ROME – Participants at a global conference in Rome this week on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue pondered both the promise and peril of divisions within different Christian and religious traditions, not just among them, acknowledging those tensions often get in the way of forging closer ties, but also insisting they have an upside.

One expert went so far as to issue a rule of thumb for understanding another tradition — don’t focus just on where that tradition is compact, he said, but also where people are fighting among themselves.

It’s important that “each religion participating in dialogue acknowledge its vulnerabilities and inner tensions, and for the other partner to be attentive to the tensions and disagreements in its own culture and the other,” said Robert Gimello, Research Professor of Theology and East Asian Languages & Cultures at the University of Notre Dame.

The discussion came as part of a second installment at an international conference called ‘The Whole is Greater than Its Parts: Christian Unity and Interreligious Encounter Today’, organized by the World Religions World Church (WRWC) program of the University of Notre Dame and staged at Notre Dame’s Global Gateway facility in Rome.

Church leaders, theologians, and scholars of global religions from various parts of the world came to Rome Jan. 8-10 to address the most pressing matters regarding dialogue between the Church and other religions, including Muslim/Christian tensions, international ecumenical models such as India and ongoing debates in Christianity over a whole variety of matters.

Keynote speakers included Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, a longtime leader in ecumenical and inter-faith relations in Africa, and Bishop Brian Farrell, Secretary of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Division within the Church

During a presentation summing up the similarities and differences between the Christian tradition and Buddhism, Gimello insisted that “when one compares religious traditions, as those of us involved in comparing religious theology must do, it’s often important for each of us to be forthright about our own inner tensions.”

According to the ‘Buddhismologist’, “by comparing Christianity and Buddhism in  areas of disagreement rather than assuming that they are compact in uncontroversial wholes, I think we see more about what distinguishes Buddhism from Christianity and more about what they have in common.”

Tensions within traditions and their consequences were also at the heart of comments made by the conference’s keynote speaker, Nigerian Cardinal John Onaiyekan, the Archbishop of Abuja.

“Christian, Muslim relations are made more difficult by the disunity in both the Christian and Muslim fold,” Onaiyekan told Crux in an interview, pointing to the emergence of Sunni and Ahmadi Muslim religious groups in Nigeria, previously unfamiliar expressions of Islam with which Christian leaders in the country have had to come to terms.

According to the cardinal, interreligious dialogue on the Christian side “is made harder by the fact that we don’t present a united front.” As an example, Onaiyekan pointed to the rampant rise of the Pentecostal movement in Africa, adding that “when there are too many churches it’s confusing, and there is institutional disorder.”

The Indian model

Yet diversity also has its upside, a point brought home by Vasudha Narayanan, a religion professor at the University of Florida from India and the former President of the American Academy of Religion. In a country known for its regional and cultural diversity, the theological beliefs of Hindus provide a basis for cohabitation, and even an opportunity to share places of worship and religious figures.

There are about 330 million deities in the Hindu tradition, she said, pointing to the Hindu belief that “God cannot be constricted,” and thus defined, Narayanan said. The scholar reported cases of Indian religious sisters in northern France who use colored paste to mark the forehead of visitors as an auspicious symbol and of the many Indians who make pilgrimages to sacred Catholic and Muslim sites for prayer and worship.

“They don’t ask for liberation from the cycle of life and death but rather for very simple things,” Narayanan said. “They don’t see (the places of worship) as controlled by institutions and credos. They are theologically more pluralistic, rather than just socially pluralistic, and this comes from a very strong sense of infinity.”

This sense of infinity, she added, is represented in the Hindu religion by the supreme being of truth and knowledge, who is described as having a thousand limbs and a thousand names, meaning that “everything you think of God is beyond and more.”

Putting old divisions behind

According to Bishop Brian Farrell, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, a key challenge today in ecumenical dialogue is what he calls the “purification of memories.”

The bishop explained that “social memory is based on stereotyping the adversary and selecting those parts of history that support one’s own point of view.”

“While the past cannot be changed, what is remembered is how we remember it can be …  it can be the guiding light for so many human situations … can we do it in a way that’s also receptive of the other party’s point of view?” Farrell asked.

As an example, he said that it wasn’t “ecumenically possible” to use the word “celebration” to describe last year’s Protestant/Catholics efforts to mark the  500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation together, and, in the end, the agreed-upon term was “commemoration.”

He said three sentiments ran through that joint commemoration: “Thanking God for positive things received from each tradition, asking God’s forgiveness for the division, and the hope-filled commitment to what Pope Francis emphasizes as ‘walking together.'”

Ferrell said that one of the fundamental problems in ecumenism today is a difference in perspectives regarding the ultimate goal of the movement, which he said used to be moved by a huge optimism for the “visible unity” of all Christians, but today there seems a much wider range of opinion about what leaders in the enterprise are even after.

“Today, it may be much more realistic not to have that kind of optimism that oversimplified matters in the Council and in the following decades,” he said.

The bishop also said the Second Vatican Council influenced the mentality and approach of many Catholics toward other Christians, which went from ‘they don’t belong’ to “a recognition that God uses their communities for salvation…. no wonder these things caused such a stir and such opposition, then and still now.”

“A door that had been closed for centuries was now open,” Farrell said.

Francis’s efforts to bring forward the Catholic Church are “not introducing some new revolution, as some people are trying to make out,” he added, but rather an attempt “to apply that change in perspective which is still a work in progress. Those of us who work with him realize he’s giving us the opportunity to advance that change in perspective which came to a certain degree in the texts of the council, but as a living organism, needs to be absorbed into the cells of the body that is the Church.”

Farrell quoted Francis’s speech to the Roman Curia in December 2017 expressing how ecumenical relations are an “essential” part of the faith, aimed at “untying the knots of misunderstanding and hostility, and counteracting prejudices and the fear of the other.”

“In other words, we can’t give it up,” Ferrell said.