world council of churches

The Interfaith Dimensions of our Work
Tarek Mitri, Hans Ucko, Sarah Speicher

1. What has Harare said to us about interreligious issues?

Religions, plurality and pluralism are repeatedly mentioned in the Assembly documents, as well as the need to offer assistance to the churches to come to terms with religious pluralism. The Programme Guidelines Committee report affirms that the primary focus of interreligious relations and dialogue should be "helping member churches who find themselves confronted increasingly with the theological, missiological and political challenges of living in situations of religious pluralism." This has been the historical focus of the WCC's work in interreligious relations and dialogue, yet a more intentional effort, and Council-wide cooperation, is presently invited. The reality of religious plurality, local and global, invites reflection, consultation and collaboration among churches. Thus it also invites reflection, consultation, and collaboration among issues, teams and programme activities within the WCC.

2. How has the WCC worked with interfaith dialogue in the past?

Historically, WCC work in interreligious dialogue has evolved through three stages. First, dialogue with other faiths was affirmed as an expression of Christian witness that is different from mission. In the second stage, dialogue moved more into an acceptance that Christians need to speak and be open to other faiths and rethink Christian identity. In the current environment, dialogue and interreligious efforts deal with issues that unite and divide, and seek ways in which we can work together. As we continue to deal with religious memory, another focus needs to look to the future, including such issues as new religions and secularization.

In the past, practical cooperation between staff in interreligious relations and staff in other teams has occurred most specifically with international affairs, education, and Bossey staff. Lack of finances and staff time have limited other efforts, or have limited contact to providing interreligious "color" to programme events. Certainly, there have been interfaith dimensions in programmes which have not directly involved staff in Interreligious Relations.

Churches have been helped by the WCC in interreligious issues through the limited resources the Council is able to provide, and what is made available through exchanges across countries and regions. In a less direct but no less important fashion, churches do, and increasingly can, draw benefit from the diverse relations the WCC establishes and cultivates with various representative organizations of other faith traditions and interreligious bodies. Churches are also helped through the mediation of dialogue initiatives, bilateral and multilateral, on issues of common interest, exploring areas of connection or addressing divisive questions.

3. What are some possible areas for cross-team work on interreligious concerns?

Interfaith Dialogue and Theology
The Christian call to dialogue with people of other faiths, especially within the context of our ecumenical experience, raises anew many theological questions regarding the nature of salvation and the church, spirituality and ethics. In today's world, such theological questions do not concern only a fraction of Christianity, nor do they interest only a limited number of specialists. Their significance extends well beyond those boundaries and cannot be absent from the agenda of theological dialogue between, and within, the various church traditions. Indeed, Christian engagement in dialogue contributes to ecumenism and our self-understanding of the Christian faith.

Christians must continue to ask themselves questions about God's presence and activity in the lives of people of other faiths. Inevitably, the dialogue informs their theological reflection. But their theological reflection is not only about their motivation for dialogue nor is it determined only by what they learn in dialogue. It is inseparable from the broader reflection on being Christian, and being a church, in a pluralist world.

The task of helping the churches in dealing with the theological challenges of religious plurality cannot, therefore, be addressed by a simple addition to the list of theological issues that the WCC's individual teams and programmes choose as priorities for their future work. It demands greater attention, as ecumenical dialogue on different theological issues is continued and refocused, to the dimension of religious plurality.

Interfaith Dialogue and Education
The educational implications of theological challenges stemming from the reality of pluralism are directly referred to in the Programme Guidelines Committee report:

Recognizing the increasing religious plurality of the world in which the Churches live and work, the World Council of Churches should including inter-faith learning in the educational work of the Churches and lay centers, recognizing the integral link between this and interfaith dialogue.
A collaborative effort is needed in order to assimilate and make use of learnings through the experience of dialogue and study of other religions. In this respect, the WCC needs to expand its effort in helping the churches benefit from the resources available in specialized institutions, some of which are academic and secular, as they rethink and reshape their curricula of theological teaching, Christian education and specially-designed training programmes.

Interfaith Dialogue, Service and Mission
For many years, ecumenical reflection on the mission world dwelt, not without controversy, on reasons for being in dialogue with people of other faith communities. One of the main questions pertained to the place dialogue has within Christian life and in what ways it could be considered a distinctive form of Christian witness.

Today, the emphasis of interreligious reflection is not only on affirming the integrity of dialogue and its specific character as a mode of Christian witness. In addition, the emphasis is on the theological and practical questions arising from the relationship between dialogue, service and mission.

A number of issues, the practical implications of which are critical, arise from this challenge. They relate to religious freedom, missionary motivations and methods, proselytism, cooperation in action for justice, intercommunal harmony and peace among religions. These issues cannot be adequately dealt with by the various streams of the ecumenical movement in isolation from each other. They cannot be dealt with, only, in the context of an ecumenical dialogue about dialogue. They call for active and regular cooperation.

Interfaith Dialogue and International and National Politics
The political challenges of living in a context of religious plurality are certainly specific to a number of local and national situations. Many of them pertain to conflicts and tensions in power-sharing, intercommunal co-existence, majorityBminority relations. They affect the unity of many nations and the human rights of individual citizens and religious communities. Working on "religious dimensions of conflicts" is given particular attention in the report of the PGC.

In a number of countries and regions, conflicts and tensions take an interreligious course. The WCC has had in some of them a long history of involvement and has the capacity -- building on experience, knowledge, contacts and, in certain cases, undeniable credibility -- of helping the churches offer a Christian response. Such a response, we are reminded, "must comprise just peace-making, conflict transformation and reconciliation. The churches' engagement must be situation-specific, combining roles of advocacy, prophetic speaking and mediation."

To be effective, the involvement of the WCC cannot be fragmentary and episodic. It ought to be ongoing, cumulative and forward looking. It invites regular cooperation in monitoring situations, sharing analysis, cultivating relations, facilitating exchanges, communication and support across countries and regions, attempting preventive action and exploring long-term intervention.

But the political challenges of religious plurality have also a global dimension. The Council has a responsibility, at the world level, to contribute to peace among religions, a condition for peace among nations, according to a famous dictum. It should intensify its cooperation with religious bodies and personalities of other faith communities to promote, in various forms, a dialogue of religions and civilizations as the alternative to a world where "bloody borders" separate them.

4. The role of the WCC

Living in a situation of religious plurality is a rapidly changing reality and so is the role of churches. The implications for the ecumenical movement do not need to be restated. The World Council of Churches is likely to be a privileged place to observe and analyze these changes and reflect on them. It would be a great loss not to make the best use of this privilege. The work to be undertaken in this area is not confined to the intellectual realm. If pursued in close partnership with the churches and conscious of and attentive to implications for the life of the churches, it gains a practical significance, pastoral but also relational, with other faith communities and secular actors in public life.

Such an effort concerns the World Council of Churches as a whole; it requires the mobilization of many of its resources, real and potential. They are not found in one particular sector or programme involved in interreligious dialogue or in ecumenical theological and political reflection.

5. Ways forward

Three possible approaches to bring interfaith issues more into the consciousness and life of the Council and the fellowship:

  • An issue-based approach: Identify issue-based, cross-team projects which have an interfaith dimension.

  • A geographical approach: Identify countries of particular interest on the interreligious level, and coordinate the knowledge of these countries as seen from the perspective of different programmes and relationships.

  • A think tank/forward-looking approach: Create a cross-team study group to address:
    • The place and future role of Christianity in public life.
    • Various trends in the process of secularization and manifestations of de-secularization.
    • The relationship between religion, ethnicity, nationalism and the rift of nations.
    • The future of historical religious communities and of interreligious relations.
    • The new religious movements and individual recomposition of religiosity

Sarah Speicher is WCC Communications Coordinator.

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