What Exactly is Community? | Gathering Around an Absent Christ

Whilst doing some sessions at St John’s College in Durham recently, the question of what community is was raised. There’s a whole lot of talk about ‘living in community’ and ‘faith communities’ and going out to plant ‘missional communities’ – but whilst a lot is written about what faith and mission may be, there seems to be a tacit understanding of community, and the word is often used without much thought – something I’ll admit I’m guilty of too.

Community is, at its most basic, people sharing something in common. This ‘life together’ might be geographical – sharing the same place – or tied to some other interest, like a local club or society. The strength of community is proportional to the importance of the thing held in common.

Christian community is, however, called to be something different. Where community draws people into commonality around a shared place or interest, Christianity draws people around…an absence. At the centre is an ascended, transformed, disappeared figure.

Let’s be clear about this: as Christians we do not gather around Christ. Though we may metaphorically talk about Christ being present with us, this is not physically true. Remember: it could have been. Jesus appeaered in flesh and blood after the resurrection, and shared life with his followers for a short period of time. There is no reason why this could not have continued, but it didn’t: Jesus left.

The Zizekian understanding of this – which I think fails to deal with the post-resurrection appearances properly – is that on the cross God really did die: we are left to take responsibility for our actions in the absence of a Big Other, and this draws us into community.

I’d want to modify that in the light of the resurrection: God has not died, but has chosen to be paradoxically present-absent, and thus chosen to leave us to gather around an absence. Why? Because it is only by gathering around absence that we begin to care for the other.

Communities that form around a present commons tend to work to protect and enclose that commons. This is the history of priestly religion: we gather in the holy temple because this is where our special common grail is. What is distinctive about Christian community is that it gathers around this paradoxically present absence. The resurrection thus entitles us to hope, to faith in the Big Other, but denies us the opportunity to collapse this into an enclosed religion that simply serves those on the inside. It is the absence – the divine ‘black hole’ as it were – that creates the gravity around which we gather, but with nothing at the centre we cannot enclose it, and are thus urged on by the present/absent spirit of Christ to serving those who are other.

To be honest, I think this is something that has been very rarely modelled as it is too challenging. It requires us to be the true atheists – to live as if there were no God – and thus to be the god that the other requires.


18 responses to “What Exactly is Community? | Gathering Around an Absent Christ”

  1. Maybe I’m missing or misunderstanding something, but doesn’t this disregard the presence of Christ among us through the Holy Spirit? Admittedly, that Spirit moves physically though the Church, but it is Christ that is present in the gathering together of two or more and not simply us being gods to one another. Maybe I’m being nitpicky, but it seems like an important distinction. God is not the good we do, but the good we do is by God at work in us, through His Spirit. So, we live by the power of Christ’s Spirit and not as if there were no God; we live in the promise of Jesus that “I will be with you always”, and not just metaphorically.

    Not sure if I’m making sense or whether we’re in disagreement at all. Just looking to understand this better.

  2. Interesting post – but I too would want to put Jesus in the middle of all Christian gatherings through the Holy Spirit. Depending on how sacramental you would be, you might also say that he is present during communion – how present, of course, is an issue even the Reformers disagreed over.

  3. Like this a lot. Your provocative language does lay bare the stark challenge at the heart of Christian community… Your rhetorical flourish “to live as if there were no God” is the only part that trips me up, as opposed to uncomfortably prodding me in the ribs. It serves the purpose here, but I’m going to need an “as if” to live by with a bit more content…

  4. There’s a paradox to live within here. We live ‘as if’ there is no God because it ends up being more god-like than living as if there was. This is perhaps at the heart of Jesus’ cry of abandonment: becoming the atheist on the cross.

    And the essence of this absent/present paradoxical life is the Holy Spirit – this is precisely the point. We talk about the Spirit being among us when 2 or 3 are gathered – but I think we too often collapse the paradox that exists there: being ‘Spirit’ means there is nothing there – and yet being Spirit there is.

    The alternatives make the point well: if there was a physical Christ to gather around, we would do nothing other than circle inwards, wanting to be closer and closer to the centre. This would lead to violence and exclusion. If Zizek is right and God truly dies, then I don’t believe that the ‘radical communist community’ he sees in the early church would have flourished in the way it did.

    This links with the section on ’embracing death and forgetting resurrection’ in Other… and is something I’ll be expanding on in my next book.

  5. Ah-ha, yes it is a paradox/oxymoron. I’m with Chesterton, I think these paradoxes are actually beautiful and what makes the whole thing believable. One could also say that it might be possible to construct a view that sees belief in the presence of a benign deity as being beneficial/comforting – even if it isn’t true. But that then stretches the definition of truth to breaking point. On the other hand, if it is true, this is a very strange way for the deity to show his presence – by not showing it. And I think that unless you recognise that you walk the tightrope between belief and unbelief without falling one way into self-absorption and the other into cynicism, then you’re not really paying attention.

    By the way, Žižek rocks. I just wish he’d slow down a bit.

  6. This really reminds me of Peter Rollins’ parable of the community that formed immediately after the crucifixion, but left Jerusalem before the resurrection. For centuries they remained followers of Christ. When Christian missionaries finally reached the community, they were delighted to tell them that Christ had risen. But was that news really good news for the community?

  7. Sean Witty


    I appreciate how you address resurrection in light of Zizek’s Christology. I’m wondering how the mystical is appropriated in this framework. I’m thinking here of Kyriacos Markides’ work with Eastern Orthodoxy and what might be considered ‘paranormal’.

  8. Paul Northup

    Your very helpful post reminds me a lot of where Bonhoeffer got to in his thinking on Christian community and his commitment to living before Christ as if Christ were not in the world. I’m struggling to remember, but he wrote something about God having been pushed to the edge of our world, leaving us to make the best of his absence. (Huge and inaccurate paraphrasing, sorry.) Bonheoffer does say some very hard-nosed yet inspirational stuff about the Christian delusion of what community means which are very resonant with your trajectory here.

  9. rodney neill

    What narrative story/ communal pracices can sustain and nourish a faith community which is countercultural to the dominant cultural stories of materialism and consumerism in modern Western society which shape and influence us?

    Does to live as if there is no God mean joining the local train spotters or gliding club etc where the issue of God is irrelevant? If God is irrelevant as he to most people in our culture what does the Zizekian phrase ‘to take responsibility for our actions in the absence of a Big Other, and this draws us into community’ actually mean for our being in the world

    Against the backdrop of modern historical critical scholarship studies of the New Testament….Jesus becomes an atheist????

    Zizek likes to complicate and provoke …..where are the actual on the ground groups or communities that have Zizekian theology worked out in practice or is it just interesting thought experiments rather than any practical value??? (please do not quote ikon as I know that community well)

    Is Zizek simply guitly of projecting his Marxist beliefs onto the historical Jesus figure so what you get is only a reflection of his own beliefs in true liberal fashion!


  10. “Though we may metaphorically talk about Christ being present with us, this is not physically true.”

    Is this talk metaphorical or is it spiritual? I think there is a difference between the two. It is easier to write off metaphor as something “unreal” (though we know it is trying to express a truth). I would say that talk about Christ being present with us in community expresses a spiritual reality which is no less real than if Christ were physically (by which I take it you mean visibly, audibly and tangibly) present.

  11. Kester,

    I want to push back with Zizek against this formulation. Or at least the significance of it. Zizek argue over and over that ALL community functions from an absent center, that all communities that seeks to live in common actually have a phantom center which holds it together, usually an enemy (as you say in the next post). Usually, what is explicitly called the “common” bond is just a figure to disguise what the community truly gathers around.

    So as you argue, i’m not sure “Christian community” as you call it is anything different than community, at least as Zizek understands it. He doesn’t think there is anything particularly distinctive about Christianity except that it unveils the general human situation which is a constant persisting in “absence”. This is just Lacan (which is fine, I love Lacan).

    You say that if there is no center then it can’t be enclosed. But I would says that because the center is absent we (communities) are constantly battling to find some stability to ward off the frightening VOID.

    But would argue the reverse. Because Christ is the absolute fullness he in no way can be contained and therefore we can live in peace without boundaries. Perfect love (not absent love) cast out all fear, as James tells us.

  12. Rodney, I honestly don’t know of any communities who are effectively living this out… but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any! Ikon would be an example…if they had a more deliberate focus on social action rather than just transformance art. But perhaps no one small group can do everything.

    Geoffrey, I’m not sure I follow your formulation. I’d be happy to go with the statement that all communities may have a phantom centre: a centre that is not the actual centre that they are saying they are gathered around, and that the common bond is a disguise. But I’m not sure that that leads to all communities functioning from an absent centre.

    As I’ve said, I’d like to push Zizek on the post-resurrection appearances, as these are, I think, key to a Christian understanding of absent-centred community. His arguement that all the early church gathers around the void left by God’s death doesn’t deal with the temporary physical appearances of Christ – which mean that he could be present, but chooses not to be.

    Perhaps then Christian community is distinctive because it deliberately gathers around the phantom (Spirit), whereas other communities pretend to gather around something else, while actually gathering round something phantom. What I like about this is that – to get to RevSimmy’s point – is that ‘spirit’ is a dangerous area between real and unreal. And is radically different to Christ being physically present. Those who claim that ‘Jesus really is here’ really are being delusional.

  13. KB,

    Yes, it seems that we are in broad agreement I think. and i wasn’t saying Z. is right about Christian community, but that he is generally right about how communities gather.

    While you aren’t doing this (at least I can’t tell), let’s not break the integral bond between the Spirit and Christ. The absent center in which the Spirit dwells IS the fullness of Christ.

    Also, I really like the emphasis on the post-resurrection appearances. Those are too often just skipped over so we can start talking about Acts or Romans or something.

  14. rodney neill


    No wonder you cannot think of any actual communities….Zizekian theology is an interesting thought experiment but of no practical value. TBH I have no real idea what you actually mean when you talk about phantom Spirit,dangerous, unreal/real, delusional not here, absent centre distinctiveness of Christian communities.


  15. I disagree that it’s of no practical value. If it’s interesting in thought, it has an interesting application somewhere. Though it may not have a perfect match in real life, the ideas draw reality in new and better directions. Apologies if I’ve not explained the rest adequately.

  16. “To be honest, I think this is something that has been very rarely modelled as it is too challenging. It requires us to be the true atheists – to live as if there were no God – and thus to be the god that the other requires.”

    Good luck with that. Are you really ready to pay that kind of price? If you were, I’d suggest that you’d already be out there getting martyred daily instead of trying to change the world with ideas.

    The way I see it, you either be a moderate, and do what you see as ‘your bit’, ‘your contribution’, (for which there is no need of faith, one can have any faith or no faith and wish to contribute to the world), and hope to inspire others and change institutions and structures in the process, or you live true to your radical faith and stop talking and theorising and just get on with being radical and let whoever will, follow you.

    Are you a moderate or a radical?

  17. You’d already be out there getting martyred daily instead of trying to change the world with ideas.

    I think it’s unwise to talk about what one is ‘doing’ day to day on a site like this, so I’ll not comment any more on that. As for the moderate/radical poles you’ve set up, I’d disagree strongly. I think you’ve got a totally false distinction there. There are radical and moderate elements in people, and these may be contextual, depending on who is observing. I’m sure that to some I appear radical, whereas to others I appear moderate. The danger in following your line of thought is that…thought is eliminated, given no space to flourish, as only action is acceptable. And that’s a whole lot of nonsense.

  18. Yes, that is a good point about perspective. Maybe I am over simplifying it. I guess what I am saying is that I would equate a healthy moderate approach with a truly atheistic one where each person gives to the world freely as they choose or have been inspired to.

    When you talk about being “true atheists – to live as if there were no God – and thus to be the god that the other requires” that is a truly radical statement, and my question is what do you think that looks like? What are you proposing that is different? After all, the needs of the other are real and present… how much thought do you really need to give it? People have needs, if you really care and want to do something to alleviate it, well, go do it and inspire others to join you… why all this talk of a present/absent god who is/isn’t here?

    You say “It is the absence – the divine ‘black hole’ as it were – that creates the gravity around which we gather, but with nothing at the centre we cannot enclose it, and are thus urged on by the present/absent spirit of Christ to serving those who are other”. I don’t understand your reasoning here, or maybe what you are saying at all? Why should the fact that you are gathering around nothing/something urge you on to serve the other?

    Sorry if I just don’t get it, but it’s not clear to me at all.