Monday, December 17, 2012

Left out in the cold

Last night, my wife and I watched the interfaith memorial service for the victims of the massacre in Newtown. It was good to see so many religions, representative (I assume) of the population of Newtown, get together and try to begin healing their shattered community. As nations (well I am from Canada after all) watched, and most likely owing to the fact that the POTUS was a planned speaker, it was nice to see all of the Abrahamaic faiths come together and offer their own prayers, words of lamentation, words of comfort, words of trying to make some sense out of tragedy. Christian(s), the Muslim pair, the Jewish fellow, and that Baha'i guy, speaking in front of millions of people a message of hope. All very nice indeed.

But utterly meaningless.


A caveat, lest you think me some sort of monster. That presentation, that wasn't for me; it was for the vast majority of people who belong to the demographically superior religions. That presentation wasn't intending to exclude, but was doing its best to include. They had a Baha'i speaker. Think about that for a moment. Let it sink in. And good on them for their effort and for there deserved success. The goal, after all, was for a local interfaith council to speak, first and foremost, to members of their community; and to a lesser extent their nation. To offer comfort and perhaps some guidance in the wake of unimaginable horror. As I am not a member of their community, nor even counted among their countrymen, I begrudge them not; nor do I harbor any ill will or resentment. Pleasing a single polytheistic blogger was the furthest thing from their collective minds, and that is perfectly fine.

The truth, though, remains the truth. The inclusivity presented was the sort of inclusivity which can happen. Which is possible. Which is the basis of ecumenical outreach and compromise. It is possible because all of the involved parties share a common belief, and that is the belief in the undisputed correctness of monotheism. They, each of them had their own lens through which to view their god. Their own scriptures to offer solace. Their own theologies with which to understand. But they were all of them united by their adherence to monotheism, and in that their prayers have no meaning or significance to me.

Or rather, they have no religious significance. No spiritual dimension. Not even any great wisdom to confer upon me. They have significance at a human level, as genuine outpourings of grief expressed and couched in their own symbolic languages. There is no issue with understanding; the issue is with meaning.

The most I took away from that aspect of the event, was that the Abrahamaic faiths could put aside their differences and, through common symbolic and metaphoric language, express their unified belief in the ultimate goodness of their god. To remind themselves and their coreligionists that there are more than just the powers of darkness at work in the world. To stand beside one another, putting aside their religious divisions, and be united as children of the same god. That is where the real significance of the interfaith prayers lay.

Such language, though, has no meaning to me. For a monotheist and polytheist to have any sort of interfaith prayers or event such as this, would require that theism be removed altogether. Or of course, never underestimate the power of cognitive dissonance, and just pretend you're speaking the same language. Certainly on a cultural, human level, such events can have meaning. On a theological level the incompatibility screams so loud that anything theisticly specific, would be lost. Abandoned would be the gods; lost in a congealing mass of monism or pantheism. Gone would be the supremacy of YHVH, counted one god among many. True there may be a shared desire for healing, for pulling strength from a diverse body of religious or sacred texts, but the commonalities belie an insurmountable gap. There would necessarily have to be a softening of positions one way or another, rendering the whole thing moot.

Interfaith can work, can only work, if all parties involved are capable and allowed to maintain their individual positions, while at the same time finding a compromise that is not at once fatal to those positions. Monotheists can do it, because they can generally all agree on the fact that they are all worshipping the same deity (or at least trying to do so). Polytheists can do it, because they are polytheists; it is after all logically incongruent to deny the divinity of Donn, while advocating for the divinity of Pluto. Common ground is found in the case of the later, in the recognition of the godhood of those beings worshipped, even if not worshipped by the other party. Neither position or the compromise arrived at are fatal to the theological underpinnings of those beliefs. Yet when placed together, the result is at best ignorant worship of a single deity, or henotheism in denial. The best case scenario results in a total breakdown one way or the other, and this is precisely the problem. There is a simple, necessary, opposition in the two belief systems, and this can not be overcome through the best attempts of interfaith or ecumenicism. Theologically, they are incompatible. Common ground, such as it exists, is found outside theology; in morality, in ethics, in compassion and shared cultural signifiers. But then why bother with interfaith at all, if the religious component is set to the back burner, or removed altogether?

To reuse a methaphor I dismissed in a post long ago: Standing atop another mountain, one can appreciate the perspective and views of one (or more) atop another. Yet one none the less remains atop their mountain, and sometimes it gets cold.


1 comment:

  1. While I am happy that POTUS has a personal faith that comforts him, I was really put off by a public official quoting Biblical scripture. I don't think the President should be leading Christian (or any other religion's) prayers when he is there in an official capacity. (Though I think it would be fine if he was at an event as a private citizen.) Similarly, I saw candlelight vigils in public parks or at government buildings where Christian hymns were being sung. Again, I think it's fine for a group to sing those things at their own event, but when it's held in a secular space, I find it really uncomfortable to suddenly be surrounded by people singing hymns.

    The most successful interfaith events I've been involved in were organized by Indigenous friends. While sometimes clergy from Abrahamic faiths have attended these things, their views were not allowed to dominate. So much comes back to the group organizing the event. If a full diversity of faiths is not involved in the planning from the ground up, it is pretty much inevitable that the structure and content will reflect the faith of the organizers.

    I know that most Abrahamic clergy are relatively uninformed about what those of us from other faiths believe, and what we do. In order for more representation to happen, it takes forming alliances with those clergy, and not everyone is willing to do that. I've found it's best to ally with those who have the most in common with us, and then see if we can work with the Abrahamic groups as one interfaith group to another, rather than just asking (or responding to the invitation) to be included in their structure. Because, as you have noted, their structure will rarely have room for the rest of us.