Alternatives to the Community Thanksgiving Service

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Replace the community Thanksgiving service

                       Last year I posted a blog in which I explained why I couldn’t in good conscience participate in the Community Thanksgiving Service.  I pasted it below for reference.  The post got a lot of intensely emotional and critical pushback.  Troubled by the intensity of the criticism, I talked about the responses with a colleague who sent me the following analysis:


                        From an individual perspective the service as worship could be

                        considered a failure—it didn’t meet the ritual or liturgical standards

                        of any of the participating faith traditions.  However, from the

                        perspective of the larger pluralistic community striving to find

                        common ground and spiritual connection, it was a rousing success.


            I like the way my colleague said it. I think trying to begin the pursuit of inter-religious understanding with a shared worship service is going at the process backwards.  When two people go out together for the first time, they don’t act like they are married.  They usually choose an activity in which there’s neither a lot of vulnerability nor risk. 


For me, prayer and worship are the most intimate things I do in my relationship with God.  And because real intimacy demands vulnerability, I am hesitant to expose myself until I have built up trust with another human being. 


When going on a first or second or even a third “date” with a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Pentecostal Christian for that matter, I would therefore prefer to cooperate in a relatively low risk activity like the CROP Walk or cleaning litter from Thatcher Woods or serving a meal together at PADS.  From the many hours I’ve spent talking and working and playing with Muslims and Jews and Buddhists, I know that when it comes to ethics, we have a great deal in common. 


It’s when we begin talking about ultimate concerns—to use Paul Tillich’s term—that especially Buddhists and I realize that we look at ultimate reality from very different points of view.  So, why begin a relationship at a place where there is either a great potential for frustration or a temptation to gloss over profound differences in the name of getting along?  Muslims and Jews simply can’t pray in Jesus’ name, and I must. 


For twenty years the neighbors who lived just east of the parsonage where I lived were Muslims from Monte Negro.  We spent a lot of time talking over the fence and still have genuine affection for each other.  Their kids were in my house often and my kids were in theirs.  During his middle school years, I’m pretty sure that my son had a crush on their daughter. 


In spite of our closeness as neighbors, they would not enter the church building on the other side of the parsonage.  And, counterintuitively perhaps, that stand made me feel even closer to them. 


Besides, an ecumenical liturgy never flies very high.  Either the program has to be boiled down to a common denominator which offends no one and therefore fails to inspire, or the prayer is so authentic that it leaves me in the liturgical dust.  I can’t, for example, pray in Hebrew like an observant Jew and can’t get my body to sit in the lotus position like a Buddhist.  I can’t even clap on the upbeat like some of my friends who worship at Living Word.


The fact that people from many faiths are together is inspiring, but that’s not due to the power of the liturgy, and it can be accomplished with a lot less pretense by feeding the hungry together, visiting the sick together and working together to free the oppressed.     


Here’s one way to work for inter-faith understanding as an alternative to the Thanksgiving service.  What about having an evening in which several faith traditions present one aspect of their religion that is unique, which they seem to understand better than anyone else.  I would love to listen to a Buddhist tell stories about meditating and a Muslim share what going through the month of Ramadan is like.


            Or, another option.  Partly because I’m on the planning team for the CROP Walk, I’d like to see more interfaith cooperation in that event.  We might have to break some of Church World Service’s rules a bit, but on that score we’ll just invoke “don’t ask, don’t tell.”


            From my experience, what increases understanding is not pretending that we all believe the same things, but meeting each other as human beings.  That’s where we wound up in the relations between men and women, isn’t it?  In the 60s and 70s many activists decided to address gender inequality by pretending men and women are the same.  Remember the unisex look?  Well intentioned, that approach was based on the denial of profound differences.    


            Personally, I’m really happy that men and women choose clothing and haircuts and leadership styles which celebrate, respect and honor differences.  I, for one, don’t want to share the men’s locker room at the Y with women.  Sometimes, separate is more equal than together.  I’ve participated in a weekly men’s group meeting for the last twenty years.  Most—not all—but most of the women in our lives have said that the time we spend together as men has freed us more to accept and love them as they are.


            And isn’t that what we’re really after?




Not going to the Community Thanksgiving Service


I’m not going to attend the Community Thanksgiving Service on Nov. 20, the organizers of which have the best of intentions.  I can’t participate in good conscience, because it’s a worship service and in it I’d feel like I was being asked to pray with people from different traditions. 


I can’t do that, partly because I don’t buy the commonplace assertion that we all worship the same God whom we name with different names.  I don’t buy that, because, first of all, all of the serious Buddhists I’ve interviewed for the Wednesday Journal or dialoged with on my own say that Buddhism is a non-theistic religion.  God(s), if there is/are such a being(s) are irrelevant.  Individuals must achieve enlightenment on their own.  So, Buddhists and I don’t have any common ground on that issue.


Second, although Muslims, Jews and Christians all have their roots in the Abrahamic and Mosaic traditions, Jews and Muslims can’t accept the Christian assertion that “Jesus is Lord,” i.e. Jesus is God incarnate.  I, however, must pray “in Jesus’ name.”  To do otherwise would be unfaithful to the One I love.  Even when I participate in synagogue services—and I’ve been to many—I find myself instinctively ending each psalm with a silent “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” 


Religion, in my opinion, is one of those undertakings that requires complete commitment.  We would never say, for example, that “I’m partly married.”  You either are or you aren’t.  Now a lot of us behave as if we were partly married, which just reveals, again in my opinion, that we just don’t get it.


In a book entitled Salvations, Truth and Difference in Religion, Mark Heim insists that those who practice religion in its “thickest,” most committed way will inevitably be exclusivist, i.e. they will consider their path to be the most profound when it comes to ultimate truth.  “Religious traditions are simply, descriptively exclusivist,” he wrote.  “To know one is not to know the others.  Each is a ‘one and only. . .’” (p. 5)  


At this point I have to say that I love learning about and experiencing other religions.  I make part of my living writing about religions other than my own, and I’ve learned a lot from them.  When I was a pastor we’d take our confirmation students to mosques, synagogues and Mormon temples.  We can learn a lot by bumping up against beliefs which are different than our own.  But I couldn’t pray with the Muslims.


I’m all for tolerance of other religions and working with faith communities which are different than mine, but I think there is a better way to go about the attaining of mutual respect and that is the way of Eboo Patel, the founder of Interfaith Youth Core.  The way IFYC fosters mutual understanding and respect is not by trying to pray together but by having young people from different faiths work together for the common good.


This works partly because, although they are often far apart when it comes to questions of ultimate truth, the religions of the world are amazingly alike when it comes to ethics, i.e. how people should treat their neighbors.  In IFYC events, young people can work wholeheartedly together to end hunger or reduce crime without having to get into whether or not they are going to heaven.  Ethics, again in my opinion, is the place to begin our attempt to reduce inter-religious misunderstanding, because it is a place of genuine overlap. 


I’d prefer encouraging ecumenical cooperation through an event like the CROP Hunger Walk than in one like the Community Thanksgiving Service.





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