My observance of AHY this past week went pretty well. My roommates and I connected with our neighbors from across the hall. They are cool people, and (as is becoming a pattern) I probably would not have gotten around to meeting them if not for this prompting.
I’ve also been thinking about an experience I’ve often had which is related to the idea of community. I’ve been to a fair number of religious services in my time. I used to be Christian, and even after my conversion I occasionally attend for one reason or another. I’ve been struck by how amazingly well replacing the world “God” with the word “community” works in these services. Really, try it sometime. Making that one change in what the leader is saying or reading from scripture makes everything make so much more sense.
The thought process goes like this: These gatherings are effective. People get something out of them. But there is no God answering their prayers, so there must be something else going on (in fact, I think there are many things going on and people attend religious services for many reasons, but one thing at a time). I think it is incredibly revelatory to think of the prayers as being really addressed to the people who are gathered there and all of the great descriptions of what God does as really being descriptions of what the community can do for its members. I would argue that behind all of the God language, baptisms are really about welcoming new children into the community and ensuring that everyone agrees to look out for them, coming-of-age ceremonies are about changing those children’s relationship to the community and making sure everyone knows to treat them differently afterwards, marriage ceremonies are about calling on the community to acknowledge romantic relationships and to provide assistance when necessary to the couple, funerals are about recognizing peoples’ contributions to the community and helping everyone deal with their loss, and weekly services are about bringing people together to strengthen community bonds (among many other functions – I recognize that this is a very quick description of complex gatherings).
There are some circumstances when this translation from “God” to “community” breaks down, but I have found that in those cases you can substitute the word “good” for “God” and it works just as well. In those cases, I believe the God language is being used to express a community’s aspirations; it is being used to describe the ideals towards which they strive. God is often imagined this way, as the perfection of all which is good, and it is an easy thing to translate back to human good.
As of yet, I have not encountered God language which I couldn’t explain in one of these two ways, and doing so has helped me understand religious language better and to recognize what is useful in it. This is not at all to say that there is no problem with religious language or in the way in which religious communities often think. I think the truth is incredibly important and would not content myself with attending these services regularly and simply translating. But I have found this kind of translation a helpful tool in attempting to understand and to separate what is good in traditional religion from what is bad.