Another model for churches, pt. 2

Part 2 in a series. Read Part 1.

The “Eccelsiola in Ecclesia”

I’m not interested in quite the same kind of new monasticism that Alisdair MacIntyre appeared to want; when he wrote After Virtue, MacIntyre called for a new St. Benedict, and within a few years MacIntyre had himself converted to Roman Catholicism. Unlike MacIntyre, I don’t see the answer to our problems coming from Catholicism, and indeed I see much of Roman Catholicism functioning as a destructive kind of imperium itself, rather than standing opposed to (or at least critical of) the imperium that is late capitalism and the postmodern nation-state. And while the barbarians are indeed at the gates, or really they’re beyond the gates and are actually in charge of our cities and nations, the social situation today is so utterly different from that in Benedict’s time that it is impossible for us to remove ourselves from society in the way Benedict’s monks did; or in the way that MacIntyre seems to long for.

Instead, I find inspiration in James Luther Adams’s studies of voluntary associations. Adams, with his deep concern for maintaining human freedom, saw voluntary associations as one of the key constituents of a free society which could maximize human freedom. Adams states that “any healthy democratic society is a multi-group society,” that is, a democracy must allow the existence of multiple groups in order to remain a true democracy. Membership in these groups must remain voluntary: “These [voluntary] associations are, or claim to be, voluntary; they presuppose freedom on the part of the individual to be or not to be a member, to join or withdraw, or to consort with others to form a new [voluntary] association.” (Adams, ed. Beach (1998), 183-184) By way of contrast, Adams identifies involuntary associations such as the family and the “state” (i.e., the nation-state); for nearly all persons, you don’t get to choose whether you belong to these two associations or not, you’re simply born into them. Similarly, in some nations, membership in the state-sponsored church is essentially involuntary. But in a truly voluntary association, you choose whether or not to be a member of it, and you can choose to leave it if you wish.

Voluntary associations offer space in which freedom can thrive. Adams noted that fascist states such as Nazi Germany consolidate their power by getting rid of voluntary associations as quickly as possible; so obviously voluntary associations offer spaces in which freedom can flourish. However, voluntary associations have not always been functioning particularly well in this regard, as Adams notes:

These considerations also pose the question of whether voluntary association has shown itself capable of eliciting sufficient social responsibility to correct the political and economic institutions. One may rightly say that the middle class was born in modern history largely by means of the voluntary association, that many labor organizations found their niche in the society through the innovations of the voluntary association, and that ethnic minorities have made their climb in a similar fashion. But millions are still left out, and the cruelty and disease and deprivation are appalling, as are the bombings, kidnappings, and shooting. The spaces available to the deprived are simply too cramped…. Adams, ed. Stackhouse (1976), 84

Adams goes on to admit that it may seem that true social justice may only come about through a “mammoth crisis.” He also admits that voluntary associations have many “pathologies” that render them ineffective. But that doesn’t mean that the principles of voluntary association no longer apply:

A special demand confronting churches… is the demand for the reformation of reformation — the reformation of the voluntary principle. In the history of the church this function has been performed by a special kind of association, the ecclesiola in ecclesia, the small church in the large, which redefines Christian vocation in the changing historical situation. In the Middle Ages, the so-called Dark Ages, monasticism functioned as an ecclesiola. In the modern period the ecclesiola has been the small group of firm dedication that sometimes promotes the disciplines of the inner life, sometimes bends its energies to sensitize the church afflicted with ecclesiastical somnolence, sometimes cooperates with members of the latent church in the world to bring about reform in government or school or industry, or even to call for radical structural transformation. Adams, ed. Stackhouse (1976), 85

The postmodern age in the West is characterized by diminishing participation in voluntary associations, and by a decreasing willingness on the part of individuals to submit to the burdens of maintaining voluntary associations which provide an open space in which an ecclesiola in ecclesia can function to reform the wider church and society. At the same time, postmodern society — thus far, anyway — is also characterized by rapidly decreasing individual freedom as governments and other forces impose more and more control and homogeneity, and the increasing control that late capitalism in the form of hugely powerful corporations has over the lives (and even over the mental states) of individuals. Thus we observe two interrelated phenomena:– on the one hand, individuals leaving liberals churches because they prefer to pursue their spirituality with more personal freedom; on the other hand, decreasing freedom for individuals as their choices in all areas (including, ironically, in the area of spirituality) narrow down so much that often there’s no choice at all.

If the postmodern world is at all analogous to the early Middle Ages, the “barbarian hordes” can be seen as increasing control over individual life by corporate and governmental forces, those twin forces of postmodern imperium. Alisdair MacIntyre seems to say just this. But where MacIntyre, speaking from his Catholic perspective, calls for new monasteries after the example of St. Benedict, James Luther Adams, speaking from his perspective on the far left of Protenstantism, calls for an ecclesiola in ecclesia that continues the spirit of the Reformation.

Next: Thoughts about intentional communities

5 thoughts on “Another model for churches, pt. 2

  1. Elena Tabachnick

    Maybe people also opt out of on voluntary associations because they so often devolve into some leader telling others what they can and can’t do, think or feel…

    …Or they die a natural death because, without deeper commitments, associations can’t be more than shallow, ephemeral phenomena… I mean, commitments of the kind that keep people trying to see goodness in the other after they have begun to intensely dislike each other. Benedict specifically asked monks to have just that commitment.

    OTOH, monastic community that places obedience to individual inspiration over that due human authority (e.g., as in Benedict’s Rule) – is one of my great interests. But it doesn’t seem easy. For example see my posts “Obedience to What Authority?” @ Or the posts titled “A Dichotomy of Extremes: Obedience to Self or Community” and “Is Obedience To Tyrants A Spiritual Good?”

    BTW, have you ever looked at the Rule of Basil? It can be more or less summed up as “all you need is love,” and is much more egalitarian than Benedict.

    On a fairly irrelevant note: Did you know “the barbarians” were Christians? Yes! All those Goths and Visigoths, etc. at the gates of Rome (except the Franks) were Arian Christians!

    Once the orthodoxy erected itself – and narrowed accepted beliefs to Jesus as one with God – with the trinity to follow – all those Arian Christians were relegated to the outer darkness with gnashing of teeth… But they still filled most of the landmass of Europe.

    Poland and other states remained Arian until, like,1100 AD… And wouldn’t cha know? That’s where Proto-unitarian beliefs rose up only a few centuries later. ;-)

  2. kathy rawle

    hi dan, remember me from first parish lexington? i was on the board while you were dre. we moved to hawaii a few years ago and love it but miss having a uu church (we’re on the big island, only uu church is on oahu). where are you and what are you up to? this isn’t really blog material, more like plain old email. aloha, kathy

  3. john

    Thanks for interesting posts, converting ro Rome is not the answer for all and the absolute solution. I agree with what Elena says about ‘leadership’ – a word that I dislike. Sheeplike flocks might need leaders, not independent and creative-thinking individuals. How many great artists, scientists, novelists, thinkers (Jesus, Buddha, Socrates etc), philosophers followed leaders? And spelt out the ideologies of leaders? I don’t just sit around and think but do something about it and have a universalist priory (with lose associates and members in a number of countries, bishops, priests, hermits, laity from different churches and faiths or no faiths).

    and a list for monastic subjects (ecumenical) at or self-realization at the same yahoo URL except /realized at the end.

    John (hermitmonk for past 40 years)

  4. Dan

    Elena @ 1 — Actually, a monastery is a kind of voluntary association. An example of an involuntary association would be your family of origin — you don’t get to choose your family of origin, there’s nothing voluntary about it. And there are many levels of voluntary association, from silly shallow ones like the Hello Kitty fan club (now I’m going to get complaints from all the Hello Kitty fans, but you know what I mean), to deeply involving ones like some churches and monasteries. And yes, I have been reading your blog — you’ve got some good stuff over there — and part of my purpose is to show how a local church can be like a monastery. Thus I’m writing partly in response to the Emerging Church folks who are exploring what they call “New Monasticism,” and I’m partly responding to Unitarian Universalist folks who think “church” equates only to a low-level commitment with little self-discipline.

    Hi Kathy, good to hear from you! I hate to think how old Austen must be by now. Give my best to Austen and Jonathan.

    John @ 3 — You’re working with a very dated model of leadership. Read Joseph Rost’s book Leadership for the 21st Century, where he gives a summary of leadership theory, demolishes all the old theories of leadership, and develops a new model of leadership wherein “followership” is just as important as “leadership,” and leaders become followers at times — a fluid, egalitarian model of leadership.

    You also write: “How many great artists, scientists, novelists, thinkers (Jesus, Buddha, Socrates etc), philosophers followed leaders?” Well, all of them! Jesus followed John the Baptist, Moses, and the writers of the Torah — and in my reading of the Gospels, there are times when Jesus is led by his followers. The story of Buddha’s life makes it very clear that he followed several leaders over the course of his life, and internalized all their models so that he could in turn develop his own model of the middle way. When you get to philosophers, they all had leaders, since philosophy in the Western tradition is a millennia-long conversation on truth and beauty, where the boundaries between leaders and followers is very fluid. Again, I suspect your outdated model of leadership prevents you from seeing this — read the Rost book and see if that doesn’t give you a whole new perspective on the issue.

  5. Dan

    All — Article above updated to include a definition of “voluntary association” — Stupid of me to leave that out. (Sorry, Elena @ 1!)

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