The Dream of the Green Hill

January 20, 2010 | 19 comments
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greenhill1About fifteen years ago, I had a dream. In my dream I saw a green hill with several people silhouetted against a cloudy sky. These figures were engaged together in various activities, some speaking, some playing or dancing, and some resting. The clouds in the sky moved quickly by, like in a fast-motion movie, which I understood to signify the passage of time. Then I woke up.

Although the dream was brief, its images — the people, the hill, and the sky — have stayed with me. The attitude shared by the figures on the hill was one of deep peace and joy. Finding no greater happiness than in the company of my family and friends, I have been working to make the community of the green hill a literal gathering in my life.

I am apparently not alone in my desire to live in a rewarding, purposeful community. Eco-friendly groups and religious fundamentalists have achieved a dramatic increase in intentional communities over the past two decades. A quick look at the Northwest Intentional Communities Association directory shows over 200 communities just here in my beloved Pacific northwest. However, I am struck by the absence of an LDS presence in the intentional community movement — this really seems like the sort of thing Mormons would do very well. What influences have acted to discourage the saints from building their own communities?

First, we are looking forward to the future Zion of the New Jerusalem. The expectation of a New Jerusalem saps the zion-building impulse in two ways: it implies that the work will be done for us, and it instills a vague fear that building a zion is the responsibility of church leadership and would be an inappropriate pursuit for the membership.

Second, intentional communities carry a lot of cultural baggage. They conjure images of hippie communes, nudist colonies, and fundamentalist compounds, among others. Mainstream members eschew these strange lifestyles and situate themselves comfortably and firmly in middle-class suburbia.

Third, and related to number two, the principles of individualism and private ownership are highly prized among church members. I recall a talk given in my ward a while back where the speaker listed “ten principles the saints should strive to follow”. The first nine principles were fine and predicatable — honesty, scripture reading, temple attendance, etc. — but the tenth principle was, I kid you not, “home ownership”. More surprising than the sentiment expressed, however, was that it was accepted without comment. By idealizing [suburban] home ownership, we create a culture of isolation and self-sufficiency that is at odds with the community gathering impulse.

Fourth, diversity. Communities are made of people, and people come in a wide variety. Can we accept the fact that building a community eventually means that we will be associating with people who look/think/act differently from ourselves?

Fifth, community building is a skill that we’ve lost. Once you’ve gathered the people together, what do you do with them? How do you unite and direct them? How do you create a community infrastructure that is flexible enough to meet the needs of a diverse humanity while being effective enough to respond to and resolve problems? What kinds of core activities and events work well in bringing people together, transforming a “neighborhood” into a “community”?

These are some of the questions I hope to explore in more detail during my time as a guest of Times and Seasons. I take Joseph Smith at his word when he says, “that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us [in the next life]”. Do we engage in fulfilling community relationships which make that a desirable proposition? If salvation is, at some level, a community transformation, then perhaps it is our responsibility to build the communities and friendships in which we could happily be engaged for eternity.

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19 Responses to The Dream of the Green Hill

  1. Stephanie on January 20, 2010 at 10:00 am

    What influences have acted to discourage the saints from building their own communities?

    I have two thoughts related to this. First, we do build our own communities through our wards and stakes. We’ve been told repeatedly (recently) to strengthen our stakes where they are at – build Zion where we are at. In fact, how many times do we lament as LDS that we rarely socialize outside of our own community of Saints?

    Second, we are told to live in the world but not of the world. To build our own communities apart from regular communities would take us more out of the world. It would also remove a lot of opportunity for missionary work. We need to build Zion by sharing the gospel and inviting others to join in our community.

  2. Dane Laverty on January 20, 2010 at 10:10 am

    Good points, Stephanie. I sympathize with the concern about removing ourselves from the world, and didn’t mean to imply that communities built by church members would be communities just for church members. I believe that there is a lot of potential for building intentional communities that address the dysfunctions of many modern conventional neighborhoods in a way that would appeal to all people, church members or not.

  3. Stephanie on January 20, 2010 at 10:15 am

    Oh, okay. I get what you are saying now. Thanks.

  4. Coffinberry on January 20, 2010 at 10:31 am

    Thanks for this. What I want with all my heart is to build Zion, and sometimes I wonder just how this is supposed to happen. I’m not waiting for leaders. The only thing I’ve been able to conclude is that I am supposed to actively create it in my home among my husband and children, and by extension among our/their friends and their families.

    BTW and FWIW, at least one vocal person in the intentional communities movement (resident at Twin Oaks in Virginia) was raised LDS. I don’t think he sees himself as a bridge between the two movements, though.

  5. Bob on January 20, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Welcome Dane. I am going to enjoy following this post. But I think you are going to have problems even getting folks to agree what is a “community”: Two people in a marriage, a Mormon Village, “Zionist” Israel, a baseball team, etc.? But indeed a good topic to ponder and discuss.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on January 20, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    A fine and thoughtful post, Dane; thank you.

    we are told to live in the world but not of the world

    I recognize this as counsel from leaders whom I accept as prophets (whatever it may actually mean), but is it, in fact, scriptural? The Gospel of John gives counsel to be “not of the world” in a couple of places, but I am not aware of any positive scriptural injunction for one’s “unworldliness” to be, definitively, “in the world.”

    My suspicion is that the “in but not of” formulation probably has as much to do with our religious culture’s deep pragmatism (being a radical separatist is hard) and individualism (communities will emerge in the context of the practical, economic, and personal choices which free individuals will make) as with anything scriptural. I’m in agreement with several of your other points as well (involving a loss in community-making skills, a degree of exclusiveness, and making a fetish of self-sufficiency), but the religious point is the most important, I think.

  7. Ray on January 20, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    Seems to me I recall some members creating an intentional community in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley a number of years ago. Anyone know anything about that?

  8. Raymond Takashi Swenson on January 20, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    I have no idea what an “intentional community” is. Is it something like the residential areas on a military base, which are made up of families in which one or both parents are serving, and it has an integrated hospital, schools, stores, recreation, and churches? Nobody owns a home in a military on-base community. On the other hand, it is unusual for someone to be in one specific location more than three or four years.

  9. WJ on January 20, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    While not positive scriptural injunctions per se, you could make a case that there is an implied scriptural injunction to be in the world, such as Jesus’s teachings that the faithful are to be the salt of the earth. Likewise, by example, Jesus and his apostles were in the world in rendering to Caeser that which was Caesar’s.

    I think the strong emphasis on self-reliance is a mostly positive attribute of LDS culture, though I think it can sometimes turn into selfishness, to the extent that we become unwilling to ask for other people’s assistance when we need it.

  10. Dane Laverty on January 20, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    Raymond, good question — “intentional community” is the generic term for any artificially created community. The term is generally associated with eco/green communities or religious enclaves, though I suppose it could also be applied to a military base or the corporate cities of my grandparents’ generation.

    In contrast, a non-intentional community grows of its own accord, like a suburban development or a downtown apartment complex. Its residents have no particular objective or purpose uniting them; they are just looking for a place to live.

  11. MarenM on January 20, 2010 at 9:41 pm

    You might like small-town Vermont. While not “intentional” communities, they are rather close to the kind of communities that used to exist a long time ago: diverse, close-knit, helpful.

    Also, it’s entirely possible (and very likely) that some of those new-fangled communities you mentioned contain members of the church. They’re just not advertising it because the common denominator isn’t religion, it’s something else.

    Home ownership has its benefits, especially for large or multi-generation families who are mini-communities.

    I’ve noticed that my ward here has this truly great way of acting like a united order via the ward’s listserv. You need a saw? You’re bound to find a ward member who’s willing to bring one to you- in less than an hour. Perhaps we’re honing our skills in a modern way right now and we might get back to the old-fashioned ways again later.

  12. sl on January 20, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    Although I realize it’s not quite what you’re talking about, I think the Church schools can come fairly close to this sort of community. Shared purpose. Mostly shared housing. Of course, the problem is the constant flux of students coming and going doesn’t allow for the building longterm communal relationships.

    Whenever I’ve daydreamed about starting such a community (not that I’ve ever gotten serious about it), the immediate problem that comes to mind is how you would define the purpose and scope of the project. Would it be no more than a clique of friends who went in on 40 acres? Would you define some kind of United Order like experiment, or a kind of renounce-the-world vision of purity? Would you make it an open invitation or carefully screen participants based on “people like us”? If an open invitation, would you attract every fundamentalist white-horse-prophecy dude withing 500 miles?

  13. Bob on January 20, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    #12: “..how you would define the purpose and scope of the project..”
    I think you would each have a passion you felt could only be obtained by community(?) You would be willing to give of yourself to better the group.

  14. Dane Laverty on January 21, 2010 at 1:52 am

    sl, those happen to be some of the issues I’ll be addressing in my next few posts. Hopefully I’ll be able to present new and interesting ideas for you as the series continues :)

  15. Velska on January 21, 2010 at 5:58 am

    In John 15, Jesus says, “ye are not of the world” and in John 17 he says about the saints that they are in the world, but not of it.

    So, yes, there is a scriptural basis for that expression in KJV language, but actually only in John.

    But community building needs to take a couple of things into account.

    First, a community should be inclusive, not exclusive; Joseph Smith really had this idea down right, when he said, that anybody who wants to live worthy of Zion is welcome, regardless of affiliation. So there needs to be rules and sanctions, but they need to be very bare-bones rules, not nit-picking micro-management.

    Second, everybody needs to have a say in community affairs; and no one person should be perceived the leader by virtue of something like a Priesthood calling. Otherwise it’s not a community, really.

  16. Cameron Nielsen on January 21, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    @15 Velska,

    …so when Zion is attained there will be no organizational heirarchy? I don’t think that matches up with how Zion as a literal community, or city, has been defined. Living worthy of Zion does involve following specific laws that align with general broad principles. I don’t see how a leader negates a community. In fact, most famous ‘communities’ in history have had a leader, no?

    I don’t think attaining Zion is that complicated. Many people in my ward are at that point IMO. They are friends with all their neighbors, are good examples, visit members and non members unofficially and officially to maintain relationships, help out, and have fun. They are kind to all, and do most of this privately on a personal level.

    It may not be easy, but I don’t think attaining Zion is very complicated. We can make our ‘unintentional’ community intentional by proactively getting to know people and interacting with them as Christ would.

  17. Michael Taylor on January 22, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    “Work toward home ownership: This qualifies as an investment, not consumption. Buy the type of home your income will support. Improve the home and beautify the landscape all the time you occupy the premises so that if you do sell it, you can use the capital gain to get a better home.” (Marvin J. Ashton, “One for the Money,” Ensign, Jul 1975, 72)

  18. John Hamilton on January 22, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Just an opinion here: I don’t see anything really wrong with the 10th principle being to strive for home ownership. We are taught to have food storage, to be prepared physically and financially for anything, and to be self-reliant. Our food storage won’t do us much good if it’s stuck in a house owned by someone else with the revolution hits.

    Anyway, I don’t know if I would make it the 10th principle, maybe a little further down the list, but it is still important to be independent and not beholden to others for our financial and physical well-being as much as possible. Mormons are by nature a little more independent that average, maybe. They made the arduous move to the West to be independent. Converts in the mission field are “rebels” in a way since they are fighting social pressures to conform.

    I’ve lived in home owners associations and I don’t particularly like them. If I want to paint my house pink or have a flagpole 2 cm higher than allowed, that’s my business. Well, to some extent of course. We got nasty letters from our home owners association threatening fines because, if you looked in just the right place, you could see our very small wood pile from the road. I don’t know who would want to live like that, but if they do, they’re certainly welcome. As for me and my house, we’re gonna do what we want.

  19. Dane Laverty on January 26, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    Michael and John, I agree that home ownership can be a wonderful, ennobling blessing. Perhaps I came down a touch too hard on it here. That said, I don’t think that it’s as universally good as, say, attending the temple or keeping regular prayer and scripture study and family home evening. Those are things I think every person in the world could do well to pursue. I wouldn’t say that home ownership is the right pursuit for everyone in that way.