Like-mindedness

I’m still thoroughly enjoying Keith Thomas’s The Ends of Life. In his discussion of work as a source of fulfillment, I came across this passage:

In the early modern period, work and sociability were tightly intertwined. Women sat or walked together when spinning and sewing; and they chatted at the washing-place and in the market. Many married couples first met as fellow servants. […] Much work was still done within the household, on the farm, or in other little groups who knew each other intimately, shared the same values, and had plenty to talk about. [Emphasis added]

Now, I have often objected to the idea that like-mindedness is an essential part of community, since often it becomes a justification for including the folks we like and excluding the ones we don’t like. And when I so object I usually wield Bonhoeffer’s writings as a sledgehammer, since he was so clear about the need to transcend our differences with our brothers, rather than indulging them.

But the above passage reminds me that the search for like-mindedness, and the problems it gives rises to, belong strictly to the past hundred or so years. Most people for most of history have lived and died in small, tight-knit communities where like-mindedness was a given, for better or worse. So I need to be more precise, and note that while leaving your current circumstances in search of like-mindedness is unwise, the like-mindedness that God blesses you with in your current circumstances is something to be treasured. Corollary: like-mindedness is forged, not found.

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11 thoughts on “Like-mindedness

  1. “Like-minded” Democrat lawyers live in the same DC area subdivision. “Like-minded” Republican lawyers live together in a different subdivision in the DC area.
    Marketeers are able to advertise and market according to zip-codes (because we tend to group around similar people).
    So, as a nation, we have a tendency to live around those whose characteristics we share. Of course, socio-economic considerations play a part in where we live, as do other demographic characteristics.
    In my lifetime (born in 1956) I have seen a change in the racial constitution of areas; but, there are greater similarities among the congregated people than there are differences. (I once saw an old planning map of Austin that indicated where the city infrastructure was to be located and, consequently, where the different racial groups were to be segregated!).

  2. While what you say about Bonhoeffer is true, you forget that of course he chose to live with the like-minded: fellow Christians, most likely Protestants, and I bet ones of his own denomination or at least persuasion. That’s a lot of narrowing down about who he counted as a brother!

    I maintain that likemindedness is one of the keys of true community. You can’t be open to all comers and have community. And you can’t be non-discriminating about who is accepted or your community will go under. Feel free to throw the book at me… I know how to duck! :-)

    Love your whole essay on Bonhoeffer btw. That’s what brought me here.

  3. Vera,

    No need to duck. As Cindy Rollins points out, the keys to community will be found in living it, not talking about it. If you’ve found like-mindedness to be a vital part of community as you’ve experienced it, then I hope you’ll share the details so we can learn from them.

    For my part, I’ve found that like-mindedness has little to do with the health of a community. Things like selflessness, kindness, interest in others, forbearance, and tact are what facilitate deeper relationships, while rudeness, narcissism, impatience, cruelty, arrogance, cliquishness, insecurity, sycophancy, and pride will tend to keep them shallow. Differences in outlook, even radically different ones, are just as able to enrich a relationship as they are to preclude one—as long as we are willing to tolerate and even appreciate those differences.

    The real danger to community, I think, is not like-mindedness itself but insistence on like-mindedness. It requires us to decide in advance what wisdom is, instead of working together to grow in wisdom, something that is an excellent project for a community to take on.

  4. I have definitely found likemindedness as part of it. Let me describe my first community: 2 long low apartment houses, about 36 households in all. River running by. A big community garden. A child pack I was part of. Train tracks bordering on the other side. Community spaces down in the shared basement… we’d have puppet shows and the like. The neighbors really liked one another, grownups would sit and sing by evenings… we kids were always being invited over to one another’s place. People took care of the landscaping and the houses together. We were all comfortable together, we liked one another. The older kids took care of the younger ones outside.

    We were all part of a likemindedness: nothern Moravia, reasonably well off, same culture and same education… similar values. I think this part is important… over there, it kinda happened fortuitously, but it doesn’t always. There were two other identical apartment houses over next door, same layout and environment, yet the neighbors were always fighting. Likemindedness is only one of the prerequisites. But I maintain that it is a prerequisite.

    The other things you mention are another key. Yes. But why derride the likemindedness?

    Differences in outlook can be good if the fit is there. If the fit is not there, then it will add difficulties on top of what the community is already dealing with. A community must have enough likemindedness to be able to exclude those who are not, as you say, able to be kind and selfless and forbearing but in fact sow dissention of one kind or another. Some people are not interested, or do not have the inner resources, to work together to grow in wisdom. That’s why monasteries have novitiates to weed out those who do not fit…

    Are we talking past each other? I am trying to find out why people are so set against likemindedness in the American culture. It has become some sort of a PC thing, it seems… Yet the successful communities that do exist, Anabaptist or very small towns, are likeminded. ?

  5. One more thought… are you concerned that when people look for likeminded folk to live with, people with whom they share values and interests, a sense of kinship, and whom they like… that they will then not take in “the least of our brothers” who will forever be left out in the cold?

    Or do you mean it in the sense of needing to take in people who are really different from us so that we expand our horizons, as urban, sophisticated people often mean it?

  6. Vera,

    I am trying to find out why people are so set against likemindedness in the American culture.

    This is probably not a good place to look for an answer to that. My views on community are very different than those commonly found in American culture.

    You can’t be open to all comers and have community. And you can’t be non-discriminating about who is accepted or your community will go under.

    True. But I don’t think like-mindedness is the right criterion to use for such discrimination. Amiability is the key—are the parties involved willing to get along despite their differences. Because differences will always exist.

    We have known families over the years who are very close to us in thinking, yet it has been the minor (to us) remaining differences that have decided them to keep their distance. Sometimes it’s something in our thinking that they are not willing to overlook; we’d be perfectly happy never to make an issue of it, but they choose instead to take offense. Sometimes it’s because we aren’t sufficiently enthusiastic about their own enthusiasms. Such folks are long on like-mindedness but short on amiability.

    On the other hand, we’ve developed strong relationships with families and people who are very different from us, but also similar to us at some points, and are quite willing to overlook the differences in order to build on the similarities. We have friendships with older folks in the community that are based mostly on our willingness to grant them the respect that their age and experience merits, and their willingness (eagerness, really) to share their wisdom. And we have friendships with younger folks in a very different social and spiritual space from us, based on our common interest in simple living and our lack of background in it.

    Those friendships are built on common interests, but what makes them go is amiability, an inclination to befriend people and a mutual willingness to overlook and avoid matters which might prove to be obstacles. We are quite capable of befriending atheists, or unmarried couples, or folks who think homeschoolers or agrarians are oddballs, as long as they are willing not to make an issue of those differences.

  7. Vera,

    are you concerned that when people look for likeminded folk to live with, people with whom they share values and interests, a sense of kinship, and whom they like… that they will then not take in “the least of our brothers” who will forever be left out in the cold?

    Yes, not so much for the sake of the “least of our brothers,” but for the sake of those who neglect them. Dealing with such folks is an important part of our sanctification.

    Or do you mean it in the sense of needing to take in people who are really different from us so that we expand our horizons, as urban, sophisticated people often mean it?

    No. Your horizons will be expanded by overcoming any kind of difference, whether exotic or mundane. No need to go searching abroad for differences to overcome, they are usually staring you in the face.

  8. Ah, I just meant that sometimes I still don’t quite feel like an American despite all the years I’ve been here. Some things just keep on baffling me. I thought perhaps you as an American… but I see you too are baffled! :)

    Least of our brothers & those who neglect them… I quite agree. But you need a large and stable community for that. Elmo Stoll took them in by the shovelful and floundered badly. In the end, he had a heart attack when chasing a mentally ill newcomer, I hear. Then the community folded.

    After thinking about it, let me see if I understand you. You say you are willing to befriend atheists… but if you were gathering up a tighter community, a community of true sharing, would you take them in? It’s one thing to be neighborly to a variety of people, and quite another to take them in to a community bound by trying to make a life together. So perhaps you are saying that such a tighter community is not right? I am thinking of folks who throw in with each other and share — to some, more profound, extent than even the neighborly neighborhood — their livelihoods and fates.

  9. Vera,

    Did Elmo Stoll’s Christian Community fold due to a lack of like-mindedness, or because of what Bonhoeffer calls visionary thinking? At the end of this article by Stoll about Christian community, a former member of the community adds these words:

    Elmo was an extraordinarily charismatic and gifted speaker. He had a way of drawing people in, making them feel understood and accepted. Really that was part of the reason the Christian Community experiment failed. Everyone, both from plain and non-plain backgrounds, with notably divergent opinions all around, thought Elmo agreed with them. The Old Order Mennonites thought Elmo was on their side, the German Baptists had their own ideas, the Amish theirs, and some of the non-plain their own. (But the “seekers” – non-plain background – had no one in leadership therefore really no voice. So contrary to popular opinion, it was not the presence of seekers that doomed the experiment.) There was a wide array of thoughts and goals, each with strong and forceful voices behind them.

    Everyone … thought Elmo agreed with them. This is astonishing, given that the people involved are not only committed to simple living but from the same very narrow slice of Anabaptist thinking. And yet agreement in thinking, i.e. like-mindedness, had taken on such a vital importance in their community that the relatively small differences separating them ended up destroying the group.

    There was a wide array of thoughts and goals, each with strong and forceful voices behind them. I have to ask: if you can’t find like-mindedness among Old Order Mennonites, Old Order Amish, and German Baptists, how far do you have to narrow the boundaries of your group in order to insure like-mindedness?

    I would look elsewhere for the cause of their failure. I suspect that they failed because they were far more committed to thinking alike than they were to living together.

    You say you are willing to befriend atheists… but if you were gathering up a tighter community, a community of true sharing, would you take them in?

    I think so. A thriving community strikes me as a diverse thing, not a uniform one, where people of different inclinations are able to establish and strengthen bonds with different people in different ways. Will I be able to form a deeper bond with the atheist who homeschools his children, or the Christian who thinks homeschooling is irresponsible? The answer is that I can form bonds with both, in each case built on the things we agree on, and the depth of the bond will depend more on our amiability than on our agreement or disagreement.

    One more thing. Godliness is certainly more important to me than homeschooling, or any other human thing I might share with an unbeliever. But sharing about God may in fact be less important to me than sharing about human things like homeschooling. Godliness has more to do with who I am than what I do, and I think communal bonds are built on what we do.

  10. I have heard a variety of stories on why things failed in Cookeville. One is that Elmo was unable and unwilling to restrain his sons from getting privately rich. He also did not seem to trust anyone enough to train leadership to come after him, and when he died, one faction chose one of his sons, and the other faction was incensed by it and chose someone else. Then yet another part was the chaotic nature of what Elmo was trying to do… I heard that the question of how to baptize kept being revisited over and over with each newcomer family, and the decision to sprinkle made the dunker Brethren unhappy. (I have no idea why it wasn’t perfectly fine to let the new convert choose?) So what happened over time is people felt that they were stuck in place, having to deal with the same things over and over. Plus they had a constant influx of very needy people coming in as they heard about the place, and Elmo was loath to turn anyone away.

    You are quite right, of course, their differences were small to an onlooker. I think what you say about being more committed to thinking alike than living together is spot on.

    I am basically with you. Once you draw the (reasonably) likeminded to you, let go of the vision and doctrine and let amiability and love take over. That’s what I am thinking, anyways. Otherwise, people will always dwell on more and more minute differences of outlook and ruin things.

    There is another good source for Cookeville besides the excellent Ira Wagler articles. A published article in an obscure journal by a southern prof who was following the community for a number of years. If you are interested, I can dig it up.

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