The word “community” must test well in focus groups. It pops up everywhere. Pay attention to advertisements, and you’ll find that all sorts of people and businesses are claiming to be able to provide it to you. Just one example: I heard an ad on the radio last week from a local savings bank suggesting I go there for “community” – and here I thought the bank was just a place to keep my money.
I’m not the only one to notice how often the term community is tossed around. Casey Chalk had an article in Crisis this past week called “The Problem with Peloton and Other Faux Communities.” Peloton, apparently, is a self-proclaimed community in which one can commune online with other people around the world while pedalling a false bicycle that never actually goes anywhere . . . and the starting price is only $1,900. Chalk contrasts the simulacrum of community offered by Peloton and other online entities (such as “Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest of these digital worlds [that] actually operate as ersatz communities that allow members to maintain a curated, if not fabricated image of themselves”) to the true communion offered by Jesus Christ in the Eucharist through His Church.
Chalk raises some very good points, but I’d like to expand the discussion a little. His Crisis piece focuses on the falseness, the ersatzheit (if that’s a word), of online communities, but the problem is bigger than that. Some of you may be familiar with the Kurt Vonnegut novel Cat’s Cradle, for which Vonnegut created the word granfalloon. A granfalloon is an apparent community in which the purported commonality between the members is illusory or meaningless. The narrator of the story offers as examples: “the Communist Party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company—and any nation, anytime, anywhere.” Vonnegut himself in another place describes granfalloons as “a proud and meaningless association of human beings.”
Let it be noted that Cat’s Cradle was published in 1963, several decades before there was any such thing as the internet. All the same the term “granfalloon” took on a life of its own because people recognized that false communities were, to use the current expression, “a thing.” A big thing. It’s a fact that we have a powerful desire to join ourselves with other people, even if we need to invest an undeserved importance in meaningless commonalities such as geographical proximity, liking the same sports team, or riding a similar fake bike. We are constantly looking for community, but it seems hard to find anything that really satisfies us.
Vonnegut, a religious skeptic, was unable to offer any real alternative to the granfalloons. He does stumble upon a part of the truth, however: his novel features a contrived religion, Bokononism, which was created expressly to take advantage of the relentless human drive for community. Bokononism itself is just another granfalloon, of course, and a particularly cynical one at that. Religion, however, true religion at least, points us in the right direction.
The key to the problem comes from the stylus of St. Augustine*: “You made us for yourself, Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” We don’t always recognize our desire for communion with our Maker for what is. Perhaps more often, we are afraid of what it might require of us. And so we try to satisfy it with other things, including (but not limited to) the Communist Party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company—and any nation, anytime, anywhere.
That’s not to say there’s no place for community: our Creator put that in our hearts too, but it’s a matter of priority. Consider the following passage from the Gospel of Mark:
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love our neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)
The love of God needs to take priority. With our finite hearts and minds, however, we find it difficult to love the Infinite Creator of the Universe. That would seem to be one of the reasons the Second Person of the Trinity became Man. He is, as St. Paul tells us, “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), He gives us a human face to love.
That does not mean that our desire for community with our fellow men and women is wrong. Jesus tells us:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)
It’s just that our love for our fellow creatures doesn’t stop there: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40). We are called on to love God, together, through our love of each other.
A wonderful living symbol of this communal love directed toward our Lord is the way we gather as a community for the sacrifice of the Mass. The image is clearer in the traditional ad orientem Mass, where the congregation together with the presiding priest communally addresses our praise to the Son, represented by the Sun rising in the East. Pope Benedict has recommended that, in the case of ad populum Masses in which the priest faces the people, a crucifix be placed on the altar as a reminder that we are all there to direct our attention communally to our Lord, not to each other.
The point is that the Church doesn’t exist as a community for the sake of the community itself, it exists to bring us into communion with the Trinitarian God. Even fundamentally good and essential communities such as the family can’t do that (“If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” –Luke 14:26). Peloton, the Communist Party, and General Electric don’t even come close. Only the Church can offer communion with the Body of Christ. That’s why the Church is the one community on this Earth that is not, in the end, a granfalloon.
*In last week’s post “Welcome to Mission Territory” I referred to a certain quote from John Adams as “one of my two favorite quotes.” Well, this is the other, and by far the more profound of the two.
Feature image above: “The Catholic Mass” by Fyodor Bronnikov, 1869