The Power of the Potluck

In Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton (2012) there is a remarkable harmony with some of the themes of my book, Seven Sacraments for Everyone. The subtitle of his book is A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion and one of the “uses” that he mentions early on is the ability of churches, mosques and synagogues to bring people of all classes, all ages, and all walks of life together under one roof, where they are, in effect, equal. They are part of a ritual where they do things together: kneeling, reciting, singing, chanting, and that creates community. In the words of the Catholic mass, there is a promise that “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” belongs to everyone there, and that is a tremendous thing to say and believe. This fellowship is what we all need so desperately, particularly when we can all entertain ourselves alone, seemingly forever, by surfing the web or playing video games. Going to a religious service gets us out of ourselves, and even out of our families and clans. It demands that we do out of the ordinary things with others, like kneel before an altar or profess our love in public, in unison—our love of God which is the same as this Holy Spirit that can sweep through a congregation if you get the ritual right.
De Botton also calls our attention to the fact that there is food involved in the mass in the form of the communion wafer. Early Christians emphasized communal meals much more than we do today, and the Eucharist is a vestige of that practice. In one of his more off-beat suggestions, he would have us institute “Agape Restaurants” to recapture this spirit of fellowship (Agape is the “love your neighbor” kind of love), a place where strangers could come to eat and talk. But the talk would be centered on the spiritual, with a kind of “guidebook” containing conversation starters like “what do you regret most in your life?” Or “What do you fear?” Whew! He’s asking a lot of us there.
But a variant of that idea can be less intimidating. Some of my friends occasionally have potluck meals dedicated to this idea of a spiritual communion. There is a small group, maybe up to 10, who come together with a thoughtful topic in mind ahead of time. They might recite a poem, or sing, but after they eat or as they eat, they each offer their thoughts on the topic and listen carefully to what the others have to say. The group consists of people who know each other, with some occasional additions of people they’d like to know better. A gathering of this sort feeds our need for community, though it is not the all-inclusive kind of fellowship that de Botton is looking for.
Another variant does a better job of that: the potlucks that are connected to schools, cub scouts, block parties and other secular groups. I have fond memories of potlucks of all kinds. They’re much better than going to a restaurant and the potlucks at our church were my favorite activity connected with that venerable institution. At a potluck the conversation flows freely, you get to sample all kinds of dishes you’ve never had before, and you can easily get to know new people and deepen relationships with others who are only acquaintances. Adding some poetry or a grace would bring it into the realm of ritual; that’s what we need to guide the Spirit into our presence.

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