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Pastor Rick Warren’s invocation, along with President Obama’s inaugural address about which I already wrote, set the stage for a new kind of public religion in this country. It is both more inclusive and simultaneously proud of particularity than anything we may have seen before.
For starters, Rick Warren was introduced as Dr. Rick Warren, not Pastor. The latter was simply stated as his position at Saddleback church. To have clergy who can distinguish between their professional roles and their personal identities is already a quantum leap forward. It speaks to a modesty of which all clergy should avail ourselves. We are not our titles and would not treat all disagreements, theological and otherwise, as personal attacks if we remembered that more often. Making that distinction alone would bring a refreshing dose of calm and civility to public debates about faith. But Warren did much more that that.
By quoting from Deuteronomy 7’s words, “Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one”, Warren used a text that is meaningful to a wide variety believers, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, and many followers of so-called polytheist traditions which value oneness as much as do the monotheist faiths. More importantly, he used a text whose real teaching is that we listen.
Instead of telling us what to believe, who will save us, or anything else, the words he quoted were Moses’ command to the ancient Israelites that they be good listeners – not proclaimers, converters, etc.
Oneness is not limited to any particular faith, or inaccessible to those who are proudly atheist or agnostic either. Listening for oneness is a powerful message which transcends creed, political affiliation, or our position on any given topic. In fact, Warren’s use of that text might be a way of reminding himself and his followers that even if they have chosen a particular path to salvation, and even if they believe it to be the only way, theirs might not be the final word on the topic.
Tellingly, Pastor Warren, when he finally got around to mentioning Jesus (by his Hebrew, Arabic and Greek/English names), described him as “the one who changed my life and taught us to pray”. He did not call on Jesus as the one who changes all of our lives, or the one who should do so. He simply shared the facts of his own spiritual journey and the role which Jesus played for him in that journey.
Warren expressed pride and joy in what he believes while choosing words that made it clear that no one else was expected to share that journey with him. And I challenge any person of any faith, including no faith at all; to tell me that we can not all learn about prayer from the poetic words of a document which only some of us consider to be the word of God. That is game-changing rhetoric and should be welcomed by all of us.