The Supremacy of Voluntary Community

by Barry Creamer

communityEvery person experiences a tension between the desire to be an individual and to be part of a communityto act freely on immediate desires on the one hand, and to belong securely to a well-defined group on the other. But well-defined groups limit personal liberty. And personal liberties often perforate well-defined boundaries. Hence the tension.

Some cultures (and the worldviews defining or entailed by them) favor the individualist side of that identity, others the communitarian. That distinction is, interestingly, one of the most significant and observable distinctions between not only cultures, but even types of cultures. Historically, most (if not all) cultures were communitarian. But since the Seventeenth Century, to the extent that a culture has been influenced by the Enlightenment, it is individualistic. Many of the practices creating a sense of incommensurability between cultures are symptoms of nothing more than the cultures differences regarding how essential or extraneous the community is to defining the identity of the individualhonor killings, arranged marriages, and public executions being cases in point.

Certainly, some practices in communitarian cultures are wrong. The fact that bride burning is not inherently morally repugnant among some groups in India does not mean it is not morally vicious and absolutely wrong, even when practiced by those groups. The fact that abortion is not inherently morally repugnant among some groups in the U.S. does not mean it is not morally vicious and absolutely wrong. The point is that recognizing cultural diversity does not mean equivocating on moral reality.

At the same time, pretending one worldview has an intrinsic high ground on the other might also be a mistake. One unfortunate reality of every worldview is that it emerges among imperfect people who hold it in their imperfection. As an example, individualists give up some important aspects of accountability and its attendant virtuesespecially humility and healthy pride. Individualists often also lose out on the virtue of loyalty, or genuine friendship. On the other hand communitarians sacrifice freedom of conscience, and often lose part of courages virtue found in standing against the rest of a community. So there is no perfect solution, because there is no perfection in a fallen world.

Then the remaining question for those living in a free society, by which Westerners mean an individualist society, is how to rescue as much communitarian virtue as possible while sacrificing as little of the virtue of individualism as possible. One widespread practice points to an answer.

It is common for those who feel the pain of lacking a communitarian identity to tie themselves to a group with sometimes onerous obligations. When a fourteen-year-old joins the school football team, the individual becomes subject to rigorous exercise, verbal beatings, public humiliation, and otherwise avoidable peer pressure, all for benefits which are markedly communitarian. (The teams fans, by the way, do the same thing, but at a less intense level.)

The challenge, or marvel, or difficulty is how the voluntarily joined community gains any traction without destroying the individualism of its members; or, inversely, how group-aligned individuals maintain freedom of conscience without sacrificing the value gained from finding identity in the community.

The practical import of the above discussion cannot be overstated for believers in western society who align themselves with churches to address exactly the issues raised. Church polity, church discipline, and rescue for otherwise almost solipsistic believers can be found in what is probably the best solution to the communitarian/individualist divide in the present world: the free church. But thats a topic for the next post.

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