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Intentional Community as the Necessary Incarnation of the Gospel for Our Times

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Written by Basil on 10/9/2005 4:53 PM. Filed under:

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Intentional community – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

I left the Roman Catholic Church after three years because I found an Eastern Orthodox intentional community that relieved the loneliness and alienation that I felt. I had read Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community for a political philosophy elective course around the same time that I encountered this community, so my decision to join and become Orthodox was based on a set of related convictions that:

In this context, community is no longer a natural, normal thing that happens. In order to create healthy communities that enflesh the Gospel and counteract the loneliness and alienation of our times, we must be intentional about it. Intentional community, in a Christian context, is primarily about intentionally embracing values that lead to community. If we want communities that are not weak associations of coincidence but strong networks of love and support, that is a goal that must be pursued. They will not appear magically from mere hope and good will.

Paige criticizes intentional communities with a variety of informal fallacies. She begins by defining intentional communities as exclusive and then continues arguing as if this is the defining quality of intentional communities. Neither of these hasty generalizations is true of intentional communities as a whole, though they may certainly be true of a specific community. She makes another hasty generalization by arguing that because the community in which she grew up was unintentional and beneficial because of its diversity, therefore all diverse communities will be unintentional.

She puts forth (apparently as a joke) the straw man of Jim Jones and The People’s Temple as a negative example of intentional community (which it is). Ironically, “the Peoples Temple was initially structured as an inter-racial mission for the sick, homeless and jobless.”[1] The emphasis on community is undoubtedly one element of the Jonestown tragedy. Yet, like a fire which needs heat, fuel and oxygen, Jonestown probably resulted from a mix of potencies, which included Jones’ cult of personality, the community’s paranoid fear of the state and its cloistering from public life. The exact mix of factors will probably never be clear, but there are many intentional communities which have not become cults. Intentional community by itself does not lead to becoming a cult.

Her last paragraph summarizes the strongest objection to making parishes into strong intentional communities:

If someone wants to join my church but hates me, they only have to be around me like four hours a week, and even then they don’t have to talk to me. But if you’ve turned your church into an intentional community, and you get someone who doesn’t want to live in your neighborhood, hang out with you, arrange marriages between their kids and yours or whatever, are they going to feel welcome at your church?

There are several false assumptions about the nature of intentional community, but the basic objection stands: The Church is universal. What if someone just wants “church as usual” and doesn’t have what it takes to sacrificially create a loving, welcoming community. What if they live in the suburbs and just don’t want to live downtown? I think the answer lies in creating a workable solution so that parish members can opt-out of the stronger community without shame or coercion. However, another answer might be intentional communities which do not have the parish as their center.[2]

There will certainly continue to be discussion about this subject, but I doubt that the Church will acheive critical mass until there are concrete communities incarnating this idea in welcoming ways that avoid our common fears of Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate.

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15 Responses to “Intentional Community as the Necessary Incarnation of the Gospel for Our Times”

  1. James Says:

    Just playing devil’s advocate, but it seems that Paige is merely drawing from her experiences.

  2. Basil Says:

    Indeed, she is drawing from her experiences. However, she does not indicate that she is familiar with intentional communities (in fact, it is obvious that she is ignorant of intentional communities as a whole). She also makes some generalizations from her anecdotal evidence that simply do not hold because they are hasty generalizations — making generalizations from a single specific datum or from small quantities of specific data. See fallacies of informal logic.

  3. James Says:

    Yes, I’ve studied fallacies so much that I thought I’d go crazy. What I find interesting is your passionate, “No! You’re wrong!” I think if Paige, a Ph.D. candidate at UK, hasn’t learned a thing or two about writing and logic by now then something is truly wrong with our educational system.

    She isn’t writing a formal position paper or something like that. Something has obviously hurt her somewhere, and whether she uses fallacies or not to state that isn’t the point. If someone came to Jesus and said, “Why should I believe in you as the Son of God, and then end up being dragged before a Roman judge and … and then …, and after that … and then …,” do you think he would have mentioned slippery slope? Even with the best of intentions it is possible for intentional communities to fail.

    I could tell you a few examples of how I feel I’ve been personally failed, but this comment box isn’t the place, nor is telling you why I think I have been failed. I don’t mean to upset you, Basil, but like I said before, you seem more interested in proving Paige wrong than saying, “How have you been hurt, and what can we do better?”

  4. Basil Says:

    Paige’s post does not, I repeat it again, indicate she has familiarity with intentional communities — or even with a specific intentional community. You seem to be providing me with information you know from previous discussions with Paige. If so, that’s fine. I would think that a Ph.D. candidate has enough skills to stand by something she’s written publicly.

    I will not follow your rabbit trail about the illogical Jesus.

    However, you are correct. This world being a fallen mess, people will fail each other. People, with the best of intentions, will act wrongly. Perhaps my straightforward approach, without appropriate “this is my perspective, perhaps you see it differently” (which goes without saying in our pluralistic context, I suppose) is wrong. But I rather doubt it. I’d rather read someone who believes in what they’re telling me than an “I’d rather not offend you” dance.

  5. James Says:

    Oy, okay Basil. The anger in your “voice” is thick enough to cut with the knife I envision you holding. I’ll let her defend herself.

  6. Stacy Says:

    “I left the Roman Catholic Church after three years because I found an Eastern Orthodox intentional community that relieved the loneliness and alienation that I felt.”

    Is that really why you became Orthodox?

    Just curious?

  7. Basil Says:

    Well, it gets complicated. Loneliness and alienation, and finding a cure for it, pushed me over the edge. There were other unanswered questions which worked themselves out. I accepted the role of the papacy solely on the authority of the Magisterium; personally, I had trouble convincing myself that the Western church was in the right on that issue in 1054. The differences in pastoral approach made themselves apparent over the years. At this point, there is a lot more keeping me Orthodox than that single issue. If that were not the case, I would have gone looking for another home; Orthodox parishes up here in the northeast corridor are what I would call “church as usual.” Much more would be arrogant of me to say.

    One can be passionate without being angry. I mean “passionate” in the good way, of course.

  8. Stacy Says:

    “At this point, there is a lot more keeping me Orthodox than that single issue. If that were not the case, I would have gone looking for another home”

    Perhaps I don’t understand that statement. Either Orthodoxy is the Truth or it isn’t.

    What does “church as usual” mean?

  9. pete Says:

    What a fascinating read.

    This whole building of intentional community is so challenging to us in our youth ministry. For years (perhaps generations is a better word) confirmation was modeled (mostly by parents, though not discouraged by clergy) as a “spiritual ticket punch” that ensured that one was “all set” before God. As a result, confirmands celebrate their confirmation, and then stop coming to church almost entirely (we have about 200 kids at various stages of confirmation every year in our program, and about a third of those “graduate” each year, which is their 8th grade year. Our senior high group, however, has about 40 actively involved kids.) When I was interviewed, this issue came up: “We often see kids through confirmation, and then they disappear until they return for their wedding or the baptism of their own children. How do you get kids to remain involved after confirmation?” My response (which seemed weak at the time) was that A) I can’t make someone who has decided to not be a part of our community remain in it, and B) We need to build relationships with parents and challenge their perspective on this issue–confirmation is a symbol of commitment to one’s faith, yes, but also to the church.

    Any thoughts on this?

  10. Basil Says:

    Well, there is quite a bit to unpack there. If I had to point to one thing that keeps me in the Church, it would certainly be that Orthodoxy is the true faith, the fulness of the Gospel, and that the Orthodox Church is the sacrament of Christ’s presence in the world.

    By “church as usual,” I mean a transactional approach. Instead of seeing the Christian faith as integral to all of life, church is segregated from life. One attends church on Sunday, maybe fellowships with like-minded people during coffee hour, but there is no emphasis on community. If a new face appears, they are on their own. The parish’s obligation is to provide the religious transactions — confession, regular worship services, perhaps a coffee hour. There is no felt obligation to make sure the stranger feels welcome in an integral sense; their life outside of church is their own business.

    I view such a transactional approach as “church as usual,” not the radical life of love and community I see in the Scriptures and Church history. I see it as a failure to understand what it means to be the Church, and such a failure will ultimately fail to minister to the hurting and needy souls which our Lord loved so dearly during his own earthly ministry.

    Since the pain of loneliness and isolation are the wounds I bear, such a failure would eventually turn me away if I did not cling so tightly to the truth of the Orthodox faith.

  11. Stacy Says:

    So, how does one go about instilling a “felt obligation” in others? What is the answer to all of that?

  12. Basil Says:

    I don’t know if there is a general answer, but my own experience is that I feel that obligation most acutely when I recall how mercy has been shown to me. The greater the mercy shown, the more likely one is to feel an obligation to pass it on. I think also it comes when we smash the idol of imitating American (read: Protestant and Catholic American) churches.

    Of course, there is the parable of the indebted servant who was forgiven much and just didn’t give a damn, exacting the tiniest amount from his neighbor.

  13. Basil Says:

    Pete, sorry I didn’t see your comment in the moderation queue until just now. The Orthodox Church faces exactly the same issue, especially among cradle-O’s. I think the most vital answer is that youth see the faith as something authentic as they’re growing up, something that is piously practiced as real and important in all aspects of life. I think also that a community that they want to be a part of, one that is not mostly about social status but about real relationships is key. Those two are related, of course.

    So, as always, the answer is personal conversion (metanoia) at every moment by every member.

  14. Erich Says:

    This has been an interesting conversation. Of course, I don’t see any problem with your argumentative stance, although I think the title might be a bit overstated. Anyway, you know that I have my share of problems with the idea of intentional communities. One point would be that there is no precedent for such phenomena in Orthodox history. One could make the argument that monasteries are intentional communities, and certainly they are, but there’s more involved to them than people living out their everyday lives in close proximity and around a parish. It’s possible that monastic communities are the only appropriately Orthodox manifestations of this notion. Of course, I recognize the trickiness of the issue, given that the intentional community is a modern phenomenon (at least what you’re thinking of) and intended to address modern concerns. I also realize that the methods of Orthodox conversion in the past have precluded this option, and that the US is a different phenomenon altogether than most Orthodox areas in the world. Still, even in places like Albania, where Orthodox are a distinct minority, they don’t really go this route. In effect, perhaps I’m too Calvinist for this idea (horror, shudder), but it seems to me that it would be virtually impossible to implement such a phenomenon that had no exclusivity and in which you could enforce the rule that parish members could “opt-out of the stronger community without shame or coercion.” Seems counter-intuitive to me. In effect, and I don’t use this term lightly, it seems a bit utopian to me.

  15. Susan Sophia Says:

    I know this was written a long time ago but I just happened upon it as I did a search for “orthodox intentional communities” and this popped up.
    I just wanted to pipe in and comment on something erich said…”there is no precedent for such phenomena in Orthodox history.”
    I beg to differ. I believe that one wouldn’t think of calling themselves an intentional community, but villages in the old country all lived out their lives around the Church. The Church was the center of the village and much of village life was centered around the Church.

    Just my thoughts, forgive me if I’m misinformed.