “technological progress” is hell bent on eliminating.

I also appreciated McClay’s essay because it helped keep my inner-luddite in check. Technological improvement does not have to progress at the expense of human flourishing. And much of the technology we enjoy today–whether medicinal, recreational, educational, etc.–has enhanced our lives in good ways. The trick, McClay says at the end of his piece, is preserving our memory of what it means to be human.

Community: Not just an idea

The older I get, the more I’m convinced that “community” is a serendipitous phenomena.

After a long, honest discussion with friends about the idea of community and of personal experiences with successful and failed communities, I’m more aware of how the elements of a thriving group of people who live in relationship with one another is nothing short of a miracle.

Post-discussion, here are five aspects of community I’m still thinking about. I know there are more, but these stand out to me as non-negotiable.

1. Time

As someone who’s moved twice within the past ten years, I’ve experienced firsthand that it takes a solid year-and-a-half to two-years for new friendships to gain traction (…if you’re lucky). The mere fact of knowing about someone’s existence and interacting with that person in a physical setting (not online, and however fleetingly) lays the foundation for the possibility of a friendship. There is no short-cut, even if there are ways to encourage & cultivate new friendships.

The trouble is that in many of the situations in which we find ourselves, people are not committed for an indefinite amount of time to live in the same place. When my wife and I moved to Murfreesboro, TN it was with the intention that we would only be here for a maximum of two years. Three years later, we still think of Murfreesboro as a temporary place for us: both our families live in different states, and I’m still toying with the idea of doctoral studies. It feels disingenuous to invest in a community when you know, or if you’re 90% sure, there’s a time limit.

2. Proximity

Community also requires close physical proximity. The church, school, and/or gym you attend is determined by where you live. Even if you attend a church, private school, or gym outside of town, you’ve made a calculation about how far you’re willing to drive in order to become a member of that community. You could not, for example, live on the West coast and feasibly attend a weekly church service on the East coast.

Proximity is a question of who you’re stuck with. Although there’s greater freedom in the 21st century to expand our community perimeters, limitations remain unavoidable.

3. Goal(s)/Common Good

Proximity, like time, is not enough. Communities form, in part, because of a shared interest. Throwing a bunch of people in a room does not a community make. But if you do throw a bunch of people in a room for a long period of time, they’ll begin talking with one another, sharing with one another, and eventually form a common bond. The “common bond” will emerge from a collective sense of purpose and shared interests. The purpose does not have to be an agreed upon destination or goal; it could simply be an agreement to wonder about the same questions, to ensure the health and safety of others, or to simply coexist.

The strength of the community, however, will be determined by the strength of its shared purpose(s). A purpose like “coexist” is flimsy at best and will have no staying power. A community that establishes a collectively shared moral system in order to achieve a common good, in contrast, will grow from strength to strength. Jake Meador is especially good on this point:

A community is not just a gaggle of people; it’s a group of people bound around a specific good. And that good can be the good of a city, the good of a certain sort of work, or the good of study and reflection. But the point is that there needs to be something for the community to do.

4. Trust

Unfortunately, the binding good of a community is often a point on which many communities fall apart. A shared understanding of the common good is fraught with disagreement and miscommunication–both of which can lead to a sense of distrust among the members. Without trust, there’s no authenticity. Without authenticity, productive work and dialogue halts. Instead, members become suspicious of each other’s motives. The result is a group of people alone together. The community no longer contains members but individuals seeking their personalized good(s).

5. Effort

Finally, there is no chance of a community without personal effort. Individuals must choose to form and then diligently maintain a community. Effort will involve sacrifice for the sake of the common good; it will require a willingness to trust others, to continue to live in close proximity with one another, and to allow for the time needed for relationships to take root and flourish.

Effort may seem like the most obvious component to community building, but that’s because we’re steeped in a culture that believes “will-power” is the secret to success. If we’ll simply start cleaning our rooms on a regular basis, or if we’ll balance our budget monthly, or if we’ll declutter our living spaces, then life will bend to our every desire.

Despite the will-power narrative, there remain forces beyond our control. Sometimes effort is an act of waiting and patience as much as an exertion of will over a set of circumstances. Effort also entails a set of prerequisite resources: without time, proximity, a common good, or trust, my efforts to form a community will diminish and finally dissolve.

Concluding Thought

Writing this brief and informal reflection on the components of community has proved more difficult than I anticipated. I realize that part of the reason is that the “idea of a community” and the “practice of community” don’t always correspond with each other. Some of my own frustrations with fledgling communities in the past, for example, often stemmed from the disjunction between my ideas and my experience.

The difficulty also has arisen from the fact that the components of a community are symbiotic. It’s difficult to talk about the time needed for building relationships without also talking about how proximity and effort make time fruitful, and vice versa. Each aspect infuses the others.

A “community,” in other words, is not a machine composed of separable parts. It can’t be replicated following a universal set of rules or procedures, and the individual parts are not inanimate or predictable. There are no blocks or cogs, only persons. And like human persons, communities flourish under the happy confluence of a certain set of circumstances: time, proximity, a common good, trust, effort, and a healthy amount of grace.