In 1893, the city of Chicago played host to an event which, at the time, did not seem overwhelmingly significant. Slated as a relatively minor event associated with the World’s Fair, the “World’s Parliament of Religions” was of far greater importance than recognized at the time. The Parliament was the first time representatives of various religious traditions from around the globe convened in a common setting with a common purpose. Moreover, the interfaith gathering foreshadowed the increasing contact between various religious traditions that so characterized the 20th Century.
Originally organized to foster dialog and understanding between the world’s various faith traditions, the Parliament spawned a groundswell of interest among those in attendance as well as those who read about the informative proceedings. Especially in America the Parliament’s impact was both immediate and wide-spread. For example, prior to the gathering in Chicago, both Judaism and Catholicism were largely marginalized in American culture. Despite the fact that both of these groups were numerically strong in the United States since colonial times, a general lack of information on the part of the Protestant Christian majority created an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust. One of the most significant and enduring legacies of the Parliament has been the mainstreaming of both Catholics and Jews.
A second but no less momentous contribution of the Chicago meetings was the West’s exposure to vital Asian spiritual traditions, most notably Zen, Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. As the 20th Century progressed, contact and positive exchange between American seekers and Asian religions grew rapidly. During the final quarter of the century this inter-spiritual contact and exploration was commonplace.
In 1993, honoring the 100th Anniversary of the parliament, Chicago again played host to a gathering of representatives from a wide range of spiritual traditions. Over 9,000 participants attended the conference and registration had to be stopped three weeks prior to the event, simply due to lack of space. Attendance could have been much higher. Incredibly, over 75,000 people showed up for the closing ceremony, held in Grant Park. From beginning to end, the hallmark of the conference was mutual respect and a sincere desire for cooperation and unity among the participants. The only incident of discord occurred when a group of fundamentalist Christians, who were non-participants, staged a protest in opposition to the event.
As the 21st Century advances, we can only expect this stream of inter-spiritual contact to widen and grow deeper as the contact between faith traditions grows increasingly consistent. As this process unfolds, it is hoped that among the positive results of inter-spiritual dialog and cooperation are such things as: deeper insight into points of commonality among the various religious traditions; joint proactive efforts by the various traditions to address and rectify existing global and social concerns; and a more peaceful, harmonious world, from nations to neighborhoods. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, an example of a person with a heart for Interspirituality, speaks of the possible benefits of interspiritual cooperation:
“Because all the world’s religious traditions share the same essential purpose, we must maintain harmony and respect among them. This not only benefits the followers of each religion but makes our neighborhoods and countries more peaceful. To do this we need to understand something about the world’s different religions. There are many ways to go about this, but I believe the most effective is face-to-face dialog. Let religious and spiritual leaders meet together to discuss and share their experience and practice; let ordinary members of religious communities spend time with each other.”
The final point made by the Dalai Lama is of particular note. While the meetings and dialogs between leaders from the world’s spiritual traditions is of great benefit, it is when the average, rank-and-file members of these traditions become more familiar with one another that real transformation can take place. Positive sharing between the laity of all religions holds perhaps the most promise of all. Any future plans for interspiritual programs and gatherings should take this reality into account. To have only religious leaders meet together is a positive step, but falls short of what is needed.
To be sure, there will always be those who are opposed to interspiritual dialog and cooperation. Typically this flavor of opposition comes from the fundamentalist camps, especially within Islam and Christianity. I do not mean to equate these two forces as the former is typically more radical and violent that the latter. Still, both of these religious elements are consistently abhorrent of any attempt toward religious unity. In spite of their opposition, however, the participation of both Islamic and Christian fundamentalists would be welcome. Anything else would be antithetical to the principles of interspiritual unity.
Still, there are some Christians who feel that any other spiritual tradition other than Christianity is at best worthless or at worst an evil entity, spawned from the loins of hell. I will state categorically and without reservation that I do not share this mindset and, in fact, consider such a worldview closer to pure evil than a more open-minded approach. I am a Christian but that does not mean I cannot learn from other traditions. In fact, I feel compelled to remind readers that Christianity, along with every other religion, is a product of human effort, not of God. It is an unfortunate truth, but a reality nonetheless, that oftentimes religion is one of the chief impediments to true spirituality, especially as exemplified by Christ.
I am reminded of the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well in Samaria. Most often sermons or Bible lessons on this fascinating encounter focus on the sins of the woman’s past and present life and on Jesus’ teachings about the “living water.” Yet this passage also is highly illuminating in terms of Jesus’ view of religion. He does not condemn this Samaritan woman’s religion. Instead, he goes on to share that “a time is coming and already has come” where both the Samaritan religion and the Jewish religion have become obsolete. The Lord clearly tells the woman that God is spirit and must be worshiped in spirit and truth. God must be worshiped beyond the confines of a limited religious point of view.
Does exploring the teachings of other faith traditions in any lessen Christianity? No. In reality, such exploration enriches our faith and helps us to see the teachings of Christ and the early church in fresh and often more accurate ways. Personally, I have such endeavors highly beneficial and, equally significant, these studies have given me insight into how adherents of other faith systems view life. This has been of great benefit in discussing my Christian perspective with followers of other religious traditions.
The reality that we now exist in a global society is undeniable. Further, there is a growing recognition that the entire world is interdependent. When one part of the globe is affected, all areas are impacted in some way. Interdependence is increasingly seen in trade, science, medicine, cultural exchange, and even education. It is only natural that humanity’s spiritual traditions are involved as well. Perhaps our greatest hope lies in the fact that as a growing knowledge of the essential unity within the diversity of religious expression takes place, we, as a species, will be less inclined to hostile behavior.
Think about it.
(c) L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved