The Purpose of Ecumenicism

Greta Christina, a sex and atheism blogger at Alternet, a progressive newsfilter to which I subscribe, condemns ecumenicism.

I admit, I almost always get upset at her characterizations about religion.  I find them pedestrian and shallow (her sex writing and atheist-positive writing I find more interesting).   But for her, a priest, rabbi and a minister getting together isn’t a joke.  It’s offensive.  In her last essay in alternet, she describes why interfaith gatherings drive her crazy.

I think she needs to expand her circle of religious friends a bit.

Granted, I wonder if part of the reason she’s come to her views and encountered angry progressives, is because she does most of her work over the internet.  I hope not.  The internet is the last place I’d begin my research on churches, church culture, or even Christians.    I myself have spoken poorly, hastily, in this electronic medium.

But for her, an interfaith gathering seems is primarily to exclude especially, of those who lack faith.  But I think this is a simple view of the kinds of gatherings that occur, and what they are for.

There are many reasons people of different faiths gather.  Sometimes they are to diminish bigotry of other particular groups.  They may be to challenge the state on political issues, such as immigration, abortion rights, or better schools. Sometimes they are discussion sections.  Still other times they are opportunities for religious people to get to know other religious people, and to learn about other faiths.   But they fundamentally gather to pay homage to the civic religion, that of the liberal state.  This is one reason many interfaith groups do not have many evangelicals or Roman Catholics – they have different understandings of the faithful’s relationship to state power.

Greta seems to wonder what we’re actually doing if we’re not talking about identity, difference and theology.

The purpose of interfaith dialogue becomes not to convert, but to give each other legitimacy in an overwhelmingly secular, public, sphere.   Interfaith dialogue also does not always seek to paper over differences, but may diminish the fear of difference.

As someone in the religion industry, a member of a religious institution, one that participates in ecumenicism, I can understand her feeling of being excluded.  Just as a group of Democrats might not want to invite Sarah Palin to a dinner party, we generally are not interested in bringing an atheist to a gathering of religious figures.   It’s not because we wouldn’t want to get into a dialogue.  It’s because she doesn’t quite understand what we’re doing by collaborating.  We’re not thinking about atheism or God.  We’re thinking about how we, as religious communities, can get along.  This has some merit, even if it doesn’t fit the neat vision that religious communities must necessarily be at each others’ throats.

Greta complains that we never ask, “but is it true?”  Because for her, the only relevant question is whether God exists or not.  This is the ONLY truth that she respects.    The problem is that most of us aren’t asking those questions.  We’re asking questions about the practical issues that face our communities.  We’re comparing notes, talking and collaborating.   We know that prayer can make people feel better; people enjoy and benefit from the community of church; people like to sing; and priests care for people.   Is it always a perfect community?  Of course not.  Is it true?  Well – what’s the question?

Furthermore, must interfaith groups always exclude atheists?  Not necessarily. For two years, the coordinator of the White Plains Religious Leaders was the moderator of the Ethical Culture society.  Sometimes he was clearly confused by some of us.  He would say, “for those of us without a revealed tradition, we look at this differently.”   If anything he pitied us, yet it was from a position of openness, humility and patience.  He didn’t believe the bible was true, nor did he believe in God.  But he participated in the fellowship.  I suspect it it doesn’t fit her narrative that religions are necessarily violent, stupefying, and incapable of engaging non-theistic traditions.

Greta ends with a little note about talking about religion at a dinner party.  For us religious believers, when we get together, we’re sharing a little of each others spiritual “food.”  We don’t necessarily all use the same ingredients, and we’re committed to our personal culinary tradition, but we acknowledge there’s a lot of different food out there.  And then there’s one person who really hates everything that all of us chefs make.  Sometimes we really don’t want the restaurant critic around when we’re sharing war stories.

There’s a way of respecting persons without agreeing with another person’s beliefs.  I had a friend I’d meet at a bar occasionally with whom I’d discuss women and British Politics.  We’d reach a pause and he’d suddenly say, “you realize there’s no God, right?”  I’d say “who cares?” And then we’d laugh.  Why? Because he’d just make this statement completely out of context.  We’d be having a beer, and he just wanted to remind me that’s how he felt for no reason.    He didn’t believe what I believed.  But I also never thought he didn’t respect me.   We didn’t convert each other, but enjoyed the company of friends.

I agree that some atheism in the public sphere would be much more interesting. Atheists may be moral, humane, just and precise in their thinking.  They may also be immoral, bigoted, nasty and fuzzy as well.  Just as she may not that one’s religion is delinked from being ethical, the non-religious cannot claim their own moral superiority.  Still, there are ways Christians can engage atheists without feeling defensive.

Admittedly, I’ve been perplexed by the idea that atheists are a persecuted minority.  Atheists who want to serve in the public would have to be willing represent the interests of churches simply because because they are constituents. It’s one perspective to have a nontheistic view of the world.  It’s another to take a public position against churches.  In those cases, churches aren’t being bigoted against atheists; they’re defending their interests.  Atheists who defend the religious would may find themselves placed in a different category than those who maintain the moral superiority of their world view.

It would be nice if Christians were nicer on the internet; a little less defensive and more interested in being good examples of healthy, loving, magnanimous, truth telling individuals.   It’s unfortunate that she’s faced some bizarre vitriol.  From my perspective, it’s the nature of the medium.

I’m also a member of Rotary, where we have an invocation every meeting.  There are atheists who are members.  When they are invited to give the invocation, they do so without any reference to God.  They offer their own blessing and wonder in the natural world.  And they do so with integrity.  But what they don’t do is say, at that time, “you’ve all been lied to.”  Instead, they speak the truth, from their heart, not as evangelists, but as examples.

Non-believers and Christians need not fear one another, but they may need to learn each others’ language, and treat them with charity, if not credulity.  Perhaps we cannot respect that sort of charity from some atheists; but it nonetheless merits a Christian who can maintain their magnanimity when being confronted by the incredulous.

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2 comments on “The Purpose of Ecumenicism

  1. NixonisLord says:

    I don’t like being told that I should do something at the behest of a being of whose existence there’s no possible proof. “Believe this just because we have these nice buildings and we hand out soup” seems inadequate. I truly believe in germs; I brush my teeth every day at least once. I wash daily. This shows my belief. If you profess to believe in something/someone who is unhappy when you say stupid things about each other and you also believe that this being/person is all-powerful and all-knowing either you’re 1. insincere or 2. stupid to annoy such a person/being whose retribution is as certain as the sun being hot tomorrow.
    I think religious belief is ludicrous, the ceremonies associated with religions either confusing or simply another form of drag for the sort of people who joined theater in high school. I don’t like the tax subsidies and the assumption that a PhD in Theology is as worthy of being called “Doctor” as someone who can fill a cavity or deliver a baby or prescribe a pill. I count the number of atheists in prison and I see that we’re way under-represented compared to our numbers in the general population. And I compare countries like Nigeria, Mexico. Yemen, Iran (places with high levels of religious profession) with areas of low religious profession (Sweden, Estonia, Czech Republic, Vermont) and see that god doesn’t help very much; in fact, he/she seems to have a negative effect on even the basics of public order and morality (i.e. don’t steal, don’t cheat, don’t drive through red lights, don’t beat up your women).
    Mainline Protestantism seems to be shrinking away very quickly and I think people just get bored with the rigamarole and realize they don’t need the ceremony and the collection plate and the hymns and the stupid clothes and they can do what they want to on Sundays and their lives don’t suffer from it; in fact, they seem more relieved than anything else.

    • padremambo says:

      It sounds as if you’ve had a horrible, if limited, experience of church. I sympathize. I come from an altogether different angle – agnostic academics respectful of the intellectual inheritance that religious traditions provided, also thankful for the magnanimity of some of liberal protestantism’s (and Catholic Humanism’s) traditions.

      It also sounds that you think that religion=belief. That’s an interesting assertion. It’s one I had when I was in high school, but it isn’t exhaustive of what religion is, nor is it particularly interesting. It’s an assertion, an assumption, an article of faith.

      I find it interesting that you think of God as a “person.” I will guess that you see these words “all-powerful” and “all-knowing” as descriptive in an anthropomorphic sense. Granted, it’s easy to do, but it’s not a very sophisticated view. Although there are plenty of religious believers who believe that God punishes those who do evil, this does not in any sense exhaust what religious traditions actually say about God. I would consider “God” a little more like the planet in Solaris, but then, I’m not particularly interested in proving his existence – only to say that most thinking religious people would not talk about God the way you think they do.

      You seem to be offended by drag and theater. Am I right that you think that religious institutions are particularly distinctive from other not-for-profits? I’m not sure if this is for rational reasons or personal animosity. Not sure how you could easily make empirical distinctions between not-for-profits and churches.

      Hm – As far as a “doctor” in theology goes, I don’t know of any theologian who thinks they can fill a cavity or prescribe a pill. But perhaps you think theology is distinctive from other degrees in the humanities.

      You make some insinuations in your comment that don’t make a lot of sense. Are religious people the ones going to prison? Do people have faith and do horrible things, or do they find faith while they are there? You seem to mistake correlation with causality. It may be that, in places that there is no political order, religion is the only thing going – and without it, those places would be much worse. A better example would be a non-religious country that was completely impoverished and compare it to one that was wealthy.

      I think your vitriol gets in the way of sensible, unbiased, honest critiques of religious institutions. That’s fairly common, of course. When I was an atheist, I knew others who had a the deep, visceral antipathy toward religion, an antipathy based on pedestrian, unsophisticated views of belief, ritual and the like.

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