world council of churches

Report from the Consultation on "What Difference does Religious Plurality Make?"
Bossey Ecumenical Institute
17 - 22 April 1999


Under the auspices of the Office on Interreligious Relations of the World Council of Churches, twenty one men and women from five faith traditions and from four of the five continents gathered in Château Bossey, Switzerland, to address one of the crucial issues of our time: how are we to live together in a world which is becoming increasingly aware of its religious diversity? We met at time of the tragedy playing itself out in the Balkans as well of countless other unresolved conflicts in our deeply troubled world. In many of these situations, issues of religion and culture are contributing factors. We also live in a world where one is increasingly likely to find young people marrying across the old religious lines, children being educated alongside their fellows who come from quite different religious backgrounds; students, workers, and sadly, countless refugees are moving from their homeland to other parts of the world. Few indeed are the countries or regions which are untouched by the processes of migration. To be sure, some parts of the world have always known religious diversity, but tragically, are experiencing renewed and sometimes even more bitter interreligious conflicts.

For nearly thirty years the World Council of Churches has been concerned about such matters, having set up its Sub-Unit on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies in 1971, whose work led to the production of the Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies in 1979. Many other programmes of the WCC have helped Christians to understand and respond to religious pluralism. The programme on My Neighbour's Faith and Mine begun in 1984 led to the Baar Declaration; Theological Perspectives on Plurality in 1990.

In 1991 the Office on Interreligious Relations replaced the Dialogue Sub Unit, maintaining relationships with people of the world's faith communities at many different levels, and with many regional consultations. Representatives of different faith communities have participated at the WCC Assemblies in Canberra in 1991 and most recently in Harare in 1998. The result of this constant attention to building relationships of trust and immense goodwill among leaders of world faith communities made it possible for members of the Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim communities to meet with Christians of many backgrounds at Bossey to ponder afresh the significance of religious plurality as we move into the new millennium. Sharing in the consultation were one an artist, another a musician and liturgist, another a sociologist. There were teachers of ethics and philosophy, professors of Hinduism, Judaism and African Religions, two Buddhists nuns, an imam and his wife, as well as Christian theologians and missiologists. We were glad also that we were meeting in Bossey, a place famous since 1945 for inter-Christian dialogue and ecumenical reconciliation. We spent five days in intense conversation and now offer this report as the record of our findings. We hope that it will be seen to have its own authority, and that it will enable many other similar conversations to go forward in all parts of the world.

Methods and Procedures

After listening to each other's stories and visions in some depth, we considered the following three groups of questions:

"Religious Plurality is a reality. What are the resources in our own faith to meet religious plurality? Are we in our religious traditions coping with religious plurality? What are the problems that we face?"

"Our religions are facing two different forces demanding a response. One is secularization which is perceived as a threat or a strain on religion. The other is globalization which sometimes seems to encircle us or embrace us against our own wish. What difference do secularization and globalization make to our own self-understanding?"

"Are there in our religious traditions resources to go beyond theological doctrine, helping us to build community in the midst of plurality? And if there are theological differences, are there ways we can advance? Are there ways we so far have not explored in full: aesthetic, art, liturgy, ethics, a common struggle for justice? Could we here find new entry-points?"

In our responses we affirmed the following propositions:

Resources for Responding to Religious Plurality
Religious plurality is a worldwide reality. All religious traditions have to come to terms with this. In our discussions we identified many resources in our scriptures, as yet unexplored, to use in religiously plural situations. Our traditions and stories may also carry elements which are particularly important in the education of young people. The discussions among us, exploring the nature of truth and divergence in religious doctrines, indicated that all of us can share in understanding how other traditions work. Our greatest resource however, is that of human experience. Personal contacts have inherently the power to transform. This experience frees people to meet each other on an equal level, presenting abundant opportunities to dispel the thickest and highest walls of theology. It is in such meeting that we as religious communities may not only be enabled to engage in inter-faith dialogue, but may also discover avenues for contributing to political peace.

We want to move beyond tolerance to the creation of a new framework, which facilitates trust formed through relationship with others. Religious diversity is the fact; religious pluralism is what we can do with it. In many religious traditions, the idea of building this new framework has, however, been superseded by political conflict. We heard many stories, too, of how acts of bigotry and fanaticism in one part of the world had immediate repercussions in another country or region.

In such situations, one of our goals must be that we should be able to plead the cause of the other tradition without simultaneously losing our own identity. There is frequently a danger that we become so alienated from our own tradition and community that we lose our credibility as catalysts for change.

Equally, we must not be so concerned with convergence that we gloss over essential differences. It is of the essence of religious pluralism that we allow the other person to be truly other. "If you are saying the same thing as me, I do not have much to learn from you." The other one may become the means by which I appreciate my own faith better: "We need to know the other to know ourselves."

It is thus of very great importance to allow the other traditions their own self-understandings of mission and witness. We would only ask that all expressions of mission be thoroughly ethical and courteous.

We noted from our own experience in Bossey how important it was that dialogue should take place between all communities. We benefited continually from listening to Hindu-Buddhist, Jewish-Buddhist, Jewish-Muslim, Buddhist-Hindu, Muslim-Buddhist, and Muslim-Hindu interactions as well as the dialogue between the Christian traditions and the other faith communities.

As we talked, we often found that one tradition is prepared to admit its guilt with regard to its behaviour towards people of another faith. We discussed how all traditions have within them elements that call for repentance. We need not rejoice too much in our neighbour's contrition, for it may be that we need also to apologize.

Secularism and Globalization
We recognized that all religious traditions live within a worldwide movement that is sometimes designated "Secularism" (We preferred this term to "Secularization").

"Secularism" may mean any of the following:

  1. Religious freedom;
  2. Overcoming clerical power;
  3. Disestablishment whereby there is no official national religion;
  4. Non-involvement of individuals in religious institutions;
  5. Unbelief or agnosticism;
  6. Lack of moral values or ideological underpinning for moral values, materialism;
  7. Lack of a prayer life;
  8. Emerging new religious forms of secularism, including materialism and consumerism, in which the shopping malls, museums, concert halls, art galleries, or sports arenas have become the new temples. These come to be seen as new routes to transcendence.
We affirm that it is a mistake to believe that only in modern times does secularism stand outside religion as a threat to religion. Rather, secularism has always interacted with the various religious traditions throughout their histories, and has often added to the richness of religious experience and understanding. Thus, the medieval rationalist philosophers in Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions borrowed heavily from Aristotle. Science has affected religious understanding of the universe significantly, challenging religious explanations of the universe and adding to our sense of the awesomeness of it all.

Sometimes religious concepts are used as handmaidens or instruments of secularism as the religious traditions are coopted to drive secular goals and thereby loses their critical voice. Religious texts may be, and have been used to validate and even exalt greed or war.

One pervasive result of secularism is that religious traditions can no longer just assume that people will have religious commitment and be involved in religious institutions. Instead, religious communities must explain and argue for religious convictions and take steps to attract people to them.

The term "globalization" equally has many elements of meaning in it. It may refer to the cultural domain, for none of us can any longer assume that our own culture is the only viable form of existence. It may refer to economic circumstances in which powerful economic forces in the U.S.A., Japan, Europe and the Pacific Rim dominate world markets. We now recognize that no nation governs its own economic sphere. We are all interdependent.

Globalization also refers to worldwide communications. English has become the universal language, imposed on the rest of the world. E-mail, faxes, and the telephone make it possible for individuals and governments to communicate instantaneously across the world. The photograph of the Earth from the moon graphically demonstrated that we are "one global village."

Globalization also refers to a universalization of a value system, whereby a secular world-view is privileged. Rationality and Darwinism are entrenched in our self-understanding and in the education of our children. Therefore, certain nations that have developed the tools of secularism (especially technology) have come to dominate other nations economically and even increasingly culturally.

We may also note that globalization has happened over the last two hundred years, with increasing force and rapidity in the last four decades. It also has the potential for negative consequences, as, for example, the deculturation of the peoples of the world. It makes the economic playing field less level and therefore raises issues of justice and oppression.

Globalization can, however, have positive consequences, such as spreading beneficial knowledge in enabling people from diverse backgrounds and places to communicate with each other and equipping peoples to benefit from a worldwide economy.

There are three possible stances of religious traditions in the face of these phenomena. One may be to isolate oneself and one's community from these changes and hope that these phenomena will pass, leaving the community unchanged. Or, religious communities may seek to equip individuals to be agents of change through their religious formation; Religious communities may also be instrumental in bringing about social change.

Religious traditions as positive forces
We note that many religious traditions do have elements which clearly mandate action to improve the world. From the Hindu traditions we highlight the ideal of lokasangraha, striving for the welfare of the world and the description of the virtuous person in the Bhagavadgita as one who rejoices in the well-being of others. From Buddhist traditions we lift up the concept of compassion as exemplified in the bodhisattva tradition, and the idea of the 'Pure Land' in which there is no political and economic exploitation or ecological abuse. Judaism speaks about establishing the Reign of God, mending the world (tikkun olam); the hoped-for days of the Messiah and being "a light to the nations". Christianity speaks of the kingdom or reign of God, of discipling the nations in the justice of Jesus, of God's preferential treatment of the poor, the hungry and the oppressed (Matthew 25) and of God's mission to the world. Islam understands Jihad in the sense of advocating social and political change. We note the importance of the "jihad-al-akbar", the greatest jihad, the struggle to change oneself.

Given a new consciousness of the ways in which we are influenced by our national as well as our religious identities, religious people have the potential to maximize the benefits of globalization. For example all religious traditions proclaim peace as the ultimate goal and help to show us that the enemy is to be treated with dignity in defeat. Religious traditions provide a variety of rationales for aiding the needy and can provide resources to help us discern when and how to intervene in helping the poor. Religious concepts can help us accept the variety among peoples (in Christianity, Koinonia, where there are to be no distinctions regarding race, gender, economic status; in Buddhism, compassion to all sentient beings; the Jewish "Blessing of God" for making people different). There are resources in most religious traditions to help engage with the ecological crisis.

New Entry-Points

As we explored the entry-points that may offer ways to advance inter-religious dialogue, we were aware of two facts. First, each religious tradition, both within itself and in relation to others, has its own multiple particularities, and thus calls for a variety of entry-points.

Secondly, there is a variety in the nature of the context of each inter-religious situation. While one has a particular combination of religions, others may be different. This also calls for a multiplicity of entry points.

The following may be seen as entry-points other than theological doctrine:

  1. Proverbs and Stories: Our understanding and appreciation of the "other" is enhanced in the narrating and the hearing of proverbs and stories.

  2. Dance: Meditative or liturgical dance was recognized as a possible entry-point for inter-religious relations. It is prevalent in most religious traditions and may bring people to a new sense of community. African, Korean, and other dance practices were mentioned as examples.

  3. Meditative practices and movements within Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions can also serve as resources for building community. It was noted that in these practices clear spiritual direction might be needed.

  4. Images and Symbols: As we discussed this area as an entry point for community building, we became aware of the major division between traditions which promote images and symbols as natural and helpful ways of expressing one's religiosity and those which envision them as bordering on and leading to idolatry. This meant that images become sources of dispute over theological doctrine rather than entry-points that go beyond theological doctrine. We discussed the various meanings of the term "image" and found that we were operating with different levels of meaning. There are some for whom the word "image" means "idol" and that can promote a negative understanding of the role of images in spiritual life. The following three points became clear to us.

    1. There are traditions that highlight "hearing" as the primary mode of encountering God and thus prefer "word" to "image." There are others who privilege ''seeing'' as a way of meeting God and thus prefer "image" over "word." These two positions need to be recognized and acknowledged in our dialogue. These two positions need, as well, to be questioned and challenged in light of one another. While one can discover such polarized views of "word" and "image" in our context, we should also acknowledge that many view "word" and "image" as overlapping one another, and in such a view "word" itself can and does function as "image."
    2. We need to be aware of the tragic side of our religious history in which traditions that believed in the primacy of the "word" decried the use of images by other traditions and went on to destroy them. For example, some of the Muslim invaders and rulers, and some of the Protestant and Roman Catholic missionary groups had systematically decried and destroyed the images of Hindu worship.
    3. If at all one sees the images and symbols as entry-points, a deep and sincere appreciation of images is required of all partners in dialogue. If such an appreciative stance is lacking, we will be back to our heated debate about theological doctrine.

  5. Liturgy: We acknowledge the variety of meanings the word "liturgy" has within the Christian tradition. While some view liturgy as a set and/or written order of worship, others see it as synonymous with any worship. Furthermore, people of other religious traditions use words like puja, chanting of sutras, which do not imply the same meaning as liturgy in the Christian tradition. Yet one can say that liturgies and worship patterns of various religions operate with a creative tension between individual and corporate forms of worship and between informal and formal ways of worship. We are sadly aware that quite often liturgy functions as a source of division and alienation rather than points of collaboration and community, and that, at times, liturgies of particular traditions need to be honored and respected by offering them the private space they need. Therefore we need to generate liturgies that offer hospitality and celebrate diversity. Yet such a generative activity is often difficult because liturgy, in one sense, is a visualization of theology. Another important aspect to our liturgical experiences is that we, in fact, participate in the wider liturgy of all humans when we are participating in our own particular form of worship. In other words, when a Christian is celebrating the Eucharist, is not he or she at the same time conscious of and celebrating with the Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and others who are also in worship, though separated by time, space, and form?

    Having noted the above said features, we suggest two distinct moves in the direction of using liturgy as entry-points in the building of community. These moves preclude any attempt to come up with a "common" liturgy which people of various religious traditions can enter into with comfort and ease. Such a liturgy will satisfy none and will only ignite unnecessary theological debates. Some Christians may incorporate rituals, readings, and hymnic traditions from another religion in their own liturgy and worship, e.g. adopting readings from Hindu and other Scriptures as additional readings in their worship. This move has not gone without controversy. This is an area that calls for further exploration, especially in relation to the status of one's own scriptures in the context of other scriptures.

    People may be invited to participate in one another's liturgy and worship. Such an invitation should be aware of the fact that many (at least within the Christian tradition) are afraid of the possibility of syncretism and uncritical compromise in such participation. Therefore people should be encouraged to participate to the level and limit within which they feel comfortable and not compromised. Individuals should be given the freedom to define and determine their own limits to participation. This allows people to enter into the spirituality of the "other", where some may be spiritually enhanced by such experiences. Some find such participation as an expression of solidarity with the other and as a source for expanding their own vision of God, for bringing the riches of the other's tradition into their own, and for learning methods of spiritual discipline, assisting them in their own faith-journey. Yet another aspect of liturgy is its ability to function as protest to the existing reality and offer an alternative vision for the future of humanity. When one participates in another religion's liturgy or worship, one is engaging in that act of protest and vision. (On the issue of Interreligious Prayer, see also Interreligious Prayer, published by the Office of Interreligious Relations and Pontificium Consilium pro Dialogo Inter Religiones no. 98, 1998/2).

  6. Music: Most people find music as an easier way of entering into religious traditions other than their own. Music, whatever the tradition may be, draws people into an experience of community and togetherness. People feel drawn to one another in powerful ways through music. While the melody may bring people together, the words could stand in the way of community building. For example, a Christian or Muslim may resist singing praise to Hindu divine forms such as Siva and Vishnu, and a Jew may find it difficult to join in the words of a music which include the name of Jesus Christ.

  7. Ethics and Common Struggle for Justice: While we recognize the concern for justice as a fruitful and helpful entry for community building across religious boundaries, there are basic differences between the world-views of the various religions. We noted that there is a tension (though creative) between traditions, which see "perfection" as their goal and those which project "wholeness" as their end. While the former see the underside of life (injustice, suffering, and pain) as something to be eliminated, the latter sees the good and the evil as parts of the whole. The former seems to opt for an "activist" ethics and the latter seems to choose a contemplative orientation to life. It is clear that there is a tension between the two. Yet both these approaches are to be affirmed as complementary to each other, and together they enable people of different religions to see acts of justice as entry points of community. We need, as well, to offer possibilities for one another to challenge and question the understandings of justice prevalent in our own individual traditions.

    One further point deserves our attention. In all the entry-points that we have discussed, there are underlying questions of justice in each. For example, in the use of images and symbols one may ask "whose symbols", "who decides which symbols to use?" "Who is affirmed and who is alienated through this symbol or image?" are questions to be addressed. Similarly, the area of music has its own set of questions and challenges. The various images, symbols, liturgies, and so on offer alternative visions of human wellbeing and may serve as acts of protest against the present situation of injustice and lack of peace.

  1. We call upon all communities of faith to redouble their efforts to enter into harmonious relationship with people of other faith commitments and where possible to give guidance to their own members in interfaith relationships. To all Christian communities we commend once again the use of the WCC Guidelines on Dialogue [1979].

  2. As we build relationships of trust and friendship, we ask for new understandings and new commitments which go beyond bare tolerance into acceptance and mutual support of traditions of faith other than our own. We must always seek such contexts of trust and friendship in order to allow mutual challenging and questioning.

  3. We call upon scholars, theologians, teachers and leaders in every faith community to discover and interpret those elements in their scriptures, traditions, and common life, which enable interreligious understanding. We ask for new and deliberate initiatives within all communities to teach these resources to their members, especially to the young.

  4. We invite all communities of faith to produce statements which indicate their understandings of the significance of religious pluralism. We commend afresh to Christian communities of the world the study and appropriation of the Baar declaration, Religious Pluralism: Theological Perspectives and Affirmations (1990).

  5. We call upon social scientists, lawyers and ethicists of all faith communities to study together the issues raised by secularism and globalization. We ask that as they work with the kind of mutual understanding and trust which we have experienced here, they give most serious attention to justice issues that arise within our traditions, especially those of race, gender, ethnicity, violence, war, poverty and ecology.

  6. We ask that poets, the artists and the musicians of the religious traditions be given adequate resources to discover together new ways of relationships which go beyond words and propositions.

  7. We ask that the liturgists and worship leaders in all communities give serious attention to working on additional 'liturgies of hospitality' intended for multi-faith occasions in which people not of their own tradition may participate. These new forms may well be for rites of passage and for festivals.

  8. In all these actions we suggest the adoption by religious communities of the so-called Lund principle of Christian ecumenism, that we should do together all that our consciences do not require that we do separately.

  9. We commend our style of being together as people of diverse faith commitments and suggest that many other groups come together in the same way to discuss these and similar issues.

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