A Brief Overview of Ecumenical Engagement in Interfaith Relations
Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana
Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations
Dr. Howard Loewen and friends from Fuller, thank you for the generous welcome and gracious hospitality you have provided for us these days. It is my hope, and indeed ours that this might just be the first step of a longer more sustained dialogue.
I just want you to know that I have strong Evangelical credentials, having grown up Baptist in a Buddhist cultural environment, where Evangelical theology was an important part of my formation. Although I rebelled against that formation in my late teens and twenties, becoming more ecumenical and interfaith, I’ve always maintained a core evangelical commitment. In this country for 25 years now, first in a Southern Baptist context, and then in break away movement that became the Alliance of Baptists, I’ve had think through carefully about what it means to be Baptist in these days, and the Evangelical commitment that is intrinsic to that identity.
Like me, there are lots of people in our so-called “ecumenical” churches who have strong Evangelical credentials. Indeed many in our circles don’t even like to couch this dialogue in these terms. So first, let’s make sure that we understand that this is conversation between one small part of the ecumenical movement – the interfaith relations commission, with one small part of the Evangelical movement – Fuller Theological Seminary. Second, while we may argue about whether it is theologically or ecclesiologically appropriate we may more easily agree that in the public perception that there is such a polarization that it is promoted and heightened by the media pitting us against one another. As you all know, the fundamental commitment of the National Council of Churches is to the visible unity of the church. And even the perception of such a polarization is detrimental to the witness of the Body of Christ. Third, I want to tentatively suggest that the terms Evangelical and Ecumenical are not necessarily structural descriptors as they are theological markers. And as such many of us fit not in opposite ends as the media often depicts us, rather somewhere in between.
Since we need to keep these presentations brief, I need to say at the outset that this is in no sense a comprehensive overview or perhaps even an adequate one. I want to simply highlight a few theological movements over the course of this past century that have made sense to me with the hope that it will be a sufficient prelude to get a good dialogue going. Many of these examples are from the Indian subcontinent and Asia. And that’s not only because that’s the area of the world with which I am most familiar, but also because theological thinking from that part of the world has led the ecumenical world in its journey towards interfaith relations.
Early in the last century, at a time when the colonial missionary movement was intent on aggressively evangelizing indigenous people with barely a consideration for their religious and cultural heritage and sensitivities, some Christians became aware of an unexpected reality in India. In the words of F. W. Steinthal, it was the realization that there is “among Hindus and Brahmans as deep, genuine and spiritual religious life as is found among most Christians.” This realization became one of the focal points of the World Missionary Conference, the first ecumenical conference in the modern times, in Edinburgh in 1910. We are now close to a century in protestant ecumenical grappling with interfaith relations.
The early models were Christologically oriented. Shortly after Edinburgh, in 1913, J.N. Farquhar published The Crown of Hinduism. He suggested that in the same way that the New Testament gospels claimed that Jesus was the fulfillment of Judaism, so also Jesus should be seen as the fulfillment of Hinduism. Seen thus, Jesus comes not to destroy but to fulfill the religions of human beings. In 1913, this supercessionism may have seemed progressive but those of us engaged with relationships with Jews have quickly learned its fallacy.
In 1925 E. Stanley Jones published The Christ of the Indian Road. Jones asserted that Christ was already incarnate in India and drew the inference that the Christian missionary task was to discover the Christ who is indigenous to India, rather than import the Christ of the West to India. This incarnational model is valuable and is still useful to help Christians get to the first stage of relating with people of other faiths. In my own ministry in an inner city Baptist Church in Chicago, I used this model effectively to move middle-class, highly educated, Caucasian church members to engage with people who are low-income, African American and living in inner-city neighborhoods by urging them to see the risen Christ incarnate in those communities.
However this model is not without its difficulties. Charlie F. Andrews, one of India’s beloved missionaries and close friend of Mahatma Gandhi, writes the following, which highlights both the promise and the pitfall of incarnational theology. Andrews sees incarnation even in the Hindu scriptures that provide such meaning to the people of India.
When we turn from the personal lives of the Indian people with whom I have lived all these years, to the literature which is regarded by them all as a part of their own sacred scriptures, I find in this also passages of such deep spiritual beauty and moral insight, that I have found myself constantly saying ‘This is nothing else than Christian.’
The problem, of course, is that this scripture is not Christian. Even if Christians may speak among themselves of Christ incarnate in a culture or within a religious tradition or scripture, as Catholic scholar Raimundo Panikkar learned when he attempted to locate the Christ incognito in Hinduism, in his Unknown Christ of Hinduism, this is problematic. In this book he made an excellent comparative study of the two religions, but Hindus who typically have no difficulty incorporating Christ, or any other deities into their pantheon, were offended by what seemed to them to be “superior” Christology. Although Panikkar made a vigorous defense of in a later edition, suggesting that only problem with his Christology is the title of the book, he has remained unconvincing.
A pivotal event in the Christian efforts to deal with pluralism was the International Missionary Conference held at Tambaram, South India in 1938. The discussions of this council revolved around its preparatory volume, Hendrik Kraemer’s The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World. Using Barthian categories of the uniqueness and decisiveness of the Christian faith, Kraemer justified the universal mission of the church in its perceived relation to the world’s major religions. He characterized Hinduism as a “primitive apprehension of reality,” a naturalistic, vitalistic, “human attempt,” a “groping after God.” Despite Kraemer’s triumphalistic attitude, however, was his insistence on a deeply personal, truly humble and genuinely self-giving attitude towards the Hindu. This he maintained is the only point of contact between the Christian and the Hindu. Kraemer sought thus to reject arrogant and imperialistic attitudes that were evident in Christians’ approach to people of other religions.
Wesley Ariyarajah, in his Hindus and Christians: A Century of Protestant Ecumenical Thought, on the history of the ecumenical attempts at relating to people of other faiths, concludes that Tambaram resulted in dividing the ecumenical movement. The consultations and assemblies that followed Tambaram manifested a sharp polarization of those who represented what might be called Kraemer’s “Tambaram position” and those who advocated a “dialogical position.” What is interesting is that most of those who advocated the “Tambaram position” were western Christians who typically had their faith formation in mono-religious contexts. Those who advocated for a “dialogical position” were mostly Asian Christians who had their faith formation in multi-religious contexts. Western Christians worried about sacrificing fundamentals of the faith, watering-down evangelical passions and engaging in syncretism. Additionally, western theology based largely on the work of theologians such as Karl Barth had no handles to deal with the interfaith reality. To western Christians whose theological framework did not take the interfaith reality into account, the “Dialogue position” was scary. However, to Asian Christians who had grown up in religiously diverse contexts it was an exciting and necessary adventure of faith.
During the decades of the 50s and 60s many Asian countries having just gained independence from the colonial empires and its missionary movement, began to formulate what might become their indigenous theologies. Choan Seng Song, a Taiwanese theologian in 1964 proposed a celebration of the end of western missions that would at last pave the way for an indigenous Asian theology to emerge. He proposed a shift from the Christological paradigm that caused the Tambaram divergence to a creation paradigm, where we can understand God as the creator of all people made in God’s image, even though in all their diversity. He is still one of the foremost proponents of a dialogical theology.
More recently, Wesley Ariarajah picked up the argument. The history of Israel begins at the Exodus event. But the Biblical writers don’t begin the story there. They want to reach further back to the patriarchs – to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Why would they? Would they have wanted to affirm that because of God’s covenant with Abraham, “all the families of the earth will be blessed?” These days we talk about the Tent of Abraham, under which Jews, Muslims and Christians gather. Perhaps the biblical authors reached back to Abraham because they wanted to broaden the tent. But they didn’t stop there. They reached back even further – to the story of Noah, where the covenant was with all living beings. But they didn’t stop there either; they reached even further to the very beginning. And with that they included all of creation. When the story of the Bible begins with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” it means not just Christians or Jews, but the entire world. When it asserts that human beings were created in God’s image, it also means, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists among others. In addition, there is also a consistent biblical affirmation that all creation is under God’s providence, as the Psalmist declares, “The earth is the Lord and all its fullness, the world and all who dwell therein.” The affirmation that the whole world is under God’s providence leads without too much difficulty to the notion of the “previous-ness of grace” as Ariarajah puts it. That there is nothing that we, human beings can do to receive God’s grace, he points out, it is already available to all.
In India, the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society in Bangalore was headed by M.M. Thomas. A prolific writer with an acute theological mind, Thomas became one of Asia’s most respected theologians and a foremost proponent of the dialogical approach. His work Salvation and Humanisation, had a significant impact on the 1972 Chiang Mai conference of WCC’s Commission on World Mission and Evangelism which produced the document “Salvation Today.” With that Thomas became the foremost proponent of a soteriological model for dialogue. Christopher Duraisingh writes of M.M. Thomas:
He has insisted that it is the collective struggles of human beings for their humanization that provides an adequate point of departure and ground for our rethinking mission and dialogue. It is not through our a priori doctrinal formulations on God or Christ, but rather through our collective human search for meaning and sacredness that the “universe of faiths” could be adequately understood.
In that same article, Duraisingh proposes yet another shift from the Christo-centric and theo-centric models to a soteriological model. In this he follows Catholic theologian Paul Knitter, who in No Other Name? reverses his own theo-centric position. He writes:
“If religious believers could agree that the center of their dialogue should not revolve around “Christ” (or Buddha or Krishna), or around “God” (or around Brahman or Nirvana) but around “salvation” – that is, a shared concern about and effort to remove the sufferings that rack the human family today – perhaps the religions would have “the right of way” of getting into the circle of dialogue” …. Such a salvation-centered starting point would call on different religious believers to share…. A common praxis… Shared liberative praxis, it is hoped, would be the basis for mutual doctrinal understanding and clarification.
With the establishment of the Sub-unit on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies in 1971 (since 1991, the Office on Interreligious Relations) the ecumenical movement formalized its commitment to interfaith dialogue. For the past thirty-two years this office has made significant progress in the arena of interfaith relations. Many of its programs have both helped Christians to understand and respond to religious pluralism and to build relationships of such trust with leaders of different faith as to provide opportunities to invite them to WCC assemblies. The educational program My Neighbor’s Faith and Mine in 1984, led to the Baar Declaration: Theological Perspectives of Plurality in 1990. Last year’s publication of “Ecumenical Considerations” detailed lessons learned following 30 years of building interfaith relationships and was a re-working of their 1979, Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths.
Shortly afterwards, in 1973, the NCC began a program of Jewish Christian Relations. Several communions, notably Presbyterians and Episcopalians had already been engaged in relations with Jews. It began with Jewish evangelization, propelled largely by dispensationalist theologies back in the mid 19th century. Early in the 20th, there were even Jewish-Christian Presbyterian churches. But by the 1950s churches began to question the dispensational theologies and mainstream Christians seemed to lose the energy for Jewish evangelism, preferring dialogue instead.
Our relationships with Muslims began in 1976 and for many years the interfaith work of the National Council of Churches was carried out by two committees: A Committee on Jewish-Christian Relations and a Committee on Muslim-Christian Relations. In the mid 1990s these two committees were joined together into a “Working Group on Interfaith Relations.” One of the more significant achievements of this group was the adoption in November 1999 of the policy statement, “Interfaith Relations and the Churches,” and its accompanying study document. Terry Muck will walk us through that theological rationale a little later. In November 2000, when the National Council of Churches adopted a new constitution and Bylaws, it became the Interfaith Relations Commission–one of five Commissions charged to carry out the work of the Council.
Now looking forward, there are two more emerging theological trends we need to pay close attention to. One is the Pneumatological approach, best presented by our own Amos Yong who not too long ago published: Beyond the Impasse: Toward a Pneumatological Theology of Religions. I think it is important to recognize that in Amos and Tony Ritchie we have two courageous trendsetters who are pushing and prodding the Pentecostal family of the Body of Christ into brand new ways of thinking about the work of the Holy Spirit, who like the wind, blows in unpredictable directions. I see significant value in following this development and encouraging our colleagues. Not only is it valid in itself, we must recognize that significant growth in the Body of Christ particularly in Latin America, Africa and Asia is coming from the Pentecostal family.
The second trend is Post Colonial Theology, which comes out of the struggles of emancipation from the colonial dominance in Asia and Africa. Having begun with movements for indigenization and contextualization it is described as contributing to “exorcising” the “demon” of imperialistic Christianity, as an active confrontation with the dominant system of thought, its lopsidedness and inadequacies. This is my current passion, so there’s a lot I can say about it, and want you to appreciate my disciplined restraint. Let me offer just three quick points.
First its starting point is the margin. Center, uniqueness, majesty and Lord are terminologies of authoritarian and patriarchal culture, says RS Sugirtharajah, my former NT professor. There is good reason to reject them as Christ himself did. His own ministry and the context for the divine manifestation is the periphery. In fact, the margin is a place pulsating with critical activity, a place alive with argument and controversy and a place of creative discourse. Sugirtharajah would say, to see best work in interfaith relations, we need to look to the periphery of our communities.
Second, Community Building is a Core Discipline, says KC Abraham. Theology should be at the service of people in their search for meaningful communities which exist in harmonious relation with nature, and between different faiths. They will be communities that refuse to accept the logic of profit and progress which has turned our life into commodities. They will be different from the traditional collectives that have submerged our self-hood and suppressed our women. They will be communities that have overcome all human-made barriers of caste, creed and religion that celebrate their common humanity, living life to the full, in harmony with self, others and nature. Interfaith relations cannot be divorced from the rest of community life Abraham would say, it is integral to all our daily struggles.
Third, Post Colonial Theology seeks a new language that will emerge out of a discipline of alternative reading. The once supreme reign of historical criticism, which made “disinterested,” “objective,” “scientific,” and “apolitical” reading the main virtues for engaging with the text, is now being severely challenged by context-based and ideologically committed readings of various subaltern groups – women, indigenous people, Dalits, etc. We need to treat these different approaches not as competing practices, assigning some as superior and virtuous and others as exotic and marginal. Rather we need to recognize that in different ways the practitioners of these reading modes are active participants of a shared textual and critical tradition and in their usage of methods and application of theories they are interrelated. Edward Said’s methodology of contrapuntal reading is a method of bringing the experiences of the exploited and the exploiter, texts from the metropolitan centers and the periphery to be studied together. Contrapuntal reading requires the simultaneous study of mainstream scholarship and of scholarship emanating from the peripheries, which the dominant discourse tries to domesticate and speaks and acts against. For us engaged in interfaith relations, it would mean reading the Bible, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita and their various interpretive traditions that we may discern new ways in which God is speaking to us.