Family photograph from c.1905 taken in Vermilion County, Illinois.
Family photograph from c.1905 taken in Vermilion County, Illinois.

The Spirituality of Community

The most basic form of community is the community of all things. This is the community that includes you, your cat, your grandparents, the whales deep in the ocean, the stars that reflect on the surface of the ocean, and the ocean itself. For a theist, this is the community of all created things. Remembering this community reminds us of our connection to the rest of creation and of our responsibility to preserve and protect the environment.

globeBeing in harmony and enjoying a spiritual connection with nature is not about rejecting other people, city life, or signs of human habitation, it means being mindful of the connections between you and all that is around you. Although it is always pleasant to enjoy the raw beauty of nature without distractions. It is not a requirement of meditation that you go into some isolated place. It may be easier for you to meditate on a mountain side, but that does not make you any less connected to the plants on your own window sill.

The Community of Our Extended Family

The next most basic community is the one you were born into or that raised you--your family. It is often easier to feel love and respect for the whales spouting off the coast of Maui than it is to feel connected with your nearest family members. Our family community includes both our extended families (grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins) and our nuclear families. Even if your family is divided by divorce or blended in remarriage, you share a complex mix of biology, experience, and history with one another. Even adoptive children learn to eat the food their parents eat, absorb the values their families have, and establish similar families to what they grew up in.

Your family of origin, however defined, is the community that gave you your values, your language, your customs, your most basic understanding of who you are and what you can expect of the world.

This is the reason that many of us have so much trouble with our families. And why sometimes family get-togethers are stressful. Each of us is daily struggling to figure out who we are and what we can become and older members of our family, had plans and expectations for us even before we were born. You may not live in a culture in which your father and mother will pick your life partner for you, but other family members have dreams and hopes for you and plans for your future family none the less. Growing up often includes a struggle with accepting, adapting, or rejecting those expectations.

Communities That Are More Abstractly Defined

It is obvious that you are part of the community of all creation, and you have clear indications of who and what the community of your family is, but then come more complex concepts of community. These are communities that require us to understand our membership in more abstract ways--our country, our race or ethnicity, our religious group, or our socio-economic class. Some of the lines that include people in or out of these communities are clear but most require a lot of definition and some are so permeable that people move in and out of them all the time.

Still other boundaries dividing communities--like lines on a map--exist only in the agreements between the groups on either side of that boundary. No matter what we think of these abstract divisions, these communities are important for they have also provided us with the stories, language, and history that we build on as we advance through life.

The problem here is that in order for these communities to become strong they usually become more and more restrictive--they make up hard and fast rules of what is required to be inside them. These communities can become abusive to those outside of them and coercive to those within them. All in the name of group identity. There are times when instead of giving us a foundation on which to build they can limit what we think, dream, and become. They limit our access to alternative paradigms.

Spirituality is not passivity or acceptance of the world as it is. It is about being thoughtful about what our responsibility might be to preserve or protect or correct the setting we find ourselves in. Spirituality in community is a combination of contemplation and work. Sometimes very difficult work.

Healthy membership in all three kinds of community must include an appreciation of what our membership means, a willingness to consider change, and a respect for those in other communities. Failure to do so leads to nationalism, racism, ethnic cleansing, and what are generically called "hate crimes."

Religious communities especially struggle with histories of injustice and concepts of gender fairness, ethnic diversity, and heterosexism in order to be faithful to what they understand as their relationship to God. Sometimes it is necessary to work to move one's tradition to a new place. This is the intensely spiritual work of being a prophet.

Spirituality that is faithful to community is more than sitting on a mountain side and feeling good about nature. It is a spirituality that works for conservation of the world around us; for respect and love even as we grow up, and grow different, from our families; and for respect and fairness among all kinds of people.

The Spirituality of Community: Multimedia Resources

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