Faith Without Boundaries
East Cobb's diverse religious faiths create "communities within the community."
Joseph Campbell often said that one of religion’s primary functions is sociological: as a given culture’s “working mythology,” religion validates and supports that culture’s established social order, including its value system.
This is still true today, although it takes on fresh dimensions when applied to a multi-ethnic and religiously plural society. A quick look around East Cobb illustrates this. In the area spanning from Cobb Parkway across Johnson Ferry Road northward past Roswell Road, one can find more diversity of religious faith than can be encountered in some entire nations. The area supports three Jewish synagogues, an Islamic center and Christian churches of almost every denomination. Equally represented are those residents who have to drive out of the area to attend a house of worship: Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’i, Universalists and many others.
But unlike the older cities of the world, areas like ours are not segregated into religious or ethnic districts; one does not travel from the Jewish enclave to the Muslim, or cross a border (thankfully) between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. We are as likely to pass as many religious faiths as we do houses in a subdivision, from a doorpost bearing a mezuzah to one that opens underneath a crucifix.
In short, for most of us, the religious community is no longer defined by geography. Each community of faith itself becomes a community within a community. But Campbell’s insights are still true, and in a place where cultures blend, boundaries blur, and religion crosses geographical bounds, the power of faith to create, preserve and influence community is as essential as ever.
American suburbia has become increasingly transient. Unlike our parents and grandparents, we are far less likely today to live in the same place where we were raised, or to expect our children to do so. Fewer of us know our neighbors well, and our attachment to a plot of native soil is likely to be weak, if it exists at all.
Yet the need for meaningful human relationships remains, causing us to seek out and create intentional communities where there otherwise would be none. As one parishioner at St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church said, “we came here looking for a place to worship, but we stayed because of the people.”
In a faith-based community, then, religious belief still validates the social order and its morals, just as Campbell said. But for many of us, this relationship between religion and personal values has become more of a two-way street. While our morals are still largely informed by our faith, we, unlike many of our ancestors, find ourselves with the power to select a faith community based on values that we already hold. Put simply, rather than the church choosing our value system, our value system chooses its church.
In addition to creating community, many houses of worship also seek to preserve. Faith-based organizations that identify with certain regional or ethnic groups not only create a place for that community to gather, they also preserve distinct cultural heritages.
This is especially important to East Cobb’s Jewish community, for whom religious faith is largely the key to their identity as a proud people with a rich heritage. Whether it is the Orthodox Chabad of Cobb or the Conservative Congregation Etz Chaim, both of which practice the ancient dietary laws and preserve Hebrew as the language for public prayer, or the Reform Temple Kol Emeth, which seeks to preserve Jewish heritage by making it more accessible to Americanized Judaism, all three congregations share the mission of preserving the Jewish identity, whether their members are Jewish by birth or by conversion.
Similarly, Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church is a focal point not only for much of Cobb’s Greek population, but also for many immigrants from Eastern Europe who find refuge and comfort in the familiarity of the Orthodox liturgy and community.
Across this diverse landscape, another tenet is arguably universal: the individual communities of faith seek to influence, and at times even to transform, the greater community as a whole. By preserving certain values and traditions and by exemplifying them, the community of faith permeates the community at large as leaven permeates dough.
In this, the “community within the community” exemplifies Jesus’ call to be salt and light. In it, the promise made to Abraham that “through your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” is manifest. It resembles Christ’s description of the “Kingdom of God” as a kingdom made not with human hands, whose subjects are those who live through faith, and whose King is God Himself.
In the coming weeks, the column "Faith Matters” will explore the diverse religious communities of East Cobb and will attempt to express many voices of religious thought, including that of the author. It will approach topics with reverence and humility, begging patience and pardon for unintentional offenses or misunderstandings, but unapologetic in its attempt to explore the questions many of us ask.
Comments, thoughts, and contributions are encouraged, and don’t be surprised should the author show up at your place of worship, pen in hand, with a mind full of questions.