“Ecumenical” vs. “Interfaith”: Words reflect views
I’m a writer, so I have two loves: Words, and the sentences they create. No, three: Michele, my wife and best reader. So it was of interest to me when Michele mentioned the phrase “interfaith dialogue.” She’s Jewish, and I’m a former Catholic and dabbler in theologies far and wide. We were talking about dialog among different practitioners of various religious groups, and she said, “Didn’t that used to be called ecumenical?”
It did. And I want to say that the switch of words reflects an impoverishing of our language—and of our worldview.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, members of differing churches or religious groups talked to one another, attempting to understand what each group contributes to our experience of the sacred, we called our conversations “ecumenical.” Now, such conversations are called “interfaith dialog.”
I mourn the change of the term-of-art from ecumenical to interfaith, because I think it signals a loss of something precious: The notion of “at-home-ness.”
The first two syllables of the word ecumenical derive from the Greek oikos, which means, variously, a house, a home, our family, or our neighborhood or community. The oikos is exactly that intangible something that makes a house a home.
Oikos is also the root for a number of other English words, including ecology. Ecumenical is most often used to refer to work toward Christian unity—the hoped for at-home-ness of the now-separate churches; but the term also refers to gatherings of multiple faiths, as when Jews, Christians, and Muslims meet to discuss their common ground in the domain of the sacred.
Or consider the word ecology. Does it not connote something ‘home-like,’ familial, domestic? We share a home—that home being the world, whether the world we call “Earth,” or the lived world of our homes and towns, or the natural home we call our ecology. Our ecology is the “home” environment we share with multiple species, all of us depending on our environment—and each other—for survival.
Sadly, for me, the word “interfaith” has largely supplanted “ecumenical” when we talk about dialog among differing churches or religions about their common life in the realm of the sacred. When we say “interfaith,” our language is transactional—something will be exchanged between (inter) the participants. My sadness is, the word “interfaith” loses the nuance of home, of the oikos, a belonging to a shared world. It loses all that “home” means to us.
Subtly, and I’d like to say tragically, in transactional thinking we get more concerned with what we can learn from or give to each other, rather than searching for our common ground, our shared home, our oikos. In our ecumenical dialogs in the 1960s and 1970s, our goal was to discover what we shared together, what we intuited together about the sacred and about the obligations our intuitions imposed on us in this world. Now, “inter-faith dialog” is about giving and getting: What can your faith give me to enhance my own? It’s about transactions.
In this spirit, certain Catholic parishes put on “Seder dinners” in their social halls, resembling the Jewish observance in “interfaith” reach-outs, whose objectives include demonstrating not only that Catholics respect their ancestral, if outmoded, Judaism, but also that Jesus’s Last Supper once and for all superseded the Paschal meal. We’ll acknowledge the Seder meal, if you’ll acknowledge us the True Faith. Quid pro quo.
Transactions need not give life
Transactional language is about exchanges, not about life as we actually live it. Indeed, at root, life at home, life lived with our families and neighbors, with those who share our oikos, is mostly non-transactional. When my children were young, for instance, the only really transactional relationship we had was that they did certain household chores (doing the dishes, cleaning their rooms) for which we gave them an “allowance.” (I’ll note that giving an allowance in return for work has its advocates as well as its detractors, but that’s for another discussion.) Beyond that allowance, our shared family and neighborhood life, while there are some actual transactions, far transcends them. And I think most families are the same.
Family life and neighborhood life and community life in general—life lived in the oikos—give intangible, non-quantifiable rewards: Love, companionship, mutual support, and the like. Equally, life in the oikos burdens us with obligations and responsibilities to one another that often are impossible to tally up or to balance against the rewards. There is no quantity that can be assigned to sitting hour after hour at the bedside of one’s sick child or washing the hair of one’s aged parent.
Transactions, on the other hand, involve no intangibles. I select my groceries off the shelf and I pay the checkout person, and I leave. That concludes the transaction. Love, companionship, mutual support need not figure in the transaction at all. Professional diplomacy is another example: Diplomats remain polite, but there is no requirement that they like one another or do anything more than negotiate issues in their own interests.
The corporation, even before Citizens United, is the model par excellance of transactionalism. The corporation gives out its products or services and we pay for them. We need not like or admire Exxon Mobil, but we do pay for its fossil fuels. In return, Exxon Mobil need not care a whit for our communities or our environments, our ecologies, it need only produce a reliable stream of oil and gas. Nowadays, the corporation is the core organizing principle of our public lives, if not our homes. (The corporate thinkers, of course, claim that they organize themselves and their worlds as a household, which is a lie.)
We live in a world, and especially in a nation, utterly enthralled with the corporate ethos. We’ve sold our soul to the corporation. The heart of all corporate relationships is profit, that is, winnings, and the soul of profit is competition, a sibling of transaction. We adore sports. And sports are competition as transactional conflict organized by means, methods, and goals. As long as the competitors agree to the organizing means, methods, and goals, the conflict does not flare out of control.
Sports obey that rule. But what about political or corporate competition? To the degree that politicians or corporations—or nations—do NOT agree on the parameters, the means, methods, and goals of the struggle, the danger that our conflicts will flare out of control is real and enormous. We see this in Syria currently. We see it in the American government. Essentially transactional, corporate, and competitive, American government and politics are no longer about our neighborhoods, our lived lives, our nation-as-home, but are about ginning up phony conflicts and then organizing them as a competition. To our chagrin (and loss), our politics allows competition with cheating.
Judging by its actions, our Republicans feel little obligation to the poor or the sick, to immigrants, to gays and lesbians and the transgendered folks, or to anyone not like themselves. The current leaders of our nation appear not to feel any responsibility to make life in the country more neighborly. Nor to tell us the truth, truth without which no family and no community can thrive.
In other words, they seem to have no sense of the ecumenical, of the oikos, only of the transaction, the competition for gain.
Is there room for principles?
In a transactional world, the ruling principle is quid pro quo—What do I get for what I give? Don’t think that I’m proposing that there is anything wrong with quid pro quo, as far as it goes (which is not very far). I’m suggesting only that it reflects a poverty of thought, feeling, and spirituality. Within quid pro quo there is no room for love, for generosity, for unasked-for humor, or for spontaneous help, for all the parts of life that make a house a home or a group of homes a neighborhood. I have no objection to paying the grocery store for groceries, but I would object to demanding that my wife pay me when I cook them for her. Paying the hardware store for a snow shovel? Sure. But I’d rebel if my elderly neighbor was forced to pay me to shovel her sidewalk. There’s scant space inside quid pro quo for the realities of family life, neighborhood life, community life. In those more home-like realms, there are other principles at play than quid pro quo.
In a transaction-only world (and world-view), other human values—care, loyalty (even to those who hurt me), compassion, giving to the poor—die of thirst. The very things that make life livable don’t figure in transactional thinking. And so, when religiously serious people talk across the divides between their faiths, we now call it “interfaith” dialog. We don’t use the word ecumenical, which connotes what faith really is about: Being at home amid the sacred.
I’m making this simple point because our language reflects our thinking and our thinking reflects the way we perceive reality. If you think this is a transaction-only world, I suggest that your language reflects that. Pay attention to the words you—and I—use, and especially to the words of the people who talk about the things that matter in our lived lives.