We invite you to join us in a study of what it means to be a Christian in a culturally, religiously and ideologically plural world. We hope that small groups of people in all our churches and in all parts of the world will accept our invitation and the study will be truly ecumenical. We also hope that we would be able to pursue this theological reflection within the context of a living dialogue with people of other faiths.
This invitation comes to you from the Team on Interreligious Dialogue (formerly the Dialogue Sub-unit) of the World Council of Churches. In 1984, the Central Committee of the WCC accepted a recommendation of the working group on dialogue for a five-year study programme. Accordingly, the WCC's Dialogue Sub-unit launched the work with three meetings of people who represented a variety of cultural and confessional backgrounds. This booklet is the result of their efforts. It tells you what the purpose of the study is and how you may take part in it. An international consultation in 1989 will analyze the responses from around the world, and its findings will be shared with you and with all our churches.
An historical note
For a long time, people within the ecumenical movement have been trying to grasp the meaning of our obedience to the gospel in a world of many religions and cultures. The World Missionary Conferences at Edinburgh (1910), Jerusalem (1928) and Tambaram (1938) struggled to understand the significance of other faiths in relation to the gospel. When the International Missionary Council became part of the World Council of Churches in 1961, this concern was assigned to the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism.
In 1971 a separate sub-unit was formed to promote dialogue between people of living faiths. A major landmark in this sub-unit's development was the 1977 meeting at Chiang Mai, Thailand, where a group of Christians representing many different ecclesiastical traditions drew up Guidelines on Dialogue, which has become the basis of this type of work in the Sub-unit and the churches.
During the past few years, the Sub-unit has organized a number of Hindu-Christian, Muslim-Christian, Buddhist-Christian and Jewish-Christian dialogues at international and regional levels. It has at the same time encouraged local dialogues. Occasionally, the Sub-unit gathered representatives of traditional religions and cultures for interaction and dialogue. Multilateral dialogues (involving people from several religions) took place in Ajaltoun (1970), Colombo (1974), and Mauritius (1983). All these gatherings have served to open a new mode of relating to people of living faiths and ideological convictions.
The present context
During the last few decades, questions about religious and cultural pluralism and the growing influence of secular and technological thinking have attracted renewed interest in the churches. Christian groups in predominantly Marxist societies are also seeking ways to enter into a new dialogue with their neighbours. Everywhere there is a fresh sense of urgency to build creative relationships. As interest in dialogue has grown, so has its actual practice, enabling various religious communities to understand one another better and to work more closely together.
People engaged in dialogue have felt their own faith challenged and deepened by the new dimensions of religious life which they have observed, and many find in inter-religious encounter a new impetus for doing theology and reviving spirituality. Communities in dialogue function as the leaven in the larger community, facilitating the creation of a society transcending religious barriers. This experience, however, has also provoked questions about some of our theological presuppositions about people of other faiths and their convictions. We stand at a historic moment when the Christian theological tradition must take full account of the experiences of those who have been living for centuries in religiously plural societies, as well as of the convictions of those who are newly stimulated by the broadening religious plurality of their surroundings. Our experience in dialogue suggests strongly that many of our "classical" theological assumptions need to be informed and challenged afresh by the new realities of our times.
The purpose of the study
This study is thus a response to the inescapable necessity of setting our theology in the context of contemporary religious plurality. Of course, its intention is not to provide answers to the complex theological questions involved in relating to the faith and witness of others. These issues have deeply divided Christian theology and no definitive solutions have emerged. Distinctions based on natural and special revelation and theories which project certain traditions as preparation for evangelization have proved inadequate, but a fresh exploration could well lead us to the discovery - or rediscovery - within our heritage of the spiritual indicators we need for the way forward.
Nor is it our purpose to provide information about other faiths. It is, rather, to promote an awareness of our neighbours as people of living faiths, whose beliefs and practices should become integral elements in our theological thinking about the world and the human community. In other words, this study is a call to Christians to make theological sense of the faiths of their neighbours. Hitherto, Christian theological reflection has not taken this seriously but when the faith of our Neighbours informs the way we observe and understand our own beliefs, we are bound to be challenged to seek new dimensions of our own faith. In so doing we may also discover our neighbours in a new light, and so learn to live with them in closer community.
We cannot of course be unmindful of the many situations in the world where religious communities are caught up in situations of conflict. Nor can we ignore the rise of conservative, at times militant, expressions of religion disrupting the life of communities which have for centuries lived in peace. We must recognize that religions and religious movements have often been coopted in the past - and are coopted today - by demonic powers in the world.
We must also recognize the wide gulf between theory and practice. The ideals enshrined in religious scriptures are not always evident in the day-to-day life of their followers. We have little reason to approach religious traditions in a mood of romantic enthusiasm.
Our study, however, is an attempt, to consider the religious quest of humankind in its better manifestations. Even those of us who have legitimate reservations about certain aspects of religions should learn to affirm and to relate to what is of value in the life and witness of their devotees. That is why the study is not so much about other faiths as our own; it is about how we may understand our faith better as we live with friends and neighbours who follow other faiths. All religions have a theology of other "religions", whether expressed or not, and today we are all under pressure to review it, relate more positively to people of other faiths and grow in togetherness and community.
We invite you, then, to join us in this exploration, in the common quest for a relevant and meaningful relationship with people of other faiths. The task is not easy; it takes courage both to think and relate in new ways. We hope that you will enjoy being part of the company of Christians engaged in this search in many parts of the world.