“Merry Christmas!” Even as a Jew, I accept this season’s greeting as a token of friendliness. We all swim in the river of winter renewal, and draw on all kinds of language to share our joy.
Praying with hospital patients does not challenge my religious identity.
There, I accept every individual for who she or he is. If a patient were to say, “The body is under the oak tree. Tell Jesus I’m sorry,” I would, in that moment, cherish her for her courageous confession and desire to be right with God.
Attending weekly community worship in my day job at a Christian seminary does challenge me.
Actually, I love attending. My fellow faculty bring their full intellect, background knowledge, and speaking skills to their preaching. Student assistants grow from shyly tentative to confidently authoritative. The volunteer choir, led by a highly skilled student, includes the Dean and the head custodian. No two weeks are quite the same, as services rotate through Anglican, Presbyterian and United Church styles. No one cares that I rarely sing or say Amen and never take communion.
Mostly, I believe we pray to the same God. Matthew Fox’s concept of “deep ecumenism” explains why. God is the “one river” of spirit, bubbling up in “many wells” of tradition, from which we humans drink and are nourished. A beautiful metaphor!
But when I translate the metaphor into familiar Kabbalistic language, it seems less ecumenical. Yes, I know that God is infinity (eyn sof). That our expansive, poetic, philosophical, and mystical writings only circle around God. That this ineffable non-being/being is the true God. That all concepts of God are limited, and all images are, at best, partial — including, if not especially, all of the unfamiliar Christian concepts and images.
At community worship, I could wear my “deep ecumenism” like armour. With my theology, I could brush away all curious ideas.
But I’d rather not.
Instead, I accept unfamiliar ideas as questions. What can I learn by sitting with people who pray to Jesus the miraculous healer? Or to God who is mystically Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Or to the Messiah who came to redeem the earth and will come again?
Perhaps I will be surprised by my yearning to be rocked by my late mother. Or by a profound triple sense of being in the world as mother, daughter, and unique self. Or by a sudden grasp of liberation theology: the route to redemptive justice has been revealed, but we need prodding to follow the path.
Of course, God is not a cosmic parent, not a mystical integration, and not a teacher of justice. These images – which exist in Judaism a well as Christianity – are figures of speech, tropes of the imagination.
Or are they? Perhaps, in their way, each is as real as my cherished, abstract notion of infinity.
No, I won’t become a Christian, but I will be challenged by my interfaith encounters. If nothing else, I will renounce my shallow ecumenism. I will give up translating every theology into a facet of my theology.
And I will learn to accept “Merry Christmas!” without secretly translating it into my theory of winter joy.