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No Faith Is an Island

by Robert McAfee Brown

Robert McAfee Brown, whose name is symbolic for engaged theologian and ethicist, is perhaps best known for being able to write clearly, for example, in Theology in a New Key: Responding to Liberation Theology and Saying Yes and Saying No: On Rendering to God and Caesar. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 27, 1974, pp. 229-231. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Traditionally, the period of Lent has been a time for "turning inward." We examine our lives, our faith, our degree of dedication or lack thereof, and we determine to make amends in various ways. Lent is thus always in danger of being overly individualistic. Accordingly, it may be worthwhile to remember, as Lent begins, that whatever individual faith we seek to refine or redefine is always faith with communal roots.

John Donne reminded us several centuries ago that "no man is an island entire of itself," and that consequently we are all involved in one anotherís destinies. This is eminently true not only of our physical lives but of our believing lives as well. We do not believe by ourselves, as individuals in isolation; we believe as part of a community of believers, whether the community is a Benedictine monastery, a communist cell, a Protestant congregation, a Jewish minyan or a Hindu ashram.

To be sure, we must personally appropriate the faith of the community to which we belong and make it our own, and in this sense Luther was right in insisting that everyone has to do his own believing just as everyone has to do his own dying. But we need to remember also that the faith we personally appropriate is the faith of the community, and this means that even the most internalized, existential act of personal commitment will bind us into a communal relationship of shared belief with others.

Even if the faith I appropriate were somehow brand new, never before conceived, the product of no apparent community save my own internal dialogue with myself, if I really believed it to be true I would perforce share it with others; and thus, whether I directly willed it or not, a new community would be created around it.

So faith and community are inextricably joined together. Community can only be created around a faith; faith, can only be creative within a community. Let us therefore reflect on ways in which the community nurtures and strengthens the life of faith.

First, the community is the place where the faith of the individual can be tested against the faith of the community. The community has a long history; better still, it has a memory, which means that it can put its history to use. The individual has a short history that needs frequent checking against the communityís longer history. When an individual Marxist offers a new and exciting twist to the dialectic, party members can say, "Wait a minute! Thatís just what Bakunin thought, and look where it led him . . ." When an individual Christian, wanting to preserve Jesusí uniqueness, pushes his divinity so hard as to deny his humanity, there is a communal memory to remind him, "Thatís docetism, the oldest heresy of all. It nearly destroyed the early church and youíd better see where it leads before you use it to destroy the contemporary church as well."

In situations like these, the individual may be genuinely convinced that Bakunin or the docetists were right, and thus feel constrained to break with the community if the community cannot be changed. But the decision will at least be an informed one, taken in the light of a wider range of experience and wisdom than the individual alone can possess.

But, by itself, such a view of community can lead to timidity and rigidity, the community finally being cast in the role of the preserver of orthodoxy, whether the orthodoxy be Marxist or Christian. So the community must also be a garden for heresy, or at least for the testing of new ideas. It must play a second and opposite role, as the place where the faith of the community can be tested against the faith of the individual. Any community that is truly a community must be able to suffer fools gladly and even to embrace the heretics that threaten its peace. Since communities are almost always careful and conservative, they need the leaven of fresh ideas, along with new interpretations of old ideas, and these are contributions that only the most venturesome within their midst are likely to offer. This is how communities stay alive and grow. High medieval Christianity needed a Francis of Assisi, and fortunately recognized the fact. Late medieval Christianity needed a Martin Luther, and unfortunately did not recognize the fact. Marxism always needs fresh prophets to save it from Stalinist aberrations, and sometimes it does, and sometimes does not, recognize the fact. Communities become rigid and frozen without the input of creative and often irrepressible spirits.

A crucial question for the Roman Catholic community today, for example, is whether or not it can respond creatively to the challenge of individual voices as diverse as those of Hans Küng and Daniel Berrigan, and adapt its communal life to the demands for change that they place upon it. The very choice of such individuals symbolizes the intricacy of interrelationship between individual and communal faith. Some Catholics insist that both men are heretics, to be suffered within the community only if they mute their voices; others say that they represent more authentic versions of the faith than the various beliefs and practices they are challenging, and that it is the institution rather than the individual that is heretical.

The community contributes to the life of faith in a third way, by being the place where the burden of doubt can be shared. Faith always involves risk. Some risks, shouldered only by the individual, are too overwhelming and can only be destructive. In such cases, the community can be the place for "the bearing of burdens," the place where things too heavy to be borne individually can, at least during crucial moments, be borne corporately.

It need not be a sign of individual weakness -- rather, it is a sign of communal strength -- when an individual can say of the forgiveness of sins or the inevitability of the victory of the proletariat or whatever, "Look, that part of it just doesnít make sense to me right now. It did once, and I hope it will again, but for the moment the rest of you will have to do the believing for me." Such individuals can expect that at some future time they in their turn will be called upon to do the believing for others during the othersí times of darkness or indecision, for "the bearing of burdens" goes both ways. Sharing of that sort is not to be interpreted as an exposure of weakness but as a gift to be treasured.

Fourth, the community contributes to the life of faith by being the place where faith can be celebrated and embodied. Most faiths are minority faiths, held by only a small portion of the culture in which they are located, and to proclaim them is usually a case of "singing the Lordís song in a strange land" (Psalm 137), whether "the Lord" is the one described by Mark or by Marx. But one can sing in a strange land only so long before one begins to doubt the appropriateness of the tune. There must also be times of singing in chorus with those who not only know the tune but who likewise believe the words to be true.

And the words must be not only celebrated but embodied. If the message of the community is that love is at the heart of things. then the community must be a place where that love is embodied, since it will often be scorned by those outside. If the vision of the community calls for production "from each according to his ability," distribution "to each according to his need," the community itself must be a place where the vision is a present reality and not just a future hope; else the vision may die for lack of concrete realization. The community is a place where the faith can be celebrated and embodied, where its members may draw assurance that their faith is a future possibility for all because it is a present reality for a few.

This indeed is the whole meaning of liturgy. There is no community that does not create liturgies, actions that dramatize its convictions and help people to participate in the faith. they share by acting it out. People who share the same commitments often share the same meals, and the breaking of bread together is a liturgical action, both expressing corporateness and re-creating it, whether the occasion be a peace march, a family meal, or a eucharist in an upper room or in a cathedral. Communities gather to remember, in the sense of recalling the past, but also (as Daniel Berrigan has put it) to re-member themselves, to be built up again in their various parts (or members) so that they are more significantly whole than they were before.

Finally, the community contributes to the life of faith by being the place where faith is energized to turn outward. Communities cannot remain ingrown, concerned only with their own inner life. They must thrust their members out into the "strange land," into the arenas of life not populated by the community. This is only another way of saying that any community -- Marxist, Christian, etc. -- is a missionary (i.e., a "sent-forth") community, whatever the term used for that outward-turning posture. Individuals are often timid about turning outward, and they need the support and the on-the-scene presence of the rest of the community if they are going to share with others the faith they already share among themselves. The community then, is not only a base to which the individual can return but also a companion on the outward venture.

So one "sings the Lordís song in a strange land," but one is not called upon to sing a solo. A duet can become a trio and finally a chorus. And the size of the chorus is limited only by the willingness of others to join in the song.

No one can ever be forced to make music. But everyone can be invited.


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