It wasn’t worship. Healing Our City: An interfaith Service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston on Thursday morning wasn’t worship.
President Obama told the families of the three people who were killed that “our prayers are with you,” but he didn’t pray. The scriptures of the three Abrahamic traditions were quoted, but usually to highlight human virtues like resilience or courage. No mention, according to what I heard, of God being our salvation. The word God was indeed spoken many times, but the praise always went to the people of Boston.
My definition of worship is an event in which a faith community seeks to restore and maintain its communion with the One who created each individual in that community. Worship focuses on God’s love, not on human virtue. In worship, participants don’t talk about praying. They pray. And in most worship services at which I have been present, God has a specific, holy name, which is one of the scandals of religion—it’s specificity. When a man and a woman get married, they promise to be faithful to one specific woman and one specific man, not to all of humanity. We humans can’t love abstractions.
Authentic worship is an intimate experience. When people who love me address me, they don’t call me “the one who lives at 315 Marengo or the resident of Forest Park.” They call me dad or buddy or sweetie. It’s in seeking some tolerant, inclusive common denominator that interfaith “worship” always fails. The attempt is usually noble, i.e. to respect and include other faith communities during critical times like the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, but they always wind up with something generic.
It’s like during the 1960’s a lot of us wanted women to be equal to men, and in our zeal for equality we adopted a style of clothing called unisex which tried to pretend that men and women don’t come from different planets. We finally figured out that equality did not need to be grounded on uniformity.
“Even when our heart aches,” our president declared, “we summon the strength that maybe we didn’t even know we had, and we carry on. We finish the race. We finish the race. And we do that because of who we are. ” President Obama with those words seemed to be channeling an idealized Bostonian or American spirit rather than the Father, Son and Holy Spirit or Allah or Adonai.
To me, the planners of the interfaith service got it right. The service really was a tag team series of inspirational speeches, each of which drew on the speaker’s tradition while staying on the common ground of ethics and virtue–which are not the core of any religious tradition—but on Thursday that was enough.