Individuality in Christian Community: Reflections on the Intentional Christian Community Handbook

February 4, 2013Ric Hudgens

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I recently reviewed David Janzen’s The Intentional Christian Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013) for the Shalom Mission Communities Newsletter which comes out in March 2013. It’s a great book and a significant contribution to the intentional Christian communities movement in North America. I felt awkward when David invited me to review it there. I hate being a cheerleader and writing a review of this book for this network of intentional communities seemed like preaching to the choir. I decided I could do it if the review took a more critical approach than I might if I were introducing it to an audience that knew nothing about intentional community. But once I got started I wound up with a review three times longer than they could use: about one-third review and two-thirds critical reflection.

I’ve been a perpetual newcomer to intentional Christian community for twenty-three years at Reba Place Fellowship and have an abiding love-hate relationship with this place. I’ve seen it’s reality up close and been entranced by its ideals, disillusioned more than once by its frailty, and  more than once saved by its integrity and resilience. But I long for an intentional community that has everything Reba Place has – plus a whole lot more. Such a desire is exactly what Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against when he wrote that “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.” (Life Together, 1939).

But communities also require a sacred discontent and a holy restlessness otherwise they become static, lifeless, and bound by tradition. So although it is true that our dream of Christian community must not be loved more than real Christian community our dreams are also real and they must be attended to as potential messengers of both the subconscious and the Holy Spirit.

A major realization for me in reading David’s book and reflecting upon my years at Reba Place is our communal obsession with individualism. Almost every effort at some form of intentional community in twenty-century America has seen individualism as the primary obstacle to its success. Cultural historian Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979) and sociologist Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985) reinforced this communal fear.

I have grown suspicious of “individualism” as the nemesis that authentic community must oppose. I think what we are faced with in our world is not an atomization into isolated personalities but the pull of competing solidarities. In other words the danger is not that people will choose their own individual and distinctive lifestyle that will outweigh their call to community, but that they will remain captive to a competing group identity that even the gravitational force of authentic Christian community cannot shake.

One of the most insidious and demonic of our communal captivities has been whiteness. Many years ago John Miller, one of the founding generation at Reba Place Fellowship, defined the enemies of community as Mars, Mammon, and Me. That focus on militarism, materialism, and individualism has shaped Reba Place in very significant ways. However, in Martin Luther King’s famous 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech he pointed to racism, militarism, and materialism as America’s besetting sins. There is a fascinating similarity and difference between King’s statement and John Miller’s.

In Dr. King’s analysis racism was one of the three biggest obstacles to the Beloved Community. I have often wondered what the intentional Christian communities movement might have looked like if it had set up communal life in opposition to racism rather than individualism. By only structuring ourselves to resist individualism we reinforce our own cultural identities as a predominately, privileged (almost always white) majority. This might be part of the reason why intentional Christian communities continue to struggle with the issue of diversity and a tendency to always prioritize our involvement with each other over our (potential) involvement with any of the communities that our neighbors are part of.

The intentional Christian community movement in its suspicion of individualism has marginalized the need to affirm “individuality”. Individuality is too often confused with individualism. Individuality is not self-centered nor does it necessarily prioritize the needs of the self over those of the community. Individuality merely recognizes that each individual is a unique person with a unique cultural history, set of gifts, and a particular calling and vocation that the community is obligated to recognize, call forth, and ultimately be enriched by. We are not worker bees and we are not interchangeable with each other – even within intentional Christian community.

The community’s expressed opposition to individualism can often take on a racist or sexist character when it stifles the unique cultural or gender contributions that an individual brings to the community. Because of a fear of individualism Christian communities often interpret legitimate individuality as a threat that must be surrendered, put on the cross, or submitted to constant supervision – rather than recognizing, honoring, blessing, and guiding each one’s individuality.

Communities that recognize this danger sometimes attempt to address it through an emphasis upon “spiritual gifts”. But even with this emphasis the breadth of the intentional community’s own structures and mission may not be enough to contain the scope of every individual’s legitimate need to live out their calling and vocation. Intentional communities need boundaries that can continually flex in order to encompass, contain, and benefit from the sacred individuality of each of its members.

The crucial theological belief must be that becoming like Christ only makes us more like Christ – it does not make us more like each other! If anything our maturity in Christ will bring each one of us into our own individual and unique fullness – a fullness that is unlike that of anyone else in our family of origin, our local community, or in the wider body. It is a wondrous mystery that we can all be both unique and united.

A related example from this book (Chapter 15): many intentional communities that structure themselves in defense against individualism often emphasize that our vocation and calling are solely to the kingdom of God and never to a particular type of work and definitely not a “career”. Careers are suspect forms of individualism. This suspicion of career has a valid point in that the type of dedication that a career can demand (and reward) in our economy often poses a major threat to the priorities that an intentional community is seeking to embody. The besetting sin of this disparagement however is that communities often offer feeble support to those who may be called to a particular vocation that is outside of nor can be contained within the limits of the intentional community itself. Ironically outside work is often only evaluated according to it monetary value to the community and not according to its connection with the individual’s sacred identity and calling.

Chapter 15  refers to the “seduction of career”. The use of the word “seduction” in relationship to a career is revealing. There is a sexual undertone to this discussion. Intentional community members are called to a chaste commitment to vows comparable to those of classic monasticism. That career is a seduction implies that it has an adulterous quality that betrays one’s true call to communal fidelity.

The confusion about individualism and individuality can be most oppressive to gifted, educated women who sometimes struggle to find communal affirmation for ambitions outside the circle of community. The central priority in their choices must be a commitment to Christian community. Individualism must be defended against by disparaging their individuality in a way that casts suspicion upon a legitimate careers. When the fear of individualism joins hands with patriarchal blind spots  the situation becomes frighteningly similar to the demand that a woman’s ambition must be sacrificed to the nuclear family – or the needs of husband. The woman is expected to make this sacrifice easily. She must find her fulfillment in either the family or the community – there is no other arena for expression. [As a sidenote artists in community often suffer in similar ways because the time and dedication that the artistic path requires (and the poor monetary compensation) are often seen as too individualistic. When an artist is also a woman it is doubly difficult.]

I wonder if non-Christian intentional communities have these same challenges. Is it intentional community that poses these difficulties? Or is the particular expression of Christianity in intentional community at fault?

I could certainly make an argument against the potentially enslaving aspects of career and a society that rewards careerist individualism; taking one away from spouse, family, friends, community, and the dream of God. Careers are not always fulfilling, do not always address godly purposes, nor do they always express the unique soul of the individual. But an argument against careers per se must be made in a way that does not disparage individuality as such; nor omit the need for each one of us to find what psychologist Bill Plotkin calls our “sacred dance” as well as our “survival dance”.

Brandon Rhodes in a wonderful chapter in this book (Chapter 2) on the postmodern context of community discusses the perichoretic dance of the triune God that we are invited to participate in. However I believe that this perichoretic dance has several circles. The dance of community is only one. It is crucial that communities honor, mentor, and bless each one’s sacred individuality. Intentional communities must join in the dance of God which also includes the dance with each other and each one’s unique soul.

Just so there’s no confusion let me clearly state that David Janzen’s Intentional Christian Community Handbook is indispensable for those involved in or interested in intentional Christian community. If anything the concerns I’m stating here surfaced because of the stimulating nature of this volume. My lingering questions are not meant to detract from your need to read this book. I believe in the importance of intentional community and intentional Christian community. This book is the perfect introduction to that project and it will be hard to surpass its breadth and depth. It is a book meant to unearth questions both of the mind and heart. It is a book meant to unearth the weeds that choke out the gospel before it has time to take root and grow. It is a book meant to unearth the life of God buried deep within each one of us, but only achieving maturity as we grow towards maturity in Christ – together as individuals.

  • http://cramercomments.blogspot.com/ DavidCramer

    We’re members of Hope Fellowship in Waco, a member of SMC, and are looking forward to this book and a visit from Janzen soon. In the meantime, thanks for this primer!

    • rdhudgens

      Hey David. Give my greetings to Joe and Nancy Gatlin and all the good folks in Waco.

      • http://cramercomments.blogspot.com/ DavidCramer

        Done.

  • rdhudgens

    One additional critical point I made in my SMC Newsletter review that I did not include in his essay was in regard to the absence of activism in this book:

    “I’ve found Joanna Macy’s “work that reconnects” to be an indispensable part of my own spiritual journey. Macy describes the three major fronts in the “great turning” towards sustainability that our planet is undergoing: (1) holding actions to save lives and prevent further destruction (2) alternative structures that model a new future and (3) a shift in consciousness that sustains our communities and their mission. I have labeled these fronts OBSTRUCTION, CONSTRUCTION, and INSTRUCTION. The Christian communities that are springing up all over the world right now are manifestations of alternative structures (#2). A handbook like the one David and friends has written is a concrete example of our shifting consciousness towards new forms of solidarity that lead towards abundant life (#3).
    What troubles me in this book and in most of the Christian communities that I know is the low priority that activism, holding actions, and OBSTRUCTION has in our life together (#1). The dangers of activism to common life are indicated at several points in this book, but there is little here on the necessity of activism. My fear (and increasingly it is a fear and not just a “concern”) is that we are multiplying communities at the same time that our neighborhoods, our bioregions, and our global climate is disintegrating. We will have to begin engaging with other solidarities (religious, governmental, corporate) or we will find ourselves like the band on the Titanic playing ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ while the waters rise all around us. There is little in this book on how to do that.”

  • Jesse

    Thanks for this piece, Ric! It gives voice to some thoughts and concerns I’ve been unable to articulate (for other readers: I’m a Reba member). Somehow Yoder’s insight that we are called first to be the church gets
    twisted into a justification for a lack of engagement with our neighbors. We forget that being the church (or Christian community) requires that we’re continuously unsettled by scripture and always turning towards the marginalized for our conversion and hope. Our response might be more collaboration with people we don’t normally work with and a lot more of the activism and obstruction you refer to.

    I’ve seen individuality affirmed well in small groups where people have time to truly listen to each other. I’ve also seen it dealt with poorly in larger community gatherings and other settings.

    • rdhudgens

      Thx Jesse. It’s good to have a homie’s affirmation.

  • rdhudgens

    I have heard of frustration that this is not a review of the book. I did review it for the SMC Newsletter (as indicated in the first sentence of the essay). This will come out in their print edition of March 2013. A brief portion of that review can be read on Amazon under the listing for the book: http://www.amazon.com/The-Intentional-Christian-Community-Handbook/dp/1612612377 . There are plenty of other good reviews on Amazon and in other locations on the internet.

  • Todd Wynward

    Very insightful to read your critique of David Jantzen’s, book, Ric, just as we are wading into it out here in Taos. Four of us–in the early stages of forming intentional Christian community–are reading it as a common discipline. Your distinction between individualism and individuality is a point not to be missed: one of our goals that we hope to nurture within our small group is to heighten our true selves–the vocations. passions, talents that make each of us unique, even as we interact in community and common vision. The book is proving an invaluable asset as we move forward. Many thanks, to both David and Ric, for your thoughts!

  • RME

    Really great… thanks for this. I’ve not read the Janzen, but am currently reading God’s Revolution by the Bruderhof’s Eberhard Arnold, which also advocates anti-individualisism. (Linking, at one point, selfishness, self-love, self-will and self-importance.) Very timely, good questions.

    • rdhudgens

      Some aspects of the Bruderhof have at times provided primary examples of uniting the critique of individualism with the reinforcement of group conformity. Community has equaled the total surrender of the individual to God – which means the total surrender of the individual to the corporate will of the community. The dangers of this have become clear. Fortunately most intentional communities these days are better than their ideologies. Even though their rhetoric may be strongly anti-individualistic they have learned through difficult experience with authoritarian abuse to moderate their practice in a way that provides more awareness of, sensitivity to, and provision for individual difference. Sometimes a community’s rhetoric is more radical in a way that the community still has to live into it; that is it’s right and appropriate for them to set an ideal that they are striving towards even though their current reality does not quite match it. But other times when the community’s rhetoric is actually ill-conceived it is the grace of God that they do not actually embody what they say – that the Holy Spirit moves in spite of their faulty ideals.

      • RME

        Thanks for the response. I agree with and resonate with what you say; however the difficult puzzle, of course, is that while The Bruderhof in their history have provided examples of authoritarian abuse, they simultaneously provide an example of a Christian Intentional Community that honor ideas of social justice, simplicity and nonviolence that has endured for a (relatively) long time and is in fact growing. I’m not sure all that is good about the Bruderhof can be attributed to instances of their failure to embrace their own collectivist ideology. Perhaps some of that anti-individualism is in fact a cause of their stability and service, and therefore at least a partial benefit (albeit a complicated one), rather than an outright liability. I don’t know. It’s definitely got me thinking.

        • rdhudgens

          That is really true and I’m grateful that you underlined it. I did not mean to imply that any good that comes from intentional community comes in spite of their beliefs and not because of them. The Bruderhof provides an admirable witness that we will continue to learn from. My point was more modest and simply (like my essay as a whole) wanting to point out that even though intentional communities are bright lights in our darkness there is always room for more light to shine. Areas such as activism and racism are too such growing edges. I suspect that “individuality” may be another.

  • Chelsea

    I really appreciate your critique and especially the gender analysis you include in it. Another dimension that I’ve heard from a friend of color is that ICCs which don’t allow members to work outside, are often inaccessible to people of color who have financial obligations in their families and networks. You mention whiteness but there is also a middle-classness I’ve seen in the Catholic Worker where volunteers who join the life of voluntary poverty often come with savings in hand, or at least lack of debts. (Often, including myself, but not always.) One person I’d like to shout-out is Carolyn Griffith from Karl Cabat CW house in St Louis – she has given really inspiring talks about how ICCs can be more humane and balanced and sustainable in these “whole person” areas you bring up. Thanks for this!

    • rdhudgens

      Thx Chelsea. Class issues are HUGE in ICCs (and New Monasticism) and not often addressed. I don’t remember anything in the Handbook on class (although there are chapters on race and gender issues). I will say that I think class is an even bigger issue for non-Christian ICCs (which is not to give the Christian communities an excuse).

  • carolyn Griffeth

    Thank you so much for your richly insightful review, I hope the book is half as good!

    The dynamic you highlight between nurturing individual gifts and having a unified common life, is something I have thought a lot about in my experience living in Catholic Worker communities. I name it as the tension between integration and differentiation; a tension every intentional community must balance. It is good to ask ourselves: What are the non-negotiable essentials of our common life that we hope everyone involved can participate in? These communal essentials are different for every community and they are important since there is no community without some degree of shared work and shared vision. Such integration is a big part of what brings us to community; we don’t want to live totally self-guided, disparate lives. We want communal structure to help us to live into a new way of being in the world and we want to create a collective sign and witness. It seems to me that the pace of modern life and techno-screen culture presents many challenges to integration especially in urban contexts.

    Equally important though for the health of an intentional community and every individual involved is room for differentiation—allowing individuals to develop their unique gifts, follow their passions, and respond to Spirit’s unique call. The Catholic Worker communities that are most sustainable allow for such differentiation. In my own community we share the work of hospitality and many weekly routines like common meals, prayer, cocounseling, yoga, soccer, and we share a deep commitment to loving and supporting one another, but we allow one another lots of room to choose how we want to participate and to develop interests outside the community. We don’t equally contribute to the work of the community or it’s finances. We are a close enough group to negotiate these things in a way that works for us.

    Intentional communities should talk about this dynamic between integration and differentiation and be explicit about how much integration is desirable, and what forms of differentiation are acceptable. People come with very different expectations in these areas. Some intentional communities are more integrated, others more differentiated, both models have their strengths and liabilities. Too much integration can be oppressive, too much differentiation can become like a work-camp, without deep practices of connection, or simply too permissive, lacking the challenge and structure that compels growth.

    I love your question: what if overcoming racism was given more emphasis and the threat of individualism less? I think it gets at why so many of our communities are predominantly raised-white individuals. Many of us raised in the dominant white culture have experienced so much isolation and separation from one another that we are drawn to community life to fulfill the need for closeness that wasn’t met in our families of origin. People of color who have experienced greater oppression but often more closeness in their communities of origin, might look at our intentional communities and wonder “why are you all huddling together?”

    My community is trying to ask the difficult question, “What if dismantling racism was our top priority?” Would it require us to live in a more differentiated way? Would it require us to place less value on ideology and more on building relationships?

    This year I am helping to put together two gathering to share the skills of building thriving communities and to have rich discussions like the one Ric has started. One will be at New Hope Farm in Dubuque (late May) the other at the Possibility Alliance in the fall.

    I hope to read Janzen’s book before then, I am sure it will add much to the conversation. I hope to post later when these workshop/ retreats are happening.

    • rdhudgens

      Thx Carolyn. I’m challenged by your further elaboration of these things. I know you have a “handbook” in the works as well. I look forward to a later post!

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