How to Keep a Closed Community Closed

Pluralism (and not secularization, as many still think) is the big modern challenge to religion. This does not mean that modern people cannot be religious. It does mean that faith is harder to achieve.

Published on: September 24, 2010
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  • John Barker

    I have followed a religious path and a spiritual one. I have found the spiritual one more satisfying in that I believe it leads to what Charles Taylor call “human flourishing.” However, I am unable to interest my friends in considering the idea that there exists a spiritual underpinning to the material world that is beneficent and supportive of human endeavors. I have done well by listening to my “innerstanding” in the guidance of my life and have many richly rewarding relationships, but I cannot imagine how I could create any kind of community out of what are personal intuitive experiences and cannot be proven to be effective in any objective way. I think of myself as someone who has grown to appreciate an obscure composer whose work has no appeal to most. My friends’ disinterest in my spiritual life does not dim my regard or closeness to them, so I do not feel isolated or lacking in community. Is adherence to a doctrine really a good basis on which to found a life? Doctrines are only gray ideas and the tree of life is green, to paraphrase one wiser than I.

  • Joanna

    I disagree. I find that pluralism actually expands people’s religious options and can lead to greater exploration of faith and soul.

    Take for example the case of China: once under the crushing boot heel of Communism, silencing any and all religious expression, now it blossoms with house churches and Christians by the score, Muslims are rising in prominence, etc.

    All it took was exposure to different ways of thinking and being to awaken a hunger inside the people to seek truth, discipline and spiritual growth.

    In my case, I was raised in a non-religious family (though in the case of my grandfather it bordered on anti-theistic). I was constantly told by my family how all religious people were fools and how the world would be perfect if only they were all gone.

    I entered college and began to interact with these “fools” and found that they were not what I had been told. I had access to philosophy books and sacred texts that my parents did not have. I began a journey exploring many faiths, secular ideologies, and even just spirituality divorced from religion. In my journey I grew and learned more about the world and myself until finally my reasoning and study on the subject led me to the Eastern Orthodox Church where I finally found the home for my soul.

    That was twenty years ago and my Christian faith is still growing and becoming stronger.

    All because I saw all the colors of the world and the ideas contained therein.

  • Dan Zimmerman

    Not to be nit-picky, but Menno Simons was Dutch, not Swiss, although the Anabaptist movement did originate in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1525. Menno joined it in 1536.
    Your contention about the need for barriers between the Amish and “the world” is generally accepted by sociologists and other scholars, but I feel that recent works by Donald Kraybill and others connected to Elizabethtown College’s Young Center for Pietist and Anabaptist Studies challenge some of this “apartness.” The dynamic, seen in all varieties of “Old Order” Anabaptists (Amish, Mennonites, Brethren, Hutterites, & Old Colony Mennonites in Latin America), seems to giving way to a “porous barrier” in which some aspects of mainstream American culture are accepted (although often only on the terms of the Old Order community) and others are still resolutely rejected. Some scholars actually suggest that this is, in and of itself, a sign of the modernity of the Old Order communities.

  • Jen G.


    I disagree with your disagreement to a point. Pluralism is one of the central tenents of American civil religion and so it has become normal for religious to defend it as ‘strengthening their faith’ or other such lines of reasoning.

    However, I think the author’s point that pluralism represents a danger to a closed community holds true. By nature, a closed community is asking it’s adherents to accept all of their tenents and their world view as a given. Pluralism, by nature, asks us to accept that a group which does things differently than us is ‘just as good/saved/whatever’ as our own.

    Closed communities throughout history have always wrestled with how to keep children in their subculture. IMO, the challenge is somewhat easier when the difference between the community and the dominant culture is vast (like Jewish to Christian, or Christian to Muslim) and much harder when the difference is small (like one group of Protestants to another). If we add to this the American understanding of pluarlism, which essentially comes to mean that there are many ‘equally good’ ways to follow God – making the argument to our children that our sects’ particular way is better than the way that would allow them to fit in with the dominant culture becomes difficult.

    The only way to make it work is to allow for dialogue and inter-relation, while still making clear that only the way of your sect is true and right. You won’t fully suppress the natural human urge towards assimilation – but it makes the choice to go against the community higher than if they were simply moving to ‘another path to the same God’.

  • Joanna


    But there is a difference in range when one speaks of ‘closed-ness’ , no?

    I have found that the more one restrains and the more on closes one’s young away from engagement with the culture at large, the greater the chance that rebellion and turning away from the community’s view will become.

    But if one engages with the beliefs or others, the tendency is to learn more not just about the beliefs of your neighbors, but also your own.

    Its not a matter of suppression or hiding one’s children, but engagement and preparation.

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