Parliament of World’s Religions, 2009

The major and some minor world’s religions were well represented at the Parliament of the World’s Religions that ended this month (December 2009) in Melbourne – but perhaps not quite the “world” itself.

The organisers, based in Chicago and offering these ambitious international, inter-religious festivals each five years, hoped for 10,000 people.  Over a crowded week of activities about 6000 people attended, but with noticeably few speakers or participants from Africa, Asia and even Europe. Yet almost 70 per cent of Australians alone claim to have some kind of religious affiliation and religion continues to be an unmistakeable global force, shaping personal and collective identity and most particularly how we conceive of and respond to “the other”.

A further vast group, or group of groups, conspicuous by their absence, was religious exclusivists or fundamentalists. A few souls stood outside with banners to assure participants that Jesus is the only way, but most didn’t come close. There’s a long, agonising history to those absences. Within virtually all religions, and sometimes between denominations within a single religion, a belief prevails that other faith cultures cannot be called “religious” or “religions” because they are wholly wrong. From this viewpoint, dialogue and the understanding that might arise from dialogue or shared worship become unthinkable.

It’s no secret that the human capacity for self-righteousness reaches its zenith around religion (for and against). That’s the shadow side of the passion, expansion and inspiration that religious belief in all its variety can also give. But religion is not about belief only. Belief – and the particular nature of those beliefs – drives identity. Identity, in turn, drives how people behave and how they will justify their behaviours. It’s that potent and often only partially conscious mix that makes any political struggle infected by religious zealotry so remarkably dangerous. It also makes reasonable people noticeably unreasonable when they sense that their beliefs are threatened.

Religion remains for many a private affair but its social consequences are not.

The buried question in many sessions at the Melbourne Parliament was how religious people might shift their vision to one that does not simply embrace difference, as a Parliament slogan advocated, but transcend it – and not for the sake of the “other” only, but also for self-preservation and safety.

This is not about eliminating difference but losing our fear of it. It’s about thinking differently about “difference” itself. There’s history here. Each of the world’s faiths preaches unconditional compassion and the urgency of peacemaking. Swami Vivekananda electrified the largely Christian crowd at the first of these Parliaments in 1893 when he argued for “universal acceptance” as a spiritual goal, boldly stating that sectarianism and bigotry have “filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood”.

Unconditional compassion remains the critical challenge in 21st-century religious and spiritual life because in practice, and often with elaborate theological justifications, concepts of “neighbour” and “the other”  continue to be dangerously limited.

Swiss theologian Hans Kung is credited with saying that there will be no peace in the world until there is peace between religions. Islamic and Jewish speakers were outstandingly eloquent in their confidence that peace and co-operation must be based upon first-hand experiences, including generous hospitality not to people only but also to ideas that may at first seem “foreign”. (What we presume we know, what we presume we are hearing, can be our greatest barriers to clarity as well as understanding.)

Like many speakers, Kung was at this Parliament to analyse a global social problem from a religiously ethical perspective. In his case, it was to present a global economic ethic first presented at the UN just two months ago. Kung’s theology is Christian; his view is inclusive. And at this Parliament he was not alone.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and a self-declared religious progressive, elaborated the need for new visions that would drive new actions. “No more in my life am I going to go with a compromised vision of what life could be,” Lerner said.

Swami Agnivesh, president of a Hindu reform movement and active in the elimination of child slavery, questioned the religiosity of many religious people. Do they worship God or seek spiritual transformation – or is it their religious ideology that has them in thrall? Agnivesh asked the question that distinguishes this as a spiritual challenge: “To what extent do my beliefs help me evolve from within – and to relate to others as part of me?”

Repeatedly participants as well as speakers drew attention to a need for an inter-religious (and intra-religious) co-operation as radical as any contemporary action on climate change and just as necessary. These are changes that will depend on humility as much as vision: admitting the costs of divisiveness; facing the prejudices that marginalise women and indigenous people in traditional religious practice; recognising common causes and living a common ethic. Along with this and sustaining it will be increasing hints and experiences not of a common theology but a necessary respect for common, profound spiritual yearnings – and the life-saving direction in which they might take us.