The truly interfaith church of what’s happening now

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From the very beginning of this weblog, your GetReligionistas have argued that some of America’s most important religion stories are taking place on the Religious Left, even on the evangelical and Pentecostal left. I still believe that.

Also, we have always argued that it was important for journalists to cover the religious and doctrinal content of flocks on the religious left in terms of their DOCTRINES, worship and practices, not just their political views. It’s just as bad to assume that, let’s say, liberal Baptists believe what they believe for what are assumed to be political reasons as it is to argue that Baptists on the Religious Right are, truth be told, just a bunch of cynical politicos.

So, yes, I enjoyed reading large chunks of that recent New York Times story that ran under the headline, “A Church That Embraces All Religions and Rejects ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them.’”

By the way, I am not sure that the story nails down the second half of that headline, but that’s another issue. It’s possible that the religious thinker at the heart of this story would have trouble truly tolerating believers that be believes are intolerant. Why do I say that? Hang on a minute or two.

The opening of the story is a feast of Pacific Northwest details, some predictable and some quite refreshing:

LYNNWOOD, Wash. – Clad in proper Pacific Northwest flannel, toting a flask of “rocket fuel” coffee typical of Starbucks’ home turf, Steven Greenebaum rolled his Prius into a middle school parking lot one Sunday morning last month. Then he set about transforming its cafeteria into a sanctuary and himself into a minister.

He donned vestments adorned with the symbols of nearly a dozen religions. He unfolded a portable bookshelf and set the Koran beside the Hebrew Bible, with both of them near two volumes of the “Humanist Manifesto” and the Sioux wisdom of “Black Elk Speaks.” Candles, stones, bells and flowers adorned the improvised altar.

Some of the congregants began arriving to help. There was Steve Crawford, who had spent his youth in Campus Crusade for Christ, and Gloria Parker, raised Lutheran and married to a Catholic, and Patrick McKenna, who had been brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness and now called himself a pagan.

They had come together with about 20 other members to celebrate the end of their third year as the congregation of the Living Interfaith Church, the holy mash-up that Mr. Greenebaum had created. Yearning for decades to find a religion that embraced all religions, and secular ethical teachings as well, he had finally followed the mantra of Seattle’s indie music scene: “D.I.Y.,” meaning “do it yourself.”

The style appears to be mainline Protestant/Reform Judaism, blended with a rather academic infusion of other faith traditions. The Times team notes that:

… The liturgy moved from a poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi to the “passing of the peace” greeting that traced back to early Christianity to a Buddhist responsive reading to an African-American spiritual to a rabbinical song. In other weeks, the service has drawn from Bahai, Shinto, Sikh, Hindu and Wiccan traditions, and from various humanist sources.

I found myself wondering why this congregation needed to go it alone. Why not hang with the Unitarian Universalists, liberal Episcopalians or the United Church of Christ?

However, the whole point of this story is that Greenebaum’s flock somehow represents the trend that researchers usually call our “postdenominational age.” This pair of fact paragraphs is crucial:

If the Living Interfaith Church could appear hippie-dippy, as if scented with sage and patchouli, that impression proved deceptive. Mr. Greenebaum’s goals were serious, and they exemplified a movement in American religion toward dissolving denominational lines. …

Indeed, fully one-quarter of Americans attend worship services outside their own faiths, according to a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center. The report attributed that trend to the growth of interfaith marriage and to the influence of Eastern religions and New Age spirituality.

This is where I began to have some problems. What we have here are religious apples and oranges.

Now, the interfaith fusion trend is real and it is certainly newsworthy that some people want to BLUR key lines between religious traditions and bodies and blend elements from various groups. That’s an important story.

But that is not the same thing as saying that many believers in this day and age are choosing to CROSS the borders between different religious traditions by converting from one to another (saith the Southern Baptist preacher’s kid turned Eastern Orthodox Christian layman). Why? Well, anyone who studies folks who convert from one religious tradition to another knows that these converts are often among the most orthodox, small “o” or large, practitioners of their new tradition.

So do the Pew numbers really apply to this story? Yes and no.

I also kept waiting for the Times team to talk to anyone on the other side of this story or trend, perhaps someone who joined this interfaith flock and then returned to traditional faith. If that wasn’t possible, it was crucial to talk to an authoritative voice who could at least question some of Greenebaum’s assumptions.

Well, option No. 2 is what happens. Finally, we get a bit of inside from a logical source — religion professor Stephen Prothero of Boston University, who expresses both admiration and reservations for this edgy flock. This is the key moment of content in the story, beyond the colorful details:

“This strikes me as a kind of institutionalization of a very strong trend,” he said of Mr. Greenebaum’s start-up. “It’s the idea that all religions are different paths up the mountain, and when you get to the top of the mountain you find compassion.

“But one reason we have different religions is that we have different rituals and different beliefs. Those are not insignificant. So for all religions to be one religion, you need to elide all the elements that were central to religion in the past: the hajj to Mecca, Jesus dying on the cross, whatever it might be. You’ve got to turn these first principles into last principles.”

And does that process, in the end, produce true tolerance?

That’s an excellent angle to explore, quoting critical voices on both sides of the trend.

More coverage, please. More voices.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin

    “If everything is true…then nothing is true.”

    I think this will be a big hit amongst those who wish to offend no one.

  • bob

    This place is about a mile from where I live. Two things: First, how does it get to the NYT? Truly a tiny group. Second, with much bigger groups like Episcopalians doing the same thing, how did it get reported anywhere? This guy is actually as big a story as Mr. Aslan and his amazing ideas about Jesus. That is, a slow news day. No ducklings fell into a sewer grate.

    • helen

      Read enough of the “Aslan story” to appreciate the analogy…Loved your last sentence!


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