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Religion Parliament may be sign of things to come

By Joan Chittister

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, a regular columnist for NCR, attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa, and will be reporting on it in future issues of NCR.

You’re having trouble meshing different points of view on the diocesan council? You think that the multiple political persuasions reflected in your parish may be affecting your ability to create a true community of worship there? You’re afraid that the struggle between a Vatican I and a Vatican II expression of Catholicism can never be reconciled?

In that case, try this one: Over 6,000 people from all over the world and out of every major religious tradition on earth were to meet in early December for the third time in the Parliament of the World’s Religions. They do it, they imply, in order to be true to the denominational values of all of them by joining together in common projects designed to transcend denominationalism and benefit the entire human race. It is an ambitious project. It may also be, if it succeeds, one of the most important religious events in history.

The Parliament of Religion was to assemble in Cape Town, South Africa, Dec. 1-8 to present some kind of united spiritual front in the face of all the other racial, political, sexual and economic divisions in the world. By coming to agreement on the influence and activities religious groups can bring to bear on the world’s “guiding institutions” -- government, education, commerce, media and religion itself -- the group hopes to start a ripple effect throughout religious groups worldwide. It is an attempt to make common spiritual cause around the issues affecting humankind everywhere in the world today.

Federations of Christian groups have long known the pitfalls that plague cross-denominational work even in the same tradition, however well intentioned the participants might be. The World Council of Churches, a Protestant attempt to bring common voice to a common Christian ethic, was founded in 1948 and took almost 40 years in the making. To this day the Roman Catholic church still declines full membership in the assembly on grounds of theological differences.

Even here in the United States, where cultural backgrounds and common historical perspectives would seem likely to unite a group, the Lutheran Synod has had its moments of internal differences and structural division. The Baptist Convention has suffered the impact of theological contradictions. Catholicism itself meets in 18 separate rites or culturally developed churches around the world in historical recognition of the distinctions in world-view, customs, liturgical expressions and theological interpretations common to each.

The Parliament of Religion, a coming together of significant religious figures, some ordained, some not, from multiple denominations and spiritual traditions -- Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Taoism, as well as African religions and other native groups -- is an even rarer and surely more difficult occurrence than any of the other attempts at interreligious collaboration. It is, nevertheless, a clearly crafted one. Six themes order the agenda: human rights; essential needs; creative engagement with the public arena; understanding and cooperation; sacred practice; and community and life.

In a society that has never been more unified and more fractured at the same time, religion is a major factor in the making of war as well as in the keeping of the peace. The parliament itself, after an initial assembly in Chicago in 1893, never met again for 100 years. The present parliament is an outgrowth of the second parliament in Chicago in 1993 at which participants called for more regular assemblies.

The function of the Parliament of Religion, according to its governing body, the World Council of the Parliament of Religion, is to “promote understanding and cooperation among religious and spiritual communities around the world.” It is a first public step in the global response of religion to major global questions. And the public is responding. Scholars, idea agents, activists and religious leaders from around the globe are scheduled to offer over 700 workshops, seven major plenary assemblies and multiple cultural and liturgical experiences culminating in a “Call to Guiding Institutions” to adopt a common global ethic.

Dialog, critical reflection on the major issues facing the human community with an eye to determining what religion can do to contribute to their resolution, and the common celebration of the goodness of God is difficult to achieve when orthodoxy is the glue that binds. When a given orthodoxy is not a group’s common ground to begin with, it may be unattainable. But if people of religion cannot do it, how are we to imagine that anyone else could?

The Parliament of Religion may well be an impossible task. It may even be, if women religious leaders are as invisible there as they are in most religious gatherings, an anachronism. On the other hand, it may be the first dawn of hope on the cusp of a new millennium. The question is, is the Parliament of Religion a sign of things to come as borders collapse and interdenominational contact becomes more a fact than a project? Or is this just one more religious jamboree with all the historical overtones of factionalism, fundamentalism, sexism and dogmatism that religious “dialogue” has historically implied? In a world where religious tension underlies wars in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, East Timor, India and Pakistan, where women are still invisible, and where religious diversity and pluralism are emerging factors everywhere, the answer may be well worth pursuing.

A daily photo essay for the Internet was prepared during the Parliament by NCR Associate Publisher Sr. Rita Larivee, SSA. The essay can be viewed at http://www.sistersofsaintanne.org/capetown/

National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 1999