The Parliament of the World’s Religions: A Great Cloud of Witnesses

Today I leave for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which will be held back in the United States for the first time in more than 20 years. [We’ll be in Salt Lake City this year.]  This is the second Parliament I will have attended–I went to the last Parliament, which was held in 2009 in Melbourne, Australia.  These are always such amazing events:  this year, they expect over 10,000 people from over 80 countries, and representing over 50 different religious traditions.  It’s such a great experience–part academic conference, part activism, part worship immersion:  on my calendar so far, I have an interreligious discussion of women, an interfaith presentation on the role of food in religious services, a Shabbos, a Yoruba prayer service,  an interfaith presentation on the difficult passages in various religious scriptures, and a Sikh “immersive theatrical experience.”  You get the idea.  It’s going to be amazing.  Oh, and I did mention Jane Goodall and the Dalai Lama are speaking?

I’m going to be posting daily, of course, and for those who will be following my blog, I thought it would be helpful to provide some orienting background to the event.  The Parliament of the World’s Religions has its origins in what was called the “The World’s Congress of Religions,” held in 1893, in Chicago, Illinois.  [The picture above  is of Swami Vivekananda at that event.]  It is considered to be the first official meeting between representatives from Western and Eastern religious traditions, and, according to the website for the Parliament [], it represented the “birth of formal interreligious dialogue worldwide.”

In 1988, a group of religious leaders, led by two monks from the Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago, came together to organize a centennial celebration of that 1893 event.  At that time a Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions was formed as a non-profit organization for “extending the spirit and legacy of that event through subsequent Parliaments of the World’s Religions.”  The Council continues its work both in Chicago and globally, cultivating harmony among religions, honoring differences and working together for peace and justice around the world.

In 1993, then, the first Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Chicago, with over 8,000 participants from all over the world.  There, various religious leaders endorsed a document titled, “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic,” which condemned poverty, hunger, economic disparities, and abuse of the earth’s resources.  The document affirmed that the basis for a global ethic to which all could subscribe existed in a common set of core values found in the world’s religions.  It called on all people—religious or not—to subscribe to this global ethic and work together to create a more just and peaceful social order, to commit oneself “to this global ethic, to understanding one another, and to socially beneficial, peace-fostering, and nature-friendly ways of life.”  Subsequently, Parliaments were held in Cape Town, South Africa in 1999, in Barcelona, Spain in 2004, and in Melbourne in 2009.
The idea behind the Parliament was for people not just to listen and learn, but to participate and grow in one’s understand and appreciation of the religious other—and perhaps even to learn something new about one’s own tradition.  In this vein, at the gathering in Barcelona the stated goals were “to deepen our spirituality and experience personal transformation; recognize the humanity of all and broaden our sense of community; foster mutual understanding and respect; learn to live in harmony in the midst of diversity; seek peace, justice and sustainability; and actively work for a better world.” These goals continue to inspire Parliament participants today.

From my experience last time, I think one of the most important take-aways from the whole event for me is that religion really does matter, and is a powerful, powerful force for good in the world.  I am deeply encouraged by the wonderful conversations and good-will among people of so  many different faiths; and as we come together around issues of peace, justice, learning and transformation, I feel myself to be part of a great, multi-ethnic, multi-religious cloud of witnesses,  working together in different ways for the good of the whole creation.  It’s an uplifting, hopeful and grace-filled experience, and I can’t wait!

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