Community. It’s that thing, the way of life, that we all want but we’re just not quite sure how to pull it off successfully. It’s that tantalizing concept that promises so much reward, and yet it seems so elusive. Its promise sometimes causes us to cut ties where we are and move somewhere else where we hope to find greener pastures, better friends, and/or become part of a different community. Then when we do get a taste of real community, it’s only a matter of time before our hearts are stunned with hurt or insult. But a lack of community causes us to feel despondent, alone, and often times as if we’re missing out on something significant that was intended for us all along. This community thing can really be disappointing!
Following the Ancient Paths
I wrote a lengthy response to this blog post, but when I pushed “Post Comment,” I received an error message and my comment was lost forever. It was a rather lengthy comment (go figure) and I suspect the blog application was complaining to me about it. I thought about re-writing the comment but decided to blog instead.
Lisa’s blog post addresses what we should already know. Being part of any group or community is hard work. It’s hard to join, it’s hard to sustain, it’s hard to adapt over time. This includes families, employers, and Lisa’s specific topic, religious organizations.
I can sympathize. A little over a year ago I “went back to church” and in that time have had many interesting, educational, and dismaying “adventures.” But as Lisa’s blog post suggests, this is to be expected. No group that involves multiple human beings is always going to run smoothly.
We live in a world that seems to praise isolationism, yet we instinctively know that we weren’t created to be loaners (sic). Somehow it’s considered a good thing when we can handle things alone, when we can appear stand tall with a backbreaking burden strapped to our backs, when we live such private lives that nobody knows what is really going on with us. Deep inside we know that it isn’t right to go through life all alone. We wrestle with wanting something yet not wanting the very same thing, pursuing it and rejecting it all at the same time.
As Lisa says, we want to go it alone to avoid all of the messiness of being part of a community, but when alone, we know that being isolated from community isn’t right, either. Sort of a “can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em” situation.
The main point of my lost comment was the issue of competing interests. Affiliation with one community may conflict with another affiliation. In my case, I’m a Christian living with Jewish family members while attending a Christian church. How does that work?
Another set of competing interests has to do with entering into and finding a niche within a community. I recently declared that I’m a Christian who studies Messianic Judaism, and yet I attend a very fundamentalist Baptist church in Southwestern Idaho. If you’ve read any of my blog posts about my conversations with my Pastor, you know that although we get along, we disagree on a number of fundamental (no pun intended) elements of what faith in Messiah means, particularly to the Jewish people.
Can a square peg successfully integrate into a church of round holes? Good question.
I recently finished the book Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It tells the story of Pi, born and raised in India, from childhood to adulthood through a series of flashbacks, with the main action taking place aboard a lifeboat shortly after Pi’s family died in a shipwreck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Pi is the only human survivor, but finds that he must share the lifeboat with an injured Zebra, an Orangutan, a Hyena, and a 450 pound, male adult Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker (Pi’s father was a zookeeper and they were transporting a number of their animals from India to their new home in Canada).
The other interesting thing besides how Pi manages to survive seven months adrift at sea sharing a lifeboat with a Tiger (the other animals didn’t make it), is that as a child, Pi adopted three religious traditions, first Hinduism, then Christianity (Catholicism), and finally Islam. Pi practiced all three religions simultaneously, ignoring the basic tenet of each that these religions are exclusivist. That is, if you belong to one, you cannot also belong to any other religion.
Pi managed to observe each religious tradition in parallel without arousing suspicion for a while, but eventually it caught up with him, and he was finally confronted by all three congregational leaders at the same time in a public place in front of his parents.
When questioned about why he thought he could be a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim all at the same time, he responds by saying that he “just wants to love God.” (Martel, pg 69)
The book follows Pi’s life into adulthood and middle age where he is married with two children and a small dog and living in Toronto. He still practices all three religions, with no mention of any conflict in his family or in any of the involved congregations, but “Life of Pi” is a work of fiction and operates often at the level of religious allegory (I still haven’t figured out what the carnivorous island is supposed to mean).
In real life, Pi would never be able to successfully manage practicing all three religions, not only because of the conflicts between those communities, but the likely conflict with his own family, particularly his wife, who almost certainly had formed her religious or irreligious affiliations before she ever met and married Pi.
I have to admit, when I read about the sheer audacity and innocence of Pi’s devotion to three different religious branches, cherishing the best in all three, I felt a moment of admiration and even envy. What would it be like to open your arms wide and to take in and accept humanity’s vast range of traditions in worshiping God just for the sheer love of God?
It isn’t practical, which I suspect is one of the reasons why Martel’s novel is called a fantasy.
But Interfaith communities aren’t unheard of in our world. Author Susan Katz Miller maintains the On Being Both blog which celebrates a variety of interfaith families and communities, but such celebrations aside, one does not easily navigate the stormy seas that occur when theologies, doctrines, and dogmas clash in the narrow straits between one religion and another.
The solution in my own family, as it stands now, is something of a compartmentalization of each religion. In my home, Christianity and Judaism exist in separate silos, rarely communicating across the gap between them for the sake of peace. I do occasionally get emails from my wife containing links to news or information items on Israel or Judaism but I’m very careful not to bring up Christianity.
The ugly times is where our communities can grow stronger, more dedicated to one another, where each member grows in righteousness and in the image of our Master. The challenge is on the table. Are we ready to accept it?
It is true that adversity can produce stronger communities, but there’s a line that, if crossed, means that adversity has exceeded manageable limits and is destructive, not constructive. Sort of like lifting weights at a gym to build strength but overtraining resulting in injury, sometimes serious injury.
The television show “Sesame Street” sometimes has a lesson in the form of a song called One of these things is not like the others and I know what that experience is like in spades. There are interfaith communities that (seemingly) successfully co-exist within the same larger group, and there are interfaith families that are created and thrive for decades (such as my own), but that doesn’t mean it’s easy (which is what Lisa’s blog is all about).
But beyond being “not easy,” there are times when “not easy” becomes impossible or at least highly improbable, like a fourteen-year old boy from India who is a practicing Hindu, Christian, and Muslim, or the same boy two years later who manages to survive for seven months in the Pacific Ocean sharing a lifeboat with a large Bengal Tiger. How long can such a relationship between communities last before something gives?