Questions for community

A recent exchange with roses brought the idea of this post to my mind.  In our exchange, roses raised the idea of the faith community. In part of my response I asked some questions about this community. I’m interested in fleshing these out as an item of independent interest to me, only peripherally related to the other discussion. (Roses originally meant something more like the idea of faith, and here I’m riffing on something that came up in our dialogue, not ripping her position.)

I want to propose a set of questions that any community should be able to answer. I poked around for resources on a theory of community, and found only this, so if anyone knows of a better resource let me know. (Alasdair MacIntyre‘s After Virtue is in the queue, and will hopefully soon make an appearance in some posts. In the meantime, let me just say that I know I’m woefully uninformed.)

I take it as axiomatic that any notion of community involves boundary, a sense of who’s in and who’s not, and that this need not be hostilely exclusive, but is necessary for a community’s self-definition to be coherent and not vacuous. (So “I am a citizen, not of Athens, nor of Greece, but of the whole world” is incorrect if Socrates wants citizenship to reference involvement in a community.)

Finally, since terminology like ‘the faith community’ or ‘the math community’ is pretty well established and yet not what I want to describe, let’s do what we do in math when the terminology well runs dry and coin ‘strong community’ or, better, ‘community in the strong sense.’

Any community in the strong sense should be able to positively and substantively answer the following questions:

  1. How is community membership defined? What defines the community’s shared identity?
  2. How and where are social networks between members created and used? (Here we need real interaction, preferably but not exclusively physical, face-to-face interaction.)
  3. What commitments are expected of community members? More particularly, what responsibilities to they have to one another? (Real, meaningful mutual obligation is necessary for community in the strong sense.)
  4. What behavioral norms are expected of the members?
  5. What symbols, rituals, habits or language characterize the community?

Lest it seem like I’m cooking these up to end up with church as the only community in the strong sense, take as examples some subsets of the math community: the community as a whole, the dynamical systems (here, DS) community, the community of my department. On question 1: membership is defined around shared expertise, and the dynamical systems community is more like a community in the strong sense than the math community. For question 2: conferences (the yearly Penn State-Maryland cycle for the DS community), and local seminars, colloquia and afternoon tea for the department. For question 3: writing letters, giving talks, writing reviews for MathSciNet, refereeing journals, attending seminars, answering questions — all more pronounced at the more specific DS level than at the general math community level — and normal department requirements. On 4: cooperation, friendliness, professionalism, participation lightly characterize the DS community and much more heavily the department. And yes, for 5, there are rituals and habits. We all applaud twice after a talk, once when the speaker concludes, once after the question time, prompted by the obligatory “if there are no further questions, let’s thank our speaker again.” A (minor) symbol: no one puts their own name on a theorem; you only self-reference with an initial, M. or perhaps M—. (It’s truly remarkable to me how pervasive this bit of symbolic humility is.) Each department surely has its own little habits, and it’s clear that a common language not shared by the outsider characterizes math as a whole, it’s subfields even more strongly. (Technical language, yes, but other usages as well — ‘community in the strong sense’ is itself somewhat a tongue-in-cheek reference to such language.) These aren’t strongly formative things, but they are definitely indicative of close and initiated involvement in the community.

Conclusion: There is probably no such thing as ‘the math community’ in the strong sense as it totally fails on 2 and only answers the rest weakly.  The DS community has a much stronger claim to such a distinction, and a healthy department could very reasonably be community in the strong sense. What abut the faith community? I think there’s even less reason to believe there is a ‘faith community’ in the strong sense than that there is a ‘math community.’ Individual faith traditions, denominations or sub-confessions therein and local congregations could all exhibit community in the strong sense increasingly well. Those of these that I belong to, however, do not always (often?) do so terribly well.

A proposal: the word ‘community’ is very popular in church usage. But in Christianity, where community is not just descriptive of something we like when we have it, but where strong community is constitutive of the faith itself, maybe we should reserve the word only for something more like community in the strong sense, or our attempts to attain it.

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3 Responses to “Questions for community”


  1. 1 rosessupposes December 31, 2008 at 7:25 pm

    I really like your idea of a strong community. I think there are many different types of community, and even weak ones can have force (the idea of American, though played out largely in local contexts, still motivates a lot of people to act in certain ways and toward each other in certain ways). I might add to your definition a level of self-definition. Do you, meeting another mathematician, feel a certain kind of camaraderie different from, say, meeting a construction worker? Do you feel a different kind of camaraderie meeting a Christian than someone of indeterminate faith? Do you use different kinds of languages in discussion? Feel safer raising certain kinds of topics? Is there greater comfort meeting someone in your department or in your church than casually meeting a stranger in a public place (like a coffee shop)? I wonder also about how we might rate the communities for ourselves–concentric, cross-pollinating, adjacent, etc. And while some of our communities identify us, I like the idea/action better than “identity” because it contains that important kernel of responsibility.

    I think we could combine this effort with C&Ps desire for us to describe our Edens…maybe we could do a brainstorming session sometime?

  2. 2 ichsteh March 9, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    Sheesh, ya’ll are smart. The main reason I don’t read your blog more often is that I know it will be a chunk of meat requiring serious mastication.
    Stone, I agree that the word community is really vague, and I applaud your attempts to define a “strong community” in concrete measurable ways. But I can’t agree that strong community as you define it is THE church. Because 1 and 2 seem to exclude both a) the deceased (unless you want to talk about cult of the saints, which I am actually starting to be open to) and b) more than one at a time of most of the world’s major Xian denominations, since by and large, on the grassroots and I think in some cases on the official level, their members don’t interact with or make demands on each other. Or even allow non-members to take communion.

    Did ya’ll ever have that brainstorming session?

  3. 3 withastone March 15, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    I’m totally willing to include the communion of saints; reading your post brought that into focus for me. I don’t think (1) needs to exclude either of those groups. As for (2), perhaps we should regard strong community as a subset of church practice. Although I will say I might be inclined to prefer the local, denominational congregation to a really diaphanous notion of church, if forced to choose. (I don’t think we need to, by the way.)

    And, by the way, you’re just the sort of reader I’d like to have for this blog, so stop by more often!


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