The word ecumenism itself became prevalent after the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. Delegates from missionary organizations met to address the incongruity—and scandal, no less—of historically divided and competing Christian denominations preaching a message of peace and harmony among non-Christian peoples. The World Council of Churches, the primary organizational outgrowth of the Edinburgh Conference that currently comprises more than 330 communions in over 120 countries, applies "ecumenical" to all that relates to the whole task of the whole unifying church to bring the message of Christ to the whole world.
This inhabited earth that was the point of departure for what it is to be ecumenically minded is becoming ever more interconnected and "smaller" as a result of dramatic technological advances in communications and mobilization. Whatever threatens or is of advantage to some carries embedded repercussions for all. The past half-century also witnesses to a slowly evolving consensus on what constitutes authentic human life. (The United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a significant moment at the beginning of this process.) With the emergence of these phenomena collectively known as "globalization," there is a growing awareness in all religions that to be religious is to be interreligious; also, that each religion bears the responsibility to contribute to human security, justice, peace, planetary well being, and the development of a global ethic. Attenuation of the role that religions play as an intensifying factor in regional social conflicts and the increasing incidence of interreligious marriages further accent the need for improved interreligious relations.
Globalization "opens out" the concept of ecumenism beyond its original identity as an intra-Christian concern for unity to include the sense of mutual understanding and reconciliation among all the world's religions. The World Council of Churches stipulated dialogue as the most appropriate method to foster improved interreligious relationships at its 1967 consultation in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Stephen J. Duffy elucidates the dimensions of interreligious dialogue:
- Dialogue of life and hospitality, in which people living in open neighborliness share joys and sorrows, problems and concerns.
- Dialogue of concerned service that promotes collaboration for the integral development of all persons and a more humane world.
- Dialogue of religious experience, in which persons firmly grounded in their own traditions share their spiritual riches, prayer life, contemplation, and ways of searching for the absolute.
- Dialogue of doctrinal exchange, in which specialists seek deeper understanding of the doctrines and practices of other heritages as well as their own to establish a communion of horizons arrived at through critical evaluations, correctives, and above all, through the openness of all to change in a shared quest for truth and identity.
These dialogues are intended to assist in breaking down prejudices and misconceptions accumulated over centuries. They enrich, enlarge, challenge, and correct the way some religions have understood and approached religious life in other traditions.
The World Council of Churches' interreligious subunit lists the following as being among its foci: multireligious reflection on secularization; the role of religion in public life and the challenges of religious plurality; Christian-Jewish-Muslim dialogue on the issue of Jerusalem; Hindu-Christian dialogue on issues such as proselytization, religious extremism, and caste; and Christian-Muslim forums on human rights.
The Roman Catholic Church, though not a member of the World Council of Churches, committed to the ecumenical enterprise unreservedly two years before the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) was called into session. In 1960 Pope John XXIII established the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, renamed the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity by Pope John Paul II in 1988. Pope Paul VI established the Secretariat for Non-Christians in 1964, re named the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue by Pope John Paul II in 1988.
The following catalog illustrates the fact that impetus for improved interreligious relations is not derived from solely Christian initiatives and responses.
His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner, freely offers direction on Buddhism's spiritual path to enlightenment that entails the three higher trainings of wisdom, meditation, and moral living. The majority of the path's foundational precepts are monastic in nature; thus it is that believers that identify with religions possessing monastic traditions find a ready dialogue partner in Buddhism with regard to this particular religious aspect. Establishments that serve the dialogues of life, religious experience, and academic exchange that involve Buddhist participation include the following: The Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue in Sri Lanka; Inter-Religio, a network of institutions in eight East Asian countries; the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture in Japan; the bulletin published by Monastic Interreligious Dialogue. The "dialogue of concerned service" is an emerging new frontier as witnessed by the success of a 1996 conference, "Socially Engaged Buddhism and Christianity," sponsored by the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies. This fifth international conference of the society included such noted Asian Buddhist leaders as the Dalai Lama, Maha Ghosananda from Cambodia, Sulak Sivaraksa from Thailand, and A. T. Ariyaratne from Sri Lanka, as well as leaders from the Japanese Rissho Kosei-kai and Soka Gakkai movements, and the Korean Chogye Buddhist Order.
Issues between the two main types of Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism of South and Southeast Asia and Mahayana Buddhism of Tibet and East Asia, reflect a universal human tendency to advocate either a literalist-conservative regard for tradition (Theravada Buddhism) or a more open-ended, experimental and expansive handling of tradition (Mahayana Buddhism).
Philosopher-statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888–1975) was a particularly powerful advocate for a "dialogue of religions" while at Oxford in the early 1930s. Presently, Seshagiri Rao, general editor of the forthcoming Encyclopedia on Hinduism, is an active promoter of interreligious dialogue. Foundations that embody religious intercourse between Hinduism and Christianity include The North American Board for East-West Dialogue and the European Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique (same as the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, mentioned above), both founded in 1978, and the Society for Hindu-Christian Studies, founded in 1994.
Hindus and Muslims have lived together in the subcontinent of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh for over a millennium. The story of their coexistence is one of frequent and violent bloodletting. Here the main ecumenical challenge is to convince that dialogue is even possible. Hinduism initially encountered Islam as the religion of conquerors, and this fact continues to condition the reflexive reaction that some individual Hindus have toward Muslims in general. Yet the "dialogue of life" continues by the very fact of their juxtaposed and intermingled lives. Courageous visionaries who espy possibilities for the full range of dialogical types issue the call to fellow Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs alike to acknowledge and celebrate their commonalities (for example, their love of intellectual pursuits, the arts, and literature) while forging a common effort to raise the quality of life in that part of the world.
The three principle Hindu branches of Vaishnavism, Saivism, and Shaktism have at times each splintered into sectarianism at their outermost reaches; at those points, Hindus who embody their religion's renowned characteristics of toleration, inclusiveness, and ease amidst conditions of plurality are challenged to come to the fore.
"Historically, Muslims have had little or no interest in interreligious dialogue even with other believers in God, including the 'Ahl-al kitab' ('People of the Book'—Jews and Christians) … [Muslims] have, in general, taken the truth of Islam to be self-evident and have not expressed any great interest in having an open-ended philosophical and theological dialogue with people of other faiths," writes Riffat Hassan. Hassan then registers the point that the universal quality of the Islamic truth as affirmed in the Koran should condition reception of non-Muslims for the purpose of constructive dialogue (in Swidler, 415–416). Indeed, representatives of the Muslim World Congress, the World Muslim League, and the World Islamic Call Society have met regularly with representatives of the Vatican and the World Council of Churches. The Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies, established in 1994 in Amman, Jordan, provides a venue for interdisciplinary study and rational discussion of religion and religious issues, with particular reference to Christianity in Arab and Islamic societies.
Trust building with Jews is a crucial issue. In the early 1990's Dr. Gutbi Ahmed, the former North American director of the Muslim World League, called for cooperation between Muslim and Jewish communities for the good of society. Joint efforts leading to trust building that can affect the world at large are rightly promoted, not as a luxury, but as an immediate necessity.
As with other religions, Islam itself exhibits diversity in interpretations and expressions, and is an incubator for both dynamic growth and internal conflict. The distinctions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims are subtle but very real. They have hurled the charge "Worse than the infidels" against one another. When and where they can peacefully coexist is primarily a matter of political rather than religious exigency; this reality places in relief the value of emphasizing their common religiosity whenever the traditional alarm-cry "Islam in Danger!" is sounded. Behind the bold headlines, a quieter revolution in discourse and activism is transpiring as Muslims, like Christians and Jews, struggle with the challenges of secularism and materialism.
Spokespersons from Judaism in ecumenical forums attest to a sense of speaking in Galuth, that is, in exile. A primary task of these representatives is to stress that Judaism is a living, complexifying religion not to be simply equated with the religion of the Hebrew Scriptures. Judaism must be defined by Jews themselves rather than by others who speak from a majority position and who have little or no sense of exile. For this reason Jewish ecumenical initiatives are numerous, and a high degree of presence is maintained in multilateral dialogues worldwide.
Relations with Christians vastly improve wherever there is real and perceivable growth in awareness of the horrors of the Shoah (Holocaust) of the World War II period, and in detection and condemnation of anti-Semitic attitudes among church members. Bilateral Bible studies also contribute to enhanced relations. This writer's personal experience with meeting Jewish initiative was in assisting Catholic-based Villanova University to join Jewish-based Gratz College in establishing the "I Am Joseph, Your Brother" partnership program in Jewish studies for Christian educators (1996–1999). Another fine, and continuing, example of academic cooperation is the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College.
Of course, there are diverse ways of being Jewish: Reformed, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructed, secular, Yiddish ethnic, and Zionist among them. The image of Jacob wrestling with the stranger (Genesis 32: 23–32) has been employed to portray the dynamic of Jewish internal and external relations. The stranger blesses and changes Jacob's name to Israel, meaning "he who has wrestled with God and human beings and prevails." Adherence to Judaism continues in internal dialogues on the meaning of being a Jew and in interfaith dialogue on improved human relations. (World Religions Today, p. 178.)