One of the biggest phenomena on the religious scene in the past century has been the ecumenical movement. The goals of the movement are certainly laudable. People who know each other, and understand each other (to some extent) are less likely to kill each other. I suppose that presupposition warrants some exploration (given that one set of data indicates that 77% of people murdered are murdered by someone they know, with 30% being murdered by family members), but it does seem reasonable.
Now the question that needs to ask is, what is the point of the various religious groups in question? For the Christian, the point is salvation, although the definition of salvation varies a bit. For a more detailed understanding of the Orthodox view of salvation, you can visit the “Glory to God for All Things” blog. Other religions have somewhat similar goals. The hallmark of most of these, and certainly most forms of Christianity is that these groups feel that they have the means to achieve salvation (or nirvana, or entrance into heaven, etc.). Orthodoxy, for instance, believes that salvation comes from Christ, and via the Church that he established. It is important to remember that what we now call Orthodoxy or Orthodox Christianity, was originally called “The Way”. It was a process, not merely a set of doctrines. Since we firmly hold to this, and further hold that salvation is the most important issue facing humanity, it stands to reason that we would not want to do anything that causes confusion about salvation, and that may lead people – either our faithful, or others, to no longer seek out Christ and his Church.
The Ecumenical movement has, in my opinion, resulted in just this sort of confusion. Meetings where different representatives discuss their faith are fine. However, these turned into joint prayer services – in other words, joint worship. The Orthodox Church has long had canons against those activities, largely because we understand that worship is done by a community that is of “one essence” – in fact we state in the liturgy that our ability to recite the same creed somehow reflects our love for one another. I think that there remains that sense among most people, although it is beginning to fade, that of course you wouldn’t worship with folks who hold beliefs significantly different than yours.
I was recently provided with a copy of an article in the Chicago Tribune about an “interfaith” seminary being started up by the Unitarian Church. Given that the Unitarians do not believe that any one religion is necessarily true, one has to believe that this belief is part of what the program will be attempting to teach. Therefore, they will effectively be sowing the very confusion I was speaking of. In addition, I think that such teaching actually serves to denigrate the very religions they claim to be supporting. For instance, Christianity makes some very serious claims – that Christ is the Son of God, that he is the truth and the way. Islam makes similar claims about being the one true way, while at the same time claiming that those who believe that God had a Son are foolish, and that to hold that Christ is God, and that God is a trinity, is blasphemy. Maintaining that both religions are true really means that neither one is. Rather, some generic form of spirituality is true. So, instead of the intended goal of supporting all religions, this interfaith program demeans most of them.
Perhaps getting different religious groups together for a purely social gathering, in the interest of promoting peace, would be a good idea. Certainly there is nothing in Orthodoxy that supports harming members of other faiths. Similarly, if one group is interested in learning about what another group believes, I think it is perfectly reasonable for the one group to make a presentation to the other. It is when ecumenism drifts into either acting or teaching that all religions are basically the same, that the trouble begins.
The best example of the manner in which Orthodox should handle ecumenism, is to provide the kind of loving feedback that this priest provided at the National Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. That is, love everyone, and tell them the truth, in love.