One way religious communities can address the problem is by developing ministries and disciplines that both fulfill their traditional callings and make use of twenty-first-century communication tools
I am a single cell in a body of four billion cells. The body is humankind. I glory in the miracle of self but my individuality does not separate me from the oneness of humanity." With this often-cited phrase, Norman Cousins framed the current existential task for religious liberals, and perhaps for humanity generally, particularly in the context of growing interpersonal "isolation" in contemporary society. We do live lives that waver between individualism and interdependence. At our clearest moments, we courageously face the knowledge that fulfillment can be achieved on both sides of this spectrum of interrelationship.
But evidence suggests that our society is currently out of balance; we are tending toward individualism in a distressingly unhealthy way. The current president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Rev. Peter Morales, has often described this by citing a study published in the American Sociological Review in 2006 that "asked subjects how many people they feel close enough to that they feel they can confide personal information." An earlier study, done in 1985, asked the same question. Here are the key findings:
"In 1985, the modal response was having three people in whom one could confide.
"In 2004, the modal response was zero.
"The percentage of people who said they had no one in whom they could confide jumped from 10 percent in 1985 to 25 percent in 2004.
"Almost half of all Americans now either have no one or only one person with whom they can discuss important matters.
"If a person has only one confidant, chances are that the one confidant is the spouse. What this means is that relationships beyond the nuclear family are being systematically eliminated."
The problem is immense, and religious communities are called to address it. We can do so by (1) engaging in relevant theological reflection, by (2) understanding the needs that current and prospective adherents bring with them to our religious communities, and by (3) developing ministries and disciplines that both fulfill our traditional callings and make use of twenty-first-century communication tools.
A Theological Construction for Analysis
One of the common criticisms of liberal religious theology is that it begins with an overly optimistic view of human nature. But in analyzing the matter of the disintegration of social relations, liberal theology's generally high view of human nature is appropriate and important. We can begin by admitting that human beings do appreciate their conscious role in these trends. We do weigh the benefits and consequence of the decisions we make to proceed toward radical individualism or embrace lives engaged with "the oneness of humanity." My experience teaches me that this "conscious freedom" is genuine, both practically and metaphysically. Much of the movement toward isolation and individualism is due to conscious choices to avoid the complications, commitments, and emotional investment that being in "relationship" requires.
But this tendency is balanced by motivations that are preconscious, unexpected, and confounding. As the Christian Apostle Paul described in his Letter to the Romans, we find that we "do not understand what [we] do. For what [we] want to do [we] do not do, but what [we] hate [we] do." Paul decides that even knowledge of the eternal Law cannot prevent these confounding choices, because the flesh is weak. He suggests that spiritual rebirth is the solution.
Like many religious liberals, I find that embracing the very real power of existential freedom becomes most authentic when we simultaneously allow it to be humbled by the sort of concerns that Paul raises. In other words, we are healthiest when we do not fail to fully appreciate the extent of our human freedom, but also understand that hubristic reliance upon our ability to use that gift wisely is pure fantasy, that growing spiritually must be the companion of growing rationally.
Are people choosing isolation from a place of freedom, or is something beyond our conscious awareness creating this context? Have we forgotten that the "glory of self" does not separate us from the "oneness of humanity"? Or are we choosing to be unfaithful to it?
It is, of course, both. But I'm skeptical that there are any "noble" aspirations to a glorious Emersonian type of "self-reliance" involved. Emerson's regret that "all Association must be a compromise" is at play here, but not as an inspiration. Instead, it is a reasonable description of antisocial motivations that pervade our cultural atmosphere. They urge us to value individual agency and to avoid compromise in order to achieve individual goals. And we are following these motivations, sometimes unconsciously, turning away from communitarian possibilities because something of value - individual agency - might be endangered.
At least this is the theological analysis which I arrive at. Others must and will certainly reach different conclusions, but the important matter is that we understand that both "freedom" and "failure" are at play in different degrees.
A Religious Response to Contemporary Isolationism
In the January-March 2009 issue of DHARMA WORLD, Rev. Nichiko Niwano wrote that "the home can be called the basic place in which we practice religious discipline, a place where we can directly contemplate the cause of suffering and free ourselves of our selfishness."
Rev. Niwano's reflection reminded me of the wisdom that Lao-tzu is said to have shared about the requirements for creating global peace. In poetic language he described how peace in the world requires peace within nations, how peace within nations requires peace within cities, and so forth, including peace between neighbors, within the home, and finally within the individual heart. Ultimately, according to Lao-tzu, there can be no peace in the world, or anywhere else, unless there is peace within the heart. And Rev. Niwano's proposal that this work begins within the home is a very important religious message. We can only "free ourselves of our selfishness" through personal and familial "peacemaking." Following our "freedom" toward interdependence and peace appropriately begins here. Here we can most safely uncover our failures as well, most easily find forgiveness for them, and return, once again, to the path of love and peace. May it be so.
But it seems to me that Lao-tzu's wisdom can also be read to show that peace within the heart depends upon seeking peace within ever widening circles of relationship (family, neighborhood, cities, nation, world). In other words, unless a person's eyes are cast beyond self, and beyond family, peace - or release of suffering - will be slow to achievement.
Or as Rev. Dana McLean Greeley expressed it, "There is a stage in human development when people begin to be as much interested in others as in themselves, as much concerned with others' lots as their own. When this stage of development is reached, by some miraculous transition, the word 'we,' expressive of sympathy and of the sense of togetherness in life, takes the place of the word 'I.' The word 'we' unites us. . . . I without my relationships am nothing: the people I love, the people I serve, the people who work with me and with whom I work. So we are much more important than I am."
This is the work of the religious community: not only to uncover relevant dynamics of faith, not only to describe the implications of those dynamics in language that the mind and heart understand equally well, but also to create and offer a path, freely showing the way to the struggling and lost - that's all of us - for the healing of self and society. A path that responds to both "freedom" and "failure" and that can reliably lead a follower away from selfishness, from "I" to "we," and to peacemaking internally and externally.
Religious communities know a great deal about these "paths." But religious liberals - perhaps Unitarian Universalists most of all - have been reticent to proclaim them. Yet there are signs that we are growing out of that reticence, that we have recognized how our tendency to limit "we" to a small, demographically homogenous slice of the world is, in fact, ungenerous and even selfish. Instead, new ministries of "hospitality" are taking root in our congregations - even "radical hospitality," as some congregations refer to it. It is a fortunate concurrence, though not entirely coincidental, that congregations are recognizing this faithful imperative at the same moment that the need for a practical response to "isolationism" in our society has become apparent.
Though some congregations may not use the lens of "social capital" to inform their ministries of hospitality, it certainly helps to be aware of this "building peace within the nation" aspect of religious work. As Lew Feldstein, co-chair of the Saguaro Seminar* has written, "We need to look at front porches as crime-fighting tools, treat picnics as public health efforts and see choral groups as occasions of democracy. We will become a better place when assessing social capital impact becomes a standard part of decision-making." This is a clarion call not just to secular organizations, but to religious institutions that understand the importance of public ministry.
More often congregations that create ministries to address societal isolation are responding to the very real and present needs that people bring with them to worship. Religious services are one of the few places where people can (1) face the loneliness and isolation that have become real in their lives, and (2) find a welcome and a constructive path toward living more interdependently. Our opportunity, as religious organizations, is both unique and imperative.
Congregations are wise when they take note of the clearest sign that people are not yet resigned to isolation, for example, the incredible interest and growth in social networking on the Internet. The depth and quality of the social capital created through online networking is not yet clear. But more important for religious organizations is recognizing what the growth of these technologies demonstrates. It reveals that people are thirsty for connection with others. It suggests that we haven't lost an impulse toward interdependence, but that the methods and pathways of previous generations have lost some poignancy. It suggests that "connecting" institutions formed in the early twentieth century's wave of creating "voluntary associations" need to adapt to remain relevant and effective. It suggests that connecting organizations - and in this context religious organizations - that adapt toward twenty-first-century relevance will find that people are hungering for them, and that their historic principles and ministries take on new life.
In traditional religious language, we can frame this as a question about the meaning of "salvation" and, more importantly, how congregations are involved in salvific work. Religious organizations have answered this question differently over centuries, always in the context of their sociohistorical era, always in the context of how the question is being asked. In the same way we may ask: What is "salvation" today? And how are religious organizations involved in it?
From a Unitarian Universalist perspective, the answer to those questions begins in the here-and-now, the world in which we live and breathe, where we face our daily joys and sorrows - indeed, our freedom and our failure. I would answer that salvation means living in right relationship with Creation and the Holy. The trend of cultural "isolation" is the phenomenon of being outside of right relationship. In fact, isolationism suggests that there is cultural confusion about how to be in right relationship with Creation and God in the twenty-first century.
Organized religion, if it wishes to be involved in the work of salvation in a twenty-first-century context, must respond accordingly - inviting people out of isolation and into right relationship - with the language of the heart, with a ministry of hospitality, and with practical methods for experiencing the spiritual benefits of interdependence.
Let it be through small group ministries of various kinds that offer an easy entry into close relationships and which lead to commitment to a larger community. Let it be worship that makes room for reflection on freedom and failure, and offers a vision of right relationship. Let it be social events that remind people of the simple joy of sharing a meal or of intergenerational celebration. Let it be ministries of hospitality that heal both the "welcomed" and the "welcomer." And let it be opportunities for the lonely and isolated to emerge into community and gather the courage and strength to hear and embrace their life's calling, and carry a blessing to the world around them through it.
But, as importantly, I pray that we find the strength to effectively share our ministries through Twitter; that we recognize a ministry to the masses of people on Facebook and MySpace who are tuned in and paying attention already; that profound ways of bringing hope and courage to the lonely and lost occur via e-mail and text messaging; that communities of faithful justice seekers are made stronger through video conferencing and Skype. And may strangers, rejected, castoff, and alone, when they come through the Internet wilderness to find a homepage of a religious organization, take away from it a ray of hope that there, maybe there, they can find the right relationship that their soul is longing for.
The concerns we all share over growing social "isolation" present an opportunity to re-engage in public, countercultural, religious work. We are being called to remind ourselves and our neighbors of the beautiful truth that "[we are each] a single cell in a body of four billion cells. The body is humankind." Our place is in relationship. Our interconnectedness is existential, and all great joy - from individual fulfillment to world peace - relies upon our stewardship of that beautiful truth.
* The Saguaro Seminar is a long-term research project conducted at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government aimed at significantly increasing Americans' connectedness to one another and to community institutions.
Cousins, Norman. 1981. "Litany for Moderns," In Readings for Common Worship, Boston: UUA.
Morales, Peter. 2007. Feed the Spiritually Hungry, House the Religiously Homeless. Romans 7:15.
Greeley, Dana M. 1986. "First Person Plural," In Forward Through The Ages, Concord, Mass.: First Parish in Concord.
Putnam, Robert D., Lewis Feldstein, and Donald J. Cohen. Better Together: Restoring the American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Eric M. Cherry has been the director of International Resources for the Unitarian Universalist Association since 2007. He previously served Unitarian Universalist congregations in Burlington, Iowa, and North Easton, Massachusetts. Rev. Cherry is a graduate of Earlham College and Meadville/Lombard Theological School.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2010 issue of Dharma World.
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