One day in the 1960s, when I was a student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, I wandered into a garage sale and discovered a two-volume account of the 1893 World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago.
The books were published that same year. They reproduce, among other things, texts of the many speeches given there in the first-ever event by this name. I don't recall what I paid for this set (still on my bookshelf), but my guess is no more than $2, given what I remember about my net worth as a college student who lived mostly on bologna sandwiches and the occasional scrambled egg (it was a negative figure).
Nearly a century after that first Parliament, a council was formed in 1988 to give new life to the old interfaith effort. Since then, several Parliaments have taken place in such cities as Chicago (again); Cape Town, South Africa; Barcelona, Spain; and Melbourne, Australia.
The council describes its mission this way: "The Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions was created to cultivate harmony among the world's religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world."
Who could object to such a goal? Well, virulent radicals from the Islamic State, al-Qaida, and Khorasan, along with a long list of other unyielding ideologues who think harmony among the world's religions amounts to unprincipled surrender to those who oppose The Truth. (For a full description of what constitutes The Truth, see your local hyperfundamentalist.)
And yet, the Parliament pushes forward. Last month, it announced plans to hold a 2015 gathering in Salt Lake City, and it is soliciting proposals from cities that want to host the 2017 conference.
Anyone who has read my columns here and elsewhere on anything close to a regular basis knows that I'm all for better interfaith and ecumenical relations. Indeed, I think the United States has an opportunity to demonstrate to the contentious world how in a religiously pluralistic society, people can live in harmony.
But as someone who reads history as well as tweets from the Middle East and elsewhere, I find it hard to maintain a lot of optimism that such high-minded efforts as the Parliament of the World's Religions will ever do much to "achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world."
I'm not giving up on that idea -- and I know it must begin with me. And you. And you. But when I read the objectives stated for the 1893 gathering, I begin to lose heart. One is this: "to promote and deepen the spirit of human brotherhood among religious men of diverse faiths."
Yes, it's evidence of progress that such a statement of purpose written today would not use "men" in that way. But in a time when the world experiences Islamophobia, resurgent anti-Semitism, violent extremism committed in the name of religion, and stunning religious illiteracy in so many places, it's easy to think that the goal set for the 1893 conference has been kicked down the road to be taken up again at the 2015 and no doubt the 2017 and later conferences.
Or there's this goal of the 1893 gathering: "to bring the nations of the earth into a more friendly fellowship, in the hope of securing permanent international peace."
This hope was expressed two decades before the outbreak of World War I, which so disillusioned people that the poet Ezra Pound wrote this after the armistice:
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.
I hope the 2015 Parliament of the World's Religions will help lead the world toward "a more friendly fellowship," with the result being "permanent international peace." If it really happens, you may have my two 1893 books for $2 less than $2.
[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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