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A commitment to community

Luther cut ties with monasticism; now Protestants embrace it anew.



Christian scholars have noted that since the Great Schism in 1054, when Christianity split between east and west, major changes in the faith have seemed to occur about every 500 years.

Martin Luther and Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church in the early 1500s. After that, things remained fairly unchanged until Catholicism's Second Vatican Council in the 1960s ? and today's “emerging church” movement, which has started to blend together several once disparate faith traditions.

Proponents of the emerging church movement, many from evangelical backgrounds, call this developing interfaith dialogue a “conversation.” In the past two decades, some of them ? part of what is called the “new monastic movement” ? have gone so far as to form themselves into “intentional communities” modeled on the ancient traditions of Catholic monasteries.

Themes of the emerging church and of new monasticism run prominently through the Peace by Piece Conference that students at Harding University are holding this week in Searcy.

In Little Rock, a Sunday school class at Christ Church has begun studying the new monasticism, and another group, comprised of people from several denominations, is considering establishing itself as an intentional community downtown.

Many in the new monastic movement trace its origins to the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and Nazi resister who was executed by the Third Reich in the last days of World War II. Bonhoeffer wrote:

“... (T)he restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this ...”

It is partly in response to that call for “a complete lack of compromise” that Dave Pritchett, Zachary Seagle, Kevin Lillis, and the six other Harding students are organizing themselves into an intentional community that they plan to locate, perhaps permanently, among the Dogon people of Mali.

The word “intentional” here signifies the undergirding belief that a life of faith cannot be cultivated in a haphazard fashion. Like monks and nuns in the Catholic monastic tradition, members commit to sharing “a rhythm of life,” devoting regular time to prayer, and doing work that honors Christ's instruction to “love thy neighbor.”

Some of the speakers at this week's conference in Searcy come from intentional communities that have been established ? as most of the new ones are ? in “resource-poor,” inner-city neighborhoods across the U.S.

One of the speakers, Ragan Sutterfield, who will be speaking on the relationship of food to theology, is from the group in Little Rock that is “trying to discern what form  a new monastic community might take here.”

Sutterfield, like the organizers of the Peace by Piece Conference, said his focus is on “seeking forms of life that allow us to live out our faith holistically.”

“That is a common thread to many of these new movements that seem to be emerging in Christianity: the idea that the Christian faith is not just something that you do on Sunday, and it's not like fire insurance, about going to heaven or staying out of hell.

“It's about how we live, day to day, in the world. It's about doing justice, caring for the poor, and creating communities of peace that welcome the stranger. And when we begin to think about how we might actually do that in our lives, we realize it's difficult to do on our own. We need communities that help us.”

? Mara Leveritt

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