There’s a tiny congregation in the Pacific Northwest of people who approach religion like a buffet line. The New York Times reports that the pastor
donned vestments adorned with the symbols of nearly a dozen religions. He unfolded a portable bookshelf and set the Koran beside the Hebrew Bible, with both of them near two volumes of the “Humanist Manifesto” and the Sioux wisdom of “Black Elk Speaks.” Candles, stones, bells and flowers adorned the improvised altar.
They had come together with about 20 other members to celebrate the end of their third year as the congregation of the Living Interfaith Church, the holy mash-up that Mr. Greenebaum had created. Yearning for decades to find a religion that embraced all religions, and secular ethical teachings as well, he had finally followed the mantra of Seattle’s indie music scene: “D.I.Y.,” meaning “do it yourself.”
So as the service progressed, the liturgy moved from a poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi to the “passing of the peace” greeting that traced back to early Christianity to a Buddhist responsive reading to an African-American spiritual to a rabbinical song.
In other weeks, the service has drawn from Bahai, Shinto, Sikh, Hindu and Wiccan traditions, and from various humanist sources.
If the Living Interfaith Church could appear hippie-dippy, as if scented with sage and patchouli, that impression proved deceptive. Mr. Greenebaum’s goals were serious, and they exemplified a movement in American religion toward dissolving denominational lines.
If they believe in everything, then they believe in nothing. I don’t understand the attraction of this. The Koran, the Hebrew Bible, and the Christian Bible are all mutually exclusive. They can all be equally false, but cannot all be equally true. I find it impossible to take this kind of thing seriously. It’s just dilettantism. I mean, I can respect the integrity of the people who choose to worship here, but I find their beliefs impossible to take seriously — this, as distinct from, say, a Tibetan Buddhist or a Sufi Muslim, whose beliefs I reject but whose traditions I can respect as having weight and coherence.
I thought about this story tonight while watching a documentary, produced by Werner Herzog, about fur trappers living in a Siberian village. The things these men know how to do astonish. They live largely by traditional skills, handed down from time immemorial. One of the trappers tells the filmmaker that all these skills came down to them over the years, proven by the test of time. It made me think of how both Tibetan Buddhist monks and Orthodox Christian monks claim that their spiritual practices are not just interesting things to do, but are techniques for reaching God that have been proven by centuries of practice. Strictly speaking, this doesn’t mean that they are true, but the claims that the two propositionally incompatible traditions make have the right to be taken seriously because so many people have been doing them for so long. They must in some way speak to the deepest longings of the human soul. I believe ultimate truth can be found, in some fragmentary form, in most religions, because divine grace goes where God wills it. But that is not the same thing as saying that all religions are equally true or equally false. My view is contained in the expression, “We know where the Church is, but we don’t know where the Church is not.”
The connection, I think, to what the Siberian trapper does is that the trapper applies his traditional knowledge toward accomplishing a goal. He is not expressing his creativity or satisfying his aesthetic interests by making his own skis, or constructing hunting huts to survive the winter; he is using the wisdom of his traditional culture to help him accomplish things he must do for the sake of his own survival and the survival of his family and village. He knows that the old ways work, because they have been tried and perfected by generations and generations of use. To feel free to abandon the ways he was taught would be literally to risk his life. Now, the trappers do use some modern methods. They have motors for their boats, and snowmobiles. But you can see that their adaptations to modern life are limited, probably by their remoteness and relative poverty. Anyway, the point is that the trappers submit to tradition because tradition works; it is a tried and true method for reaching their goal.
What could the goal of the DIY syncretists of the Times story be? According to the church’s website:
Interfaith is a faith that embraces the teachings of all spiritual paths that lead us to seek a life of compassionate action. Interfaith, as a faith, does not seek to discover which religion or spiritual path is “right.” Rather, it recognizes that we are all brothers and sisters, and that at different times and different places we have encountered the sacred differently. … We can raise our children to respect the beliefs of others.
So, the goal of this church is to lead people to “compassionate action.” But what does that mean? How can you know what counts as compassion? How do you mediate differences of opinion among the group, if there is no such thing as right belief? Is it really the case that in order to learn to respect the beliefs of others, you have to deny the reality of difference?
I don’t think so. This is not true diversity, but unity and harmony won by denying real diversity. It’s the diversity of indifference. It is an approach to religion that considers religion as an expression of human thought and feeling, not as an expression of metaphysical and spiritual realities. It won’t last. It can’t last. You can’t build a lasting faith on the principle that there is no such thing as religious truth. Sooner or later the winter will come, and you will have to have prepared for it if you are going to survive.