More often than I would care to admit, I have allowed my personal fantasies about the perfect community to distract me from the beautiful, real-life community that is right in front of me. I’ve found that making community an abstract ideal is the enemy of real, flesh-and-blood fellowship. The idealized community seems so much bigger, so much purer, so much more cohesive and well-defined. Real human relationships can never live up to the expectations of the imagined community that we dream of.
Nor should they. Our ideals of community are so appealing precisely because they have more to do with our own desires and personality than with the needs and personalities of others. I imprint my own image onto the community, imagining it to think and act just like me, only bigger. My ideal community adopts all my ideology, loves all the same rituals I do, and feels called to the same work as me. The community of my imagination is not a community at all. It is my self writ large.
At least I’m not alone in this. The projection of one’s self onto others seems to be a general human problem. Stanislaw Lem expresses the dilemma in his science fiction masterpiece, Solaris. He writes, “We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is.” There is nothing quite so seductive as an image of the world that reinforces everything about who we are, never confronting us with the lives of others.
We live in an age where the fantasy of the ideal is possible in ways never known before. Both in person and electronically, we are free to fill our lives with an à la carte collection of sub-communities. One may be centered around a shared love of tennis, another around photography, or chess, or Russian literature. Most of us belong to dozens of interlocking communities, each of which focuses on one particular interest or aspect of life. How easy it is, in this age of pick-your-own communities, to avoid ever truly encountering the fullness of another human being!
With the possible exception of paid employment and immediate family, many of us have very few relationships that require us to truly bear the burdens of other people – to be confronted by the ways in which others fail to live up to our expectations, and to continue in relationship with them anyway. Even our faith communities tend to follow this same micro-culture pattern. We gather together on the basis of a shared interest in a particular form of spirituality, but there is often little holding us together beyond our projected ideals. When serious conflict arises, or when it becomes clear for whatever reason that the community does not live up to the individual’s expectations, we often simply disconnect. The faith community is a voluntary association after all, and if it is no longer meeting my needs, then I can go somewhere else!
Yet, I’m increasingly convinced that that God is calling me to be part of a spiritual family that does not simply dissolve every time we make each other uncomfortable. I want to be part of an authentic, holistic community – one in which I am confronted by the real lives of others. I want to be truly known, and to know others, though this will inevitably destroy my projections and fantasies about how life should be. When relationships get messy and my first instinct is to run, I want to be part of a fellowship that doesn’t let me off the hook and holds me accountable.
In this age of unprecedented individual choice, it is a radical thing to unconditionally bind one’s self to others. Yet, when I examine the yearning of my heart and the witness of Scripture, I do believe that this is the work that we are called to as followers of the risen Jesus: to live together as one body, united not in our own fantasies of the perfect community but by the amazing love and power of his Spirit in our midst.