Religion seems to find its way into almost every aspect of our lives. In the United States, the political mainstream describes a Òseparation of church and state,Ó in order to separate this profound force of religion from the public lives of its citizens. Thus, the freedom to worship any religion remains a private and personal issue. However, in this imperfect world, it becomes virtually impossible to achieve this kind of separation. Some subtle examples of this can be seen right here on campus. The intriguing yet simple New England architecture that we see all around us, is the result of the Old World Puritan religion. Also on campus, Rollins Chapel, supposedly a Òuniversal place of worshipÓ, is structurally shaped like a cross, the symbol of the crucifixion of Jesus. Delving deep into these religious symbols, there exists a common thread uniting all religions. The aspect of community becomes the Òheart and soulÓ of almost all religious groups around the world. It is this upon which George Weckman focuses his article.
The author defines the characteristics of a community in a number of ways. For one, he claims that some sort of initiation or Òentrance ritualÓ needs to occur in order to mark the acceptance of an individual into the community as a whole. In addition to these entrance rituals, the individual will, most likely, participate in other types of rituals throughout his life. This may include his eventual departure from the community, such as death. Secondly, the author emphasizes the fact that communities often possess clearly defined ritual activities that are unique to their own particular community. He goes on to say, ÒGathering as a group for such rites is perhaps the most persistent aspect of religious community, and is arguably its reason for being.Ó
Thus, the author emphasizes the manner in which ritual activity and communal ÒtogethernessÓ form the basis of community. IÕd like to agree with WeckmanÕs view, but I feel that it can go beyond its present position. Weckman gives the reader the impression that communities form only as a result of their union through religion. However, it is quite possible that religious communities are the ÒcauseÓ and not the ÒeffectÓ of religious experience. As is the case with many tribal religions, the community becomes the central force that ÒdesignsÓ the religion. Throughout Africa, many animistic religions have developed as a result of their immediate environment. Weckman touches upon this subject, ÒWhere nature and its processes are the focal point of religious attention, the community is conceived and structured with reference to the natural world.Ó (Weckman, 567) I disagree with his point here. The author fails to relate the cause of the naturalistic religion to the community itself. Arguably, it is the community that formulates the religion of the society. This, in turn, further emphasizes the importance of community structure.
In addition, IÕd also like to argue that sometimes the community actually becomes more important than the actual religion itself. For example, Reformed Judaism has become the opposite extreme of orthodoxy, where its members actually feel more connected to the community than to the beliefs of Judaism itself. From personal experience, I can honestly state that this is the belief of some individuals. Judaism is a very defined religion. In many extremely orthodox communities, such as the Hasidim, religious beliefs strictly define the person. In somewhat of a contrast, a Reformed Jew becomes more inclined to accept the beliefs of those around him. Although this may be an extreme generalization, I believe that the aspect of community may be more important and influential in many peopleÕs lives than the author suggests in the article.
Finally, according to the author, a religious community often has defined status or social distinction, and these distinctions often manifest themselves in the way the people live their religious lives. Weckman makes the point very clear by stating:
ÒOneÕs role in the family or oneÕs lineage may also determine religious status, and oneÕs political office or status as a leader in the society at large tends to take on religious significance.Ó (Weckman, 567)
IÕd have to agree with WeckmanÕs view here. A prime example of this would be the caste system in India. The status of every individual is validated by its role in the religious society. This is also the case with many Muslim governments. The actions of many of the ÒMuslim nationsÓ are dictated greatly by the Islamic community.
The most important point conveyed by Weckman is his reference to the Òtwo groupsÓ of religious communities. He refers to these two groups as natural and specific religious communities. He writes:
ÒOne of the clearest distinctions to be made among religious communities is that between groups specifically and self-consciously organized around religious beliefs and activities and those societies or ÔnaturalÕ groups wherein whatever is religious is part of the whole social structure. The distinction may also be made by noting that the specific religious groups are typically or theoretically voluntary, while one is born into the latter type of community, and there is no choice about joining it.Ó (Weckman, 567)
At first look, this distinction seems rather obvious. According to the previous statement by Weckman, one can assume that someone making a conscious decision about their religion is involved in a specific community. Together with natural communities consisting of individuals going ÒunconsciouslyÓ into their beliefs, we can observe the whole spectrum of religious community.
However, Weckman goes beyond this simple defining statement to explain what it is that actually constitutes these two groups of communities. After further analysis, the distinction becomes less clear. The author states:
ÒEven though one is born into such social structures, initiation into ÒrealÓ participation in the community is one of the signs that the social unit is also a religious community.Ó(Weckman, 568)
Thus, the assumption derived from the initial statement is incorrect. This weakens WeckmanÕs distinction between natural and specific communities. Now, all individuals must participate in some sort of acceptance behavior that brings them into the actual community. Specific communities therefore encompass all natural communities to a certain extent. This brings up an interesting point. According to WeckmanÕs definition of a natural community, we can assume that the Hindu caste system must be defined as such. All Hindus are born ÒunconsciouslyÓ into an already defined caste that was willed to them from their previous life. However, the Hindu must also participate in a ritual that formally brings them into the community. As a consequence, I argue that we can look at the Hindu caste system as both a natural and specific community.
The author also supports his idea of specific community by defining the six types of specific religious communities. These include: cult, sect, established sect, denomination, ecclesia, and universal church. (Weckman, 569) According to Weckman, these six types of communities were developed to indicate the manner in which the community is integrated and accepted into society as a whole. Weckman describes in detail the extent in which each type of community has integrated themselves into society. A cult is a type of community that is least involved and accepted into society. A cult is usually led by a charismatic individual who is usually very personal and emotional with his followers. (Weckman, 569) A classic example of a cult can be the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh. At the other end of the spectrum, the universal church displays characteristics of extreme integration and is often fully accepted within society.
However, this notion of the Òsix typesÓ of specific communities becomes less discernible with further examination. For example, the universal church, which can best be used to describe the Roman Catholic church, is not necessarily specific in the manner in which he defines it. Many people are ÒbornÓ into the catholic faith, thus placing these people into a natural religious community. Many people describe themselves as being part of a community such as the catholic church, but just how specific is the universal church? Can a community this large actually function productively? Where then, do we draw the line? Weckman touches upon this point effectively. He states:
ÒOne of the characteristics of the specific religious community as compared with the natural religious community is its voluntary character. Yet this characteristic is almost completely absent in the ecclesia and universal church and is of little importance in the denomination and the established sect.Ó (Weckman, 570)
The author makes the distinction clear between what most people consider a Òfaith by choiceÓ and a Òfaith by birth.Ó People can be born into a religious community that does not fall into the six specific categories. Does this mean that this person is not associated with a specific community? Not necessarily. Therefore, I agree with WeckmanÕs belief that a specific community is not always voluntary. In many cases, it is just the opposite.
Community can come to mean a variety of different things to a variety of different people. Despite a few weaknesses, Weckman presents a clear and concise description of the dynamics and functionality of communal structure. His arguments are vivid and compelling. I believe Weckman encompasses the central idea of the influence of community with great vivacity, ÒNevertheless, it is not too much to say that nearly all religious situations do have a communal dimension and that in many the community is the decisive factor.Ó (Weckman, 566) Without a doubt, it is the community that forms the basis of religious life. When dealing with religious community, one canÕt help but realize how disparate many of them are. Nevertheless, community will persist as the basis and the foundation of all religious life throughout the world.