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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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...

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