Communitarian Religion

by Clint Baldwin, Executive Director We had included this reflection in a monthly newsletter to our staff but wanted to make it available to friends of Word Made Flesh as well. Thank you for partnering with WMF and being a part of God’s work to bring healing, hope, and peace to our neighbors in need around the world.

Recently, recognizing both celebration and hardship as noted above, I have strongly sensed God’s hand guiding us forward around the world as an organization.  Like the body together, when we acknowledge our belonging to each other, the exquisite truth that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts is powerfully rendered.  Each part is beautiful unto itself – each community, the international office, our Advisory Council, our Board of Directors, etc. – but in partnering together there is an added magnificence of the birthing of a mosaic always in the making!  In this sense, I think it well behooves us to think of the “we” in Ephesians 2:10 as both personal and communal: “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” We are better together, friends! ☺

In prayerful conversation earlier this month, in the international office, we brought into discussion the idea of an essential dichotomy – the difference between authoritarian religion and humanitarian religion.  This contrast was initially offered by the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in Psychoanalysis and Religion, and discussed by theologian Dorothee Sölle — who I deeply admire for her integrity and method(s) — in her book Creative Disobedience.

Sölle’s discussion comes rather early in her career and as her career continues I find that the initial division/dichotomy becomes a conduit for renewed, recalibrated connectivity.  However, for the moment, I want us to seek to walk through this dichotomy a bit.

Authoritarian religion is described as that which focuses on God’s power, dominance, and hierarchical positioning that requires the subjection and obedience of some to others.  Forms of authoritarian religious practice/belief are showcased as promoting removed/distanced, theoretical, cognitive, and supposedly “objective” orientations – this is all noted as tending to lead to a dangerously blind obedience.  Sölle writes as a post-WWII German theologian. Thus, the shadow of the Nazism and the Holocaust looms large in her analysis.

Humanitarian religion, rather, focuses on God’s love, mutuality, equality, and relational interconnectivity.  It is showcased as praxical, connected, grounded, contextualized, and empowering. As should be readily apparent, authoritarian religion is presented as the negative example and humanitarian religion is presented as the positive example.

While these distinctions are helpful, for me the contrast between the two forms is too clean, too neat, and too tidy.  Humanitarian aspects of religion are vital – Love of God and Love of Neighbor is core to Gospel living. Yet, there is a God who has created and sustains the world, governs our affairs, and asks and requires things of us (for instance, see Psalm 19 [and consider watching the video link below in the updates section]).  Obedience – without being blind – is indeed important and cannot simply be discarded despite its far too frequent abuse. Who we seek to be obedient to and why we seek to be obedient is key. Difficulty arises when those who run structures and systems attempt to bestow upon themselves ultimate interpretive power about God and human affairs.  This comes back to Peter’s assertion in Acts that says, “we must obey God rather than any human authority.” Personal volition is never to be squelched or dismissed.

How then are we to navigate an entire world of personal volitions never to be squelched or dismissed and yet manage to create and sustain reasonably healthy forms of community and society?  Everyone cannot simply do whatever they want whenever they want to do it – at least this cannot happen for long without the breakdown of general social functionality. This becomes an important, but rather long conversation.  In truncated form, I suggest that this is where authoritarian and humanitarian forms of religion join in conversation related to communitarian religion.  Without ever fully relinquishing personal choice, we voluntarily and always temporarily share our power of choice with others within parameters of established (and always establishing) trust so that we might all walk better together.  This is the work of community. Community can be healthy or unhealthy, but healthy community provides a way of doing life together that is most empowering for all within a broad set of agreed upon strictures whereby mutuality can flourish.

(For one step of further insight, I recommend the socio-cultural, anthropological work of Jared Diamond that focuses on how societies flourish and fail.)

While we each must personally assent to the work of God in our life, it is vital to remember that there is no such thing as a disconnected individuality.  No one is fully individual. We are always already socially connected. This is why John Wesley writes, “there is no holiness, but social holiness.”  In answer to the Scriptures query, “yes, we are our brothers and sisters keepers.”

This is why, out of love for the One who has first Loved us, we share our lives as members of Word Made Flesh with our friends and neighbors all over the world.  Yes, of course because God has specifically asked us to so care for others, but also because connected relationality is part of the ingrained method that the Lord has created for social and personal flourishing.  As gardeners of this world that the Lord has made for us, we long to aid in the growth of personal and social good for all.

In closing, a healthy amalgamation of authoritarian and humanitarian religious orientations into communitarian religious form might for the moment best be surmised in this manner: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

As Word Made Flesh staff, let us pray that we all might be easily recognized as the Lord’s disciples.

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