Issue 40, December 2002
Religious Pluralism in Europe: Challenge for Church and Theology
– An Ecumenical Perspective from Asia

Martin Repp

The Religious Situation in Europe Today
The influx of non-Christian religions into Europe during the last 30-40 years has changed its religious landscape considerably. Owing to these developments, the thousand-years-long history of the “Christian occident” has come to a sudden end. The significance of this profound change can hardly be over-estimated. Europe’s homogeneous Christian societies are replaced by multi-religious societies, whether one likes it or not. However, Church and theology are not adequately prepared to meet these sudden and profound changes. Christians, clerics and theologians became too accustomed to society being dominated by their own religion, which informed every aspect of the lives of Europeans from cradle to grave, from culture to politics. Of course, secularization and communism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had already damaged the self-confidence of the Church to a considerable degree. Nevertheless, the fact that the religious monopoly of the Church is now being challenged by non-Christian religions comes unexpectedly and means a severe crisis for it. Further, European theology is not sufficiently prepared for this new situation either. Especially due to the vast influence of the Karl Barth School during the post-war period, Protestant theologians neglected the study of other religions. Without sufficient knowledge of other religions, theologians claimed an “absoluteness of Christianity,” which was based neither on facts nor on knowledge. Now, the mere presence of non-Christian religions in the Christian occident revealed the relativity of this claim of absoluteness.

Within a very short period of time Christians are being confronted with a new situation: mosques are being built in the neighborhoods next to their churches, and education in Islam – besides that in Christianity – is being included in school curricula. There is also considerable influence by Asian religions. According to a recent poll in Germany, more Christians believe in reincarnation than in the Resurrection. The New Age-movement imports many Asian religious ideas and practices. The range of reactions to this new religious situation extends from polemic attacks to attempts at interreligious dialogue. The former self-confidence of Christians has been replaced by a deep feeling of insecurity. Voices calling for theological guidance can be heard, but there are not enough pastors, priests and theologians who are sufficiently trained to meet this challenge. During such times, it is very difficult to find adequate orientation.

No doubt, various attempts are being made to react to the new challenge. Theologians who had neglected the study of non-Christian religions up to now, have suddenly begun publishing their ideas on the relationship between Christianity and other religions. Theological faculties in Aarhus, Birmingham and Vienna have established new chairs for “Theology of Religions.” In 1999, the theological faculty at Marburg University organized a dialogue-conference with Buddhist scholars from Japan. These are positive signs indicating the willingness of theologians to face the new challenge. Considering, however, that most of these theologians do not have a formal education in religious studies or much experience in interreligious dialogue, one wonders about the results of such unprofessional attempts. Dialogue-conferences frequently leave one with the impression that different religious discourses meet without really communicating, rather, that a number of monologues are held. However, if mediators are employed in dialogue meetings who are sufficiently acquainted with the religious traditions involved and who are able to “translate” the teachings and beliefs between the members of different religions, a deeper mutual understanding can be reached.

Throughout the history of Church and mission one can observe how difficult it has been for Christians to adapt to new situations in which Christianity is but one among other religions. These processes of adaptation normally follow the principle of trial and error, which makes them complicated and lengthy. Present attempts at tackling the multi-religious situation in Europe mostly follow this principle. However, there are ways to ease and speed up such processes if theologians would be willing to learn from the past and/or from others in the present who have experience in dealing with other religions in different geographical settings. First, focused research into the history of Christian mission and Church would elucidate structures of earlier processes of adaptation. The interaction between the old church and the Hellenistic and Roman religions, or the relationship of Irish monks to indigenous religions in Britain and Germany, may serve as examples. The conclusions could then be applied to the present situation by means of systematic and practical theological reflections. Second, there is the possibility of learning from churches on other continents, which are presently religious minorities in multi-religious societies. Over many decades or centuries they have accumulated a rich treasure of experience in dealing with other religions and theological reflections on their situations. Some of these churches run institutes to pursue research into the religions of their countries, to reflect on their relationships with surrounding religions, to pursue interreligious dialogue, and to develop theologies of religions. While this article suggests that theologians make use of both approaches, here it intends to focus on the latter possibility, elaborating it in a concrete and detailed way.

Challenge by Islam
Presently, Muslims form the biggest non-Christian group in Europe, therefore, Church and theology have first to direct attention to Islam. Students of theology, pastors, priests, and school-teachers of religion need to study Islam in order, first, to gain an understanding of this religion and the new situation for themselves, and, then, to be able to help those with whom they work. Book learning may be sufficient in the beginning, but not in the long run. Studying Arabic and the Qur'an, attending religious practices and ceremonies, and talking directly with believers about their faith would correct prejudices and deepen the understanding of Islam considerably.

In some Muslim countries there are Christian institutes, which are dedicated to the study of Islam, to the theological reflection on the relationship between Christianity and Islam, and to Muslim-Christian dialogue. They also offer possibilities of study for students from other countries. Recently, the Association of Churches and Missions in South-West Germany (EMS) initiated a “Study in the Middle-East Program” which enables theology students to attend the Near East School of Theology in Beirut. Such a place provides the students with learning experiences in the context of Christianity being a religious minority in a Muslim country. It also offers the students the possibility to reflect on such a situation theologically. The program began in 2000 and has proved to be quite successful. It is hoped that programs like this one will be established in institutes of other countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, that more students will participate, and that more funding for scholarships will be secured.

These Christian institutes in Muslim countries have good libraries, and their staff is able to guide students in their studies and to assist them in gaining a deeper understanding of Islam. Over many years, these institutes have built up a relationship of trust with their Muslim partners, and based on this trust they are able to introduce the students to Muslim dialogue partners. Direct conversation with Muslims can remove many prejudices and help deepen the understanding of Islam. Such study and exposure programs can help students, pastors and teachers to find new ways to communicate with Muslims after they have returned home. They will have become well-equipped to help improve the relationship between the Church and Islam in their home countries.

Such interreligious study programs need to be promoted organizationally as well as financially by Catholic and Protestant churches, missions and theological faculties in European countries, since the new multi-religious situation affects most of them. Furthermore, it should be in the interest of governments to foster religious peace, therefore, public monies should also be made available in the form of scholarships for students who plan to participate in interreligious study programs. Promotion of interreligious dialogue and mutual understanding has social and political implications, because they are preventive measures against violent conflicts caused by competing ethnic groups and religions. The religiously inspired terrorist attacks on the subways in Tokyo (1995) and on the World Trade Center in New York (2001) have made it clear, once and for all, that fostering interreligious dialogue and mutual understanding is not a luxury, but a necessity in order to develop a peaceful co-existence of different peoples and religions in the modern world.

The Challenge by Asian Religions
Because of the number of its believers, Islam poses the greatest challenge for the Church in Europe today. However, at the same time, Asian religions also exert considerable influence, especially among the intelligentsia, even though their presence is much smaller due to lower membership numbers. There are many Asian religious groups active in Europe. Moreover, via the New Age movement, Buddhism and Daoism, for example, exert considerable influence indirectly. Many Christians appropriate New Age ideas without reflecting on the relationship of these ideas with their own faith. The fact that according to the afore-mentioned recent survey more Christians in Germany believe in reincarnation than in the Resurrection is an indicator of such a development. Asian religions are very attractive to Europeans because they seem “exotic.” By idealizing the “completely other,” many people attempt to escape the disappointing religious reality at home. It is typical that the important exhibition on Buddhism in Stuttgart in 1999 attracted numerous visitors, but that the extensive program accompanying the exhibition did not include a Christian presence in the form of interreligious dialogue. For decades, quite a number of Christians have been practicing Zazen or Yoga, and recently Chinese geomancy (Feng shui) and Reiki (derived from Japanese healing practices) have also become very popular in Europe. Yet such borrowings of religious practices have to be reflected upon theologically. Only theologians who are sufficiently acquainted with teachings and practices of Asian religions can do this adequately. One requirement is knowledge of the respective language since translations do not transmit the spirit of religious sources. Many theologians presently engaged in interreligious dialogue neglect this fact and rely only on translations and secondary literature. Scholars of religious studies rightfully criticize the theologians’ lack of knowledge of primary religious texts. Furthermore, this contradicts the basic principle of theology itself, which requires the study of source texts in the original language. This is, of course, valid for a dialogue on an academic level and not for dialogue at the grassroots level, e.g., taking place in neighborhoods, at work, in schools, etc..

In Asia there are a number of Christian research institutes that deal with indigenous religions such as Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, shamanism and new religions. These institutes hold a rich treasure of experience and wisdom in relating to these religions, which could become valuable resources for European churches as well. The gates of these institutes are open to students, pastors, teachers and scholars from abroad. On the occasion of a conference organized by the NCC Center for the Study of Japanese Religions in Kyoto in 2000, representatives of Catholic and Protestant research institutes discussed the idea for an ecumenical program on interreligious studies in East Asia. These centers belong to the network Inter-Religio, by which Catholic and Protestant institutes in Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines cooperate. The goal of such a program on interreligious studies would be to provide interested students of theology and religious studies, pastors and priests, as well as school-teachers of religion and scholars, with the opportunity to study East-Asian religions first hand, to be exposed to the situation, in which Christianity is a minority in a religiously plural country and to participate in interreligious dialogue. These institutes have special libraries on Asian religions and churches in Asian and European languages. Their staff can guide the studies of the program participants and introduce them to dialogue partners of other religions. Participants may also attend current programs at the respective institute. Thus, apart from basic book learning, participants would also be able to gain experience in dealing with believers of other religions by learning from the staff. Short-term study-stays (6-12 months) may serve to open the students’ eyes to new approaches in interreligious encounter, so far unknown to European churches; they may help to broaden the participants’ horizon, and to create interest in further and longer stays, for example, to learn the respective language and/or to pursue doctoral studies.

Two examples may serve to illustrate the beneficial effects of short-term study-stays. Several years ago a theology student spent just three months at the NCC Center for the Study of Japanese Religions in Kyoto. Before her stay, friends had tried to dissuade her from going to Japan, arguing she would lose a semester at her university back home. After returning home, however, she stated that she had gained precious experiences while in Kyoto, which would not have been possible if she had stayed at home. For example, she had participated in a dialogue meeting with representatives of a very controversial religious group. Hereby she had noticed the atmosphere of the discussion, which in form was very kind and accepting, but in content quite tough. For her, this experience contrasted sharply to a previous “dialogue” meeting at a theological school at home during which the organizers only cornered the members of a similarly controversial group. A pastor from abroad, who studied at the NCC Study Center for some time with the support of a WCC scholarship, may serve as a second example. A member of his congregation later reported that the experience in Japan had formed the pastor and his work in such a way as that he became very open to members of other religions at home while clearly retaining his Christian identity.

Besides short-term, also long-term stays should be envisaged. The institutes should offer classes for the study of language and primary sources of Asian religions, especially for theology students. Thus, the students would deepen their experience of interreligious dialogue as well. It is desirable to train European experts in Asian religions who, after returning to their respective countries, could contribute to dealing with the multi-religious situation by teaching at schools and universities., In the long run, a doctoral program for writing dissertations should also be envisaged for this purpose

Multi-religious Society as an Opportunity for Church and Theology
Presently, voices can be heard which lament the (possible) damage being done to the Church by the influx of foreign religions into Europe. They express a negative and polemic attitude toward these religions. Nevertheless, seen from a different perspective, another view of the situation presents itself. Recalling that at the beginning of its history, the Christian Church had to establish itself in the multi-religious context of Hellenism: it formulated its creed not in a vacuum, but by dispute with other religions and philosophies, new perspectives on the contemporary situation in Europe can be perceived. Precisely by disputing with outstanding representatives of non-Christian religions, early Christians formed their own specific identity. After all, Christian theology began as apologetics, that is, in discussion with other religions and world views. After the Second World War, Paul Tillich took up this issue and proposed a contemporary apologetic theology, which he called “responding theology.” Today, we need to go one step further and perceive apologetic theology additionally as an honest and critical “questioning theology.” Thus, apologetic theology may be called “theology in dialogue,” or “dialogical theology.” However, this form of apologetics has to distinguished from polemics, which is the response of conservative or fundamentalist theologians to the multi-religious situation today.

Owing to the new multi-religious situation, European representatives of Church and theology may have lost some of their self-confidence. This crisis suggests deeper causes. For centuries, Church and theology have lacked true encounter with other religions and this has caused theological and religious discourses to become somewhat intellectually or spiritually inbred. One gets this impression, for example, when listening to contemporary sermons. Many of them consist of formalized language, that is, they only repeat traditional truths with the same old vocabulary. Other preachers attempt to overcome stagnation “creatively” by employing poetic language or word play. In the field of theology, one can observe the growing tendency of specialization (especially in the historic disciplines) or abstraction (in the systematic disciplines), that is, in erecting ivory towers, which are cut off from the rest of reality. The gap between religious and theological discourse, on the one hand, and the reality of people and society, on the other, is becoming increasingly wider. In light of such phenomena, one begins to suspect that it is exactly because Christianity has enjoyed a mono-Christian culture in Europe for such a long time, that it is in danger of losing its identity. As in the development of individual human beings, religions also form their identity through co-existence and in communication with others. Seen from such a perspective, the new multi-religious situation in Europe poses a unique opportunity for Church and theology to rediscover and reformulate their identities through co-existence and encounter with believers of other religions.

Some representatives of Church and theology may warn against dialogue with other religions because they fear the loss of faith. Such warnings are not unfounded, since in some cases the study of other religions has led to conversions. However, at the same time many Christians have experienced that the study of other religions leads to a renewed self-understanding of one’s own faith. A number of Western theologians, for example, have had such experiences in Asia. The theologically reflected study of another religion can even reduce the possibility of conversion. However, it has also been stated clearly that such dialogue does not only serve to deepen one’s own identity, but also aims to deepen the knowledge of, and respect for, other religions. In dialogue, first of all, one aims to understand and respect the other person, and only by this “detour” one rediscovers one’s own identity. Other religions must not be used for one’s own purposes, otherwise true dialogue does not occur. For this reason, religious studies proper always presuppose meaningful dialogue.

New Perspectives for Mission and Oikoumene
Apart from assisting the Church in rediscovering the own religious identity, a positive encounter with other religions can also stimulate mission and oikoumene in new ways. First, by accepting the challenge that other religions pose, the relativity of the differences between the various Christian denominations, which they cultivated for such a long time in order to define their own religious identity, becomes clear. In pursuing interreligious dialogue, these denominational differences do (and should) not disappear. Nevertheless, by positioning them within the wider context of other religions, they receive their proper place and proportion. Because non-Christian religions were not present (or were not recognized sufficiently) in Europe until recently, denominational differences were overly emphasized in order to define distinct religious identities. An important consequence of interreligious dialogue in Asia, for example, is that Catholic and Protestant institutes involved cooperate ecumenically in a very natural manner. One example is the afore-mentioned network Inter-Religio in East Asia. Another one is the ecumenical cooperation between Catholic and Protestant study centers in Japan, which is called Ecumenical Group for the Study of Interreligious Dialogue (EGSID). In encountering other religions, denominational commitments do not disappear, but they lose their dividing character, and instead, deeper communalities among Christians come to light. In this way, interreligious dialogue can give new and significant impulses to the oikoumene. It contributes to a concrete realization of oikoumene not only in Europe, but worldwide.

This issue leads to another ecumenical implication of interreligious dialogue. While in the previous section, the overcoming of over-emphasized denominational differences in one region (such as in Europe or in Asia) was discussed, now the bridging of larger geographical and cultural differences (such as between Asian and European churches) will be treated. In Europe and North America, mission boards were the only bodies for a long time, which – after having founded new churches in other continents – cultivated and maintained relationships to those churches in concrete terms. This important ecumenical role of the mission boards was recognized in Germany in the 1970s, for example, by their organizational restructuring into “associations of churches and missions.” The word “churches” in this case signifies the churches at home as well as the partner churches overseas. Consequently, “mission councils” were formed as governing bodies consisting of representatives from German churches, the mission and foreign partner churches. At about the same time, missions experienced crises in respect to their own purpose: On the one hand, the new churches overseas were taking on the responsibility of mission work in their own countries. Thus, the work of foreign mission boards became less and less necessary. On the other hand, the concept of “mission” itself was being questioned more and more by occidental theology. In this situation, mission circles began to use the word “partnership” increasingly in order to redefine the relationships with churches overseas. The discourse on “partnership” was an attempt to overcome the one-sided character of the relationship between missions and churches overseas. For a long time, the missions had sent personnel and money, while churches overseas merely functioned as receivers. Thus, this one-way relationship made it very difficult to develop equality, cooperation and mutual exchange, which characterize true partnership. Even today this problem in the relationship between occidental churches and those on other continents basically remains unchanged; in only a very few cases has it been solved to a satisfactory degree. Similarly, intellectual exchange still remains imbalanced and one-sided. While many Asian and African theology students continue to study in America or Europe, only very few Western theologians have begun to appreciate the value of Asian or African theologies. As long as these relationships in respect to Church and theology remain one-sided, the worldwide body of Christ is not a truly living entity.

Such one-sided relationships can be remedied. For some years now, for example, German mission boards and churches have been inviting personnel from their overseas partner-churches to serve as ecumenical co-workers in Germany. Now, the multi-religious situation in Europe could become another opportunity to overcome the geographical and cultural distance as well as the psychological imbalance between the partners, if programs for interreligious studies at East Asian institutes were established. In such a case, European representatives of churches and missions would ask those of Asian churches to help them deal with the challenge posed by Asian religions in Europe. Consequently, the one-way relationship between East and West would be replaced by or based on mutual exchange. European students would study under Asian theologians and scholars of religious studies in the afore-mentioned institutes. Their religious studies and experience in inter-religous dialogue would be of significance to the churches in Europe. On the other hand, many Asian theologians who previously studied in Europe (often on scholarships) would gladly express their gratitude for what they have received by supporting such programs. At the same time, their self-confidence would grow, because they would be able to contribute something to the worldwide Church, which Europeans are not able to do in the same way. Thus, relationships of true partnership based on equality could develop. The different parts of the worldwide body of Christ, being in need of each other, would increasingly serve each other on a worldwide scale. Hence, oikoumene could be realized and experienced concretely. In this way, interreligious dialogue would not only promote ecumenical relations within Europe, but also globally. Further, interreligious dialogue also contributes indirectly to the mission of the Church. Owing to their long commitment, European mission boards have built solid relationships of trust with Asian churches. These valuable contacts can be helpful when establishing interreligious study programs in East Asia. At the same time, mission boards would acquire a new profile at home, since by establishing such innovative study programs they would be assisting European churches considerably in dealing with the multi-religious challenge in Europe.

Concrete Steps
The significance of the profound changes taking place presently in the religious landscape of Europe can hardly be under-estimated from the perspectives of Church history and oikoumene. In facing this challenge, the question arises as to how to respond concretely and adequately. Upon the initiative of the Association of Churches and Missions in Southwest Germany (EMS), the NCC Center for the Study of Japanese Religions in Kyoto established the “Interreligious Studies in Japan Program” for students of theology and of religious education in order to prepare them for the multi-religious situation at home. The NCC Study Center’s director invited a team of professors from various Christian, state and Buddhist universities to design the curriculum and to take responsibility for organizing and financing this program. From the beginning, the program is ecumenically oriented. It contains classes (in English) on Shinto and folk religion, Japanese Buddhism and new religions, Japanese church history and theology, theology of religions and theories of interreligious dialogue, as well as a basic introduction to Japanese language. Also an exposure program is included, such as field trips to various religious centers, and dialogue meetings with representatives of different religions. One of the goals of the program is to expose the students to the situation of a church, which is a religious minority in a predominantly non-Christian society. The program follows a semester plan so that students may participate for 6 or for 12 months. The program started in October 2002, and, as the first experiences show, students and teachers are very much satisfied with it. The participation of a Korean student shows also, that the second goal of equally fostering regional exchange has been realized already in the beginning.

The program in Kyoto is planned as a pilot project in the hope that other institutes in Asia may follow and establish similar programs. These programs should also foster regional exchange of Asian students of theology. In this way, programs for interreligious studies will foster cooperation between Asian churches themselves. Hence, apart from helping develop ecumenical relations among the churches in Europe and promoting relations between the churches of Europe and Asia mentioned above, interreligious study programs will assist the development of ecumenical cooperation and exchange within Asia. This reveals a third aspect of engagement in interreligious dialogue for the oikoumene at large. Thus, the Christian institutes involved in interreligious dialogue in East Asia would not only continue in their pioneering role in pursuing dialogue, but would also send innovative impulses to the churches of the oikoumene worldwide. It is hoped that more churches, missions, and theological schools support such programs, and that sufficient financial support – especially for scholarships – will be secured to get them started.

Dr Martin Repp is the Coordinator of the "Interreligious Studies in Japan Program" at the NCC Center for the Study of Japanese Religions (Kyoto). He was the Associate Director of the NCC Center for the Study of Japanese Religions and editor of its journal "Japanese Religions" from 1991 to 2002.

at the NCC Center for the Study of Japanese Religions (Kyoto)

offers students a comprehensive teaching program on religions in Japan in order to promote mutual understanding among people of different religions and cultures.

The Program consists of six courses on the following subjects:
Shinto and folk religion, Japanese Buddhism, Japanese new religions, Japanese Christianity, Theology of religions, Introduction to basic Japanese language.

The classes are held in English.
The teachers are internationally qualified experts in their field.

Spring semester: April – July, Fall semester: September - December

Application form available at the NCC Study Center.
The number of participants is limited.

Participation fee for the whole Program of six courses: Yen 100.000

The NCC Study Center, an institute of the National Christian Council in Japan, is engaged in research of religions in Japan and interreligious dialogue since more than 40 years.
The members of the Advisory and Executive Committees of this Program are professors of Bukkyo University, Doshisha University, Kwansei Gakuin University, Kyoto University, Nanzan University and Otani University.

Inquiry & application :
NCC Center for the Study of Japanese Religions
Dr. Martin Repp (Coordinator)
Karasuma Shimotachiuri , Kamikyo-ku, Kyoto 602-8011
Tel. & Fax: (075) 432-1945

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