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The role of religious communities in the Long Emergency

My husband goes back and forth on whether to wear a kippah (yarmulke) full time or not, for reasons that are mostly too boring and arcane to discuss here ;-). But one of the fascinating things we’ve noticed when he is doing it, or when we are wearing kippot, is that we almost never get any comments on my husband’s weirdo head thingie from other religious people. Out in rural areas like mine, where there are almost no Jews and no one wears a beanie, nobody says anything. And part of the reason is that a lot of my neighbors do things for religious reasons that look strange to a lot of people - they don’t let their kids trick or treat, they homeschool, they wear funny bonnets themselves or plain clothes, they have ashes on their face once a year… So while we stick out (not a lot of Jews out here), we also oddly, fit in. I find this remarkably heartening.

On the other hand, when we go to Boston or New York City, my husband inevitably gets scores of comments. A lot of them come from secular Jews, who can’t resist explaining why they aren’t religious, and others from people who want to know what kind of religious weirdos we actually are, or have an opinion on religion in general. Since Eric doesn’t visually fit in with the obvious kippah cues (ie, we are not Chasidic), I find it fascinating that in our neighborhood, where we are something of odd ducks, we fit in better than in a city full of odd ducks ;-) - but mostly secular ones. Being visibly part of a religious community is not that unusual in Manhattan, of course, but the public wearing of religious communal identity is generally considered to be MAKING A STATEMENT. (The actual statement that underlies this is “It is just easier to wear the headcovering all the time, since we pray each time we eat and several other times a day, and are obligated to cover our heads when doing so, so why keep taking the thing on and off all the time?”)

In recounting this story, I do not mean to say that New York’s attitude towards religion is bad and my rural one good, or that I’m necessarily better off with fewer Jewish people ;-). But I do think that the culture of religion - despite deep differences in theology - can offer some interesting common ground for believers of many faiths. Underlying our faiths (and sometimes far, far underlying it, in the case of many religious cultures) is often a critique of the idea that materialism is what matters. It can be hard to find this critique in many churches and shuls that I’ve been to - but it is there, and in Pagan, Hindu, Buddhist and Moslem texts as well, some closer to the surface, some further down.

I find myself wondering, then, as official representative of “visible religious weirdos” (I’m actually in a competition to see how many different kinds of weirdo I can be…ecological, economic…religious…political… I think I’m winning ;-)) what the future of religion and religious identity will be in the US as things change, as we get poorer and our lives are disrupted in a host of ways. Will we get more religious? Less? If we do get more or less religious, what kind of religion will dominate? What will be its role? Can we get from the hidden critiques of our consumptive culture to some kind of coherent, cross-faith narrative that enables more of us to live well in the coming times? These are mostly abstract questions, and I’m not sure of the answers, or how much of my opinions is mixed up in what I’d like to see and what I expect to see.

But what I am fairly certain of is that religious communities are going to have a large and powerful role in the future - one that ideally, we’d begin shaping and preparing for today. This is one of the reasons I’m never so delighted as when I’m asked to talk to religious communities - because in many ways, I think that they provide an existing infrastructure that is potentially powerfully adaptable to the life we will be living. The whole project of Adapting-In-Place involves using what you’ve already got - and one of the tools we have is religious infrastructure, which provides things that few other institutions in our society do. These are things I think we will need.

AI don’t think most people doing activist work have really tapped into churches, synagogues, mosques, covens and temples as ways both of getting messages across and also of creating resilient infrastructure. While I know a lot of individuals working with their churches and local communities to raise awareness, start gardens, etc… I’ve seen few larger uses of the infrastructure of faith, whether interfaith (the fact that there’s no interfaith peak oil group at this point is actually largely my fault - I once asked Bob Waldrop if we should start one, he said “sure” and then I never did anything ;-)), or within the larger infrastructure of any given particular religious community. There are signs of hope here, but I’d like to see this progress faster, simply because I think as time gets harder, the functions of religious communities will become more important.

There’s a growing tendency to believe that religion is the root cause of a lot of our problems, and that we’d all be better off without it. Not coming from a religious faith that does recruiting, I’m really not that worried about other people’s religous and spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof. I do think that the growing tide of books on the merits of athiesm tend to make some silly overstatements about the problems of faith, but that’s fine - the hostility to athiesm that our society has had has always been rather overstated too. I tend to agree with Rabbi Steve Greenberg that athiesm is a useful and necessary corrective to people of faith, and that it is, as Eric’s grandmother used to say, “no reason to get your knickers in a twist.” Thus, in some senses, despite the fact that I’m a religious person, and care very much about theological distinctions and beliefs, this isn’t the subject of this post, and I’m ok with divorcing them for this purpose.

I realize that there’s something a bit strange about concentrating on the practical merits of religious communities instead of their precise theologies, or the ways they can connect them that want it to their chosen Diety, and I’m not sure there’s any good way to write this without my seeming like I’m erasing the primary work of religious communities - worship. All I can say about that is that even churches and other religious institutions admit implicitly that the value of worship is something that many people have to come to after they experience the *functional* value of religious institutions. That is, one of the classic sayings in synagogues is that they have several “chances” at you - one of them is when you have children, and are forced to confront questions about what you believe and want for your children in terms of religion, another is when people lose their parents, and their worlds are shaken.

In both cases, people aren’t coming to synagogue because they have suddenly seen the value of not sleeping in on Saturday morning or going out for beer on Friday night, they are coming for those practical and formal structures of their religious institution - they are coming because the synagogue provides Hebrew school and other Jewish kids for their children, or because they provide a funeral, a kaddish minyan and emotional support after a loss. That is, those religious communities know that the hope of getting people in the door, the hope of getting them to stay long enough to find other value, begins with these more pragmatic functions.

And the reality is that there are few secular institutions that are prepared to fill the needs that people have at moments of crisis - this is what religious communities tend to do very well - they offer people access to familiar, structural ways to deal with events that change your world. That is, they are there when you have a baby, and provide some ritual for welcoming that child. They provide a kind of education in faith, even if the parents haven’t figured out all that they believe - they can pass it off (I’m a religous person who thinks that faith starts at home, and I don’t love parents who do pass off the big questions to Sunday school or whatever, but I recognize that religious institutions are used this way, and in general, I think some exposure is better than none, though perhaps not much better), they provide ways of dealing with death, places for people with no place, support for the aging, ways to incorporate new family members through marriage. They may be the only place most people get sit down meals with other people who aren’t related to them. They may be the only place where people who are socially inept can go and find some kind of community that will tolerate and support them because that is part of their mission. Many communities provide volunteer services for the poor - they run the food pantries, the shelters, the relief organizations. They get people in transitional and crisis moments and they offer formal structures to aid them- and those services get people in the door. That’s not why we do it - or all of why we do it, but it is worth asking - what secular institutions can meet the same needs?

There are some that try. Food Not Bombs does a great job of providing food to the hungry. There are humanist and secular organizations, funeral homes and other groups. But few of them do so many things, so cohesively. And this is one of the things that sometimes drives me crazy about the hostility people have to religion. I’ve no objection to people thinking my faith is a fairy tale - that’s fine. But when people begin ranting about the evils of religion, but wonder why so many adhere, I ask them - ok, fair enough. But are you burying the dead? Where are the organizations to provide secular burial and rituals for the grieving? Where is your rationale for loving even the really annoying people in our society who still need people who will talk to them and care for them? Are you out there at the secular food pantry? The secular shelter? The justice work, the fundraising for the poor? Where do you provide free counseling for those dealing with personal trauma, help people wed and welcome babies into the world? I’ve no objection to strong secular institutions these things arising - I would welcome them. But I don’t see them, and I don’t think they will come rapidly into place before the hard times hit - since that would be now.

Like it or not, the existing structures many of us have for all these things, and also basic community building are religious. That doesn’t mean that people willing to work at it can’t locate or build secular communities - they can. But the easy access that is already in place is often in religious communities, particularly in rural and suburban areas.

And in the future, there are likely to be a lot more people needing food pantries, a lot more people in crisis needing support, a lot more isolated and traumatized people needing counselling, and a lot more people who can’t afford pricey privatized secular substitutes (this is not to say that all secular substitutes are pricey, but that much of what has emerged has had commercial implications) for what religious communities have provided comparatively cheaply (ie, the fancy “event hall” for a wedding, christening or bris rather than the church basement or shul event room, the expensive graveyard rather than the subsidized plot, catering by the volunteer committee vs. catering by Fritz…etc…).

There is also likely to be a retreat to the familiar, the comforting and the ritualized, and the need for community structures. Many of the changes in our economic, energy and ecologic life demand that people reconsider what they’ve assumed and believed. For better or worse (and what kind of faith we retreat to will depend on which one this is), For many of us, after we leave school, work provides our social and communal structures - we socialize with coworkers, work organizes our lives. But when jobs are lost or transient, it becomes harder to rely on that for community. Where do we find social supports, people to talk to, common values? Again, for many of us, this is our religious community.

This, of course, presents a dilemma for people who are not religious, or who belong to a religious denomination not represented. Do you join a group with which you do not share all your beliefs, or any? What happens when church is how social life is conducted, and you aren’t religious?

I think the answer depends on your faith and your relationship to it - I think someone who believes that faith is fundamentally false should probably work on establishing useful secular institutions that do what religious ones do. I think someone with fairly minor theological differences, or a mild case of agnosticism should find the most compatible possibilities, if they want to work with a religious community, and then ask that community’s leader whether it would be ok for them to participate. My guess is that you’ll find more difference in individual believers in most communities than you think. It really depends on the community though - for some people there are basic statements of faith you must make to participate, in other cases, some groups are open to people they believe may sincerely evolve in their commitment. Some places won’t ask you what you believe at all. Some religious communities may have evolved roles for those who cannot fully adhere but are supportive - high rates of Jewish intermarriage, for example, have forced many Jewish communities to evolve places for non-Jewish spouses, and many religous communities with high bars to participation (say, celibacy) have committed supporters who cannot be full members.

And the question of open participation is likely to arise quickly - if things get hard enough, religious communities are likely to be first responders. More and more people are likely to seek them out for support, and the question becomes - how do those of us who are religious balance the desire for doctrinal accordance with this greater need - that is, how far do we open ourselves to people who need comfort, need help, need somewhere to enact their rituals - these of course are central questions for every faith, and every faith is to some degree defined by them. Do we marry anyone, even people who don’t adhere to our basic principles? Do we want to include children whose parents don’t teach our faith, because at least we’ve offered them something? Do we bury anyone? How much are we here for those who adhere, and how much are we here for those who have needs who may not adhere. And different religious communities handle the balance of faithful participation and openness in different ways.

But however it works out - whether our community is only for those who adhere entirely to its rules and beliefs, or whether its doors are wide (and IMHO, there’s a necessary role for both - I’m biased towards greater observance, but I see the merits of the open tent as well) - preparing for difficult times needs to be a priority. We face being overwhelmed by people in need, as donations dry up and costs rise. Understanding what is going on, making education and the care of one’s own people (however defined - I include here the groups of the vulnerable we come to think of as “ours”) is going to be a central project for religious communities. We will do things better if we understand fully what we are preparing for.

And in the founding texts and deep in the culture of most religions (and not so deep in others - forms of Buddhism, Amish and Plain Quaker culture and plenty of others have managed to keep this right up at the top) are ties to a past of far less plenty, and narratives that may well enable us to live with much less, may enable those inclined towards belief to find a story to tell themselves about the future that helps them see not loss, but gain. The good thing about welcoming those who we can welcome is that the primary religious texts that we rely on never did tell us that affluence and consumption were important - we may have forgotten this (while swearing, of course, that we never really cared that much about them), but it won’t stay forgotten, and perhaps, for some who come for the practical tools of religious communities, this part will stay, and bring them back to worship.

Sharon

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