What is Community: Difference
What is intentional community? This is one of the first questions we ask at the start of a year in St. Hilda's. It's also one that we tend to find ourselves asking halfway through the year, and then again when we leave.
The one constant I've noticed about this question over the course of my time here, apart from the fact that it is constantly being asked, is that no answer seems to quite capture what it is asking for. It strikes me that this is not due to a failure on the part of those who have lived in community, however, but because it's not a question to which a definite answer can be given. Instead it's a dynamic question, one which has to be asked again and again in a variety of different contexts, each of which will offer up its own account of what an intentional community might look like.
All of which makes the business of saying what intentional community is somewhat difficult: for though there are lots of ways of living in intentional community, there does not appear to be any one such way which answers once and for all what intentional community is.
When we ask this question, then, we must be clear about what we're asking. Are we asking for a definition of intentional community, one which if met will ensure that intentional community will manifest itself? Or are we asking about the various ways in which an intentional community can be? If it is the former, then I would guess that we're unlikely to find an answer which will help us much with the actual business of living in community. This is because it seems to me that any community we live in will likely not satisfy that definition.
If it's the latter, however, then we may be well placed to appreciate the many and various answers which, though they do not give a definition of intentional community when taken together, each offer up some insight into community living. We might even be able to look at how these various answers relate to each other in unexpected ways, and observe the results of bringing disparate and different responses to the question 'what is intentional community' into dialogue with each other.
Which brings me to the aspect of intentional community that I wanted to focus on when I started writing this piece: specifically, that it seems me to be a feature of intentional community that when people decide to live together in this way the result is rarely definitive (and never, I imagine, ideal). Instead, intentional community seems to be manifested in the bizarre and unexpected ways in which different individuals can bring out both the best and the worst in each other; in the ways in which living with others can draw out facets of character that had hitherto gone unknown; in the ways in which being faced with an entirely different point of view can reveal that you yourself are a very different person to the one you thought you were.
These differences can range from the seemingly superficial to the absolutely fundamental (and it's not always clear which is which!). For example, two people can differ wildly as to what constitutes a clean room. They can also differ as to what constitutes living prayerfully, treating others lovingly, and, of course, what constitutes living in community. Though such differences can always cause tension, it is also through these differences engaging with each other that communities are formed: for it is by engaging with each other as others, fully aware of all the difference that this entails, that we begin to manifest what it can be to exist in unity with diversity. Above all, it is by living in unity with others that we begin to appreciate what it means for us to love our neighbours: neighbours who might not always do the dishes/expect the dishes to be done too often, or who take community expectations far too seriously/not seriously enough, but who are still the very neighbours that we are constantly commanded to love.
Rather helpfully, this is all indicated by an innocuous aspect of the word 'community' itself. For in terms of basic etymology, 'community' literally means 'unity with'; and this 'with' implies the presence of something other than myself in this unity: it implies difference. And this suggests that community is not merely the result of reducing many individuals to the same, nor even a unity in spite of difference: rather, it is a unity premised upon diversity. It thus goes hand in hand with the recognition that we exist in context, such that we must often come to learn who we are in the context of the lives of others, rather than expecting those others with whom we live to conform to us.
Just as there is no definitive answer to the question 'what is intentional community?' then, but rather many different answers, each of which inspires different insights, so a community itself is not necessarily constituted by a definite identity shared by all, but by the unique results which arise from individuals sharing in each others' lives. This is not to say that an initial sense of identity cannot be helpful, nor that there are not some things which communities should seek to avoid. It is just to say that what an intentional community is is rarely a question which can be given a definite and all encompassing answer. Instead, a given intentional community just is the unpredictable result of the weird and wonderful relationships which develop when a group of different people come together with the intention of trying to love and learn from each other.