Religious identities : For better or for worse?

An interreligious encounter in Geneva
12-14 November 2005




Are there sources from which we can draw meaning and wholeness to our lives? Are there resources for a spirituality that would nourish and sustain our lives in the complex, pluralistic and ever changing world?

These questions are being raised in our day not only by those traditionally identified with religious traditions; they are the questions of scientists, politicians, economists, people in the business world and all who experience an emptiness and a lack of purpose and orientation to human life. Young people in particular call for an alternate vision that is centered in values that give meaning to human existence.

The call comes from those who have lost their confidence in a life devoted solely to the accumulation of wealth and power; they see the futility of greed, which has increasingly become the normative motivation of human action.
The call comes from those in the business and financial world who look for ethical principles and values to guide economic life; they are troubled by the ever growing economic disparities and the many millions that are in the grip of poverty.
The call comes from those in the political field; they perceive the devastation brought by conflicts and wars and the growing threats to social cohesion and peace.
The call comes from those who are increasingly concerned with the abuse and exploitation of the earth; they see its adverse consequences for life.
The call comes from the young peoples of the world; they fear inheriting a world built on violence, exclusion and injustices.

Our generation encounters an intense search for meaning. We see a deep yearning for spirituality. Many sections of the human community feel the need to sustain life on new foundations.

Turning to religions

Naturally, many turn to the religious traditions of our world for the spiritual resources and values that would help build the human community on firmer foundations.
We recognise that our traditions are indeed built on profound understandings of the meaning of human existence.
We are inheritors of the insights, wisdom, and values handed down to us by saints and sages through the ages.
We acknowledge the role religions have played in fostering compassion, and selflessness in the pursuit of peace.
We treasure the contribution our traditions have made to the struggles against injustices and in the affirmation of human worth and dignity.

And yet, we also acknowledge with sadness the ambiguity of all our traditions, whether as movements or institutions, that participate in the vicissitudes of human life.

Many young people today are dissatisfied by what they perceive to be the inflexibility of institutionalised religion and its incapacity to respond readily to the challenges of daily life. Many are alienated by the lack of mutual hospitality among our traditions that prevent us from working together. They are troubled by the importance given to doctrines and dogmas. They are troubled by the indifference to the genuine expressions of their spirituality along non-traditional paths.

Of even greater concern to many is the emergence of militant and extreme groups within most of our traditions, and the use and abuse of religion or religious sentiments in violence, conflicts, terrorism, and war.

As knowledge of each other’s religious traditions increase and as we live in close proximity to one another and experience each other in daily life, there is growing disenchantment with the exclusivism in the way many religious traditions are conceived, taught and practiced.

If we are able to meet, relate, work with and live together as human beings in our daily life, what is it in our religious self-understandings that keep us apart as religious people? Would the walls between religions be the last to fall?

Re-discovering ourselves

Fortunately, over the past few decades we have begun to discover each other as peoples committed, in our own specific ways, to explore, respond, relate to what is ultimate in life. We experience others as people committed, even as we are, to the pursuit of religious goals and moral values. As we grow closer together, we recognise that we need to know and to be known by the other. We also see the importance of the other to know ourselves. We have begun to appreciate the richness of the spirituality and values that we bring to one another and to our common life. Some have even found it meaningful to draw nourishment from the riches of other traditions and/or freely choosing the spiritual path, they wish to follow. For we no longer look at religions as fortresses to be defended, but as spiritual wellsprings to drink from.

We are deeply moved by the interdependence of all things and how each of us contributes to, and is needed for, life to manifest itself in its rich diversity and wholeness. We have begun to look at the other not as a stranger to be feared but as a co-pilgrim to be embraced; not as a person to be transformed into our likeness but one that should be accepted in his or her otherness, with all the integrity of the faith, tradition and spiritual gifts he or she brings.

We realise the human limitations, conditioning our respective religious expressions. We have learnt anew the inadequacy of the human mind and language to fully understand life and its ultimate purpose. We have, therefore, become more conscious of the need for humility. We recognise the inappropriateness of making absolute claims; the incongruity of the exclusivisms built on such claims, and the dangers of seeing one another as rival communities.

We increasingly see the truth claims made by other religious traditions not as a threat but as an inspiration; not as claims that need to be refuted but as convictions that need to be respected and understood; not as walls of division but as matters for conversation and exploration. For we realise that today the only way to be religious is to be interreligious, and that we need each other in confronting common challenges .

Our rootedness

Yet, we do not see specific religious commitments as something to be fought and overcome. In fact, we recognise the need of all persons to be rooted in a religious tradition, to draw nourishment from it, and to find their individual and collective identity through it.

However, we have experienced the importance of lowering the barriers between religions to make it possible for persons and communities to benefit from the riches religious traditions bring to our common life.

Religion and transformation

We do not see religions as static realities. Rather we see religious traditions as rivers that express both continuity and change; always the same and yet ever new, replenished by the ever-flowing currents of water.

Religion, as an integral component of culture and life, is a dynamic process. Therefore, we see ourselves not only as owning and responding to a heritage from the past but also as creating the ideas and ideals that will shape our future.

Religions are celebrated and preserved, not so much in doctrines and dogmas, but in actual practice and in their capacity to bring about the inner transformation of our lives. When religious teachings are not attuned to an active spirituality of life, but are held only as intellectual assets, they cease to be forces that bring healing to the world; the longest journey of our life, it has been said, is the distance between our heads and our hearts. When human life is not immersed in the deep waters of inner tranquillity and peace, the source of all compassion, it is tossed to and fro by the storms of hatred, ignorance and violence. In fact, much of the external turmoil we see in our day may well spring from the want of inner tranquillity. The search for meaning, over against dogmatic religious beliefs that we see among many young peoples today may well indicate a quest for an interior spirituality. We would not love others unless we learn to love ourselves; we would not seek peace unless we are at peace with ourselves.

Religion and responsibility

We recognise the danger that the call for interior transformation can easily be misunderstood as a call for disengagement from the world. Rather our religious traditions have emphasised the close relationship between inner transformation and compassion. We recognise the importance of the rational as well as the experiential, the contemplative as well as the active, the individual as well as the social dimensions of religious life and commitment.

A religious tradition, a person, or community that does not provide the resources, the energy, the ethical values and the necessary commitment to the transformation of society towards justice and peace loses credibility and relevance in the eyes of the world, and the younger generation.

Religious nurturing

We, therefore, recognise the crucial importance of religious nurturing for handing over the treasures of our heritage from generation to generation. It is important that each religious community understands the need to empower young people to participate in the ongoing transformation of their heritage. A genuine appreciation of the riches of one’s tradition is an asset for people living as peacemakers and peace builders in society.

We also look to a learning process that would build an inclusive, open and compassionate attitude to others on the basis of one’s faith. We also see the importance of having an informed understanding of each other’s religious traditions, so that we do not get the images of the other from long-held prejudices and the distortions of the mass media.

We are convinced that no religious tradition considers violence as a virtue or a religious value and we know that violence is not the essence of any religion. On the contrary, love, compassion and peaceful co-existence are values that all our traditions uphold. Therefore, we resist the attribution of violence to religions and strive towards actualising the potential for peace and non-violence that are held as core values in our traditions.

Common commitments

We recognise that the challenges we face in the world are too strong for any one of our traditions to deal with, and that we need each other in our attempts to respond to them. Therefore, we must not do separately what we can do together. It is in the course of discerning and acting together that we would truly discover each other, and it is in making common commitments that we would grow together. Therefore, we make the following affirmations and commitments:

We affirm that humankind, made up of many peoples, nations, races, colours, cultures and religious traditions, is one human family.
Therefore, we reject all attempts to drive wedges between religious traditions by presenting them as mutually exclusive communities.
We commit ourselves to learn more about each other, to learn from each other, and to discover and re-discover ourselves in relation to the other.

We affirm that at the heart of all our religious traditions are love, compassion, self-giving and values that sustain life and life in community.
Therefore, we reject all interpretations of religious teachings that promote enmity, hatred, or exclusion.
We commit ourselves to lift up the teachings and practices in our religious traditions that nourish life and promote community.

We affirm that conflict, violence and warfare are inconsistent with our religious teachings and none of our religions traditions support the resolution of conflicts through violent means.
Therefore we reject all violence used in the name of religion, all interpretation of religion that support warfare, and any attempt to interpret our scriptures to support conflicts.
We commit ourselves to interpret, teach and practice our religious traditions for the promotion of peace and harmony.

We affirm that discrimination on the basis of race, caste, social status, physical and mental abilities, ethnicity, gender, etc. is inconsistent with all our religious teachings.
Therefore, we reject all forms of discrimination and exclusion.
We commit ourselves to work towards an inclusive community and to struggle against interpretations of our faith and scriptures to justify discrimination.

We affirm that justice and fairness are central to religious life; that poverty, depravation, hunger and disease are forces that diminish human dignity and potential.
Therefore, we reject the ordering of economic and political life that brings about injustices, inequalities and the unconscionable exploitation of the earth for human greed.
We commit ourselves to defend together the dignity and the human, social, and economic rights of all people, and the integrity of the earth.

We affirm the rights of young people and children and the gifts they bring to the understanding and practice of religious life.
Therefore we reject all attempts to exclude them from the mainstream of religious life.
We commit ourselves to foster inclusive communities that would incorporate young people and children fully to enable them to bring their gifts to our common life.

It has been said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. We see these commitments as the steps we take towards the vision of a world that would live in justice and peace. We call upon all religious communities to make such acts of commitment of their own and so further the vision of a spirituality that would bring healing and wholeness to our fractured world.

* This text was prepared by a small group of people of different faiths convened by the WCC: a Buddhist nun from Switzerland, a young Muslim woman from Iran, a Jewish educator from Israel, a Hindu professor from Frinidad/USA and a professor in the study of religions from Sri Lanka, all of whom brought different experiences into the discussions of religious life today and allowed for many perspectives to emerge.