Saturday, June 16, 2007

[LLC] [Interfaith Space] “My Heretics and Yours”

"My Heretics and Yours"

The Rev. Tom Goodhue, director of the Long Island Council of Churches, is an old college and seminary friend of mine. LICC is actively engaged in interfaith dialogues through their Long Island Multi-Faith Forum. Over 100 trained speakers from eleven different religious traditions represented on Long Island go to places of worship, schools, hospitals, prisons and more to promote greater interfaith understanding.

In an editorial last month, Tom mused on the challenges of dealing with groups that might be considered "heretical" by others in their tradition. How should one deal with such groups as Messianic Jews (generally not accepted by Jews), Ahmadiyya Muslims (often rejected by both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims), followers of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, or even Mormons (who are not considered Christians by many other Christian groups)?

Rev. Goodhue proposes no conclusive answers. But he does suggest some approaches that can help in the encounter among religions of whatever persuasion. (What follows is only a summary; you can find his full editorial at the link below).

  1. Be humble.
  2. Remember your roots.
  3. Listen carefully before jumping to conclusions.
  4. Try to remember that heterodoxy is not heresy.
  5. Go visit even if you disagree. Maybe especially if you disagree. Unless your own faith is really weak, observing someone worship in a way different from yours will do you no harm.
  6. Don't pretend an offshoot represents the wider community.
  7. Be honest.
  8. Be honest with yourself. Many who profess conventional theology live as if they were agnostics, and nearly all of us have some beliefs that fall between unusual and downright weird. In fact, every tradition teaches something that seems ludicrous to nearly everybody else.

I encourage you to take a look at the full editorial:

This entry was posted on Thursday, June 14th, 2007 at 5:01 pm and is filed under National, Theory, Traditions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


From Our Executive Director:

Nearly every time friends get divorced, I have noticed, it is hard to preserve your relationship with both of them. This strikes me as sad, unfortunate, but probably almost inevitable, human nature being what it is, otherwise known as sin. One of the greatest challenges in ecumenical and interfaith work is navigating the treacherous waters that surround every denomination or faith community that has undergone any sort of split or schism - and haven't we all? Should you invite those who have just broken away from the Catholic or Episcopal or Lutheran Church to your local clergy association? Should you invite a Mormon to an ecumenical Christian group? An interfaith one?

Ecumenical/interfaith etiquette gets particularly dicey when one or both factions see themselves as the one true faith and their adversaries as heretics. It gets surreal when a religious movement sees itself as guardians of their faith but most others see them as having abandoned it.

  • Many followers of Jesus of Jewish ancestry, for example, call themselves Messianic Jews. They see themselves as Jews, but most Jews say they are Christians, or at least no longer Jews. If "Messianics" are invited to your local clergy association, rabbis probably will not come. And if they are not invited, some Christian clergy will probably leave the group in protest.

  • Members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, who believe Jesus died in Kashmir seeking the Lost Tribes of Israel and that the Mahdi (Messiah) was born there in the 19th century, call themselves Muslims, but most followers of Islam say they are not. If the Ahmadis are invited to your interfaith group, most Muslims may leave. Many might leave if the Ismailis were invited, too, though opinion about this sect seems to be divided. One local Muslim chaplain observed that "Bahais recognize that they grew out of Islam and became a new religion, but the Ahmadis do not." Jews often make the same distinction between Methodists and Messianics.

  • Followers of the Rev. Sung Moon say they are Christians who believe he is the second coming of Christ (well, sometimes they say this and sometimes they deny they do) but most Christians insist that this puts them among apostates.

  • Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints claim to be Christians, but most Christians think that any denomination that teaches that the Angel Moroni dictated another non-biblical revelation has deviated fundamentally from orthodox Christianity.

I realize that I may have offended many readers by now, but I mean no disrespect to anyone: I am simply trying to describe things as they are. Messianic Jews, Ahmadis, and Mormons may be wonderful people. The Mormons might even be right that Native Americans are a Lost Tribe who spoke ancient Egyptian, though this seems unlikely to me. People have the right to venerate either the Book of Mormon or the Rev. Moon even if I think they are wrong. I am not the Almighty and this is a free country, thank God.

So how should we relate to those who have broken away from another faith community? The LICC Board and the Multi-Faith Forum have both been pondering this lately, and we do not, of course, all see this issue the same way. Some faiths, as Arvind Vora explains, do not automatically see those who have grown out of their religion into something different as having broken away from it. For others, particularly Jews, Christians, and Muslims, it is important to draw boundaries between one community and another. For those of us in the "Abrahamic faiths" (which I think should be called Abraham-Sarah-and-Haggaric faiths), here are some thoughts I hope will be helpful:

  1. Be humble. Nearly every religion urges humility before the Almighty, and it takes more than a little chutzpah to think that we are in a position to say how God will judge anyone else. No group has a monopoly on piety. Muslims, Bahais, Unitarian Universalists and others may love Jesus, too, even though they do not follow him the way I do. Heresy (embracing beliefs opposed to orthodox doctrine) and apostasy (abandoning what you believed) are important theological concepts, but we should be slow to hurl these labels. The Secret Files of the Inquisition, a docudrama that airs on PBS in a few weeks, reminds us that we Christians have often slaughtered those whom we brand as heretics. As my rabbi taught (Matthew 7:1), "Judge not, lest you be judged."

  2. Remember your roots. The Rev. Richard Visconti, the ecumenical officer for the Diocese of Long Island, remarked at our most recent Board meeting that he tries to remain open to those who have broken away from his denomination by recalling that "nearly all of our denominations began in division." So it is in interfaith relations: The children of Israel looked impractical and impious to their neighbors when they refused to worship many gods the way everyone else did; they must have seemed like dangerous supercessionists when a prophet slaughtered the priests of Baal. The followers of Jesus ventured beyond the acceptable limits of Judaism when they insisted that their rebbe was not just a great teacher but also uniquely God in human flesh. Muslims outraged Jews and Christians when they claimed that their later Scripture was more authentic than the Torah and the New Testament. When Bahais embraced a new revelation after Mohammed they abandoned a core belief of Islam.

  3. Listen carefully before jumping to conclusions. More than once in the history of the Church, schism has resulted from misunderstanding. As the Rev. Emmanuel Gratsias explained at our Annual Meeting a few years ago, the centuries of separation between "Eastern Orthodox" and "Oriental Orthodox" Christians turns out to have been largely a matter of mistranslation. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints rejected polygamy in 1890 and repealed the ban on black leadership decades ago, but I regularly hear Mormons condemned as if both were widespread today.

  4. Try to remember that heterodoxy is not heresy. Let's face it: we are all peculiar in some ways—in my case, in quite a few ways. I like jalapeno in my coffee, which is a little odd, though you might like it if you tried it . . . . Vegetarianism, pacifism, and Saturday worship do not make Seventh-Day Adventists a cult. Odd perhaps, but not heretics. They have pretty good arguments for all three of these, in fact. They are a conservative evangelical denomination, not a sect.

  5. Go visit even if you disagree. Maybe especially if you disagree. Unless your own faith is really weak, observing someone worship in a way different from yours will do you no harm. The LICC is a Christian organization, but we offer financial education seminars in congregations that do not belong to the council and in faith communities that are not Christian: we don't want Mormons to be ripped off by predatory lenders any more than we want Methodists to be exploited. The LICC is happy to welcome non-Christian congregations and organizations into the Friends of the LICC. Board members of the Long Island Multi-Faith Forum have visited the Ahmadiyya mosque in Amityville and the Forum has gladly presented its Building Bridges program to the Ethical Humanist Society in Garden City and to secular humanists in Suffolk, even though neither are members of the forum. It is commendable that Ahmadis and Humanists want to understand the beliefs of their neighbors. If the atheists do, too, God bless them!

  6. Don't pretend an offshoot represents the wider community. During the recent dust-up between Presbyterians and Jewish organizations over responsible investing in Israel and Palestine, both sides met with groups that had miniscule followings and then said, "But we have met Jews/Presbyterians who agree with us!" Visiting the Ahmadis is good; pretending that they represent mainstream Islam is not. Some churches claim to be Roman Catholic and offer "Catholic" weddings but never tell people that the Roman Catholic Church doesn't recognize them. As Monsignor Don Beckmann notes, "Truth in advertising," is important in matters of faith as well as commerce.

  7. Be honest. Many people say "we all believe the same thing" or "we all worship the same God" but neither is true. At most, there are similarities among many religions and some of us worship the same deity. It is understandable that we might wish the feuding friends would just stop fighting, but you may recall what happened to Rodney King when he asked, "Can't we just get along?".

  8. Be honest with yourself. Many who profess conventional theology live as if they were agnostics, and nearly all of us have some beliefs that fall between unusual and downright weird. In fact, every tradition teaches something that seems ludicrous to nearly everybody else. And the history of the Church, at least, seems to be that every denomination has its apostates. The Church condemned Marcionism as heresy in the second century, for example, but I keep hearing Christians claim that Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not worship the same God. And surely Docetism, the notion that Jesus of Nazareth was not really human, continues to be the most seductive form of apostasy for otherwise mainstream Christians. As the Apostle Paul put it, "all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23) A little honest self-examination might do us all some good.


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