The ecumenical movement brings Christians of all creeds together, and the ecumenical group KAIROS brings this unity into activism for human dignity and sustainability. What are its strengths, and what challenges is ecumenism bound to face?
Many theologians say Christ’s last prayer was “that all might be one”. Such hope for “oneness” can nurture more unity of faith among Christian creeds; it can also nurture more unity among humans of many faiths. Speaking at a recent Regina ecumenical workshop, reported on in Prairie Messenger, the Director of the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism, Janet Bigland-Pritchard, said “We are all of the same faith…but we belong to different communities”, while emphasizing, “We are not of different religions.” Then, distinguishing ecumenism from “inter-faith work” she said, in building relations with those of non-Christian faiths “we are not trying to become as one”, by which she likely meant that ecumenism remains “the household of Christ.”
The emphasis on commonality among Christian creeds is understandable. However it’s vital to remember that when Christ allegedly said “that all might be one” he was not speaking to Christians, as there wasn’t a Christian church until well after his death. And a restrictive view of ecumenism can hinder the deeper unity among all humans that many believe Christ was affirming.
Theologian Harvey Cox’s recent book The Future of Faith points towards such deeper unity. He notes that the upcoming generation is shifting from belief in creeds towards more multi-faith spirituality. Everyone knows that “creeds are divisive”, in both politics and religion, and increasingly in how these get intertwined with cultural and ethnic identity. Many of today’s geo-political challenges are exacerbated by these creed-based identities, especially when perceived victimization fuels rage and the cycle of violence.
Disentangling this to encourage peaceful, “right relations”, in the pursuit of justice, requires clarity about both religion and spirituality. Faith is about loyalty to what Cox calls “life orientation”, which is bigger and also more flexible than what he calls “mental assent”, which unfortunately often becomes subordination to doctrine. This subordination strengthens the human tendency towards forming in-groups and excluding out-groups, and can feed fundamentalism. Cox argues that Christianity is increasingly about “the way one lives one’s life”, more akin to the first three centuries of Christian communities, before institutionalized belief and doctrinal fragmentation was underway.
For some, ecumenism comes from lowering walls among those who share foundational beliefs, such as belief in The Trinity. For some, the meaning and implications of Christ’s last prayer will differ from this. Religious ritual itself carries this ambiguity. Underneath the eucharist, as “the body of Christ”, Oblate theologian Ron Rolheiser says there is an honouring that “everything is meant to be in relationship.” Everything, of course, includes all humans, regardless of belief or faith community, hence the eucharist can be seen as bigger than Christianity.
Vatican II lowered the walls around the Catholic Church, enabling more cross-Christian dialogue. Divisive language rooted in historical events that spawned anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism or anti-Protestantism can be cleared away to enable the greater respect required for greater unity. But real walls exist, such as came down in Berlin 1989 and are going up in Gaza. To bring these down in the pursuit of peace, based on justice, will require something bigger than Christian ecumenism. It will require healing and reconciliation and new relations among people of all Abrahamic faiths – Jewish, Christian and Muslim. It will require deep understanding beyond the monotheistic tradition; eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and Indigenous practices, must be included within humanity’s spiritual tent. Ecumenical activism inevitably carries this tension. To be able to effectively “lobby” on behalf of the Millennium Development Goals after the World Religious Summit, scheduled for Winnipeg prior to the G20 meeting in 2010, leaders of all religions will have to become of a faith that both includes and transcends their particular creeds.
Creating unity in diversity is required to move towards sustainability; to create new “order” out of our present economic and ecological chaos. The spirit of ecumenism can help this process along. With such an urgent need for dialogue and understanding on a global scale, perhaps the walls between “ecumenism” and “inter-faith” work should also be lowered. With such divergence in creeds, it is understandable that some want to reassure Christians that they are not being unfaithful to their religious community by engaging in ecumenical work. Once faith is taken beyond creed or belief, into the realm of evolving human spirituality, all people can be reassured that dialogue helps deeper their faith.
Perhaps this is about more that lowering walls around creeds. Perhaps deepening faith is about allowing all the walls that divide us to wither “that all might be one”. We are now realizing that we always were “one” within the astonishing biosphere that sustains us. This new spiritual awakening challenges us, regardless of belief or creed, or faith seen in these narrower terms, to open our hearts and minds to the condition of all human and non-human life. I like to think that Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, and the many others who helped prepare us for this huge leap in enlightenment, would all be pleased.
Jim Harding is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies. His website is http://jimharding.brinkster.net