From the March/April, 2010 issue of Touchstone

Too Happy Together by Peter Riddell

Too Happy Together

The Parliament of the World’s Religions Needs Some New Voices

by Peter Riddell

The Australian city of Melbourne and its new Convention Centre played host last December to the Parliament of the World’s Religions (PWR), arguably the world’s pre-eminent interfaith event. The PWR was birthed in Chicago in 1893 but remained in a state of limbo for a century until being revived in 1993, with subsequent meetings held in 1999, 2004, and, most recently, December 3–9, 2009.

Themes of Peace & Climate Change

The PWR is ostensibly designed to promote peace and understanding among the various faiths and, by extension, among the vast masses of the world who adhere to a faith of some kind, in line with a statement by the dissident Catholic theologian Hans Küng (one of the speakers in Melbourne): “There will be no world peace until there is peace among the religions.”

This fairly nebulous theme was very much in evidence at the PWR, not least through the presence of the Dalai Lama, spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism and a prominent speaker for peace and inter-religious harmony. He spoke briefly at the closing ceremony, but his influence loomed largest over the gathering through his earlier calls for the PWR to address the much-debated topic of global warming.

The PWR preceded the 2009 UN climate change conference in Copenhagen by a matter of days, and was clearly on the mind of many participants. Not only did many of the sessions in Melbourne address the climate change theme directly, but many PWR delegates also signed a 60-meter brown paper scroll that carried messages of encouragement and support for Copenhagen participants, calling on them to take measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Diversity of Liberals

The daily structure at the PWR clarified the goals of the event. Each day began with morning observances, with dozens of meetings held around the Convention Centre by the different faith groups. These were followed by intra-religious workshops addressing practice and matters of concern for each faith group. The morning ended with inter-religious sessions, often plenaries in either seminar or panel-discussion formats, in which some of the great debates between the religions could be aired. Inevitably, issues of friction between Islam and the West featured prominently in these inter-religious sessions.

The afternoons included engagement sessions, in which participants considered how faith could be put into practice in various ways, and sessions called Open Space, which provided further opportunities for reflection. An evening plenary session addressing diverse topics concluded each day.

While the major world religions figured prominently, representatives from more marginal groups also claimed their place. The exhibition hall displays featured a motley collection of religions, philosophies, ritualistic sects, and advocacy groups. The hall gave the impression of a throwback to the 1970s, with aging Western hippies, eager advocates for Islam, laid-back transcendentalists from East Asia, and some who were determined to let passers-by know that their group was “not a religion” all rubbing shoulders with each other.

The event clearly attracted members of faiths that tend towards pluralist views, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Baha’i faith. Australian Baha’i representative Natalie Mobini explained her faith’s commitment to the PWR in the following terms: “The belief that all the major religions come from God and are part of his plan for humanity is central to the Baha’i Faith. Thus the work to strengthen ties among the different religions is an arena of activity that we feel passionately about.”

Similarly, the PWR attracted liberal followers of more historically exclusivist religions, those who are seeking to redefine their faiths along less exclusivist lines. Among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, it is the liberals who are at the very core of the design and implementation of the PWR.

Unreal Atmosphere

Reflecting this fact, Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, Professor of International Studies at University Sains Malaysia and founder of the International Movement for a Just World, commented during an inter-religious plenary session on Islam and the West that “here at the Parliament of the World’s Religions there is a feel-good sense. But the real issues are outside.”

Indeed, there was a remarkably harmonious feeling at the gathering. It brought together thousands of people who followed hundreds of different religious and para-religious groups. Yet in spite of the diversity of faiths, a sense of common purpose was discernible across the whole event.

A key ingredient in this was the fact that attendees were largely agreed on the overall goals of inter-religious harmony and peace within a pluralistic religious framework. While effective as a bonding device, however, this framework brought with it a sense of other-worldliness. The real world is, quite simply, different.

Missing from the PWR were the more conservative voices, the representatives of the millions of people around the world who hold that their particular faith embodies a far greater measure of truth than do other faiths, and who are willing to say so. Such voices would have seemed somewhat out of place in Melbourne, where the overriding message was that all faiths represented different manifestations of the same divine phenomenon.

A Paradoxical Situation

This pluralist reputation of the PWR is no doubt the reason for conservative absenteeism. Yet this situation is somewhat paradoxical. In fact, admission to the PWR was quite open, and if more conservative groups had wished to attend, set up stalls, and run sessions, nothing would have prevented them from doing so. In fact, the presence of such voices would have added a dimension of reality to the proceedings, going some way to satisfying Dr. Muzaffar’s concern that “the real issues” were not being addressed.

Consider, for example, Evangelical Christians, who had a strikingly low-key presence at the PWR in Melbourne. Several were there: American Evangelical leader Jim Wallis; Elwyn Infante Neri, leader of the Peace and Reconciliation Teams working to reduce conflict between Muslims and Christians in the Philippines; and Dr. Joel Hunter, a member of the board of both the World Evangelical Alliance and the National Association of Evangelicals (USA). But their presence was in connection with themes that did not touch upon their Evangelical persuasions. Wallis spoke on aspects of climate change, while Hunter was a member of a panel addressing Christianity and Ecology.

Clever & Uncontested Muslims

While exclusivist Muslim activists were not present in Melbourne, those Muslim speakers who did attend provided a salutary lesson for other faith groups. In general, they showed great skill in, on the one hand, emphasizing the commonalities among the religions, while at the same time pointing out that Islam was the latest of the monotheistic faiths and therefore could stake special claims for modern relevance.

One of the Muslim speakers in several sessions was Dr. Suhair al-Qurashi, president and CEO of the Dar al-Hakma College in Mecca, the leading private college for women in Saudi Arabia. She led one of the morning observances, addressing the topic of “Understanding the Wisdom of Muslim Obligatory Prayers.” She first explained, then had participants demonstrate, the Muslim practice of prayer, in which the faithful kneel on their prayer mats and touch their foreheads to the mat.

To her majority-Christian audience Dr. al-Qurashi claimed that “Jesus prayed with his forehead on the floor,” without providing any evidence for this assertion. She then skillfully combined the theme of religious pluralism with the theme of Islam as the successor faith by adding that “the Creator has given us a manual to lead our lives in the best way possible, revealed through different religions, each with part of the manual. The Qur’an is the latest part of that manual.”

Similarly, Dr. Chandra Muzaffar used the platform of the plenary on Islam and the West to articulate a biting critique of the West. “The long epoch of Western dominance is coming to an end,” he declared, adding somewhat simplistically that Western dominance has been retained through military power. He said that the Western empire is declining because it cannot control its own backyard: Latin America, Eastern Europe, and so forth. Muzaffar concluded with a passionate call for inter-religious cooperation: “Either we flourish together or we perish together.” It was a stimulating presentation, yet even his controversial statements evoked little debate among the panel members, who largely spoke with one voice.

A Challenge to Christians

There was a noticeable lack of Christian voices similarly pushing at the boundaries of liberal consensus. While the existing atmosphere of the PWR does not encourage Christians to stake a special claim for their faith—arguing for the uniqueness of Christ and his message, and its relevance for all people—nothing in the structure or process of the PWR prevents them from doing so. Thus, more conservative Christians should think seriously about the opportunities they may be losing by staying away from interfaith gatherings such as the PWR.

The PWR is a movement that is still in its infancy. The twenty-first century will provide it with the opportunity to define itself, and to define its impact on the world’s religious affairs. Those who ignore the PWR will have no chance of influencing its future direction and development.

Peter Riddell is Senior Fellow with Kairos Journal and serves as Professorial Dean of the BCV Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths of the Australian College of Theology in Melbourne, Australia.

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