The Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin, is marking the midpoint of its three-year research project this week with a conference, ‘From World Mission to Interreligious Witness: Visioning Ecumenics in the 21st Century.’
The conference is recognising the centenary of the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference, which is considered the birth of the modern ecumenical movement. Prof. Linda Hogan, Head of the Irish School of Ecumenics, opened the conference on Wednesday by acknowledging that ecumenical heritage. But she noted that the concept of ‘mission’ articulated at Edinburgh has become problematic in our pluralising, globalising world.
So one of the aims of the conference has been to move beyond the usual critiques of ‘mission’ to consider and articulate alternatives for Christians – and indeed people of other faiths – in expressing their faith in the public spheres of nations near and far.
To that end, the conference has brought global debates and perspectives to Ireland, featuring prominent theologians from Europe, North and South America, Asia and Oceania.
One of the more memorable contributions came from Prof. Felix Wilfred of the School of Philosophy and Religious Thought at the State University of Madras. In a lecture titled ‘From World Mission to Global Christianities Today,’ Wilfred prompted the audience to consider what could be learned from the experiences of Christians in the global south.
Wilfred said that Christianities in the south have experienced three overlapping moments:
- the liberation moment,
- the Pentecostal moment,
- and the inter religious (or religious encounter) moment.
Wilfred acknowledged that these ‘moments’ have at times bred exclusivist or destructive religious forms (such as the prosperity gospel). But he claimed that these three moments are coming together and could enrich the faiths of the world with their particular insights.
For example, the liberation moment brings a focus on what God does among the poor and the marginalised, including women. The Pentecostal moment reminds us of the importance of the experiential dimension of religious life. And the interreligious moment allows people to gain spiritual insights from other faiths.
One of the respondents to Wilfred’s paper, Prof. Kajsa Ahlstrand of the University of Uppsala, noted that Wilfred’s vision was perhaps overly optimistic. Yet she pointed out that Western Christians increasingly value experience over doctrine, the pursuit of justice and beauty, and the inclusion of people of other religions in the public sphere.
In that light, Wilfred’s summation of future directions for global ecumenism made a lot of sense. He said:
- The aim of ecumenism is not to create unity, rather it is to facilitate the dialogue of many Christianities and other religions
- Shared experiences and religious practices – not shared doctrines – can further ecumenism
- Today mission is dialogue between all religions, meaningful interaction that moves beyond the Enlightenment tradition of tolerance towards an experience of living harmoniously together
The conference continues tomorrow, with further discussion of how ecumenism is changing both in Ireland and further afield.