Faith, Community, and Friendship

Chris Yeh wrote a phenomenal post over the summer titled Faith, Community, Friendship, and Imperfection.

He opens by reminding readers of an idea the two of us have kicked around for years: forming a secular church. Then he shares two beliefs of his that may seem puzzling when juxtaposed: he is not religious, but many of the people he most admires are.

First he explains what emotional void Mr. Rogers filled for his viewers:

Mr. Rogers made a difference because he pursued intimacy with people; he made them feel safe enough to open up about their failings and fears. Whatever the issue in your life, he felt that you should speak openly about it. And once people did open up, he showered them with unconditional love.

He didn’t absolve them; while we crave absolution, we know ourselves too well for absolution to feel real. His genius was to convey a simple, yet powerful message. “You are struggling. You sometimes fail. But despite those things, I love you, and I am proud of you.”

He then goes on to cite Walter Kirn’s recent piece on Mormonism to get to a larger point about faith and friendship:

Perhaps one of the reasons friendship is so powerful is that it represents the kind of loving acceptance that we crave, yet often do not receive.

I can’t speak for women, but among men, one’s close friends provide the same kind of paradoxical support as Mr. Rogers and the Mormons. My friends know my various flaws, and are quick to point them out. Much of male bonding consists of busting one another’s asses with friendly insults and embarrassing stories. Yet underlying it all is a sense of acceptance and brotherhood. The unspoken message is simple: “You’re a fuckup, but I love you anyways. Let’s grab a beer and hang out. Just don’t sleep with my sister.”

When Robert Putnam wrote “Bowling Alone,” he argued that the decay in community institutions (such as bowling leagues) was isolating people and making them angrier and less empathetic. Yet while his concept of declining social capital is a powerful one, I always had problems with finding solutions to the challenge.

I don’t think we can turn back the clock to an age where people lived their entire lives in a small town, and attended Rotary Club meetings every week. Putnam thinks that the entry of women into the workplace contributed to these changes; I doubt many of us want to go back to 1950s chauvinism.

But when I consider “Bowling Alone” in the context of faith, community, and friendship, I think I start to see a different solution.

Ultimately, the institutions of the past were imperfect. I don’t belong to any fraternal institutions because I find them kind of weird and creepy. But we can’t let our desire to avoid imperfection keep us from building meaningful bonds.

I think we all have a need to be known, really and truly, and then accepted for what we are. Call it love. Call it friendship. Whatever it its, we need it.

I think we all have a need for community–repeated, unplanned interactions with a group of people that accept us–even if the pieces fit together imperfectly.

I think that religious organizations like the Mormon Church, wittingly or unwittingly, have built a culture around meeting both of these needs. And in doing so, they provide great benefits to their adherents, regardless what’s in their theology.

If you are known, accepted, and loved by a community of people, no matter who those people are, I think you have something special that you should hang on to.

It’s a topic I think about constantly, and Chris captured it beautifully. I’m grateful to have him in my community of friends.

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One small nit with the well-circulated NYT piece on how it’s harder to form friends when older: I’m not convinced “unplanned interactions” is a litmus test for a good friendship, or even a necessary ingredient.

10 Responses to Faith, Community, and Friendship

  1. brian says:

    Great post Ben. Thanks for sharing Chris’ piece.

    In re: to your nit with the NYT piece. I don’t think “unplanned interactions” is a litmus test for friendship, but a consistent condition in how friendships have formed. This has all changed with the web of course, but the great example I remember of this was a study showing people in apartment buildings who lived near the stairs had more friends on other floors than people near the elevators.

  2. Chris Yeh says:

    Glad you liked the post, Ben! The secular church concept has stuck with me for years, and continues to fascinate me.

  3. Jude says:

    As an atheist who grew up in a church, I’d say that church gives you the illusion of community, but it isn’t necessarily there. Yes, you’re hanging out with like-minded people–sort of. But that seldom extends outside the Sunday meeting. I took in an atheist Mormon teenager for a summer–she estimated that leaving church gave her an additional 11 hours a week to do whatever she wanted. After she moved in with me, her dad dropped by to try to reconvert her three times, but now, two years later, she never hears from them. I get more of leaving comments on blog posts than I ever did in church.

  4. Richard says:

    It is an interesting idea to try to create a church community outside of religion. Though, I think it would be very hard.

    Part of the reason such a good community can exist in a ‘christian’ church is because they share a moral standard. They think (or try to think) of other people more than themselves. They care about everyone else more than your average person. There is no doubt that many non-religious people have this almost ‘unnatural’ care for others, even more than some ‘christians’. But it is common attribute of the christian church because their theology teaches this idea of selflessness, making it more widespread in these groups. It would be hard to create such of sense of welcomeness and care for others without a religious backing.

  5. Chris Yeh’s post is surprising, to say the least. He starts by making Mr. Rogers sound like the unconditionally loving Jesus of fundamentalists’ fantasies (anyone who’s read the New Testament can see that he’s no peacenik, and has quite a violent temper).

    The sentence, “As I examined my own feelings about Mr. Rogers, I began to feel that perhaps this was how the truly devout feel about their deity” sounds like satire, but surprisingly, is not. Actually, the whole piece struck me that way.

    Of course the author of a blog called Adventures in Capitalism would want a secular church, if he wanted one at all, but the infusion of spiritual values like faith in this context, illustrated with goofy comparisons to Mr. Rogers and characters from an animated Disney movie, is passing strange.

    The whole conceit is a bit sappy. As an antidote, I recommend that the earnest reader, in search of enlightenment and entertainment in the same satirical draught, read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. In this fine book, the writer invents the fictional religion of Bokononism, many of the sacred texts of which are written as calypsos.

    From Wikipedia: “Bokononism is based on the concept of foma, which are defined as harmless untruths. A foundation of Bokononism is that the religion, including its texts, is formed entirely of lies; however, one who believes and adheres to these lies will have peace of mind, and perhaps live a good life.” Now that sounds like as good a description of Mormonism or any Judeo-Christian religion as any to me.

    And I must say that Boko-maru, the supreme act of worship of the Bokononists, consisting of prolonged physical contact between the naked soles of the feet of two persons, sounds much better than drinking the blood and eating the flesh of your saviour.

  6. Chris Yeh says:

    Jude,

    I think the sense of belonging depends on the church. I’m not religious, but my wife and kids attend a church many Sunday mornings (I worship in a different way, by playing basketball). Their church does many activities beyond the sermon; for example, they run a free karate program for kids, and I play basketball with a lot of the dads on Thursday nights. They’re never pushy about their beliefs; I think their strategy is simply to live lives of generosity and rectitude. It’s not going to convert me, but I still admire them for it.

    Richard,

    I believe that morality doesn’t have to depend on religion. I’ve never been a believer, and yet I’ve always shunned the traditional vices–I’ve never smoked or taken illegal drugs, and I didn’t drink any alcohol until I was 21 (and even today, barely drink anything other than the free wine at investor events).

    Perhaps a belief in the power of love and happiness isn’t as potent as an organized religion with a deity, but it seems to work for me.

    Vince,

    I’m not sure what’s wrong with sappiness. Certainly Kurt Vonnegut and Mr. Rogers were two very different figures, but both were great men who tried to bring more understanding to the world, albeit in different ways.

    You and I might not enjoy watching a “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” marathon as adults, but it clearly has had an impact on generations of viewers.

    Ultimately, you’re the best judge of what works for you. Every person is different. But I think you should consider the possibility that sappiness works for some people, just like religion works for others, just like atheism works for yet a third group.

  7. Great post, Chris, and thanks Ben for sharing.

    In the past few months I’ve entertained the same idea. After reading books like “Religion for Atheists”, “The Road Less Traveled” and a couple of others, I went from being an atheist to an atheist with a profound respect for religion.

    Here’s an approach I considered:

    Priests (or similar roles), who would give us an explanation of why and how things happened have been needed throughout history. In the secular world, psychologists are the closest we have to priests, but they are not the only ones: life coaches, neurologists, astrologists, and more.

    It seems to me that what they all do is tell us what’s going on, why, and a certain direction on what to do next. The problem is they all do it with a specific framework (scientific, motivational, etc.). Here’s what I think could work:

    A group of people gets together, they share their problems, and then a “board” composed by psychologists, neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists, astrologists, life coaches, and all the other forms of secular guidance give their explanation and perspective on the problem.

    The goal would be for us to feel less lonely, by knowing that our problems not only are common to others, but that they’ve all been looked into with different approaches. Finally, people may lean into one or more of these secular fields in order to deepen their consolation.

    I’m convinced there’s something to say about putting secular support under one roof instead of having them clash because of their individual limited scope.

  8. Chris Yeh says:

    One interesting tidbit I ran across that seems relevant:

    “The presence of fellow Weight Watchers is equally therapeutic as it is spiritual: it transforms the support group into a greater, spiritual power that engenders therapeutic aid to members struggling with their diets,” the authors write. “The support group gives meaning to members’ at times trauma-ridden overweight condition, grants forgiveness for members’ weight loss failures, offers valued oversight and overarching guidance needed to make it through the trials and tribulations of the week, as well as casting the occasional weight-loss successes in a veneer of much-needed glamour,” the authors conclude.”

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090824182537.htm

  9. Chris Yeh says:

    Carlos,

    I love the idea of a board that would tell me how to live. They’d be wrong sometimes, but no solution is perfect.

    I try to do the same thing right now by reading Eric Barker’s blog!

  10. You have done in fact wonderful work by make such a great blog keep up the good work.

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