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World's Parliament of Religion


The 1893 and 1993 World's Parliaments of Religion met, respectively, in conjunction with the year-long (189293) World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and from August 28 to September 5 in Chicago 100 years later. The suggestion of incorporating a major interfaith dialogue into the exposition came from a lay Swedenborgian, Charles C. Bonney. The Parliament, chaired by John Henry Barrows, a Presbyterian, included representatives from 41 denominations. Several thousand participants gathered to mark this first modern interfaith dialogue. Catholic representatives at the Parliament included James Cardinal Gibbons, the archbishop of Baltimore, Archbishops Patrick Feehan of Chicago and Thomas Ryan of Philadelphia, and Bishop John Keane, rector of the Catholic University of America.

The objectives of the Parliament included reciprocal teaching and learning (with a focus on both common and distinctive beliefs and practices), defending theistic religion against 19th-century secularism, amplifying the spiritual bonds and cooperation between different faith communities, and engaging religious communities in current social problems and institutions, including the movement toward international peace. These objectives were articulated by an organizing committee composed of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. The explicit evangelical agendas of some Christian participants were downplayed. Catholic involvement in the 1893 Parliament led to some controversy within the Church about the legitimacy and purpose of such gatherings, and the development of Catholic positions on interreligious dialogue were to some extent shaped by this debate.

The Parliament had the effect of drawing Catholicism, as well as Judaism, into the mainstream of American religious traditions. It also introduced some Eastern traditions into North America. Notably, the participation of Shaku Sōen (18591919), Angārika Dharmapāla (18641993), and Swami Vivekananda (18631902) played a significant role in bringing Buddhist and Hindu influences to North America, and provided impetus to the development of comparative studies of religion in North America.

The 1993 Parliament was designed to encourage interfaith dialogue through the commemoration of the centenary of the 1893 World's Parliament of Religion. With the involvement of the Institute for 21st-Century Studies, special attention was given to critical social problems confronting a global people preparing for the 21st century. Mutual understanding and respect in addressing the social crisis facing all participants was emphasized. Among the issues addressed were ecology, science, technology, business, social inequality, violence, community, health and healing, the media, pluralism, and women's issues. The Parliament brought together more than 8,000 registrants representing over 125 religions from 56 nations.

The 1993 Parliament included a relatively small section of academic papers and a very wide variety of dialogue media that emphasized informal discussion and praxis. These involved: festivals and performances of dance, music, song, drama, and poetry; exhibits, seminars, and workshops; symposia and panel discussions; slide, video, and film presentations; as well as a wide assortment of exercise, meditation, and prayer groups. Moreover, the venue included Chicago area museums and local religious and cultural centers.

The varied program of over 600 scheduled entries was highlighted by plenary sessions and major presentations by secular, religious, and spiritual leaders and dignitaries. Also, noted academics and other personalities represented an eclectic range of churches, societies, missions, movements, and organizations. Some 119 groups from around the world sponsored the event.

As in the 1893 World's Parliament, Roman Catholic participation occurred at various levels of the 1993 Parliament: planning, presentations, panels, symposia, workshops, and the private Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders. Official Catholic representatives included Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago, and Archbishop Francesco Gioa of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Thomas Baima, the director of the Chicago Office of Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, and Placido Rodriguez, auxiliary bishop of Chicago, were on the Parliament's Board of Trustees.

A Declaration of a Global Ethic. Hans Küng of the University of Tübingen drafted the basic formulation of "A Declaration of a Global Ethic." Remarkably, this 5,000-word document was signed, after Board debate and minor modifications, by 95 percent of the religious leaders in attendance. The document closely echoes many themes of the 1993 Parliament mandate and issues a direct and candid critique of current exploitive attitudes, institutions, and social structures.

The document begins with the premises of contemporary economic, ecological, and political crises. It clearly articulates a common foundational religious ethic based on the teachings of the world religions. The Declaration argues that this set of core values must be internalized in a transformation of consciousness if the current crises are to be overcome. "Irrevocable directives" of the Global Ethic are: 1) non-violence, respect, and justice towards humanity and the ecosystem as whole; 2) a condemnation of economic exploitation and an equitable restructuring of the world economy; 3) tolerance and truthfulness, especially in reference to politics, economics, the professions, and the mass media; and 4) an affirmation of respect and love, especially as this pertains to the equality of the sexes.

Future Interfaith Plans. Cited as an agenda for future dialogue, the Global Ethic is supported by the Metropolitan Interreligious Task Force. Directed initially by Dirk Ficca, this is a Chicago area organization representing 13 religious groups. This organization was created to carry on themes of the 1993 Parliament through enhancing interfaith education and community relations, including the promotion of public policy and advocacy.

Bibliography: j.h. barrows, The World's Parliament of Religions (Chicago 1893); "Results of the Parliament of Religions," Forum XVIII (September 1894). Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions Journal (Chicago, IL). r.s. ellwood, "World's Parliament of Religions," in m. eliade, ed., The Encyclopedia of Religion, v. 15, 444445. e. feldman, "Americam Ecumenism: Chicago's World's Parliament of Religions of 1893," Journal of Church and State 9:2 (1967) 180199. g.s. godspeed, ed., The World's First Parliament of Religions (Chicago 1895). w.r. houghton, ed., Neely's History of the Parliament of Religions and Religious Congresses at the World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago 1893). j.m. kitigawa, "The 1893 World's Parliament of Religions and Its Legacy" (Chicago 1983). m. stoeber, "From Proclamation to Interreligious Dialogue: The Parliaments of Religion," The Living Light 30:1 (1993) 3241. d.s. toolan, "Chicago's Parliament of the World's Religions," America (Sept. 25, 1993) 34.

[m. stoeber]

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