The Melbourne Parliament: A question of relevance
The 5000 person Melbourne Parliament of World Religions has come and gone. 1000 sessions, a week of events, and the most famous religionists in the world. Yet what do we know about it? What news have we heard?
From December 3 - 9 of this year in Melbourne, Australia, the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions (founded in 1993) convened its fourth global meeting. (Prior meetings have been Chicago 1993, Cape Town 1999, Barcelona 2004). This meeting (according to its own claims) convened approximately 5,000 people from approximately 200 faiths.
The meeting was somewhat of a who's who of the perpetually tiny group of interfaith celebrities including recognizable names like His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, Jimmy Carter, Hans Kung, Thich Nhat Hanh, Ravi Shankar and others.
An enduring problem not only with meetings such as these, but with the enterprise as a whole is the way it seems to remain consigned to the fuzzy corner of the great newspaper of world affairs. If there is anything with a genuine edge in this noble work, it simply fails to translate. Even the most sympathetic will struggle to find reportage that owns the urgency and gravitas of daily news.
Interfaith activity in the modern period can be reckoned to be about 117 years old. The lightening bolt of enlightened Hinduism disturbed the Christian imperialism that defined the 1893 Chicago Parliament of Religions and with that the advance of greater interreligious understanding and mutual trust and sympathy has inched along anemically ever since. Flurries of new interfaith groups have arisen along with occasions of political or cultural dreams of peace, in the late 1940's, associated with the founding of the United Nations, in the 1970's as the peace dream of the "60's" began to settle and institutionalize, and in the 1990's/2000 dream and hope attending the "dawn of a new millennium." This Melbourne group is the heir of this century and the most recent global flutter of hope.
There are many reasons why an effort (and a major one) that has persisted this long has remained outside the stream and the edge of world affairs. One of them is the persistent ambivalence toward engagement, and the ironic "no-no" to "lead" aggressively in a world where humility and non-assertion is the virtue of choice. As such the wheel is ever reinvented, or perhaps the movement deliberately sees itself as a gentle stream meandering through a dappled wood.
But this much effort, investment, expense, and carbon outlay should evolve and begin to count. Interfaith organizations and activity have yet to become a sufficient object of its own reflection. The movement, as it is made up of spiritual and religious people and impulses does have a wealth of predecessory material from which to draw (namely the entire history of religion and spiritual enterprise itself). History, and even in many places in the world today, religious life itself is very dominant and very edgy.
There is an irony that the only permitted religiosity in these wonderful gatherings is a certain huggy and dreamy style of enthusiasm. But so much else that obtains in the drivenness of religion is forbidden in interfaith environments. This obligatory narrowing of the genuine fact of religious and spiritual experience will only serve to keep interfaith activity on the periphery without its deserved degree of impact.
For the interfaith movement to gain relevance, and for important occasions such as the recent Melbourne Parliament to translate meaningfully into world affairs, taboos for the many realities of religious commitment must be lifted from these conversations, enduring leadership complete with its energies and ambitions must be integrated, and strategic an progressive designs must be infused to bring this healthy impulse up to a meaningful and transformative presence in world affairs.