I can no longer live a meaningful life without my community. My teenage son calls it an addiction. But my love for my community does not stem from mere habit, nor am I guided by compulsive need or blind infatuation. On the contrary, it has taken years of soul searching and trial and error to find the appropriate community where my family has been able to take root, grow and contribute.
Since time immemorial, philosophers like Aristotle and more recently, Spinoza have argued we are social animals. Indeed, most of us would be familiar with the ancient saying, 'If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?'
Yet, it was not until my own father's death ten years ago that my longing for community became so urgent. I had once asked him whether he would wish to be buried in the same cemetery as his parents and extended family in Toronto, Canada. 'We should be buried within the community where we live,' was my father's reply. By that time, he had been residing in Melbourne for more than 30 years.
When my father died, I did not know where to turn. Not having been raised in a particularly religious home, I felt unable to draw on faith for comfort.
This was not from want of trying — although we had belonged to various congregations in the past, my husband and I had not been able to find a spiritual home since moving to a new city some years earlier. As a result, we'd flitted from one congregation to the next, sampling a different one on each holiday but never feeling at home.
Nevertheless, I was touched when a religious leader, whom I had met in the course of my search, rang several times to see how I was faring. When upon the first anniversary of my father's death, he offered me his premises for a memorial service, we finally made up our minds to join his congregation — after such generosity on his part, we believed it was the least we could do ... even without faith.
That sense of welcome, warmth and support through both tough and good times remain major factors in why we renew our membership each year.
Indeed, as our sons have grown older, our family has come to attend services every week. This may be going against the trend — only 7.5 per cent of Australians attend religious services regularly — but we believe that in this day and age when many of us do not even know whether we believe in God, it is still possible to contribute altruistically to and derive meaning from community based on religious civilisation.
Our congregation of choice integrates tradition with modernity, promoting all forms of equal rights, giving us the freedom to question, and acknowledging our prerogative to consider different interpretations and viewpoints.
The school my children attend is another pillar of my community. Pluralistic and egalitarian too, it welcomes students of all backgrounds, who come together in mutual respect and are encouraged to work to make the world a better place. So committed have I become to this philosophy that I decided to volunteer for the school board when my oldest son was in first grade and have remained actively involved ever since.
My oldest son has commented that without faith, a prayer service is just 'a group of strangers singing together'. Yet I have discovered a sense of inner peace, spiritual uplift and intellectual stimulation through regular attendance at religious services and communal celebrations.
Alain de Botton in his 2012 book Religion for Atheists wrote that the relevance of such religions as Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism 'to the problems of community are arguably never greater than when they ... remind us that there is also value to be had in standing in a hall with a hundred acquaintances and singing a hymn together ... or in sitting at a table with neighbours and partaking of lamb stew and conversation, the kinds of rituals which, as much as the deliberations inside parliaments and law courts, are what help to hold our fractious and fragile societies together'.
De Botton — who was born Jewish but is now a committed atheist — argues for the removal of religion's 'supernatural structure' before it can help solve 'many of the problems of the modern soul'.
My soul does not need to be quarantined from the full gamut of my religion in order to thrive. Indeed, I am quite happy to keep on exploring the laws and customs of my heritage and culture, practicing rituals and contemplating ideas from within a religious framework. All I need is my community.
Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor. A former journalist, Shira previously taught French and worked in publishing. She is also vice-president of the Board of her children's school.
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01 July 2013
This is a lovely reflection by Shira. We are indeed social creatures - though some people would correctly describe themselves as not 'team players'. I find in my religious community a group of like-minded people I can share my dreams with - but I am also greatly enriched by prayer, reading and wondering by myself. Online faith communities also fulfil an important role in allowing an exchange of ideas in an open forum.
01 July 2013
"My soul does not need to be quarantined from the full gamut of my religion in order to thrive. Indeed, I am quite happy to keep on exploring the laws and customs of my heritage and culture, practicing rituals and contemplating ideas from within a religious framework. All I need is my community." It's interesting Shira that still, in some countries and some religious groups, I'd name Romania and the Middle East, including the still religiously pluralistic countries of Egypt, Syria and Lebanon among the first and Hinduism and Judaism amongst the second, where religion and identity are intertwined. I'm not sure, despite the presence of religious extremists and fanatics of the Christian; Muslim; Jewish and Hindu faiths, that is necessarily a bad thing. One of the things a religion provides is important ceremonies and markers at certain times of the year and in life, with the idea there is something "beyond". Your son is right too because all religions have a mystic depth which goes far beyond the merely congregational. But religion balances that.
01 July 2013
When cold steel meets dead flint, a spark is produced, and a new dimension of light and warmth is introduced. If the spark meets suitably disposed material, a flame arises, giving sufficient light and warmth to dispose other material to join in the transforming process.
Our relationship with God is essentially personal, but often it is within a community that our “spark” is produced. There are many different kinds of encounters where we can find that spark, but having found it, it is more securely fostered in a community setting.
01 July 2013
Insular or belonging? Together or singular? However you nourish your spirit, may you find that spark! Thanks Shira, I have been reflecting on this throughout the day.