Too Close for Comfort

Too Close for Comfort

May 07, 2014
Written by Steven Liechty

Martin B. Copenhaver

Jesus prayed, "I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one." - John 17:20

Often what stands in the way of religious unity are not great differences, but rather the small differences.

Comedian Emo Phillips tells a story about discovering similarities in religious background with someone he has just met.  "I said, 'Are you Protestant or Catholic?'  He said, 'Protestant.'  I said, 'Me too!  What franchise?'  He says, 'Baptist.'  I said, 'Me too!  Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?'  He says, 'Southern Baptist.'  I said, 'Me too!''

The two go back and forth in this vein.  Finally, Emo asks, "Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?"

The other fellow replies:  "Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."

Then Emo says, "Die, heretic!"

Obviously, this phenomenon is not limited to Baptists.  In the United Church of Christ, we pride ourselves on our openness to faith traditions that are very different from our own.  But at times we can be very critical of that church across town or even the UCC church that is nearby.  We want to distinguish ourselves as different, even if the distinctions are cut very thinly.  Sigmund Freud called this phenomenon, "the narcissism of small differences."

Interfaith understanding is essential in our time, but it needs to be both far-sighted and near-sighted.  That is, the extent of our understanding needs to reach as far as the tradition that is very different from our own, but our understanding also needs to extend to those who are very near.


God, release me from the pride—or the insecurity or whatever it is—that makes me want to distinguish myself from those who are very near.

About the Author
Martin B. Copenhaver, former pastor of the Village Church, Wellesley, Massachusetts, will be the president of Andover Newton Theological School, Newton, Massachusetts, beginning June 1. He is the author of Living Faith While Holding Doubts.

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