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Special Report

Parliament brought religion to the bar of world conscience

Cape Town, South Africa

At the final session of the World Parliament of Religions, held in Cape Town, South Africa, from Dec. 1 to Dec. 8, Jim Kenney, Director of International Religious Initiatives for the Council of the Parliament, announced that the next meeting of the parliament will be held in 2004, site to be announced, and every five years thereafter. Of all the announcements at the conference, this one fascinated me most. The truth is that a Parliament of the World’s Religions could not have happened every five years before this, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the lingering antagonism among religions. I knew instinctively that this decision itself was a sign of a changing world.

It’s one thing to define a millennium by everything we’ve ever read in history books. It’s another thing entirely to define it by virtue of the changes in our own lifetimes. Most of us talk about the first, the changes they list in history books - the crusades, the rise of national states, the invention of the steam engine, the atomic age. But most of us do the second. Or at least just about everybody I know measures change by shifts in their own circumstances. And I do, too.

I know that this millennium, for instance, has been a time of massive changes because I have experienced quite a few of them myself, not the least of all in religion.

When I was a child, talking to Protestants was rare, let alone having them in your family as I did. When I was a child, only Catholics went to heaven. When I was a child no woman anywhere was considered a spiritual “leader” - teachers, maybe, but definitely not leaders in anybody’s church or temple or mosque or ashram. When I was a child, church was a very personal, very private thing. And when I was a child, I was never expected to leave the city in which I lived, and surely not the state, and never the country. And under no conditions for the sake of religion.

But last week, at the Third Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa, I sat in table discussions with a Tibetan monk, an Indian swami, a Muslim professor, a government parliamentarian, a Jewish rabbi, an ordained Christian clergywoman and a female Sikh guru - the first of her kind, in fact. Most of all, last week I sat in a conference that included people from over 90 nations and every researchable religion on the face of the earth.

More than a holy bazaar

There were more participants in the Third Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town than religious types alone, however, and there was more to the Parliament of Religion than some kind of interreligious, international festival of workshops. It was more than a sampler platter of religion. The parliament was clearly meant to be more than a holy bazaar where the interested, the confused, the skeptical and the awestruck are welcome to tastes of every exotic dish at hand. It was also an assembly of almost 400 religious leaders, theologians and idea agents from all the religions of the world, whose role it is to call religion itself to the next level of public witness and social vision.

The lasting merit of this particular parliament may well be the fact that it carried another level of involvement for religious institutions, as well as the other major associations of society. On hand were members of all the major guiding institutions in society - education, government, commerce, media, science, voluntary associations and international organizations. One of the table participants was from Hewlett-Packard, the other from a science department at the University of Chicago. A third was a government official in South Africa. Most interesting of all was the fact that all of them wanted to talk religion.

For the most part, in secular society today, religion is either the outsider in every discussion or the well-meaning but irrelevant visitor from an unreal planet. In this case, the mixture of secular experts and religious professionals may well have been the first step over a living bridge to a long-sought ideal: the infusion of meaning and values into the operational dimensions of society rather than the usual separation and reactionism that have become common in the eternal tension between religion and society, between piety and life.

Leading scientists told religious leaders what they know about the origin of life and listened while theologians from every tradition considered what that meant to the insights each tradition had on God. “Science gives answers,” Solomon Katz, anthropologist from the University of Pennsylvania, said, “not meaning. Science tells us that a thing can be done. It does not tell us whether it is good or bad to do it.”

Theologians took the position that only a global ethic - not a global religion, not a global theology - could bring values to bear on scientific endeavors.

Businessmen argued the need for corporate profit as a basis of development; theologians presented the argument that only what is good for the whole human community is really good at all.

“Towards a Global Ethic,” the pivotal document of the Assembly whose primary author was Hans Küng but which had gone out to 700 religious leaders around the world for consultation and revision, took the position that every tradition rests on four ethical principles: not to kill, not to lie, not to steal and not to exploit anyone sexually. Or conversely, to protect life, to deal honestly, to be just in commercial matters and to love sincerely. The question became in what way each of the guiding institutions, including religion itself, was actually - at this moment in history - acting in accordance with these principles or not.

It was a moment of conspicuous convergence. Doctrines and dogmas gave way to a common vision of the good life, not to indifferentism, not to syncretism. Catholics left the parliament as Catholic as ever. Jews went home Jews. Buddhists and Hindus remained totally Eastern in their spiritual outlook and committed to their traditions. At the same time, maybe for one of the few times in history, all of them - religious and lay alike - left centered around the notion that without a commonly recognized global ethic we can only have global degradation, that global problems call for global solutions.

Further, they pledged themselves in personal and corporate ways to achieve it: to create activists of corporate shareholders, to build 10,000 tribal schools in rural India, to poll all heads of government to determine their personal moral evaluation of nuclear weapons, to engage university faculty and staff in interfaith work, to advocate for Indian rights to sacred land on Mount Graham in Arizona. It was a Garden of Great Delights. But the Garden itself, I think, is only one of the things the parliament signals for us.

New way of being world

They also pledged themselves to come back together again five years hence. While synods meet in Rome and the Lambeth Conference goes on dealing with matters Anglican and the Baptist Convention announces its plans to target key cities for concentrated evangelization efforts, the parliament really signals, even for religion, a whole new way of being world together. The real question is: Why now? Why did all of this happen in Cape Town and not centuries before? And what might that be saying about the millennium?

It occurred to me that the least discussed characteristic of the 20th century might well be the development of a culture of international conferences. There were a few of them before 1945 - this parliament itself, for instance - but they were few and far between. They were certainly not routine. I know of no one who attended a conference anywhere on any subject that was truly international when I was a child growing up in a Catholic ghetto. On the other hand, I can’t remember anything but internationalism since 1945. Everybody goes to international conferences these days. Politicians, filmmakers, economists, doctors, bankers, and now imams, rabbis, nuns and pastors. The question is: “So what?”

Do international jamborees really mean anything or are they simply an excuse to make long trips to exotic places: Hawaii, Beijing, Cape Town? Does anything of lasting value come out of any of them? And what are their weaknesses?

Unlike most conferences of religious figures, The Parliament of the World’s Religions neither lectured the public nor concentrated on ecclesiastical window dressing of canons or constitutions or decretals. Removed from the details of their daily life, participants were invited to look at the larger context in which they were operating back home, to renew their perspectives, to learn a little, and then to engage.

Engagement came on various levels in various ways. Participants talked face-to-face with business people and learned from scientists. The Symposia on Science and Religion included presentations in astronomy, chemistry, biology, anthropology, archaeology and cosmology in terms of what they do and do not know about life, as well as a review of the universal wisdom about the meaning and process of life that is embedded in every religious tradition.

They prayed together, they ate together and they studied one another’s art. They analyzed the effect of society’s multiple institutions on the quality of life. They looked at religion itself to determine its own role and place and face in a pluralistic world. They talked together. They connected. They called one another by name. They announced to the world, just by coming together, that the Great Wall of Religion built brick by fearful brick in the name of God in every child’s mind was finally, finally coming down. They indicated that it just might be possible for religion to be religion after all.

Indeed, international meetings give visibility to globalism. They make presence for goodwill. They bind a girdle of people around the globe. They put faces on the others.

Two things happened at the parliament that may best embody its symbolic value: The mayor of Cape Town, Her Holiness Nomaindia Mfeketo, came upon parliament participants looking for food on a Sunday in a city that was tightly closed for religious reasons. She called a restaurant owner and asked him to open his kitchen because people needed him. And he did. In the second incident, two groups of protesters -- one Christian, one Muslim -- who had come to Cape Town to decry the parliament for its sins against faith and, therefore, to decry one another’s groups as well, became acquainted with one another in their common effort and, irony of ironies, became friends.

But international conferences do a great deal more than simply symbolize what is possible. They raise to the level of the legitimate, by making public, questions that plague the world and its people privately. They turn light on issues that too long have lived in the darkness of sectarianism: Is it really “religious” to deny women human rights? Is it religious to privatize religion to the point that religion itself becomes an agency of an oppressive state? Is it really religious to destroy what is sacred to some for the sake of what is sacred to the other? Is it religious to educate people to suffer exploitation for the sake of virtue, to forego justice in the name of God’s will? Is it really religious to separate religion and life, to turn religion into some kind of feel-good exercise while more and more of humanity is dealt with inhumanely by institution after institution? Is it really religious for religions to watch such things happen and say nothing, do nothing about it? A thing like a Parliament of the World’s Religions brings both religion and society to the bar of the world’s conscience.

Coverage of the 1999 Parliament of the World's Religions: http://sistersofsaintanne.org/capetown

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister of Erie, Pa., is a regular NCR columnist.

National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 1999