By Dr. Andrew Wilson, Editor
We live in an ecumenical age. The progress in transportation
and communication that has brought all the peoples of the world into one
global village has also brought the religions of the world into close
contact. Just half a century ago, Christians living in North America might
never have met a Muslim or a Buddhist throughout their whole lives; in
ignorance they could believe that such people were heathen and in dire
need of salvation. Muslims in Syria, or Buddhists in Thailand, could as
easily hold a similar view of the foreign religions that occasionally
intruded upon their lands. But today Western cities teem with immigrants
from Asia and Africa bearing their native faiths, and our commercial and
political affairs connect us with all nations. A movement for a "wider
ecumenism" has begun, bringing together for dialogue leaders and scholars
from all the world's religions. Theologians of all faiths are affirming
the positive worth of other religions and seeking to overcome the
prejudice of an earlier time. It is now widely recognized that humanity's
search for God, or for the Ultimate Reality, called by whatever name, is
at the root of all religions.
The first step toward appreciating other religions is to understand each
on its own terms. Each religion has its own spiritual depth; each gives
its own distinctive answers to many of the fundamental questions which
trouble human existence. To this end, most religion textbooks treat each
major religion in turn, and most anthologies present selections from the
world's scriptures religion by religion. However, by treating each
religion separately, these texts and anthologies tend to emphasize
differences and overlook similarities. They may give the impression that
each religion stands alone as an independent system and a different way of
knowing and being. Thus the variety of religions would appear to be a
testimony to the relativity of human beliefs rather than to the existence
of the one Absolute Reality which stands behind all of them.
Interfaith dialogue in our time is going beyond the first step of
appreciating other religions to a growing recognition that the religions
of the world have much in common. The Christian participant may find
something in Islam, for example, that can deepen his or her Christianity,
and the Muslim participant may find something instructive from the
teachings of Buddhism. The common ground between religions becomes more
apparent as the dialogue partners penetrate beneath superficial
disagreements in doctrine.
Today the call for a "world theology" has been sounded by many scholars,
explain that religions are not tight and consistent philosophical systems.
While a particular religion may have certain predominant themes, it
must--as the foundation of a culture--be broad enough to inform all
aspects of human experience. Hence every religion has, within its own
borders, considerable diversity of belief and practice. The variety of
ways of being human religiously cut across the religions: the Roman
Catholic mystic, the seeker of Brahman through Hindu Vedanta, and the Zen
Buddhist monk may have more in common with one another than with the
members of the fundamentalist movements of their own traditions, and
fundamentalist Christians, Jews, and Muslims may similarly find common
ground not shared by their more mystically oriented counterparts.
In addition, historians of religions now recognize that the religious
traditions of the world did not grow up in isolation; they have enriched
one another in diverse ways at many significant points of contact. Hence
it is inadequate to treat religions as discrete and independent entities.
We must seek new, holistic models to describe the human religious
experience. We may even, like Hick, speak of a coming "Copernican
revolution" in religion that recognizes a unity underlying all religions.
To discern the shape of this underlying unity is the end towards which
World Scripture has been compiled.