Interfaith Belonging is not Inter-Religious Understanding

The central claims of Interfaith are in conflict with the claims of other religions, as the claims of these religions are in conflict with one another.

At a recent meeting to work on programs for an interfaith chapel. It immediately became clear to me that a deep conceptual confusion was likely to thwart the intentions of the participants. Here’s why – let me know if I’m wrong.

Several individuals present introduced themselves as “ordained interfaith ministers.” Soon it became clear that their training gave them a broad understanding of the central teaching and a few ritual behaviors found in of some of the world’s religions. With this training they felt competent to conduct worship services drawing on the resources of as many as 10 religions, or lead a Sufi circle, or practice Zen meditation, or conduct a Christian Eucharist or Jewish Sabbath service.

And just what did these Interfaith ministers personally believe? Essentially they held in common:
1. A belief that all humans are on a quest to relate to and move toward “the Divine,” “the One,” or “The Transcendent/Immanent,” or some other conceptualization of “Spirit” or “the Sacred.”
2. All religions are part of this quest and offer resources for all those participating in this quest.

The sacred texts of these interfaith ministers come from Rumi, Vivikananda, Marcus Eliade, and Joseph Campbell as well as a host of others. They also interpret a broad range of traditional religious texts according to Interfaith assumptions. And their religion is institutionalized in various Interfaith denominations: The Unity Church, Vedanta, Unitarian/Universalism, and perhaps Bahai.

The problem is that followers of Interfaith seem to make two wrong assumptions. The first is their belief that all other religions share their conviction that all humans are on a quest for God. The second is that they, as followers of Interfaith and students of different religious beliefs and practices, can actually represent these different religions. Indeed, they imagine that Interfaith is a kind of living inter-religious dialogue now properly directed to serving the universal human quest for the sacred.

Both assumptions are wrong, and because of them the Interfaith religion has a much reduced chance of creating inter-religious understanding. Indeed it seems to me that the so-called interfaith services, lectures, meditations, and so on are actually just evangelistic efforts to convert people from one of the classical religious traditions to the new Interfaith religion. This is why they receive little or no interest from actual Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists. Who wants to go to someone else’s worship to be converted to their religion?

And I use the word “convert” quite intentionally.

The Interfaith creed is that all humans are on a quest for the Divine / One / Spirit / Transcendent and that all religions are equally valid ways of undertaking this quest. It is a claim about the truth, and it is claim that contradicts other religious claims. To accept it is to change religions if you are a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or Taoist.

Christianity teaches that humans can be characterized by the word sin, a state of complete spiritual alienation which is the opposite of a quest for the divine. We Christians believe that humans are fleeing from a God who pursues us with love and justice.  Islam proffers that humans are sunk into jahiliya, or profound forgetfulness and ignorance of the divine. They cannot pursue God because they have forgotten who God is and what he requires of them. Buddhism posits that humans and indeed all sentient creatures are trapped in the samsara world, bound by infinite chains of karma into eternally transforming destinies. There are gods but no God and indeed the concepts of either individual souls or a great “world soul” are delusory, and quest for either is futile. Hinduism perhaps comes closest to Interfaith in its convictions, but its conceptualization of a universe locked in endless downward cycles of obliteration then creation hardly comports with ideas of the soul’s endless ascent toward transcendence.

So the very concept of Interfaith worship posits a common humanity that does not exist seeking an object of worship upon which they do not agree. Christians, Muslims, and Jews acknowledge on formal grounds that there is only one God. But we don’t worship the God who transcends our different understandings. We don’t worship transcendent mystery. We worship the Triune God and pray in Jesus’ name, or Allah who is co-eternal with the Qur’an and called Muhammad as the final and perfect prophet, or the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who gives the law without which we cannot exist as a community. Therevadans are strictly atheist who dismiss the idea of a soul or spirit as delusion. Mahayanans understand these concepts to be sunyata, empty, devoid of utility. Hindus seek undifferentiated Being.

Of course through dialogue we can learn from each other, and gain or regain forgotten wisdom. We can even learn certain techniques for attaining certain psychological states. But those of us who adhere to the world’s religions cannot assume that we have anything at all in common when we manifestly disagree about the fundamental nature of humanity and the fundamental character of the Divine.

And all this means is that the central claims of Interfaith are in conflict with the claims of other religions, as the claims of these religions are in conflict with one another.

Which is fine. Interfaith the religion can join the crowd at the inter-religious table. There is much to discuss. Not least is how we, who make claims about what is universally true, can live with the reality that others also make such claims, and that our actual communities are strictly bounded by time, space, culture, and language.

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