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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Children’s Games, detail

The Necessity of Community: Four Arguments

Ross Douthat

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  • Jan Bros

    As a pastor of a small faith community, I find this article incomplete in its thesis. It reads with a particular slant that predicts an anxious need to burrow in and take cover rather than an invitation to the greater and good work of God in shaping a beloved people. I am uncomfortable with the reference to our current political climate at the end of the post. The author seems to confuse his thinking about Christian community and God's kingdom with what Walter Brueggemann refers to as "empire." The final question and answer would have been better served in another post not in this writing on "The Necessity of Community."

This is the text of a talk given during a conference at the Fox Hill Bruderhof in Walden, New York, on July 1, 2017. Attendees had been asked to read the following:
Why We Live in Community, by Eberhard Arnold, with two interpretive essays by Thomas Merton.
The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher.
What Will the Church Look Like in 2000?” a 1969 radio address by Joseph Ratzinger.

In all of these three works you can see arguments for what you might call “the necessity of community” – the necessity of new or rediscovered forms of Christian community in the late-modern world. (Technically it could still be early, but we’ll call it the late-modern world because we have a sense that time might be running out.) I want to draw out four points that run through all these writers that get at that necessity – for not only Christians but certainly Christians in particular – to think about community anew.

The first point comes across strongest in Eberhard Arnold and Rod Dreher. It is the sense of institutional indifference, or even hostility, to religious questions in the modern West.

Arnold was writing in 1925, when Europe was heading into the peak of both Marxism and fascism as totalizing ideologies that sought to replace Christianity.

Arnold was writing in 1925, when Europe was heading into the peak years of both Marxism and fascism, two totalizing ideologies that sought to replace Christianity or any other view of the transcendent as the organizing principle behind society. He was writing in a climate where the idea that the institutions, political powers, and dominant ideologies of the world could provide support for Christian faith – something that Christians in the West have been able to take for granted for the almost sixteen hundred years since Constantine – suddenly seemed like it might be all gone. In this climate, it’s not just that you can’t take for granted that the politics and institutions of your world are going to support your faith; under totalitarianism you have to assume that they are going to be hostile to it.

Dreher is not writing in a landscape of ascendant fascism and communism, but in a landscape of ascendant liberal secularism. But that same idea – that your government, your nation-state, and your society are not going to be a friend to your beliefs – is perhaps the strongest theme in The Benedict Option. If you allow yourself or your family or your children to be educated into the liberal society’s dominant community, you will lose what is most important in life, which is the pull of the transcendent, the truth of Christian faith.

So that’s the first reason for the necessity of thinking about community anew: in the modern era, the era of Arnold and now in our own moment, the larger community will not help and may only seek to harm what you believe to be the truth about human existence.

The second point – and it’s related – comes more from Thomas Merton and Joseph Ratzinger, who were writing in a moment immediately after the Second Vatican Council. They are both Roman Catholics, and were writing about their own institution. Both of them are saying that the institutions that Christians have built up are not necessarily going to save them in this era, either. You cannot rely on the old institutions, because the old institutions were built in a time when the dominant culture worked for those institutions and favored and protected them. Ratzinger more or less says that Christianity won’t be able to inhabit the buildings or the spaces that it built in its time of greater power. This was a widespread assumption for Catholics after the Second Vatican Council, and was interpreted as part of what the Council was trying to do: preparing the church for an age in which it was not going to be an established church. It was not going to have special relationships with the governments of Europe. Archbishops and bishops and pastors and ministers weren’t going to be important figures any longer, equivalent in social ranks to government officials and influential businessmen. Christianity was not going to have a place at the Aspen Ideas Festival along with every other globalist institution and power. All of that was going away, and with it, to some extent, the actual Christian institutions were going away as well – those churches and bureaucracies that had been built for an age of church-state-society synchronicity.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Children’s Games, detail

So the first point is that you need to think anew about community because the larger community is hostile to your faith. The second point is that you need to think anew about community because your own institutions have often been built for an age that no longer exists. And then third: you need to think anew about community because we’re at the end of the age of the Reformation.

During and immediately after the Reformation, Christians understood their identities primarily in terms of whether they were choosing for or against particular Christian churches – first in regards to Rome, and then in terms of choosing for and against different forms of Protestantism. That era has not ended in the sense that the theological questions dividing Catholics and Protestants have not ceased to matter. But in this new dispensation, suddenly Protestants and Catholics are finding themselves often with more in common than they ever expected or would have expected to find in 1590 or 1720. In particular, members of both traditions who are reading the signs of the times and recognizing what’s happening are finding themselves with more in common with each other than with members of their own communities who think, “No, everything is fine; we just carry on as normal.”

This presents opportunities for ecumenical dialogue, in the jargon of church bureaucracies. But more realistically and importantly, it provides opportunities to build new forms of community that bridge the divisions that have separated the different parts of Christendom and Christianity for five hundred years and even longer than that, if you want to throw in Eastern Orthodoxy.

You need to think less about how you separate yourselves from your fellow Christians, and more about what you can learn from groups whose theologies you don’t completely share.

That is part of what Merton talks about, and it’s certainly part of what The Benedict Option is all about. Dreher – a writer who was raised Protestant, converted to Catholicism, and became Orthodox – is trying to write capaciously, offering models that can be taken up and shared and learned from by evangelicals, the Orthodox, Catholics, Anabaptists, Lutherans, Methodists, and so on across the different denominational divides of Christianity.

This quest for models doesn’t point immediately to any kind of settlement of the theological questions that divide us. But it points to what the times – and maybe God himself – are asking of people now, which is to think less about how you separate yourselves from your fellow Christians in order to preserve theological distinctiveness and more about what you can learn from groups whose theologies you don’t completely share.

Finally, the fourth point – which is most present in Dreher’s book because The Benedict Option was written in our own moment. For Dreher, the necessity of community is a response to the social transformation of Western life over the last hundred years, and particularly to the rise of an extraordinary individualism. Both Arnold and Ratzinger, and to a lesser extent Merton, are writing in the shadow of explicit totalitarianism. In their time, modernity was tending toward heavy-handed authoritarianism and the idea that bureaucratic planning would dominate everybody’s life was taken for granted. Thus Ratzinger, for instance, speaks about how people in a completely planned society will be desperately lonely and will look to Christian community for what they’re seeking.

That was forty-eight years ago now. At this moment things look different. Our society seems to be heading toward a softer authoritarianism than the earlier writers would have expected, and more toward a world where the fundamental reality is hyperindividualism. It’s not a perfectly planned society; if anything, there’s hostility to too much government planning and more of a sense that everybody is on their own. And in the age of the Internet, as Dreher writes, it’s clear that online life and the often ersatz forms of community that online life creates may only accelerate that process.

So we’re headed more and more into a world where people spend more time alone before they get married, or they don’t get married at all, have fewer children, fewer relatives, fewer cousins, narrower and narrower kinship networks, large groups of friends across the Internet but weaker close ties. They’re less likely – think of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone – to join clubs and organizations and churches. As these people get older, they’re going to be alone, more and more and more. That has real-world social consequences that have already been playing out for a lot of white, working-class Americans. You see it in the opioid epidemic; you see it in the rise of suicide among middle-aged men. You see the loneliness of a hyperindividualistic society coming into play in a big way.

And so the necessity of community isn’t just about preserving and strengthening religious faith in a landscape that is hostile to it. It’s also about saving society in the most immediate way; not just converting people but literally preventing them from killing themselves.

Community isn’t just about preserving and strengthening religious faith. It’s about saving society in the most immediate way.

What can churches and Christian communities offer to a society so defined by isolation and alienation? What they can offer is a form of community that isn’t available anywhere else and that doesn’t necessarily take the same forms that community took in eras when more people got married, more people had families, and you could rely on those kinship networks as the basis of community. In a world where you have lots of divorced sixty-seven-year-olds who have one kid who lives halfway across the country, you need communities that are ready to welcome people and take them in and build communities around something other than the nuclear family.

So those are my four pillars of a new Christian communitarianism. These four arguments unite strands from all of these writers and get at why we need to be thinking about community anew today.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Children’s Games, detail
The talk was followed by a question and answer session.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Children’s Games, detail

Question: What do you think about Eberhard’s words that the call to live in community is more than just a response to society?

The charism of community is something that recurs again and again as a source of renewal in Christian history. It goes back through different forms of community, back through the Franciscans in the Middle Ages and all the way back. But if it’s true that Christians are always called to live in community, the points that link what Arnold is saying to the other writers are about, as our former president might say, “the fierce urgency of now.” Which is to say, why is it particularly important to think about these issues in this particular moment? Something can be true for all time and also take on a particular new urgency.

But then I want to offer some qualifiers to this vision, which are not completely arguments with Arnold but do probably reflect some Catholic/Anabaptist differences.

The first qualifier is that it is important to remember that many communities fail. I lack a lot of your own experience, the Bruderhof experience, with a successful form of community. But I do have experiences with failed forms of community. Something that most of you should know is that you are very fortunate to have grown up experiencing a community that succeeded and is still succeeding. But you also have to be aware, whether you’re inside a successful community or trying to do something new or trying to link your successful community to the wider Christian world, that communal failure is also a big part of Christian history. We talk about Francis of Assisi and the incredible success of the Franciscans in restoring a core New Testament vision to the life of the medieval church, but the Franciscans were not the only order trying to do that in the Middle Ages. Many orders failed and disappeared, and some went crazy and became heretical, and others were unjustly subjugated by the church. But there was a wide range of failure. And this has been true in the American context, too. As you consider your life’s vocation, you have to be prepared for failure as well as for success. And you have to recognize that Christianity has to be able to survive and thrive amid the failures of its communities.

It is important to remember that many communities fail.

I’m a Catholic, so I believe in a kind of corporate salvation where people are saved, in many ways, through the church. But I also have to believe, especially in this era of Catholicism, that Catholics are saved despite the failures of the church and the particular kind of community that Roman Catholicism represents. Whether you are living fully in a communal setting or trying to find your communal setting, a preparation for failure – even a partial failure – is necessary. Communities can survive and succeed while also going through incredibly hard times and shrinking and losing membership and splitting and feuding. And you just have to be prepared for the possibility of failure and prepared for the reality that the community you think is what is going to save you might not actually be how God intends to save you. Christianity has gone on for two thousand years amid both successes and failures in communal living. So that’s one qualifier: recognition of failure as a possibility, even for the sincerest communitarian attempts.

The second qualifier is connected to that. Merton and Ratzinger were writing about this in the sixties, in the aftermath of Vatican II. They thought that the church was undergoing a kind of purification, and that it was going to emerge refreshed from this period of collapse and ferment and reform. This was a period when people were leaving the priesthood in droves and monasteries were emptying and all the older forms of community were disappearing from Catholic life. There’s an assumption there that in this dissolution the new communities that emerge and are resilient will shine brighter than before and be more filled with spirit filled than before. And that, again, hasn’t always been how things have worked out. Merton’s monastery has fewer monks than ever before, and it’s not clear who the next generation of monks are to take their place. There are some thriving monasteries around the country, but overall, monastic life in the United States has not recovered from the 1960s. And we haven’t reached the point that Ratzinger is talking about where it will be clear what these new communities are. We are still in this transitional process. And that transitional process can last a long time.

Most Christians, most people trying to lead a Christian life, still live inside those older structures. It’s very hard to say, “OK, well, we need a smaller, purer church,” if you’re running a network of Presbyterian churches that have existed for two hundred years. And all of them have parishioners. And those are their communities. And they are used to that form of community. They’re forty-seven years old and they have three kids and they want their Presbyterian church to be there for them, and you’re telling them, “Well guess what? God wants you to have a smaller, purer church and so you need to fold ten of your churches and only have one church.” That’s an incredibly hard thing to deal with. Much of Christianity in the West is dealing with that, and it’s incredibly hard.

This isn’t exactly a disagreement that I have with Dreher, but sometimes The Benedict Option underestimates how hard it is for the people charged with these legacy structures in Christianity to figure out how to migrate to this new situation. If you’re the Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, you have a huge community, you are responsible for hundreds and hundreds and thousands of baptized Christian souls. How do you get to your place in The Benedict Option, whatever it might be, from that position?

I don’t have answers. It’s an incredibly hard challenge. But the existence of that challenge means that you don’t want to fall into the trap of overly romanticizing your embattled moment and saying, “Well, because of the collapse of institutional Christianity we can finally just get back to the holy simplicity of New Testament life.” For most people out there in the world, that collapse is something they are still living through. And everything that they know about Christianity, everything they are connected to is bound up in these legacy institutions. They don’t just disappear; they are weaker but still there. You still have people running them, trying to do their best in a difficult situation.

So the people who are involved in the most intentional of communities and the most successful of intentional communities need to recognize that they are also part of this broader ecosystem. Their success as a community should be judged both on its own terms – the success of the community itself – but also by how it relates to the wider church struggling in this collapsing yet still present institutional mess.

Again, when you think about the different forms of renewal that Arnold talks about in his essay, the ones we remember are the ones that were both successes on their own terms and that had large ripple effects for the rest of Christianity and the rest of society.

The third qualifier is about politics. I’m a political journalist, so I inevitably bristle a little bit about The Benedict Option when it gives the sense that politics has failed us, politics has failed conservative Christians, politics has failed religious believers, and therefore the only politics you should have is to seek the protection of religious liberty. I’m caricaturing Dreher’s argument a little bit; he wouldn’t frame it in exactly those terms. But there is something that runs through the communitarian sensibility in Christianity right now that says we’re going to have this return to community and in returning to community we will escape from all the problems that our engagement with politics has created.

And all those problems are real. Everything Dreher says about the failures of the religious right is completely true, and much of what could be said about the failures of the religious left is also completely true. Christian political engagement in Western society over the last forty or fifty years – basically since the civil rights movement – allowing for some successes in the prolife movement, mostly has been a failure.

But you cannot completely escape politics, because politics will always be interested in you. The only point at which it ceases to be interested in you is when you don’t matter anymore. Even Ratzinger’s “mustard-seed church” – the tiniest image of the church – even that church will have political influence and have political enemies and face political controversies and political struggles. And this was certainly true of the church in the first few centuries of its existence – it was not political, and yet Roman politics became interested in “what do you do about those Christians?” And out of that came, ultimately, centuries and centuries of argument about church-state issues.

So my point is just that you still need to think about what a Christian politics should be, even as you are, in effect, partially retreating from it. You can’t afford not to, and you can’t afford to let the necessity of community blind you to the necessity of figuring out how society should be organized as a whole. What does your community think about political questions? Because people are going to come to you seeking communal life, but they are also going to come to you, if you are succeeding, seeking answers that apply beyond your community. Christians haven’t been able to escape from politics in two thousand years, and whatever new dispensation we’re headed into, we won’t be able to escape it now either.

Q: When talking to non-Christians, would you point out that community is something that comes out of a life following Christ?

It’s complicated because you can’t build a Christian community on some sort of pragmatic “people need community, therefore, come to us and hang out” kind of basis. It has to be rooted in the actual Christian beliefs. At the same time, if Christianity is true, then you would expect people to have yearnings toward community, yearnings toward what the church of the New Testament is modeling, even if they can’t put that in theological terms and even actively reject – for intellectual reasons – the theological terms. So somewhere in between those two is a balance. I don’t know where and how you strike that balance, but it’s a balance, on the one hand, of openness to people who come to you with those attitudes and, on the other hand, a recognition that you can’t build a community around community itself.

You don’t want to fall into a trap where community becomes your idol.

If people are just there for the community, at a certain point it’s not going to hold together. And this is a problem that the Christian reformers in the sixties and seventies, both Catholic and Protestant, ran into. They were saying, “OK, we’re going to have these new models of Christian life and Christian cultural engagement, and these will involve recognizing a deeper brotherhood with non-Christians and working together and being more ecumenical and all these things.” But at a certain point a lot of people involved in these institutions and projects woke up one morning and said, “Well, but do we actually believe in the Christianity part anymore? Aren’t we just engaged in something else?” Back then it was more likely to be social action rather than communal living, but it was often both. You don’t want to fall into a trap where community becomes your idol. This is also part of why accepting the possibility of failure becomes really important, because no single Christian community has lasted the last two thousand years, and you have to assume that there are cycles of renewal and decay and renewal and decay. And you have to be prepared for that. You can’t hold on to your community if it seems like it’s time for it to go.

I’m not providing a perfect answer; it’s a hard challenge. But it’s always the challenge. I would just stress – and this is something I also talked about in my book Bad Religion – Christian anthropology, the Christian view of man, predicts that there will be human benefits to Christian modes of living. That doesn’t mean that becoming Christian means you won’t suffer anymore and you’ll be happy. Clearly that’s not the case. Still, the attraction that people feel to communities, even when they don’t feel like they can share the belief, is itself a very modest form of evidence for the truth of Christian faith, and you shouldn’t run away from that. It’s like a spark: you are trying to blow on it. Sometimes you blow a little too hard and the spark goes out, but it doesn’t mean you stop making the attempt.

Q: How can Christian communities be more relevant culturally and politically?

The answers vary with what level of engagement with society you are working at – and keep in mind I write about national politics, so I tend to phrase things in terms of national politics. At the national level, the challenge for Christians is to find a way to be political without being partisan. That is to say, you want it to be clear to other people and not just to yourself that your Christian faith controls your partisan commitments, rather than the other way around. That means, when you’re thinking about what you believe in, what you’re working for, and what causes you support, you want to assume as a given that no individual political party in human history is ever going to capture the fullness of God’s plan for humanity in its political platform.

There are going to be major flaws in any political party’s platform – major blind spots and errors. What you are looking for, then, when it comes to Christian leadership or engagement in politics, is people who recognize that fact. So, to take one of the more successful examples: for the last twenty years there’s a longstanding project among conservative evangelicals for prison reform, which is not necessarily a project that you associate with the Republican Party as it developed as the “law and order, war on drugs” party in the 1970s and 1980s. So the existence of that project is a sign that the people involved in it, who tend to be people who vote Republican and are politically conservative, are conscious of their higher loyalty, their ultimate loyalty. They are looking for places where the party that they are aligned with needs to be corrected.

To the extent that you are engaged in anything that approaches partisan political engagement, that’s what you want to be trying to do, but it’s also what you want to be looking for in the politicians you support. That’s a very tough challenge, because our society is increasingly organized, thanks to the nationalization of every political debate and the polarization created by cable news and everything else, around party loyalty.

Dreher makes the argument that politics has failed us in many ways and we need to focus on narrower issues and not constantly align ourselves with Republican politicians. But I know a lot of people – most or all of whom voted for Donald Trump for president – who would agree with Rod’s diagnosis of the state of the church but would say, “And that’s why we can never, ever, ever do anything except vote for a Republican politician because only the Republican Party will protect us.” In some cases that might be true, but you can see the trap that it sets.

This analysis might not be so helpful for more local political engagement, which is less imprisoned by partisan categories. But at the national level, you want to constantly be proving that you’re a Christian first and a Republican or Democrat second.


Images: details from Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Children’s Games
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Children’s Games, detail
Contributed By Ross Douthat Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat is the author of several books including Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012). He is a columnist for the New York Times.

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