Years ago, when Russell Kirk wrote The Conservative Mind, he defined the towering problem of our time as “the problem of community lost and community regained.”
It is natural that we crave community, which is the union we have with others through common affection and spiritual and practical interest. To desire community, especially the primary community, the family, is the way we are ordered in creation. After all, God, in whose image we are made, is a Trinity whose three persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — are in eternal communion. Likewise, Christ, the second person of the Trinity, is the vine to whom we are all related as branches. The yearning for community, then, is built into us.
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Yet true community is in peril today. Mall culture is no substitute; watching the same television shows that other people do is hardly a bond with them; and a suburban development where everyone has gone to day care or the office is not a real community that satisfies the heart. However, so much do we sense community as properly human that if we have no community to inherit, we invent one rather than confront the horror of living in isolation.
Community, though it is in trouble, still exists in certain pockets — families, churches, voluntary associations, and in some localities and universities. At the same time, this union of community — which is biblical, classical, and medieval — comes into constant conflict with modern impulses of division and fragmentation. Christopher Dawson would say that the erosion of community has been going on at least since the Reformation, when the principle of fragmentation sprang from the nominalist denial of any authority but the individual will.
Freedom that is seen in the modern sense of doing what one wants rather than in the Judeo-Christian and classical sense of doing what one ought always collides with the authority of community. If a community is to survive, its members must be united in a common belief and purpose. On the one hand, they must contribute to and participate in the community; on the other hand, the community must afford a stability and continuity that enhances and protects its members. Ultimately, the only order of community that survives is one that embraces a religious dimension. Only one that recognizes transcendence beyond material existence will endure for the long term, so enduring because it not only recognizes that we are meant for God himself but also because it promotes our relationship with God. Thus a community based on an order solely of human derivation will not last indefinitely. It will succumb either to individualism, which de Tocqueville described as the democratic tendency to withdraw into isolated groups of family and friends, with the consequent abandonment of the commonweal; or it will succumb to collectivism, in which we abdicate responsibility for our own lives and local affairs, reposing power in government, which we childishly suppose will solve our problems and take care of all our needs. In both individualism and collectivism the result is isolation and loss of community. In the first case, when we refuse to participate in the common life and withdraw to private life, we become mere atoms circling around each other. In the second case we idolize the therapeutic society that relieves us of our responsibility for the wise use of our freedom. We sacrifice to government our particular identities with family, parish, neighborhood, and town. In so doing, we also sacrifice love of our particular place, and, as Edmund Burke pointed out, there can be no love of country without, first, love of a particular place.
Modern society suffers from both atomization and collectivism. As a consequence, it has become increasingly secularized. A secularized society, however, does not meet human yearnings for community. Sensing that a polity divorced from the sacred is unworthy of them and is no community at all, people begin to think that it has no authority to oblige them, and so they think of themselves as their own individual rulers with authority to do as they please.
The real need of man at the beginning of the millennium is for roots. True community does indeed provide roots. For modern man, starved for community and a link to the sacred; starved for connectedness, continuity, permanence, and partnership between generations, there is one real community still living, indeed entering a new springtime. That community, foundation of all other communities, is the Church.
This column originally appeared in the March 1999 issue of Crisis Magazine.