An interfaith ceremony? Really?
Just about every story about the marriage of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky
had a line like this:
"Rabbi James Ponet, Yale University's Jewish chaplain (for the groom's side) and the Rev. William Shillady of New York's Park Avenue Methodist Church (for the bride's side) performed the interfaith ceremony."
Since my invitation must have been lost in the mail, I have no first-hand details. But I always wonder when I read about such events if the right way to describe them might not be "multi-faith."
That's a two-syllable shift that would surely make a difference to theologians. It's not like Judaism and Christianity can easily be blended like eggs and oil into a religious mayonnaise. Any mix that remains faithful to core traditional beliefs on either side would have, well, lumps.
Yes, both faiths start with some of the same sacred texts. But they worship rather different Gods. (Summaries to follow are very general and aim for the most widely accepted elements of both traditions.)
The God of Jewish tradition sets a high bar for his particular people, but says that meeting his standard is attainable. Failure is not absolute, but needs to be followed by repentance and another try. Effort counts. And actions matter more than beliefs. (Non-Jews are covered by a significantly less stringent set of rules.)
As for what God has in mind after we die, Judaism is almost silent. There's a longstanding tradition of a "World to Come" for everybody, where moral accounts are settled. Hell? Not so much. But one can find discussions about physical resurrection.
Christian tradition generally says that all people are afflicted with original sin -- a concept not found in Judaism. The Christian God set rules that cannot be met by anybody on their own. And the penalty for failing to meet God's standard is torment in a dramatically specific Hell. God's son, the Messiah prophesied in Jewish scripture as well as being an aspect of God Himself (leaving the mystery of the Trinity aside, please), sacrificed himself to death by torture to pay the penalty for all of human sin. But only those people who accept Jesus and his sacrifice gain God's grace and escape eternal damnation.
How exactly do you split those differences? Even a website that helps find rabbis willing
to perform interfaith weddings acknowledges the difficulty:
The Jewish tradition is firmly rooted in the theology of a messiah or messianic age which will herald in the redemption of humankind. This is in direct contrast with Christian theology wherein Jesus is the son of G-d and the Messiah.
The two clergy said to officiate at the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding come from the more liberal sides of their two traditions, though neither has a public record that indicates why they chose to participate in the ceremony.
Ponet is a college chaplain and the director of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. He's not been in the news much, but he co-signed a letter last year by the Interfaith Fellowship for Universal Health Care of Connecticut to Sen. Joe Lieberman in favor of health care reform.
He's ordained in the Reform Jewish tradition, which is the least tied to the ancient Jewish traditions but still frowns on the sort of ceremony performed Saturday
Mixed marriage is contrary to the Jewish tradition and should be discouraged, [the Central Conference of American Rabbis] declares its opposition to participation by its members in any ceremony which solemnizes a mixed marriage.
As a practical matter, there's no penalty for participating in that kind of ceremony and Reform rabbis each make their own call. Many choose not to do so, and very few will share the ceremony with clergy from a different religion.
Shillady has been the executive director of the United Methodist City Society since September 2008, which is when he left Park Avenue Methodist. Like Ponet, he has mostly stayed out of the news.
Like Reform Judaism, the United Methodist Church is a "big-tent" faith. In fact, it was created in 1968 from the union of several branches of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Foundational texts from both of those traditions
, which do not all fold neatly together, are nonetheless considered central to the new, combined faith. But there is this:
While the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith are considered foundational documents, they are not legalistic or dogmatic creeds that do not allow for differing interpretations. They are guidelines that themselves require continuing reflection, interpretation and expansion in light of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.
Which reminds me of my favorite line from the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, where Captain Hector Barbossa explains the Pirates' Code: "The code is more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules."
The denomination leaves decisions about ceremonies about religiously mixed marriages up to each pastor.
But my technical, theological critique of the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding would seem pretty silly to many Americans, for whom the specifics of doctrine aren't a big deal. As evidence, let's look at some of the results of polls taken over the past several years by the good folks at the Pew Center:
- Nearly half of Americans older than 18 have switched faith traditions at least once.
- "About seven in 10
of those surveyed said they believed that many religions can lead to eternal life and that there is more than one true interpretation of the teachings of their own religion."
- "A majority of all American Christians (52 percent) think that at least some non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life. Indeed, among Christians who believe many religions can lead to eternal life, 80 percent name at least one non-Christian faith that can do so."
- "One-third of Americans
(35 percent) say they regularly (9 percent) or occasionally (26 percent) attend religious services at more than one place, and most of these (24 percent of the public overall) indicate that they sometimes attend religious services of a faith different from their own."
And lots of those people are incorporating those broad, inclusive attitudes toward religion in their marriages:
"The U.S. Religious Landscape Surve
y finds that more than 1 in 4 (27 percent) American adults who are married or living with a partner are in religiously mixed relationships. If people from different Protestant denominational families are included -- for example, a marriage between a Methodist and a Lutheran -- nearly 4 in 10 (37 percent) couples are religiously mixed."
So maybe the new union of Clinton and Mezvinsky does represent a unique, custom-made blend of faiths, designed to satisfy the specific spiritual needs and goals of the couple. If so, it wouldn't be the first of its kind and will not be the last.