A Rich Agenda Waiting
An Interreligious Moment is Upon Us
by William E. Lesher
Few people have been as involved in promoting the vision and goals of a Global Ethic as William E. Lesher, who died this past January 23 at the age of 85. After 1997, having served as president of three Lutheran seminaries, he devoted the rest of his life to interfaith relations globally. He was involved in the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, and went on to chair its Board of Directors from 2003 to 2010, since when he’s been recognized as a senior statesman on behalf of a healthy, vital interfaith culture.
Five years Bill spoke at Pilgrim Place in Claremont, California on the subject of “The Religions: Their Susceptibilities and Promise.” Excerpted below are his conclusions about the responsibility of religion in seeking peace and cultivating a globally ethical world.
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First, it is important to recognize that the interreligious movement is a global phenomenon. While the movement as we experience it in the U.S. has a distinct Western texture to it, the fact is that interreligious initiatives are coming from around the world. It is well known that the movement here in the U.S. was, in fact, launched by a young Hindu scholar named Swami Vivekananda. Powerfully, persuasively, and profoundly he introduced the wisdom of the East to packed lecture halls at the first Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893.
American Veda, a recent study by Philip Goldberg, documents the extensive influence of Eastern thought on intellectual leaders of our country throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and stimulated the slow but persistent growth of the interreligious movement in our country.
Much more recently, Saudi King Abdulla has hosted three international, interfaith dialogues in the last five years that culminated in 2012 in the founding of the King Abdulla Bin Abdul Aziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna, Austria. The Center is jointly sponsored and managed by Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Austria, with the Vatican acting as “founding observer.”
One of the most extensive interfaith, organizational initiatives is emerging in Africa. IFAPA (Interfaith Action for Peace in Africa), is an organization that covers the continent. In its first ten years, IFAPA has engaged in a variety of development projects, used its moral influence to dislodge a dictator from office in Liberia, and is now engaged in effecting free and fair elections through its interfaith network.
The interreligious idea is loose in the world. It might be one of the most significant developments of our time.
Second, the interreligious movement calls for fresh formulations of the faith in theology and liturgical practice. Roman Catholics led this process 40 years ago with the adoption of the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions – Nostra Aetate. “The Catholic Church rejects nothing,” says the document, “that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all people.”
Here and there, churches are finding ways in worship to express the new interreligious experiences that are taking shape in parish life. At Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, a congregation deeply engaged in interreligious dialogue and practice, fresh language and indeed reformed thinking has found its way even into the celebration of the Eucharist. At the high point of the Eucharistic prayer, at the fraction, the bread is broken, and a cantor chants these poignant words: “We break this bread for those who journey the way of the Hindus, for those who follow the path of the Buddha, for our sisters and brothers of Islam, and for the Jewish people from whom we come, and for all those who walk the way of faith. We break this bread for the earth we have wasted, for those who have no bread, and for ourselves in our brokenness.”
To be sure, a rich agenda awaits anyone who approaches the tasks of theology, liturgy, or parish ministry with a sense of this interreligious moment that is upon us.
Finally, let me comment on what I have referred to as “this interreligious moment that is upon us.” It is real, it is global, and it is growing – for the time being. It has the potential of a reformation of the world’s religions. Needless to say in the interreligious moment we are all in uncharted waters. That makes every religion, every denomination, every local faith community a potential place where the history of the movement is being shaped. There is a sense of urgency and a sense of expectancy about this interreligious moment:
- With growing appreciation for the vast diversity of the religions is there not an emerging sense of oneness of purpose and commitment among people of faith?
- Is it possible that the religions could find a deep and effective bond of harmony (in the spirit of Nostra Aetate) among themselves that could be expressed in a profound common commitment to challenges that threaten humanity today – think poverty, the environment, war and peace?
- Through the interreligious movement, could the convergence of the moral and spiritual forces of the world’s religions craft solutions to some of our most intractable problems where political consensus is impossible – think Israel – Palestine, India – Pakistan, Syria?
Do we dare to envision that the world’s religions could aspire to play such a role in this historic, interreligious moment?
Header Photo: Pxhere