Interfaith Interaction at Parliament of the World's Religions

I recently returned from 8 days in Melbourne Australia where I attended the 2009 Parliament of the World's Religions. I had taken five of my Claremont School of Theology students along to participate in this remarkable six day gathering of over 4,000 representatives of the world's religions. As if to signal the urgent need for more engagement across the world's religions, the event coincided with President Obama's decision to escalate US military action in Afghanistan as well as the start of the Copenhagen conference on global warming.

Recognizing that religion is all too frequently a source of conflict, the Parliament is an opportunity for religious people from around the world to more fully hear and learn from each other. In an era of globalization where distant corners of the world are far more connected than ever before, none of us can afford to remain isolated within our own religious traditions without a respectful knowledge of other religious traditions. In his remarks at the Parliament's closing plenary, the Dalai Lama told us that the world's many religions are the outgrowth of different dispositions, times, cultures, and locations, yet they all have the same goal of bringing inner peace. He applauded the Parliament for creating the space to allow believers of the world's religions to learn from each other on the basis of mutual respect, mutual learning, and mutual spiritual experiences, yet reminded us that we must take action together as well.

In reflecting on how I felt being surrounded by so many practitioners of other religions, I can best compare it to drinking the cool waters of a deep well. There was a quiet air of excitement and reverence as everyone seemed eager to engage with each another. People had clearly come to learn from each other, through hundreds of official programs, including a vast array of worship and meditation experiences as well as hundreds of panel discussions. There were also numerous unexpected opportunities for conversations, often with complete strangers. Even though I have been co-teaching a World Religions in Dialogue course for the last three years and am familiar with the basic tenets of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism, the Parliament has deepened my understanding of how other religious traditions reflect upon the world's big issues such as war and peace, climate change, poverty, and human rights.

The first Parliament was held in Chicago in 1893 as part of the World's Columbian Exposition, which was intended to showcase western technological progress. Although 70 out of the 100 speakers at that first Parliament were Christians, the event marked the first time that large American audiences had the opportunity to directly hear Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim speakers explain the major tenets of their religious beliefs. The most memorable speeches were those given by Swami Vivekananda, a Ramakrishna monk from India, who articulated his belief that many paths all lead to the same truth. This was in all likelihood one of the first times an American audience had heard this point of view articulated. The next Parliament was held in 1993 and since then it has been held in a different city every five years.

Since the Parliament was meeting in Australia, organizers had chosen to give a place of honor to the world's indigenous religions. During the opening plenary, participants were welcomed to the country by an aboriginal musician playing the didgeridoo along with traditional greetings from Joy Murphy Wandin, a senior Wurendjeri elder. There were more than 40 sessions on indigenous religions, signaling a growing acknowledgement of the sacred wisdom embedded within these traditions from which we can all benefit.

Since I am especially interested in how religions provide a framework for peace and justice work, I attended as many sessions on those topics as I could. On the very first morning I sat in on a discussion of the Qur'an's teachings on poverty. The similarities in the teachings of the three Abrahamic faiths quickly became evident as he cited verses that bore a striking resemblance to those in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. According to the Qur'an, an unwillingness to give to the poor is a sign of unbelief. I also connected to a group of people who wanted to form a global community organizing network that would connect to some truly remarkable grassroots organizing being done in Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan. It is hoped that such a network would allow for a sharing of methodologies and create new channels for building solidarity between grassroots activists in the wealthy countries and those in the global South.

Most American Christians have absorbed some negative stereotypes of other religions, so entering into respectful exploration and dialogue can lead to a new recognition of the sacredness and beauty present in other traditions. It does also shift one's understanding of one's Christian faith because it no longer exists in isolation, but in relationship to other religious traditions. As American Christians, most of us are accustomed to living in a country where our faith is so dominant that we have not had to come into serious engagement with people who have other religious traditions. However, that is now changing and there are growing opportunities for interfaith dialogue, including on-going meetings of local Parliament groups. Going to Melbourne has whetted my appetite for still deeper intereligious engagement because I believe intereligious collaboration is critical in addressing our common global challenges.

portrait-helene-slessarev-jamirHelene Slessarev-Jamir is the Mildred M. Hutchinson Professor of Urban Ministries at Claremont School of Theology and a Sojourners board member.

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