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.