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Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003) 21-32

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Re-Creating Christian Community:
A Response to Rita M. Gross

Donald W. Mitchell
Purdue University

In Rita M. Gross's well-written, insightful, and provocative paper entitled "Some Reflections about Community and Survival," Rita says: "I am challenging my Christian colleagues to consider what role Western religious concepts about the individual may have played in getting us into the current hyper-individualism. I also am asking whether the Buddhist concept of interdependence might be very useful in providing tools with which to think about why this hyper-individualism cannot survive."

In terms of Rita's challenge, one could make the generalization that the notion of the individual soul being saved or on a journey to union with God has certainly played an important role in Christianity. At the extreme in this regard, Thomas à Kempis even advised solitude and the actual avoidance of other people, seen by him to be distractions to the spiritual life. However, most Christians would see this advice as an unhealthy extreme, agreeing with Rita that solitude has a "valued the context of social life, not a substitute for it" (11). It is much more common for Christians to see themselves as parts of the mystical body of Christ, and to believe that their authentic selfhood and discipleship are found in the context of fellowship and community life in the church.

In what follows here, I will try to show how the notions of selfhood and discipleship are being defined in a particular re-creation of Christian community, which includes persons of other faiths. I have been asked to make my response from the perspective of my own Christian community, the Focolare, which focuses on the kinds of social, economic, and environmental issues that we have been discussing for the past three years. In so doing, I will also try to show how the Focolare's trinitarian vision of God, community, and the cosmos is a possible answer to the above-quoted question Rita asks about how interdependence might be an antidote to hyper-individualism. Along the way, I will raise issues that relate to other points Rita makes in her paper, and then address her conclusions at the end of my paper.

Seeds of a New Christian Community

The Focolare began duringWorld War II with a small group of young women, whose ages ranged from fifteen to twenty-five, living in the city of Trent, Italy. 1 At the center [End Page 21] of the group was Chiara Lubich, who was only twenty-three at the time. In May of 1944 Lubich's home was destroyed by bombs, and her family decided to leave the city. Lubich made the difficult decision to remain with her companions in Trent, where they would meet in the bomb shelters as often as eleven times each day. They would take with them to the shelters only the Bible, which they searched for guidance in that difficult situation. What they came to understand in those hours together and then put into practice became the basis for re-creating a Christian community, one that is sensitive to the social, political, and economic conditions that had produced the war in which they were caught.

A foundational discovery for these young women was a collective and yet very personal experience, in the midst of the death and destruction of the war, that "God is Love" (I John 4:8). Their contemplation of the First Letter of John, as well as other parts of the Scripture, strengthened not only their belief in the existence of God, when many were doubting God's existence, but also their faith in the love of God for each one of them.Wanting to respond to this experience of God's love, they again found in Scripture that God does not seek just a response of individual prayerful sentiment or personal piety, but a response that includes doing God's will: "It is not those who say to me, 'Lord, Lord,' who will enter the kingdom of heaven...


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