The Importance of Community

00000402421032046K051JMV(Image credit Charlie Mackesy)

What are the worst things in the world? What are the things that run directly contrary to what we are made for? Peter Kreeft has a suggestion: boredom and loneliness (from his talk Lost in the Cosmos). This makes sense, because at the heart of all reality – at the heart of everything we are made for – is the Trinity: unending, ecstatic love, which is anything but boring and lonely.

Now, look out your window or into your own home or into your own soul – do you see any boredom and loneliness…? Sadly, like a wet, hot dumpster, our world (and, we must admit, our own hearts) reek with the ‘worst of things.’ Why? For this post, only one reason will be explored; a paramount problem that is one of the biggest challenges of our times: a lack of community.

PointCounterpointDan, times change and so does the nature of relationships…

So quipped Jane Curtin in the legendary SNL skit, Point/Counterpoint. She was referencing mostly romantic relationships, but let’s expand it to a broader view of basic human-human relationships. Does the nature of human relationships change? It would seem just the opposite of Jane’s claim is true: the more ‘times change’ the more things stay the same. We are not titans – individuals fit to conquer and thrive if left to ourselves.

We are, by our very nature, interiorly impoverished; ever in need of a labyrinthine webbing of others to bring us out of the curvatus in se (curving inward on oneself) that St. Augustine and Dante showed to be the very essence of Hell. For this reason, no man (if he is to remain a man) can be an island. We are made for love and “love can be kept only by being given away” (No Man Is An Island, Thomas Merton.)

Yet in our society today it is a fact as cold as steel that this webbing of others – this sense of community – is increasingly hard to find.

Perhaps this is true especially for the young adult demographic. In the recently published article, “Alone in the New America” (well worth a read), authors David and Amber Lapp chronicle “the alienation of young working people.” In the midst of heavy debt and beleaguering, widespread, epidemic family fragmentation, most Millenials have embraced a “go-it-alone ethic” in which “there is no sense of ‘we.’” Instead:

“They learn to approach others with suspicion and distrust… thinking of themselves as strangers to each other in their struggles… They just come to work and just cope.”

This quote perhaps sums it up best:

“I don’t think there’s a thing we can do about it,” said Anthony. “And that’s kind of the American way – this is a free country, and free this and free that. But it’s your life, and not too many people care about other people’s lives. As long as it’s not theirs, they don’t care.”

Preeminent scholars, Charles Murray, who has been called “arguably the most consequential social scientist alive,” and Robert Putnam, a public policy professor at Harvard, have painted this rather sobering picture in their books Coming Apart and Bowling Alone, respectively.  The long and short of it is this: on a national level (and most strikingly in particular populations) “the raw material that makes community even possible has diminished so much… that the situation may be beyond retrieval.” Blame the media, blame technology, blame work – whatever the reason: our “social capital” has plummeted, deeply affecting our ability to form and join into vibrant communities.

One would venture to guess that this is all anecdotally confirmed by our own experiences. When was the last time you saw hoards of kids playing with each other in a neighborhood? When was the last time you interrupted someone’s family dinner? When was the last time you saw two total strangers interact with each other on the street? And just think of how many inventions of the past decades have replaced regular opportunities for human-human interaction, right down to buying groceries and cooking food (charmingly depicted recently by the season opener of Downton Abbey).

This may sound like a caricatured, nostalgic response but it is a) empirically verifiable and b) hard to deny that it’s ‘easy’ nowadays for people to live without sharing common experiences, memories, activities and life with a consistent group of people. This is the very essence of community and it is rupturing. To drive it home, consider this chilling remark from a priest at an ordinary parish in southeastern Michigan:

I don’t know where everybody is. I don’t see anybody anymore and I don’t know where to find them.

Yes, that’s heavy stuff.

It gives “subject to futility” (Rom 8:20) a whole new look. If you’ve read this far, it can seem like the darkness is getting darker. But the light is getting lighter!

Do not abandon yourself to despair. We are the Easter people; and ‘Alleluia!’ is our song! (Pope John Paul II)

Set firmly in the beating heart of Christ, we can be confident and without fear. He reigns supreme over any problem that might seem insurmountable. And, what’s more, he wants us to live in this world – not out of it. He has a way for us to witness to the world of the gift that is freely given: His Mercy, His Love… Himself. How will He have us witness to the world while living in the world? No doubt: in the context of Christian community.

It is not good that the man should be alone… (Gen 2:18)

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt 18:20)

…and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself. (John 12:32)

When did the Lord ever ask anyone to go-it-alone? When has He moved in history if not in a group that had a sense of ‘we?’ Even Abraham had Lot, Moses had Aaron, Mary had Joseph, Paul had Timothy, etc. God gathers to Himself a people, which is very different from merely calling a bunch of individual persons. As deeply affected by our environment as we are, we need the constant contact, support and inspiration of a people if we are to thrive, grow in holiness and succeed in mission.

Most Catholics in this country (like most people in this country in general) need to be more intentional about this. We don’t need people only to ‘chillax’ with as a means of getting our ‘fix’ of human contact. We need brothers and sisters – fellow disciples we can sharpen and be sharpen by, count on, lean into and love. (Note: recall the verse above: “Where two or three are gathered in my name…” – true community requires presence, going far and above just ‘connecting’ through the Internet.) We need to be accountable to others; we need others to point out our weaknesses and strengths; we need intertwined threads if we are to levee the cold. As a rather wise Karol Wojtyla once noted, it is only the vibrancy of solidarity “that allows man to find the fulfillment of himself in complementing others” (pg. 285, Person and Act).

band-of-brothers-12729So, in short, we all need to find and mature in this kind of community. The walk of a disciple (both in terms of holiness and mission) is just about impossible without it. And it is equally as unlikely for any standard pagan walking the streets about you to ‘hear’ the Gospel if they don’t first ‘see’ how we love and are loved by one another (John 13:35). As the authors of “Alone in The New America” once again note:

And it becomes apparent that these young adults need opportunities for communion: to share their stories in supportive communities, to name and to share their suffering, and to receive healing. The remedy for their alienation is the experience of solidarity, of being with others, of forging ties. (Emphasis added.)

In the Christian life, we are never meant to walk alone.


50 Shades of Disorientation


(Image credit Charlie Mackesy)

Recently, on the ‘luv’-soaked occasion of Valentine’s Day, Facebook announced that they will allow users in the United States to choose a ‘custom gender option’ in which one may select from 50 genders, alternatives to the traditional ‘male’ and ‘female’ options. Among the choices are ‘transgender,’ ‘cisgender,’ ‘gender fluid,’ ‘gender neutral’ and ‘neither.’ Their reasoning, you ask?

When you come to Facebook to connect with the people, causes, and organizations you care about, we want you to feel comfortable being your true, authentic self (from the Facebook Diversity page).

This latest cultural exhibition of gender confusion really is nothing new, it is just the next step in man’s rebellion against God along the unhinged-from-reality, Bataan Death March-like excursion into nothingness. This is a manifestation of a problem as ancient as sin. But, still, there is something big that is happening with Facebook’s decision – showing that this problem is still as fresh as a wound.

Where does all this gender confusion stem from?

As a start, it is worth considering that the only reason Facebook would offer 50 gender choices as a way of liberating people to be their “true, authentic self” is if a person’s body is not really part of their self (a concept in philosophical language referred to as body-self dualism). If that outlook is true, what follows?

Well, based on my feelings, consciousness and whatever else makes up ‘me,’ I can manipulate, use, dictate, shape and otherwise rule this machine in which ‘the real me’ is housed. This is one step, but it gets worse. Not only do I not have to ‘listen’ to the nature of my body, but, given the disappearance of God from the human horizon, then I really have no inherent nature that informs what is good or bad for me. Thus, the rampant acceptance of, as George Weigel phrases it,

…the utter plasticity of the human condition: there is nothing given in men and women, not even their gender; all is malleable; all can be changed to fulfill desires (or, as it is usually phrased, to meet the ‘needs’) of the imperial autonomous Self (pg. 44, Evangelical Catholicism).

In short, we are alone in a hostile jungle with two options – die or rule: rule over our bodies; rule over anyone who threatens my self-creation; rule over reality itself. This is the affirmation of nothingness.

Now doesn’t this picture make a lot more sense?


Year after year, this way of thinking has been tightening its grip over our once Creation-affirming culture. But a monolith such as Facebook now trumpeting this worldview as a matter of their company’s foundational ethos is really a big blow.

Why is this an important step?

For a billion people around the world, Facebook is the hub of culture. It is where they connect with people, learn about themselves and receive a hundred cues a day about how life is lived. It is their temple. It is where they come to engage, to listen, to connect and to speak. Like monks, who, as a way of centering their life, periodically ‘check in’ with God every couple of hours, Facebook users must return multiple times daily just to ‘check in.’ It provides a near-monastic rhythm of life.

As this temple, Facebook is a remarkably and insidiously powerful teaching entity – probably the biggest in the world, when it comes right down to it. And the real shame of their recent moment of gender politik is that now every 14 and 15 year-old who makes a Facebook will be considering, “Wait, which one of these genders am I, really? Where do I actually fit on this continuum? I’m not so sure…” The mindset from the get-go is, “You are not given. You must create yourself.” The idea that my body is really me and that there is a givenness (a ‘whatness’) to who I am that informs me of what is good for me and what isn’t… that idea? Implicitly ‘un-friended.’

Why is any of this bad? Because it hurts people. It leads not to human flourishing, but to human suffering. If people stew in a culture that says their body is not part of their ‘true self,’ then they will forever be in a cracked, dissonant war within themselves. Moreover, if people stew in a culture that says, ‘There is nothing that is inherently bad or good for you,’ then eventually more and more people will live that way (I dare you, go to any college and see if that is the case), making more and more people blind to what is good for them and enslaved to poisons. So, in effect, to the classically beautiful definition of a ‘good society’ given by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day – “a ‘good society’ is one in which it is easy to be good” – people will naturally respond, “that’s threatening.” That’s chilling.

What does one say? We might as well let Pope Benedict XVI say it for us:

The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.

One is also reminded of the legendary quote from Dostoyevsky, which so succinctly illuminates an unwavering truth about life and what it means to be human:

If God does not exist, everything is permitted (The Brothers Karamazov).

Nothing seems to be more and more evidently vindicated each and every day than these two statements. We are losing our bearings (our grip), because we’re walking in the dark. Once God is erased from the “human horizon,” we stumble around for want of light, direction and purpose, desperately and impossibly trying to create ourselves out of nothing and save ourselves from annihilation.

No one would say that Facebook is in voluntary cahoots with the devil, and that won’t be claimed here either. But, our Holy Father nailed it when talking about this mass gender confusion:

Let’s not be naive, we’re not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

Lived-out lies lead to slavery. What are we (you and I) doing to help people not fall victim to this vacuous disorientation?