Winter 1982, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 350-361.

Donald Goergen:
      Current Trends: The New Ecumenism

Father Goergen, O.P., author, lecturer, teacher, and writer, is currently engaged in research in the field of Christology. He resides in Madison, Wisconsin.

IN the fall, 1982 issue of Spirituality Today I discussed recent studies on Teilhard de Chardin which have emphasized his contribution to the future of mysticism and spirituality. Several important questions arose: What will the contribution of the Far East, of India, Japan, and China, of the Eastern religions be to our human and religious future? How will the dialogue between West and East take shape? What will the future of Christianity be, not in the sense of whether there will be a future to Christianity, but in the sense of what shape Christianity will take, what it will look like, in another century, after another millenium? A study of Teilhard's spirituality raises questions about the future of the Christian faith and about the contributions of East and West to the future of religion.

In 1946 Teilhard wrote a brief essay entitled "Ecumenism."(1) In this essay Teilhard addressed the future direction for ecumenism. So far ecumenism has been understood as a dialogue and call for unity within Christianity, among Christians -- the Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants. Teilhard was encouraging as well, however, a dialogue with secularism, humanism, atheism, science -- a dialogue between Christianity and the modern world. The Second Vatican Council itself recognized and accepted such a need in its Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes).

A couple decades after Teilhard's call for a new kind of ecumenism, a relatively unknown man from the Middle East began to speak of his life's mission and project as "The New Ecumenism." The ecumenism of which he spoke embraced Jews, Christians, and Muslims. He is Father Luke Malik, or Ramzi Habib Malik.


I was glad when they said to me,
    "Let us go to the house of the Lord!"
Our feet have been standing
    within your gates, O Jerusalem!
Jerusalem, built as a city
    which is bound firmly together,
to which the tribes go up,
    the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
    to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
There thrones for judgment were set,
    the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
    "May they prosper who love you!
Peace be within your walls,
    and security within your towers!"
For my brethren and companions' sake
    I will say, "Peace be within you!"
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
    I will seek your good. (Psalm 122)

Few cities are as sacred or have as much religious tradition as the city of Jerusalem. It is indeed a city sacred to Jews, like no other city is or ever will be; sacred to Christians, because it is where our Lord and Christ died, was buried, and from where he rose again; and sacred to Muslims, as one of their three sacred cities, and from where Mohammed mystically ascended to heaven. Few cities have as long and as complex a political history as well. Jews, Christians, and Muslims; Arabs, Turks, Europeans -- all have made their efforts to subdue this holy city, which so often has been the object of conflict and war.

One of the difficulties in any religious or political discussion of the city of Jerusalem is the need to distinguish the spiritual and political issues while at the same time not separating them. We need to distinguish the religious and the political issues for the sake of clarity, in order to see more clearly possible solutions. But we cannot separate them because they are intrinsically inseparable. Religion and politics, faith and national identity, were not separable within Judaism. It is a modern anomaly to speak of a "secular Judaism" and a "religious Judaism." Judaism is both a religion and a people. Likewise in Islam. For Muslims no separation may exist between "church and state," as we have become accustomed to in the modern and secularized Christian West. Such a separation, a modern Western invention and development, was not always true of Christian history itself. For centuries Catholicism implied an empire, and certainly a state, even in modern times. In the crusades, Christians went to war over Jerusalem, as have Jews and Muslims.

Thus, we must both distinguish, and also accept the inseparability of, the religious and political issues which surround a city like Jerusalem. There is no political solution without religious implications, and no religious solution without political implications. Jerusalem stands as a city over against the cities of the West, or Westernized cities, as a sign of the ultimately inseparable character of religion and political life.

Thus any ecumenism or dialogue among Jews, Christians, and Muslims has its particular problems. First, a lack of communication, rapport, and respect at the level of religious life and faith can contribute to the inability to make progress politically. Second, any progress at the level of religious understanding will have implications for politics; and these implications will not necessarily be accepted by all affected -- for all of those affected are not necessarily religious people, whether they be Jews or Muslims, Israelis or Arabs, Europeans or Americans. Third, any purely political solution will be inadequate, since it will affect the spiritual domain as well.

Yet, as Christians, Jews, and Muslims, we must in conscience make an effort toward rapport and understanding so as to prepare the way for God's peace. We must recognize and affirm our fraternal bonds. We are all brothers and sisters in faith; we are all children of Abraham, our father and common ancestor in the faith in the one living God. This is the sense of the new ecumenism.

We are using the word ecumenism here analogously, in a way similar to, but not completely identical with, the way the word is used for intra-Christian dialogue. As Christians we accept the intrinsic dignity of all human beings as created in the image of God, and thus we are called by our own faith into dialogue with those who share our faith in the one God, whether or not they accept the Christian understanding of Jesus.

The "new ecumenism" concerns cooperation, dialogue, and understanding among Jews, Christians, and Muslims -- among those who see themselves as daughters and sons of Abraham, as well as brothers and sisters in the faith in the God of Abraham. Perhaps the most significant witness to the importance of this level of inter religious respect is John Paul II.(2) During his visit to West Germany, November 17, 1980, in Mainz, to representatives of the Jewish Community, he stated:

Above all [it is a question] of the dialogue between the two religions [Christianity and Judaism] which -- with Islam -- gave the world the faith in the one, ineffable God who speaks to us, and whom we want to serve on behalf of the whole world.
And also:
Jews and Christians, as children of Abraham, are called to be a blessing for the world (cf. Gen. 12:2ff.), by committing themselves together for peace and justice among all men and peoples, with the fullness and depth that God himself intended us to have, and with the readiness for sacrifice that this high goal may demand. The more our meeting is imprinted with this sacred duty, the more it becomes a blessing also for ourselves.
And on another occasion later the same day:
But not all the guests of this country are Christians; a particularly large group professes the faith of Islam. My blessing goes to you too from the bottom of my heart! If you have sincerely brought your faith in God from your country to a foreign land and pray to God here as your Creator and Lord, you too belong to the great host of pilgrims who, since Abraham, have set out again and again to seek and find the true God. When you are not ashamed to pray even in public, in this way you set us Christians an example worthy of the utmost respect. Live your faith also in a foreign land and do not let it be exploited by any human or political interest.

Four months later, on February 16, 1981, in Karachi, Pakistan, John Paul II concluded his address to the president of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan thus:

One of the salient characteristics of Abraham -- to whose faith Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike eagerly link their own -- was his great spirit of hospitality, as displayed in a particular way when he welcomed three guests at the Oak of Mamre (cf. Gen. 18:1 ff.). The warm welcome which you and the beloved people of Pakistan extend to me on this happy occasion gives expression to this same spirit of hospitality. For this I am deeply grateful and I would like to reciprocate your kindness with the assurance of my prayers.

One of the more persistent witnesses to this new ecumenism has been Luke Malik, who coined the expression "new ecumenism" in order to promote Jewish-Christian-Muslim understanding. He has given over thirty years of his life to work toward this goal.


Luke Malik (born in 1916) is a Lebanese Catholic and a Dominican priest. He was a Lebanese Christian Arab of the Orthodox faith who spent his young adult years in an Islamic Egyptian world. In Egypt he met Dominicans; in 1945, at the age of 29, he entered the Order of Preachers in the province of France. He is a man with a foot in the world of the Middle East and a foot in the world of the West, and he has lived in various countries of bothLebanon (21 years), Egypt (16 years), Iraq (2 years), France (9 years), Germany (7 years), and the United States (10 years). He lives presently in France.

There are five major themes in his life and writings. The first of these is the new ecumenism embracing Jews, Christians, and Muslims.(3) The second is what he has termed "the new American revolution."(4) The third is his project of the Church of Islam.(5) The fourth is his undertaking the Revolution of Love.(6) The fifth is his own vital concern for the future and the freedom of the Lebanon.(7)

Here I will confine myself to points which help to elucidate Malik's particular approach to the new ecumenism, while keeping in mind that the new ecumenism is not limited to his approach, although he remains a major spokesperson for it.(8) I begin with several points which manifest theological convictions.

1. Abraham's faith established him as the patriarch par excellence. Abraham, however, is both the father of Isaac by Sarah and the father of Ishmael by Sarah's Egyptian maid Hagar. The God of Abraham also blessed and made promises with respect to Ishmael -- "As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him and make him fruitful and multiply him exceedingly; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation" (Gen. 17:20; also see 16:10-13; 17:23-26; 21:13-21; 25:12-16). Ishmael was Abraham's firstborn son. Upon the death of Abraham, Ishmael came to Isaac and together they buried their father (Gen. 25:9-10). As the Lord promised, Ishmael was to have twelve sons who would constitute the tribes of North Arabia.

2. The mystery of God's action, however, sets aside the firstborn son, Ishmael, and bestows a special favor upon Isaac through whom the promises to Abraham are to be fulfilled. This same mysterious pattern repeats itself with the sons of Isaac. Esau, the firstborn, is temporarily set aside, and it is Jacob upon whom God's favor rests (Gen. 25:23). Yet Esau, like Ishmael, while not favored in the same way that Isaac and Jacob are, is still blessed (Gen. 27:40). The Epistle to the Hebrews spoke of a blessing upon both Jacob and Esau (11:30). Esau, like Ishmael, occupies the desert land to the south of Canaan. Esau also married a daughter of Ishmael (Gen. 28:8-9). Esau meets Jacob again in order to bury their father Isaac (Gen. 35:29). Malik writes: "The descendants of Esau united themselves in matrimony with those of Ishmael and peopled the desert east and south of Palestine. Thus the Israel of old was surrounded mostly by tribes descended from Ishmael and Esau, just as the Israel of today is surrounded by Arabs."(9)

3. These stories of the children of Abraham are not simply to be passed over as if they have no significance. Paul and the Christian Scriptures refer back to them in order to penetrate God's plan (Rom. 9:10-13, Gal. 4:22-31). They help to elucidate the mystery of Jesus. For Paul, Israel was passed over as well (like Ishmael and Esau) and the covenant was extended to the Gentiles. But the passing of the covenant to the Gentiles is not the end of the biblical story. "Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in" (Rom. 11:25-26). Malik writes, "The puttings aside on the part of God were never meant to be final rejections."(10) "The election of the one does not mean, then, the exclusion of the other."(11) The plan and mystery of God includes the descendants of Israel and Ishmael as well as Christians.

4. The Muslim people, in accord with their own Islamic faith, and in accord with the Qur'an, see Mohammed as a child of Abraham through Ishmael. Abraham is their forefather in the flesh and their father in the faith. And Ishmael is also a patriarch. "We believe in God and in that which has been sent down to us and sent down on Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob, and the Tribes, and that which was given to Moses and Jesus and the Prophets, of their Lord; we make no division between any of them, and to Him we surrender" (Qur'an II, 130; also II, 127; IV, 162-63; XIX, 55).

5. The Jewish people see themselves as descendants of Abraham, the father of flesh and of faith; Christian people see themselves as heirs of Abraham, the father of faith; and Muslim people see themselves as descendants of Abraham as well. The Hebrew Scriptures see Isaac and Ishmael as brothers, as well as Jacob and Esau. The Christian Scriptures see the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles already reflected in the story of Hagar and Sarah, as well as in the bond that unites Moses and Jesus. Malik now sees the bond that unites Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are brothers and sisters, are descendants of Abraham; all believe that God is one; all see Abraham as a prototype of faith. This is the theological basis for the new ecumenism. And there is another basis as well, like unto the first, the love that we are to have for our brothers and sisters, which all three religions teach. We must see the others not only as others but also as brothers and sisters.


The mystery underneath the relationships of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, however, is not only theological; it also has political implications today. One cannot talk about Jews, Christians, and Muslims, or Israelis, Arabs, and Westerners, without the awareness that our solidarity in faith has implications for our attitudes towards each other, for the ways we treat each other, and especially for the dilemma we find in the Middle East today. Our common ancestry makes the situation in Palestine, Israel, and Lebanon all the more scandalous. Thus the new ecumenism at least raises political questions. But these questions are not simply political. There are two kinds of politics here -- one divorced from the religious consciousness involved, and one which respects and values the religions involved. It is only in this latter sense that the new ecumenism raises political questions; and with respect to politics, it is only questions that the new ecumenism raises.

At the first and properly theological level, the new ecumenism affirms our brotherhood and sisterhood, our common commitment to monotheism, our recognition of Abraham as a model for faith; and it encourages mutual respect, greater understanding, and dialogue with dignity and love. At a second, quasi-political level -- a political level that recognizes the uniquely religious character of the issues involved -- the new ecumenism raises questions such as: (1) "Should Ishmael transform the once promised land into a land of hospitality by offering it for nothing, for the love of the God of Abraham, for the love of our father Abraham, for the love of our elder brethren in the faith, to the Jews?"(12) (2) "And, Israel, also spiritualized, in turn, shall he accept this gift from the hands of his brother Ishmael, and respect the limits fixed by the latter?"(13)

Muslims cannot be expected on political grounds alone to accept the right of the state of Israel to exist in Palestine, nor will Jews ever renounce their right to the land of Israel. In a truly Christian spirit, however, in the spirit of the God of Abraham, in accord with the spirit of the best in Judaism and Islam, in a religiously based and not only politically perceived approach, is it possible for the Arab countries to see the state of Israel, its land, as their gift to the Jewish people, pure gift, in accord with the spirit of Arab hospitality and magnanimity, and is it possible for the Jews to accept this land and see it as a gift, and thus respect the borders as determined by the givers? Most will say that this is asking too much of both, for this is not purely a political solution (which will never work) but, rather, a truly religious solution which calls upon the faith of both and the brotherhood and sisterhood of us all. Practically it means that the Arab countries recognize Israel as a state and Israel recognize the rights of the Palestinians as well. There can be no political or military solution which does not recognize the ethical spiritual call to discontinue hammering ploughshares into swords . . . training for war (cf. Isa. 2:4). We need to recognize the injustices perpetrated both by Arabs against Jews and also by Israelis against Palestinians and seek a new start. We need to acknowledge that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are brothers and sisters.

This, however, is not the most prominent aspect of a religious solution. The most prominent aspect is prayer and penance. Prayer is not, however, simply going to synogogue, church, or mosque, but also conversion to a new outlook on the problem by perceiving a mystery that includes us all. Our prayer reflects the prayer of Jesus that we may be one. Penance is not only fasting and mortification but also the determination "to work for truth rather than propaganda, for understanding rather than bigotry and fanaticism, for comprehension rather than indifference, bias, prejudice, for forgiveness rather than revenge, for justice."(14) Malik writes:

Let us, Christians and Muslims of the whole world, grant the Land to the Jews -- and you Jews of Israel and of the Diaspora do accept this gift as a sign of renewed brotherhood. Let this giving be a sacrament for and of our forgiving. Let us, Christians and Jews, especially in Europe and America, organize a generous and efficacious aid to the developing peoples and countries of the Muslim world -- and you, Muslims everywhere, acknowledge this offer in the same spirit of brotherhood. Let this giving also be a sacrament for and of our forgiving. Let us, Christians, Muslims and Jews, all work out a final solution to the Palestinian problem by helping the Palestinians build up their destinies again as citizens.(15)

What specifically is the responsibility for Christians with respect to their Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters and vis-*a-vis the situation in Palestine today? We ought to work against all forms of anti-Semitism, support the state of Israel as a nation, and help Israeli society open itself to non-Jews. At the same time, we must open ourselves to dialogue with Muslims, insist upn justice for the Palestinians, and be attentive to Palestinian claims and aspirations. Malik personally maintains as well the importance of Christian witness to love for one another (rather than letting oneself be affected by any hatred, whether of Jew for Muslim or vice versa, or of Arab for Israeli or visa versa) and witness to Christ Jesus. Malik does not see the new ecumenism letting go of the Christian commitment to the Incarnation, but rather bringing Jews and Muslims to an appreciation of it, a call to conversion to Christ. Yet "the task consists not in converting them; it is the Lord alone who converts hearts, minds, and wills" -- ours as well as theirs. Our task as Christians "is to be and to live and to witness to Jesus Christ before Israel and Ishmael."(16)

Malik also sees a new ecclesiology for Christians. Just as we now have Latin or Greek or Syriac rites (or churches), there can be Jewish and Muslim rites (or churches), Jewish and Muslim Christianity.(17) The new ecumenism does not imply, however, a watering down of beliefs or abolition of difference. It means "a positive attitude toward the other in his/her otherness or difference, the respect for the other in his/her otherness or difference, and above all the enriching of oneself by all that is true."(18)


Christianity is historically associated with the West, although within Christianity one has always been able to distinguish Eastern Hellenistic Christianity and Western Latin Christianity. As the Christian faith spread, it helped to form the culture of Europe. Christian history and European history are tied together. The present divisions within Christianity are also a product of its history. Ecumenism is that ministry of the Christian churches which recognizes the un-Christian character of its divisions and attempts to grow beyond them. Such ecumenism is vitally necessary and a Christian responsibility.

There is also developing an awareness of another need and responsibility alongside that of intra-Christian dialogue and unity, namely, the relationship of Christianity to the Far East, the Middle East, and Third World, the dialogue between Christianity and non-Christian religions or between Eurocentric Christianity and Christian faith in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This is another level of ecumenism.

Christian theology must seek a deeper understanding of Hinduism and Buddhism, and Christian spirituality must respect the religious experience and understanding of China, India, and Japan. This area of dialogue is one to which the thought of Teilhard de Chardin points.

Christian theology must also open itself to a greater sense of brotherhood and sisterhood with Judaism and Islam and to a greater understanding of them. This particular "new ecumenism," as Luke Malik has termed it, recognizes the religious character as well as the political reality of the tensions in the Middle East. Jewish-Christian and Christian-Muslim dialogue is not confined, however, to the Middle Eastern crisis. It recognizes the need for Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue on a worldwide scale.

The Christian churches, as historically related as they are to European culture and American history, must also recognize that Christianity itself is becoming a Third World phenomenon. According to David Barrett's monumental research, Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, gained 5.6 million Christians during the 1970s. In Nigeria in 1900, 73 percent of the people held to tribal faiths and 26 percent to Islam; today 49 percent are Christian and 45 percent Muslim. In 1900 two-thirds of the world's Christians lived in Europe and Russia; by the year 2000 three-fifths will live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. "While Westerners cease to be practicing Christians at a rate of 7,600 per day, Africa is gaining 4,000 Christians per day through conversion from other religions, and three times that many through the birth rate."(19)

While intra-Christian ecumenism remains a necessity, along with it there are other levels of dialogue, ecumenical consciousness, and world relationships which are also urgent.

  1. See Science and Christ (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), pp. 197-98.
  2. For the quotations from John Paul II, see Luke Malik, "For the New Ecumenism Embracing Jews, Christians, Muslims," River Forest, Ill., February 1981. Also see the English weekly edition of L'Osservatore Romano, 9 December 1980 and 23 February 1981.
  3. The major presentations of the new ecumenism by Luke Malik are Israel and Ishmael, 1978 and, more recently, "For the New Ecumenism Embracing Jews, Christians, Muslims," 1981.
  4. 4 A central conviction of Malik's, at least since 1972, is that the hour of the Spirit has come for the United States. The Holy Spirit is in our midst, and a time for judgment is close at hand. Malik sees the new spiritualities, the pentecostal-charismatic eruption, the Christian-Jewish dialogue, the sexual revolution, the antiwar protest, women's liberation, the hippie movement, the Jesus revolution, and the student revolution as all indicative of the presence of the Spirit. All have a spiritual significance and indicate a spiritual ferment even if they be imperfect manifestations. Thus we are being called to face the question of our own response as a people to the call of the Spirit and our own destiny. Will America impose herself upon the world or is she willing to share herself with the world, both her dream of freedom and justice for all as well as her material goods? The major exposition of this new American revolution is an unpublished manuscript, The Spirit in America.
  5. L'Eglise de I'islâm (The Church of Islam). Beirut, 1970.
  6. Manifesto of the Revolution of Love: Male & Female Created He/She Them. Beirut, 1974.
  7. "The Lebanon is in Mortal Danger," 1978; "At the Service of the Maronite Church and the Lebanon in the United States of America," 1978; "Victory in the Lebanon through Alliance with America," 1980.
  8. After completing this report, I was pleased to see the two articles by John Renard, "The Foundations of Islamic Religious Experience" and "A Contemporary Christian Response to Islam," in the summer and fall issues (1982) of this journal. Another work promoting further understanding is F.E. Peters, Children of Abraham (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982).
  9. Israel and Ishmael, pp. 8-9.
  10. Ibid., p. 13.
  11. Ibid., p. 14.
  12. Ibid., p. 22.
  13. Ibid.
  14. P. 113 of an early draft of the manuscript The Spirit in America.
  15. Ibid., p. 93.
  16. Israel and Ishmael, p. 44.
  17. Ibid., p. 27.
  18. The Spirit in America, pp. 102-3.
  19. See "Counting Every Soul on Earth, A Miracle from Nairobi-the First Census of All Religions," Time, 3 May 1982, pp. 66-67.