When the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life surveyed the religious attitudes of 35,000 Americans four years ago, 65 percent professed that “many religions can lead to eternal life” – a belief that could endanger their very souls, if many of the world's leading religions are correct.
Where might they get such an idea? Attend the city-sponsored May 5 worship service featuring many of those same religions and find out.
There was plenty of talk about the importance of religious diversity this week when Mayor Tom Henry announced plans for “Prayers for the City – a Celebration of One Community, Many Faiths – to be held at the former Scottish Rite Center. Normally, when people praise the value of diversity, they also encourage people to respect each other's differences. But in this case, Henry and participating religious leaders are asking each other and the public to minimize or even ignore often-profound theological differences for the sake of . . . what, exactly?
As I wrote last month, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (of which I am a lifelong member) has made national news – most of it unfavorable – for efforts to censure pastors for participating in public interfaith services following two especially traumatic events: the 9-11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the massacre of 26 people at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in December.
The 2.4 million-member church prohibits such things precisely because it does not want to encourage false and potentially dangerous beliefs given its doctrine, drawn from Scripture, stating that salvation is possible through Christ alone. Even so, I have been somewhat supportive of the pastors, given their proclamation of Christ in a diverse setting and the depth and universality of the pain to which they ministered.
Fort Wayne – thank God! -- has suffered no such civic trauma recently. Yes, unemployment remains a problem and the recent wave of violence is tragic and unacceptable. But there is no widespread angst that must be exorcized, meaning the forthcoming event must be assessed not on its political, cultural or psychological merits, but on its theological value and necessity.
You don't have to be a trained theologian, or a member of any particular religion, to recognize the problem with events such as this, which will feature Baha'is, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Unitarians and perhaps even non-religious readings. Apart from any psychological value it might have, prayer makes sense only if you believe someone is listening and will respond favorably.
But by their very natures, not all of the religions participating May 5 can be true. Christ, for example, was either the son of God – in fact, God himself – or he was a fool or a liar. Orthodox Christians, therefore, consider other religions false just as other religions consider Christianity false, since they reject the exclusivity and divinity of Christ.
So which god, exactly, will hear those prayers said in May, most of which are likely to be blandly generic to avoid giving offense? Which -- if any – is likely to grant them, given the muddled message the cacophony will send to believers and non-believers alike?
On one level, Henry was right when he said “We need to be united and seek understanding and appreciation for each person in our community.” Regardless of religion or lack of it, we are all residents of the same city, and there is no reason we cannot respectfully work together to solve our mutual problems. In fact, different churches and faiths should and do cooperate – without compromising their beliefs – to promote peace,to help the poor, build homes and ease suffering in numerous ways. My church, and others, also regularly prays not only for people's physical well-being but also for our elected leaders. And a diverse group of pastors and priests recently created an organization called Shepherds United to lobby for life, religious liberty and traditional marriage.
As mayor, the Roman Catholic Henry represents all of Fort Wayne and can't be faulted for seeking harmony in the realm for which he is responsible. Clergy, however, have a sacred duty to a much higher authority, and those who participate with other "faith communities" in a public worship service – and that's just what this event is being called – risk sowing confusion precisely where certainty is needed most.
Whatever good this event may achieve, there are better ways.