Thursday, September 8, 2011

Interfaith Worship on the Rise since 9/11

Ever since 9/11, whose tenth anniversary is coming up in but a few short days, the number and frequency of interfaith worship has increased significantly. You can read the article from ENI here. What I express here is only my personal opinion and may be construed as most uncharitable. My apologies if you feel this way.

Let me start with a supposition: Interfaith worship can be dangerous. First, let me be very clear about what I mean by interfaith. I am not talking about Chrisians of one confession praying with another (though I will admit and expound upon, at a later time, that such is fraught with a number of traps) but I am talking about christians praying with Buddhists or Moslems with Hindus or animists with Shintos, etc. Now, whatever Shintos, Buddhists, Moslems, Hindus, Jews, Taoists, animists, etc. pray and with whom is their own business and I'm more than content to let them do as they please. But for christians, especially Orthodox Christians, to pray with members of other religious faiths is dangerous.

The reason not so much is because these different religions have a different theism but also their anthropology is significantly different as well. For instance, orthodox christianity (notice, small-o orthodoxy here) contends that man is in a corrupt state because of sin whose humanity can only be realized, recovered and saved through faith in the person and salvaic actions of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the second person of the Triune God (now there are some variations on a theme with that and differences of emphasis within Christianity as a whole). But, contrast this with various other religious beliefs which do not even have a name or concept for sin but also no mediator between God and man and man is left to his own devices and morality to achieve its "salvation" however that is defined. Where and what is the common ground? How can there be interfaith worship of God when both the starting line and finishing line are not the same. They may converge at one point or some points along the way, but that convergence is infrequent and often inconsequential and all religions do not converge at the same point. Several may, but not all.

Interfaith services seek to impose the idea that all religions are the same, just different expressions. Now, again, whatever faith works for another person is fine by me but I know the truth as it has been revealed. What these services promote is the idea of union. Now how can anyone be against union? Isn't that a good thing? Yes, when union or unity occurs on all levels. Unity cannot be accomplished on a surface agreement of a few tenets. Many confuse unity with toleration; they are not one and the same.

But, isn't tolerance a good thing? Of course it is, but why should the avenue for tolerance of others' religions and religious beliefs be only done in the context of an interfaith worship service? There are plenty of other ways of encouraging interfaith dialogue and understanding and tolerance without having to incorporate worship into it.

For an Orthodox Christian, reading the canons about interfaith prayer and worship indicate a very clear answer. Both are forbidden. For example, you may read If any clergymen, or laymen, enter a synagogue of Jews, or of heretics, to pray, let him be both deposed and excommunicated (Canon LXV of the Holy Apostles) or One must not join in prayer with heretics or schismatics (Canon XXXIII of Laodicia). But those canons are not legal sanctions but are principles. They SHOULD NOT be used as an excuse to justify an isolationism or hatred of those who are not Orthodox Christians nor should they be used as a metaphorical 2x4 against anyone who may participate in an interfaith service. The Church is catholic (notice, small "c" catholic), that is, it is meant for everyone, though everyone may not want or desire to be joined to it. There is no black and white answer to this issue, but we should be very cautious, especially in this ecumenical age of ours which holds that every belief and idea is of equal value, not one superior to another, to believe that interfaith services are not potentially harmful.

Prayer is worship and it is communion with God. Christ Himself prayed much during His earthly sojourn. Prayer is an act of love which binds the lover and beloved. Such is why the Trinity is described as a communion of love between its three hypostases or persons. Prayer seeks not only to unite us with the divine but seeks to unite the community. An Orthodox Christian praying the same prayer as a Hindu or Jew or Moslem or Buddhist or Taoist or whomever elevates that heterodox prayer. Though we should be tolerant and forgiving, we should not be engaged in actions which elevate heterodoxy or heresy to the same level as orthodoxy (again, small "o" orthodoxy).

As a corollary, a person of another Christian confession, asked me for some Orthodox prayers he could use in his personal prayer life. I asked him if he wished to become Orthodox. He said no but he just liked to incorporate other confessions' prayers into his own life. I asked him what confession he professed and he said that he was Baptist. Why would you want to pray as an Orthodox if you don't want to be Orthodox, I asked. He had no answer. This is the pitfall. Whatever confession works for you, then you should worship God or Allah or whomever with all your might and your body and your soul. But if you seek to combine prayers, rituals, traditions, dogmas of different confessions, then you are nothing but hopelessly adrift upon a sea of endless theological (and anthropological) possibilities with no anchor or sight of land. This is the danger. The Orthodox Church is a praying church. The prayers which have been handed down from the Scriptures, the Liturgies,the offices, the writings of the Fathers are without measure of theological depth and profound truths. Why do those prayers require supplementation from the Buddhist or the Jew?

Orthodox Christians should err on the side of caution and not be active participants in these interfaith services. We should not pray with them, but absolutely and constantly pray for them.

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