The sun began its descent on another beautiful day at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York as a group of twenty or so recently ordained clergy gathered in a circle on the grassy fields on the south side of the Hall of Philosophy. Throughout the week we had gathered in that same location (or for some, on the comfy chairs on the porch of the Hall of Missions) to hear lectures on religion delivered by major scholars in the field. In these lectures we heard about the need for faiths to work together to do good deeds, especially in terms of social action and social justice, while understanding the particularities of each other, especially in terms of theology and ritual practice. In short, they were preaching the standard line when it comes to interfaith work: find common ground with what you do while respecting the differences of what you believe.
Yet while these teachings helped lay the foundation for our willingness to sit together in that grassy field on our penultimate day in Chautauqua, our purpose for sitting was to discuss whether or not these limitations of “common ground” and “respectful difference” needed to be pushed in a different direction. If what we were being taught was Interfaith 1.0, we wondered if there was an Intefaith 2.0, a space in which we could overcome those differences of belief to engage in practices and rituals of belief together. And one of those ways that we discussed was to offer deeply authentic and meaningful interfaith prayer.
This question of how to engage in interfaith prayer appeared throughout the week, especially when we found ourselves in prayer spaces that were certainly not interfaith. For instance, on the first Sunday of the program I found myself sitting in the front row of the Insitution’s amphitheater with a large Christian flag hanging from the rafters. It was the opening ceremony for the summer season, ritualized with powerful Christian prayer. As a member of the Jewish faith, I did not feel at home in this prayer space though as a rabbi I felt the need to push myself to experience prayer in this uniquely Christian setting. I felt both moved by the experience and fearful that my presence or my singing could be seen as an agreement with the words of prayer being offered. But the most profound moment from that experience was when one of my Christian colleagues asked me afterwards what that experience felt like for me. It was as if she recognized the dissonance of being in a space of prayer that was powerfully authentic for one religious persuasion, but undeniably foreign to another.
That combination of experiencing particularistic prayer with an engaged cohort of caring interfaith clergy allowed us to delve into whether or not it was possible to pray together. But what made this conversation a feature of Interfaith 2.0 is that we wanted to try to pray together. By the end of the program, interfaith prayer was not a mere academic interest but an existential question about who we could be as a group. It should be obvious that for clergy, prayer is a way to express our deepest connections with people and with God and we wanted to do that together because we felt a spiritual bond with one another. We wanted to mark this moment, to ritualize it, and prayer seemed to be the right technology for that job.
That brings us back to our circle on the grassy field as we talked about many of the issues surrounding interfaith prayer. Could we pray authentically from our faith traditions? Should we find space (both in place and in words) that is neutral or acceptable to all of us, much like it is done in interfaith prayer gatherings today? Or more radically, could we pray in the language of another faith without feeling like we were betraying our own? And out of this fascinating and open hearted conversation…we did NOT find a good answer to interfaith prayer. We ran into the same issues underlying Interfaith 1.0 that our lecturers that week — that doing interfaith work meant finding common ground with what you do while respecting the differences of what you believe. In the end, we did agreed upon a beautiful blessing ritual symbolized by small rocks that we brought back home Chautauqua? It felt appropriate for what we needed at that moment, but in bringing back that rock I am also bringing back a restlessness that we can find an Interfaith 2.0 that includes prayer. The closeness of our group came from an oppenness to share, explore, learn, and be together as a community of faithful people. Our peculiarities made up the richness of our discussion but in no way did they limit the breadth of feeling that we are on this path of faith together. We need to not only honor one another, we need to walk on that shared path together. We need an Interfaith 2.0 and that path must include prayer.
Image courtesy of Leila Darwish