Saturday, September 18, 2010

Can you have a spiritual community without God?

That sounds like a goofy question, I know.

I'm really asking it, though. There's a way I am attracted to the idea of being part of a larger spiritual community, whether that is six people that meet and eat/talk with one another, or a larger group. I like the idea of the same folks being a consistent part of my life. I miss that about church. I miss that "extended family" kind of feel about church.

I'm not, however, interested in being part of a spiritual community if that means I'm supposed to believe a set of things that everyone in the community is agreeing is "truth." I not only don't miss it, I won't be part of something that bases its sense of community around believing a certain thing or things. What happens naturally in such a setting is those who don't believe or who are doubting end up feeling that they "need" to move toward believing whatever that thing is. Many times they just end up talking and acting like they do. Children who grow up in such a community "inherit" these beliefs; there is a built-in expectation that they will come to the same beliefs.

I specifically reject a lot of the evangelical beliefs that I grew up with, but it's not just those I take issue with. It's the idea that being part of a community necessitates that a person "get on board," "get with the program," "see the light," or however you want to term adopting a common set of beliefs specific to your spiritual community.

At the same time I understand that what makes a community a community is that there ARE some things the members have in common, and that usually, in some shape or form, involves certain goals, aims or desired outcomes. Religious communities seem to center around a set of beliefs about God, how to live here on earth and how to get to heaven when we die.

The community I'm imagining would function more like a family and would foster:

*Unconditional love and acceptance
*Taking care of one another
*Being there for one another
*Calming fears
*Supporting one another in pain
*Providing physical assistance when needed
*Eating good food together
*Finding ways to serve the people each community member comes into contact with in their daily life
*Consciously showing love in intentional ways even/especially when someone isn't "doing right"
*Holding onto one another
*Wanting/trying to understand one another
*Looking for the unique good/gifts in each community member and finding ways to help them express those
*Kissing babies
*Providing rites of passage for young people
*Older people come alongside younger people
*Making sure the elderly are not alone
*Making sure single moms (and dads) have support in all senses
*Doing stuff together
*Hanging out together
*Being silly together
*Eating good food together (Wait...did I mention food already? Oh, well! Even more food, then!)

I could go on, but that's a list of things I feel deep down inside that each and every person should have. It's a list of things that I want. No ONE person can provide that for each of us. A spouse can cover a lot of those. A best friend can cover a lot of those. But no one person can provide all those needs, all the time.

And yet, we need those things. We long for those things. As you read that list, I am confident your heart whispered, "Yes..."

Desire for all those things is common to all human beings and the beautiful thing about it is that we don't just all DESIRE it, but we are all capable of giving/being those things for another!

Even if I look at the biblical account of Jesus' life, I see a guy who was talking more about this "community" and modeling how to live out my list above. Jesus' term for this "community" was "the kingdom of heaven." I don't see or hear him going around indoctrinating people or asking them to join a community based on common beliefs.

 Going back to my original question: Can you have a spiritual community without God?

I'm not suggesting that I would prefer an atheist community. Even that would be a group of people coming together because they agree on not believing certain things and believing other things. I'm asking if those "agreements" about belief in God can be left outside the community's organization/focus. I'm asking if there can be a spiritual community that would nurture an atheist, an Buddhist, a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, an animist, etc. equally well.

I can imagine such a community. I really can. It's not so much that we wouldn't talk about God. Of course we would. But when the focus of the community is loving and understanding one another, not indoctrinating or trying to change one another, so much is possible in a connecting, relating and nurturing sense.

It's mind-boggling to contemplate. And stunningly beautiful.


Sharon said...

A great big YES!!!

What you describe sounds like the Jesus revolution of what community was all about. Not that Jesus alone owns that, but think of the times that Jesus asked people to believe a certain thing. He didn't. The Jesus way, which drove the religious establishment crazy, was "loving and understanding one another, not indoctrinating or trying to change one another." The result was, indeed, that "so much is possible in a connecting, relating and nurturing sense," even miraculous things.

When doctrine or religion or church or anything else in all creation gets in the way, then it's not God (Life, Love, Shalom) who goes away, it's we who have lost our way because we had to "agree" on God things that we have no business trying to nail down in the first place.

I'm cheering you on! My heart leaps because it knows that you are onto something important and eternal and totally life-giving and, yes, "stunningly beautiful." I call that "God" but I don't think that it's required. You have described exquisitely the yearning that we share in this human existence and what might scratch that itch.

Not preaching tomorrow, so excuse the mini-sermon-ish outpouring. I look forward to more from you, as always!

Ray Hollenbach said...

What a challenging and thoughtful post, Cheryl. And what a sweet list: who *wouldn't* want those things?

Put me down in the "yes" column as well, and here's why: We can have a spiritual community without God because we are spiritual beings, made by God. He leaves the choice up to us whether we invite him to the party or not. Either way, our spirits need and crave the kind of connections you are writing about.

One of the great shortcomings of Evangelicalism in the last 75 years is the foolish, mistaken idea that doctrinal conformity is somehow the same thing as relationship, love, commitment, and family. Orthodoxy, as embraced by the Western Enlightenment mindset, engages only the mind and never touches the heart. When questions and doubt are pushed out the door, honesty and relationship goes with them.

But please permit one caveat: community apart from God has a significant downside. Our human resources are limited. Even on our best days we fall short of the ideals you presented. We find ourselves valuing these things, and yet unable to sustain them over the long haul. Community without God would indeed be spiritual, but it would be the spirit of humankind. When Jesus presented the hope of the Kingdom of Heaven, he made it clear that only the Holy Spirit could sustain us in that realm. I love Paul's definition of God's Kingdom in Romans 14: 17: "For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of rules about what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."

Peace to you, and my prayer is that you have or will find true community!

Peter J Walker said...

Great post, and a lovely list for community! I ABSOLUTELY believe we can have community without homogenous belief. One of my closest friends is agnostic, and he calls the time we spend together "fellowship." It's one of the greatest compliments I could receive from a friend.

Cheryl Ensom said...

Wow! Great comments! I'm struck again by how much I'd love to sit and have a "real" conversation over coffee, but I guess this will have to do. :)

Sharon, thank you for the validation/encouragement. It feels great to write what's in my heart/mind and then find that it resonates with others and that "it's not just me." Again, I guess that's a piece of that community we long for that's largely missing in my life. Online "community" is something very real and I have benefited from it greatly, but at the end of the day it seems a little pathetic that I'm sitting here alone on my couch, writing about community, and not busy with "peeps."

Holly- Girls At Heart said...

Wow. Finding a community was the driving force of my life for so long.... I longed for that "family" and moved all over the country looking for it. That desire is no longer there.

I can't put my thoughts down on all this right now. Maybe later. ♥

Cheryl Ensom said...

Ray, thanks for stopping by and commenting! I always enjoy your tweets and I know you and Kristin Tennant comment back and forth and I love Kristin! So I am not all surprised to find a connection with you, too. :) I am wishing we could have a face-to-face conversation about the spirit of God vs. spirit of humankind concept you bring up. There's so much there!

I think it might be helpful to understand the context of my response: I am kind of in revolt, I guess you could call it, against the Christian doctrine of "we are all nothing but shit without God's grace redeeming us." You know that one, right? ;) I know that's not how it's worded...I'm being facetious. The way I am accustomed to hearing it in Christian circles is in reference to the verse I still have memorized from Awana:

Romans 3:10 - "As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one."

Jeremiah 17:9 - "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can know it?"

I just can't buy into the whole "we're allfatally fucked up and without God redeeming our actions, thoughts, etc. we can't love someone else at all." I DO think that we have to experience love before we can give love, or at least, that we can love better when we have been loved better. But for me that doesn't translate into we can't love without God somehow supernaturally taking us over.

My experience is that people love other people better than God does. In terms of actual proof in the proverbial pudding, I have found that it is the mouths, hands, hearts, eyes, ears and bodies of other humans that love me in the ways I long to be loved. I've never received love from God.

Not only that, I've received love from non-Christians. And this is something I can say with absolute confidence: I love better now as a non-Christian than I did when I was a Christian. As a Christian, I did more of the "third party love," as one of my friends has dubbed it; he says third-party love sees a friend in pain and then "refers" them to God.

I'm not at all claiming to love perfectly or even "well" today. I totally suck at it. But I am saying I have experienced love, coming and going, in more profound ways since I started relating human-to-human, without mixing God up in it. ;)

Maybe I'm just needing to ride the pendulum to an extreme right now, Ray? I don't know. That very well could be. I do know I feel super-resistant to the idea that the human spirit is inferior to or not as loving as God's spirit.

Not sure if this makes any sense....

Cheryl Ensom said...

Peter, I love that your agnostic friend "fellowships" with you. :)

Here's what good ol' Merriam Webster says about "fellowship:"

Definition of FELLOWSHIP
1 companionship, company
2 a : community of interest, activity, feeling, or experience b : the state of being a fellow or associate
3 a company of equals or friends : association
4 the quality or state of being comradely

I like that first line. I suppose this is what I'm trying to say. Can we be more creative about the focus of our communities? Can we come up with something more useful than a club that agrees to believe the same theology/doctrine/understandings about God?

Here's one last thought. I sometimes wonder why Christians and other religious folks get so defensive about "fellowship" with those who don't share their beliefs....why is it not o.k. to just love/be with people and not try to change them? I know for a lot of religious folks the answer is that they need to be sure the other person hears "the truth" and isn't doomed to hell or a miserable earthly existence.

But can't God speak for herself/himself if he's out there with her/his "one truth?" Does she/he really need YOU to make sure everyone knows what you believe. What if you are in a group of determined-to-be-single folks and you are a big believer in the benefits and joys of marriage. Does that mean you can't "fellowship" with these single people? Doesn't it make sense that if being married is so freaking awesome you could just BE MARRIED and be yourself with your single friends without having to persuade them intellectually or with fear-based predictions of the loneliness their future holds if they stay single? It makes sense to me that if being married is really that awesome, your single friends would ask YOU more about it if they wanted to know. They'd be watching, listening, observing. They aren't stupid. If what you have is so fantastic that everyone should have it, I think it can speak for itself!

You catch my drift, I think...

Cheryl Ensom said...

I wasn't talking to YOU, Peter, in that last paragraph...I was just talking to the universe at large. ;)

Cheryl Ensom said...

Holly, I want to hear more whenever/if ever you want to share more, either here on in an email. I am curious if you were looking specifically for God-centered or belief-centered communities and if you think it's possible that there could be another kind of community that is centered around something else. This gives me an idea: I think I want to do a bit of research and see what other types of community there are and how they work.

Holly- Girls At Heart said...

Sorry for starting a thought but not being able to finish it. This is just such a super busy season for me! I think I'll be able to focus on writing again after this NEXT move. ♥

Ray Hollenbach said...

Hi Cheryl: Thanks for your thoughtful response. I've spend portions of my weekend (off and on) thinking about your questions. Now I need to take the time, organize my thoughts, and give you a response worthy of your heartfelt comments. I hope to do so just as soon as a make time to write them out. Grace to you, peace!

Cheryl Ensom said...

Holly, no worries! I LOVE unfinished thoughts. :) I just read a quote by Anais Nin that said stories are NEVER over. We just arbitrarily pick where to begin and end them, depending on things like audience, goal of telling the story, our distance from certain part of it, etc. But our stories never end. Anyway, all this to say, I love that we don't have to end with a conclusion, that life is not a 5-paragraph essay and there doesn't have to be a thesis statement! I'm so happy that you get to move to that sweet little farm!!! Just thrilled for you. We'll catch up when the chaos subsides. hugs...

Cheryl Ensom said...

Ray, thanks for so thoughtfully considering this. I'll be looking forward to talking more about it, but don't feel pressure. :)

David said...

Cheryl and Ray

Beautifully written.

Only as an ex-Religionist am I now able to see clearly that Jesus was against religion, religionists and religiosity. That is what the whole Matthew chapter 23 (especially verse 15)is all about!

He was in favour of exactly the OPPOSITE of religion, namely Cheryl's list above. That is why the religionists had him killed, and still today "kill" him by hiding the REAL Jesus from everyone.

Love and best wishes on your journeys


Cheryl Ensom said...

Love how you put that, David. I agree. :)

Erskien Lenier Barefoot Ultra Marathon Runner said...

Refreshing <3

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