From initial excitement to maturity.
Yet, even during my early student years it was no longer a time of uniform tensions. Among the professors and pastors with whom I had contact at Florida Southern College (Lakeland, FL) and Boston (MA) University School of Theology were those who were active in the Protestant ecumenical movement as well as in the National and World Council of Churches. Likewise, there were professors of world religion who accentuated appreciation rather than rejection of the insights of the great world religions. Classes with Fr. Georges Florovsky at Harvard Divinity School (Cambridge, MA) deepened my understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy, with which I had been superficially acquainted growing up in the Serbian part of Yugoslavia.
Then came the electrifying election of a different kind of pope, John XXIII, upon whom it was possible to look with sympathy and admiration. Hearing speeches by Augustin Cardinal Bea and Gregory Baum at Harvard and then Boston's Richard Cardinal Cushing at the community church of my major professor Edwin Booth, as well as meetings with novices of the Dominican order of my own age all led to a Copemican revolution in my own theological orientation. It was thrilling.
During my first years of teaching at the Methodist-affiliated Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the Department of Religion organized a conference on the developments of the Second Vatican Council to which we invited the Catholic lay theologian, Leonard Swidler, to speak. Little did I know that this meeting with him would lead to a lifelong friendship and cooperation at the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, which he and his wife Arlene had started a few years earlier. My ecumenical orientation resulted in my becoming the first full-time Protestant professor of religious studies at the Catholic-affiliated Rosemont (PA) College in 1972. I have been teaching there ever since.
The experience of expanding concentric circles of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue was analogous to the broadening of my culinary appetites. Growing up on my mother's cooking, I was at first unenthused by American food (except hamburgers and pizza). Gradually, I got used to it and eventually came to like it. As my palate became adjusted to one "foreign" food, it almost instantaneously became receptive, even eager, for other "exotic" kitchens. Similarly, my initial Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox encounters soon expanded into Christian-Jewish encounters, and then to the religions of the Far East, India, and the Middle East during a year of post-doctoral fellowship to study Asian religions. Eventually, I expanded this circle of religious encounters to include Islam, which took longer, as I had to overcome my distrust based on an early education that inculcated prejudice toward the Ottoman Empire's rule of the Balkans.
This expansion of my own horizons went more or less parallel with J.E.S.'s expanding inclusion of scholarly studies from various perspectives. Manuscripts emanating from very diverse denominations and religions were accepted by us for publication. We were being praised as the foremost ecumenical journal in the world. There was one additional serious challenge to all religions--Marxism, a pseudo-religious ideology. I had grown up in Yugoslavia during various stages of the communist persecution of religion, though in that country it was less severe than in the Soviet Union and its satellites. I had seen the dark side of that ideology (and came to see that religions also have their dark sides), yet I also witnessed the more attractive side of Marxism's quest for social justice. Having realized the potentially catastrophic nuclear obliteration if the Cold War ever heated up. I sought to link up with others on both sides of this radical divide who wanted to build bridges rather than erect walls. J.E.S. explored and promoted the nascent Christian-Marxist dialogue. That dialogue was the last to be added to our pages, but it was destined to be first to disappear, due to the implosion of Marxist communism in its heartland.
At first it would seem that a dialogue between Christians and Marxists would be impossible. From the very outset of the Marxist movement it appeared that Karl Marx had condemned not merely abuses of religion or certain specific kinds of religions--though he mostly targeted Judaism and Christianity, which he considered superior to other religions, and, by showing their destructiveness, ipso facto the "lesser" religions would be even less viable. Marx targeted all religions by describing them as alienating phenomena that emerged in order to dull the pain caused by human oppression, thereby disabling people from revolutionary action toward abolishing class exploitation. His followers, particularly Lenin and Stalin, were far more brutal and antagonistic to religion than was Marx himself. Unlike Marx, who envisioned the withering away of religion, they believed in abolishing religion as a precondition for changing the system of class oppression in favor of implementing a new classless society.
The vast majority of religious people instinctively felt that there would be no place for them in a future thus conceived. When the Bolshevik Revolution succeeded, and when subsequent expansion of communism seemed to secure this so-called "wave of the future," churches and all religious communities found themselves mercilessly persecuted. In the case of the Soviet Union, the violence and cruelty imposed at this time was unprecedented in all of church history. It seemed that there was no alternative to conflict between Marxists and religious people; only debate and acrimony would be possible between the two convictions, the two ultimate commitments. Here and there some religious thinkers, already in the nineteenth century, saw certain positive features in the Marxian analysis and advocated a Christian socialism, but their option was acceptable neither to communists nor to the overwhelming majority of Christians and other religious people.
By the 1950's, when the most ardent revolutionary fervor subsided in some Marxist societies, a small minority of nonconformist thinkers emerged among both Marxists and Christians. These thinkers sought to reinvestigate the premises of the conflict. Some Marxists, mostly in a few Western and Eastern European countries, found some positive features in Christianity and noticed that even Marx was not as categorically critical of religion as it had first appeared. In that discovery they clashed with the majority of dogmatic Marxists and often with the Communist Party and governments of their countries. Many of them were perceived as dissidents and suffered various degrees of censure. Christians who ventured into dialogue with such Marxists generally were not sidelined by their hierarchies with the exception of some of the South American proponents of liberation theology, who more boldly incorporated some tenets of Marxism into their own analyses.
However, questions were raised about the appropriateness of dialogue with an ideology that led to persecution of religious people, and those Christians who defined themselves as anti-Communist sharply attacked those of us who were in favor of detente. Christian proponents of dialogue were hoping that if the dialogue were to become more widespread that communist attitudes toward Christians might be modified toward greater tolerance. As the arms race between East and West accelerated, even groups of more traditional Christians and Marxists realized the need for dialogue to promote more peaceful solutions to the conflict, all the while avoiding broader theoretical exchanges.
The editors of J.E.S. realized that the same approach that showed itself so useful in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue could also yield positive results in Christian-Marxist relations. Here, too, we did not restrict ourselves to publishing scholarly studies about such dialogue but also practically promoted it by attending and co-sponsoring conferences at which dialogue was practiced. Articles that emerged from such conferences, as well as separately submitted manuscripts, were published both in regular J.E.S. issues and also in emphasis issues, some of which were also published as books under a separate cover. Additionally, this author engaged in considerable publishing activity on related topics in other venues. In J.E.S. I edited in 1978 Varieties of Christian-Marxist Dialogue, which as published both as a journal issue and a book by our Ecumenical Press. (1) Then, in 1985 another special issue appeared, "Christian-Marxist Encounter: Is Atheism Essential to Marxism?"--which may have been the only dialogue devoted to the issue of belief in God, which had been so vigorously contested by Marxists. Swidler chaired a Hungarian-Yugoslav-American Christian-Marxist dialogue in 1988, the papers from which were published as a book by an independent publisher. (2)
Communism collapsed as a socioeconomic system in Europe and the former Soviet Union in the late 1980's and early 1990's. The collapse seemed so thorough that hardly any of the Marxists continued to do explicitly Marxist analysis; therefore, the dialogue between Marxists and Christians ceased. A certain amount of Christian triumphalism emerged, some crediting Christianity (particularly Pope John Paul II as the central figure) for the downfall of communism. Widespread euphoria (at first shared by this author) emerged in the early 1990's as to the likely benefits of the collapse of totalitarianism and the general affirmation of religious freedom and other human rights in all the former communist countries. Instead, post-communism turned out to be a much more complex phenomenon by which--in addition to many positive features of greater democracy and human rights--some of the ancient as well as new religious, political, social, economic, and other rivalries were awakened. Occasionally, the conflicts in these societies became so sharp that they resulted in wars, especially in Yugoslavia and to a lesser degree in the Soviet Union, leading to the dismemberment of both countries.
The Jewish-Christian-Muslim international trialogue initiated by Swidler suddenly assumed a prominent place as a potential means of improving the very strained relationship not merely between any two of these religious communities but even among all three at once. After several such conferences in the U.S.A., the trialogue conference in Graz, Austria, in 1993 devoted considerable attention to the war in nearby Bosnia and Herzegovina, followed by a sequel in Jerusalem in 1994 and Jakarta in 2000. The two of us were able to fly into Sarajevo in 1995, before the formal ending of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in order to advocate the practice of the trialogue as one of the means of leading toward gradual reconciliation.
On September 11,2001, it became even clearer how much such trialogues are needed on a worldwide basis. In the Republic of Macedonia, the Macedonian Orthodox population and the Muslims of Albanian ethnicity began a low-intensity war that prompted the President of Macedonia, Boris Trajkovsky, to invite Swidler and me to organize an international trialogue conference, "Confidence Building among Churches and Religious Communities in Macedonia." In the same year another conference took place in Dubrovnik, Croatia, on reconciliation in Bosnia. Both of these conferences resulted in a special double issue of J.E.S., (3) as well as locally published multilingual books for use in those countries. We continued with frequent trips to Macedonia to prop up the fledgling Council for Interreligious Cooperation and contributed to the efforts by the Republic of Macedonia to host four large international conferences for interreligious and intercivilizational dialogues. In 2008 the staff of the Dialogue Institute/J.E.S. co-sponsored the most recent Jewish-Christian-Muslim trialogue in Aman, Jordan.
It is hard to gauge the actual contribution of our organization to improving relationships between these great religious communities amid the worldwide tensions along the civilizational fault-lines that Samuel Huntington characterized as the "clash of civilizations." Certainly, we were not the only ones who knew that a dialogue of civilizations must replace the clash, but the indefatigable efforts of Swidler had something to do with the clearly discernible groundswell in favor of using dialogue as a means of addressing the burning issues of our time.
This expanding of the circle of dialogical rather than contesting relationships between and among churches, religions, and ideologies was reflected on the pages of J.E.S. This expansion was not guided by any business acumen of its editors; for years we struggled mightily on the verge of folding due to lack of financial support. Rather, it was the passionate dedication to our conviction that dialogue is the best way of relating to an ever more pluralistic world in need of cooperation rather than violent confrontation. To us it was not merely a sound methodology but a way of life, a way of encountering others by lifting up all in a common partnership of listening, learning, sharing, and maturing. Fortunately, a number of supporters and donors rallied around, assuring that these efforts can continue in the foreseeable future. To all of them we owe our thanks, as well as the staff members and advisory editors and numerous contributors who sustain the work of J.E.S. and the Dialogue Institute.
During the fifty years of the existence of J.E.S., a major shift has taken place within Christianity. Christians of the south (Africa, Asia, Latin America) are now more numerous than in the north, especially in Europe. Within the United States a numerical shift has taken place away from the Protestant mainline churches that were ecumenically oriented to the evangelicals, Pentecostals, and nondenominational churches that are often anti-ecumenical. A flight in membership has occurred not only among more progressive mainline Protestants but also among many progressive Catholics. During the last few decades some observers have predicted the demise of the ecumenical movement. Indeed, the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches are facing a crisis--financial, organizational, and reputational. However, very recently there are signs that this is not a permanent trend but a natural ebb and flow, as there is also a rediscovery of the values espoused by the great pioneers of the ecumenical movement. Personally, I look forward to a continued trend toward an open-minded, critical, yet committed approach to dealing with the enduring social and personal ethical values of our great ecclesial and religious heritage. I am convinced that religious people can work in harmony with each other and make a positive impact upon contemporary society and deal with the many evils of the past and the present.
Looking back fifty years, it seems that the excitement of the ecumenical movement stimulated by Vatican II resembles the thrill of first falling in love. In the meantime the drudgery of having to maintain these relationships seems to have become more stale, more tiresome, more commonplace. But, just as love when it matures can run more deeply and pervasively, dealing with ever-new challenges in life, so the threats to world peace, to tolerance, to human rights, and to religious renewal require dogged persistence. We are in this for the long haul. The task will be to find a new generation of ecumenically minded persons (whom some sarcastically call "ecumeniacs," a term that I do not mind applying to myself and those who are equally "crazy in love" with dialogue), because they will advance dialogue for new conditions, for a new age.
(1)"Varieties of Christian-Marxist Dialogue," special issue of J.E.S. 15 (Winter, 1978): 1-210.
(2)"Christian-Marxist Encounter: Is Atheism Essential to Marxism?" special issue of J.E.S. 22 (Summer, 1985): 435-593.
(3)"Interreligious Dialogue toward Reconciliation in Macedonia and Bosnia," special double issue of J.E.S. 39 (Winter-Spring, 2002): 1-218.
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|Publication:||Journal of Ecumenical Studies|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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