Last night, a neighbor of mine invited me to her house to participate in a group discussion led by author and activist Kelly Bean on her new book, “How to Be a Christian without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community.”
Going into the event, I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t read the book, and I was unsure of what I could contribute to the conversation. But I was intrigued, because my neighbor happens to be a Christian pastor and the fact that she was hosting a discussion on a book that seemed, essentially, to serve as a guide for people who wish to leave the church without losing their faith excited my curiosity.
Also, the title of the book suggested an experiment in faith with results that were very different from my own personal experience. As I have said before on this blog, I am Catholic to my backbone. My Catholic identity is rooted in the deepest core of my soul, and I know this to be true because there were times in my life when I was disappointed enough in the Church that I tried tear it out of me. But as I explored other faith communities — and even tried for a time to live my faith without any institutional connections — I discovered that no matter what I did or where I went, I could not experience faith in any capacity without feeling the pull of its ties to my intrinsic Catholicism.
Kelly’s book is, essentially, the story of people who went through an experience similar to mine, but who ended up with a completely different spiritual result.
So I went to the gathering feeling curious and, as often happens when our minds are opened up to new thoughts, I came home feeling even more curious. Because in discussing how people connect to a community of faith, our conversation touched on a topic that, I think, is of central importance to modern religion: the question of how we live our spirituality within the numerous layers of community that make up the fabric of our lives as individuals and, ultimately, as citizens of a broader world.
This is a question with many faces. Most basically, it asks people of faith, whether they are deeply connected to an established and structured religious organization or whether they are flying on their own wings, how they live their beliefs. Is our faith something internal, which provides us with hope or inspiration but which isn’t a part of our outward lives? Is it a ritual, or a routine, that shapes how we spend our time more than the person we are? Is it something we share with others by simply participating mutually in liturgy, or is it something that enables us to form powerful spiritual bonds with others?
But this question also forces us to consider what our spiritual life means in the more extensive context of our existence in this world. On the simplest level, does our faith make us better people? Does it empower us to live gently, in service to others? And more esoterically, how does it affect the way that we participate as citizens of our larger non-faith communities? In a heterogeneous world, how do our beliefs affect those who don’t share them? How do we know when the expression of our faith hurts others, and where do we draw the line between living our faith and living in a group in which there are those who feel that their freedoms are curtailed by our beliefs?
This may come as a shock, but I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. Many of them weren’t even formed in my mind until last night, and there are many more brewing beneath the surface. But I think reading Kelly’s book is a good way to start thinking about what is at the heart of our faith, what inspires us to celebrate it, and how we can be more aware of the way our faith communities affect both the individuals who comprise them and the greater world around them.