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An Evolving Dialogue for Promoting the Global Ethic

From 'What' to 'How'

An Evolving Dialogue for Promoting the Global Ethic 

by Paul Chaffee

If the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago made history by opening the door to interreligious relationships, the 1993 Centennial Parliament made history by endorsing and promoting Towards a Global Ethic – An Initial Declaration. The title makes a tacit confession that the ethic as conceived is not perfect but a starting point for us all. The document is an anguished cry of the heart that goes on to provide guidelines and a plan for a future where humankind has learned mutual respect and good will. The Global Ethic offers a shared vision of a reconciled world.

But the document lacks an address, or phone number, or an e-mail address. We don’t have a directory, a budget or staff to promulgate these values and goals. So how do we move it forward, embedding the Ethic in our DNA and beginning to see it flourish among people everywhere? Hans Küng, the lead author of the Declaration, offers a clue. He famously said, “There will be no human life without a world ethic for the nations, no peace among nations until there is peace among religions, and no peace among religions without dialogue among religions [bolding added].”


Thousands have taken the clue, turning to dialogue, buttressed by the Golden Rule, as the secret sauce for embodying the Global Ethic. Küng has devoted himself since then to promoting the Ethic. In 1995, two years following the Parliament, he launched the Global Ethic Foundation. Its mission is to promote intercultural and interreligious studies; to implement intercultural and interreligious education, and to support intercultural and interreligious encounter. The Foundation also supports a large multi-lingual digital platform, A Global Ethic Now, about everything concerning the Global Ethic.

In short, over the past 25 years interfaith dialogue curricula have become a cottage industry. First though, it’s worth noting that the study and practice of ‘interfaith dialogue’ has had a singular history since the 1993 Parliament. In the process we are moving from the ‘what’ of global ethics to ‘how’ it can begin to transform the world.

Catholic Scholars Ahead of Their Time

Leonard Swidler – Photo:    Wikipedia

Leonard Swidler – Photo: Wikipedia

Many have championed the Global Ethic by focusing on dialogue, but no one with more passion and persistence than Professor Leonard Swidler. Like Küng, Swidler is a Catholic theologian. He has been on the faculty of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania since 1966. He was one of the team of scholars who worked with Küng in preparing the Declaration for the 1993 Parliament.

In 1964 he and his wife Arlene co-founded the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, a distinguished peer-reviewed publication dedicated to interreligious dialogue, the first of its kind and still publishing. Swidler has written 80 books, many about interreligious issues. He founded the internationally active Dialogue Institute in 1978 and remains its president. An outgrowth of the Journal, it is dedicated to the principle that “dialogue flourishes through interpersonal relationships grounded in trust, mutual respect, and a common search for understanding.”

Two years prior to the 1993 Parliament, Swidler had already published After the Absolute: the Dialogical Future of Religious Reflection. It is a scholarly examination of what dialogue means in the various religions of the world. He went on to spend much of his career leading workshops on how we might live into and even improve the 1993 Declaration. At 89 years of age today, he continues on the faculty at Temple. Perhaps most usefully, in 1984 Professor Swidler crafted the “Dialogue Decalogue,” a kind of ten commandments, or “principles” as they were later called, for generating trustworthy, vital dialogue between religious strangers. In brief, it suggests that:

  • The primary purpose of dialogue is to learn; that is, to change and grow in the perception and understanding of reality, and then to act accordingly.
  • Inter-religious, inter-ideological dialogue must be a two-sided project within each religious or ideological community and between religious or ideological communities.
  • Each participant must come to the dialogue with complete honesty and sincerity.
  • In inter-religious, inter-ideological dialogue we must not compare our ideals with our partner’s practice, but rather our ideals with our partner’s ideals, our practice with our partner’s practice.
  • Each participant must define himself... Conversely, the interpreted must be able to recognize herself in the interpretation.
  • Each participant must come to the dialogue with no hard-and-fast assumptions as to where the points of disagreement are.
  • Dialogue can take place only between equals... Both must come to learn from each other.
  • Dialogue can take place only on the basis of mutual trust.
  • Persons entering into inter-religious, inter-ideological dialogue must be at least minimally self-critical of both themselves and their own religious or ideological traditions.
  • Each participant eventually must attempt to experience the partner’s religion or ideology ‘from within’; for a religion or ideology is not merely something of the head, but also of the spirit, heart, and ‘whole being,’ individual and communal.

Some might think this prescription a bit cold and academic, with an over-abundance of “must this” and “must that” for a map about engendering friendly trust between strangers. The level of intense mistrust among so many religious strangers perhaps justifies Swidler’s didactic tone.

In 1997 Patrice Brodeur, another Catholic academic who has dedicated his life to improving interfaith relations around the world, published a short document titled “Rights, Responsibilities and Gifts of Dialogue” in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, founded by the Swidlers. In TIO’s first issue, in September 2011, Patrice’s article was republished, a one-pager that can inspire an entire course in deep dialogue. Today Brodeur has 30 years of experience in the area of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, primarily as a much-awarded academic researcher and educator, and now as Senior Advisor at KAICIID, one of the largest interfaith ventures in the world.

Appreciative Inquiry and Interfaith Dialogue

A cold call from an organizational development professor in Cleveland, Ohio to the Episcopal Diocese of San Francisco, California ended up changing interfaith dialogue internationally. In short, the call meant that the formation and development of United Religions Initiative (URI) would be shaped and guided by Appreciative Inquiry (AI). AI is a methodology, though some call it a philosophy, and I’d call it miraculous. It has upended the organizational development sector around the world. Leaving aside ‘problems’ and problem-solving, AI focuses on sharing the best experiences we’ve had (with interreligious encounter, for instance) and the highest visions we share about the matter, as an approach to dissolving (rather than solving) problems and working collaboratively on shared goals.

David Cooperrider, who made that phone call from Cleveland, founded, better say, discovered AI and has inspired now thousands of appreciative projects around the world. That call more than 30 years ago led to a long-term relationship that guaranteed URI would be an appreciative organization practicing appreciative communication skills in bringing people together people from different traditions.

The numbers today tell the story. With new Circles joining every month, 913 URI Cooperation Circles (including TIO) in 104 countries are thriving, networked interfaith organizations, building relationships and sharing resources. The level and power of interfaith dialogue has never been higher or more broadly delivered, and the tough issues of scalability are being successfully addressed as the movement grows. Birth of a Global Community: Appreciative Inquiry in Action (2003) by Charles Gibbs and Sally Mahe, is a detailed study of how AI helped shape the formation of this dynamic international interfaith enterprise. Fifteen years later someone should be thinking about volume two! (For an extended discussion of Appreciative Inquiry and religious communities, see my “Unafraid of the Light.”)

In an arena as huge as interfaith dialogue, many different ways of generating engagement are going to succeed. Global interfaith activity has been notoriously spontaneous – more grassroots-driven than institutional – and that is all to the good. Rather than seeing Appreciative Inquiry, for instance, as the sine qua non approach to interfaith dialogue, it is a pleasure to see how in various environments and practices, appreciative work is being done in a variety of ways that bring us closer to living up to the Global Ethic.


TIO reviewed Learning to Live Well Together last December, the story of turning disagreements into collaborative friendship in Leicester, UK. TIO returns to Leicester this month for an interview with Tom Wilson, co-author of the book. Put the leaders of St Patrick’s Centre in Leicester and the leaders of URI into a room and they’ll recognize each other almost immediately. They will see themselves in each other, bonding and picking up tips along the way. They are both moving from the ‘what’ to the ‘how’ of the Global Ethic.  

As mentioned, a cottage industry is generating interfaith dialogue curricula today, whether you’re talking about kids or global powers. With so much going on in this arena, Scarboro Missions, before it closed late last year, blessed us all by digitally publishing about 40 curated interfaith dialogue curricula. These were selected from hundreds of other guides, represent the cream of the crop, and are offered electronically for free. Thank you, Scarboro! A huge asset for Global Ethic education.

It is gratifying to see how many different ways interfaith dialogue enlivens community. Never have the challenges to the Global Ethic been more intense and troubling than they are today. But then again, never has the toolbox of Global Ethic activists been so full or the number of compatriots in the cause more abundant.