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Is it necessary to be a part of a religious community in order to fully experience a relationship with God?

The key word in the question is "fully."  We can experience a relationship with God on our own.  In fact, it is often such an experience that prompts us to seek out a religious community.  I believe, however, that the full experience of God is gained socially.  Since I believe the essence of God is love, it's tough to love by yourself.  The sort of love that comes from God grows as it is shared, making the experience fuller with every additional person we share it.

Also, I believe our human relationships, when healthy, are designed to be a means of experiencing God.  Part of the point of Jesus, I think, is that human beings get to know God incarnationally...in human flesh.  I know something of God's providence because I have experienced parents who provided for me.  I know something of divine friendship because my friend, Celeste, loves me even when I am a jerk.  I know something of God's grace because people have been willing to forgive me.  The downside of this, of course, is that when we have unhealthy and disordered relationships, our relationship with God also suffers...making our choice of religious community one that deserves our utmost attention.  If we choose a destructive community, spiritual damage can be done.

Lastly, the religious community is...at its best...an accountable community that can help me keep on the right road.  In a healthy religious community, I am encouraged to share how I am growing in my faith and what I believe God is calling me to do.  If I wake up one morning convinced that God has told me to mow down my neighbors with an automatic weapon, a healthy Christian community can perhaps remind me about the sixth commandment and suggest my faith antennae need a bit of adjusting.  Not that the community is foolproof, but it's better than no checks and balances at all.  In community I can grow faster and stronger because we are helping one another along the way.

--Anne Robertson

It's obviously possible to be a solitary Christian. People who have lived years in solitary confinement have done it. There's a tradition of the hermit monk, and so forth. But the normal pattern of Christian life, or of Jewish life for that matter, is life within community. In a highly individualistic nation like the United States, it's important to stress the significance of religious community. I find religious community to be profoundly nourishing. I even find such a solitary practice as contemplative prayer to be more powerful for me with a group of people doing silent prayer together. I don't have an explanation for that, but I know from my experience that it's true.

Being part of a community also makes one part of a tradition, and tradition for me is a very good word. Tradition is the wisdom of the past, the beauty of the past. Tradition is flawed, of course, like all human products are. But to separate oneself from community and tradition on one's spiritual journey is like turning one's back on a banquet right in front of you, and deciding to go out and forage for food by yourself. Community is the normative pattern of the spiritual life.

--Dr. Marcus Borg



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