Interfaith Exchange

Mitch Peiffer University of Aberdeen, Scotland


March 24, 2017

A few weeks ago, the University hosted an interfaith event with free food. This was a moderately sized crowded room in which there was a food/drink table, along with several other tables populated by representatives of various religious groups giving out information about their faiths. I enjoyed this event, and got acquainted with some new people and some new ideas.

First, I had a chat with a group that I was already familiar with: the official non-denominational Christian student group. They host regular talks on campus, and I’ve gone to a handful of them. They’re nice people, and the talks they do are the most interesting religious talks I’ve heard.

Another group I discovered was one I hadn’t had much contact at all with in America. It was the Romanian Christian Orthodox group on campus. I’m more familiar with Catholic and Protestant ideas, being American, than any branch of Orthodoxy. Being curious, I asked them about it.

As it turns out, Orthodox people (most come from Eastern Europe) see themselves as protecting traditional practices and beliefs from Catholics, much like Catholics in America see themselves as protecting traditional practices and beliefs from Protestants. Starting with structure, the first striking difference if there is no Orthodox pope. Instead, each country with a large enough Orthodox population has its own set of leadership for churches in that country. When Orthodoxy moves to a new place, they set up churches along the guidelines of whichever place they came from, so Scotland could have a Greek Orthodox church and a Romanian Orthodox church near each other that have slightly different practices, etc. When Scotland gets a large enough Orthodox population, church leaders in Scotland will come together and establish a mainline Scottish way of practice, so there will be Scottish Orthodox churches.

Looking more at the people than the structure, membership standards in the Orthodox church is much stricter than anything Christian churches in America have. People must study for years before baptism, and they are socially obligated to attend confession at least weekly, and to fast on certain days of the week before they receive confession. I also noted that they take a much more interpretive view of the commandment stating “Thou shalt not worship false idols”, one of the few places where they are less strict than Catholics. Paintings and other representations of Jesus, Mary and the saints are very important cultural icons in Orthodox churches. It is not unusual to kiss these and pray to them. They believe that since the image represents Jesus, they are still praying to Jesus, not just to a piece of wood. Similarly, it’s common practice to touch the robes of the priest as he walks by, similar to how people in the gospels touched the robes of Jesus and were healed.

Because of the distance, I have not visited an Orthodox church service yet, but I plan to look for one that I am able to visit once I get back home.

The last group that caught my interest was one that I hadn’t even known existed before I went to the interfaith event. That is the Baha’i faith. They are monotheistic, and they believe that all deities in all religions are just manifestations of the one God. I did get to visit a worship ceremony with this group. It was at the apartment of one of the people I met at the event, and it consisted of ordering pizza, making tea, reading designated passages from books of faith (that day, it was Middle Eastern philosophy) and discussing it, and playing with the neighbor’s cat. They are great people and I enjoyed learning about their beliefs.