Sunday, April 11, 2010

Faith and Community

I suppose this could have been a comment on Rush's excellent post, but I've had these ideas rolling around for a while and I'm gonna use them, dammit! Also, it might be a bit long-winded for a comment. In any case:

On Easter Sunday I went to my brother's church in Auburn, Alabama. For those of you unfamiliar with Alabama, Auburn is a college town in the middle of farm country. Said farm country is in the middle of Alabama, which is itself in the middle of the Bible Belt. Going to church in Alabama is like watching Fox News, except that churches make no claims about being "fair and balanced." Let's be clear: I'm an atheist, progressive "intellectual" with longass hair and facial piercings; I tend to feel out of place in churches (and Mississippi in general). That said, my brother's church is not like other churches. Here's their website (half of my family is in the banner photo—my brother's the guy who looks like Jesus). I showed up looking—and probably smelling—like a dive bar, but no one cared except my mom. There were no pews; the small congregation (even that word doesn't seem to fit) sat around tables. They're non-denominational, fairly progressive, and very interested in the human aspect of Christianity; the "about" section on their website states that they "dream of becoming a community of Jesus-focused, relationship-oriented, real, passionate, artistic, casual, laughing, compassionate, inviting, and involved people." What strikes me about that statement as well as the church service that I experienced is that "Jesus-focused" is a relatively small part of the community they're striving to foster. Granted, it's the primary part, but it's not the only part, and that's very important. Take "Jesus-focused" out of their mission statement and it sounds like a great art collective.

Accordingly, the question I kept asking myself was why do these people need a deity to have this sort of community? Why does God have to be the reason to care about other people and treat them well? Almost everything that I heard during the service was firmly situated within Kierkegaard's ethical, universal sphere, even the overtly "religious" stuff. Why? Because the religious sphere is incommunicable. An absolute relation to the absolute cannot be put into language; it cannot be conveyed to any other person (which is why I call shenanigans on Kierkegaard's leap of faith, but that's another post altogether). So what do churches do? They attempt to universalize the absolute, putting an ineffable relation into words. This is why Kierkegaard was so down on organized religion. It seems likely that his answer to my question would be that these folks don't need a deity to have their community; in fact, their community has little to do with a deity other than common belief.

But that's what a community is, right? A group of people who intentionally coexist due to similar beliefs. Most of the time, these beliefs dictate action; we do certain things in certain ways because we (as individuals or communities) hold certain beliefs, whether it's doing good deeds in return for eternal life in heaven or simply because good deeds are preferable to bad deeds (a sentiment Nietzsche questions as much as he questions religion). In critiquing any community, then, we either take issue with the central belief of that community or with the actions that the community promotes. Though I don't share the Christian belief in a god, I don't have a problem with the belief itself; it's the actions of the community—which take place in the universal, ethical realm—which are subject to critique, at least from my point of view. In the case of my brother's church, I have little issue to take with the actions they suggest—like I said, if they dropped the Jesus part of their mission, I'd be all for it. That seems to suggest that maybe the importance of religious experience (that is, the individual, absolute relation to the absolute) to this community is negligible, aside from its classificatory function. These folks don't care about each other because they all happen to believe in the same god; they care for each other on a very human level—and their care extends beyond their membership.

I suppose that this has been a rather roundabout way of saying that I think my brother's church is totally fine. But the point to be made is that faith, beyond its function of nominal classification, really has nothing to do with groups of people. Kierkegaard was wary of organized religion because it actually waters down faith, making it available to anyone who wishes to partake of it. What's more, the church makes this democratization an imperative: the very idea of evangelism is to bring others to faith—sometimes whether they like it or not. That's not faith; that's the creation and proliferation of power structures—which are certainly not divine.


  1. Great points Mark. It is important to reiterate that faith is more of burden of the individual rather than a shared and organized experience with other like-minded individuals. What strikes me about the situation you described is the question that always pops into my head too is why God? I think the answer requires a historically loaded answer. Maybe it is the fact that they are organizing around an absolute something that you really can't argue about. Either you think God exists or he doesn't and if you're in the club then, well, you're in the club.

    What's weird is how hard it can be to organize around other ideas that are not god related, like art for example. How is it that we can get a group of people together under the same set of ideals without an absolute figurehead to idolize. I'm not saying that it doesnt happen. It just happens way way less, especially in 'Merrrrica.

  2. I actually really liked this post and agree with Charlotte on most of the items she brought up. It got me thinking about how easily various groups are formed around beliefs or values, or I guess faith? I'm not sure I'm phrasing that correctly but you get the idea. I think it is interesting the point at the end made about Kierkegaard and his suspicions of religion. It makes me wonder if indeed faith should be one of those things "available to everyone" or do we really have to work for it? How can we really define faith and if each person's faith is personal and individual how can we even begin to try and define it?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.