What does ecumenism have to offer the postmodern world? How do major religions of the world work together in the spirit of ecumenism? How does ecumenism embrace new reemerging, indigenous traditions? To find an answer to these questions, let us first look to the word “ecumenism,” its roots and its evolution to the present day.
According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, the word “ecumenism” comes from a family of classical Greek words: oikos, meaning a “house,” “family,” “people” or “nation;” oikoumene, “the whole inhabited world,” and oikoumenikos, “open to or participating in the whole world.” The early ecumenical movement in Christianity is a child of the Reformation. Since the splitting of Christianity into multiple sects, there have been attempts to bring the “family” together again into one united “house” and to become one united “people.” Since 1948, the World Council of Churches is the main organization that has been responsible for fostering Christian unity in the world.
In the decade of the 1960’s, the ecumenical movement became filled with the energy and passion characteristic of this period of great social change in America. Ecumenical efforts started out simple and grew. Initially, Catholic and Reform clergy began to socialize together. Priests and ministers started holding congregational meetings to educate their parishioners about a new idea called “ecumenism.” Later, Protestant ministers and Catholic priests were invited to give joint lectures about their traditions and to speak at length about their respective worship styles, liturgies and belief systems. Communities began to sponsor interfaith dinners. Interfaith services began to be held. These were all positive developments for faith traditions that a few years earlier had barely tolerated each other.
In addition to ecumenism evolving in Christian communities, the era of the 1960’s was breaking down barriers and posing new religious challenges; for example, the Anti-War Movement, the Women’s Movement and the Environmental Movement to name a few. Americans soon saw strange people dressed in orange robes, who they called “Hare Krishnas,” chanting and dancing at airports and in the downtowns of major U.S. cities. They heard about a peaceful looking man called the Dali Lama, who had just lost his home in a faraway land. They watched on their television sets Buddhist monks in crimson robes setting themselves on fire in protest over the Vietnam War. An Eastern group calling themselves “Moonies” tried to enlist converts on American city streets. Eastern gurus established rural communities in Iowa and Oregon. One of the Beatles traveled to the East to visit a “spiritual master.” A Zen retreat center on the coast of California became a desired “destination.” Meditation and yoga began to be incorporated into the lifestyles of many Americans. The East was meeting the West and, at the same time, indigenous spiritualities were beginning to reemerge. Where did ecumenism fit in this new spiritual landscape? To find an answer to this question, let us look to two sources: Christian Theologian Matthew Fox and to a leader in the interfaith community.
Fox gives us a broader definition of ecumenism in his book “One River, Many Wells” where he writes, “there is one underground river but there are many wells into that river; for example, a Christian well, a Buddhist well, a Jewish well, a Muslim well, an Aboriginal Well, a Taoist well, a Goddess well. Many wells, one river. That is Deep Ecumenism.” (1) Matthew Fox, “One River, Many Wells” (New York: Tarcher/Penguin Books, 2000) 5. (Deep Ecumenism and “Ecumenism of the Deep Well” are terms used interchangeably in this writing.) Deep ecumenism is a paradigm shift that more aptly addresses the religious pluralism of the present day and leads one into the world of interfaith which is the practical application of deep ecumenism.
According to Rev. Will McGarvey, a Presbyterian minister who heads an Interfaith Council in northern California, the dialoguing and mutual sharing that took place between the various Christian groups in the 1960’s, laid the groundwork for the interfaith movement that emerged in the 1970’s. In the following years, an interfaith movement has grown and matured. There is now an interfaith infrastructure in America that is made up of networks of interfaith organizations on the regional, state and national levels. According to Rev. McGarvey, the goal of interfaith work is the living out of shared values as people representing the various faith traditions and to speak from these common values, especially in protecting the vulnerable in society. (2) (Rev. McGarvey Interview February 1, 2018) Interfaith is deep ecumenism at work in the world.
Today the religious landscape in America and abroad reflects Christians, Jews and Muslims joining with the Eastern faith traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism and other world traditions in the sharing of core values and in working towards establishing relationships based on mutual respect and understanding. Attempts have also been made to help bring indigenous and nature-based spiritualities into the interfaith world and to give them a voice in the sharing of core values. Interfaith settings are diverse and encompass every aspect of life; for example, youth and young adult programs; airport, hospital, hospice and nursing home interfaith chaplaincies; an Interfaith Worker Justice Program; an Interfaith Power and Light Program; an Interfaith Democratic Rights Program to name a few. (3) (The Interfaith Infrastructure: Citizenship and Leadership in the Multireligious City. http://pluralism.org/interfaith/report/)
On the congregational level, inspiring programs based on deep ecumenism are being established. One such program is the Neighbor-to-Neighbor partnership (N2N) founded by Elder Terence Clark of Lafayette Presbyterian Church in Northern California. Clark was able to interest the local synagogue and local Islamic Center in joining him to bring the three Abrahamic faith traditions together to create an interfaith community based on mutual respect and understanding. (Clark Interview March 17, 2018) Similarly, in western Omaha, negotiations over sharing a parking lot led to Christians, Jews and Moslems crossing the faith divide and engaging in dialogue and cooperation and eventually establishing the Tri-Faith Neighborhood Project. (4) (http:/pluralism.org/case-study/an-invitation-to-a-tri-faith-neighborhood-b/) These two projects serve as wonderful examples and templates for what can be done at the grassroots level to help bring about mutual respect and understanding between the faith traditions. In addition to sharing core values, these programs work hard to educate the participants in cross-faith understanding and to create an environment which facilitates social bonding.
Another wonderful example of deep ecumenism is how our major faith traditions are coming together to help and support indigenous peoples in their fight for their lands and their rights. A recent example is when Christian clergy and Jewish rabbis joined in coalition with environmentalists and representatives from the various Indian tribes involved to help save Bears Ears, a 1.35 million acre protected area in southeast Utah that was being threatened by Governmental development. (5) (Connie Larkman, UCC clergy, interfaith leaders join native people to protect sacred site in Utah November 20, 2017. (http://www.ucc.org/news-ucc-clergy-interfaith-leader-join-native-people-to-protect-sacred-si) On another occasion, June 19, 2017 marks the first time that religious leaders representing twenty-one countries as well as the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Daoist religions came together to work in unison with indigenous people to end deforestation and protect the planet’s tropical rainforests.
(6) (Religious leaders join interfaith rainforest initiative in Oslo today. June 19, 2017. (https://www.oikoumene.org/en/press-centre/news/religious-leaders-join…) There was another “first time” that occurred in February of 2018 in Vienna when 200 religious leaders from the Middle East met at a conference to affirm social cohesion and peaceful coexistence in the Arab region between Christians, Jews and Muslims. (7) (http://www.oikoumene.org/en/press-centre/news/christian-jewish-and-muslim-leaders-in-vi..)
According to the Harvard Pluralism Project, there is positive reflection taking place among various Christian denominations regarding religious diversity. The Presbyterians, for example, have the document “Interfaith Relations Denominational Principles and Policies” to guide them. Other faith traditions have created their own documents to address religious pluralism as well. (8) (“From Diversity to Pluralism.” http://pluralism.org/encounter/todays-challenges/from-diversity-to-pluralism/)
The seminary level responsible for the training of priests, rabbis and ministers is also broadening to include deep ecumenism. The future priest, minister, or rabbi will need to be well versed in the other major religions in addition to being a good counselor and spiritual leader. Many predict that within the next ten years monotheistic trialogues will develop more and more frequently. (9) (http://pluralism.org/research-report/jewish-interfaith-endeavors-academic-programs/)
On a broader level, deep ecumenism is at work in the areas of intergroup apology, forgiveness and reconciliation. Age-old divides are being crossed between Christian denominations as well as between major faith traditions. A recent example of the former is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 when not only the gifts of the Reformation were celebrated but the pain and suffering perpetrated by all sides was lamented. Catholics and mainline Protestants are now facing the future together. (10) (www.thetrumpet.com/16392-catholics and protestants commemorate the reformation) Intergroup apology among religious groups gives hope for a future based on religious respect, cooperation and the sharing of core values.
The following is a small sample of religious divides that have been crossed in recent years: (1) The Evangelical Lutheran Church apologized for the antisemitism of Martin Luther and the harm perpetrated against the Jews in his name. (2) The Pope apologized for Catholic prejudice and dehumanization of Jews and Muslims and he also apologized for the Crusades and slavery. (3) Cardinal John O’Connor apologized for the pain inflicted on the Jews by many Catholics over the millennium. (4) France’s Catholic clergy apologized for their silence during the Holocaust. Clergy asked for the Jewish people to hear their repentance. (5) Nine Protestant churches sought forgiveness for the sin of division by seeking to unify their twenty-two million members around a campaign to fight racism. (6) The United Methodists apologized for the 1864 massacre of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians which had been led by a Methodist minister. According to Samuel P. Oliner, in his book “Altruism, Intergroup Apology, Forgiveness and Reconciliation,” he wrote, “although some of them [apologies] are of dubious quality, and the long-term results of most are still in doubt, we are heartened by the fact that so many are finding the apology and forgiveness process of merit.” (11) Samuel P. Oliner. “Altruism, Intergroup Apology, Forgiveness and Reconciliation. (St. Paul MN: Paragon House, 2008) pp. 245-249.
The prominent Buddhist leader, The Dali Lama, reminds us in his writings how we now live in an interdependent world and that the quality that is needed in order for the human species to survive is cooperation. The narratives that were included in this writing are just a small sampling of the world’s religions sharing core values in new ways. They are a bellwether projection of how deep ecumenism will define the religious landscape of the future. Modern-day physics tells us that on a subatomic level, all of life is interconnected. Modern-day economists tell us that the world’s economies are all interwoven. Modern-day democracies seek unity out of diversity. Modern-day technology has created a worldwide web of connectivity – cooperation, interconnectedness, interwoven, unity out of diversity, and connectivity. These are the qualities we also need today when speaking of our faith traditions. Just as the interweaving of modern-day economies bodes well for a more peaceful world, so too does the interweaving of our faith traditions bode well for a more peaceful world. The arc of human progress is a long one and, despite present day religious intolerance and violence both at home and abroad, it appears to be pointing to a species that is evolving towards being “interconnected” and to faith traditions that are evolving towards being “interconnected” as well. The bellwether signs seem to be pointing to the fact that people of faith are being called to be an “intra” people and an “inter” people. They are being called to be an “ecumenical” people and a people of “deep ecumenism.” They are being called to be an “oikos” people and a people of the “well.” They are being called to a new religious pluralism that is not only a pathway to peace between religious traditions but a pathway to peace in the world.
1. Matthew Fox, “One River, Many Wells” (New York: Tarcher/Penguin Books, 2000) 5.
2. (Rev. McGarvey Interview February 1, 2018)
3. (The Interfaith Infrastructure: Citizenship and Leadership in the Multireligious City. http://pluralism.org/interfaith/report/)
5. (Connie Larkman, UCC clergy, interfaith leaders join native people to protect sacred site in Utah November 20, 2017. (http://www.ucc.org/news-ucc-clergy-interfaith-leader-join-native-people-to-protect-sacred-si)
6. (Religious leaders join interfaith rainforest initiative in Oslo today. June 19, 2017. (https://www.oikoumene.org/en/press-centre/news/religious-leaders-join…)
8. (“From Diversity to Pluralism.” http://pluralism.org/encounter/todays-challenges/from-diversity-to-pluralism/)
10. (www.thetrumpet.com/16392-catholics and protestants commemorate the reformation)
11. Samuel P. Oliner. “Altruism, Intergroup Apology, Forgiveness and Reconciliation. (St. Paul MN: Paragon House, 2008) pp. 245-249.