Memories Ecumenical and Interreligious

My interest in ecumenical unity and interreligious plurality grew a great deal when I first lived in India from 1962-65. Further assignments in that diverse land added anecdotes to memories. These in turn build on foundations, one expressed on a poster of Hans Kung’s quote in eighteen languages, “There will be peace on earth when there is peace among the world religions.” Diana L. Eck, director of Harvard’s “Pluralism Project: World Religions in America,” invites people of faith to better understand 1) religious communities, 2) religious changes, and 3) implications of increased plurality. Mennonite theologian Gordon Kaufman sees God’s requirement of reconciliation with those from whom we are estranged as central to the Christian message.

When I sensed discord between Roman Catholics and Protestants in rural sections of India, I wondered about the message conveyed. Although Hindu families or village groups worshiped different forms of the One God, competition did not seem to be a strong issue. Paying allegiance to or honoring several forms of God simultaneously, they could draw the Divine Essence needed from each form. Perhaps locals were less confused by Christianity’s splintered denominations because they accept the Many as part of Oneness, I mused. That stance differs greatly from imposing one option over others. As I pondered apparent Christian divisions, my ecumenical urge raised discontent with particular loyalties that lead to uncharitable divisions. Also puzzled by what seemed to be Christian fears of compromise, my desire for interreligious exchange grew.

During one summer assignment, my husband and I ate a restaurant meal each week with science and math teaching staff of the University of Jabalpur, located in central India. Conversation often turned to themes of religion. As chunks of cheese melted in the warm minestrone soup, we readily exchanged views. One Hindu professor and I wondered how my faith in a personal relationship with God differed from his central concept of “seeing and being seen by God” (darshan) or if the difference mattered. At our final luncheon, a teacher Mr. Ahmad gave me a gift: Muhammad Asad’s Islam at the Crossroads. I felt honored even though the book describes a Christian’s shift of loyalty to the Muslim faith. Through that being ‘evangelized’ by a person convinced of his “better way,” I felt neither defensive nor offended. I trusted the One God to accept and engage each of us on our chosen spiritual journeys.

I learned later that God’s work (mission) among living faiths also caused discord during meetings of the International Missionary Council, a series of ecumenical councils begun in 1910. Conflicts could persist between western Christians who have little direct experience with other living faiths and Indian Christians who daily cross faith boundaries. From accounts of the IMC meeting in 1938, I learned: “As to whether the non-Christian religions as total Systems of thought and life may be in some sense or to some degree manifesting God’s revelation, Christians are not agreed.”1 An affirmation proposed in 1983 “ . . . we recognize God’s creative work in the religious experience of people of other faiths” had to be compromised to: “ . . . we recognize God’s creative work in the seeking for religious truth among people of other faiths.”2

To worship with urban and rural Christians in India enlarged my ecumenical awareness. On a Palm Sunday in 1993, thirty people walked or biked, passing people of other faiths, to a Mennonite service in Ranchi, Bihar. Children carried a palm frond shaped into a small cross. With Paul and Esther Kniss, we greeted those gathered with “Jeshu sehai” before and after worship. We sat on back-less planks of wood. Then, in October 1998, I led multiple sessions of the fifth All-India Mennonite Women’s Conference. Transplants of North American Anabaptist family groups appeared as Mennonite Brethren, Mennonite Church, General Conference Mennonite, Brethren in Christ, and United Missionary. Singing and drama were spirited among the hundred and sixty women from five language groups. My English speaking was translated into Hindi. We shared communion—chapati pieces and juice—made special because blessed and served by women. Short on cups, women washed the used ones in metal buckets just outside the tent, until all were served.

Less than three percent of India’s population, Christians of diverse denominations worship. Ecumenical insight emerges through worshiping with them. Whether near temples or mosques, in villages or populous cities, people often appear close to those who suffer. A Delhi Fellowship met in the restaurant area of the top floor of the five-star, Taj Mahal Hotel. Looking out over India’s sandstone government buildings, we heard a sermon based on the premise: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Outside a British-style, Baptist church in Calcutta hung a large sign that celebrates two centuries since missionary William Carey arrived. Inside, seated in armed chairs, Indians heard that day’s German preacher—despite airplanes flying overhead or birds zooming in or out of windows open-shuttered. In Chennai with Methodists, we experienced an insightful service led by blind people, and with Baptists we celebrated the dedication of a new piano. Alongside the gift of music for themselves, members had made donations for flood relief nearby and in Honduras. Memories also linger of worship with Mar Thoma members, those who descend from the preaching of Jesus’ disciple Thomas. Their rituals included extensive liturgy recited by all while standing and incense-filled space. Each speaker first touched the feet of a priest, while being blessed on the forehead.

Over fifty years ago, Anglican, Presbyterian, Congregationalists, and Methodists merged to form CSI. Patterns of worship in Church of South India congregations vary. Integration did not require groups to ignore their distinct heritage, to claim identical views, or to practice the same rituals. At St. Mary’s church that had an Anglican heritage since 1680, the priest served weekly communion to worshipers as we kneeled at the altar. At St. Andrews, with Scottish Presbyterian roots, a brigade of lay elders passed the elements through the pews to five hundred believers, once a month. The Bible was carried in procession to begin and out to end each service. With hymns sung (only words were printed, not music)—and the Word proclaimed, we left sacred settings to witness to God’s grace.

Holidays also promote ecumenical wisdom. On Reformation Day, we staff and students (seated on the tile floor on braided mats) at a Lutheran seminary were challenged by a Roman Catholic priest to claim the One God. On Mission Sunday in 1998, I, a Mennonite from the U.S., spoke in two CSI churches about the German Lutheran Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg. The first Protestant missionary to India, he arrived in 1706. A skillful writer and translator loyal to the Good News, he spoke the common people’s language. He learned from sermons and grammars written by Roman Catholics de Nobili and Henriques, in India before him. He recognized the living piety of those now called Hindu people, endorsed their efforts to reach God, and learned the complex nature of their Bhakti [devotional] religion.

Christians who live next door to people of other living faiths consider how to present Jesus, whether in Asia or North America. Like Ziegenbalg, who absorbed from different cultures, respecting them all, today’s theologically trained Asians share a unique insight into God’s profound Way of inclusion. Trusting and worshiping the Divine who creates and sustains life, they see Jesus as God-centered. His parables describe God; the Way he proclaims points to God’s future, fullness of coming. Jesus invites followers to be God-centered while doing justice on earth. He challenges us to remove suffering and to promote life. Through diversity and vision shared with adherents of other religions and denominations, our task is to free victims.

As the last millennium ended, Christians looked back to events along the Way. In December 1999, the Christian Century noted the top ten religion stories of the millennium (from Religion and Ethics Newsweekly). Seven of the list identify interreligious or ecumenical stories: the Great Schism of 1054 which divided Christianity into Orthodox and Roman Catholic; the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries; the spread of Islam; Martin Luther’s 95 Theses posted in 1517; missionary movements of the 16th, 18th, and 19th centuries; the journey to the New World for religious liberty; and the Holocaust.

Observations and questions follow. Do we realize that Christian history transpired in Asia for one and a half millennium before western Christian missions? Do we welcome listings of key millennial events from Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, or Buddhist perspectives? Most Christians who live in a community long-term become members of one congregation of a particular denomination. That commitment and a church’s program can limit healthy exchange with people loyal to other groups who also follow Jesus the Christ, or who also worship the One God but in diverse ways. Whereas some believers define “being Christian” by the scope of their personal experience, efforts to be ecumenical hold distinct loyalties lightly but deeply within the broad framework of global and local religion.

Christians seek God’s Truth for the twenty-first century. With hope, we move toward unity (or hospitality as Letty Russell suggests) within plurality. In hope, we learn from others—through prayer, study, and conversation. In hope, we together confront causes of suffering endured by people of any or no faith, wherever located. Expressing our sacred trust in Jesus the Christ, Christians heed Kaufman’s counsel: “Only as we find ways of stepping back from . . . features of our traditions (both religious and secular) that wall us off from others, can we hope to come into genuine understanding of and community with them. Building such community with others, it seems to me, is the most profound religious necessity of our time.”3