Sharing Global Faith: Reflections on Fellowship
On October 24, 1852, Henry David Thoreau scribbled an impassioned admonition in his journal: “What men [sic!] call social virtue, good fellowship – is commonly but the virtue of pigs in a litter which lie close together to keep each other warm.” Indeed, Thoreau’s counsel warns against an empty alliance-making, or forming partnerships that seek to maintain the power imbalances enfolded within the status-quo. The American transcendentalist gives voice to the constant specter of mindless group-submission that haunts the horizon of society-building. And yet, for contemporary Unitarian Universalists, the concept of fellowshipping within community serves as a foundational definition of congregational life. The term evokes notions of communal interest and sentiment, as well as of companionship and friendliness.
In the June issue of Sharing Global Faith, three international U/U leaders articulate compelling visions of what healthy fellowship can embody. Recalling his childhood encounter with Buddhist and Christian teachings, Rev. Nihal Attanayake (Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines) finds a reason to rejoice in the art of being in relationship along the spiritual path he has chosen. Mr. Karsten Urban (Deutsche Unitarier) comprehensively details the current state of religion in Germany, while calling on the global U/U fellowship to model a religion of the future. Viewing community-building as a deeply religious act, Rev. Eric Cherry (UUA, Office of International Resources) expresses gratitude for a faith that addresses human neediness. When pieced together, these disparate fragments reveal an image of fellowship that values life, crosses borders and defies cultural conventions – far removed from the appeasement of ‘pigs in a litter’!
Rev. Nihal Attanayake International Relations Officer, UU Church of the Philippines
With great devotion to her child, she took me by my hand and proceeded to the sanctuary of the soul – the meeting place of the devotees. It was midnight, December 24, 1960. I shall never forget that night, as I dragged myself, step after step, slow in pace, through the dark night. I listened to the ringing of the bells like sounds of the cracking open of the rubber seeds as they fall off the branches, breaking the silence of the night. My mother and I made a long journey – on foot, on a lonely road – to attend a Mass celebrating the birth of ‘Jesus the Christ.’
As early as age seven, I was exposed to the spiritual exercise. My mother – my mentor – in very gentle ways walked the path with me and then watched as I took my own path in search of truth and meaning. I still walk today.
The eight-fold path I learned from my father; the life of Jesus I learned from my mother. Their collective revelation of truth fashioned my life and I cherish them both. I am glad to be blessed with such precepts and life examples. I take counsel, because there exists a need to live life and learn the art of Being.
We all struggle towards wholeness: some of us more consciously than others, but all of us struggle. The art of life can be found in the ways we struggle to achieve that degree of wholeness of which we are capable in the brief time that is before us.
All Nations and People are at a crossroads, faced with great anxiety, travailing and perplexed. We are hungry, homeless and betrayed – yet, there is great rejoicing in the day to day experience of so much love, encouragement, empathy, warmness, understanding and sharing among friends.
Whence cometh my happiness other than being with my fellows? Where do I find my satisfaction other than in the struggle for fairness, equity, and just treatment? I must be where life giving and life making is happening. ‘To be’ is an art indeed.
I must be – at times loss, at times of great joy, at times of uncertainty, at times of rejection and at times of welcome. The art is found in being.
Even though membership in the two largest Christian churches in Germany is steadily decreasing, German society continues to be dominated by Christianity. This is primarily due to the political influence of these major churches. After the German reunification in 1990, many had hoped that Germany would be influenced more by humanism as well as by religious freedom and tolerance. This hope has only partly been realized, even though nowadays more than a third of the German population is neither catholic nor protestant.
Still, Christian education is routinely taught in public schools in most states, Christian crosses are hanging in class rooms and membership fees for the Christian churches are collected by the tax authorities in the form of a so-called church tax (dating back to 1938 law). Our children are told that they do not have the right to celebrate Christmas on account of its Christian nature, which completely ignores its ‘heathen’ roots, in particular in central Europe.
However, membership loss in the largest churches has not lead to a significant growth of free, open and tolerant religious communities in Germany. Instead, many former Christians have completely turned away from religion. One reason for this is that many people view religion and Christianity as being identical. This has also lead to a loss of ethics. Moreover, there is a wide spread skepticism towards religious communities in the sense that people are afraid of radical sects.
Perhaps, this is a chance and also a challenge for international Unitarian and Universalists. Our world is more and more connected, whether we like globalization or not. Unitarian and Universalist congregations all over the world can also help by proving to the German society that there is an alternative both to dogmatic religion and to radical sects, in the form of a religion without creed that simultaneously affirms the worth of human beings and advocates freedom of belief. Sharing Global Faith is a step towards this goal.
Many of the Unitarian Universalists I know and love are proud to choose “COMMUNITY” as item #1 on their top-ten list of “Most Important Reasons to go to Church”. We like the opportunity to give and receive a caring ministry. We enjoy feeling and offering a sincere “welcome” in a sometimes exclusionary world. We appreciate a sense of spiritual “connectedness” with other members of our congregations – even when we don’t necessarily mesh theologically. Experiencing genuine community – or Fellowship – is a bottom-line requirement and expectation for the vast majority of UUs. Blessings and congratulations to those congregations which address this human need effectively!
Those that do it best offer a faithful, counter-cultural response to society’s ubiquitous valuation of self-reliance and independence. Sometimes these congregations do it in a “sly” way – without disturbing the “I’m spiritual, but not religious” attitude that is also extremely common amongst us. But, rest assured, building genuine community is a deeply religious act. And, in our tradition, a historical and defining religious act. Congregations that are historically established by covenant – like ours – have selected “Needing One Another” over “Believing like One Another”; they have selected commitments of relationship over commitments of creed. Our choice is no less “religious” than the other. If we accept the original meaning of the word “religion” as the “binding of one to another” – it may, in fact, be the more religious choice of the two.
And it’s of consequence. Especially now, in a time when the “spiritually successful”- those who appear to have progressed in a spiritual practice that doesn’t require a commitment to a community – are easily celebrated, while the community-committed are not. In this, and in a thousand other ways, our society teaches that “We DON’T Need One Another”.
- It teaches that we don’t need one another when we mourn and would be comforted – what we need, instead, is a bigger meal, a bigger wallet, or a bigger and more spectacular TV show.
- It teaches that we don’t need one another when we are in trouble or afraid – instead, we need privacy, an effective way to hide our failures and loses.
- It teaches that we don’t need one another when we are in despair, in temptation, and need to be recalled to our best selves again – it teaches that being in a community of accountability is dangerous and limiting of freedom; that our worst temptations ought to be indulged; and that despair is just another medical condition.
- It teaches that the only great accomplishments are the one’s we can claim individually.
- It teaches that success is an opportunity for being admired, not something to be shared in humility.
- It teaches that defeat is not only a sign of weakness, but proof of our inherent shame – to be hidden at all costs.
- And, it teaches that if we follow all of these prescriptions we’ll carry a feeling of superiority and accomplishment to our deathbeds, regardless of whether gentle hands meet us there or not. And, that’s what counts.
I may be overstating it somewhat, but not by much. Our societal failures in matters of war and peace, environmental degradation, criminal behavior, oppression and injustice may be the best evidence that something about our commitments is misguided.
But, the religious community, at its best, promotes a counter-cultural message. It asks for a commitment to interpersonal as well as introspective engagement. It asks for a similar commitment to both personal and communal accountability. It rejects the glory of individual accomplishment that society loves, e.g. you can’t “win” at “doing church” (though watching someone try can be exhilarating). Instead, it cherishes and recommends a communal response to human neediness: in our mourning, in our temptation, as we suffer discouragement, and as we die.
What a blessing to be part of a faith community that responds to our existential and practical “neediness” with health, love, and compassion. What a blessing to be invited to make a commitment to a “needy” community. And, what a blessing to be joined by faithful companions on this journey.