I read a very interesting essay in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. Alain de Botton writes about the loss of a sense of community that people once had from church membership and involvement, and how he envisions a secular version of that community spirit.
Identifying community meals and rituals as elements that enable perfect strangers to establish community in the context of religious meetings, he speculates on how those elements might be used without the religious context. He describes “an ideal restaurant of the future, an Agape Restaurant” where people come together without regard for social class, family background, professional status, or ethnic background.
Rather than leave people to figure out for themselves how to engage one another in meaningful conversation, there would be written guidelines on how to behave, what happens when, and what kind of things to talk about. People would know that it was safe to open themselves up and talk about things that they usually kept to themselves or their closest friends.
I can’t say it couldn’t happen, but I am skeptical. The basis for community among believers is not communal meals or rituals, though those certainly help foster community. What draws people together from different walks of life, and creates a place where they do not need to posture or pretend, is transcendence.
For the Christian, it is the transcendent God who created us and redeems us, who calls us to Him and to life together. Our primary identity is as children of God, which makes us all brothers and sisters, rather than members of this or that social group. Even knowing that, we often don’t do too well in getting along with these other family members, which is why shared meals and rituals can be so helpful.
There are religious groups that have tried to maintain the community and some of the rituals while downplaying or eliminating the supernatural. I grew up in a UCC (United Church of Christ) church where belief in traditional Christian doctrine was optional. As long as you wanted to help your neighbor and work for peace and justice in the world, you were warmly welcomed.
Unitarian Universalists take it a step further, making any belief at all optional. They still have services (I don’t know whether they are called church services) which include music and teaching, and I’m sure they have some kind of shared meals. Some people find the sense of community they are looking for in these groups, I’m sure, but they don’t seem to draw a very large segment of the population.
Any group has some kind of shared purpose, and to that sense they belong to something that transcends their differences. Fans of a particular sports team don’t care much whether the people sitting next to them and rooting for the same team have anything in common with them besides that particular allegiance. People from very different backgrounds can be drawn together over a love of jazz, Shakespeare, model airplanes, or one of many other hobbies or interests.
I doubt that anything except religion has the same power to draw otherwise unlike people together to the same degree, however, because only religion claims all aspects of one’s life. When we share the peace of Christ with one another on Sunday morning, it’s not just an expression of our common faith and belonging to the same congregation. (Ideally, anyway – in practice I’m afraid it tends to become little more than an opportunity to say good morning to people you haven’t seen all week.)
Before God, we are nothing except what He has made us, and we can claim no standing except what He gives us. So we really are equal before Him, and we have no business deciding that we want to get along with some of the members of His family and not others. We do a very imperfect job of living that out, but we do it well enough that our sense of community is something that people like Alain de Botton can wish to emulate.
I suppose a group of people who do not believe in religion could decide to form a community to which they invite one and all, for the transcendent purpose of creating a sense of community which welcomes all people. I don’t think that community for community’s sake, however, is the sort of transcendent purpose that would get very far in getting people to drop the masks and boundaries that usually keep them apart.
If they succeed, however, I would say not that they have succeeded in creating community without religion. Rather, it would be because they succeeded in creating a new religion, in which community is their “higher power.”