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Religious Communities: Religion, Community, and Society


Religion is both a personal matter and a social reality. In dealing with the latter, one is confronted by a confusion of categories and by terminological difficulties. For example, popular references to "religious community" reflect ambiguities in the current use of the term community. From Webster one learns that community, derived from the Latin communitas, has many meanings, including (1) a body of people having a common organization or interests, or living in the same place under the same laws and regulations, (2) society at large, a commonwealth, a state, (3) joint relationship or ownership, and (4) a common character or commonness.

Students of society have tried to overcome such ambiguities. Under the influence of the later German Enlightenment's notion that society is a product of human will, Ferdinand Julius Tönnies (18551936) proposed the famous dichotomy between community (Gemeinschaft ) and society (Gesellschaft ). Community embodies natural will (Wesenwille ) and is maintained by face-to-face interhuman relationships and a sense of solidarity governed by traditional rules. Society, however, is a more complex entity reflecting rational will (Kürwille ) and characterized by indirect and impersonal interhuman relationships motivated by rational self-interest. Émile Durkheim (18581917) also attempted to distinguish between primitive and archaic social groups (roughly analogous to Tönnies's community type) and more complex groups (Tönnies's society type). In Durkheim's model, the former are based on the mechanical solidarity of undifferentiated individuals who live according to the authority of the social group, while the latter are based on the organic solidarity of more differentiated individuals who relate to one another by means of the division of labor. Prior to Tönnies and Durkheim, of course, Karl Marx (18181883) had classified various social organizations according to modes of production and the class system, ranging all the way from primitive communism to modern capitalist society. An implicit evolutionary assumptionthat the movement from what Tönnies called community to what he called society was irreversibleunderlay all these typologies and classifications.

Students of religion generally apply Tönnies's notion of the community type to both archaic and contemporary tribal communities, in which religious and natural bonds coalesce. They also acknowledge that a more stratified society usually develops from community, even though smaller religious or ethnic communities may continue to exist within the framework of a larger society. Beyond this general level, however, students of religion encounter a bewildering variety of religious phenomena that defy simple categorization in terms of community and society. For example, some of the ancient states, from the Hebrew to the Japanese, considered themselves "sacred communities" embracing a number of "religious societies." In the course of time, some of these religious societies themselves developed into religious communities. Other troublesome examples stem from the classical world religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. These three considered their fellowships to be "religious communities" or "faith communities" that united different segments with a society or even crossed ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and national lines. Here again, these larger religious communities gave birth to a variety of religious societies that often became de facto religious communities, even if they retained the nomenclature of "society," as in the case of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits).

Thus, for students of religion, the category religious community must include at least (1) tribal communities, both natural and religious, archaic and contemporary, (2) sacred national communities, (3) founded religious communities such as the Buddhist, the Christian, and the Islamic, and (4) various religious societies-turned-communities, as for instance orders of monks and nuns. Different though these groups may be, they share what the Dutch scholar Gerardus van der Leeuw (1938) calls the sense of community. This sense "is something not manufactured, but given; it depends not upon sentiment or feeling, but on the Unconscious. It need be founded upon no conviction, because it is self-evident; we do not become members of it, but 'belong to it'" (p. 243).

Tribal Religious Communities

To avoid the misleading adjective primitive, many scholars now use expressionsnot wholly satisfactorysuch as tribal, nonliterate, and folk to refer to the religious forms of a wide variety of peoples who live in small social groups and who possess a simple material culture and an unwritten language. It is often assumed that there are many similarities between tribal communities in archaic or prehistoric periods and tribal communites of the present. It is indeed possible that archaic and contemporary tribal communities are in some way typologically similar, presumably owing to their simple living conditions. Still, one should not overlook the long span of time that separates them.

Archaeological excavations have unearthed a variety of material remains from the prehistoric period, but very little can be reconstructed of the social system of the peoples or the movements of the so-called tribal migrations, including the prehistoric migration of Native Americans from Eurasia to North and South America. Excavated sites of Neolithic settlements, such as Banpo in Shensi, China, may give glimpses of the physical layouts of archaic tribal communities, but it is difficult to know how prehistoric food-gatherers, hunters, and agriculturalists conducted their personal, communal, or religious affairs. Even so, by piecing together evidence from archaeology, physical anthropology, philology, and other sources, it is conjectured that all activities directed toward subsistence and all cultic and religious activities merged to form a single, unified community. Some scholars even speculate that the archaic tribal community was, so to speak, a "religious universe" in which living itself was a religious act.

The contemporary tribal or folk communities scattered throughout Africa, Asia, Oceania, Australia, and the Americas display a great divergence in complexity of community structure, division of labor, cultic and religious beliefs and practices, and relations with neighboring societies and cultures. Moreover, as E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1951) notes, these communities "have just as long a history as our own, and while they are less developed than our society in some respects they are often more developed in others" (p. 7). Different though they are in many other respects, contemporary tribal communities share one characteristic: They are held together, to quote Robert Redfield (1953), "by common understanding as to the ultimate nature and purpose of life." Each community "exists not so much in the exchange of useful functions as in the common understandings as to the ends given" (p. 12). To these communities, life's ultimate purpose is the creation of a meaningful order through imitation of the celestial model, transmitted by myths and celebrated in rituals.

Unlike their archaic counterparts, contemporary tribal communities have more complex social organizations based on locality, age, sex, and sometimes totemic affiliations. Their nucleus is the kinship system, usually with exogamous clans and local territories. Many tribal communities have secret men's societies, which usually meet in the "men's house," an institution known by different designations in different localities but serving similar purposesa club house for bachelors, a place for community worship, a residence for young boys during their initiatory seclusion. Such societies are found in Australia, New Guinea, Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia, the Philippines, India, Africa, and North, Central, and South America. (For examples, see Hutton Webster's Primitive Secret Societies, 1932.)

Today it is becoming increasingly inappropriate to apply the designation community to some tribal groups. The term is still applicable to such groups as the hunting and gathering tribes of South America and Australia and to the San of southern Africa, but larger groups like the Navajo Indians, who occupy eighteen million acres in Arizona and New Mexico, and the Inuit (Eskimo), whose habitations stretch from Greenland to the Bering Strait, resemble instead huge conglomerate societies containing a series of smaller communities and subgroups and various kinds of cultic fraternities. In addition, because of the impact of surrounding societies, some tribal groups now live in permanent settlements and so have lost their sense of the traditional tribal-religious community.

Sacred National Communities

The first great civilization in the history of the world emerged around 3500 bce on the Mesopotamian plain. It was followed by the rise of other civilizations in Egypt, Crete, India, China, Mexico (Mesoamerica), Peru (Andean), and Palestine. According to the cosmography of these civilizations, the state was more than a political entity: It constituted the sacred national community.

Understandably, different civilizations have understood the meaning of the sacred national community differently. For example, in Mesopotamia the universe as a whole was considered a sovereign state governed by the assembly of the gods. In turn, the national statemade up of many city-states, each owned by its own god and ruled by his human stewardwas governed by a king, who was himself guided by the executive officer of the assembly of the gods. Thus, as part of the cosmic commonwealth directed by the united wills of the divine powers, the earthly national community was sacred.

In contrast to the Mesopotamian tradition, the Egyptian national state was considered sacred because the king himself was one of the gods. At the same time, he was the intermediary between the people and the gods, the earthly community's divine representative. He was also the one recognized priest of all the gods, and as such he ruled the nation with the help of deputies, the officials and priests.

A third type of sacred national community, one rarer than the first two, is the Hebrew concept of a community based on a covenant between a god and his people. Despite the fiction of their common ancestry from Abraham, the Israelites were a composite people. As the prophets Hosea and Jeremiah stressed, they understood the sacral character of their commonwealth to depend both on faithful adherence to the covenant and on ethical conduct.

Throughout history, many nations have defined their sacrality in terms of one of these three typesking as deputy, king as god, or covenantal/contractual communityor a combination of them. But with increasing stratification of society and political organization, and the solidification of religious traditions, national communities have eroded. They have been replaced by a variety of relationships between religion and state ranging from theocracyreminiscent of the sacred national communityto the secular state. But the idea of the sacred national community has persisted in various forms into the present century, as in, for example, Japan and Tibet.

Founded Religous Communities

In contrast to the sacred national community, whose raison d'être and destiny depend on the corporate life of the sociopolitical entity, the founded religious community, as this author is using the term, refers to a community that derives its initial impetus from the religious experience of the founder of a religion. The better-known classical examples of such founded groups are the Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic communities; lesser known but equally significant are the Jain, Zoroastrian, and Manichaean communities. The founded religious communities of recent origin, such as the Sikh, Bahaʾi, Mormon, and a number of contemporary new religious communities in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, generally follow a similar pattern.

For convenience of exposition, one can identify three stages in this pattern: (1) the significance of the founder, (2) the process of formation, and (3) the usual, but by no means universal, manner in which such a religious community develops.

For the most part, the actual or legendary accounts of a religious founder (accepted as authentic, of course, by the given religious community) followwith some notable exceptionswhat is often called a law or scenario of sacred biography: the founder's miraculous birth, unusual childhood, ordeal or personal crisis prior to having a decisive religious experience, successful or unsuccessful ministry, and memorable demise, implying death or a new life beyond.

Then, either during or after the founder's lifetime, a circle of disciples becomes the nucleus of an informal brotherhood or fraternity. In the course of time, this brotherhood grows into an egalitarian or hierarchical religious community, with official scriptures, liturgies, and rules of conduct as well as specialists in sacred matters: clergy, scholars, jurists, monastics, bureaucrats, and service personnel. The religious community also develops a channel of authority to coordinate the activities of its scattered branches and faithful.

Finally, the religious community must cope with the surrounding culture, society, and secular political authorities, which view it with varying degrees of positive, negative, or neutral attitudes. Internally, this community often suffers from routinization, clericalization, inertia, spiritual decay, and fossilization. In this process, various kinds of reform and protest movements arise. Whether forward- or backward-looking, they cause change, schism, or secession, or establish small societies of like-minded members within the framework of the larger religious community (ecclesiola in ecclesia ). The reformers and leaders of schismatic and sectarian groups often become de facto founders, and the groupsboth inside and outside the larger religious communitiestake on the characteristics of religious communities.

Significantly, the idea of the unity of the religious community tends to persist, in spite of schismatic division or the breakup of the community's empirical structure into sects or denominations or possibly both. Thus, all divided Buddhist groups recite the same threefold affirmation of the essential unity of the Buddha, the Dharma (Buddhist doctrine), and the Samgha (the Buddhist community); all traditions of Islam affirm the unity of its community (ummah ); and all divisions of Christianity accept the Christian community (church) as the one unbroken "body of Christ" that exists beneath its empirical disunity: "Credo in unam sanctam catholicam ecclesiam."

Religious Societies-Turned-Communities

As mentioned earlier, a variety of small religious societies and cultic fraternities tend to emerge within the framework of "sacred national communities" and "founded religious communities." Many such groups, if not formed for limited, temporary, and specific purposes, have the potential to become religious communities. How a religious society, viewed from a sociological perspective, becomes a religious community, may be seen in the initial development of the founded religious community. For example, as E. J. Thomas astutely observes in The History of Buddhist Thought (1933), the Buddhist community started "not with a body of doctrine, but with the formation of a society bound by certain rules" (p. 14). But the initiation of a variety of individuals into this society reoriented it toward the corporate soteriological objective and led to a shared experience, so that the society became a religious community.

To take another familiar example, Christianity started as a charismatic society within the fold of the Jewish community. After the Pentecost, it affirmed that those who were initiated into that society, Jews and gentiles alike, became the true Israel by virtue of being grafted onto the stock of Abraham. This in turn transformed them into children of God in the Christian community by being born "not of the will of man, but of God" (Jn. 1:13). Similarly, gnostic groups started out as mystery societies or circles at the periphery of the Christian fold but quickly developed into full-fledged religious communities.

The intricate relationship between religious societies and religious communities just illustrated tempts one to count numerous groups of ambiguous character among religious communities. However, this article shall here consider only those societies that were established for specific religious and cultic purposes within larger tribal, sacred national, and founded religious communities, and that were later transformed into more permanent and coherent religious communities possessing such characteristics as rites of initiation, private or corporate religious ceremonies and duties, and independent organizational structures. This article shall give brief typological discussions of (1) secret societies, (2) mystery societies/communities, (3) cult-based communities, (4) religous orders/monastic communities/service societies, and (5) utopian communities.

Secret societies

Secret societies include a wide range of groups that initiate in secret, possess secret symbols or rituals, or transmit esoteric knowledge. In size they range from small societies in tribal religious communities to Freemasonry, whose membership on both sides of the Atlantic numbers 5.9 million. (Freemasonry's satellite groups, among them the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrinepopularly known as the Shrinersand the Order of the Eastern Star, are not secret societies. The Ku Klux Klan, on the other hand, is a secret terrorist organization but not a religious society, despite its stress on white Protestant supremacy.)

In part, secret societies overlap with the next two types of society-turned-communitythe mystery societies and the cult-based communities. For example, the secret societies of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome were in fact mystery societies, with the possible exception of the Pythagorean community, and they will be discussed under that heading. The past ten centuries of Chinese history have been sprinkled with secret societies, some of whichnotably the Maitreya Society, the White Lotus Society, the White Cloud Society, and the Triad Societywere inspired by Buddhist-Daoist eclecticism. The last major Chinese secret society was the Society of Shangdi, whose patriarch, Hong Xiuquan, who was influenced in part by Christianity, started the Taiping Rebellion in 1848. Contrary to popular impression, the esoteric schools of Buddhism, which transmit esoteric truth, are not secret societies: Though the transmission of the teaching is secret, membership is open to anyone. In Europe, despite the predominance of Christianity and the threat of the Inquisition, pre-Christian pagan legacies of witchcraft and sorcery were kept alive by secret societies such as the Calsari, while the neo-Manichaean Cathari and other persecuted heretical groups went underground and tried to survive as secret societies.

Among contemporary tribal communities, secret societies are virtually universal phenomena. According to Paul Radin in The Winnebago (1923), the Winnebago Indian community has the following four groups: (1) clans or natural groups, which exclude outsiders from their ceremonies, (2) religious societies limited to those who receive the blessings of a special spirit, (3) the medicine group, a mystery society, and (4) associations of warriors and other such groups. As for African secret societies, Wilfrid D. Hambly's Source-Book for African Anthropology (1937) depicts the following types: (1) those based on age and sex affinities, (2) those connected with initiation, (3) those concerned with political and legal matters, and (4) those based on economic differentiation. Similar admixtures of religio-cultic, economic, and social factors are found in many other secret societies of contemporary tribal communities in various parts of the world.

Mystery societies/communities

Classical types of mystery societies or communities emerged in the Greco-Roman world and in China, where the mysteries were believed to confer immortality and eternal life. Many mystery cults, such as that of Eleusis, originated with certain families. In the course of time, various Greek mystery cults developed private mystery societies. Under Roman rule, some of these societies became more open cultic communities. Meanwhile, other mystery cults of foreign originfor instance, the cults of the Great Mother from Asia Minor, of Mithra from Iran, and of Serapis from Egyptpenetrated Greece and Rome. In the Roman world, many joined the cultic groups of Dionysos in search of personal immortality, but the religion of Mithra was probably the most influential mystery cult.

In China, Daoism greatly amplified the belief in immortals (xian ), which was already very strong. The so-called Huanglao cult (the cult of the legendary Yellow Emperor and Laozi) attracted many immortality-seekers before the beginning of the common era. Vigorously promoted by priest-magicians, this tradition was further developed in the second century ce by Zhang Ling, who inaugurated a magico-religious movement called the Way of the Five Bushels of Rice with Zhang Ling himself as the Heavenly Teacher. Meanwhile, other Daoists combined Daoist philosophy with the Yin-yang school and with alchemy. In the fifith century, Kou Qianji systematized the Daoist community, regulating its theories and cults. Since then Daoism, also called the Religion of Mystery (Xuan Jiao), has exerted great influence not only in China but also in neighboring countries.

Many mystical or semimystical cults, societies, and communities in the Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, and Christian folds exhibit external resemblances to Greco-Roman and Chinese mystery societies and communities. Opinions vary, however, as to how central the "mysteries" are to their communal life.

Cult-based communities

Like the Orgeones, a free cultic association that persisted in Greece at least until the sixth century, certain groups are united primarily by cultic devotion to one or more deities and not by clan, tribal, national, or occupational ties. In other words, their specifically religious interests cut across sectarian and denominational boundaries. Or sometimes different communities participate in common, albeit temporary, cult associations, as do Kwakiutl Indian communities in North America in wartime and during winter dances. The prototype of this category is the sampradāya of Hinduism, which may be characterized as a phenomenon halfway between mystery communities and sects or denominations. The members of the sampradāya, divided though they are in terms of caste and other affiliations, experience a ritual unity in a communal adherence to particular traditions of teachers, as illustrated by the sampradāya s of the deity Viu, which trace their origin to eminent teachers such as Rāmānuja and Madhva. Similarly, the different groups united in devotion to Śiva trace their origin back to various ascetics. One of the subdivisions of the cult groups of Śiva, the Ligāyat, numbers four million members of different backgrounds, who wear the emblem of the phallus as the symbol of their cultic unity.

Similar cult-based communities, by no means as elaborate as the sampradāya of Hinduism, are found in many other parts of the world, from ancient Greece to modern Japan. At times, cult seems to be a stronger bond of unity than other features of religious life.

Religious orders/monastic communities/service societies

Important among voluntary groups within larger religious communities are religious orders, which are often, but not always, identified with monastic communities, and sometimes with service societies sponsored by or affiliated with religious bodies. In common English usage, the term religious not only connotes "scrupulously faithful" or "devout" but as a noun also refers to those who are bound by monastic vows or devoted to a life of piety and religion, such as monks, friars, and nuns. Similarly, the term order signifies a society of persons bound by some common rule, especially an aggregate of separate communities like a monastic brotherhood or community. The term religious order could, of course, designate a variety of holy orders that may not practice a monastic form of life. This article, however, shall discuss only those religious orders that come under the category of monastic communities. Similarly, of all the service societies under religious jurisdictionsocieties for missionary work, teaching, and philanthropy, and others as wellonly those that are organized as communities will be discussed.

Students of religions recognize various kinds of religious brotherhoods, guilds of priests, and monastic communities in different traditions, as for example the Pythagorean brotherhood in ancient Greece, the Bektashī order in Islam, and the Vedanta Society of modern India. Two religious traditions that have developed elaborate systems of monastic communities, Buddhism and Christianity, deserve special attention.

Although the early Buddhist community consisted of four componentsmonks (bhikkhu or bhuku ), nuns (bhikkhuni or bhukuī ), laymen (upāsaka ), and laywomen (upāsikā )the most central group was the order of monks. Initially, the monastic order started as an informal assembly of wandering mendicants, but soon it developed into monastic communities in which monks shared a normative discipline (Vinaya). Under the patronage of King Aśoka in the third century bce, monastic communities played an important role as missionaries propagating Buddhism. In the course of time, great monastic communities became centers of religious and secular education and of cultural activities. Although the Buddhist community divided into Southern (Hīnayāna or Theravāda) and Northern (Mahāyāna) traditions, each with further subdivisions along doctrinal and cultic lines, it was possible for monks of different schools to live in the same monastic communities.

In the main, the Southern tradition follows an elitist model: Monks leave the secular world and enter monasteries for a life of full-time spiritual striving toward their own enlightenment, while the laity receives merit by supporting monastic communities. The most elaborate monastic hierarchy developed in Thailand, where the sangharāja, or ruler of the monastic community, was under no other authority except that of the king. In the modern period, the traditionally otherworldly monastic communities in the Southern tradition have become more involved in the affairs of the world. In the Northern tradition, on the other hand, the paths of monastics and laity were always regarded as different but equally important vocations. Mahāyāna monastic communities, inspired as they are by the compassionate bodhisattva ideal, stress active service to all beings.

Monastic communities in the Christian tradition are many and varied. Unlike communities in Western Christendom, Eastern Orthodox communities are not divided into different orders. Having originally developed out of informal fellowships of hermits who lived a life of prayer, they were transformed in the fourth century into monastic communities with three components: those who lead a monastic life without taking vows and two grades of monastics who take permanent vows (monks of "lesser" and "greater" habits). In Western Christendom, the Rule of Saint Benedict (c. 540) transformed earlier, loosely organized communities of hermits into disciplined monastic communities. The Rule provided the norm of communal life based on the daily offices, as followed by the Cluniacs and the Cistercians. Meanwhile, more activist orders of friars, such as the Franciscans and the Dominicans, appeared on the European scene. They were followed by the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), which not only championed the cause of the Counter-Reformation at home but also initiated extensive missionary activities abroad. Both Eastern and Western traditions of Christianity comprise many orders of nuns. Like their male counterparts, some nuns are contemplative while others pursue educational and philanthropic vocations.

Utopian communities

Most religious communities have what might be characterized as utopian features or ideals. Many myths of tribal religious communities reflect their notion of the idealized celestial realm or the paradigmatic activities of gods and heroes at the beginning of time. Many historic religious communities affirm the existence of an ideal state either in their golden past or at the end of history. Philosophers like Confucius and Plato have also attempted to depict the ideal society on earth.

But in a more specific sense, the term utopia is derived from Thomas More's On the Highest State of a Republic and on the New Island of Utopia (1516). More's idea of an idealized society, realizable on earth, and his critique of the lamentable state of the world, continued to stir literary and religious imagination after his time. From the seventeenth century onward, a number of utopian communities have been established on either side of the Atlantic, including New Harmony in Indiana, Brook Farm in Massachusetts, and Oneida in New York. There have also been such religious utopian communities as the Dutch Mennonite colonies in Delaware, the German Pietist settlements in Indiana and Pennsylvania, and the Bruderhof communities in Germany, England, and North America.

For the most part, utopian elements in the Islamic, Buddhist, and Chinese traditions were absorbed into millenarian and eschatological ideologies, but they did not inspire the establishment of separate communal settlements. In modern Japan, however, a number of utopian communities inspired by Lev Tolstoi and several indigenous messianic cults have emerged. Modern Jewish settlements in Palestine, many of which took the form of kibbutsim, exhibit an intricate homology of religious, political, and social utopian features. Most of the "hippie" communes that emerged in America in the 1960s and 1970s can hardly be classified as religious utopian communities, but an increasing number of utopian communities are being generated in North America today by Christians, Theosophists, and new religious groups of diverse origins.


Religion, then, is both a personal matter and a social reality. Throughout the history of humankind, from the prehistoric period down to the present day, religion has sought fellowship either by intensifying the existing social fabricfamily, clan, tribe, caste, local or national communityor by creating specifically religious communities within, above, or apart from other social and political groupings and institutions. Despite their diversity, these groups all share that unconscious sense that makes them communities to which religious persons belong.

See Also

Community; Monasticism; Mystery Religions; Secret Societies; Utopia.


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