Friday, September 20, 2013

Interfaith Worship at Episcopal Divinity School

by Kwok Pui-lan

How can we form religious leaders to become global citizens, who can help religious communities understand people of other faiths and work across differences for the common good?

Supported by a grant from the Luce Foundation, the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) was able to offer courses on world religions and Islam, organize a China study seminar, visit a Hindu Vedanta Society and other interfaith worship spaces in Boston, as well as sponsor seminars and luncheon talks by Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim leaders.

In this academic year, our hope is to take a further step by organizing interfaith worship services on campus. Since this is something new and may present challenges to some people, we invited Professor Christopher Duraisingh to discuss the nature and meaning of interfaith worship.

Citing Romans 11:33-36, Duraisingh pointed out that the riches and knowledge of God is beyond our understanding. God is the creator of all things and “who has known the mind of the Lord?” Paul in Ephesians also speaks about the mystery and the diversity in God’s wisdom (3:9-10).

In the 1950s, J. B. Phillips published the book Your God Is Too Small. The author argues that in a world where our experience of life has grown so complex and our mental horizon has been expanded by scientific discoveries and world events, our ideas about God have largely remained static. Duraisingh cautioned that we have made God too small, if we assume that only our tradition, church, or way of worship has access to God.

Christopher Duraisingh,
Otis Charles Visiting Professor
in Applied Theology 
Worship is different from prayer, Duraisingh explained. Worship in most traditions is centered on a shared story—metanarrative—and often involves some kind of celebration. He distinguished several types of interfaith worship. The first is Christian worship enriched by other religious traditions. The worship service is basically Christian in nature, while borrowing from or adapting prayers, readings, and rituals from other traditions. The question is what is the appropriate way of borrowing from others to avoid the danger of misappropriation.

The second is when Christians attend worship or ritual of other religious traditions as participant observers. For example, some Christians have taken part in Jewish Sabbath rituals and Passover meals and others have attended Hindu wedding ceremony and Buddhist meditation and rituals. Before taking part in these rituals, Christians need to be informed about the meaning of the ritual or ceremony so that they can be prepared.

The third is a jointly planned service, when people of different faiths collaborate and create something new. This often occurs when the community is facing common crisis, such as natural disaster or tragedy. After the Boston Marathon bombing, leaders of different religious faiths offered prayers and readings at the memorial service. In India, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims plan rituals together for festivals and special occasions. In these joint services, caution must be taken to respect and honor the integrity and specificities of different traditions, otherwise it will become a smorgasbord of unrelated elements.

Can we really understand the essence and meaning of other people’s worship practices? Duraisingh differentiated between surface meaning and deep meaning of worship. While people may learn the surface meaning of a worship service, it is often the case that only participants of a certain tradition can grasp the deep meaning of it. A person who does not believe in Jesus Christ, for example, would find it difficult to comprehend the words of the sacrament: “This is my body, broken for you.”

Duraisingh challenged us to expand our horizon and imagine a fourth type of interfaith worship, when people of different faiths have built a long relationship, such that they can begin to see the metanarrative of their own tradition differently and anew. New worshipping experience arises when the metanarrative is reimagined and new expressions are built around it. In this way, we are not just borrowing elements from other traditions superficially, but enter into dialogues about the deeper meaning of worship.

In our globalized world, we need to reclaim the ideals of catholicity—universal and inclusive. Our god can’t be too small and our church can’t be parochial.

Kwok Pui-lan is William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School.  She is the coeditor of Anglican Woman on Church and Mission (Church Publishing).