Cambridge, MA. There was an excellent article in the February 7, 2013 New York Times by Sharon Otterman, on the trouble Rev. Rob Morris, a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, got himself into by joining in interfaith prayer service (attended by President Obama) in December, right after the December 14 Sandy Hook massacre of the children and their teachers. Ms. Otterman’s account is ample, and well worth reading; she gives very instructive links to several sources, including Rev. Morris’ explanation of his partaking in the service, which many in the Lutheran Synod Church found offensive because he shared in a service where non-Christian religious leaders, for example Muslim and Baha’i, also prayed. By Missouri Lutheran doctrine, both the Muslim and Baha’i belong to false religions. He was criticized even if, as Morris himself notes, at the service he himself spoke about Jesus and read from the Gospel. His letter, worth reading, highlights his strict theological judgments and yet too his recognition that Christian voices must be “on stage” when crises occur. In an open letter in the context of his apology for joining the prayer service for the victims of the massacre, he sums up the situation: “…Some have expressed concern and in some cases public rebuke that my participation in the televised prayer vigil on Sunday night has hindered our ability to speak this Christian truth into a pluralistic culture. The fear is that by sharing the stage with false teachers, I have diminished the proclamation of the truth which is ours by grace through faith in Christ… We do have a God-given responsibility to be on our guard against all kinds of false teaching. Prior to the events of 12/14, I had already spent hours with my own congregation, catechizing them as to the differences between our Lutheran understanding of Scriptural teaching, the various other denominations’ teachings, and the teachings of false religions such as Islam or Baha’i. I had likewise spent time with my fellow clergy in Newtown clarifying the ways I can and cannot engage in events like joint clergy dialogues (which are good to engage in), joint caring efforts (only within limits), and joint worship (not possible). To my fellow brothers who are serving in the office of public ministry, I encourage you to do these same tasks in your churches and communities. It is not comfortable, but it is necessary.”
Not comfortable, but necessary: It is interesting to view this matter from a Roman Catholic perspective. Despite the many differences between the mainstream of Catholic theology and practice and the very conservative Missouri Synod Lutherans, we Catholics too are often on the spot, wondering about the limits of dialogue, “caring efforts,” and joint worship. We can all remember well the concerns expressed when John Paul II gathered with religious leaders in Assisi in 1986, for a day of peace, even if then to pray separately while there. As the Pope said that day, “For the first time in history, we have come together from every where, Christian Churches and Ecclesial Communities, and World Religions, in this sacred place dedicated to Saint Francis, to witness before the world, each according to his own conviction, about the transcendent quality of peace. The form and content of our prayers are very different, as we have seen, and there can be no question of reducing them to a kind of common denominator. Yes, in this very difference we have perhaps discovered anew that, regarding the problem of peace and its relation to religious commitment, there is something which binds us together.”
Even today: this week was interfaith week at Harvard, including a series of events to celebrate interfaith cooperation on campus, albeit cut short by today’s storm. A climactic event, a panel marking the one hundred fiftieth birth anniversary of the pioneering interfaith figure, Swami Vivekananda, has been postponed until March 8. On Tuesday, the Center for the Study of World Religions, of which I am Director, and Harvard Pluralism Project (directed by Diana Eck) co-sponsored a panel on My Neighbor’s Faith, a recent, very fine collection of 53 brief accounts in which individuals recall how they became involved in interfaith work. There would be something very wrong, I think, in seeking after ways to discredit these testimonies — from so many Catholics and Christians of other denominations and people of other traditions — as if the faith is better off if everyone else’s faith is simply false. Yet likewise there is no great good in making it seem as if religious differences do not matter at all, any more than differences in taste or fashion.
Rev. Morris clearly finds himself in a difficult situation, since his pastoral instinct about where he needed to be present in a time of grief was not in harmony with his church’s, and his own, strict doctrine; John Paul II's thirst for peace outran the theology of many in our own church; and I am sure that many would say that in my role at Harvard I go too far, as I speak too many good words and offer too many warm welcomes for people of every faith. Yet, as the Otterman article observes, not all agreed that Morris should have apologized, as he did. If our practice needs to disciplined and moderated by our faith and doctrine, sometimes it is practice, recognizing where God is at this moment — after Sandy Hook, praying for peace in Assisi, on Harvard’s campus — that purifies our faith and frees us from too narrow, stingy gestures toward our neighbor. Practice that ignores doctrine will in the long run be bad practice; doctrine that prevents compassion, prayer, respect is surely defective doctrine.
Not comfortable, but necessary: In our times, we are always going to live a bit ambiguously, as believers, pure believers, who find ourselves in a world where other faiths flourish and only the blind — those with a log in their own eye (Matthew 7.5) — can fail to see God’s presence among those other children of God. Rev. Morris is now reconciled with his church, it seems, and we can still be grateful that he went a little too far, and thus revealed God’s love, just beyond the neat boundary between the true and the false.