The Ecumenical Impact of Inter-Religious Dialogue

By Ariarajah, S. Wesley | The Ecumenical Review, April 1997 | Go to article overview

The Ecumenical Impact of Inter-Religious Dialogue


Ariarajah, S. Wesley, The Ecumenical Review


Has the Ecumenical Movement a Future? is the provocative title of a book published in 1974 by W.A. Visser 't Hooft, the first general secretary of the World Council of Churches. In this book, Visser 't Hooft poses what he considers to be the three fundamental questions facing the ecumenical movement: -- Is the ecumenical movement suffering from institutional paralysis? -- Should we replace mission as it has been practised up till now by a dialogue with the other religions? -- Should the ecumenical movement follow the agenda of the church - or the agenda of the world?1

While it would be interesting to explore Visser 't Hooft's analysis and conclusions regarding these vital questions, that would take us too far afield. What is significant for the topic of this article is that this ecumenical pioneer, who was deeply motivated by the search for the visible unity of the church and the church's mission in the world, and whose basic theological formation remained Barthian to the very end, should admit in 1972 that one of the basic questions that faces the future of the ecumenical movement is the issue of "dialogue and mission". Only a decade earlier Visser't Hooft would have insisted that the missionary mandate and what it called for was so self-evident that the question did not deserve even a discussion. But as one who always had his finger on the pulse of the ecumenical movement, he was able to discern the increasing impact of inter-religious dialogue, and the difficult and often painful and deeply divisive issues it raised for the Christian understanding of mission, especially in relation to people who live by other religious traditions.

Before entering this discussion, however, let me make two remarks about terminology. First, the term "ecumenical", when used in the Christian context, denotes all the movements that contribute to the search for the unity of the church and of humankind. Thus, there are many partners within the one ecumenical movement, and the emergence of inter-religious dialogue has had different degrees of impact on them. During and after the Second Vatican Council, for instance, the Roman Catholic Church developed teachings and engaged in activities that have made significant difference to the Christian response to the inter-religious reality. In what follows, however, I shall largely limit myself to the impact inter-religious dialogue has had on one of the instruments and expressions of the ecumenical movement, namely the World Council of Churches, recognizing that this will inevitably provide only a partial look at the subject pointed to in the title.

Second, it is important to say a word about the terms "inter-religious" and "interfaith". Wilfred Cantwell Smith, perhaps the most creative and courageous of the pioneers in the field, rightly emphasizes the importance of defining our terms in order to avoid confusion; and he himself has made helpful distinctions between the terms "religion", "belief", "faith" and the like. But alas, in the explosion of literature in this field, "inter-religious" and "interfaith" have come to be used interchangeably; and that will be evident in my use of these terms as well.

Dialogue and the missionary mandate

Visser 't Hooft's concern about the impact of interfaith dialogue on the missionary enterprise was natural, since one of the earliest impulses for the modern ecumenical movement came from a sense of urgency in relation to world mission. It was the conviction that the "Decisive Hour of Christian Mission" had come which impelled John R. Mott to call the world mission conference in Edinburgh in 1910, with the primary purpose of pooling resources and developing a common strategy for the "world's conquest" for Christ. The task of "taking the gospel to all the regions of the world" was seen to be of such paramount importance that it was necessary to transcend and eventually overcome the theological and confessional differences among Christians which hampered its progress. …

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