Is ‘Intentional Community’ Just an Annoyance or an Oxymoron?

Man is communal and needs others — but it can be strange to talk about it.

Vincent van Gogh, “Church Pew With Worshippers,” 1882
Vincent van Gogh, “Church Pew With Worshippers,” 1882 (photo: Public Domain)

Occasionally there are thoughtful exchanges online, although I think by definition and necessity (essence?) they happen away from the big social media sites — if for no other reason than having something “social” occur with the intermediary of “media” makes the exchanges, in fact, not social. Being social means being together. Perhaps we should call those sites “digitized interaction media.”

Anyway, the disagreement stemmed at first from an essay by James Baresel about his annoyance with calls for “more community” in parish life. Just the title got my attention because I sympathize with all the affected “community talk.” I recall converting to the Church from a very vibrant Protestant community to discover that Catholic parishes talk a lot about community, it seemed, because they don’t have it — the way a patently homogenous neighborhood might put “diversity” bumper stickers on their cars. It was bizarre because, as a Protestant, we did not talk about community; mainly, I think, because we were talking about Scripture and Jesus and life.

The analogy I had then was that the “community” of fans around a football team doesn’t need to be told they are a community, much less sing songs about it. Their intense love and common orientation made them that, and to speak of it as such might make it weird. According to Baresel, Catholics make it weird too:

That attempt to force oneself on another, and subsequent criticism of the other’s refusal to indulge the attempt, exemplifies Catholics who want to pummel the rest of us into ‘joining in community life.’ Rudeness and cajoling, bossiness and bullying are par for the course. This isn’t the behavior of normal sociable people. Normal sociable people just happen to enjoy being around others and unthinkingly treat socializing as a hobby. Theorizing about ‘community’ wouldn’t occur to them. They take or leave people and social situations as they come — based on their likes and dislikes. Hence, they have no ideal of ‘community’ to cajole or boss or bully people into.

Malcolm Schluenderfritz, writing from the New Polity blog, had a response that was worth the read. His most astute observation was, in my words, that Baresel could dismiss cries for community not because he didn’t need or want it, but because it was a need he already had filled.

I have observed this as well, that someone with a natural need filled does not sense the void or urgency in someone that doesn’t have it filled. For example, someone growing up in his childhood neighborhood with multi-generational bondedness and a rooted culture cannot easily grasp the dark and insecure vulnerability of a man without these things. The latter might come off as needy and weak, partly because he is. The former might come off as stodgy and uncaring, partly because he is. Neither is trying to be thus, but they are by experience and learning. It takes hard work to be other than what you are.  

Baresel compares his disposition, which he calls “benign misanthropy,” to Hilaire Belloc, who was known for being “cantankerous.” He gives multiple anecdotes of men, usually older, simply wanting to be left alone to pray in church. Yet, according to Schluenderfritz, he is both misreading Belloc and misunderstanding Belloc’s love for community as his disinterest in it. He quotes Belloc:

To this day in the healthy remnant of our old State, in the country villages, much of this tradition survives. The country folk in my old neighborhood can read as well as I can; but they prefer to talk among themselves when they are at leisure. … That is because in the country a man has true neighbors, whereas the towns are a dust of isolated beings, mentally (and often physically) starved.

To Schluenderfritz’s point, man is communal and needs others. To Baresel’s point, it can be weird to talk about it. 

It all reminded me of Josef Pieper’s book on tradition (Tradition: Concept and Claim). In it, he describes how talking about tradition drains the reality of tradition away.

“No one who wants to hand down a tradition successfully should talk about ‘tradition,’” he says.

It seems similarly so if we talk about “community,” since the act of talking about it seems to make it disappear from a room. The ever-awkward naming of buildings as “community-life centers” seems to do this, to chase away the lived reality of centers of community. Or there’s that grossly presumptuous thing that Protestant “church-plants” do when they establish a new church in an existing place that likely has many other Protestant communities, yet call themselves “Neighborhood Community Church,” as if community is formed by fiat and hip logos. 

However, those with an apostolic and Christian eye ought to see the need that one can fill more than the annoyance that a need can produce. After all, I can quite easily become annoyed at a kid that needs to be fed, but I can also do a literal work of mercy and “feed the hungry” without ever leaving home.

The answer, of course, is the maturity that allows and teaches us to be merciful. Mercy — despite unhelpful caricatures in many quarters today — does not mean laxity or even gentleness. Sometimes mercy is fierce and painful. Mercy, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, occurs when someone accurately sees a real deficit in someone else, something they lack. And it is that void that the merciful fill from their abundance. So, yes, a hungry man receives mercy from a man when he is fed by him, because the man has filled a true need. And, no, giving anything to anyone to look or feel merciful might not be mercy at all, because if you aren’t filling a void, you might just be piling on. 

To be merciful, therefore, does not require anything before it requires one to have the skill of seeing. Especially today, we look at things constantly, but we see very little. Faith is a form of sight — “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Good listening is a form of sight — “I see what you are saying.” Wisdom is a form of sight — “I saw clearly what needed to be done.” Maturity, therefore, is a form of sight, really of prudence, that sees the past, present and — through foresight — the future in a way that directs action rightly — “I then saw how much of a childish jerk I had been.”

Therefore, to back out of this so as not to perform the deed of speaking out of existence the need and power of community, we might simply need to point back to the observation that Baresel had tasted, seen and inherited the security of community. Schluenderfritz has seen the violence done to places where such community has been gutted. The despairing loneliness of so many proves them right, and it is a call to those like Baresel to see and fill, in mercy, the need for community. And, if the word is getting ickier and ickier because we keep using it — or because we fear the next line will be the sale of a program to fix this problem — remember that the genius of social reality (as opposed to social media) is that it is normal, healthy and at its best when unforced.

In some ways, it seems that, as we well know, the immediate access to the “social” through media is what diminishes the ability to be social. Again, Pieper talks about the fact that for tradition to be passed on, there must be an unbroken connection to the body that hands it on, because the very fact that you desire it entails you can receive it, needfully so — but to reach out and “pluck it” from the tree (or click it on the screen) does not mean you have received the same thing. “If the individual consciousness has an ‘immediate access to the absolute,” says Pieper, “naturally it does not need the mediation of tradition.” 

Similarly, those that know authentic and organic social life are annoyed by effortful attempts to force it by construct requirements. The former should simmer down on their programming and the latter, maybe, should consider how to be more merciful and give from their abundance.