Following the Industrial Revolution, the household has been displaced as a centre of collaborative production and economic activity. Business has largely migrated away from the context of the home to the workplace. Family businesses and trades are less common nowadays: the child is less likely to be the apprentice of their parents, being trained to work with them and like them. Education has also largely left the home. Not only is the child less likely to learn their trade from their parents, much of the task of their more general education falls on the shoulders of professionals outside of the home environment.
With both partners in relationships now frequently working in full time jobs outside of the home, the space of the home becomes a place for retreat into private domesticity. Without a partner staying at home, the home also becomes less of a zone where the cycle of daily community and neighbourhood life occurs.
At the same time, technological developments have profoundly changed the character of daily family life. Where once shared routines of family life were essential for life together, and for the provision of heat, food, and resources, modern technology has freed us from many of these previously shared tasks. Where once the entire family could have different contributing tasks to the keeping of the hearth and the tending and feeding of its fire, for instance, now we just turn up the thermostat. The onerous and skilled character of tasks such as washing also led to the family becoming a place of differentiated roles in community.
The centripetal force of certain zones of the home has also been considerably diminished. The family meal table no longer possesses the same centrality for many homes. The ‘hearth’ means much less when every room in the house has warmth. Even the TV has been displaced, as children and parents increasingly have TVs and computers in their own rooms. In stark contrast to previous ages, when all members of a house would spend much of their time in the same room, we can go for hours without seeing other members of our households. The common places of the house have languished, while the private places have been filled out.
Even besides the essential shared routines of family life, the shared rituals of family life also seem to have fallen by the wayside for many. Daily family meal times and their rituals are easier to avoid in an age of microwaves and ready meals. More channels, means of recording, and TVs decrease the likelihood of shared family TV watching.
Alongside these developments, the last few centuries have also witnessed a weakening of our connection to place and to neighbourhood. Increased mobility and communications infrastructure enable us to move further away from the areas where our relatives live, and even live at some distance from our workplaces, while maintaining a form of contact. It enables us to travel for many miles to reach a church of our choice, rather than attend one in our locality.
A movement into cities has uprooted people from communities to which their families had belonged for generations. This loss of an enduring place within a particular community has hastened the privatization and concentration of family life in the nuclear family, and weakened the place of the family as a stronger presence in a community. The loss of connection to a particular place and community has also encouraged a ‘voluntarization’ of our relationships, as ‘given’ relationships play less of a role in our lives. Few of us will live in the same community as many of those with whom we studied in primary school for most of the rest of our lives. The uprooted nature of modern existence makes deep and lifelong friendship a rarer flower. The Internet accelerates these developments in several respects.
How might all of these developments affect our concepts of relationships and community? One of immediate effects has been the sentimentalization of family life, and the romanticization of marriage. When the family home is primarily a private realm of domesticity, detached from the economic, communal, and political spheres, the relationship between husband and wife is increasingly focused upon their romantic bond, and their relationship with their children upon their sentimental bond with them. As most people’s primary activity leaves the context of the home, routines and rituals of family life diminish, the space of the home becomes progressively more clearly apportioned into private rooms, and common spaces exert less of a pull, family life will start to focus on something called ‘quality time’.
Likewise, when one no longer works in the same place as one lives, or encounters one’s neighbours on a daily basis, when generational attachments to particular localities are left behind, and when our communities are almost all voluntary ones, the concept of ‘community’ is radically transformed, and few relationships are ‘given’ any longer.
In many Christian circles today, a lot is said about ‘community’, ‘intimacy’, and ‘relationship’. However, I wonder how powerfully such concepts are being mediated by our historical and social context and situation. In particular, I wonder whether these are often for us akin to the category of ‘quality time’ within the family. No longer having the unavoidable day to day reality of time lived with family and in community, we must create such time, a time which becomes charged with great sentimental significance, coming to bear the mean of the institution.
One of the interesting things about the category of ‘relationship’ as we are apt to employ it, for instance, is just how generic and formless it is. In the past, the bonds between parents and children would have a far more determined character, shaped by countless shared day to day activities, rituals, and routines. The child would also bear a much closer relationship to the trade and work of their parents, and to their position and status in the community. This bond between parent and child extended far beyond our modern sentimental focus to forge one’s identity, place in the world, and destiny.
While we believe that ‘intimacy’ is the most intense form of relationship that there is, it seems to me that in many respects it is a rather anaemic one, losing sight of the way in which some of the most meaningful and important bonds that have shaped people’s lives are drastically reduced by the imposition of such a concept. However, lacking a rich experience of the field of relationships, and investing most of the relational meaning of our lives in a very limited range of relationships of an increasingly undifferentiated form, we have lost the terms and concepts with which to explore the rich and multifaceted relational realm.
Perhaps excessive levels of talk about ‘community’ result from the concept coming into clearer focus as the reality departs. ‘Community’ for many denotes a feeling of togetherness, irrespective of a shared place, way of life, rituals, customs, norms, politics, and identity. As in the case of ‘quality time’ in the family, we feel a vacuum, which must be filled up in some manner. Where a common life no longer really exists as a historical fact, a feeling of togetherness must somehow serve as a substitute reality.
When talking about the relationships that characterize the Christian life, I wonder whether both our language and concepts of relationship have been weakened in a manner that makes it hard to appreciate what these things mean any longer. God’s revelation of his presence in and through a community that shares a deep and strong common life is not the same thing as that presence experienced in the ersatz ‘community’, where feelings of mutual belonging are often substituted for the fact. Similarly, the gravitational pull towards forms of religious expression focused upon intimacy, sentimentality, and romantic attachment may be a result of the fact that our relational palette has been considerably reduced by the character of modern life, as all close relationships start to become subsumed under the generic category of ‘intimacy’, and we no longer can relate to the forms of worship and piety that were meaningful in societies with a richer and finely differentiated relational matrix.