I hope that the new Pope's first encyclical will be on interreligious dialogue, nuancing the stark teaching of Dominus Iesus (2000) in a more encouraging direction. The interreligious response to the London bombing sets a headline for the new kind of practice and thinking that our globalized world makes necessary.
The statement issued from Lambeth Palace by Archbishop Rowan Williams, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Free Churches Moderator Revd David Coffey, Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, and the Chair of the Council of Mosques & Imams, Sheikh Dr Zaki Badawi said: "We want to signal the common ground on which we stand as faith leaders, and to reaffirm the values we uphold at this time of sorrow and pain... Central to what we share as people of faith is a belief in God's compassionate love for us. It is a love that compels us to cherish not to disfigure our common humanity...We draw hope and comfort from the certainty that in seeking to overcome our own brokenness we will be working with the pattern of God's design for all his children and for the whole human family."
Jonathan Sacks has written a much-praised book, "The Dignity of Difference" in which he calls for a paradigm shift and urges that "the best antidote to violence is conversation". Sheikh Zaki Badawi was refused entry into the US at JFK Airport last week -- no welcome for this man of conversation...
Transdenominational theology identifies the beliefs that all Christians share and that can be put forward as the chief offering of Christianity in the interreligious conversation. It will be objected that such a theology much fall victim to the lowest common denominator, to Unitarianism or the dilutions of Liberal Protestant theology from Schleiermacher to Tillich. But just as Hans Kung's Global Ethic is a minimal, lowest common denominator ethic, that does not at all exclude more refined and exigent moral reflection, so a lowest common denominator presentation of doctrine need not exclude the further refinements that the individual churches propose. Such a theology much include respect for these denominational claims. Even a Unitarian can acknowledge the confessional dignity of the early Councils.
In transdenominational theology, Christians who have presented a very low theology need no longer be excoriated as heretics. Harnack's reductive version of the essence of Christianity -- the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God -- or Bultmann's or Tillich's as the case may be, will have merit as a contribution to the clarification of the shared essentials. Full-blown, robust, dogmatic Christianity, as in Barthianism or Roman Catholicism, will be honoured, but the wider consensus will also signal a potential weakness of such dogmatic Christianity, the danger that it becomes a mere restorationist programme, unadapted to the contemporary framework of thought.
All theology has to be open to the mighty movement of the Spirit of God. A liberal like Tillich may be more open to it than a heavily armoured conservative like Barth, for the Spirit blows where it wills.
In his July 8 'Thought for the Day' on Radio 4, Rowan Williams evokes the Spirit to good effect: "We must take courage. We may not feel we have much strength, we may still feel partly paralysed. There’s a passage in the New Testament where Paul says something like this: ‘we don't know how to pray or what to hope for sometimes. But the spirit of God is working with us, and even our wordless cries and groans become part of the Spirit's action’". The groaning of the Spirit is not the constant nagging about terrorism that we hear from the White House or the constant nagging about dilution of faith and morals that we hear from guardians of orthodoxy. It is the groaning of the whole creation in travail, giving birth to the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Interreligious dialogue is the current imperative of those who want to open the doors wide to the Christ that is to be. A focus on what unites Christians, not on what separates them, on what unites religious people, not on what separates them, and on what unites globalized humanity, not on what separates them, is what can best give direction and perspective to the theological enterprise today.