I was talking to my brother Anthony the other day, telling him about the surprising places in which I’ve found spiritual community. The foundations of any community are commonality and communication. There are few things as lonely as the realization that your way of thinking is incomprehensible to the society around you. Culture shock, language barrier, and the minority experience are all manifestations of the same phenomena: people struggle to adjust to, and communicate effectively within the dominant culture when its methods of world discovery and engagement differ drastically from their own. Anyone who has traveled abroad to learn a language will tell you that the process of immersion required them to think about the world in new and different ways. As their understanding of the language grew, so did their understanding of the people who spoke it. And as they grew to understand the way the locals viewed the world, they saw cultural values mirrored within the language. But when someone first arrives in a new culture, or reenters their own after an absence, they feel alien and disconnected. This is how I have come to feel about my faith community, I feel more and more like a foreigner.
So I am grateful to have found community among others who feel similarly. Lately, those I am most able to confide in are atheists, agnostics, and others slogging through the slough of skepticism. Skeptical friends don’t judge me for my questions. I can be open and honest, and even though we may disagree, they remain willing to listen, to challenge my ideas, and to give me a sounding board against which to bounce my ideas. This wasn’t easy to explain to Anthony.
“How can you call your group a ‘spiritual community’ when most of them don’t even believe in ‘spirit’?” he asked. “Is it really a community, or just a fellowship of good feeling?” Anthony’s second question stems from a particular understanding of community.
‘Spiritual-but-not-religious’ people are often criticized for their individualism by those who embrace organized religion. Some argue that by constructing and practicing their personal theology in private, they miss out on the aspects of faith that thrive on corporate experience. Specifically, they lack system of accountability or external guidance for their spiritual lives. This is similar to the ‘fellowship of good feeling’ Anthony mentioned. Anthony feared that in communing with people who are also searching out their own beliefs, I was missing the benefit of a community of accountability. Perhaps everyone is floating in their own sea of doubt, affirming each other in their iconoclasm, but unable to assist each other in the building and maintenance of a new theology.
I suspect many people observe groups of young skeptics and see only adolescent iconoclasts establishing their autonomy through the blind rejection of their parents’ values. Perhaps in high school this is true of most of us. We become men and women by putting miles between ourselves and our parents, learning to stand alone, until we’re tall enough and strong enough to stand next to them as adults. In college, however, many of us are well on our way to standing tall, and our rejection of certain values isn’t about parents or angst, but is a genuine result of thoughtful consideration. While I believe in the importance of community, I do not need my community to share my ideas; I need the people in my community to share my way of thinking. I need a community where the commonality is the method communication. This is why my spiritual community may consist of people who do not adhere to any religion.
Before Jung there was no Jungian psychology; before Steno, geology as we know it didn’t exist. We are all pioneers in the field of worldview formation, and a pioneer does not always have the luxury of a community that shares her ideas. Other scientists, however can still recognize the method of discovery and thus may determine the validity of her claims. If her methods stand up to scrutiny, the ideas derived from those methods will eventually be established as canon. I do not need the validation of affiliation, or the affirmation of agreement. I do not desire a community that checks my doctrines against external standards to which I do not assent. What I need, and have found, are people to check my work, to challenge my thinking, to peer review.