Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Limits of Interreligious Worship

Last week we started looking at a conversation about interreligious worship, which serves as the theme of most recent issue of Liturgy, vol. 26.3 (2011). We will be continuing with excerpts from this issue over the next several weeks. The following draws from the conclusion of Ruth Langer's and Stephanie Perdew VanSlyke's introduction and overview to this issue, where they emphasize not only our need to engage in interreligous worship but also our need to do so carefully and cautiously.
Whatever our national or religious appeals to unity in the face of the September 11, 2001, tragedy, the ensuing decade of war and terrorism has meant that even as American Christians, Jews, and Muslims continue to live in proximity to one another, our suspicion of one another is in many ways heightened. Communities such as Eugene, Oregon, organize interreligious observances in an attempt to emphasize unity and forge common bonds, yet we can honestly ask whether a decade of sharing prayers or readings together on the village green has lessened intolerance or wariness of one another. The controversy that erupted in 2010 regarding the proposed construction of the Cordoba House/Park 51 Muslim Community Center near the former site of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan may signal limits to increased unity and understanding as outcomes of interreligious prayer. At the very least the controversy around and suspicion of the Cordoba Movement (which itself refers to a place and time when Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived in proximity to one another with mutual respect) illustrates that the American ability to live with pluralism is an ongoing process, in which experiments with interreligious prayer may only play a small part.
During decades of experimentation with interreligious prayer in the American context, we have also seen an intellectual shift from the assumptions and presumptions of modernism, with its large claims and grand themes--including those of universal and universalizing values--to the suspicions and cautions of postmodernism, and its accompanying emphasis on the local, the personal, and the particular. As we enter another decade of experimentation with interreligious prayer, in any of the contexts described here, it may be that we are seeing a shift from attempting prayers and liturgies that are broad and synthesizing to planning prayers and liturgies that are a bit like collages made of the bits and pieces of many religious traditions. If the postmodern context has brought to us an emphasis on particularity, one of the continuing dangers in the American context is the confusion of religious observances with spiritual consumerism. Among some Americans, postmodernism has ushered in a religious relativism and a spiritual searching. Combined with American consumerism, this mood often results in dabbling in the prayers or rituals of another's tradition without necessarily knowing anyone of that tradition. This spiritual consumerism is often perpetrated by those with the time, money, or education to purchase religious experiences that may or may not be authentically tied to a religious community or tradition. Planners and presiders of interreligious worship in this context will need to be cautious, and contain any enthusiasms that may lead us to think that an ever-increasing collage of prayers and liturgies can be said or shared in an interreligious gathering divorced from those formed in a specific tradition of prayer or qualified to lead such prayers.
You can read more at Liturgy: Interreligious Worship.
Stephanie Perdew VanSlyke serves as senior pastor of the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Wilmette, Illinois. She is an adjunct faculty member at McCormick Theological Seminary and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in the areas of Christian worship and early Christian history.
Ruth Langer is associate professor of Jewish studies in the Theology Department at Boston College and associate director of its Center for Christian-Jewish Learning.

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