Another model for churches, pt. 3

Part 3 in a series. Read Part 1.

Intentional communities

In 1955, James Luther Adams published an article titled “Notes on the Study of Gould Farm,” a short piece on an intentional community in western Massachusetts (Gould Farm is no longer an intentional community and now houses a rehabilitation program for mentally ill adults). In his laudatory description of the community at Gould Farm, Adams could be talking about one of the “new monasteries” that are cropping up today:

For over forty years Gould Farm has been that unique thing which today is called an “intentional community”; it is a deliberately formed community in which people live together sharing, receiving, and incarnating religious visions. Adams, ed. Engels (1986), 254

As Adams describes Gould Farm, we can imagine how his words could possibly apply (although in a less intense manner) to certain liberal churches:

Gould Farm is a fellowship not only for the inner “family” of members who maintain the community. It is open to “outsiders,” to people who in distress of mind or spirit wish for a time to participate in a community of affection that gives renewed meaning and depth to life. Gould Farm, in short, is a therapeutic community. It does not live merely for itself, as many intentional communities have done. It is a “self-transcending” community. To all sorts of people it offers healing, the healing that can only emerge, as William Gould believed and showed, in the atmosphere of harmony and mutual aid which characterizes the true family. The Farm has been a haven not only for those who in sickness of spirit desperately needed the fellowship that is new life but also for those who, like the many refugees from Europe of the past two decades, needed a place in which to get new bearings and a new start in a strange land. Adams, ed. Engels (1986), 255

Adams may well be excessively laudatory in his article on Gould Farm; elsewhere he is quite clear about the pathologies of voluntary associations, and intentional residential communities seem to be prone to more than their share of pathologies. Nevertheless, he description identifies several characteristics we should look for in intentional religious communities:

  • the community is deliberately formed and maintained
  • in the community, people share and receive
  • the community incarnates religious visions
  • the community does not live merely for itself; it is self-transcending
  • there is an inner circle or “family” and…
  • others who need to be part of a community of affection for a time are also welcome
  • healing takes place in the community
  • the community can serve as a refuge

While Adams is specifically talking about a residential community in this article, in practice these characteristics may also apply to certain kinds of non-residential intentional communities. There may be some liberal churches which can boast of all these characteristics; these would be true intentional communities, albeit non-residential communities. Indeed, I would argue that these characteristics should be part of the ideal for a certain kind of liberal church.

Next: Kinds of liberal churches

3 thoughts on “Another model for churches, pt. 3

  1. The Eclectic Cleric

    My own opinion is that if you really want to understand JLA, you need to brave Ernst Troeltsch, who inspired so much of Adams’ own thinking on the nature of faith communities. Troeltsch basically argued (and then demonstrated with copious examples) that Christianity has historically taken three basic sociological forms: the “Church-type,” which saw itself as an institution for mediating and conveying God’s grace to the world; the “Sect-type,” which essentially attempted to withdraw from the world in order to create an analog of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth; and “Mysticism” which focuses on one’s individual, unitive relationship with and to the Divine, and tends to form only loosely-structured affiliations between its practitioners.

    Troeltsch characterized the Standing Order of New England congregationalism as an amalgam of the Church and Sect types, which I would (and have elsewhere) argue received a rather substantial dose of “mysticism” with the emergence of Transcendentalism in the mid-19th century. Troeltsch likewise observes that at the beginning of the 20th century modernity had pretty much disassembled most of Christianity’s previous social structures, and that the pieces were scattered around the landscape like so many loose bricks waiting to be assembled into something new.

    If you’re not quite up to struggling through all 1500+ pages (including footnotes, which are often the most interesting reading) of Troeltsch’s two-volume opus, I would recommend at least reading the Conclusion at the end of Vol II, and then thumbing through reading at random the parts that catch your interest. It will give you a whole new perspective on JLAs thoughts on the importance of voluntary associations, and on the relationship between “doing” and “being” in religious life.

  2. Dan

    Ecelectic Cleric @ 2 — Thanks for your suggestions on Troeltsch, which I hope will be useful to other readers of this blog.

    However. You write: “…if you really want to understand JLA…” That implies that you can’t really get to know a text without knowing the predecessors that the text’s author drew upon. But if that’s the case, I’d also have to read Troeltsch’s primary inspirations, and their primary inspirations, and so on back — and how far back would I have to go before I’m done? I suppose this becomes an argument in philosophical hermeneutics — I’m arguing that one can engage a text directly, without a lot of ancillary or antecedent material; you’re arguing that full understanding requires knowledge of at least some ancillary and antecedent material (actually, 1,500 pages is quite a lot of ancillary material). Interestingly, in a somewhat parallel argument, some of the Latin American proponents of liberation theology have said that you don’t need a whole lot of Biblical scholarship to be able to read the Bible; rather, you need to be able to read the Bible and apply it to your everyday world (and yes, I’m oversimplifying, but you get what I mean).

    I guess I’m not that devoted to James Luther Adams. He’s a pretty good writer and thinker, but not enough so that I want to read everything he’s written. OK, now you can prosecute me for Unitarian Universalist heresy…..

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