Issue 47, June 2006
People involved in the World Council of Churches (WCC) live in a time, which is still coloured by the Assembly in Porto Alegre, what it was, what it communicated and what it might mean for the future. This is a time of “Great Expectations”; the road map for the life and work of the Council is slowly being drawn and prepared for the decisions of the forthcoming Central Committee.
In all this, we realise with interest how much the issue of interreligious dialogue has been put on the map of the WCC. The Assembly witnessed to it. The formulations of the institutional committees of the Assembly said, “Interreligious dialogue is now more than ever an expression of the Council’s essential identity engaging in the world, diffusing tensions, peacemaking, protecting human dignity and the rights of religious minorities. The Policy Reference Committee appreciated the strong reaffirmation of this work of the Council outlined in the reports of the Moderator and the General Secretary. It concurs that forming and deepening constructive, respectful, intentional relationships with others in this pluralistic world is one of the most important efforts the WCC can model for its ecumenical partners and for member churches at the international and the grassroots levels.” Another committee, the Programme Guidelines Committee, concurred and stated in its Report, “At this Assembly the urgent need for churches and the WCC to engage in interreligious co-operation and dialogue was strongly affirmed. In its future engagement with other religions, it is important for the WCC to continue its work in the context of religious plurality and to further develop … dialogue and common action related to political social, theological or ethical issues.”
The Assembly merits that we dedicate the major part of this issue to Assembly manifestations of interreligious dialogue. A plenary was devoted to the issue of Christian identity and religious plurality, where the Archbishop of Canterbury made a scholarly presentation. Anna May Chain, a Baptist from Myanmar, responded with life experiences of encounters that had marked her life and theology. Asaad Kattan from Lebanon responded to the Archbishop in the ways of a parable and in imaginative language. Messages of friends of other faiths brought their wishes to the gathered delegates.
Instead of hearings that have been a feature of previous WCC Assemblies, the Porto Alegre Assembly worked with the concepts of Ecumenical Conversations. The discussion on interreligious relations and dialogue was entitled “Religious Plurality is embraced and feared” and tried to provide space for this complex reality. Its report pointed to religious plurality as an unprecedented challenge to Christians in most parts of the world. “It is embraced or feared. In many ways, better relations with neighbours of other religions are sought. Yet relations between religious communities are marked, in many places, by suspicion or hostility.” The report continued: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb 13.2). As Christians, we oscillate between an openness to encounter God through others and our affirmation that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4.12).”
Former WCC Deputy General Secretary Professor Wesley Ariarajah said that the new religious plurality of our time demands that we find constructive ways to live in mutual relationship with people of other faiths, particularly in the area of addressing human problems. He suggested that the challenge to overcoming fear of religious plurality is to come to terms with the identity questions it raises. Another challenge faced by all religions is the need to address people's search for meaning and lack of desire to belong to an institution.
The second day of the Ecumenical Conversations on dialogue brought forth the question of whether interreligious dialogue is a search for absolutes or a vehicle for social actions. In many contexts, it functions as both. But whether interreligious dialogue should start as a search for absolutes and shift to a vehicle for social actions, or vice versa, was addressed from a variety of contexts, including Christian majority and Christian minority, as well as secular contexts.
In this session, the guests from other faiths made significant contributions. For example, Dr Debbie Weissman (Jewish, Israel) pointed to the very plurality of models for doing interreligious dialogue, and the fact that in many contexts, the model chosen depends on the degree of inter-religious dialogue already accomplished. She stressed the importance of theological conversations, and gave the example from her participation in the Rainbow Group in Jerusalem of a dialogue session among Jews, Christians and Muslims called "Embarrassing Texts from My Tradition."
Dr Anant Rambachan (Hindu, USA) corrected the misperception that the Hindu tradition holds many absolute truths. He clarified that there is only one truth, but multiple ways of seeing that truth. In doing so, he made the point that misperceptions can often effect or damage one group's participation in interreligious dialogue. There is need for dialogue groups to provide space for participants to describe and clarify their beliefs and experiences.
Dr Rita Gross (Buddhist, USA) pointed to the reality of religious diversity, stressing the ways in which we often mistake the relative for the absolute. She made a clear distinction between absolute truth claims and exclusive truth claims, and suggested that the former can and need to be brought to the dialogue table without being exclusivist.
Finally, Rev. Henk Leegte spoke about the Dutch context, where problems are occurring between the non-religious and the religious as integration of the Muslim minority becomes increasingly difficult. He noted that from his own perspective, it is not religious plurality that is feared, but religion itself.
The third day and final Ecumenical Conversation highlighted education. Parenting and scholastic education were mentioned, as were programs for new arrivals and second-generation immigrants. Overall it was stressed that students need to be exposed to a breadth of information that will increase their understanding of other religions and prepare them for living in a religiously plural world.
Much emphasis was placed on consideration of the secular context, highlighting the recent cartoon controversy. Two of the Muslim guests spoke at the end of the session, pointing to the urgent need for dialogue, in light of this cartoon controversy. How can we find common ground in the struggle against extremism? How can people of faith unite across religious lines to quell violence, even when it is coming out of their own communities?
The Ecumenical Conversations recommended the WCC to further explore various models for interreligious dialogue and the contexts in which they are effective. In these they should develop resources for Christian faith formation in a pluralistic world and create a formal theological basis that links interreligious dialogue and mission, lifting up the voices and leadership of women and youth.
In the report on the Ecumenical Conversations I have quoted from the record on the Session “Religious Plurality is embraced and feared” and thank the rapporteur Ms. Kathryn Lohre.
A poem by one of the resource persons, Rev. Irja Askola gives another taste to interfaith relations.
Another feature of the Assembly was the workshops or mutirão, a Brazilian word meaning a meeting place and opportunity to work together for a common purpose. There were quite a few presentations and ensuing conversations among participants on topics related to religious plurality and relations between people of different faiths. We present some of the issues in this issue of Current Dialogue.
Some of the learnings from these workshops prompted additional questions meriting our attention. They could be formulated in the following way:
Christy Lohr provides a personal reflection and overview on the interfaith dimension at the Assembly from Hartford Seminary.
Back home from the Assembly, we began the last preparations for the common study project of the office and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID). The topic is “Conversion as an issue in interreligious relations” and the first meeting, a multifaith colloquium took place in Lariano outside Rome in mid-May.
The joint process is divided into three facets, beginning with
The second phase is to be A Christian Reflection on Conversion, which is to be a theological consultation of Christians of different confessions, Pentecostals and Evangelicals included, on the issue of proselytism and conversion. We hope to discuss how to live and witness in a religiously plural world.
The aim of the final phase, entitled Seeking Agreement: Towards a Code of Conduct on Religious Conversions, will be to formulate a Code of Conduct, which attempts to respond to the multifaith reality and the theological concerns explored.
The meeting in Lariano was rich and challenging and encouraged us to continue on a topic that although controversial demands our full attention. We publish here the report from Lariano.