The Community of Religions

By Nancy and John Coker

The 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions was five years in the planning, and to commemorate and document it, its organizers published A SourceBook for the Community of Religions (edited by Joel Beversluis, The Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, Chicago, 1993; 252 pages, ISBN 0-9637897-0 -8, paper, $15.00). It is divided into four main sections — The Centennial, Religions of the World, Forming a Community of Religions, and Looking Toward the 21st Century. "The contents include work from many perspectives and approaches: historical, reflective, critical, visionary, and strategic. They demonstrate ongoing conversations among people of religious orders and institutions, scholars, scientists, philosophers, parliamentarians, and leaders of organizations and movements for change" (p. xi). It's a real education as well as an inspiration to discover such an array of dedicated, farsighted, and caring religious thinkers. But whether this book will be a monument to a significant moment in human history, or merely a hopeful keepsake, depends on what we — those of us who constitute the religions of the world — do with the impetus towards religious community that brought the Parliament about.

Part 1 bridges the two Parliaments (1893 and 1993) and articulates the thinking of the planning council. They hoped the 1993 event would encourage interreligious dialogues (instead of the usual monologues) and help bring participants up-to-date with interfaith thinking and discussions that have been occurring in increasing numbers all over the world since the 1893 Parliament. They wished to "help advance the consensus which exists — sometimes clearly, sometimes in shadow form — among the world's religions in regard to social and planetary needs and goals," while creating opportunities for mutual participation in religious services, liturgies, and ceremonies. In fact, they "wanted the centennial to be itself a religious event and not just a week of talk about religions" (p. 11).

Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios, Metropolitan of Delhi (the Orthodox Syrian Church of the East) voiced a concern shared by others: could the Western religions participate without dominating, and would parliamentarians be willing to live up to their own scriptures?" We all can talk about peace. . . . Wonderful. But until recently, most of the wars in the world came out of religious conflicts. . . . we will have to shift our emphasis from talking to action for peace" (p. 16). Dr. Daniel Gomez-Ibanez, Executive Director of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions (CPWR), agreed, and pointed out that

A heedless person cannot bring caring to the world. A fearful person cannot see clearly; a selfish person does not embrace the wholeness of all creation and an angry person does not bring peace to the world. We must ourselves be whole and healthy if we would heal the earth. Its peace begins with ours, at home, in our daily lives, in our peaceful hearts. — p. 27

As interreligious dialogue must include shared understanding, Part 2 gives word portraits of many of the world's religions and related organizations. Representative members of many traditions contributed brief summaries of their histories, scriptural quotes, descriptions of worship services, rituals, and celebrations. Reading this is like taking a riveting mini-course in comparative religions taught by practitioners rather than academics. A fine three-page essay, "A Portrait of Theosophy" by Dr. John Algeo, President of the Theosophical Society in America, gives an explanation of theosophy and the challenges facing it and humanity today. Many quotes from H. P. Blavatsky (co-founder of the Society) and others, are included.

Though there are obvious differences in beliefs, an appreciation and underlying concern for the whole is made clear. Native Americans affirm the "interconnectedness of all Creation"; Shintoists revere life and the rights of everyone; Baha'is recognize the essential oneness of religion; Hindus see all life as sacred; Jains devote themselves to a life of ahimsa (nonviolence) and declare all life to be mutually supportive; Sikhs hold that service is a sign of divine worship, "what one does in selfless service is considered to be real prayer"; Swedenborgians agree that "true worship consists of fulfilling uses and therefore in expressing caring in action"; the Islamic Qur'an emphasizes "cooperation in furthering virtue and justice" in interreligious dialogue and affirms the "unity and equality of mankind"; and the Buddhist approach to peace is well known, as two "recent Nobel Peace Prize winners have been Buddhists — His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, of Burma."

It's astonishing how many ideas from other religions have entered Western thinking: "Many people practice chi-kung, Tai-chi chuan and acupuncture daily even without knowing that they are practicing Taoism," nor do they realize they are quoting the Tao Te Ching (6th century BCE) when they say, "The journey of a thousand miles starts from your first step." Mahatma Gandhi's close friend Shrimad Rajchandra was a Jain whose understanding of nonviolence was the "guiding principle of Gandhi's civil disobedience." Zoroastrianism shares many concepts with Judaism and Christianity, and gave to those faiths the words satan, paradise, and amen.

Religious divisions have been well publicized, but less well known is the amount of religious integration that has occurred — while many talk about reconciliation and dialogue, others are acting. As part of the celebration of 1993 as the Year of Interreligious Understanding and Cooperation, Part 3 of the SourceBook examines the current interfaith movement which is rooted in the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions. Included are suggestions and caveats for developing interfaith programs, descriptions and addresses of many established groups, and summaries or copies of their charters, ethics, declarations, and prayers. This worldwide movement helped bring to birth the 1993 Chicago Parliament, as well as large conferences in Barcelona, Bangalore, and New Delhi this year. The year's "Launch" event, planned by a multifaith committee, was held at Global Co-operation House in London. "A ceremony, bringing waters from the holy places of nine faith traditions to a central fountain where they later flowed together, unfolded throughout the morning" (p. 112).

In addition there is much discussion of ongoing social and environmental action: peace projects, programs to cope with homelessness, AIDS, and hunger. It's a renewal of faith in mankind just to read about them, for if a religion, philosophy, science, or spiritual path or practice does not lead to the actual betterment of all life on our planet — of what use is it? If we cannot integrate our religion, science, and spirituality with the most mundane aspects of our lives, we will continue to fragment ourselves and our planet, instead of making them whole. If scientific materialism becomes the only effective force for dealing with the practical aspects of daily life, then religion may find itself pushed farther into the background than it already is. Some suggest that there is an innate human need to believe that gives rise to the religious impulse. If so, we might keep in mind that people have found it just as easy to worship "the golden calf" as to worship the divine.

Dr. Gregorios reminded those at the Parliament that in our attempt to eliminate religious conflict, we have nearly eradicated religion — we must work together to inspirit our institutions. While a few hope for integration of world religions, the more widespread goal is, as Rev. Marcus Braybrooke, Chairman of the World Congress of Faiths, suggests, to try to "strengthen the mechanisms for coordination and cooperation, both between interfaith organizations themselves and between such organizations and the agencies for dialogue of the religious communities" (p. 108).

The last and longest section, Part 4, "Looking Toward the 21st Century," is a compendium of thoughts on the future. Much of the focus is on the need for religions to come to terms with scientific observations. "Western theologians," wrote Dr. Thomas Berry, Catholic theologian, anthropologist, and philosopher, "have shown little concern for the natural world as the primary bearer of religious consciousness. This is one of the basic reasons why both the physical and spiritual survival of the planet have become imperilled" (p. 184). He warns that we cannot resolve our problems by simply restating our beliefs: we need to study the cosmos as religious expression and so become participants in the creation process itself.

The recently deceased Dom Bede Griffiths (a Catholic Christian monk also known as Swami Dayananda) was a contributor also. Science, he wrote, is providing us with a new way of understanding our universe

which is no longer perceived as consisting of solid bodies moving in space and time, but rather, according to quantum theory, as a field of energy pervaded by consciousness. Western scientists, for the first time, have seriously faced the fact that if they want to understand the universe, they have to understand their own consciousness. . . . We are beginning to discover the unitive consciousness which goes beyond dualistic awareness. — p. 193

This awareness is alive and flourishing outside the highly defined fields of science and religion, as illustrated by the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. 178 governments reached written agreement on three texts (excerpted and reprinted in part in this section), one of which included the statement, "We affirm in a strong consensus . . . that the environmental crisis has an inner, spiritual dimension. The root causes of external problems are moral and psychological" (p. 191).

Also included here are the "Seville Statement on Violence," a Resolution on Tibet, proposals, declarations, reflections, and poems describing positive thought and action for the future. The essays on social, economic, and ecological issues may make this section seem weighted in favor of secular issues, but as one author explains, "There are strong parallels between the study of religious education and environmental education. The principal motivation for both is first hand experience. In simplest terms, one could be said to be the study of Who am I? and the other to be of What am I doing?" (p. 218).

Especially moving are the many discussions by and about young people. As Gandhi said, "If we are to attain real peace in this world, we will have to begin with the children" (p. 207). Excerpts and summaries from UNICEF and children's rights conventions and studies recount how we are mistreating our youth. It's within the ability of the world community to prevent more than two-thirds of the deaths of the 14 million children who die annually. We must generate the spiritual and political will to do so.

An outline for "Educating for Global Citizenship" is proposed by Robert Muller and others suggest a curriculum that includes Peace, Religious, Environmental, and Values Studies programs. One educator who described herself as being an "advocate for the creative process," encourages children to trust their inner selves because, "If you don't become who you are, then what you might have contributed to the world will never have a chance to be" (p. 207).

The final pages are filled with multifaith educational resources, suggestions for creative action, and religious messages of hope. This last chapter asks: "What Do We Do Now?" Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist Zen master and peace activist, answers it well.

The boat people said that every time their small boats were caught in storms, they knew their lives were in danger. But if one person on the boat could keep calm and not panic, that was a great help for everyone. People would listen to him or her and keep serene, and there was a chance for the boat to survive the danger. Our Earth is like a small boat. Compared with the rest of the cosmos, it is a small boat indeed, and it is in danger of sinking. We need such a person to inspire us with calm confidence, to tell us what to do. Who is that person? The Mahayana Buddhist sutras tell us that you are that person. If you are yourself, if you are your best, then you are that person. Only with such a person — calm, lucid, aware — will our situation improve. I wish you good luck. Please be yourself. Please be that person. — p. 227

For those whose spirit was at one with the Parliament but were unable to attend, this book may be the next best thing to having been there.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1993; copyright © 1993 Theosophical University Press)


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We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy is when men are afraid of the light. — Plato