At the Parliament of Religions

Article excerpt

WHEN CARDINAL Joseph Bernardin was asked in 1993 why he was attending a "parliament of the world's religions," he answered that we are told to "welcome strangers," that many things are happening in the world which people of different religions need to confront jointly, and that Christians can find such a gathering a unique occasion to talk about Jesus.

These or similar reasons brought more than 7,000 people from more than 50 countries to Cape Town, South Africa, in December for the third such "parliament." The first (which gave this inexact name to a nonlegislative assembly) convened in Chicago with the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893; the second, 100 years later in the same city. The assembly in Cape Town proposed that the parliament gather every five years in one of the world's strategic places.

People who seemed like exotic strangers to one another in 1893 now often live on the same block in world cities. At the 1893 assembly Swami Vivekenanda introduced Vedanta to the West; today that wisdom is represented by Hindu temples and centers in many Western cities and suburbs. Jains, Sikhs and Zarathustri, whose religions were introduced to many Chicagoans at the 1993 gathering, helped plan and lead the 1999 assembly.

Many of the presentations and booths at Cape Town offered introductions to the various religious traditions. Every morning Native American tribal leaders filmed their conversations for use in a society which has yet to acquire their ecological awareness. South African inyangas and sangomas wore the paint of herbalists and healers while communicating with one another by cellular phones. The major drumming of this assembly was by a Japanese ensemble representing Shinji Shumeikai--a spiritual organization that now has outreach centers in America.

The assembly's constituency was largely self-selected. Parliaments of religion attract people who like and can afford to come to this sort of gathering. Three influential bishops and some engaging young people who were drawn by the "Next Generation" program were the only participants from Latin America. Few evangelicals or Pentecostals attended.

The "Global Ethic" signed by religious leaders in '93 and by many people worldwide during the intervening years supplied the rationale for "A Call to Our Guiding Institutions." Follow-up discussions of the global ethic repeated its theme--"no peace among the nations without peace among the religions"--and then concentrated on the ethics of nonviolence in the resolution of intergroup conflicts. After the '93 meeting, an International Peace Council made up of notable religious figures began accepting invitations to intervene in various trouble spots. More continuous, often costly, initiatives for peace are being taken up by the religious communities in such places. But the parliament's basic goal--that people of different religions should stop killing each other, and stop letting their creeds heat up ordinary disputes into religious warfare--is far from achieved.

The new "Call" urged leaders in religion, politics, business, education, media and the sciences to reassess their goals for the new century. In a science-and-religion symposium, scholars of many faiths discussed the resources and challenges that the scientific discoveries of the past century offer to the religions, and the role that religions can play in raising ethical questions about the sponsorship and direction of research. A research group that has devoted the past two decades to making "Global 2000" projections used computer models to point religious constituencies toward a revised view of progress and of ways of living that make for peace, justice and sustainability. A symposium on sustainable development advocated a city-based approach in which congregations can take initiatives. A number of sessions focused on the present draft of the Earth Charter and on local initiatives that can be taken on the way toward its worldwide adoption. …