On a visit to Israel last year a colleague suggested that I visit Kibbutz Metzer, a community founded by Argentinean Jewish émigrés in the 1950s. So along with my Quaker traveling companion and one other American, I hired a taxi and drove north from Jerusalem for nearly two hours to the interior of the country.
A friend once described me as “charmingly eccentric.” I’m not sure about charming, but I can’t deny the eccentric part. I’m not eccentric like Howard Hughes or the Rain Man character—just a wee bit short of completely normal. In fact, two experts on autism have told me I have certain “autistic characteristics.” Weird though it may seem, while the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator lists me as an introvert, I instinctively act like an extrovert around people. I genuinely love people and love being around them—in limited doses. After any prolonged social interaction, however, I have to retreat into my cave.
There were 15 people in my house when the well ran dry. It was Thanksgiving, and everyone knew that they did not have to flush every time. Those who were spending the night had learned how to take navy showers: turn the water on long enough to get wet, turn it off, soap yourself, turn the water on long enough to rinse, and turn it off again. If the water ever gets really nice and hot, then you know that you have left it on too long.Everyone knew this, but we still ran out of water. When I turned the kitchen tap to fill the coffee pot after Thanksgiving dinner, all that came out was a long airy gasp. “We’re out of water!” I yelled.
In his recent book The Jesus Way, the unfailingly helpful Eugene Peterson observes: “Community is intricate and complex. Living in community as a people of God is inherently messy. A congregation consists of many people of various moods, ideas, needs, experiences. . . . It is not easy and it is not simple.”
Our culture’s ever-increasing individualism is about to take a decisive turn. Any day now self-checkout lanes in our stores will outnumber the lanes that lead shoppers to a human cashier. At that point, “going to the market” will become a solitary enterprise.
I was reared just a few miles from the University of Chicago on the city’s South Side. As a kid riding past, I was certain that its buildings were haunted. After all, there were gargoyles clinging to the edge of every Gothic building, and where there are gargoyles, there must be vampires. It would be many years before I entered those haunted classrooms to study.
From the Academy of ancient Greece to the medieval schools, education was understood to be centered upon conversation (conversor, literally meaning “being together”). Plato’s dialogues and Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae are written in the form of a conversation.
Way too much emphasis is placed on making theological education accessible and convenient. With the rise of Internet courses and distance learning, seminaries have accommodated to the spirit of individualism rather then drawing on the biblical mandate that leaders be formed through intentional community.
The absence of community surrounds us in a daily way—in our neighborhoods, our work lives and the anguish of our own souls. The scarcity of community wreaks havoc below the surface of outwardly busy lives. From the ethos of economic life to the chatter of talk radio, our society is busy promoting the appetites and fantasies of the individual more than it encourages investment in the larger aspirations of a community.
Robert D. Putnam became widely known in the 1990s for his influential article “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” (Journal of Democracy, January 1995) in which he explored the significance of “social capital”—the social networks that are formed by church groups, bowling leagues and service and fraternal organizations.