With the grave worry of many Christians about living in a culture that seems to be antagonistic to Christianity itself, we ought to consider the radical alternative of intentional communities.
In these days of the rise of the “nones,” said to be the fastest growing “religious” body in the country, and with the grave worry of many Christians about living in a culture that seems to be antagonistic to Christianity itself, a new book allows us to consider the existence of and tradition behind the radical alternative of Christian intentional communities.
Charles E. Moore, current pastor of the Bruderhof community, one of the modern intentional communities, has produced a book, Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People (2016), which is an anthology of writings about intentional communities by authors who are experienced practitioners. The book is designed as a manual for and self-examination by and for community members. And each of the fifty-two chapters, one per week, has a question for group discussion.
Nevertheless, since the editor notes in the introduction that the book is also addressed to Christians “thinking about communal living,” those of us who would simply like to know more about the experience of community/communal living are included in its audience as well.
In the modern world, American theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas says in the foreword, “we share no common story and no corresponding judgments about what is true, good, and beautiful,” and we have “confused freedom with the isolation of the self.” And as editor Moore says, we live in “a post-familial, disconnected culture where self is king, relationships are thin, and individuals fend for themselves.” Also cited in the book is the mysterious visitor in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov (1880) predicting the modern world as “self-realization… arriving at complete solitude.”
What is an “intentional community?” Although the book contains numerous references to reaching out to the poor and marginalized, to social justice and to social action, to socialism, and even has two entries on Christian communism, it is not fundamentally based on a social or political agenda nor inspired by the communes and counter-culturalism of the group living or hippie communes of the 1960s (for those of us who remember that decade). Following Jesus Christ is the inspiration.
The fundamental scriptural reference is to the two passages in Acts (2:42-47, 4:32-37) where it is stated that the first Christian communities “held everything in common,” and “not one of them said that anything he possessed was his own.” The new Christians sold their property and placed the proceeds at the feet of the apostles who distributed the property to “each as had any need.” They had what Charles Moore calls “a material life of unity and sharing.”
The core view here is that we are bodily creatures. We are not angels. Thus, the bodily and material aspects of our daily lives should be more closely integrated with what is in our hearts and minds. Christoph Blumhardt, a German nineteenth-century pastor, is quoted as denigrating the idea of mere “spiritual communities,” which, he maintained, do not last. There must be “community in the flesh,” and only such a bodily community will result in a spiritual community. Community is an “embodiment,” several chapter authors maintain, and that is the founding principle of intentional communities. Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer is quoted, “it was the Word made flesh which had called them and created their bodily fellowship with” Jesus Christ. “Wherever we are, whatever we do, everything happens, in the body, in the church, in Christ.” An intentional community, as distinguished from a church or parish community, means living together.
Editor Charles E. Moore has assembled twenty-one different passages from the Epistles in which he quotes the Epistles’ authors as repeatedly maintaining that people in community live for “one another.” As in Romans, 12:25, “that there may be no disunion in the body, but that the members may have care for one another.” And he points out that almost all of the epistles are written to churches, not to individuals. Another author points out the several references in Acts to “houses,” such as Acts 21:8, the house of the evangelist Philip. Another argues that “the new thing that happened on Pentecost is the new community.”
So, what is the requisite state of mind for forming communities? Communion is not mere collaboration, it is not “visionary dreaming” or “romantic visions and fantasies. Three of the included authors specifically regard community as a “divine call.”
Bonhoeffer called it “a gift of God which we cannot claim.” Eberhard Arnold, founder of the Bruderhof community, emphatically held that Christian communities cannot be based on human relationships and goodwill; it must be a calling by God to live in “love and unity.” Bonhoeffer, again, from his book Life Together: True “Christian brotherhood” is different from “some wishful idea of religious fellowship” and from “the natural idea of the devout heart for community.” Several of the authors directly or indirectly point out that community can be “a place of pain;” the “price” of community is a turning away from self-centeredness.
A most informative chapter traces the history of Christian communities from the time of St. Anthony of the desert to St. Benedict and his Rule, still probably the foundational document on the idea of Christian community. In the modern world, there are community movements like Taize and L’Arche, both founded in France, and the Bruderhof community in Germany. And current leaders of such communities are featured.
References are made to the American experiences of the Pilgrims, and the Hutterites and Mennonites of this country and Canada. The book is ecumenical, based on no specific church or denomination. Bonhoeffer and the founders and leaders of the Bruderhof community predominate. Although no leaders of exclusively Catholic communities are included, there are chapters excerpting the writings of St. Benedict, Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. No mainline Protestant pastors or ministers are included.
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity, begins Psalm 133. This review has concentrated on the basics and has omitted numerous issues and questions raised in the book with regard to, for example, hospitality, social action, the inevitable personal conflicts, and the psychology and emotions evoked by communal living, as well as the different kinds of participation in intentional communities by married couples, single persons, and children.
Republished with gracious permission of Aleteia (March 2017).
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The featured image is “Laborare est Orare,” by John Rogers Herbert and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.