Faith, religion, modernity: a critical moment
by Gilbert Friend-Jones
8 June 2005, World Council of Churches
The tranquillity of Lake Geneva belies the sense of growing urgency within the nearby Ecumenical Centre, headquarters of the World Council of Churches. This urgency is shared by a broad group of religious leaders, academic specialists and grassroots activists from virtually all the major world faith communities. They have come from around the world to reflect on a "critical moment" in interreligious dialogue.
Like the proverbial blind villagers trying to describe an elephant, conference participants began the meeting by identifying, from their various perspectives, different aspects of the "post-modern" challenge they face. Economic and cultural globalization, the massive migrations and dislocations of people, the amplification of the "culture of violence", the confluence of religious extremism with political agendas, the abuse and impoverishment of millions of people - all are factors accelerating the process of social change and religious upheaval in the world.
Beyond adventurous spirituality
This moment in history is "critical" for all religious communities. Many of the faith leaders hope to push the phenomenon of interreligious cooperation to new levels of relevance for a world in crisis. Their appreciation of the "adventurous" spirituality that dialogue has enabled in recent decades is exceeded only by the conviction that interreligious cooperation must now move further to involve more people in more creative ways to overcome divisions that threaten humanity.
Reminding participants of the WCC's 30-year history of interfaith dialogue, general secretary Samuel Kobia asked, "How can we live together our diversity and differences in one world?" WCC moderator Catholicos Aram I went further, urging the conference to help the world's religions to move beyond coexistence into genuine community, and into nurturing a spirituality of reflecting, living and working together.
"Religions must act, they must act together and urgently. Let us participate in God's transformation of His world, our common household. Let us commit ourselves to make humanity more humane. The new world situation with its complexities, uncertainties and challenges calls for a credible dialogue, greater partnership and closer collaboration between the religions," he appealed.
Widening presence at the table in a post-conversion era
Yet the gap between dialogue and local realities can seem striking. Dr Wande Abimbola, a high priest of the Yorùbá religion from Nigeria, was sharply critical of much interreligious dialogue which, he said, has too often been half-hearted and insincere, and often excluded authentic representatives of the worlds primal religions.
"Even today Christians and Muslims continue to seek to convert adherents of indigenous religions; they wantonly destroy temples, icons and holy relics of traditional religions," he deplored. Abimbola urged the presence of all religious traditions at the table of dialogue and insisted that their contribution be taken seriously in efforts to solve problems facing the world.
Dr Heba Raouf Ezzat, an Egyptian Muslim political scientist and writer for the "Islam Online" website, sketched a different vision of the postmodern age. In our hunger for identity, she said, growing numbers of people are returning to faith, but not necessarily to organized, institutional religion. The real conflict is not between civilizations or religions, but between humanity and anti-humanity, she pointed out. We share a common human condition, and the role of religion is "to preserve, foster and secure civility" in an age that is extremely hostile to it.
Ezzat argued that we must move to a "post-conversion" era, in which faith communities go beyond proselytism to transformation. Religions must not be concerned just with blatant eruptions of violence such as war, but with structural violence that governs many societies and relationships. People desire a return to a sense of community in response to the modern world, she said.
All faiths share common values and live within the same modern conditions which both underline and undermine traditional understandings. Religions must give passion to people as a way of taming the sweeping capitalization of the world, she said. "We must keep the human heart beating. We will need each other to help people to respond."
Kobia echoed her concern, saying that if there is a "missionary impulse" today, it must be to convince people of our common community and values. "If there is anything that we need to convert, it is the mentality of people to become true human persons," he said. "Our common missionary vocation is to transform the world to be truly human, to recover our common humanity."
Towards a new quality of dialogue
Conference participants articulated a common concern when they urged a new quality of interreligious dialogue. Can dialogue enable the religions to identify common values for our common humanity? Can it strengthen the moral authority of religion in the public arena? Can it move from words to actions, and from actions to a deeper level of shared commitment?
In the words of Swami Agnivesh, an Indian spiritual leader and social activist, "after a century of interreligious dialogue, we now need a new approach. Dialogue must be seen as a spiritual tool, and not an end in itself. Our horizontal dialogue with each other must be directed by our vertical dialogue with God. We must integrate correct words with creative deeds, and so unleash the spiritual power that would liberate the people and transform societies. Nothing less than this is acceptable as the goal of the inter-faith movement for the third millennium."
Rev. Dr Gilbert R. Friend-Jones is the senior minister of Central Congregational United Church of Christ in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. He is a founding member and director of the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta (FAMA) and the interfaith World Pilgrims.
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