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Parliament as conversation that gets things done

Parliament of the World's ReligionsThe Parliament of the World's Religions begins tonight in Melbourne to the sound of clashing symbols.

The Parliament itself is an odd sort of parliament. The Christian season of Advent with which it coincides is an odd sort of advent. And the Great Exhibition which in 1893 gave birth to the Parliament is an odd bedfellow for religion. But when you examine the symbols more closely, they line up pretty well. The Parliament of the World's Religions makes a lot of sense.

The job of parliaments, as we know them, is to pass legislation after debating its merits. They get things done. The Parliament of Religions is confined to conversation on public issues like discrimination, poverty, indigenous welfare and care for the environment. It offers a variety of religious perspectives on these issues, and encourages people to meet in order to work more effectively.

It is much less powerful than the institutions into which parliaments have evolved. But it is not dissimilar to earlier parliaments which brought together ecclesiastical and landholding notables to offer advice to the king, and to temper tyranny.

In the Western Christian tradition, Advent is a period of preparation and waiting that concludes with Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ. For Christians in the Roman Empire, the image of advent was concrete and vivid. They associated it with the ceremonial arrival of the Emperor into a town.

The advent was presented as the theatre of power: a stern and unmoving Emperor was borne into town in a display of military might and implacability. The advent was preceded by anxious expectation. It could be followed by the examination of books, officials, by the judging of serious crimes, by exemplary punishments.

This top-down image of the coming of the emperor, who had everything to decree and nothing to hear, has little to do with the messy, conversational reality of the Parliament of Religions.

But neither is it consistent with the images of Christ's birth in the Christian Scriptures. Luke's Gospel story subverts the image of the omnipotent lord. He tells of the 'hard coming' of a rural couple to an overcrowded town. It leads to the birth of their baby in a cow stall with shepherds, those conventional figures of anarchy, the only representatives of the civil order.

This is the High King slumming it, learning to see things from underneath. The engagement of the Son of God with humanity begins with baby talk and modulates into conversation.

This version of the advent of the king sits easily with the variety, democracy and informality of the exchanges that make up the Parliament of Religions. The imperial image of Advent suggests a king who decrees, and his ministers who rule with an iron rod and brook not other voices. Advents are about edicts and the cult of a single power. Other kings are either vassals or rivals.

But the image of the animal shelter suggests that on the ground the business of kings and their chosen ministers is to speak and listen. They serve the High King by attending together to the world for which he cares.

The Parliament of the World's Religions retains its connections with Exhibitions. At the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, the inaugural World Parliament of Religions was only one, admittedly the largest, of many parliaments and congresses. It continues to bring together a multitude of conversation, performances, lectures and public events.

All this bustle and variety may seem to have little to do with religion. They are associated with commerce, buying and spelling, advertising, competition and self-promoting, not with the silence, the ceremonial, the spiritual and the internality that conventionally belong to religion.

But this exclusive emphasis on interiority is recent. The busyness of the Exhibition seems to match the place of the churches in the ancient world, where religion was a public affair, and was commended through gossip in the bazaars where Paul worked as a tentmaker. Religions are communal affairs, and have a message about daily living that needs to be stated in common words.

The relationship between Exhibition and Parliament matches the place of religions on modern societies. Their visions of the world are some of many competing visions, all of which need to be commended by comparison with others.

Although it may seem an eccentric throwback, the Parliament of the World's Religions is thoroughly modern. It is worth attending to.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. 

Topic tags: dalai lama, Valarie Kaur, Joy Murphy Wandin, Uncle Bob Randle, Michael Kirby, Tim Costello



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