Empty Words Tarnish Interfaith Service
Updated: Jan 25
Earlier today I sat in on another virtual interfaith prayer service hosted by Religions For Peace USA, but my experience this time was a bit of a disappointment. Last time, there were reps from various religions, and everyone's words seemed focused on lifting up all of us no matter our traditions. Overall, I felt the service was inspiring, and I felt included as a member of the broader human religious community. This time, however, I left feeling uninspired and as if I had been fed a dish of theological assumptions and spiritual platitudes.
I think one of the problems with this latest service is that there wasn't much overall diversity. We had one Hindu speaker and a Jewish entertainer, and despite their individual accomplishments and gifts, it was their words--even if well-intentioned--that left me discouraged. The representative of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (or Hare Krishnas) put me off immediately when in his comments he stated, "We are all born into darkness." I understand that may be an opinion or belief of the Hare Krishnas, but it is not my belief. As a Pagan and Vodouisant, I believe we are born in to a world that simply is, with both happiness and unhappiness, good and bad, light and dark. He made other assumptions such as referring to God in a way that felt monotheistic and implied that we all want to transcend this earthly existence. I, however, am open to the possibility that there are multiple gods, goddesses or beings, and I am at home here on the earth with all of its faults. There may be another existence somewhere, some time, but I have no proof. Until there is proof, I'd better make myself at home because it's the only one I may get.
The singer Neshama Carlebach offered a couple of nice songs, but it was her casual comments that left me uncomfortable. At one point she stated, "We are all divine beings." I know lots of people say that, and it's a wonderful sentiment. But what does it really mean? If everyone is divine, then does it lose its value? Divine implies something else, something beyond being human--right? Or did she just mean that part of us lives on after physical death? Well, that's also a nice sentiment and many people believe it, but that doesn't make it true--and I don't know that I believe it. If it is true, then ok, but I don't have to believe in it to make it so. In reality, it's just an opinion and nothing that anyone can prove. So, why say it? Why assume everyone in your audience believes it?
Carlebach also threw out a personal opinion that I hear a lot--that, somehow, "The Universe" has essentially caused the coronavirus so that we can all learn something. I have a serious theological problem with this. Not only does it have monotheistic implications (given Carlebach is Jewish, that isn't surprising), but it also implies that The Universe--whatever it is--has agency and can, let's face it, send plagues to get our attention just like the punitive Judeo-Christian God did in the Bible. But many modern religious people don't like to use the word "God," so they think "The Universe" sounds better. However, it's just a different word for the same theological concept. In my opinion the world and the universe don't work this way. Viruses happen just like humans happen. There is no punishment at work. Suffering is part of being alive and being conscious. What we do with it is what matters.
I'm not here to bash these folks. I know interfaith work is difficult. Given their individual positions and accomplishments, I'm sure they didn't mean any offense. But I think it's easy to get theologically lazy. I know my positions and opinions are just that, and it's important that I make every effort not to impose them on others. There is a tendency in interfaith work to reduce differences down or to dismiss them by saying we all believe in the same thing. No, we really don't--and that's ok. Just be clear that what you are offering is your perspective and not just another way of interpreting what I happen to believe or practice. Yes, themes can be similar, values can be similar, and we can respect each other in those expressions while admitting there are still differences. To ignore those differences just makes it all mushy and weak, I think. When that happens, rather than inspiration, you're left with a dish that is empty and unfulfilling.