Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Reflections on Community and Spirituality

I found myself in a church service recently, where I had gone to hear a sermon given by my friend Nichola Torbett, founding director of Seminary of the Street. I'm glad I went, since the sermon was as brilliant. Sitting through the service, however, I noticed in myself a longing for the sense of community that the congregants seemed to enjoy. Although the church was exceedingly warm and welcoming to us non-regulars, I felt unable fully to take comfort in their acceptance. The problem is that I'm a not a Christian believer, which means that the full experience of Christian community must remain out of reach, no matter how much kinship I may feel with particular Christians. 

Moreover, it's difficult, in the church setting, to remain stealthy about one's lack of belief because of that unambiguous moment of truth called Communion, when the congregants are called on to testify to and literally embody their faith. Whatever one may think of this ritual, it works well to establish who the genuine Christians are. Yet, "communion" moments are by no means exclusive to Christianity. They are a standard element of group psychology, which usually manifest as subtle pressure to show that one shares the group's worldview. In my own circles, which tend to include many "spiritual but not religious" types, there is often a moment when someone says something about past lives or "indigo children," and I immediately feel like an outsider, a spy for the skeptic police. I become conscious only of my intellectual resistance and, as a result, the prospect of staying fully connected with these comrades feels like a threat to my integrity (or is it just the integrity of my identity?).

As I ponder this situation, I wonder if my inability to believe and the alienation it fosters might somehow be products of the dominant culture, a sort of ruling class "strategy" evolved to keep the population isolated and fragmented. I realize this may sound outrageous, since, after all, religious belief is supposed to benefit the ruling class. The conventional view, at least on the political left, is that religion is an opiate of the masses,” keeping people passive by placating us with ultimate meaning and the confidence that our oppression and suffering in this life will be redeemed in the next.

It is certainly true that, for some populations, religious faith functions to rationalize suffering and justify inequity. But that’s a topic for another blog. Here I want to focus on another kind of faith, the kind that represents a threat to powerful interests because of its capacity to unite and empower the oppressed. This is the faith that got Jesus and Martin killed, along with who knows how many other spiritual revolutionaries. And I want to consider the possibility that, as a gay man, my capacity for this sort of faith was part of the price I paid for my individual liberation. I’m wondering, in other words, if I’ve gained my sense of liberation by identifying (however unconsciously) with my whiteness. Racial solidarity most definitely is a ruling class strategy.  

Of course, I’m not suggesting that whiteness is somehow antithetical to faith. That is obviously false. Whiteness is not a fixed category with a specific ideology. As I’ve argued consistently on this blog, it is a value system; a worldview; a cosmology. As Thandeka explains in Learning to be White, the acquisition of white identity often involves learning to deny or repress sensual, embodied feelings (and often to project them onto racialized others) in order to be seen as suitably self-possessed and rational by white culture. Children are praised and rewarded for valued qualities, such as emotional restraint, self-control, and competitiveness, and they are penalized for such devalued qualities as spontaneity, vulnerability, and emotional expressiveness. Is it just a coincidence that these latter qualities are precisely those that make genuine communal life possible?

For me, the path to whiteness was clear and wide, having woken up with much of it already behind me. I grew up in a working class town at a time when groups of European immigrants were still struggling to claim white identity. My racial status was secure enough, but, being gay, I found that I still fell far short of the patriarchal (not to mention puritanical) standards of whiteness, for they cannot abide any deviation from its strictly proscribed sexual norms. I dealt with this predicament in some of the same ways as other white, middle class, gay men: I developed those of my qualities that are esteemed by the dominant culture – careerism, the appearance of social conformity, and, of course, good grooming – while avoiding the messy complications of embodied existence by overdeveloping my critical intellect. 

So I came to identify very strongly with my critical stance, and my faith was one of its numerous casualties. According to the story I typically tell myself, my critical outlook first undermined my belief in God, which was fairly strong in my youth, and then proceeded to render all intimations of cosmic purpose and meaning untenable to me. The last vestiges of my faith were finally swept away once I began to think about whiteness and to see the ways in which dominant conceptions of the divine coincide with white middle class privilege.

What I have not reflected on until now is how my critical stance also serves white middle class privilege. As I said, one of its main consequences is that it keeps me from feeling deeply connecting into the communities I move in. Maybe it's not my faith or lack of it that I should be focused on, but the satisfaction and rewards I get from remaining separate. Perhaps I’m simply addicted to alienation, to my identity as an isolated individual. Indeed, it is this identity that allows me to feel that I'm in control of my circumstances, that I'm responsible only for my own private choices. As an individual in an individualistic society, I get to imagine myself as free from social obligations and communal accountability. Alienation serves individualism, and individualism, by casting relationships as voluntary and/or transactional, supports and promotes the group interests of middle class white men like myself (see Whiteness and the Utility of the Colorblind Paradigm). 

The impulse to remain separate is obviously problematic, but individualism may also undermine spirituality in less direct ways. I've participated in a variety of spiritually oriented classes and workshops, from which I have definitely learned and grown as a person. I've noticed, however, that, due to their focus on personal transformation, many of them seem to have been designed to produce some sort of big insight or "peak experience." These experiences, though often valuable, are likely to be unstable and unsustainable. For me, the peak experience has usually been the feeling of group bonding that often happens among the participants. It is beautiful, in its way, and yet I can't help but wonder if this is actually just a sort of spiritual buzz.

In the safe container of a weekend workshop, the dictates of the dominant culture are temporarily suspended. Participants are permitted to show vulnerability and express genuine feelings, which makes it possible for us to connect in a way that seems to satisfy our longing for community. However, because these experiences are bracketed from normal life, it is possible to enjoy them without actually having to risking the real world benefits of individualism. I can bond with a group in a weekend workshop without questioning my white middle class privileges, and more importantly, without becoming accountable to anyone. Not surprisingly, this communal buzz eventually dissipates, and the seemingly insatiable longing for connection and community returns. This creates something like an addiction cycle. 

I am becoming convinced that spirituality as an individual path (as distinct from an individual practice) is actually a contradiction. Not only does individualism produce and perpetuate unjust and violent social relations, it may be fundamentally incompatible with genuine spirituality. The latter may simply be impossible in the absence of sustainable human connection and community. Where does that leave me with my hypercritical attitude, my addiction to individualism, and my longing for genuine community? Well, at the moment, I am participating in a number of ongoing groups, and although it is often a struggle, I am not allowing myself to disengage. I have come to recognize that cultivating genuine community is the true essence of my spirituality. I guess for now I just need to keep showing up and doing my best simply to stay engaged, which may be the most demanding a spiritual practice I can think of.


  1. You spoke for me--and I'm straight and female (and white).

  2. What a great set of questions, Gregory! The ways in which we are both exhorted to join community and excluded because of our beliefs are so intertwined with patriarchy and culture as to create conflict in the best of us.

    I certainly believe that investing in community is an extraordinarily good thing, overall. And, I am also firmly attached to the strength of individualism when it generates resistance to collective tyranny that injures people, spirit, planet and the good of the larger community. Whistleblowers, for instance, are one of the exemplars of individuality.

    So, I'm caught in the classic polarity of group and individual-- looking to harness the very best of both (and avoid the very worst!). And so it goes.....

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