Interfaithfully Speaking: Standing on historic ground

On September 11, I had the privilege of standing at a podium in the Fullerton Auditorium of the Art Institute of Chicago on the 122nd anniversary of the very day and in the very place where Swami Vivekananda made his famous greeting at the first Parliament of the World’s Religions. Many historians claim this event launched the modern Interreligious Movement.

“Sisters and brothers of America,” the Swami began, and with those words, “the handsome monk in the orange robes” as he soon became known, was welcomed with an ovation that lasted several minutes. 

The occasion was the annual conference of the Foundation on Integrating Spirituality and Organizational Leadership. The organizers and most of the participants were from India. I was asked to speak on the influence of their hero, Swami Vivekananda on this first Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition, and the subsequent development of the Interrelgious Movement. 

I began my presentation by defining a revolution as “an activity or a movement that effects fundamental changes in human society.” I went on to say that in my judgment, this is an accurate description of what began in this room and what is accelerating throughout the world today.

The first Parliament in 1893 set in motion a major reshaping of the religious pilgrimage of humankind, and Swami Vivekananda is a key mover. For the 17 days of the Parliament, in daily lectures and conversions, the Swami taught the Gospel of tolerance, inclusivity and equality of all the world’s religious and spiritual traditions. Speaking about his Hindu belief, the Swami said, “We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.”

Today, most historians agree that the Parliament of 1893 did give birth to the modern Interreligious Movement. Further, it was a catalyst to the development of the academic study of comparative religions and, thanks to the presence and eloquence of Swami Vivekananda, the perception of eastern religions was changed in the minds of many. The first Parliament just happened to be a 100 years ahead of its time.

Fast forward to 1993. A Centennial Parliament Celebration was held, again in Chicago, where 8,000 people came from 80 religious traditions and from all corners of the world. The Dalai Lama came. Joseph Cardinal Bernadine, the interfaith-minded Archbishop of the city threw his full weight behind the event.  The Swiss theologian Hans Kung with input from religious leaders around the world, prepared a document called “A Global Ethic,” which was an initial attempt to spell out what the religions could say together about the ethical life. 

The document has been signed by thousands of people, translated into many languages and circulated around the world. It was obvious that by 1993, interreligious engagement was an idea whose time had come. 

Three International Parliament events have followed at five-year intervals.

In Cape Town, South Africa in 1999,  the end of Apartheid was celebrated and Nelson Mandela announced, “I would not be here tonight if it were not for the religions of Africa and the world that kept my memory alive for the 27 years of my imprisonment.”

In Barcelona in 2004, the first Parliament after a wave of terrorist attacks in the US and Europe, participants agreed that the minimal interrelgious commitment we have to each other is to protect one another from abuse, slander and violence of any kind and to support each other when it does happen.

In Melbourne, Australia in 2009, the religions reflected with secular leaders on a wide range of issues facing the human community today. The press took notice and for the first time reported extensively on Parliament proceedings.

Now, a fifth Parliament will convene in Salt Lake City on October 15. Hundreds of people are registered from California, 26 from our area. A group organized through the Claremont Interfaith Council will present a workshop entitled, “Inland Valley Interfaith Network: Many Faiths, Many Interfaith Groups, One Community.” The workshop will trace the evolution of interfaith involvement in our area from a host of independent interfaith service groups into a growing community of caring partnerships. 

On September 11 at the Art Institute of Chicago, I had the strong sense that I was standing on historic ground at the site of the first Parliament.

I anticipate that all who attend the sixth Parliament in Salt Lake City will have a keen sense of history as well, as each Parliament is a concrete expression of the interrelgious revolution that is fundamentally changing the way the religions of the world relate to one another. 


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