The Driver in the Mind of Fethullah Gülen

by John Haughey, S.J. on . Posted in Alternative Perspectives of the Gülen Movement

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I never met Fethullah Gülen (b.1938…) but feel I have come to know him from the fruits of his labors. These are evident to me in people, in their piety, hospitality and moral lives, all of which he has deeply influenced. My respect for him grew into esteem from the moment I stepped off the plane in Turkey and was greeted by those who had been formed by his thinking and goodness. I was somewhat prepared for this experience by one of the major influences on his thinking, Said Nursi, whose works I had studied and written about. In fact it was Nursi's writings that made me want to learn about Gülen. The particular curiosity I have had about Gülen is how his subjectivity moves to objectivity and writings that hold such religious appeal to so many. If the reader is patient he or she will see the value of taking this angle of vision to the works of Fethullah Gülen. If I thought this way of going about examining a religious giant was irrelevant in interreligious dialogue I would not bother to spell it out. But since I believe it is relevant to the dialogue of the religions I will locate my appreciation of Gülen in his subjectivity.

To do this I would suggest we start where God starts and continues to work in him, viz. in the ignitions of his cognition. In order to grasp this way of understanding a religious figure who is not of one's own faith it would help to be introspective by getting in touch with the drives operating in one's own consciousness. One of these drives has not yet been named by cognitional theorists, nor by philosophers nor educators nor by the religions themselves. I will call this a cognitional drive for catholicity for reasons to be explained. I will contend that his exercise of this drive holds the key to understanding the genius of Fethullah Gülen. It is the drive for meaning, for making wholes out of the dots that swim into one's consciousness disparately. This drive shapes identities and projects, some of them life-long; it makes personal life meaningful and communal life possible.

To explain how this drive for catholicity began to develop in Gülen, we need to take a trip back to classical philosophy. This was a trip that Gülen himself had taken in his own intellectual journey in his study of Harith al-Muhasibi (d. 857), al-Ghazzali (d.1111), and Rumi (d. 1276).[1] Philosophy in that period understood that it is 'being' that is looked for in every question and affirmed in every answer. Unfortunately, in the modern world and its reigning philosophies, 'being' has lost its cachet. Its universality, which had been and should still be evident in every predication, every 'is', has come to be seen as a concept. And, as conceptualized, 'being' now finds itself in deep repose in the museum of abstractions, in fact the most abstract of abstractions. Consequently, its site is seldom visited any more for several reasons. One of these is that knowledge has become conflated with information. The other is because of the huge mistake of conflating the notion of being with the concept of being, a move that has gone largely unrecognized and unacknowledged. We should mourn the loss that this conceptualizing has left us with because we now lack the wherewithal to see the unitary genesis of knowledge. One gets a blank stare if one were to say that with every affirmation 'being' is affirmed, and with every negation 'being' is denied. Knowledge is knowledge of 'being' or of what is or of reality if the affirmation is verifiable.

To say that 'being' is a notion rather than a concept needs a bit more clarification. If we start with our own consciousness we should be able to see it is restless, continually moving from being at rest to asking questions. It seeks to satisfy itself by affirming 'what is or isn't so'. But if one looks more closely, one can see that 'being' is what is being striven for. But it is the notion of 'being' that is ever driving the knower to some concretization to an answer, through an insight, or a concept, or a word, or an idea or an intuition as it seeks to find intelligibility about this or that. Being is a notion that drives and thirsts for intelligibility and is ever on the move to the concrete, the particular. This notion or drive is unlimited in the knowledge it seeks. It should also help to see that knowing is a compound act, that the drive for intelligibility is a process that moves from question or experience to understandings to insight or word or concept and if it passes muster at the bar of the questions asked, it will move to an affirmative judgment – is!

Since being is so ubiquitous and comprehensive and right under our noses, we are likely to have never stepped away from our acts long enough to notice and name this drive for 'is.' But being is not the only notion or drive operating in all of us. Another such notion and hence drive is toward the good and the valued. This is valued, that is valued but foundational to the valued this or that, there is a notion and the resulting drive in consciousness that concretizes it. Hence, like being, the good is a notion.

A Third Notion

In order to name the importance of Fethullah Gülen for Islam, for interreligious dialogue and for the world, a third notion needs to be located in his consciousness that I submit is in all of ours. I want to suggest, therefore, that the same cognitional route that should enable one to become aware of the drives toward being and the good operating in our own consciousness, should also be able to uncover a third drive or notion. It is difficult to name because it is internal to both the other two notions and, like them, is a known unknown before it surfaces into a particularity. Though it has gone unnoticed and unnamed, I want to claim that it is sufficiently distinguishable from them to be given its own status in the drives of our consciousness. It has its own distinctive thirst, hence should be given its own status. It is a drive for achieving meaning or for coming to a sense of wholes.

These assertions are presuming the reader is capable of being attentive to how his or her own consciousness is tri-fold in its quests. The mind is not just a being-hungry drive with a passion for the good or value, it is also a catholicizing instrumentality in the root sense of the word Acatholic. It seeks to connect what is as yet not connected by the information one has acquired. Left unconnected, meaning is wanting as is a sense of wholeness, or of sensing or contributing to a whole. Consciousness is unrelenting, continually moving from subjectivity to its objectifications, and in this it is not only seeking the true and the good, it is also meaning seeking. All three of these drives in consciousness are productive but distinctively so.

So, by now it should be obvious that I am not rooting my study of Fethullah Gülen in Catholic doctrine nor in theology nor in history but in the most primordial of all starting points: the ignition that has sparked his cognitional drive to make wholes. He has done and is doing this in so many subjects, making wholes where they aren't or haven't been made. He is a dot connector par excellence. I see three drives igniting his zeal, but in particular he is making wholes that are meaningful to so many. The ordinary way of conducting interreligious dialogue is to go to the judgments made by the parties in the dialectic to see where there is agreement or disagreement. This essay differs from that way of dialogue by positing the existence of cognitional starting points from which everyone is able to operate, though attention to them as such seems rare indeed.

Let me argue for this point here. If peoples of different faiths could come to see the common headwaters (i.e. notion) generating their drive for religious wholeness, a mutual appreciation of the plural faiths might be much easier. This is why it seems valuable to locate the start up drive for the whole which every religious faith seeks to convey within consciousness. Who hasn't experienced that mutual understanding and unities between groups, cultures, religions, utopian causes are difficult to come by? So maybe seeing that our drives for the good, the true, and the whole are intrinsic and invariant in all human consciousness, will help us to come more easily to the mutualities we aspire to.

It is unfortunate that there is a widespread poverty at the level of cognitional awareness about what is universal in human consciousness. Since this drive for wholeness is overlooked, we seem locked into matters of orthodoxy versus heterodoxy in all its many variations and competing versions of the whole. These continue to be the fare of religious dialogues. Even more disconcerting than the competition between the faiths, is the societal fragmentation and at times the violence that erupts in societies that do not trace the communalities they are operating from to their own consciousness.

The Catholicity of Fethullah Gülen

The more I read the work of Fethullah Gülen the more impressed I am with him. He presses towards a completion that is future to all of us. His drive to make wholes where the majority of people leave things separate is of value to people of all the faiths. His use of the drive all of us are equipped with but seldom use as well as he, has come up with considerable insight on many different subjects. The fruit is a religious cornucopia of insights all would do well to be informed by.

The evidence for the unremitting exercise of this drive in him is on any number of levels. To start with, there is his understanding of God's relation to the People of the Book. As a follower of Muhammad he sees the Prophet in the line of many prior prophets, Jesus and before him the Old Testament prophets, and before them David and Moses and Abraham. He knew that if one did not believe these figures were all holy instruments of God, all of whom were mentioned in the Qur'an, one would be proportionately ignorant of the knowledge of God available to us. But seeing the God self being gradually communicated throughout this history of revelation makes Gülen's understandings so congenial in interreligious understanding. What whets my appetite for reading Gülen the way I am doing is that the explicit ideal he seeks to attain in interreligious dialogue is spiritual friendship not doctrinal agreement.[2]

Another area where this spiritual master has dot connecting well is in the area of humans and nature. In this he has anticipated recent global ecological concerns. He lived and taught the need for seeing every creature as praising God and, therefore, as deserving of respect, no matter how insignificant their level of existence might be. Though references could be many, let this one suffice: "Thousands of flowers burst through with love, offering smiles to their surroundings. Dew drops on leaves glitter with love and twinkle with amusement. Sheep and lambs bleat and skip with love…"[3]

A further thing I have come to appreciate about Gülen is his understanding of education as formation. He saw clearly into the superficiality of much of the western emphasis on a value-free approach to education. While accepting that the quantifiable and scientific were part of modern bodies of knowledge, it was the non-quantifiable ingredients operating in the subjectivity of students that he was especially concerned with. The 700 plus network of schools established by followers of Gülen's understanding of God, have not been educating reactionaries or fundamentalists but contemporary minds, opening their horizons not to a golden past but to creating a harmonious future, in particular through the development of their self knowledge.

His emphasis in education is that it must be embedded in values, values embodied in the teachers and administrators of the school not formulaically mouthed. These are caught not taught, as the saying goes. His words: "Those who want to reform the world must first reform themselves. In order to bring others to the path of traveling to a better world, they must purify their inner worlds of hatred, rancor and jealousy and adorn their outer world with all kinds of virtues." The stakes are not simply personal; they are national and international. "The permanence of a nation depends upon the education of its people, upon their lives being guided to spiritual perfection. If nations have not been able to bring up well-rounded generations to whom they can entrust their future, then their future will be dark."[4]

Although it is only a personal anecdote it has been so indelible in my mind and heart I feel the need to share it here. One night around 9pm the group I was part of in Turkey was being escorted around a Gülen school in a city I can't even recall the name of. We came to a classroom where the door was shut. Our guide opened it and there were 12 teenage boys each at their desks quietly studying. They were surprised when we appeared but graciously and shyly stood and welcomed us. Having taught students for many years, I know of no circumstance that would replicate that scene of dedication to learning at that hour of the night with boys of that age unsupervised by any adult.. Gülen's insights into education are clearly being noticed by the citizens in every city where one of his schools has been established. Five thousand applications for a school that has 250 students is proof enough of this. "The school" he notes, "can quickly open the way to unveiling the meaning of things and events, which leads one to wholeness of thought and contemplation. In essence, the school is a kind of place of worship whose "holy persons" are the teachers."[5]

The Sufi tradition and its masters were a major influence on Gülen both personally and in his contemplatively oriented educational theory. "They have illumined the way of people to the truth and trained them in the perfection of the self. Being the embodiments of sincerity, Divine love and purity of intention, the Sufi masters have become the motivating factor and source of power behind the growth of Islam… (they have) combined in their persons both the enlightenment of sage, knowledge of religious scholars and spirituality of the greatest saints." The way Thomas Michel, a Jesuit Gülenologist sees the importance of this, is "the genius of Gülen's Sufism is in its ability to interiorize the message of the Qur'an and Sunna."[6] Gülen's understanding of education can best be understood by his esteem for and connection to Sufism, the mystical strain of Islam. He himself is not strictly speaking a Sufi any more than is he a member of the Nur of Nursi movement. His interiority is his own, not another's. But its objectifications or articulations have made his contemplative depths accessible to many.

Among the other dots he connects are between the troika of science and religion and dialogue. He laments the 19th and 20th centuries dichotomy between "the bitter struggle that should never have taken place: between science and religion." In a further instance of connecting dots, he comments that "if there were no other reason for promoting Muslim-Christian dialogue other than (reconciling religion and science), this reason would be enough to engage in that dialogue as being of utmost importance."[7] In this he showed his consonance with Said Nursi and other sophisticated Muslims who saw the secularizing effects of science and technology, on the west especially, when religion was dismissed as passe. He never rejected progress or science "but only the assumption of them as a transcendental teleology"[8]

What about Islam's divisions, principally between Shias and Sunnis, which are front and center in the minds of non-Muslims in this present century? This reality has also been addressed by Gülen in his writings. In his promotion of tolerance between these factions and, indeed, of a dialogue between them, he is one of the few Muslim scholars today. But tolerance is not as central to his mind and heart as are the many other virtues he finds the Prophet Muhammad promoting. "Piety, sincerity, generosity, determination, truthfulness, compassion, patience and tolerance, and leadership characteristics such as realism, a sense of responsibility and farsightedness" are the virtues that are highlighted in his voluminous writings. It is probably the virtues of the Prophet that have made the ethical such a strong emphasis in the Gülen schools. The formation of students "dedicated to living according to human qualities and moral values" produces character and "adorns their outer world with all kinds of virtues."[9]

The realm of transcendent meaning is best accessed by him and his fellow Muslims with the 99 names of God. But the most central of these names for him is "the Compassionate and Merciful." "Compassion is the beginning of being; everything has come into existence through compassion and by compassion it continues to exist in harmony…everything speaks of compassion and promises compassion…the universe, therefore, can be a symphony of compassion…the more a man displays compassion, the more exalted he becomes."[10]

"Gülen envisions a world in which we will witness a revival of long-dormant moral values, an age of tolerance, dialogue and cooperation that will ultimately lead to a single, inclusive civilization."[11] I can't think of a more perfect description of the final fruit of the drive of catholicity exercised so often and articulated so well by Fethullah Gülen and lived by those who have been part of the movement God has moved him to name, model and launch. Thomas Aquinas described the wise person as "the one who orders all things."

Why Catholicity?

The naming of this third drive is admittedly problematic, so some further explanation is necessary lest it look like Gülen is being described as a crypto-Catholic. I have rummaged my knowledge of language to figure out what to call something in the operations in all consciousness that has the same scope as 'being' i.e. unlimited, and the same need that the drive for good or value or worth seeks, and yet is different than these two notions. It has the same restlessness as both of these notions have until they concretize. But it is sufficiently different from each of these first two to deserve its own moniker. What it does is gather the Ais and the Ais good by connecting them into the "so what?". This notion is a dot connector. The inquiring mind usually moves from 'is it' to 'what is it' to 'so what'? We answer the so what question by seeking, when able, to make wholes and meaning. Meaning completes the other two drives in the quest for understanding.

It is by dot connecting that meaning enters thinking. The dots can be as simple as connecting a subject to a predicate or as complex as the meaning of a relationship or a career or even a life. Much of our knowledge doesn't get as far as generating meaning for us. Only the individual drive for meaning or for a sense of the whole does this. I wouldn't die for either of these descriptions but together they begin to name the beast. My preferred description for naming it is that it is a drive for catholicity, not in the denominational, ecclesial, religious sense but cognitionally. Since speaking of Gülen's catholicity would be awkward for him and his followers, let me lay out the philological rationale for using the term.

Catholicity is derived from two Greek words kath and holos; catholic literally comes from these roots and means: 'throughout the whole.' Catholicity as a drive never stops seeking a sense of the whole, the meaning of the whole. It seeks to satisfy by being thorough by putting together what without this drive would remain separate.

The interreligious value of a master at dot connecting is that he or she can lead others to see wholes where they would not otherwise be able to. Gülen addresses many subjects and with each of them his faith is able to give them a unitary meaning, throughout them a whole is birthed. He continually succeeds in fashioning a horizon of catholicity throughout his ponderings, in other words. An added bonus to seeing this quality in a non-Christian thinker, it that it gives the usual meaning of catholic a needed jailbreak, something it hasn't enjoyed since the term came to rest on the Christian community of the second century. Freed from that unnecessarily narrow usage, it could even free those Roman Catholics who are burdened by having to contain the connotations of 'catholic' within the boundaries of their already articulated doctrines. The not yet which the heuristic of catholicity opens out to, has the invariant drives in all consciousness going in the same direction.

Am I being equivocal about the term? Not really. In fact, 'catholic' can't get more universal than to find its genesis in the drive operating in all consciousness. Catholic and 'ism' as in Catholicism could in fact benefit from a separation. The term is analogical au fond and reflects the capacity for a wealth of a unity-in-diversity that the Creator has equipped human consciousness to attain. The trump card of the claim being made here is that since all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, they are all equipped with the wherewithal to know the true, know and do the good and fashion meanings throughout and about the whole—which remains ever an asymptote maybe even in eternity.

If the drives that operate in the consciousness of the human species continue to go unrecognized that surely is a tribute to our abysmal ignorance about ourselves. It is the use of these innate drives that enable one to be self assembling and unitary. These cognitional, volitional, meaning seeking drives is how human beings come to selfhood. As unique instances of the image and likeness of God, it is these notions and their accompanying drives that make humans beings chips off the old block, as it were. God who is our deepest meaning has made us meaning seekers, meaning finders and meaning makers.

Relevance for Inter-Dialogue

It would be immensely helpful, of course, in interreligious dialogue if all interested parties realized that they live in a world mediated by meanings, especially the larger ones with a long history that have helped individuals in their own dot connecting. We not only make but we also inherit meanings and make them our own. To do so we are usually assisted by those who have handed down or left us with a version of a given legacy that is credible. If meanings are only discrete, disconnected, discontinuous, and mine only, then subjectivity will be impoverished and eventually directionless and continuity with past traditions of meaning will disappear. It would be hard to find an instance where one has not been socialized into some degree of awareness of formal wholes of traditions that have been and still are developing. To live completely ignorant of these handed down wholes guarantees that one will be alone in a boat in a larger and larger sea in the world of meanings. At best my person will be a construct composed of me, myself and I, continually seduced by the ephemera of the present culture Most of these larger wholes are of a religious character, usually narratives, that beckon one to make them one's organizing story. The best carriers of religious traditions are people who have proven themselves eminently worthy of being listened to. Gülen is one of these saints.

He didn't invent his tradition or his collection of connected dots. Nor did he simply replicate what he was bequeathed religiously. He appropriated the best of what and who went before him and produced a prodigious synthesis of their contributions to Muslim holiness. What I am saying is that the notion and accompanying drive to catholicity is not only a meaning maker, it is also a meaning finder. The figure we are examining here has found and is still finding many meanings through his tradition. Once made, the wheel needn't be reinvented. Acquiring knowledge and coming to an accurate sense of its meaning are not automatic. Meaning is an achievement. It is attained by individuals and communities delving into four different layers each of which has its own kind of meaning to uncover. These are common sense, theory, transcendence and interiority which latter is the center of these in the individual if there really is a center. A religious tradition is informed by these four realms of meaning as its adherents internalize them and it must be able to influence them to retain its distinctiveness. A religious tradition's main contribution is in the transcendent realm of meaning. Its continuance as a tradition will be contingent on being both accessible to contemporaries and appropriated by a sufficient number of them to bequeath a credible version of transcendent meaning to the next generation.

Meaning doesn't have a life independently of minds. One could go a little crazy thinking about the many meanings of meaning but suffice it to say here that meanings have their genesis in consciousness, beginning with our common sense. Bernard Lonergan would add three other sources to common sense meaning, as I already said above, i.e. theory, transcendence and interiority.[12] It's good we have multiple realms of meaning since whoever arrives at complete satisfaction about meaning? Whether the issue is small or large, this drive of catholicity is vectored towards the meaning of this or that particular in one's life or one's purposes or one's community or family, never tires. Unlike being that predicates 'is,' this drive for catholicity looks for meaning in different ways. The usual one is for common sense meaning. But if the question one asks is about that which transcends the here and now, there is the realm of transcendent meaning that can be accessed. Meaning also forages into realms of theory by wondering and asking about how things are in themselves, independently of oneself. This is where the sciences come in. Finally, the bulls eye realm of meaning is the 'so what' that moves one to come to this or that determination or action or conclusion. Bernard Lonergan calls this realm of meaning, interiority.

All four of these realms of meaning challenge a faith tradition to deepen itself or correct and at times to enlarge its meaning base. It does this through its prophetic voices who engage the cultures of their times, learning from them, critiquing them and possibly affecting them. In this way a faith tradition can be both host and guest. If it is thorough, and goes throughout the whole of what engages it a faith tradition can itself be called Acatholic. (Or it can and often does hunker down and hold fast to Athe already of its tradition, and await whatever it thinks the denouement of the human drama will be.) Gülen is one of the major Muslim voices who is catholicizing Islam's transcendent realm of meaning.

The Problem of Partial Wholes

There are many traditions and many of these are held to be sacred. They supply their subscribers with paths to take in their walk through a forest of plural meanings. Traditions, sacred or otherwise, supply a particularity, usually a particularity that develops from the founding moments and/or the founding figure in its genesis and evolves from there. The usual way of the tradition being transmitted is narratively with the narrative inviting the believer to make it his or her own story. Most previous generations were born into cultures with a given path, a sacred tradition. Their sacred traditions were and still are versions of a whole which the invariant drive in the consciousness of their adherents moves them to embrace. This is not to deny that these are socially mediated versions of the whole.

I have not gotten into the question of the truth or falsehood of religious traditions in this article since I don't claim to have competence about another tradition. But I can comment on the matter of their particularity. All faiths seek to satisfy the drive for catholicity in their adherents with their own symbols, rituals, beliefs, in a word, tradition. But what if the drive towards the whole which the notion of catholicity triggers in one, has them subscribe to a version of meaning in the realm of transcendence that is constitutively partial while purporting to be whole, then what? Unfortunately, this seems to be the situation that obtains with many versions of transcendent meaning. They are transcendent, yes but only up to a point. Rather than striving for a whole they have settled into an insularity that dulls or dilutes the drive of catholicity in their adherents. There in authenticity can be due to the in authenticity of the tradition itself as it is articulated by those who are associated with having authority over it. Or the in authenticity can be due to the subscriber to the tradition who, for whatever reason, truncates the whole the tradition seeks to convey. Either way, the best evidence of in authenticity is the generation of an 'us' over against 'them' mindset in the understanding of the believer, leaving the insiders comforted by their version of transcendent truth and outsiders on the outside looking in. The only solution to this is for the drive towards the whole, whatever its version of transcendence, to never cease being open to the ever expanding panorama of knowledge that the realm of transcendent meaning has to integrate.

I appreciate Gülen's clarity about the Prophet Muhammad's singular status in his own drive for catholicity. He believes that the Prophet "has achieved horizons beyond that of the angels with his abilities." He is "the Messenger of God because there is no one who ranks higher than he…he is the pride of humanity."[13] In these beliefs I appreciate how the Prophet is the symbolic operator in Gülen's consciousness that triggers his drive for catholicity and his commitment to God. For me Jesus is the symbolic operator in my consciousness who triggers my catholicity and my commitment to God. Both of us have access to the realm of transcendence and thereby to the meaningfulness we find there through these two very different persons. An interfaith dialogue that begins with the dynamics of human consciousness that all humans enjoy, should be able to see how God accomplishes God's agenda in us through very different sacred figures and narratives. And the fact that our symbolic operators are different while our drive to make meaningful wholes are the same, makes dialogue more promising and its fruitfulness more likely.


[1] Dr. Saritoprak & Dr. Griffith "Fethullah Gülen and the People of the Book: A Voice From Turkey for Interfaith Dialogue." The Muslim World, Special Issue July 2005 Vol 95/3 , p. 326.

[2] Saritoprak & Griffith, op. cit. p. 327.

[3] Fethullah Gülen Love and Tolerance (New Jersey: Light Publications, 2004) p.1

[4] Emily Webb, Fethullah Gülen: Is there More to Him than Meets the Eye? (Zinnur Book, Pateson NJ) p. 173

[5] Bulent Aras & Omer Caha, "Fethullah Gülen and his Liberal Turkish Islam Movement" in Meria Journal Vol 4 #4, December 2000, p 94

[6] Thomas Michel "Sufism and Modernity in the Thought of Fethullah Gülen" The Muslim World op cit p. 348

[7] Cf. Osman Bakar's Gülen on Religion and Science: A Theological Perspective in op. cit The Muslim World pp 359ff. for an overview of Gülen's understanding of the relation between religion and science.

[8] Fabio Vicini, "Gülen's Rethinking on Islamic Patterns and it's Socio-Political Effects" from International Conference Proceedings: Muslim World in Transition: Contributions of the Gülen Movement, (Leeds Metropolitan University Press, 2007) p. 435

[9] Thomas Michel, "Fethullah Gülen as Educator" in Turkish Islam and the Secular State (Syracuse Univ. Press, 2003) p. 217

[10] Fethullah Gülen, Towards the Lost Paradise (London, Trustar, 1996) p. 90ff

[11] Wanda Krause, "Civility in Islamic Activism) from loc cit Proceedings… p. 165.

[12] Bernard Lonergan, "Dimensions of Meaning", The Lonergan Reader editors, Mark and Elizabeth Morelli, (University of Toronto Press, 1997) pp 387ff.

[13] Fethullah Gülen, Love and Tolerance, op. cit. pps 112-13.

John Haughey, S.J., S.T.D., Catholic University. He is currently Senior Research Fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Professor of religious ethics at Loyola University Chicago. Appointed by Vatican's Council on Christian Unity to serve as member of its international dialogues with Pentacsotalism and World Evangelical Alliance.