The “Interfaith” Problem: Why It’s Not an Easy Label

At one so-called “interfaith” service I recently attended, the only attempt made to include anyone of a non-Christian tradition was a very small footnote beneath the title of one of the hymns in the program. “Feel free to substitute the word ‘Christ’ with the name of your deity while singing this hymn.” This in a service full of Biblical passages, Christian songs, and invocations to Christ.
I’ve seen it happen many times. “Join us for an interfaith service.” “All are welcome at this interfaith ceremony.” In a world of increasing pluralism, people are becoming more aware of the importance of not being exclusive to other faiths. And so they promise religious services that are open-minded, rituals that are welcoming, events that are tolerant.
There is, however, a great deal of difference between not being exclusive and being inclusive. 
I am not condemning these efforts to be open. They are well-intentioned, and a definite step in the right direction. But that is all they are: a step. A step in a journey that will take many, many more steps. For to make something truly “interfaith” is hard work. It means recognizing that the label of “interfaith” includes both theistic and non-theistic religious traditions, as well as non-religious traditions like atheists and secular humanists. It means acknowledging that concepts like prayer or worship are not universal (and that maybe your event would be better served with the label “Judeo-Christian” or “Abrahamic”–or even just “ecumenical”–than the wider net cast by “interfaith”).
I encountered these difficulties myself when I planned HUNGERally, an interfaith event against hunger that involved colleges from across the Boston area, including Harvard, MIT, Tufts University, and Boston College. As a part of the event, we had various students give a short “meditation” in which they conveyed how their respective traditions addressed the issue of hunger. A Christian told a story of a saint. A Muslim quoted from the Qur’an. A Mormon told a personal story. But perhaps most unexpectedly, one of the many secular humanists involved in the event read a poem from Walt Whitman, which he felt expressed a call for humans to help each other.
Those of us planning HUNGERally chose to take this approach instead of a prayer or hymn because it truly allowed people of all traditions to engage in the event (I could also go into how centering the interfaithing around service to others allowed us to come together over shared values, but that will have to be saved for another blog post). It took a lot of brainstorming and careful word choice, but I feel I can genuinely call HUNGERally an “interfaith” event, and I am proud of that.
Perhaps it is because I am so involved in the interfaith movement–or because I am a religion major–that I am so sensitive to people using the label “interfaith.” I am the girl who is always careful to follow every “religious” with “and non-religious” when saying what kinds of people are welcome at our Boston University Interfaith Council events. I wince a little bit every time I hear someone say that religion means believing in a God. I am always ready to go off on a spiel about how our thinking in America is incredibly Protestant-biased, from the way we conceive of economics to our conviction that faith and religion are synonymous (and yes, I’m aware that “interfaith” is an imperfect term for the movement).
But that is how I am. And i just can’t help but wonder what that nominally “interfaith” service would have been like if, instead of just a tiny program notation, there had been true interfaith cooperation. I can only imagine what kinds of beautiful connections could have been made, and what kind of understanding could have been built.

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