Merry Christmas: Shallow Ecumenism

Hanukkah-menorah-olive-branch-300x240Saying hello in December does not challenge my religious identity.

“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.


  1. This post challenges me in some valuable ways! I love your theory of winter joy and I want to buy into it completely. And yet I recognize that when I overfocus on the Mystery behind all of our traditions (in order to perhaps make myself more comfortable with our differences) I risk missing the important differences between our different ways of connecting with that Mystery. And in that, I fail to live up to Reb Zalman z”l’s example. I always remember, at this season, his words that in order to see the beauty of stained glass, we need to be standing inside the church — to place ourselves in the shoes of those who worship there…

  2. “God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought. It’s as simple as that.” Makes it all simple for me!!

  3. This is how you grow. It’s not a safe path to follow, if you want to remain blind to weaknesses in your own tradition, or the strengths of other traditions. There’s a note in “Etz Ratzon” (or whatever siddur Or Shalom uses) about the Aleinu — that it seems to claim “We are the only people with a universal vision!”. That’s a deep rut in Judaism, and hard to get out of.

    And then there’s “Anim Z’mirot”, which expresses something similar.

    . Charles

    1. Charles, thanks for the encouragement!

      Yes, that’s how people read Aleynu but the history of the prayer is different. Its earliest source is a mystical prayer “Alay l’shabeach” (alay is the singular of aleynu) which thanks God for not making us so earthbound we can’t travel imaginatively to spiritual worlds. Nothing nationalistic about it.


  4. You express such beautiful transparency and vulnerability in this piece Laura. We are lucky to have someone with such depth of expression travelling with us at VST. I am wondering what it means to say the body is under the oak tree. I haven’t heard this expression before. I Googled it….is it from the verse in Chronicles? It is a confession and apology for sin I have assumed but I was wondering where it came from. It is a lovely image.

    1. Thanks, Jill. It’s an Americanism, for talking about hiding or revealing evidence of wrongdoing. Depending on the context, “body” can refer to (god forbid) evidence of murder, stolen goods, or even hurt feelings resulting from actions. I never thought of it as having a Biblical basis. I will look into that.

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