GUESTVIEW: Faiths meet at Parliament of World Religions
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Paul Knitter is the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York.Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York.
By Paul Knitter and Matthew Weiner
In 1893, the Chicago Parliament of World Religions was convened to gather the world’s faiths together for the first time. The organizers had a subversive message they kept hidden from invited speakers from non-Christian traditions: Christianity is the one true faith. They assumed that if all the faiths had a chance to speak publicly to the world, it would be obvious that Christianity was superior. But things didn’t go as planned. As it turned out, the Hindu representative Swami Vivikananda from India stole the show, convincing everyone that Hinduism was as valid a way to worship and experience the divine as any other. The state of the world’s religions was changed forever and the interfaith era had its symbolic beginning.
Over 100 years later, things have certainly changed. The Parliament of World Religions is again under way here in Melbourne, with over 6,000 participants from 200 countries representing every major faith in the world. Now, it is assumed that every faith is valid. Here, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who will speak on Wednesday, is by far the most popular speaker, followed by Aboriginal and Native American speakers and others.
(Photos courtesy of Graeme Sharrock, NPPA)
The Parliament as an organization was revived in 1993 in Chicago, with the same name and the same ideal of representing all faiths, but with a different message — everyone is welcome to the table for open and honest conversations. The goal is different as well — to mobilize public opinion about the value of religious traditions and the critical importance of religions communicating with one another.
Even in the 16 years since the first new parliament, there have been real shifts in the public’s view of religion, in large part because of the work of this organization. In 1993, there was great media attention but little interest from secular constituancies. This parliament is co-hosted by the Melbourne city government. Representatives of UNICEF and other major UN agencies are here to present and learn about faiths. The Obama administration is sending a team from their Faith Based Initiatives office. All of this movement is taking place against the backdrop of 9/11. The significance of the different ways religion can be understood are not lost on anyone here.
One of the most interesting additions to the 2009 Parliament is a contingent of over 100 seminarians from the United States – future ministers, imams, and rabbis – who are here because of a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. They are part of a program titled “Prepare Religious Leaders for a Multi-Religious World.” Each of 15 seminaries and theology schools sent from four to ten students, each school one or two faculty members.
To prepare for the Parliament, all the seminarians had to take a course at their home school dealing with religious diversity and the urgency of interreligious cooperation. During the five days of the Parliament, they meet for five sessions in which they share what they learned in their courses and discuss how they can better open their congregations to cooperate with followers of other religions.
The guiding conviction for this program for seminarians is that one cannot be an effective Christian minister, Jewish rabbi or Muslim imam without knowing something about other religions. Among the participating schools are Hartford Seminary, Catholic Theological Union (Chicago), Rabbinical School of Hebrew College (Boston), Trinity Lutheran Seminary (Minneapolis), Union Theological Seminary (New York) and the Yale, Harvard and Vanderbilt Divinity Schools.
The Parliament claims to be a home for all faiths, but what does this mean? How many religions are represented? Certainly all of what we think of as the “major” faiths: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism — but also Jains, Zorastrians and a strong contingency of Native American and other indigenous groups. In fact, besides the Dalai Lama’s presence, the preeminent leaders here are Chief Oren Lyons and Chief Jake Swamp from the United States and Wande Abimbola from Nigeria. It remains critically important to native communities to be represented as faith traditions, often among the very communities that sought, and often continue to seek, to convert them. Lyons is a strong proponent, one might say a warrior for his people in this regard, pointing out that they are the communities that “got away” from other faiths.
In recognition of the painful history of indigenous peoples in Australia and in reverence for them, all the major addresses and most of the sessions in the Parliament begin with a statement of gratitude to the “ancestors who once inhabited and carried for this land.”
Here’s the official video introducing the Parliament: