Religion today: Themes and issues
Religion today: Themes and issues

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Religion today: Themes and issues

1.9 Community and identity

In an Italian exhibition of cartoons on the theme of globalization (reported in the Financial Times (Lloyd, 2000)), one depicted two women sitting on a couch. The first woman explains enthusiastically ‘Thanks to globalisation, we know immediately what's happening all over the planet!’; the other, crying, says ‘I just want the gossip from next door!’ This was interpreted as a longing for a previous era of emotionally and physically closer communities. The reality of such ‘good old days’ might be questioned, but it is a powerful image. As Paul Morris comments: ‘Everyone, but everyone, is for community. Our politicians, of the old and the new, Left and Right; our political philosophers; our religious leaders; our modern and postmodern theorists appear to share little but their pious promotion of 'community' (Morris, 1996, p.223).

Religion has traditionally formed and sustained communities in a variety of ways, providing groups of people with common vision and values, purpose and precepts. In addition, religious organizations often sustain community life in a practical manner, through the provision of food, medical care and education as well as overtly ‘spiritual’ services. However, just as religion can be a divisive as well as a cohesive force in society, being part of a religious community can bring problems as well as advantages, as conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere have so vividly demonstrated. Community involves ideas of being part of a group, but that also means there are others who do not belong, insiders and outsiders, us and them. Nevertheless, one of the great attractions of religion, now as in the past, is that it provides a person with a community, and enables someone to belong.

As religion in the West has become very much a matter of personal decision, with a huge variety of choice, people becoming Buddhists, Wiccans or Druids are forming new communities. In so doing, they are exercising ‘elective affinity’ – choosing the community to which they belong. The idea of community (and by extension the religious community) has often had connotations of physical proximity – the extended family, the neighbourhood, the tribe, the village, the town – although it can emanate out to the nation in either a geographical or ethnic sense. In the world of global religion, moreover, the religious community can be multinational or, in the case of religion on the Internet, supranational. A co-religionist in another country can be part of a person's community, while a neighbour is not. The relationship between religion and community is therefore complex and varies considerably according to context.

Morris proposes two different models of community, drawn from the Christian and Jewish tradition: ‘communities of assent’ and ‘communities of descent’ (Morris, 1996, pp.238–45). In communities of descent, the individual belongs to a community by virtue of being born into it, as in Judaism or Hinduism. Morris claims that ‘descent communities are inherently pluralistic as identity does not depend on ideology but is vouchsafed by descent’ (Morris, 1996, p.238). By contrast, communities of assent are voluntary associations, and missionary in outlook:

Such communities are by their very nature cross-cultural and assent is neatly packaged (Christian doctrines, dogmas and creeds; the Five Pillars of Islam; the Buddhist Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path) to facilitate expansion into different cultural contexts. The communities of assent replace familial relations with metaphorical brothers, mothers, sisters and fathers. … Most importantly, identity is dependent on assent to the foundational truths and/or doctrines. This focus on assent renders this model of community fanatically anti-pluralistic and intolerant of heretics.

(Morris, 1996, p.239)

Communities of assent are being formed all over the world, in very different ways. However, Morris cautions, ‘new communities of descent are always being formed’ (Morris, 1996, p.245). Thus, although Christianity and Islam started out as communities of assent, in many places they became, to all intents and purposes, communities of descent. The idea of a ‘Christian country’ or a ‘Muslim state’ is at odds with elective affinity and with assent. However, over time, being Russian became synonymous with being Orthodox, being Polish became synonymous with being Catholic; being Saudi with being Muslim, being Swedish with being Lutheran, and so on.

Personal, national and religious identity are in many cases intertwined. Through religion one can gain, assert, reinforce and indeed change identity. Self-identification as a Christian, a witch, a Buddhist or a practitioner of Celtic spirituality can not only be a personally empowering experience, but also give someone a new history and a new community.

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