The “Why” of Interfaith and Ecumenical Work

Norman Rockwell, 1961

Recently, I have had the great, good fortune of being asked to join a committee on Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. No, seriously, for me this is great! And I mean that both about being on a committee and about the issue we’ll be working on.

Among other topics that engage us in ecumenism and interfaith work, is the big one about why we do it. Some people in my Christian tribe (not the committee members) think this work waters down their faith or should only be done with the goal of converting others to their faith tradition.  Others worry when they engage in this work that they are being judged for either being too Christian (or a particular kind of Christian) or not Christian enough—and sometimes both at the same time. Does ecumenical and interfaith work distract us from working within our own traditions, or is it something our tradition expects of us?

No matter how much I enjoy it, for me interfaith and interdenominational work is an obligation. It is a work of faith that springs directly from my baptism, the sacrament that made me a Christian. In other words, given the world I live in right now, I cannot be a Christian without also reaching across the divides of faith traditions.

In the vows taken on my behalf when I was a baby, and that I have renewed hundreds of times since, I have agreed to:

  • Resist evil, turn to Jesus, and put my whole trust in his grace and love.
  • Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving my neighbor as myself.
  • Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

And there you have it, right there in the Baptismal Covenant, my imperative for interfaith dialogue and relationships: I live in a community that includes people from diverse religious and cultural traditions. I am to love all of them, seek Christ in all of them, and respect the dignity of every single one. I cannot honor my faith, my vows to God, while at the same time denying or disrespecting the faith of others, because that is part of who they are.

I am not a full-time interfaith activist. Which means I am living proof that it is possible to live out these vows without making this one aspect of living in community my main or only focus. (Although, I am grateful for those who do make it their life’s work.) I guess you could say that if I can do this, anyone can. And here are some things I have learned about ecumenism and interfaith relations so far, in no particular order:

  1. You don’t have to get your ducks in a row first. Truly, you don’t have to nail down your theology of anything to make friends and treat people with respect. If you wait until you are “ready” or “know enough” or address concerns within your own house of worship…well, really, that work is never done and it’ll always be changing. And this is true of anything you do in response to faith. Do you have to do an intensive Bible study before feeding the hungry? Or addressing injustice? Or celebrating the blessings in life? If you wait, you will miss a lot of great opportunities.
  2. Other people and their faith traditions can teach you a lot. And I don’t just mean learning about the faith traditions of others—although you will learn a lot about that. You will learn about—and sometimes clarify—your own beliefs as well. For me, as a Christian in a majority Christian culture, there is a lot about my faith tradition I take for granted. When I have conversations about charity or evil or family or career or prayer with people from other faith traditions, it sometimes throws my own beliefs into high relief. That is especially true if you include atheist brothers and sisters in the conversation.
  3. Other people and their faith traditions don’t exist for my edification.  I learn so much from my relationships across lines of cultural and religious difference, yet if that is the only reason I pursued them I’d be exploiting people God is calling me to love. Sometimes there is a fine line between inviting someone to teach you and using them for your own purposes—like validating what you already believe. I’d say the key is having an open heart and expecting to change. Actually, that works for just about any relationship you have.
  4. Be true to yourself and your beliefs. Part of being in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue means bringing your own faith tradition to the table. Without that, you are really just a fly on the wall. And nobody likes flies. It is possible to be fully yourself, be committed to your own tradition and still be respectful to others. You’d never know that by looking at a lot of the news these days, but it is true. Plus, when you are just an observer in the conversation, you are treating other people as an exhibit. See above, that’s not good.
  5.  You don’t have to address global issues – the ones in your own neighborhood are just as important. In fact, maybe even the ones in your own church. I’m talking about interfaith marriages, people leaving one denomination for another, friends of friends who come to your youth group. How can you serve people if  you don’t know about them?
  6. If you want to be heard, you also have to listen.
  7. It is okay not to get it right all the time, no one does.

I could go on, but seven is a lucky number, so I’ll stop there. What about you? What are your experiences of ecumenical and interfaith relations? Why is it important – or not—to you?