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.