I get invited to lots of “interfaith” events. Most are mislabeled–they aren’t really interfaith, they are “multifaith”, as Ed Stetzer recently put it. (I usually start my talks by asking if there are any “interfaith” people there–and there usually isn’t anyone.) I suppose people like the word interfaith because it doesn’t sound very threatening.
It also doesn’t sound very interesting. The main common features of interfaith gathering are that they are usually very poorly attended, and sometimes pretty dull. Those features are related. There just aren’t that many people out there looking for interfaith events to attend. And running our deeply help beliefs through a filter of what everyone has in common tends to screen out the things that give us a real identity. Interfaith events tend to attract the people who are at the edges of their religious traditions, escaping from the core, who are finding freedom in cosmopolitanism and universalism. But they wind up talking in vague platitudes about actual faith, or grossly misrepresenting their traditions.
All of the interesting things about religions are particular things. What makes me a Christian, rather than a Jew, or a Muslim, or anything else, is that I subscribe to a certain number of particular claims about events that I believe actually occurred in human history. I also believe a lot of particular things about God’s revelation to us. I have in some ways a lot more in common with Muslims who are glad to be Muslim, and who know why they are Muslim, than with Christians who are watering down their faith to find the least common denominators.
The abstract things that I believe in common with some other religions are not what makes me a Christian. But they are the things that make me human.
Our commonalities, if they exist, are found in ancient history, not in where we’re going but in where we’ve been–as a Christian I would say we share the image of God, and we are called as image-bearers to tend and keep what is good in human culture and in the rest of creation. There’s a lot of room to care for the common good. The Bible-believers (like me) point out that our charge to steward creation comes long before the special revelation to Abraham and his descendants. Genesis 1:26-28 points to a common humanity and common responsibility we share with all people, not just our co-religionists. I find it useful to point out that the religions are not climbing the same mountain, only to be surprised to meet each other at the top. Where we can get along and work together is down at the foot of our mountains, not at the summits.
Working for the common good can therefore be more than what Francis Schaeffer called “co-belligerency.” Co-belligerency happens when people who would otherwise despise each other agree to hold their noses and work together on an issue (as when feminists and conservatives work together to fight pornography). They may agree on a particular policy, but got there for very different reasons. Common good issues call us back to the most ancient fundamentals of responsibility to something bigger than ourselves, and in the process reminding ourselves of what it is to be human. Even Christians
True believers in other religions are happy when we acknowledge that there are real differences between us. True believers in a squishy interfaithism are less happy to hear that we don’t think we’re climbing the same mountain to God. Perhaps we should have separate meetings for those who believe in the truth of their traditions and those who don’t.
My ground rules for interfaith events:
(1) I’ll be speaking and interacting as a Christian, though I’ll be nice about it.
(2) I don’t do interfaith worship or prayer services. The more something looks like a worship service, the more it should be particular and not general. I’m happy to visit someone else’s church, temple, or mosque, but I don’t want them to blend it with my tradition.
(3) I won’t try to tell people from other religions what their religions say (or should say). I think it is at best meaningless, and at worst unfuriatingly patronizing, for Christians to tell Muslims that Islam is a religion of peace. It means rather more for a faithful Muslim to say it. I don’t want Unitarians telling me what I should believe about the Eucharist and organic food, or eschatology and environmental action. I’ll look to Christian thinkers to help me with that.
NOTE: There are environmental organizations in many states that go by the name “Interfaith Power and Light”. They do good work, helping houses of worship become more energy efficient. They also organize religious people to advocate for policies that fight global warming. They’re obviously pretty wedded to the name at this point, but the name helps to explain why evangelicals have not flocked to their programs. Oh, and the fact that they believe in that whole global warming thing…