1993 Parliament of the World's Religions

Critical Issues and Ultimate Concerns

W. T. S. Thackara

We need only look into the eyes of a newborn child, or gaze up at night upon galaxies aborning, to recognize in nature creative power so far surpassing human intelligence that we justifiably feel divine presence. This is true religion, an innate intuition of spirit: that we are not creatures of blind chance, but here for good and just purposes, however imperfect our grasp of them. In contrast, history is drenched in the blood of religious animosity and intolerance, so much so that a reader's letter in the March 18 Los Angeles Times lamented that "most of our current trouble spots are caused by religious fanatics," and suggested that "atheism is beginning to look pretty good, isn't it?"

How is it, then, in this divine wonderment of life, that we are such a trouble to ourselves, each other, and our beautiful planetary garden? And what are we to do about it? These, to my way of thinking, are the critical issues and most important questions of ultimate concern.*

*"Ultimate concern" is the term adopted by Protestant theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) for his phrase das, was uns unbedingt angeht ("that which matters to us unconditionally"). According to Tillich, the only ultimate truth is “the one that no one possesses,” protecting us against idolatry (and its companion, dogmatism). Every person’s religious history begins with a revelation or insight by which one is grasped by an ultimate concern, directing him or her inwardly towards the numinous and outwardly toward its realization in life (cf. Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. M. Eliade, 14:530-3).

Sixty years ago, theosophical leader Gottfried de Purucker observed that humanity progresses cyclically, with periods of scientific, philosophic, and religious activity following one after the other. The late 19th century was predominantly scientific; by the 1930s science was becoming more philosophical; and, at the beginning of the last quarter of this century he believed a religious era would open. This period, he cautioned, "will be exceedingly dangerous; for it is in matters of religion that men differ more acrimoniously, more ungenerously in feeling, than they do either in philosophy or in science." Yet it would also be an era of great hope as it coincides with a renewed outpouring of spirit and a cycle of upliftment ("The New Era and its Keynotes," The Theosophical Forum (5:1), Sep. 15, 1933, p. 6).

Amid the manifest upheavals of this last quarter century, where then to find a refuge of truth, wisdom, and loving kindness? In atheism? Or perhaps a deserted island paradise? It is not to be wondered that many people — less certain than ever that science, politics, or religious institutions alone will guide them to the promised land — cry out to higher powers for help. And the timeless answer seems to call back in its still, small voice — that the gods help those who help themselves.

Both technology and a higher view of polis ("community") have contributed enormously to our recognition of the human community as global, and that our responsibilities extend beyond the boundaries of earth's atmosphere to the universal ecosystem. But our humanity is more than this. That it also embraces an ethical and spiritual cosmos has been brought home by a knowledge that all peoples share not only common aspirations for peace, brotherhood, and the blessings of life, but a common spiritual wisdom transcending "border, breed, and birth."

A hundred years ago at the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions, with all its pioneering accomplishments, this view was not universally held; but its seed was there. A century later, it's virtually a prerequisite. Nevertheless, even among those who understand and do their best to practice universal brotherhood,* intolerance and spiritual pride still assert their power. These are elemental forces of mind and emotion born of ignorance and egotism — forces vanquished by real knowledge guided by altruism.

*"Brotherhood" in its genderless philosophical sense denoting common spiritual parentage.

While the news media give disproportionate attention to the political and religious terrorism of extremists, often confusing the acts done in the name of religion with religion per se, they nevertheless bring these realities so close to home that we cannot escape having to examine our own motives and beliefs: to see frankly and honestly to what extent we are aggravating the problems besetting the world — and to what extent we are contributing to their solution. Personal and societal transformation is a heroic task, and we would be naive to believe that humanity will magically change overnight, or in a decade, even with all the help we can get.

Courage, as the word implies, comes from the heart, as does the perception which recognizes the divine in all others. The meeting and communion of hearts and minds is one of the most precious gifts of life, and daily there are abundant opportunities to experience this blessing. Yet life also asks equal measure: a willingness to meet people as they are — to accept one another as fellow wayfarers, regardless of sins, past strife, and ideology; and to collaborate in the most creative effort ever conceived: the art of living for the common good.

The most influential nations on the planet are not defined by political boundaries. They are rather communities of belief — religious, philosophical, and scientific — and these are far older and more deeply rooted than any polity existing today. Some are institutional, others exist informally on the wavelength of shared conviction and aspiration. That every individual comprising them has something positive to contribute toward the solution of the world's problems, both within his or her own fellowship and to other communities, is the basis of the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago.

A parliament (from the French parler, to speak) is by definition a safe place to confer, a protected meeting place at which weapons are left outside so that matters of the common welfare can be discussed intelligently with mind and heart. The 1993 Parliament seeks to provide such an opportunity: to speak about and examine candidly, searchingly, and respectfully those fundamental ideas about life, matter, consciousness, and spirit that profoundly shape our world and our individual lives within it.

The Parliament's Council, a nonsectarian body of individuals from diverse religious faiths, is scheduling a wide-ranging program around several "Critical Issues": earth and environment; human communities; economics and justice; science and technology; and politics, power, and liberation. The premise here is that the world's major problems are essentially problems of the spirit — magnified reflections of conflicts within every human soul — and that a spiritual perspective must imbue any scientific or political effort to solve them realistically. More specifically, the Parliament asks of every faith community the following questions:

1) How has your faith tradition responded to the unfolding of science and technology?

2) What wisdom does your faith tradition offer concerning the legitimate needs of increasing populations and the easing of poverty and injustice, without jeopardizing Earth's capacity to support life?

3) In the face of worldwide tension and violence, much of it religiously influenced, what does your faith teach about relations among those who differ in faith, culture, race, or gender?

4) What alternative visions can your faith contribute to living peacefully and sustainably with others and with the earth?

These questions are for everyone, and all who take them into the parliament of their own personal dialogue automatically become participants, whether or not they attend at Chicago in late summer. The 1993 Parliament is not a legislative body nor is it envisioned as the great problem solver. Rather it is part of a process which, if its spirit of cooperative dialogue between diverse communities and individuals radiates beyond the historical event, can help towards practicable solutions of the world's ills.

Pervading and undergirding the critical issues are the deeper questions of who we are and where we are going — the questions of ultimate concern about man and cosmos. These go straight to the causes of the human condition. How we answer questions about the existence of God, about death and dying, disparity, justice and fairness, the purpose and meaning of life profoundly affects our worldview and our response to the critical issues. How differently would we conduct our lives if we believed ourselves to be immortal, answerable for every thought and deed, and co-creators with divine nature of our character and destiny? Simple foundation thoughts beget powerful consequences.

At the Parliament each faith and each individual will respond to these questions uniquely, contributing to the richness and depth of the dialogue. In speaking to our common purpose as "co-religionists" in the most universal sense — as people who acknowledge the divine mystery and its life-giving wisdom — we transcend intolerance, separation, and distrust. By sharing viewpoints instead of dogmatically asserting them, we may glimpse a new perspective, possibly a deeper insight that could make a radical difference in the quality of life. The world's faith communities are called on to rise above divisive provincialisms so that all peoples may come to know each other better as one interdependent humanity — with problems to solve much larger and more pressing than personal salvation alone.

Having confidence that there are creative solutions to every problem is an act of faith, though a faith built on trust through experience. Finding solutions, however, requires a willingness to cooperate with others, and to listen. No one has all the answers or the ability to effect tide-changing solutions singlehandedly. The world does not work that way. Pluralism is a fact of the universe and there would be no life without it. Perhaps Rudyard Kipling phrased it best in his "Ballad of East and West":

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho' they come from the ends of the earth!

(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1993; copyright © 1993 Theosophical University Press)

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