Scale and faith

I am currently working on a project with a Catholic diocese in Ireland, hence the data-entry post holder yesterday. All of that data is by no means entered, but here we are anyway. Entering data about what it is the people involved would like to see changed and stay the same, the appearance and reappearance of the word ‘community’ is significant. The people who have been surveyed for this project (I’d rather not go into the details) have made remarks about ‘community’ being preserved and being changed. But what is that ‘community’? What is its nature and what are the boundaries?

Looking back over Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq’s 30 Mosques in 30 Days project (which I first saw on Boing Boing about a month ago) these questions return. Throughout this particular account of the project, community is used in an uncontested way. Even the opening paragraphs do not reflect upon it:

the community is a reflection of the city itself: vibrant, diverse, and colourful….[they] decided to explore the diversity within the city’s Muslim community, visiting a different mosque each day during Ramadan – from Malcolm X’s mosque in Harlem, to the Bosnian Cultural Centre, to the Islamic Center at New York University.

I wonder if the use of the term ‘community’ only arises when we are talking about minorities in a larger population that is assumed to be homogeneous. We might use the same uncontested meaning of the word community in Ireland to describe those who pray at Clonskeagh’s mosque. But wait; would we tell ourselves that those attending Steven Gately’s funeral liturgy are a ‘Catholic community’?

Sunflowers in the community garden
Photo owned by internets_dairy (cc)

The term community cuts across many forms of identification and is self-defined as much as it is imposed. I’m sure there would be some among the ‘gay community’ (see?) that would have a difficulty with his funeral being in a Catholic church given that institution’s proposition that marriage is solely between a man and a woman. Is community in this earlier sense a means of verbally integrating those present?

Then I look again at this posting by Alistair and colleagues on NUIM Geography’s blog and begin to question what it is about scale and community that makes its sociological definition so problematic. When we take this macro approach to defining communities, it seems a little rarefied. Samuel Huntington would be happy though. Pew’s research is useful in as much as it maps the Islamic faith at a gross level and challenges many Western assumptions about who Muslims are and where ‘they’ are to be found.

Many of those who were asked about falling numbers of priests in my current project worry about a loss of community, a sense of identity in the parish. It seems more defensive than integrative.