world council of churches

Issue 36, December 2000

This issue of Current Dialogue reflects Christian-Muslim dialogue and relations in different ways. Walid Saif participated in a Christian-Muslim consultation in Amersfoort in the Netherlands and he presented a paper, which is an assessment of achievements so far in Christian-Muslim dialogue, as well as some important indications for the way forward. While Walid Saif’s perspective is mainly seen from an Arab Muslim horizon, one of the Dialogue Advisory Group members, John Azumah, contributes an article on Christian-Muslim relations in Ghana. You will find a summary of some of the findings from the various consultations on Christian-Muslim relations organised by the office during this year. A particular and quite challenging perspective by Tarek Mitri on the so-called Abrahamic relationship between Jews, Christians and Muslims offers some thought-provoking reflections. A paper by Jørgen Nielsen has its context in the Christian-Muslim dialogue but points to challenges applicable in almost every situation of religious plurality.

The Dialogue Advisory Group was appointed by the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC). At its first meeting in Cairo in April this year, the members reported on the interreligious situation in their country or region as well as about their involvement in interreligious work. We have here enclosed the report of Courtney Goto from the USA and Otavio Velho from Brazil.

The Advisory Group discussed among other issues the present status and future of interreligious relations. The issues given below point to some areas requiring particular attention.

The significance of interreligious dialogue and its agenda
The credibility of dialogue is intimately related to the confidence that its initiators enjoy in society. Also, power relations often play a determining role in setting the agenda and defining partners. There is a greater need to seek inter-action, and even harmony, between various types of dialogue: bi-lateral, tri-lateral and multi-lateral; grassroots vs. leadership; practical vs. theoretical. Equally needed is the effort to enhance dialogue between churches, national or regional ecumenical organisations and the WCC, on the meaning of dialogue, its scope and its priorities.

Questions regarding the motives of dialogue and the suspicion that they may be "missionary" continue to be critical. No less critical is the sense of disappointment and scepticism as to the viability of dialogue and its relevance.

The questions of cultural identity of partners in dialogue and their concern for national unity occupy an important place in dialogue. More attention needs to be given to gender issues.

The effects of language, and media images, on inter-communal relations should be the object of systematic study and analysis and needs to be placed on the agenda of interreligious dialogue.

Future of Religion
Secularisation follows different paces in various societies. It can not be looked at as a uniform, universal and irreversible process. Secular models, of both society and polity, are diverse. Such diversity should be an object of study and reflection. Notwithstanding the force of secularisation, there is greater awareness of the importance of religion in people’s lives on the part of secular organisations. They express a noticeable interest in approaching religious leaders, organisations for advice and assistance in the fields of communication and education.

In a number of situations, the variety of spiritual influences on Christianity, or challenges to it, shape its future. This is true of eastern religions in the West, the different new religious movements, including the New Age style of religiosity and different expressions of syncretism.

Inside this issue of Current Dialogue . . .

Book Review
Title: Imaginary Christs -- The Challenge of Christological Pluralism by Richard Grigg
New York: State University of New York Press, 2000.

From the preface
The world in which we live today is supposedly a secular one. Yet that world is full of Christs. The discussion that flows will confront us with Christ as liberator, the New Age Christ, black Christs, the cosmic christ, and many other Christs besides. This potentially overwhelming pluralism presents a challenge to contemporary devotees of Jesus Christ. How can we sort through such apparent christological chaos?

The very assumption that the sorting process is worthwhile already locates this book between what I take to be two extremes. On the one side, there is the insular, dogmatic extreme. For proponents of that position, only one Christ can be valid, namely, my Christ, or the Christ embraced by my particular portion of the church. The other extreme is occupied by those who wish to make no distinctions at all: one Christ is as good as another. We are left, in that case, with an uncritical christological relativism.

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Traditional spiritualities are reawakened and invite recognition. They can be a part of the search for roots and identity as well as responses to the quest for meaning.

In post-communist societies moving away from the predominance of a state with an atheist ideology, attempts at filling what is perceived as a "religious vacuum" create serious problems.

Religious education should be re-thought in situations where young people find themselves in situations of religious plurality.

Human Rights
The situation of Christian minorities in Muslim societies needs to be high on the agenda of interreligious dialogue. It is also important to include the role of churches in advocating religious freedom in societies where Christianity is the majority religion or it enjoys a privileged position, in relation to the state or in society.

Issues of religious liberty extend well beyond the right to practise one’s religion and individual freedom of conscience. They involve community rights. Religion can be a discriminatory factor in immigration policies. Religious difference can be inextricably linked to racism.

The role of religion in conflict situations invites a more concentrated interreligious work. More particularly, an emphasis needs to be put on the use of religious sentiments in wars and the legitimisation of violence.

The spiritual foundation of non-violence in the various religious traditions needs to be rediscovered in dialogue.

One reason for the latest restructuring of the WCC was the wish to facilitate closer integration and co-operation between programs of the Council. Such co-operation lay behind a common focus on education, ecumenical learning and interreligious relations and dialogue. A group of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh educators met in October in Bangkok on the theme "The Value and Concepts of Learning in Religion".

The objectives of this interreligious consultation was to learn about how different religious traditions deal with the transmittance of value systems and how one tries to address the challenges of today with and through the value systems of old. Participants wrote a letter addressed to fellow educators and others interested in the various religious traditions. An intra-Christian consultation on "Teaching Christianity in dialogue with other faith traditions" tried a week later to respond to some of the issues raised in Bangkok. The letter as well as the statement is included.

The Eighth Assembly expressed the concern that the work "with Indigenous Peoples (be) recognised as significantly more than programmatic work" and called for some reflective work on issues of Indigenous Peoples' spirituality. The Indigenous Peoples Programme (IPP) together with the office on Interreligious Relations and Dialogue explored some of the aspects of indigenous spiritualities at a consultation in Chiang Mai, Thailand in October together with representatives of indigenous peoples from Asia and the Pacific. The Chiang Mai Affirmation, which appears in this issue of Current Dialogue, tries to account for this very interesting meeting, which among other issues dealt with the longing for the sacred as a foundation in our spiritual traditions. Indigenous Peoples live at the same time with an ancestral heritage and in participation in the various dominant religions. The affirmation articulates the need to address in dialogue with Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims the particular concerns of Indigenous People and the claim to keep and nurture traditional spiritualities in the midst of these dominant religions.

Among different interreligious international events, the Millennium Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders aroused media attention and discussion. The meeting was held in New York in August 2000. The WCC General Secretary, Konrad Raiser, was invited to address the participants. His address as well as the final statement is included in this issue of Current Dialogue.

The Voies de l’Orient report "Drinking from Several Wells" highlights a particular issue/problem in interreligious dialogue. How are we to address that people today want to give recognition to diverse spiritual traditions within themselves? One is at the same time attached to several philosophical and religious traditions. A newly published book by those responsible for the report expands the theme: Vivre de Plusieurs Religions -- Promesse ou Illusion?, edited by Dennis Gira and Jacques Scheuer (Paris: Les Editions de l’Atelier, 2000). This particular dimension of dialogue has been addressed earlier in the WCC (cf. e.g. Wesley Ariarajah/Tosh Arai, ed.: Spirituality in Interfaith Dialogue, Geneva: WCC, 1989).

150 rabbis and Jewish scholars caught the attention of many in the Jewish-Christian dialogue and the media as they published in September "’Dabru Emet’ -- Speaking the Truth" a call to a serious Jewish theological interaction with Christianity. The statement merits being known also by the readers of Current Dialogue.

This issue of Current Dialogue with its diverse contributions goes with Season’s Greetings and the best wishes for the New Year.

Hans Ucko, Editor

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