World Scripture

By Dr. Andrew Wilson, Editor

We live in an ecumenical age. The progress in transportation and communication that has brought all the peoples of the world into one global village has also brought the religions of the world into close contact. Just half a century ago, Christians living in North America might never have met a Muslim or a Buddhist throughout their whole lives; in ignorance they could believe that such people were heathen and in dire need of salvation. Muslims in Syria, or Buddhists in Thailand, could as easily hold a similar view of the foreign religions that occasionally intruded upon their lands. But today Western cities teem with immigrants from Asia and Africa bearing their native faiths, and our commercial and political affairs connect us with all nations. A movement for a "wider ecumenism" has begun, bringing together for dialogue leaders and scholars from all the world's religions. Theologians of all faiths are affirming the positive worth of other religions and seeking to overcome the prejudice of an earlier time. It is now widely recognized that humanity's search for God, or for the Ultimate Reality, called by whatever name, is at the root of all religions.

The first step toward appreciating other religions is to understand each on its own terms. Each religion has its own spiritual depth; each gives its own distinctive answers to many of the fundamental questions which trouble human existence. To this end, most religion textbooks treat each major religion in turn, and most anthologies present selections from the world's scriptures religion by religion. However, by treating each religion separately, these texts and anthologies tend to emphasize differences and overlook similarities. They may give the impression that each religion stands alone as an independent system and a different way of knowing and being. Thus the variety of religions would appear to be a testimony to the relativity of human beliefs rather than to the existence of the one Absolute Reality which stands behind all of them.

Interfaith dialogue in our time is going beyond the first step of appreciating other religions to a growing recognition that the religions of the world have much in common. The Christian participant may find something in Islam, for example, that can deepen his or her Christianity, and the Muslim participant may find something instructive from the teachings of Buddhism. The common ground between religions becomes more apparent as the dialogue partners penetrate beneath superficial disagreements in doctrine.

Today the call for a "world theology" has been sounded by many scholars, explain that religions are not tight and consistent philosophical systems. While a particular religion may have certain predominant themes, it must--as the foundation of a culture--be broad enough to inform all aspects of human experience. Hence every religion has, within its own borders, considerable diversity of belief and practice. The variety of ways of being human religiously cut across the religions: the Roman Catholic mystic, the seeker of Brahman through Hindu Vedanta, and the Zen Buddhist monk may have more in common with one another than with the members of the fundamentalist movements of their own traditions, and fundamentalist Christians, Jews, and Muslims may similarly find common ground not shared by their more mystically oriented counterparts.

In addition, historians of religions now recognize that the religious traditions of the world did not grow up in isolation; they have enriched one another in diverse ways at many significant points of contact. Hence it is inadequate to treat religions as discrete and independent entities. We must seek new, holistic models to describe the human religious experience. We may even, like Hick, speak of a coming "Copernican revolution" in religion that recognizes a unity underlying all religions. To discern the shape of this underlying unity is the end towards which World Scripture has been compiled.