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The Row Boat
"Had we but world enough, and time..." *
The Limits of Community8/19/2007 20:09:33
This weekend I went for a bike ride with my uncle (~70 mi each way, over the Blue Ridge Mountains) during which we visited two small, very different religious communities. One was Holy Cross Abbey, a Cistercian (Catholic) monastery I've been visiting now for years. The monks there are mostly of retirement age, with only a few new recruits coming in. Nevertheless, the community is a gentle and good one, and they offer a lot of important counsel for the people who come to visit, including me. I can literally chart the periods of my adult life in that place's geography.
The second was newer to me. It was one of the farm communities of the Twelve Tribes (Info from UVA's NRM database), a group that emerged out of the 60s "Jesus People" movement, which seems to have created a successful collection of communes. It is a living, reproducing farm with around 60 members. Their main support is a construction business, but their new farm is becoming a growing source of profit. They consider themselves free of organized religion, working 7 days a week and gathering twice a day for a Quaker-like event with no leader or assigned preacher. It is a thriving population, with more young than adults, and many young adults were raised in and stayed in the Twelve Tribes. Prophecy about the return of Yahshua (what they call Jesus) is central to their self-understanding as a godly people. Their farm is absolutely immaculate, with beautiful, happy animals, and a large construction project underway.
Interestingly, the two groups live only a few miles away from one another, yet seem to have no idea about each other's existence. Even more so, they are strikingly similar. A special, unique kind of vibrance exists in both communities, a closeness with one another and a seeming closeness with the ground of life itself. They undergo similar challenges of conflict resolution and communal economy. In both, the community's love is understood as the decisive means for understanding the divine and interpreting scripture. Indeed, there seems to be a remarkable agreement among the members of their core values and a shared way of articulating it. Both pride themselves on self-reliance, discipline, distinction from the outside world, communal ownership, and simplicity of life. I had a long conversation with one of the Tribes guys (while picking tomatoes) in which several times I mentioned millennia-old Catholic monastic movement. He had never heard of it, virtually.
Anthropologists have long recognized that humans evolved primarily in small societies. The limit of names and principal acquaintances we are able to maintain, give or take, is around 200. Beyond that, we venture into abstractions, such as treating whole organizations of people as individuals (which is why we like to imagine people of a given country to have intrinsic their-country-ness to them). Socialized economies seem very much capable of working in communities of that size, while they flop on the scale of the Soviet Union, where the economic forces are far too complex for any cadre of experts to fathom and plan for. There seems to be almost a magical ability of that number of people to cohere, to share a common set of beliefs and practices, and to do so under no pressure of coercion. Get any bigger, and you need police, armies, and, as Jared Diamond has argued, organized religions.
All I mean to suggest is that there is something magical about small communities because there is something natural about them. We function especially well that way, and there is really no beating it. On the other hand, large, complex societies have an unbeatable way of coordinating resources, generating scientific knowledge, building civilizations, and participating in amazingly destructive wars. When a community is small enough, the voice of God appears (more so, but not perfectly) to arise self-evidently. When it is larger, that voice comes woven into the particular political authority structure, and it appears to us in a rather different way.
All of this is reminiscent of the language of Durkheim, whose Elementary Forms of Religious Life started the functionalist sociology of religion. He used a similar, though mysterious, sense of divinity arising from the fabric of the community. Since, his work has been criticized (among other reasons) because the mechanism for this arising was not at all explicated. Yet it seems very possible that evolutionary psychology is equipped to provide an answer.
Finally, the fundamental difference between small and large communities should be harnessed as we plan our society. We can keep our large communities (we need them now, there is no turning back), but we need to be able to plant small communities wherever we can. Schools seem to me the perfect example. The high school I went to was blessedly small, enough that the principal could know the name of just about every student (a few too many for him to get them all). The result: people left their backpacks unattended in the hallways. There were no locks on lockers. There were no official punishments, and no particular need for them. Decisions were made by the students with guidance, but not enforcement, from the teachers. Simply: it worked.
re:limits of community - 9/13/2007 16:48:56