After some 10 years of daily commitment to interreligious dialogue and its organizations, as well as participation in most of the international dialogue meetings, and various ecumenical and other interreligious encounters in the Flanders region of Belgium, I would like to make the following comments:
The Drive for Ecumenical Unity
First, when speaking of unity, Jesus never specified a date or time period. Most probably he did this in an attempt to limit human weakness and shortsightedness in this field. However, separation and scattering happened anyway. Rather than considering this something undesirable, we should recognize it as a normal result of human diversity and a source of richness for humanity. Human diversity starts with diversity in the white, black, red, and yellow races, followed by new-color races arising from interracial sexual relations between the original races.
According to Teilhard de Chardin,1 the human race is undergoing a process of permanent change, continuous development, and an unstoppable growth toward an ever-higher level of spiritualization in its quest to achieve a clearer and better understanding of the Divine Reality, the Divine Truth. All faith communities can accept that the perennial Reality from which all existing matter originated is also the final Omega-destination of all beings. Only then, after a long period of growth, will humanity and all religions be united in the All of the spiritual Reality.
After centuries of war and conflict, collaboration and unity among nations progressed with the creation of the United Nations (UN), its affiliated institutes, and the International Court at The Hague in The Netherlands. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, we hope that the dream of Baha’ullah2-the creation of a world parliament, a world government, a world currency unit, and a universal language-will be realized. Is it not time for the world’s diverse faith communities to realize a similar union in collaboration?
Second, people are talking of a small ecumenism between Christian faith communities and a great ecumenism between the world’s faith communities. The ecumenism appellation undoubtedly will be greeted with suspicion by non-Christian faith communities due to its Western origin. In line with the growing trend of including non-Christian faith communities in Christian ecumenist encounters, it might be advisable to replace ecumenism with dialogue. Interfaith dialogue then can be used for all interfaith dialogue encounters.
Third, our world is faced with the problems of an escalating gap between rich and poor and the ever-increasing poverty of 20 percent of the world’s population. Although the world’s political, financial, and industrial leaders acknowledge that something should be done, they have not reached any consensus on how to tackle these problems. Faith communities, in cooperation with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), could speed up this process by fulfilling the necessary role of pressing and pushing these leaders to reach some kind of agreement. However, to be effective and have a lasting influence they must be able to collaborate with each other.
After many years of meetings, it is becoming clear to more and more people that drives for unity between the Christian Protestant communities, as well as drives for unity between the Catholic Church and other Christian communities, are not making any real progress. A growing number of people now believe that such unity should be considered as a very long-term goal.
What should be sought now is not unity, but rather a union in collaboration. This seems to be happening due to advances in telecommunication technology, an acquisition of better knowledge and estimation of other cultures, and also the immigration of non-Christian faith communities to traditionally Christian countries. For example, this latter factor has made Islam the second largest faith community in the European Union.
Fourth, to realize such a union in collaboration, the following four attitudes must be present:
A True Interest in the World’s Problems. All interfaith meetings should deal with the suffering of so many of our brothers and sisters on this planet from a position of real concern and compassion. But more than that, they should formulate the sincere desire within themselves to do something about it. Such a global consciousness should be the basic mental attitude from which all faith communities start when working on interfaith dialogue.
The problems of poverty in South America and India, as well as many other countries, cannot be solved in a reasonably short time period by local and even nationally combined efforts. A change for the better in the socioeconomic infrastructures, many of which remain under the control of a small minority of landowners and industrialists who derive great financial benefits from the status quo, will be possible only through political and moral pressure from the outside. This represents a challenge for a United Religions Organization in collaboration with local politicians.3
A Clearly Defined Purpose so That Efficient Solutions Can Be Reached and Implemented. Efficient solutions will be produced only when all faith communities become a “One Voice Forum” having behind it the power of all their adherents. This could become a reality by creating a world religious organization, such as has been proposed by Episcopal Bishop William Swing’s United Religions Initiative (URI), launched in 1995. This body does not seek to unite all religions into one, but to bring them together at the same table so that their voice will be heard and taken seriously by the UN. An important step in this direction was the creation of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva, Switzerland.4 The WCC could become a basis for a world organization if non-Christian faith communities and the Catholic Church were to become members.
In the case of Europe, a more unified European collaboration should be studied to promote communication between European interfaith dialogue organizations. An umbrella organization, something like a European Interfaith Council, is urgently needed, as is a European interfaith magazine, to combine all efforts on a European-wide level.
Giving Priority to the Common Welfare. This involves subordinating personal interests to the interests of the whole, a problem often encountered on the political level. For example, the UN’s activities will remain very limited as long as America gives priority to its own interests. This is also applicable to NGOs and faith communities, for concentrating on their own organizational agendas, instead of on the common welfare of humanity, makes real dialogue and real collaboration difficult. As far as I know, only Japan places the welfare of the whole community above that of the individual in all aspects of life. This is perhaps due to its centuries-old Buddhist and Confucian background. Whatever the reason, this remains a unique world phenomenon that is not recognized or understood sufficiently by the world community.
Adopting a "Go and Learn" Attitude. In other words, we have to move beyond the typical Western attitude of “Go and Teach.” This attitude is characteristic of Christianity and Islam, for adherents of both religions believe in their religion’s superiority and that they have exclusive possession of the whole truth. Unfortunately, such attitudes have resulted in colonization, negating and even persecuting other cultures and religions. What is required today is the attitude of “Go and Learn,” of being interested in and learning about others, of coming to respect their identity and values.
Due to this new attitude, we might integrate some of these values in our own way of life and be enriched as a result. As long as the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations, as well as Islam, do not renounce their claim of exclusive possession of the Truth, the above-mentioned union in collaboration will remain an almost-impossible undertaking. The only way forward is one of accepting and recognizing other faith communities and working to go beyond the differences and similarities to arrive at a union in collaboration. Overall unity should not be the goal
1 Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955): Teilhard aimed at a metaphysic of evolution, holding that it was a process converging toward a final unity that he called the Omega point. He attempted to show that what is of permanent value in traditional philosophical thought can be maintained and even integrated with a modern scientific outlook if one accepts that the tendencies of material things are directed, either wholly or in part, beyond the things themselves toward the production of higher, more complex, more perfectly unified beings…. Teilhard argued that the appearance of man brought an added dimension into the world. This he defines as the birth of reflection: animals know, but man knows that he knows; he has “knowledge to the square.” Another great advance in Teilhard's scheme of evolution is the socialization of mankind. This is not the triumph of herd instinct but a cultural convergence of humanity toward a single society. Evolution has gone about as far as it can to perfect human beings physically: its next step will be social and spiritual. Teilhard saw such evolution already in progress; through technology, urbanization, and modern communications, more and more links being established between different peoples’ politics, economics, and habits of thought in an apparently geometric progression. (www.britannica.com)
2 Baha’ullah (1817-92): Founder of the Baha’i faith upon his claim to be the manifestation of the unknowable God. He propounded a comprehensive teaching that advocated the unity of all religions and the universal brotherhood of man. Emphasizing social ethics, he eschewed ritual worship and devoted himself to the abolition of racial, class, and religious prejudices. (www.britannica.com)
4 The World Council of Churches (WCC) is an ecumenical organization founded in 1948 in Amsterdam as “a fellowship of Churches which accept Jesus Christ our Lord as God and Saviour.” The WCC is not a church, nor does it issue orders or directions to the churches. It works for the unity and renewal of the Christian denominations and offers them a forum in which they may work together in the spirit of tolerance and mutual understanding (www.britannica. com). It now has 337 Christian churches as members, mainly Protestant and Eastern Orthodox. The Catholic Church and Southern Baptists are not members.