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A Critique of the Interfaith Movement
This is a short reflection I wrote up out of my own limited experience with interfaith communities as they currently practice.
Strengths of Interfaith
Interfaith movements strive to break through cultural and religious ghettos and make unlikely connections between people of very different backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs. It is often a pioneer in promoting discussion and engagement, while the dominant culture is more prone to act on stereotypes, suspicions, and fears.
Furthermore, in a highly secular society, it is courageous to be committed to the spiritual life. In our culture, traditional spiritual communities form the strongest source of encouragement of reflection, interiority, and spiritual growth. Remaining rooted in pursuit of these things while being in a place of strained communion no communion with one of these established institutions takes a tremendous amount of energy and fortitude.
Emphasis on Conversation
Without any absolutes to be downloaded, interfaith discussions are located entirely within the realm of personal experience and the shared adventure of spiritual growth. Interfaith communities have developed ingenious methods of cultivating conversations between people of radically different beliefs and backgrounds.
Production of Character
In my own interactions, I have noted that interreligious dialogue has produced many good, mature, humane people. At very least, it has attracted such persons.
Weaknesses of Interfaith
Enthronement of the Absolute Relative
Religious pluralists are often fiercely insistent on the relativity of truth claims. This principle has become a non-negotiable new orthodoxy that, quite frankly, upsets a great many people.
Certainly, there are some attitudes that are poisonous to interreligious discussion, but if the goal is maximum inclusion, these should be addressed and worked through individually and respectfully, rather than by the blanket assertion that all truth is relative.
This is, perhaps, a matter of personal maturity. But the movement as a whole subliminally exudes this principle quite strongly. It is like a pheromone that deters whole swaths of traditionally minded people.
In an effort to give no offense to anyone, interfaith communities often eschew traditional theological language. Elements of faiths that might be threatening to the community are excised. Serious differences in faiths are often glossed over for the sake of fraternity. Proselytizing, for instance, is highly frowned upon, and this policy makes some Evangelicals feel systematically excluded.
The language that takes the place of traditional theological lexicons is vague and empty. The result is another religion of mashed theology, broad in its foundations, but inaccessible and often repugnant to the uninitiated, particularly those of more conservative backgrounds.
In a word, interfaith worship just doesn’t do it for some people.
Polarization of Religious Voices
I get the sense that there is a group of people who are committed to interfaith discussion almost to the exclusion of their faith tradition of origin. And that the interfaith group is really its own community. The result is that deeply conservative voices are largely absent from interfaith discussions, and that interfaith voices are largely absent from theologically conservative congregations. In this way, some interfaith communities end up being more of a celebration of liberal values than a deep, transforming engagement between religious traditions.
Inasmuch as this is the case, are interfaith communities really having the impact they desire to have? Are they really affecting the way that all people practice, think about, and talk about religion? Or have they merely become another bizarre religious special interest?
Constructive Solutions to these Problems
Rather than giving everyone the same watered down, vague language, we should invite people with a strong connection to their heritage to explain what they believe, share how they worship, and demonstrate how this affects their lives. Everyone gets floor space, even (especially) the most conservative voices.
Re-enchantment of Inherited Forms
Instead of disengaging from and discarding inherited language of praise and theology, we should review, reinterpret, and revive it through patience and practice. Using the words and forms passed down to us is a powerful sacramental connection to those of our tradition who have gone before.
We also want to invite people who do not believe what we believe and worship the way that we worship to observe our worship, and reflect on what they see in it. What was beautiful? What was challenging? What did you not understand?
Religions universally share a vision for the betterment of humanity. This forms a common ground from which we can engage with each other. Friendships are forged when we share the sacrament of sweat.
In this way, we avoid predictable and painful divides without diluting the substance of our faith, and we are directed to see the worldly outworkings of highest and loftiest ambitions of one another’s religious systems.
Reshaping Involvement in our own Tradition
If interfaith becomes a church that substitutes for one’s inherited tradition, how will the fruits of its discourse ever be disseminated amongst the masses of people who are not a part of this movement?
My own vision for an interfaith community would be a cornucopia of religious institutions sharing a building. Perhaps a mosque, a synagogue, a couple of meditation groups, an evangelical, and a traditional Christian community. These groups would be more or less autonomous, although they could share an administrative staff, and occasionally collaborate on functions to expose each other’s communities to the actual lives and practices of the other group.
They would also be responsible for being hospitable and supportive of new, upstart groups dealing with encouraging human growth.
The ideal setting for such an institution would be the neighborhood, where this facility can be a spiritual community center, serving the diverse needs of all its neighbors, and also helping to awaken a person to the diversity and unity of who its neighbors are. Of course, there are very few neighborhoods that are diverse enough to accommodate this range of religious activities. Nevertheless, if a spiritual community center were made available in a neighborhood, I’m sure that some group or set of groups would appear to make use of it.
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