Volume XIV:1 January - June 2024
Impressions of the Eighth Parliament of the World’s Religions
Chicago, Illinois, August 14-18, 2023
I first became aware of the Parliament of the World’s Religions when I read the introductory chapter of The Gethsemani Encounter: A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics (Continuum, 1999). From it, I learned that prior to the Parliament of the World’s Religions that was held in Chicago in 1993, “Fr. Julian von Duerbeck, OSB, and Br. Wayne Teasdale had proposed that the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID) host an interfaith session at the Parliament with his Holiness, the Dalai Lama, and other Buddhist leaders” (p. xvii). At that session, the Dalai Lama suggested that the dialogue continue in a monastic setting. His proposal led to three Gethsemani Encounters, meetings of Buddhists and Christians for dialogue that were held at Gethsemani Abbey in 1996, 2002, and 2008.
The 1993 Parliament in Chicago marked the 100-year anniversary of the “World’s Parliament of Religions” that was part of the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. That Parliament was the starting point of modern interreligious dialogue. After 1993, the Parliament was held in Cape Town (1999), Barcelona (2004), Melbourne (2009), Salt Lake City (2015), Toronto (2018) and virtually (2021). When I began teaching at the university level, I included the World’s Parliament of Religions in my syllabus. I was thus eager to attend the Parliament when it returned to Chicago on the thirtieth anniversary of the 1993 gathering.
The theme of this year’s Parliament was “A Call to Conscience: Defending Freedom and Human Rights.” What initially impressed me was the sheer magnitude of the gathering in Chicago’s McCormick Center. Thirty years ago, the event was held at the Palmer House Hotel; in 1893, it was held at the Art Institute of Chicago. Although both are large venues in their own right, they pale in comparison to the McCormick Center. Upon arrival at the entrance to the Center, one still has to walk a considerable distance—it seemed like a half-mile—to the Lakeside Center where the Parliament’s Exhibit Hall and Main Stage were located. These too were in spaces that were so large they could best be described in terms of acres or American football fields. More long walks though mazes of hallways led to standard-sized and typically bland conference rooms for smaller sessions. A redeeming feature of the venue was the plaza overlooking the vast blue waters of Lake Michigan. During the mercifully cool August days, the plaza provided a relaxed setting for musicians, art installations, creative activities, and spontaneous conversations.
It was impressive to see that there is now such a vast, international audience interested
Parade of faiths 2023 Parliament of the World's Religions
Parade of faiths 2023 Parliament of the World's Religions
in cooperative relations between religions. At this year’s Parliament, there were 8,254 attendees, who came from over 95 countries and represented over 200 religious traditions. Given the immense scale of this gathering, the number of sessions on specific topics was huge, most of them given by academics, practitioners, or activists. The sessions that I attended over the five days of the Parliament, and which I will summarize in this report, were mainly in the areas of religion and ecology, the Catholic Church’s approach to interreligious relations and dialogue, and Buddhism.
Sessions on Religion and Ecology
I attended two sessions on the theme of religion and ecology, in both of which the prominent scholar of religion and ecology, Mary Evelyn Tucker, was a presenter. In “The Vision of Thomas Berry,” Tucker provided an overview of the thought of Thomas Berry, a Roman Catholic priest of the Paulist Order, who speaks of a shift from an anthropocentric view of humanity promoted in the monotheistic religions to a “New Story,” a view of humanity as part of the ancient, 13.5-billion-year-old universe.
The second session in this area, “The Global Ethic and The Earth Charter in Dialogue,” compared two significant documents of the 1990s that articulated principles to address humanity’s current crises. The Earth Charter was written between 1997 and 1999 by artists and scientists from various religions. Tucker was also a presenter for this session and noted that the preamble of the Earth Charter boldly states, “Our earth is alive.” Even though this document makes no mention of climate change, Tucker believes that it is still very relevant today. In the ensuing discussion, Tucker noted that the Global Ethic document, a landmark declaration of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, refers to an Ultimate Reality and contains lofty and inspiring language that reflects a monotheistic worldview. The Earth Charter, however, resists such language in order to seek common ground with audiences that do not resonate with the terminology of religion and spirituality and with people whose religious traditions do not posit such an Ultimate Reality. In doing so, the Earth Charter follows the example of Thomas Berry, who found new ways of expressing the sacred in the universe.
Sessions on the Catholic Church and Interreligious Relations and Dialogue
A few sessions were devoted to the Catholic Church’s involvement in interreligious relations and dialogue. In a session entitled “The Second Vatican Council and the Life of the Church in this World,”  Massimo Faggioli, Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University, spoke on the reception of the Second Vatican Council today. In the ensuing discussion, someone noted the irony of the canonization of Pope John XXIII
who “opened the doors wide” by calling the Second Vatican Council and that of Pope John Paul II who sought to “undermine” it. Faggioli replied that the legacy of Pope John Paul II with regard to the Second Vatican Council and interreligious relations is a mixed bag. However, it is important to remember that he went well beyond expectations in the area of Jewish-Catholic relations.
In a session entitled “Pope Francis and New Directions for Interreligious Dialogue,” Dr. John Borelli of Georgetown University began with a reference to Bishop John Joseph Keane (1839-1918), founder of the Catholic University of America, who commented at the time of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions that Catholics could not afford not to attend it. Borelli recalled some highlights of the papacy of Pope Francis: his meeting with the Waldensians of Italy; his being the first pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula; his encyclical, “Evangelii Gaudium” in which he frequently uses such words as “accompany” and “camino”; and his encyclical “Fratelli Tuti,” which was inspired by his friendship with The Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, and which Borelli thinks of as the interreligious encyclical that many had been waiting for. He observed that the Catholic Church needs to reassure Jews that it is not reneging on its statement that “the Church . . . decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” (Nostra ætate, 4) by its continued engagement in ecumenical dialogue with Lutherans or Eastern Orthodox Christians, for example, who have not been as clear in condemning anti-Semitism.
The session, “A Decolonial Approach to Interreligious Studies and Dialogue: Catholic and Muslim Perspectives,” was given by Father Akizou Kamina, SVD, originally from Togo and now teaching at Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa, and Syed Atif Rizwan, Director of the Catholic-Muslim Studies Program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Professor Rizwan offered introductory comments on the history of Christian missionary activity as part of the colonial enterprise, which was in large part a history of conflict and violence based on the idea that the dominant cultures have the true answers. Father Akizou spoke about the tension between dialogue and mission that arises from Jesus’ call to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Christians must now deal with the challenge of moving beyond Christian suprematism and coming to grips with the place and role of Christianity as one of the world’s religions.
One session that pleasantly surprised me was “A Right Not to Kill: The Catholic Worker Position on War and Weapons.” This session included Kathy Kelly, a co-founder of  Voices in the Wilderness, Martha Hennessy, the granddaughter of Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day and member of the Kings Bay Plowshares, and
Parliament panel: “A Right Not to Kill: The Catholic Worker Position on War and Weapons.” Kathy Kelly, Martha Hennessy, and William Cavanaugh
Parliament panel: “A Right Not to Kill: The Catholic Worker Position on War and Weapons.” Kathy Kelly, Martha Hennessy, and William Cavanaugh
William Cavanaugh, who teaches at DePaul University in Chicago. During the discussion, a question was posed to the panel about the interreligious dimensions of the Catholic Worker movement. Hennessy replied that the Catholic Worker respects people of all religions, but is deeply rooted in the social teachings of the Catholic Church. While this is an adequate and ultimately correct answer, it could also be noted that the Catholic Worker has an established history of involving in its work people outside of Catholicism and Christianity, even atheists and those who do not identify with any particular religious tradition.
Sessions on Buddhism and Dialogue with Buddhism
A session entitled “Buddhism in Action: Turning Life Around in the Buddha’s Homeland” was presented by a panel of activists representing Buddhist Global Relief, Tzu Chi Foundation, Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal, and Live to Love International who described their work to alleviate suffering, provide disaster relief, and promote self-confidence and well-being  in Nepal and northern India, the homeland of Buddhism.
A session centered on practice and entitled “Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue: It’s Time to Talk,” involved four presenters: Father Alexei Smith, an eastern rite Catholic priest who is the Director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles; Chuck Hutchcraft, a Zen Buddhist priest; Michael Terrien, a Benedictine oblate and co-founder of Play for Peace; and Huize Shih of the His Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, California.  The presenters invited those in the audience to engage in communal lectio divina by reading a text by the Dalai Lama, reflecting on it, and sharing their thoughts.
Sikhs provided a daily vegetarian meal available for the thousands of participants at the Parliament free of charge. This was held in a tent where all were asked to remove their shoes and to place a covering over their heads. The meal consisted of rice, naan, and savory curry-spiced sauces. In the tent, there were informational displays that mentioned the Sikhs of Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha first provided the langar meal at the 2004 Parliament in Barcelona. There was a small stage with musicians playing traditional Sikh music with a model of a temple (gurdwara) in front of them.
The Parliament may appear to be not worth the effort, especially in comparison to the intimate, small-group meetings that Monastic Interreligious Dialogue has coordinated to promote in-depth dialogue at the level of spiritual experience and practice. Over a period of five days, encounters with other Parliament attendees are typically brief and fleeting since those who participate in such a large gathering will attend different events and sessions, and sessions that last an hour and a half are too brief to allow for much depth of interaction. A single presentation by a scholar or a panel with multiple presenters provides only a small snapshot of their perspectives. There are often more attendees asking questions at the end of a session than there is time for, and there may only be a few minutes to find the way to the next session.
Despite the overwhelming scale of the Parliament, I was able to make new connections and to continue those I had already made, albeit mostly through brief encounters. I reconnected with a Buddhist monk whom I met in a course on Buddhism when I was a graduate student in Boston. I recognized the name of a scholar in the area of Buddhist-Christian studies when he introduced himself in a discussion period and greeted him afterward. Some 2,000 miles from our homes in the South Puget Sound area of Washington state, I deepened connections with friends from the local interreligious organization, Interfaith Works, based in Olympia, Washington. Even though the number of participants at the Parliament was in the thousands, I was surprised at how often I would encounter someone whom I had only met there and with whom I could chat about my impressions of the Parliament and hear about their experience.
The Parliament is an enormous umbrella under which people meet people of their own religions and those of other religions to talk about service, ecology, interreligious dialogue, and almost every religious topic imaginable. Many of the benefits of such gatherings, be they large or small, are to be found in following up on connections that one has made at those gatherings.
The Parliament continues to be a powerful symbol of the interreligious harmony that began to emerge in the late nineteenth century in the wake of centuries of Christian global missionary activity that was often characterized by competition between churches and hostility toward non-Christian religious traditions. The emerging harmony  that was manifested in the 1893 World's Parliament of Religion has developed over the course of the twentieth-century and continues with great strength today. One sign of how Monastic Interreligious Dialogue can benefit from the Parliament is the establishment of the Gethsemani Encounters that followed the 1993 Parliament. It is surely worth our while to consider what new audiences could be reached and what new opportunities could arise from future Parliaments.
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