In one of the more puzzling theological developments in recent memory, “ecumenism” has become a bad word for some Christians, or, at the very least, a charged word.
Webster defines ecumenism as “the principles or practice of promoting cooperation or better understanding among different religious faiths.”
As it’s used today, ecumenism more often refers to the relationship between Christian denominations, like Catholics and evangelical Protestants, and sometimes between different religions, like Christianity and Hinduism.
Despite what Webster tells us, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that the meaning of a word is found in its use. In other words, the way in which ecumenism is being used on the street is the way we should understand it.
For some Christians ecumenism implies compromise, a slippery slope where one concession leads inevitably to syncretism, or the commingling of different beliefs to the point where everything goes and it gets hard to tell one group of believers from the next.
Prior to the 20th century, the word “ecumenical” was closely associated with the Greek word “oikumene,” referring to the entire civilized world. It meant something like what we mean today when we say “universal.”
Our contemporary use of the word probably traces its roots to the Edinburgh Missionary Conference in 1910, where mostly English-speaking Protestant missionaries gathered to discuss strategies for bringing Christians closer together.
Proponents of today’s ecumenical movement also point to 1952 as a watershed moment, to the Faith and Order meeting in Lund, Sweden. It was then, some say, when churches that were serious about working toward unity with their Christian fellows stopped talking about what they believed about others’ faiths and started expressing their own beliefs as confessions, ones they sincerely hoped would be complimented by the confessions of others.
As tends to happen in academic theology, great and simple Biblical truths have become convoluted over centuries.
In the horizon of scripture, all Christians try to understand themselves in terms of the classic Christian themes of creation, sin, grace and hope.
There’s a universal dimension to all these themes. Creation is the world’s and all humanity’s origin. Original sin names our universal fallenness. Grace is the image and likeness of God that every human being bears. Hope is our collective destiny as believers in Jesus Christ.
Much of Western theology can be understood as a commentary on the third article of the Nicene-Constaninopolitan Creed, perhaps the closest thing we have to a universal, Christian mission statement: “We believe in the Holy Spirit…and in the Holy Catholic Church,” catholic in this sense meaning universal.
In the Old Testament, the Spirit is the symbol of God’s universal, vivifying presence in the world. In the New Testament it is the gift that seals the identity of the new community of believers. In neither case is it in any way concerned with doctrinal nuance or theological posturing.
The word “ecumenism” has perhaps, at the hands of a bumbling, pilgrim people, suffered a crisis of meaning, but the biblical hope toward which it points is a cause that continues to deserve our best effort.
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal