To create religious harmony, we must first build the chords

St. Paul, Minn. — For many years, I have been a proponent of interfaith and ecumenical dialogue and understanding.

As I've said many times, if the call to Americans of the 20th century was to get racial harmony right (still an unfinished task), the call of the 21st century is to get religious harmony right. If we Americans can manage that, we can be something of a model for the growing number of countries that struggle with the challenges of religious pluralism and diversity.

It's relatively easy to advocate such things in blog posts and columns. It's another matter to put them into practice. But let me tell you about an interfaith worship service recently here in the Twin Cities, a service at which I preached. And then I want to describe another recent example of interfaith connections at my own Presbyterian congregation that I thought worked well. Perhaps both examples may give you a bit of courage to try something similar.

Here in St. Paul, I preached at an interfaith service at the University of St. Thomas organized by Friends of Woodstock School, a boarding school in northern India that I attended for a time in the 1950s. When I went there, it was full of American missionary children. (I was not one.) Today, it's an international school with people of many faiths (and none) from all over the world. So the whole service, including my sermon, needed to reflect that pluralism without my watering down my own Christian faith in favor of some kind of syncretistic theological mush.

You can read the sermon on my daily "Faith Matters" blog, but for now, I just want to point out that in it, I drew not just from the Bible, but also from the Quran and other sacred texts and traditions. The music and the readings we chose also reflected a diverse world in which people of faith while holding to their own traditions, beliefs and practices can, at minimum, respect those of others and even learn from them.

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I even quoted from a document produced by the Vatican's Pontifical Biblical Commission and, because the theme of the service had to do with our own personal and spiritual headwaters, I spoke some about the uses of water in religious traditions, including the Catholic practice of having holy water available for people as they enter a sanctuary.

A few weeks earlier, the organizer of a new worship expression that my own congregation is creating asked me if I would invite a Muslim and a Jew to talk about meals that are sacred in those faith traditions. This new worship effort, called The Open Table, begins with a meal and then moves to music, readings and worship.

So I invited Ahmed, a Muslim friend, and Jacques, a rabbi friend. After some description of and conversation about the Christian sacred meal, the Eucharist, Ahmed described the Eid al-Fitr meal that ends every Ramadan for Muslims while Jacques spoke of the significance of the annual Seder meal, which marks the beginning of Passover.

Nobody tried to convert anybody. That wasn't the point, either in the St. Paul service or The Open Table gathering at my church. The point was to acknowledge that people make different faith choices and that if you pay attention in an appreciative way, you can find various ways in which different traditions share common ground and purposes. And once that is acknowledged, it becomes much more likely that a Christian can learn something about mindfulness from a Buddhist, that a Muslim can learn something about the centrality and importance of memory from a Jew, that a Hindu can learn something about redemption from a Christian.

What ecumenical and interfaith relations most require is an understanding of one's own tradition coupled with the Benedictine virtue of humility. Which, it turns out, the Benedictines don't own exclusively.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. His email address is wtammeus@gmail.com.]

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