Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Intentional Communities, both Religious and Secular

Yesterday, I grabbed a quick bite to eat with one of my English major friends. Talk turned, as it often does, to the idea of intentional communities. I've often wondered if English majors talk about intentional communities because so much of our great literature comes from people who experimented with alternate lifestyles. Maybe people majoring in Engineering just don't have that history.

In any case, my friend had intentional communities on the brain because she'd just seen a repeat of the Oprah show where Oprah went to that Mormon community in Texas which briefly lost custody of their children earlier this year. I saw part of that show when it first aired, and while I found the exploration of their daily lives interesting, I just found it too creepy to watch these middle-aged men assert that they only wanted very young women for wives.

The question I always have is whether or not an intentional community can work for the long haul without some sort of religious framework. I don't even always mean religious in the traditional meaning of that word. My theory is that people who have some sort of higher reason for being together in community--whether that be scholarship, artistic creation, or worship of the Creator--have a better chance of staying together.

My friend was in a Hobbesian mood, where she didn't believe in the better natures of humans, so she saw dark motives in all intentional communities. Of course, she'd just watched that Oprah show, which would predispose one to a Hobbesian mood. I, the eternal optimist, countered that intentional communities could put in place a framework to support us in our quest to becoming the better people that we want to be.

I had to get back to work, so we didn't have time to fully explore these issues. And we didn't have time for me to offer one of my more controversial viewpoints. If I was a betting woman, I'd bet that religious communities have a better chance for lasting than other intentional communities.

Of course, a lot of intentional communities are based in impermanence, the most obvious example being colleges and universities. But for the ones that want to survive, do religious communities have more of a chance?

My brain tends to head towards monasteries and abbeys, religious communities which have lasted for centuries, many of them. I'm sure if we did an exhaustive search, we could find as many failed religious communities as we'd find failed artistic enclaves. Or would we?

Ah, to be younger, to have time to do that kind of research, perhaps to write a dissertation. Of course, my interest is much more practical. As one who daydreams about creating an intentional community, I wonder what would stack the deck in my favor. And can a religious community have some non-religious people in its midst without undercutting its purpose? That's the question I'd really like answered.


Dale said...

Yes, I bet you're right. Intentional communities tend to be populated by control-freaks, and unless you have a higher authority to appeal to, control-freaks have a very difficult time adjusting to and accommodating each other.

Well, they have a very difficult time anyway, but a tradition of contemplation and of at least trying to trundle your ego out of the way every once in a while helps immensely.

Kristin said...

Good point about the control freaks! Thanks for pointing that out--so I wonder if there could be other mechanisms besides the religious one to control the tendency to be control freaks. Hmm. More to ponder.