Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Epiphany | Community | Communitas

My friend Alan Hirsch writes regularly about the relationship between community and communitas:

Community is to do with the building of something sustainable. People gather, in order to answer, at the most basic level, questions such as ‘How can we best feed ourselves?’ and ‘How can we best deal with our waste products?’ [And churches need to ask the same questions, as I discuss here.]

But left to its own devices, in time the very structures a community puts in place to sustain itself will strangle the life of that community…

This is why community needs communitas. Communitas describes the experience of a group of people who go outside of the known world of their community, with its norms and structures, to face together the challenges thrown up by the world beyond the known world, and who return again (no guarantees) changed by their experience. Communitas could describe the experience of a group of people taken hostage by terrorists; or a group of adventurers on a quest to conquer Mount Everest or the South Pole…or a group of Magi on a two-year journey following a star, and a two-year journey home again. They may go by choice, or not; and they may go in order to prove themselves, or of necessity, to save the world they know (think the Fellowship of the Ring; or Alex and Marty in ‘Madagascar 2: The Crate Escape’).

But unless there is a community to return to – a community that will somehow be changed by the returning presence of those who have experienced communitas – then, in time, the very structures a communitas puts in place to sustain itself become hollow (think Pikelet’s adult mentors in Tim Winton’s ‘Breath’). This is why communitas needs community.

I’m interested to see that my friend Hamo is working again with a more ‘recognisable’ local church, after some years of pioneering on the edge. Some will say that he has sold out; others, wanting to be more charitable, that he gave it his best shot and it didn’t work out. I reckon both are wrong: that this new season demonstrates the relationship between communitas and community – that communitas does not exist for its own sake. I’d go so far as to say that Hamo would have sold out, or failed, if he didn’t do the working with communities (and indeed, he has always found ways to do so, as a pioneer).

Likewise, I’m interested to see that my virtual friend Steve Taylor is engaging with the whole issue of sustainability (or to put it another way, community needs communitas and communitas needs community) as we move into a new year.

I love all three of these wise men from the Southern hemisphere, and reckon that, though each would express it differently, they’re on a journey worth following through 2009…

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