An important instrument in the ecumenical movement, the WCC’s initiation of a dialogue with people belonging to other religions signaled a willingness to make sense of the fact that “Christians today live out their lives in actual community with people who may be committed to faiths and ideologies other than their own”. It also implies that dialogue “be recognized as a welcome way of obedience to the commandment of the Decalogue: ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor’… not to disfigure the image of our neighbors of different faiths”.
People of Living Faiths
Recognizing that those committed to other religious traditions are people of living faiths is an invitation to Christians to reflect afresh on “what God may be doing in the lives of hundreds of millions of men and women who live in and seek community together with Christians, but along different ways”. “Ideologies”, once part of the program, was dismantled following the collapse of state Socialism in eastern Europe. One could question the decision but from the beginning we responded to the need for good relations between Christians in countries dominated by Marxist ideologies.
An ‘adventure of the churches’
The 1971 Central Committee understood "the engagement of the World Council in dialogue … as a common adventure of the churches". The word adventure takes on several meanings at once. It may mean a hazardous or even questionable undertaking, but it may also signify an unusual or exciting experience. The issue of interreligious relations and dialogue in the history of the World Council of Churches resonates with both meanings of the word ‘adventure’. Interreligious dialogue has always been and will continue to be closely scrutinized. Some Christians fear that such dialogue is equivalent to syncretism or a fusion of religions, but there have also always been Christians for whom dialogue is a way to constructively acknowledge religious plurality and look for ways to take today's context seriously. “More than ever, we sense a growing need not just for dialogue with people of other faiths but for genuine relationships with them. Increased awareness of religious plurality, the potential role of religion in conflict, and the growing place of religion in public life present urgent challenges that require greater understanding and cooperation among people of diverse faiths.” What was considered an adventure almost 35 years ago is a necessity in today’s world of rapid change and globalization.
Different ways of dialogue
If dialogue thirty years ago was mainly associated with formal conversation between two groups, dialogue today is manifest in many different ways. Most common is the dialogue of life that goes on in all pluralistic communities. People of many different faiths - Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists - live and work together sharing a common life. Although these dialogues go unnoticed and are not consciously religious, these encounters help establish solid human relationships. A similar dialogue also takes place where people of different traditions come together to struggle for justice, peace, human rights and other issues that concern society at large.
There are three types of organized dialogue. In the most common forms, multi-lateral and bi-lateral dialogues, representatives come together to explore a subject relevant to the communities concerned such as the relationship of religion to the family, to education, to the state, etc.. In addition to clarifying differences, such dialogues facilitate the building up of trust and openness between religious groups.
A second type of organized dialogue could be called ‘academic dialogue’; exponents of different religious faiths meet and discuss the theological or philosophical bases of their traditions. Genuine attempts are made to arrive at a common appreciation of the way in which each religious tradition has sought to explain and approach reality. Such dialogues help break down century-old prejudices and misconceptions. They enrich, deepen, challenge and correct the way some religions have understood and approached the religious life of other traditions.
Another form of dialogue could be described as ‘spiritual dialogue.’; believers attempt to meet each other, as it were, in the "cave of the heart". They become familiar with each other's spiritual and worship life. Often such dialogues take the form of participating in prayer or mediation. This type of dialogue remains controversial because Christians are not agreed on whether it is possible to participate in the spiritual life of their neighbors without compromising their own faith.
The Office on Interreligious Relations and Dialogue serves the WCC constituency:
• in relations and dialogue with communities of people of other faiths;
• in promoting sustainable relations between Christians and neighbors of other faiths primarily through multi-lateral and bi-lateral dialogue;
• in drawing ecumenical attention to issues of religious plurality and the role of religion in the world today;
• in fostering dialogue among churches and the ecumenical movement on Christian self-understanding in a world of religious plurality;
• in monitoring major trends in religion and in relations between faith communities;
• in providing advice and assistance regarding the interfaith dimension of WCC priorities.