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The Last Word - May 2014

An Interfaith and Ecumenical Agenda

We need a new agenda for interfaith and ecumenical programs.  I have nothing against joint prayer services, such as are held around Thanksgiving and the Church Unity Octave, or occasionally having religious leaders sign a common petition against some piece of legislation. But they seem like intramural sports rather than efforts to reach those outside the walls of churches, synagogues, temples and mosques with a common profession of faith in the divine.  We need to engage the society beyond our own walls with the transcendent dimension of life. 

I don’t know where I first heard the following story.  I wish I could give credit to my source, but I don’t know what it is.  The great Civil Rights advocate and Christian minister Ralph Abernathy used to tell a story about two roosters a man was taking to a cockfight.  He put them in the back of his truck with a cover over the back of the pickup so the roosters couldn’t escape.  When he got to his destination, he pulled back the cover and found nothing but blood and feathers.  Wide-eyed and open-mouthed he exclaimed: “Oh, my God, they didn’t know they were on the same side.” 

I subscribe to a news service that sends me religious news from all over the world every day.  Not a week passes without a story about one religious group set upon violently by some other religious group acting out of some perceived wrong, ancient or modern.  Sometimes, it is Christians who are the object of this violence; sometimes it is Jews; sometimes Muslims; sometimes Baha’is; sometimes Hindus.  None of us is exempt. 

Like those roosters, we forget that we are on the same side, a fact that may be truer today than it has ever been in human history.  The “other side” is secularism. 

Modern life is increasingly secular, defined as throwing in the towel on religious faith and practice.  With very few exceptions, we are all seeing a decline in our census.  And while this is most clear in the West, it is true worldwide, especially among the young and educated.  Many in our society and world have simply concluded that they do not need religion.  Thus, even if they still vaguely believe in the existence of God, they live in the world as if there were no God. They live without any awareness of the transcendent, locked into the narrow confines of materialism and consumerism, in a kind of practical atheism. 

Our common purpose, despite obvious differences which I do not wish to downplay and I would suggest we need continuous dialogue about, is to bring depth and transcendent meaning to people’s lives.  We are here to let people see and touch dimensions of reality beyond and beneath that which can be explored through the blunt instruments of science and technology. 

We are here to say that Carl Sagan was wrong when he opened his television program announcing, “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”  We respond, paraphrasing Shakespeare, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Carl, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” We are here to help people rediscover wonder and, with it, trust and hope in life. 

That is the common task we face:  engendering and nurturing faith and wonder.  To spend our energy attacking one another is like those roosters who didn’t know they were on the same side.  We are on the same side.  If there is to be peace in the world, it requires, first of all, that the great faiths come to see themselves as allies, working together to restore a deeper and richer framework for our lives on earth.

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal