Last night the largest interreligious gathering ever held in Australia opened in Melbourne. The Parliament of the World's Religions brings together some 6000 people from every continent, and from all the major religious and spiritual traditions. It will continue into next week, concluding on Wednesday evening.
The no-frills video featured here from the Parliament website explains its history. The initial Parliament of the World's Religions, touted as the beginning of the modern interreligious movement, was held as part of Columbus World Fair in Chicago in 1893. It was the first major international gathering of scholars and leaders from all the major faiths. (Continues below)
The next Parliament was held 100 years later in 1993, again in Chicago, to mark the centenary of the first Parliament, and since then they've been held every five years: in 1999 in Cape Town, 2004 in Barcelona, and now in Melbourne.
The video begins with the solemn chiming of bells. This represents America's New Liberty Bell that was rung ten times to open the 1893 Parliament, the ten chimes standing for the world's ten major religious traditions. Indian Hindu Swami Vivekenanda spoke as part of the opening, and he referred to the tolling of the bell:
'Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilisation, and sent whole nations to despair ... I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism.'
Unfortunately religious bigotry, fanaticism, and associated violence are still very much with us, and this highlights the need for ongoing efforts — both large gatherings like this Parliament, and small grassroots organisations — at forging good relations and understanding between different faith groups.
A criticism often leveled at the interreligious movement by other believers is that it aims to meld and homogenise all the religions into one overarching super faith. But a central ethos of the Parliament is to honour, preserve and seek to understand the particularities of different faiths rather than try to make them all the same.
As Dirk Ficca, Executive Director of the Parliament has said:
'The paradox is that I'm a more deeply committed Christian because of my interaction with people of other traditions, and this is the paradox of the interreligious movement. Interreligious dialogue does not blur, or make fuzzy or lukewarm one's own religious identity. While giving a person a greater appreciation of other traditions, it also sharpens and deepens one's own sense of one's own religious commitment.'
The Dalai Lama is in Australia to take part in the Parliament, and he will give the closing address next Wednesday. In his Nobel Peace Prize lecture back in 1989 he spoke of the urgent need for dialogue:
'Because we all share this small planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature. This is not just a dream, but a necessity. We are dependent on each other in so many ways that we can no longer live in isolated communities and ignore what is happening outside these communities ... As interdependent, therefore, we have no other choice than to develop what I call a sense of universal responsibility. Today, we are truly a global family.'
The Melbourne Parliament will be another link in the web of cohesion that might ameliorate the bigotry, fanaticism and violence deplored by Swami Vivekenanda over 100 years ago. Hopefully it will promote the trust, harmony and universal responsibility sorely needed in today's divided and troubled world.
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Peter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant who worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He produced a three-part Compass documentary called 'The Quiet Revolution', about the interreligious movement, and wrote an accompanying book. He is a member of the Sydney based Companions in Dialogue. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.