Last Week the Sixth Parliament of World’s Religions met in Salt Lake City, Utah. 10,000 people. 80 countries. 5 intense days of interfaith learning and love. It would be overwhelming for anybody, let alone a university chaplain chaperoning 4 students!
This year’s Parliament had four distinct tracks: Climate Change, War and Poverty, Women, and Indigenous Peoples. There were hundreds of sessions, on topics ranging from “Rituals of Womanhood” to “Sikhism 101” to screenings of Oprah’s new tv series on religion called Belief. Highlights included world renowned speakers like Jane Goodall, Karen Armstrong, Tariq Ramadan, Brian McLaren, and Valarie Kaur. But other highlights included experiences not listed in the extensive program: meeting up with other State of Formation folks (Ben Barer and Ellie Anders); the incredible experience of Langar – the meal provided free of charge by the Sikh community, feeding thousands of people with efficiency and hospitality; and a meaningful conversation about ritual and the sacred life with a Navajo grandmother who showed me a corn blessing. These moments of connection – of seeing our diverse human family and connecting past our obvious (and not so obvious) differences – were the most powerful parts of the Parliament for me.
The Parliament seemed like one big, happy, love-fest. Or rather, that’s the hope that some participants had for it. At the Parliament I encountered people who approach interfaith work from a radically different place than I. There were booths dedicated to promoting a “Universal Worship” movement. Language of “one humanity” was in the very air we breathed, and there was the ever-present reprise that we should just “love one another, for compassion is the heart of every tradition.”
I agree with many of these sentiments; we should begin our interfaith work by uniting over the things we share in common rather than being divided by where we differ. But as a “professional religionist,” I am interested in seeing how people and communities are working through the differences. I want to see how women’s circles are reaching out to women who aren’t in touch with their goddess-selves and who are frankly uncomfortable with the very thought. I want to talk to interfaith leaders who are modelling the difficult practice of disagreeing well, not skirting the topics that cause us to disagree in the first place.
Being at the Parliament but into sharp relief the divide in approaches to interfaith work. For some, interfaith work means getting beyond the unique aspects of particular religious and spiritual traditions to focus on our shared human experience – the joy, the pain, the beauty and the ugliness. For others, including myself, interfaith work is about approaching other traditions – their rituals, customs, and theologies – humbly, learning to celebrate those things that make us all unique while learning to disagree well (that is – not coming to figurative or literal blows). I’m not interested in a world where we’ve boiled religious, spiritual and philosophical traditions down to their composite parts; I’m interested in building a world where those unique aspects are celebrated.
There are many approaches to interfaith work. My experiences at the Parliament of World’s Religions showed me the broad scope of how my fellow interfaithers are doing their work. And, it solidified which approach rings with the most truth and meaning for me.
10,000 people. 80 countries. 5 days. And lessons I will carry for a lifetime.
Photos courtesy of the author.