e-mail us

Fall Books

There's a new urge to community


It's not just that barbarians are at the gates, they're already inside, nervous humans have been saying. Worse yet, they're now saying, we're the barbarians. This civic indigestion seems more than the usual nostalgia for lost Edens and the good old days. Social commentators of every stripe seem willing to admit that, for all our progress, we are still inept at living together.

The problem is wider than wars, burglars, batterers or the insufferable bore at the next table. It's the multitude of aspects that don't work in our multitude of relationships. Yes, there are beautiful friendships and solid gold marriages, but why, after so many millennia working at it, do so many things still bother us about each other?

We have grouped and regrouped, organized and disbanded, talked it out and fought it out, century after century, looking for the perfect formula, alone or with others, hermits or kings, searching for elusive contentment that comes partly from within but also from those around us.

Amid the debates and experiments of this busiest century ever, as progress seemed to make people more independent, the preference leaned toward individualism. The failures of churches and states to deliver all they seemed to be promising became an argument for self-reliance. Now, as we get a better look at the barbarians, there seems to be a pause in this rush away from each other. A pregnant pause. And a theme runs through it.

People are taking another look at community in many of its manifestations. Furthermore, religion of one kind or another is playing a surprisingly big part. Seven recent books -- from among many more -- examine various aspects of community, at various levels of interest and expertise, with varying success. Together, they are signs of the times.

The virtuous society

In The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society, Amitai Etzioni is concerned not only with what works but what is right. His sights are on virtue, a trendy word for a worthy concept that had grown limp and out of fashion for a while.

Crucial to a virtuous society, Etzioni suggests, is finding the right balance between liberty and order. For most of Western history, those in power used all possible means, including religion, to instill control. We honor the Greeks for gilding this harsh status quo with some individual freedom, but this modest autonomy was confined to a small, privileged class.

Etzioni has scant regard for that period when the church and a few monarchs ruled most of the known world: "By the standards of the Middle Ages, the ancient Greeks were rather 'modern.' Much of the religious doctrine that prevailed in the Middle Ages extolled monolithic virtues and legitimated an established and rather rigid, hierarchical and pervasive social order." But then came modernism, "with its emphasis on universal individual rights" -- time of options and autonomy. It was a dramatic shift.

Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University and a leader of the communitarian movement, proposes a new way of looking at our civil-social-political reality: "I support the claim that communitarian thinking leapfrogs the old debate between left-wing and right-wing thinking and suggests a third social philosophy." This would be more directly concerned with the relationship between individual and community. Tired as so many people are of the endless and mostly unproductive name-calling and jousting between liberals and conservatives, any new alternative ought to be welcomed. Unfortunately, Etzioni's presentation is dry and convoluted and his ideas demand a more appealing presentation if they are ever to trickle down from academe to the marketplace.

He quotes Max Weber to the effect that, once a society's moral underpinnings crumble, there is no chance of recovery. Look at Rome, Greece, Babylon, people say. No one talks of the decline and rise of empires old or new. One can soon see that this is leading us to America: If the United States is morally crumbling, can it be the first major power to make a comeback?

We were doing nicely, the story goes -- and Etzioni admits this is a very general picture -- in the 1950s. Top of the world. Rich and powerful. And girded about by "core values." Then came the 1960s when a risky slide began that lasted until the 1990s. The excesses of the "counterculture" are well known. It was not, however, a matter of the population becoming generally depraved. Many who had a fling got over it.

The lasting effect was both more vague and more profound, writes Etzioni: "The rise of the counterculture in the 1960s was followed in the 1970s, and especially in the 1980s, by a strong endorsement of a different, instrumental brand of individualism. It provided a normative seal of approval to a focus on the self rather than on responsibility to the community, and saw in self-interest the best base for social order and virtue."

The sense of obligation and responsibility that characterized the 1950s was replaced by a sense of entitlement that is rampant at the present time: Citizens don't want to pay taxes and they don't want the government interfering with their lives but they stridently demand more and better services, just for starters.

But Etzioni sees the beginning of regeneration. Since the beginning of the 1990s, various forces are combining to "push the pendulum back to stave off anarchy and to restore social order." He calls this a "curl back." It is still unclear what fresh direction this will take -- it is the closest thing to a national moral debate the country has had for some time, he says. In this context, Etzioni has little regard for the Christian right's clumsy efforts to restore the supposedly cozy and benign world of the 1950s. Solutions, he believes, lie ahead and not behind us.

The communitarian movement, the author says, arose out of this debate. It calls for "a regeneration of virtue" -- a tall order. But finally, at the heart of this book, is the new emphasis on community in a world that has grown cold and unkind.

Theory and practice

"Community is, at the moment, a powerful word in the United States," echoes Elizabeth M. Bounds in a slender academic tome, Coming Together/Coming Apart: Religion, Community and Modernity. The word community is, she writes, both vague and vaguely suggestive, a word fraught with promise but hard to flesh out.

Bounds reflects Etzioni's view that the new hankering for community derives from the mess in which we find society, "responding to the cracks and conflicts of liberal capitalist modernity." More than Etzioni, though, she sees capitalism as a mean neighbor with which to live in community. While communitarianism looks askance at liberalism, Bounds looks askance at communitarianism, which she may be quite right in locating considerably right of center -- if one may use such outlawed terminology.

Bounds, an assistant professor of religious studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, brings a heavy overlay of African-American perspective to the problems of living in community. Aware of the constant interaction between religion and community, especially black community, she nevertheless fails to come to grips with anything alive and actual in the search. This is an untidy, jargon-contaminated effort that nonetheless points to where problems abound and ordinary nonacademics are searching for real-life answers.

Robert Wuthnow, by contrast, leaps headlong into real life. His Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America's New Quest for Community is based on three years of research by a team of 15 scholars. Wuthnow claims there is a quiet revolution that is one of America's best-kept secrets.

The movement began to gather steam, Wuthnow writes, in the 1960s. Lest too great a claim be made for novelty, however, he reminds us that people always bunched together for common purpose. They gathered, probably, to drink early beer and play ancient football, but the recorded instances are more often religious: the ancient Israelites; small gatherings in private homes expressing the discontents that led to the Protestant Reformation; or early American settlers.

Today's renaissance is different, writes Wuthnow: "This book argues that the small-group movement is beginning to alter American society by changing our understanding of community and by redefining spirituality."

Although searching for community, the majority of members say, the groups they join are different from yesterday's communities. They also say they are in search of spirituality, but the small groups are "dramatically changing the way God is understood." For one thing, God is less external and authoritarian and even angry -- more of an internal and soothing presence.

Cynics may already have conjured up the traditional religious stereotypes, such as the notorious "little old ladies." Wuthnow's researchers found otherwise: Nationally, 44 percent of women and 36 percent of men are "currently in a small group that meets regularly and provides caring and support for its members." While 45 percent of those 50 or over are in a group, so are 42 percent of those 35-49, and 35 percent of those 18-34. Various income groups are similarly closely bunched. So are the different levels of education, geographical areas, rural and urban locations.

An American search

This renewed urge to community is thoroughly American and deeply populist, the author goes on. "It attracts people who are fed up with large-scale institutions and prefer to help themselves." But these should not be confused with such malcontents as the white militias. Sixty percent identified themselves as belonging to a discussion group; 52 percent to a support group; 45 percent to a special interest group; 44 percent to a prayer fellowship; 44 percent to a Bible study group; 28 percent to a women's group -- 16 categories in all.

We are a civilization in transition, Wuthnow writes. A population in flux. A great many lives are almost anonymous. There is not the old sense of neighborhood. And there are few of the traditional support systems. "There is a widespread assumption that community is sputtering to an undignified halt, leaving many people stranded and alone."

One might conclude, then, that these ubiquitous groups are mere props and shelters for the bereft and insecure. Not so, writes Wuthnow: "I would go so far as to say that the small-group movement cannot be understood except in relation to the deep yearning for the sacred that characterizes much of the American public." He sees such people as the vanguard in a new search. Evenhanded to a fault, he takes care not to blame traditional religious institutions. The new groups blossom not because the churches are weak but because they are strong, he writes unconvincingly.

But neither is Wuthnow an uncritical gung-ho advocate for either churches or small groups. He describes a sagging flaw at the heart of the new movement as it is practiced in the United States: "Some small groups merely provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others." There are no firm commitments, no strong or lasting obligations. One may attend the meeting if it's convenient; speak if one wishes; one is expected merely to respect the opinions of others; to leave quietly if one is unhappy. Such shallow commitment does not always apply, of course, but he applies it to the generality of the groups he and his colleagues encountered.

In what some have described as the age of confusion, many are searching ever more frantically for meaning. Some of the new manifestations of community, Wuthnow writes, are pursuing meaning in familiar American style -- what works? Thus, instead of an ultimate destination, the journey becomes the focus. "The signs of spiritual growth follow naturally from this logic. The signs of the sacred are all pragmatic. They reveal themselves in feelings of peace, happiness and a good self-image."

Desirable as these emotional payoffs are, Wuthnow raises a couple of flags long familiar to traditional religious groups. The feel-good ethos is at odds with the inherent transcendence and altruism at the heart of most religions, which are also notorious for self-sacrifice: "Rather than encouraging people to seek higher goals, it can inoculate them against taking the risks that may be necessary for true growth."

Furthermore, Wuthnow goes on, today's typical small group "makes the individual the measure of all things." Before, belief and behavior were measured in relation to God, absolute and unchanging and therefore reliable. Now, the good and the true are as we like them, for example whatever helps us to find a vacant parking space -- the example is Wuthnow's.

The author, in the nick of time, allows that there are "significant exceptions" to these squishy attitudes. Among the obvious exceptions are Christian communities in general and Catholic groups in particular, which incidentally get only cursory treatment in Wuthnow's book.

Books such as Salesian Father James O'Halloran's Small Christian Communities: A Pastoral Companion help restore the notion that the traditional churches still have a little backbone. O'Halloran, who for 25 years has participated in, studied and lectured on small Christian communities worldwide, begins this book with a historical perspective that shows today's small groups are in good company. The founder of small Christian communities, he rather triumphantly announces, was Jesus Christ. "They have their origins in the itinerant community that trod the dusty roads of Palestine with Jesus, in the gathering of the early Christians that formed in Jerusalem after the first Pentecost, and in all those groups that sprang up in the gentile world largely as a result of Paul's work."

The significant thing about those early days was that, far from following a feel-good formula, "their unity was forged from the very struggle and suffering they endured in common."

Things began to go wrong -- according to this scenario -- when Emperor Constantine took the persecuted church under his wing in the early fourth century and "the church changed from a community model to a hierarchical one." It became fashionable to be Christian -- a risky predicament. Previously, Christians were putting their lives on the line, so there was an intensity and commitment that has seldom since been matched.

Except perhaps in Latin America. O'Halloran knows that territory well, knows the fierce commitment that was so often necessary, the dangers from oppressive regimes, the creativity and struggle that grew out of hardship as they did in the early church.

More tentative

In North America he finds the small groups more tentative, largely middle class, "tending to be inward-looking" (shades of Wuthnow), though he concedes a growing effort to identify with the poor and strive for less cherished lives for the members themselves.

The book ebbs and flows between the big picture and the small group, with constant emphasis on the practical and pastoral.

Sociologist William V. D'Antonio contributed a chapter to Work, Family and Religion in Contemporary Society, edited by Nancy Tatom Ammerman and Wade Clark Roof, (Routledge) in which he discusses nonterritorial intentional Eucharistic Communities (IECs), as well as other small Catholic groups and the specifically American character of such groups amid the give and take of U.S. Catholic life.

D'Antonio describes an IEC convocation in Washington designed "to allow participants to share their community narratives." This story approach is popular with many small communities, a more earthy road to theology than traditional cerebral doctrine.

In Fire, Salt and Peace: Intentional Communities Alive in North America, David Janzen and others pursue this narrative method with profiles of 29 Christian communities "open to families and single people." This is an ecumenical mix, chosen from "thousands of such communities worldwide."

Each profile begins with vital statistics, for example: "Focus: social transformation, simple living; Setting: urban; Founded: 1986; How many: 18; Affiliation: Catholic; etc.

In his concluding chapter Janzen writes, "I have a mental picture of Christian intentional community as a tightrope strung across the chasm between the dominant world system and the kingdom of God. (There are other ropes, to be sure.) This narrow way is community now, with God, with the poor, and with all who make love their aim. The world looks at the tightrope and says, 'That is too sacrificial, too difficult, too dangerous.' And yet, amazingly, we see children walking the rope with ease. We see mentally handicapped adults in L'Arche communities around the world walking the rope. ... The rope may look narrow, but we have a safety net and a Helper the world cannot see."

Similarly, Where Two Are Gathered: Stories of 12 Small Christian Communities Alive in North America offers the stories of faith communities. Writes Margaret O'Connell Bisgrove in an epilogue: "The small Christian community is a central place to slow down and make sense of life in light of Christian values. People are looking to one another with the hope that by sharing faith and life together they might find the support and wisdom needed to be indeed the people of God."

Yet another book, People, Promise and Community: A Practical Guide to Creating and Sustaining Small Communities of Faith, beguilingly boasts, "Our approach is different in that we focus on telling stories of life experience." The book, however, is less the stories than how to go about living as well as telling them: the nuts and bolts of being a small community and running a meeting, step by patient step and all very useful for beginners -- everything is included except where to find the bathroom.

Michael Farrell is editor of NCR

National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 1997