Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Idol of Community

Living as a hilltop hermit for three months has given me a lot of time to think about community. Perhaps it's the circles in which I run, but "community" is a buzzword I hear a lot. In college, my friends and I praised the intimacy which Hillsdale College's small size afforded. Whereas a lot of my peers who went to big schools (read "bigger than 2,000") drifted like life rafts and tethered together for a season or an evening before floating off, we were like shipwrecked sailors crawling up on desert islands: we stuck together. Within our castaway academic culture, off-campus houses developed a certain ethos and their cultures continued and evolved as they were sanctimoniously handed off from one generation to another. We took pride in our loyalty to friends and our intentional community. We made dinner together, read poetry on Friday evenings, fought, apologized, fought again, and then made cocktails. We argued about theology and philosophy, protected each other's reputations, and we always knew who never did dishes and who ate the last cookie every time.

That is all to say, I can't imagine a better place to have spent the past four years of my life and those memories of late-night pots of coffee and Easter jam sessions have helped sustain me through the past three months of solitude.

But I also have a bone to pick, if you'll pardon my cliche. (I've been working for the past ten days straight, so I'm tired.)

 I've lived in a lot of close communities--family, private school, summer stays with various families, college--and I'm trying to come to terms with the bitterness and disappointment which I see so often among people who have tried so hard to live well in community. Pardon me for somewhat limiting my audience here, but you recent alumni should know what I'm talking about: the feeling of loss, of being lost without that community for some, for others anger at the gossip, pettiness, and cowardice which tainted those last months and may have continued past graduation. When I talk to my college friends, one of the most common reactions I hear is disappointment with that community we tried so hard to foster.

I've seen it in churches, too--people who leave because they've been burned, people who get burned out trying to make it all work. As a guy I went hunting with last night said, "Church is great if you take the human element out of it."

I think the problem is with the ideal of community itself. We--and I have to speak specifically to my fellow graduates--have made it our idol.

I know I have. When I think back on the four years of blessing I experienced with the other Hillsdale College Anglicans (or whatever name we finally decided for ourselves), I remember with pain those times--embarrassingly frequent--when I made decisions with more a mind toward preserving our "good community" than the truth of our purpose which was (and is) glorifying God. I didn't want to rock the boat, so I didn't ask questions that needed to be asked and I avoided conversations that needed to be had.

How many times did we as friends just "take care" of each other on some of those excessive Friday nights instead of acting? How many times did we allow words and actions to continue just so long as we could maintain the status quo?

It's a fine line, I know. We want to act charitably towards the weaker member, we wanted to act with care and concern rather than judgement. Those are wonderful intentions, and we did have the best of intentions. I can honestly say that the best thing about Hillsdale is that you are surrounded by people who genuinely care about your soul.

But we also failed a lot. We set a lot of bones that needed to be broken.

I remember going to say goodbye to Dr. Whalen (the College provost for those of you unfamiliar with the school) and talking with him about the common problem of graduates who just want to continue the community they had in college.

As I said before, I think the problem is that we've made community our idol, as if it is the great telos of human life.

This is an easy mistake to make because in fact we aren't as human beings meant to be alone. We are made to live in communities with all their pleasures and pains. It is not good for man to be alone, as God said in the beginning.

But we can't stop there. A really wonderful man, Dr. John Seel, who I had the pleasure of meeting in high school and keeping up with sporadically through college, sent me a few readings about vocation last week which really made me start thinking about community in a new way. Communities, too, have vocations; they don't exist for themselves.

At Hillsdale, I think there's a tendency for us to think about our friend groups as ends in themselves, as part of the central purpose of college. But that's not true. We're in college for a specific purpose, and that's academic. To substitute growth in friendship for this academic goal is just to dress up the deplorable idea in the larger culture that college is a time to "find oneself."

No. College is not a time to find oneself, it's a time that prepares you to serve in the world. That is (was, for me and my fellow graduates) our purpose, and when we substitute "friendship" or "community" for the ends which they are supposed to serve, we will inevitably be disappointed.

"Community" as an ideal easily becomes its own Baal and real communities quickly kindle on their own idolatrous altar.

The purpose of communities is to forward the kingdom of Christ. God put Adam in the garden to work, and it is through work, whether the work of study, family, or occupation, that fulfill our purpose in the world. Communities and individuals must both see this work as their purposes or they will be profoundly unsatisfied. A brotherhood of knights does not exist to "be a community" and "support one another;" they fight for queen and country. We must angle ourselves toward service daily and in all that we do and only that way will we, as a dear friend once told me, make all our work a prayer instead of an idol.

P.S. Jason Peters of Front Porch Republic (a thoughtful blog with many contributors writing about place, limits, and liberty, as it describes itself) wrote an article about the promiscuous use of the word "community" three years ago which, I believe, is still one of the site's top hits because of Peters' humor and the article's poignancy. It's a great read and I recommend it to anyone thinking about this problem.


  1. This is very well written. Yes communities have vocations. I have seldom felt part of a community and never tried to get into one, so did not go through the experience you describe. It sounds suffocating! Whenever hear the word "community" I automatically think of monastic communities, which have a purpose. I know that they balance time together and time alone. Somewhere I read that always being together would lead to conformity, and always being alone would lead to eccentricity. Yes, human beings are made to live in communities. In Orthodox Christianity (I read somewhere), you are supposed to be married, or live in a monastery.

    This is a little off the subject, but the best thirty-minute presentation of the purpose of a monastery I have ever seen is "From the Little Mountain," made by the Hermitage of the Holy Cross (a community) in West Virginia. You can see a bootleg copy of the Greek version (English narration, Greek subtitles) at Otherwise it's $15 from the hermitage gift shop online. Beautiful sights and sounds of nature and liturgy, spiffy bell-ringing and well-chosen words about monks.

    Grandfather Brown

  2. You are mentoring a distant community right now. Keep writing, please.