When the Theosophical Society was founded in New York City in 1875, few realized the force of its ideas or the long lasting momentum it would inaugurate. Proclaiming the message of universal brotherhood, the Society published works that encouraged the study of the world's religions, ancient mythologies, science, and philosophy. By 1893 the message of religious unity was beginning to be heard. The organizers of the World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago agreed that the religions of the world ought to have a part. Though dominated by Christians, other faiths were admitted. Ironically, there was opposition to theosophists at first, but their message was impelling. Allowed their own Congress they attracted audiences of some 3,000-4,000 people.
The spirit of the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions inspired the formation of several interfaith organizations, among them The International Association for Religious Freedom (1900), The World Congress of Faiths (1936), and The Temple of Understanding (1960) (1). The 1893 Parliament was significant because of the era in which it was held and the long period preceding it without any such attempt. Subsequent international gatherings have tried to bring understanding among the people of all faith communities avoiding, for the most part, theological or philosophical discussions on religious differences. They focused upon encouraging cooperation by bringing people together to reduce suspicion, competition, and prejudice.
In small events are found the seeds of inner revolution. The effort has now come full circle, and this last Parliament accomplished what could not be done in 1893: a broad representation of the global religious communities meeting as equals. Yet, even though over forty interfaith meetings have been held internationally since 1893, overt religious intolerance and bigotry are on the rise. The last 100 years have been a violent period for which the world's religions bear partial responsibility. As Professor Hans Kung has suggested, the world will not have peace as long as religions are waging war upon one another. Parliaments and interfaith dialogues are measures of our inner progress, not stimulators of it, and they acknowledge the failure of people to actualize the basis of all religions — unconditional love.
While the estimated attendance at the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions (some 7,500 people) seems large, it is small compared to the multimillions of religious proclaimants who do not share the sentiments of harmony and equality among religions. (2) The singular lack of initial interest by the global media also gives a more realistic perspective on the status of global spirituality. Still, any recognition of our failure as religious aspirants to live up to the Golden Rule —treating others as we wish they would treat us — is an important step. It confirms the hope that someday humility, tolerance, respect, and the greater message of love will surface from the depths of human consciousness and become daily expressions. But how do we get there from here?
The question "What Next?" was on the hearts and minds of those who attended the 1993 Parliament. Fortunately, the direction of interfaith cooperation has not been toward one world religion since human beings do not gain information in the same manner; we rarely have like experiences even while attending the same events. Why, then, would anyone feel that the infinite and inconceivable could be reached through one approach? At the same time, the interfaith movement would benefit by recognizing that the world's spiritual traditions derive their doctrines from one universal source. Evidence is strong that a common language of the sacred does exist. As Joseph Campbell came to realize, there is only one world mythology expressed in many ways by many cultures.
The inauguration of a new Alexandrian Library by the Egyptian Government and UNESCO (projected for 1995) (3), points to a historic precedent set by Ammonius Saccas in the third century of our era. Let us disagree where we must, but plumb the symbology existing in each long-standing religion for the fragments of the universal mystery language. With the door to wisdom opened, the vision partially glimpsed, one would stand in reverence before the marvelous and mysterious workings of the divine, and the unity that binds not only human to human but our natural world to the cosmic order. The wisdom of the ages, recorded in the spiritual symbology of mankind, holds that images from the mind of the Unknowable are impressed upon the infinite spaces of space. It is this divine consciousness that expresses itself as the laws of nature and the manifested universes.
Utilizing our different ways of understanding, let us work together toward a common goal — the practical realization of the greater Truth — and in gaining new insight into universal truths we will also discover a new applied ethic for humanity. As evidenced by our world condition the attempt by any one religion to do so alone has failed. Eventually, while continuing to work for the spirit of universalism in our daily lives, we may be able to come together by the thousands in silence sharing that which has no words and, successfully doing so, emerging not only rejuvenated but adding to the inner quality of earth and humanity. Must we always demand that something outward be produced?
Events such as the recent Parliament of the World's Religions, and the other interfaith and ecumenical meetings, represent the warming of the waters of human understanding toward a realization of universal brotherhood. Each meeting, large or small, is like a bubble in a container of water. In this case the heat is the fire of brotherhood that has begun to warm us all. Despite global turmoil, the full rolling boil cannot be too far away, from an evolutionary standpoint, unless we choose to turn off the flame.
(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1993; copyright © 1993 Theosophical University Press)
1. For an account of the 1893 Parliament and the interfaith movement, and details about these organizations, see Pilgrimage of Hope — One Hundred Years of Interfaith Dialogue by Marcus Braybrooke, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1992; 384 pages, appendix, notes, indexes; ISBN 08245-0949-8, cloth $34.50. (return to text)
2. The recent encyclical of Pope John Paul II intended for the 900 million members of the Church restates that the Church is the only authentic interpreter of the word of God "whether in its written form or in that of tradition." Los Angeles Times, October 6, 1993, pp. A1, 7. (return to text)
3. See Sunrise, April/May 1989, pp. 128-30; February/March 1990, pp. 74-83. (return to text)