[I am indeed happy that a Seminar on “Widening the Frontiers of Ecumenical Theology” has been organized in connection with the 20th anniversary of the Indian School of Ecumenical Theology (ISET), a programme unity of ECC.I would like to make a brief presentation on the topic, In Search of an Ecumenical Horizon in God’s oikoumene. As Ecumenism is a vision for humanity, a search for wholeness in God’s order of creation is a never ending process. My attempt is to get a glimpse of the Ultimate- Satyam, Sivam and Sundaram, as the component elements for unity in God’s one world. The ministry of ISET provides a theological frame work for ECC to launch out into the deep.]

Let me begin my paper by quoting a few music verses composed by a Filipino singer, Sawa Tome, on the theme, The Line.

Where’s the line between love and hate
Where’s the line between the North and the South
Where’s the line between man and woman
Where’s the line between you and me.

There’s a line, invisible line
Everywhere in this world, everyday in our lives
Where’s the line between war and peace
Where’s the line between adult and child
Where’s the line between black and white
Where’s the line between life and death
The line is me, the line is you.

I am sure the above verses set the tone for a fresh look at the Ecumenical Horizon represented by the ISET in its manifold ministry.

What the world needs today is less of religion as dogma, creed and code, but more of its nectar: spirituality. The spirituality of religion speaks of Christ in relation to the peoples of God and to the order of creation. Shri A.P.J.AbdulKalam, the former president of India, used to remind all the Indians that they should transcend the boundary of religion /denominationalism and reach out to the height of its spirituality.. Spirituality speaks of one’s relationship with others. It is this awareness that helps us to utter the prayer of St.Augustine, “Thou hast created me for thyself; my heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.” In this prayer, Christ the foundation of genuine spirituality, as Christians confess, challenges us to discover the God- given space to grow in love for the unity of all humankind and for the integrity of creation. This perspective of “doing theology” is held very high in all the theological endeavors of the Indian School of Ecumenical Theology right from its inception, “by taking the total context of the world as the text and the context of theologizing today”..

Ecumenism: affirmation of life for all
In the contemporary society, we need to address several issues relating to life and its destiny. To list the major challenges:

  1. The relation between pluralism and human unity
  2. The challenges of economic globalization which marginalize people as unskilled and semi-skilled
  3. A movement from an anthropocentric world view to a bio-centric/ eco-centric attitude to life
  4. Emergence of religious fundamentalism rooted in violence

These issues are basic concerns of people across geographical and cultural boundaries. The concerns of “the whole inhabited earth” (oikoumene) should be the concerns of all people on earth. Very often the term ecumenical is mistakably understood as global. In an article, Dr.Ninan Kosy speaks of the confusion of the terms ecumenical and global. It is to be remembered that global is not universal; not even international. Global link up with globalization is primarily an economic process where marginalization goes along with it. Pope John Paul II, in an encyclical warns us of the danger of globalization, but speaks of its positive sides. So also the Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen. In today’s world, ecumenical movement has to address this question seriously for an affirmation of life in God’s oikoumene. It is intrinsically related to life and livelihood issues.

Ecumenism, popularly known as the unity of the Churches, is a vision for humanity upholding a sense of belonging. How should we transcend barriers of caste, colour, creed, religion and even geographical divide? This is a 100 million dollar question! This has been the burden of the late Rev.Dr.M.A.Thomas, the founder Director of ECC, when the center was established in 1963.The question has been raised and partially answered when the ISET was established in 1988.The generals objective of ISET as formulated by Rev.Thomas is, “to evolve and share a common Christian vision as a sign of our commitment to the Kingdom of God and our pilgrimage in solidarity with humankind towards its fulfillment.”. In articulating an ecumenical vision, the ISET programme dynamics have taken pains to “fostering unity of humankind and all creation by analyzing the divisive and destructive forces at work in the world, by exposing their root causes and proposing ways of healing and reconciliation so as to promote justice with peace and integrity of creation”.

In the Ecunmenical movement, the question of disunity is addressed from the angle of justice and equality. Any ideology that disowns the poor and the wretched of the earth has no place in the Kingdom of God. So also is the negation of a caring attitude to nature. Needless to say those ecumenical values are ecological in their very nature as the Lord’s Prayer which is an ecumenical eulogy speaks for the affirmation of life and for the survival of humankind.

Christian identity spreading its wings:
The unity and renewal of humankind as healing of human brokenness has also to be realized through the fulfillment of the ministry of the Church. The Church is the Eucharistic presence of the Kingdom in the midst of “all that breathes”. The 9th assembly of the WCC had chosen a theocenntric theme, God in your Grace transform the world, with a view to affirming the larger identity of Christian faith in the plural world. One should remember that the Manger at Bethlehem has no doors or windows! So also the way of the cross has no barricades .The One who carried the cross could be met by all without any discrimination as there is no protocol. In the world of today there are several issues which require an answer in the name of Christ. From the point of view of the whole humankind, economic imbalance, security threats, fear of death, social disharmony created by the digital divide, cyber terrorism, rape of the Mother earth, religious fundamentalism, denial of the freedom of dissent, the so-called. It is because we have a vision of the Ecumenical horizon in God’s oikoumene which upholds the basic philosophy of human rights.

Welcoming a Paradigm shift in mission:
The Vatican II has brought the Roman Catholic Church much closer to other Christian traditions and to the world. One may also notice several shifts in its theology of mission. A movement from institutionalism to the being of the church, a shift from Papal monarchy to Episcopal collegiality, hierarchy in relation to people, the relation between the universal and the local, the place of tradition and modernity in Church life, the recognition of the pluralism of religions and its place in the Economy of Salvation, the understanding of the Church as a pilgrim community etc. are indeed significant ecumenical milestones. These are genuine theological issues.

On should be clear in mind that the frontier of the gospel is not between denominations, not between Christianity and other religions, but between truth and falsehood, righteousness and unrightreousness, justice and injustice. In the diaconal ministry of the Church, one may notice a change from charity to diakaiosune.The Christians whether they are Catholic or Orthodox or Protestant or Evangelicals or Reformed, should know that they stand with others. We are part of the crowd, but we point to a fact outside, the fact of Christ (Mathai Zachariah). The Churches should act as a fellowship of seekers after truth. We need to remember that the 21st Century is the age of convergence and comprehension. This is the call of the Spirit in the world today.

The call of the Spirit:
In the post-modern world, the call of the Spirit confronts us with several questions. If Jesus Christ is the “Yes of God” (2Cor.1.19) to the questions of humanity, then we need to ask legitimate questions of our authentic human and non-human existence. In this respect, irrelevance is sin, if the answers are not in tune with the message of God’s Kingdom in our midst. To quote Joe Arun, “Post moderns want us to live a life that resects plurality, celebrates the difference, recognizes the spontaneity, and allow fragmentation. This multi-cultural and multi-religious life is one of dynamic life in which we have no fixed state of life but we need to constantly seek for meaningfulness by the ways in which we live our life generates life for the other.” The challenge of the Spirit in our time is to focus our attention on discipleship. Affirmation of life for all should be the ultimate of goal of mission. It is indeed the celebration of God’s gift of New Humanity in Christ for all. “Follow me” should be heard from all sectors of life.

Not to be carried away by the “waterless clouds”:
In a globalized world, one could find expressions or signs of unity in terms of a mono- culture monitored by the Market forces. The humankind is facing a growing sense of despiritualization when the global corporate interests nursed by the Trans National Corporations and the Information Technology are forging unity at the cost of human values. We need to express our voice of dissent. “In an age of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act”(George Orwell).We need to create not market- friendly people, but people friendly markets. The least and the last and the lost should also find their proper place in the ladder of life. The Churches should speak the language of love, compassion and reconciliation for the sake of Christ and for the glory of God. The Church should be known as a hymn of praise in the name of God. We need to work for the coming of the Kingdom by sharing food and forgiving one another .The call is to welcome one another as God in Christ has accepted us”(Rom.15.7).The Kingdom in our midst is the measure of justice on earth. The church is called upon to affirm with Dr.M.M, .Thomas, “…the divine forgiveness offered to all humankind in Jesus Christ as the source, criterion and goal of all the humanization of society and the universal community which all seek” (The Gospel of Forgiveness, ISPCK/CSS, 1994, p.10).

Holding a prophetic vision and boldness:
The Churches are called upon to discern and define what is authentic to life. The Death dealing powers have to be subdued and defeated in the name of God. . The spirituality of the prophets always comes to our aid and it pleads for truth. While delivering the 14th M. A. Thomas Memorial Lecture, Swami Agnivesh has cautioned the audience with the words of wisdom: “As a religious tradition gets increasingly institutionalized, the priestly begins to dominate and eventually outlaw the prophetic elements in the outlook and culture. The prophetic vision makes life holistic”. The religious scriptures of the world be regarded as the Books that read all people. The divine call is this: The reign of God is to blossom into a community of people, living for one another in mutual openness, love and care. This is the meaning of conversion! In an ecumenical vision, there is always space for the other. The other is not an object to be converted, but a person to be loved and ministered to. For the establishment of Peace on earth, the Christ of the Manger is relevant for all. The time has come for Christians to celebrate Christmas as an inter-faith celebration for the establishment of peace on earth. There should have an earnest search for discovering the spirituality of all the indigenous festivals. Ecumenism of today has to embrace the humanization of all communities rooted in basic values of dharma. The liberative streams of religious and secular traditions have to be appropriated. The secular insight must be given a spiritual orientation. In science and technology of today, religion and science shake hands for human well- being. Ecology and Economics have thus become matters of faith. A caring attitude to nature is integral to the call of Christian discipleship as life is the gift of God.

The Eco-vision of the Earth Community:
In the ministry of ECC, ecology has assumed great importance. The call to live with ecological sensitivity is a divine mandate. As an ecological future is integrally related to the destiny of all, an attitude of humility, gratitude and stewardship makes good sense for a better tomorrow.” In this respect, defending the earth is not a project, but a way of life. The earth does not belong to man, but man belongs to the earth. The recent communiqué of the Vatican without negating the traditional “seven deadly sins” drawn up by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th Century (sloth, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, wrath and pride), the place of ecological sins has been given importance in Christian faith with their overtones of “individual and social resonance”. The words of Jurgan Moltmann are worth remembering: “We shall not be able to achieve social justice without justice for natural environment; we shall not be able to achieve justice for nature without social justice”.

In our search for an ecumenical horizon in God’s world, we need to act as channels of grace and agents of change. We need to ask again and again how best we could become “eyes to the blind and feet to the lame”. For this, one should live with an ecumenical and a religious zeal. Someone has said humorously, “Get religion like a Methodist; experience it like a Baptist; stick to it like a Lutheran; conciliate it like a Congregationalist; be proud of it like an Episcopalian; simplify it like a Jew; pay for it like a Presbyterian; practise it like a member of the Salvation Army; enjoy it like a Negro; speak of it like a Mar Thomite, be proud of it like an Orthodox and propagate it like a Catholic. Above all, remember all of us are created in God’s image and we are our brother’s keeper. Let the search for the Ecumenical horizon continue till “the close of the age”.

Paper presented at the 20th anniversary of the Indian School of Ecumenical Theology, ECC, Bangalore on November 19-21, 2008.

[Rev. Dr. M. J. Joseph is the former Principal of the Indian School of Ecumenical Theology(ISET-ECC) and the former Director of ECC, Bangalore]
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