Over the past few months, this blog has been exploring the idea of knowing God from a number of angles: philosophical, scriptural, historical, and personal. But it’s a huge (one might even say infinite) topic and so by necessity some aspects of the subject have been put more in the background than they should be. One of the biggest of these ares that deserves a bit more attention before the end of the series is the importance of the Church — the community of faith — in knowing God.
Christianity is a fractal faith: the same patterns that emerge in the life of a Christian also emerges in a family of Christians, and in a church community, and in the Church writ large across the world and through time. The macrocosm and the microcosm tell the same story. And, the story can’t properly be told without both. While the subject of the Church really deserves a whole series of its own, I’d like to spend two posts to talk at least briefly about two main ways the Church can be a place where we meet God together: community and worship. Today I’ll tackle the first.
There are wonderful blessings in community: the mutual benefits of friendship, support, practical assistance, example, and on and on. Life is simply better when it’s done together. Some of my favorite memories are of time spent in Christian community: a wonderful Bible study group in my mid-twenties (many of whom still meet together after fifteen years!), a parish that did weekly pot luck lunches after Sunday worship. These communities were cherished because they built real relationships, and in so doing built us all up together as persons too. We were made for community, as parts of a bigger whole.
As important as community is for personal well-being, however, in the interest of time, today I’d like to focus more on the spiritual benefits of community. Community isn’t just good for us, but it’s also a great spiritual training ground, and a place where we can meet God. As I noted in the post on knowing God in a personal, relational way:
“In our day-to-day lives, what is better at dislodging our self-centredness than honestly engaging with another person, even if that engagement is only as deep as trying to negotiate what to have for dinner? The greatest chasm in the world is the one between two human hearts and minds. Meeting another person, conversing, negotiating, finding common ground and ways of working with difference — this stunning revelation that ‘I’, my thoughts, beliefs, experiences, hopes, and dreams are not all that matters in the world — is really the true work of being human.”
Being in community is a great popper of the ego’s bubble. It is where we learn that we are not the measure of all things, that our experiences are not universal, that our ways are not everyone’s ways — and far less God’s ways.
As challenging as this can be, it also opens up to us worlds of possibility we wouldn’t have imagined. Take for example, my friend Michael. Michael is a man of wonderful faith and God profoundly moves and acts in his life. But, those ways are very different from the ways God moves and acts in my life. While this means our conversations about God can sometimes make us both feel a little lonely — for the ways we experience and know God are deeply intimate and so it’s always hard when others don’t share them — it also leaves me in wonder at the vastness of God’s goodness. It’s a glorious thing that God is so much bigger than how any of us experience God. This is also a beautiful ballast for my theological imagination because whenever I ponder the deep mysteries of faith, and even more when I attempt to write about them, I have to ask myself, “Does what I’m saying include Michael’s experience?” And if I can’t answer yes without hesitation, then I have to relax my ideas until they coalesce into a form where he does fit.
Another example of the spiritual beauty of community is the Jewish Scripture-reading practice known as Havruta, in which truth is understood to emerge not from text itself but from the conversation two people have about the text. When I explored this practice with a friend a couple of years ago for this blog, I found that as much as I liked my own readings of the text, the readings that emerged from my conversation with my friend were always, always richer. This is in so many ways an icon of community itself. We can have a good, true, and beautiful life — and life with God — on our own, but community makes everything about that life so much richer.
Finally, our brothers and sisters in faith offer us an opportunity to encounter God within them. If God’s Wisdom truly is manifest in all living things such that we can learn something of who God is in them, how much more can we and must we encounter God in our fellow humans, who are made in the very image and likeness of God? This isn’t always easy, of course, because people — those dastardly ‘others’ who have the nerve to not be us — are rarely easy to for us to deal with. But nonetheless, we are called to work with this, and to see that as much as “hell is other people,” as Sartre famously commented, other people are also our salvation.
All of these things deserve far greater fleshing out, but I hope this post has at least provided some context for understanding how community life contributes to — and is in many ways necessary for — our knowledge of God.