visser_logo_small.gif (1783 bytes)The Theme of Humanity and Creation in the Ecumenical Movement
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Section headings:

dot.gif (101 bytes) Background dot.gif (101 bytes) II.C The Canberra Assembly (1991)
dot.gif (101 bytes) I.A. The Commission on Faith and Order in the 1960s & 70s dot.gif (101 bytes) III. Three Open Questions
dot.gif (101 bytes) I.B The Commission on Church and Society in the 1960s & 70s dot.gif (101 bytes) III.A Sighting the end of human existence
dot.gif (101 bytes) I.C The Commission on Faith and Order in the 1980s & 90s dot.gif (101 bytes) III.B. The meaning of human freedom in the context of faith, service to community, and responsibility for the gift of creation
dot.gif (101 bytes) II.A 1980s Conciliar process of commitment to Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation dot.gif (101 bytes) III.C Breaking limits in striving after life causes death -- first of our environment, and ultimately of ourselves.
dot.gif (101 bytes) II.B Feminist Theology in the 1980s


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I.B. Church and Society

The second line of reflection started from the WCC Department on Church and Society. While the Commission on Faith and Order approached the subject mainly from the angle of biblical and church tradition, the Department on Church and Society was largely compelled to tackle it as it came to grips with social phenomena. Whereas the immediate post-war decades were marked by an astonishing optimism, the mood swung the other way at the end of the sixties as awareness increased of the dangers hanging over humanity. The publication of the Club of Rome Report The Limits to Growth was a landmark. The vision of gradually increasing material prosperity for all the world's people disintegrated. The talk now was increasingly of the deterioration in the quality of life for broad sectors of humanity and particularly the poor, and of the possible disappearance of whole species, indeed the threat to the survival of humankind itself. As the question of humanity's treatment of the natural world began to raise questions about human life in community, and indeed human survival, "creation" increasingly became an issue for the Department of Church and Society.

For almost a decade the Department's forefront of attention was on the role of science and technology in the future of humanity and how to evaluate it. A series of conferences and studies were held in close cooperation with representatives of the different sciences. The main ones that should be mentioned in this connection are the conferences on "Science and Technology for Human Development, The Ambiguous Future -- The Christian Hope" (Bucharest 1974 - Report published by the WCC in mimeographed form), and "Faith, Science and the Future" (MIT Boston 1979 - Faith and Science in an Unjust World, Report of the World Council of Churches' Conference on Faith, Science and the Future, Vol. I, Plenary Presentations. Vol. II Reports and Recommendations, Geneva, 1980.). The debates were not governed first and foremost by a theoretical interest. The hope underlying the enterprise was really that it would prove possible to develop a constructive dialogue on the ethical issues facing the churches and the sciences today. What responsibilities do the sciences carry in relation to the destructive consequences resulting from scientific research and its applications? How, considering the uncertainties of the future, can an exchange, or perhaps even an alliance, be brought about between the church and science? What role can the churches perhaps play in the elaboration of ethical principles? These questions were discussed not only in general terms but also on the basis of concrete examples. In the course of the work studies were produced, for example, on ethical aspects of genetics, energy use and, above all, nuclear energy. [Charles Birch and Paul Abrecht (ed.), Genetics and the Quality of Life, Rushcutters Bay 1975; Paul Abrecht and Ninan Koshy, Before it's too late, The Challenge of Nuclear Disarmament. Hearing in Amsterdam 1981, Geneva 1983. ]

The fundamental question of the relationship of faith and science could not, of course, be ignored. The deeper the exchange of views on ethical consequences became, the more evident was the need for agreement at the theological and philosophical level. What do the church and science have to say to one another? How can this unfruitful dichotomy of two mutually exclusive domains be overcome? What conditions have to be fulfilled on the part of the churches and of the sciences to allow dialogue to take place and to do so fruitfully? Two conferences in the seventies dealt exclusively with these questions : Science and Faith (Mexico City 1976) and The Ideological and Theological Debate about Science (Cambridge 1977). [Anticipation no. 22 (May 1976) and Anticipation no. 25 (January 1979).]

One of the merits of this study is that it introduced into the debate the now generally familiar concept of the "sustainable society." Used for the first time at the conference in Bucharest in 1974, it was defined as follows:

"The goal must be a robust, sustainable society, where each individual can feel secure that his quality of life will be maintained or improved. We can already delineate some necessary characteristics of this enduring society.
"First, social stability cannot be obtained without an equitable distribution of what is in scarce supply and common opportunity to participate in social decisions.
"Second, a robust global society will not be sustainable unless the need for food is at any time well below the global capacity to supply it, and unless the emissions of pollutants are well below the capacity of the ecosystem to absorb them.
"Third, the new social organization will be sustainable only as long as the rate of use of non-renewable resources does not outrun the increase in resources made available through technological innovation.
"Finally, a sustainable society requires a level of human activity which is not adversely influenced by the never ending, large and frequent natural variations in global climate." [Study Encounter 69, vol. X, 4, 1974, p. 2.]

One year later, the concept of the sustainable society was adopted by the WCC Assembly in Nairobi and has been a firmly established part of ecumenical vocabulary ever since. However, it also met with opposition. When it was first talked about, some people expressed the fear that the emphasis on the limits to growth would relegate commitment to social justice to second place. The Nairobi Assembly therefore deliberately chose to speak of a "just" and "sustainable" society as the goal of the ecumenical movement. But even after Nairobi the arguments continued about how to reconcile the concern for justice and ecological responsibility.

One of the most impressive presentations on the theme was the address given by Charles Birch at the Nairobi Assembly, in which he compared the earth to the Titanic. The iceberg had five tips, he said, five physical threats to human survival; they are: the population explosion, food scarcity, scarcity of non-renewable renewal resources such as fossil fuels, environmental deterioration and war. [Creation, Technology and Human Survival, Ecumenical Review, vol. XXVIII 1976, p. 67. ]  He went on to stress that these dangers are not equally distributed over the earth. "In short, too many people demanding too much while others have little, destroy their source of life in trying to get what they want. Rich and poor countries confront each other in a gigantic struggle over the body of earth... This involves a programme of de-development of the rich world. The rich must live more simply that the poor may simply live." [Ibid. p. 69 f.] Birch then examined the role of technology and pointed out how important it was who exercised control over technical development. His presentation culminated in the demand for a sustainable society, calling for humanity to behave in such a way "that the life of man and other living creatures on which his life depends can be sustained indefinitely within the limits of the earth." [Ibid. p. 73.] It is something in the nature of an all-embracing liberation movement, "women's liberation, men's liberation, the liberation of science and technology, animal liberation, plant liberation and the liberation of the air and the oceans, the forests, deserts, mountains and valleys..." [Ibid. p. 76.]

But what came out of the study for the dialogue between theology and science in the stricter sense of the word? First, we may note that the study repeatedly refers to the new preconditions for this dialogue that have meanwhile developed on both sides. "Dogmatic claims that scientific knowledge represents final and exhaustive truth about the world are seldom heard today. A common view is that scientific theories are limited and instrumental models which permit prediction and control, not description of the world as it is in itself. There is an increasing awareness that the directions taken by scientific research are determined by industrial needs and cultural assumptions and not by the pursuit of truth alone". [Anticipation no. 22, p. 14.]  Conversely, theologians were increasingly clear in their own minds that the division of nature and history into two quite separate spheres could not be maintained.

The study repeatedly recognizes that theology is neither equipped nor prepared for the dialogue with science. "Theology seems to be in extraordinary disarray. Not only are there the traditional differences associated with the classic confessions of various denominations, many of which are experiencing a resurgence of self-consciousness, but today there is also a wide variety of streams of theological though which cut across confessional lines." [Ibid. p. 14 f.]

This starting position was too complicated to be overcome at once. The merit of the study carried out in the seventies lies not so much in offering fully-fledged findings as in formulating the questions posed for both sides. The study ends as it began, by calling for more attention to be paid to the subject. "The explication of the cosmological meaning of faith and theology is necessary not only for apologetic reasons, but also to ensure the coherence of theology and Christian witness. This entails serious attention to the formulation of a strong theology of nature and a reassessment of the doctrine of creation... Ways must be found to articulate a theology of nature in terms of a new ecological sensibility." [Faith and Science in an Unjust World, Report of the WCC Conference on Faith, Science and the Future, vol. II, Geneva 1980, p. 22.]

Nonetheless, the study produced a series of starting points and perspectives that were to prove fruitful in the coming years. In particular, the Conference reports from Boston (1979) moved on a level not since attained in the ecumenical movement. Some of the important points that should be mentioned were:

I.B.1.The will to establish a new relationship between theology and science is apparent throughout the study. The big question was how this was to be understood and described. "Modern science and Christian faith are currently being related in a variety of ways. This variety is rooted in the plurality of ways in which the churches regard the faith and conceive of God's relation to the world. As a result of both this plurality and the wide range of scientific activity multiple interactions between modern science and Christian faith are to be expected." [Ibid. p. 14] In how far do theology and science speak of the same reality? How far are theological utterances sui generis and therefore independent of the insights of science? How far are they aspects of one and the same perception of truth? No common answers could be given to these questions even at the end of the study. The report of the Boston conference simply gives a review of the different possible answers. [Ibid. p. 15 f.]

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