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When Community Isn't

  • Mike Pohlman's Blog
  • 2009 Feb 10

[The following commentary by R. Scott Clark is republished here with permission. N.B. Dr. Clark's excellent point toward the end about the difference between a "conversation" and an "argument." Good stuff.]

The contemporary use of the word “community” has troubled me for some time. I couldn’t put my finger on it until today. It came to me during a drive across the the vast wasteland that is Nevada.

Folk routinely speak about the “online” community or the “this community” or the “that community” when what they really mean is “this faction” or “that interest group.” They don’t mean “community” at all. The emphasis on this use of “community” to mean “faction” or “interest group” is not on “community” at all but upon what distinguishes one set of interests from another. In philosophical terms the emphasis in this use of “community” is upon the many or the particular, not the one or unity.

I realize that there is a sense in which “this community” or “that community” is a sort of community but it’s interesting that, according to the Oxford American Dictionary anyway, the first definition of “community” is ”a group of people living together in one place, …all the people living in a particular area or place: local communities.”

-A particular area or place considered together with its inhabitants.

-A rural community.

The primary definition, which reflects the older usage, speaks of things that are not fundamentally voluntary. The last three definitions (which, for space, I haven’t given here) do speak of various sorts of associations that are primarily voluntary, i.e., those based on vocation or hobby or social or political agendas.

I realize also that there is now (though it has not always been this way) a voluntary aspect to location (place). Folk now choose where they live in greater numbers than in previous generations. Mobility of both literal and metaphorical sorts exists in a way that folk in earlier generations never considered.

Nevertheless, what troubles me about the dominant contemporary usage of “community” as a voluntary association is that the will (choice) has trumped all including nature or humanity. The older dominant use of community to describe a place in common to different sorts of folk is that it was defined by nature or giveness. It spoke of our community humanity. In a community, folk with different interests, different backgrounds, and different convictions find a way to live together on the basis of creation, on the basis of their status as image-bearers even if they are not conscious of doing so. Often it just happens.

Part of what bothers me about the new predominating use of “community” is that it seems artificial like the use of the word “discussion” for “debate” or “argument.” We’re not allowed to have an “argument” or even a “fight” any longer. We “discuss.” Rubbish. When people don’t agree and when they give considered arguments in defense of different points of view, that’s an argument. If it gets nasty, well, that’s a fight. I’m not defending ugliness but at least when two groups or individuals are having a fight they’re being more honest than when they paper it over with the euphemism “discussion” or even worse, “conversation.”

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but “conversations” occur between two friends or at least two friendly parties. The Oxford American Dictionary gives the first definition as “an informal exchange of ideas.” Fine. I don’t think it is unduly pugnacious to say that there is not a “conversation” occurring between the moralists and the confessionalists on justification. That’s an argument over the nature of the gospel, grace, the decree, faith, and the sacraments. I doubt that “conversation” or “discussion” is the best way to characterize what happens between Arminians and Calvinists. These are arguments or, if it is heated, then perhaps they are “controversies.” An argument doesn’t have to be heated to be an argument.

Behind all this is a concern that increasingly we are not allowed to speak the truth about what is really happening--a concern that there is an unhealthy desire to suppress important arguments that need to be aired fully and considrered thoroughly because there are important truths at stake.

R. Scott Clark is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California. Dr. Clark has published widely and blogs regularly at Heidelblog.