The Unity of Humankind: Problems and Promises of an Indispensable Ecumenical Theme

By Hoedemaker, Bert | The Ecumenical Review, July 1998 | Go to article overview

The Unity of Humankind: Problems and Promises of an Indispensable Ecumenical Theme


Hoedemaker, Bert, The Ecumenical Review


The ecumenical movement began as a renaissance of Western Christianity under the impact of modern visions of unity. Modernity meant that humankind as a whole had come into view, that one could conceive of cultural development, economic progress, interreligious understanding and elevation of the downtrodden as global processes. The modern vision of the world awakened Christianity once again to the classical meaning of the word oikoumene: the whole inhabited earth. That was indeed to become the context for a rediscovery of the Christian tradition and a revival of the churches. The missionary movement was the answer of Christian eschatology to the new accessibility of the "ends of the earth"; fresh initiatives in the area of Christian social concern responded to the new visibility of the "world" nearby; and the rediscovery of the church and of the importance of the search for its unity reflected the broader cultural need to transform traditional separations into contemporary challenges. All this is unthinkable apart from the modern perspective of the "unity of humankind".

Of course there was, and is, no such thing as the "unity of humankind". In fact the early ecumenical movement emerged from unprecedented experiences of a broken humankind -- world war, social suffering -- and from the appeal of those experiences to the Christian conscience. But the passion behind the movement, which has never to this day completely disappeared, was an eschatological passion, a vision which held the kingdom of God and the whole of humankind together. The "common understanding and vision" discussion is a choice opportunity to remind ourselves of these beginnings and to consider their lasting significance.

The continuing presence of the "unity of humankind" perspective in the ecumenical movement has been experienced in three distinct but inter-related ways. First, the influence of changing conceptions of "world" and of "humankind" on the ecumenical discourse about "church" and "world" can be traced in most major texts. Then there is the impact of the development of a global society on the shaping of 20th-century ecumenical Christianity: on its ways of organization and cooperation, its choice of programmes, its changes of theological emphasis. And, last but not least, there is the explicit reflection on the relation between church and humankind, and on the ways in which ecclesiology, missions and ethics might be integrated. Throughout the history of the ecumenical movement these three factors are discernible; the strength of each has varied at particular moments but they have always been related to one another.(1)

There is something obvious about all this, and yet it has always been difficult to build a concrete theological argument upon this basis. Somehow the church unity focus and the encompassing eschatological framework do not combine very smoothly, even though they are both indebted to modern thought-forms. An emphasis on church unity is often criticized as ecclesiocentrism; an emphasis on "humankind" is often dismissed as radicalism. Why is this the case? The question deserves some attention, if only for the simple reason that the challenge posed by the notion of the "unity of humankind" is still with us, or rather, it is again with us, in a new form.

Basic choices in the formation of the World Council

The League of Nations may or may not have been the dominant model for the "league of churches" that was finally established in 1948; in any case, the "signs of the times" clearly called for a strong network of churches. The preparations for the Life and Work world conference in Oxford (1937) and the world missionary conference in Tambaram (1938) make the point very clearly: the "unity of humankind" presents itself in the guise of dangerous neo-pagan ideologies and a worldwide culture of secularism, and Christianity is challenged to place its own unity over against this in the form of prophetic witness and service by the churches. …

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