Choosing Our Limitations: Thoughts on Community

A shared place is one of those things in life we don’t get to choose for ourselves (at least at the beginnings of our lives). In the age of highways and fifteen-hour flights across the world, it is easy to forget that we aren’t afforded the luxury of choosing where we are born—and that, for the vast majority of people throughout history, where you were born was where you lived your life.

 

It has been interesting for me, over the last ten years or so, to witness the increased popularity of the word “community” in Christian circles. As I have grown up, I have noticed within myself and other millennial Christians a heightened desire for a life shared with and shaped by others. We are finally beginning to see that the rugged American individualism so glorified all these years may be doing more harm than good, and that a Christian faith unaffected by the presence or absence of a community of believers is no Christian faith at all. We are tired of masking our loneliness with our carefully curated social media profiles and “personal relationships with Jesus.”

And yet it seems that my generation has not been able to rid themselves fully of the desire for autonomy, because, as I see it, we lack a real understanding of what community actually is. Notice how Wendell Berry, the patron saint of community, defines it in The Long-Legged House:

A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.

Perhaps the most important component of this definition, at least with respect to contemporary needs and concerns, is that it revolves around a shared place. This stands in stark contrast to the kinds of “communities” in which we place ourselves today—artistic, academic, political, theological, and the rest. Community, as we functionally understand it, is a voluntary collection of individuals around a common interest or persuasion. Place isn’t accounted for in this definition, and doesn’t really need to be. And that’s a problem. Any definition of community without a concern for place is incomplete—and ultimately harmful.

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