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A Dream That Is Contagious

By Marcus Braybrooke

The assembled speakers at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions.

The assembled speakers at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions.


Once after a lecture on the 1893 World Parliament of Religions, I was asked by a sleepy student, ‘Were you there yourself?’ No one, I assume, who was at the 1993 Parliament of World Religions (note the slight change of name) had been in Chicago, a hundred years before. Yet because of its continuing influence, it is worthwhile to glance back to the pioneers of the interfaith pilgrimage. I can remember my own excitement when, looking in the library for another book, I chanced on Barrows’ two volume record of that historic event.

The 1893 Parliament met in the context of a World Exposition held to mark the anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of America by Christopher Columbus. The Exposition included amusements, commercial stands and ethnological exhibitions as well as the Palace of Fine Arts.

In 1889 Charles Caroll Bonney, a distinguished lawyer and a follower of the Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), said the ‘crowning glory’ of the exposition should be a series of World Congresses on the major areas of human intellectual activity. The most important one in Bonney’s eyes was to be one for the religions – the plural is important. His hope was that ‘when the religious faiths of the world recognize each other as brothers, children of one Father, whom all profess to love and serve, then and not till then, will the nations of the earth yield to the Spirit of concord and learn war no more.’ 1

More than four thousand people attended the opening ceremony. Protestant Christians from a wide variety of denominations – despite many, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, who opposed the Parliament – were the largest group. Liberally minded Roman Catholics and Reform Jews took an active part. Leading Buddhists, Hindus and Jains had come from Asia, including Dhamapala (1864-1933), the founder of the Mahabodhi Society and Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) – a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna who became the ‘star’ of the Parliament. At the Parliament the Baha’i faith was mentioned publicly for the first time in the USA by one of the speakers. Only one Muslim – an American convert – spoke and no American blacks. Frederick Douglas, representing Haiti, said that for Black Americans the White City was ‘a whitened sepulchre.’ Several women made important contributions.

There was inevitably much discussion about the relation of religions to each other – Swami Vivekanada challenged the narrow mindedness of missionaries. Some discussions were very practical, for example, about ‘Social Reform in India’ or ‘What Judaism has done for Women,’ or ‘Crime and its Remedy.’ There were also voluntary worship assemblies.

The Parliament of Religions was and is a Parliament in the original sense of a place where people meet to talk together. It is not a law-making or executive body. No grand resolutions are passed. Change is effected by the enthusiasm of those who share the experience as well as by the symbolic significance of people of different religions meeting respectfully and acting together for a better world.

The Next 100 Years

The World Parliament of Religions was soon forgotten. It certainly helped to stimulate interest in the ‘comparative study of religions.’ Moreover, the prominence of Roman Catholics and Jewish rabbis as well as Liberal Christians foreshadowed the characteristic American religious alliance – sometimes misleadingly called ‘interfaith’ – of Catholics, Protestants and Jews. 1893 also marks the beginnings of the ever growing presence of ‘Eastern’ religions in the USA. After the Parliament Swami Vivekananda and Dharmapala established centres in America.

Yet sadly even now, Bonney’s concluding hope that ‘the religions of the world will make war, not on each other, but on the giant evils that afflict mankind’ is still unfulfilled. The primary reason is the death and destruction of two World Wars, which, with the Great Depression, pricked the bubble of late nineteenth century evolutionary optimism and diverted people’s energies to more immediate concerns. Communism, Fascism and Nazism were destructive of religion. Popular materialism and secularism had no time for faith. Christian missionaries no longer spoke of Christianity as the ‘fulfilment’ of other religions. 2 Instead, influenced by Karl Barth and Hendrik Kraemer, stressed the discontinuity of the Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, as compared to human religious attempts to reach God.

Yet the dream did not die. It inspired both the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) and the World Congress of Faiths (WCF).

IARF dates back to 1900.3 Elke Schlinck-Lazarraga in her history of IARF distinguishes three phases. First, from 1900-1930, under American leadership, IARF membership was broadly Unitarian and liberal Christian, with some members of the Brahmo Samaj – a reform Hindu movement based in Calcutta –and of The Japan Free Religious Association, led by Shinichiro Imaoka. The second phase, in which Europeans were dominant, adopted a narrower liberal or Free Christian outlook. In the third phase, dating from the 1969 Boston Conference, IARF has become increasingly a genuinely interfaith organisation. Rissho Kosei Kai, a New Buddhist movement, led by Nikkyo Niwano, as well as other Japanese New Religious movements and the Won Buddhists of South Korea became very influential.

The World Congress of Faiths (WCF) was founded in 1936 by Sir Francis Younghusband, who was primarily motivated by his own mystical experience in Tibet of Oneness with all beings and his personal knowledge of members of several religions. But there was an indirect link with the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions. In 1933 Younghusband attended an almost forgotten interfaith gathering in Chicago, which was billed as the Second World Parliament of Religions. The organizers encouraged Younghusband to arrange a similar event in London.

Sir Francis Younghusband

Sir Francis Younghusband

When the World Congress of Faiths was convened at University College, London, seventy-five years ago, it was a highly unusual and controversial event. Few religious leaders attended or even gave their support. Younghusband, however, did persuade world-famous scholars, such as Yusuf Ali, translator of the Qur’an, the philosopher C E M Joad, the Buddhist scholar Dr D T Suzuki and the Hindu philosopher Dr Radhakrishnan to participate.

A continuing body was set up, known as the World Congress of Faiths. Its original momentum, however, was destroyed by the Second World War and the death of Younghusband. WCF has, however, been a pioneering organisation, stimulating the teaching of world religions, experimenting with interfaith worship, and, since 1945, publishing a journal (now called Interreligious Insight). In the 1980s WCF took the initiative in bringing the various international interfaith organisations together. WCF is a fellowship of individuals who sense a ‘Greater Unity’ that transcends particular religions – a view which, with the current post-modern emphasis on valuing difference, is now unfashionable.4

The Temple of Understanding, with a similar approach, was founded in 1960 by Juliet Hollister. At a time when political summit meetings were in the air, she suggested the need for spiritual summit meetings. ‘We spend hours at the conference table – but no time at all in trying to understand what is going on in the other man’s mind.’5 Based as it is in New York, the Temple of Understanding has had a significant role at the United Nations.

Slowly in the sixties, contact between members of different religions began to grow. The 1966 Second Vatican Council decree Nostra Aetate encouraged Christians to appreciate other religions and to engage in dialogue with their adherents. In 1971 the World Council of Churches also established a Sub-Unit for Dialogue headed by the distinguished Indian theologian Stanley Samartha. Other religious communities, such as the Baha’is, the Brahma Kumaris, the Unification Church, as well as Indian swamis, also encouraged interfaith meetings. There was also growing co-operation on urgent social issues and in opposition to apartheid in South Africa and to the war in Vietnam, which brought together Christians and Buddhist peace workers.

The greatest danger at the time was nuclear warfare (it still is), which could destroy life, as we know it, on this planet. Some Japanese religious leaders, who were well aware of the devastation that atomic bombs had caused, were keen to work with religious leaders of other faiths and in other countries who advocated nuclear disarmament. An exploratory meeting was held in New Delhi, India, in 1968, and was followed by the first assembly of the World Conference on Religions and Peace (WCRP) – now known as Religions for Peace – in Kyoto, Japan, in 1970. Increasingly WCRP, which has usually held world assemblies every three years, has recognised the many dimensions of peace work. Religions for Peace, which has won the active support of many religious leaders, has been particularly active as a leading religious Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) at the United Nations.

The increasing number of interfaith initiatives and international inter-religious organisations, could – like religions – easily have become competitive. To avoid this, leaders of the major international interfaith organisations (IARF, the Temple of Understanding, WCF, and WCRP) met twice at Ammerdown near Bath in England.’6 They agreed to mark the centenary of the 1893 World Parliament of Religions as the (unofficial) ‘Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation.’ They also joined in a wonderfully and colourful celebration in Bangalore, India, which was given the Sanskrit name ‘Sarva Dharma Sammelana,’ which means religious people coming together.7

Rather belatedly faith communities in Chicago also decided to mark the centenary by holding a Parliament of World Religions. This attracted members of religious and spiritual groups from around the world. Nearly 30,000 people attended the closing open-air ceremony at which the Dalai Lama was the chief speaker. The 1993 Parliament emphasised the moral values which religions share and many leaders endorsed a document entitled Toward a Global Ethic, which calls on believers to commit to non-violence, a just economic order, tolerance and truthfulness and gender equality.

Growth at the Grassroots

Today the greatest growth in interfaith activities is being organized locally, led by people who want to know their neighbors better, like this group at the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, in San Francisco, on January 1, 2000.

Today the greatest growth in interfaith activities is being organized locally, led by people who want to know their neighbors better, like this group at the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, in San Francisco, on January 1, 2000.

Since the 1993 Parliament of World Religions, there have been many new local, national and international interfaith initiatives: all waiting for those who surf the web to discover. Among these are the International Peace Council, United Religions Initiative, Interfaith Youth Core, Elijah Institute, Three Faiths Forum, and the Blair Foundation. Some of these were loosely linked as members of the International Interfaith Organization Network, which was facilitated by the International Interfaith Centre. 8 Many of them and many other Religious Non-Governmental Organizations are now supporting an Initiative to persuade the United Nations to declare a Decade of Inter-Cultural and Inter-Religious Dialogue.

Several governments have recently arranged large international interfaith forums. There are also a variety of bi-lateral organizations for Christian-Jewish dialogue or Buddhist-Christian dialogue, to give but two examples. ‘Interfaith studies’ has also become an accepted academic discipline, alongside ‘the Study of Religions’ and ‘Theology.’

Many of those most involved in this wide variety of interfaith activity come together at the Parliament of World Religions. For, soon after the 1993 Parliament in Chicago, the decision was taken by the Chicago-based Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, that there should be similar Parliaments every four or five years.

The 1999 Parliament was held at Cape Town. Members of ‘The Guiding Institutions’ of civil society were, with limited success, encouraged to join the dialogue. More important, meeting in the new multi-racial and multi-religious South Africa, the Parliament showed religions’ usefulness in strengthening social cohesion.

Dreams of a bright new millennium of interfaith harmony, peace and justice were soon shattered by the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers. Already in the late nineties some people were warning of the dangerous growth of extremist religious groups. 9/11 made this public knowledge and governments, beside an armed response, called on religious leaders to counteract prejudice and promote social cohesion.

At the 2004 Parliament, held in Barcelona, where from Europe one can see the coast of Africa, the need for a dialogue of civilizations was obvious. Speaker after speaker emphasized that no religion’s authentic teaching justified killing innocent people. Four key issues were highlighted – access to clean water, the plight of refugees, cancellation of poor nation’s debt and reducing religiously motivated violence.

The 2009 Parliament in Melbourne, with the participation of many Aboriginals and meeting at the same time as the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, highlighted the threats to the environment. People of faith were urged to make this a high priority. The first Convocation of Hindu Spiritual Leaders, for example, focused on this subject and ended with the launch of a ‘Hindu Declaration on Climate Change,’ which was affirmed with three resounding ‘Oms.’9

One of the organisers described this Parliament as ‘A Celebration of Difference.’ Indeed, a Sufi Whirling Prayer Ceremony, Deep Chanting by Tibetan monks, Plainsong and Gospel Music, Traditional Song and Dance by Australia’s First People and much more were, for example, all part of a Concert of Sacred Music.

Celebrating the rich diversity of religious beliefs and practices is more important than it may sound. Still today, as in past centuries, ethnic and religious differences are a cause of mistrust, hostility and even massacre. Several programmes were devoted to ‘Respecting the Other.’ Not all difference, however, is to be respected. As Katherine Marshall of World Faiths Development Dialogue insisted, religions need to challenge the economic injustices, which allow the few to live in plenty and millions to subsist in abject poverty. The emphasis on respecting difference also meant that the hope of the pioneers of the interfaith movement that the coming together of religions would provide a spiritual basis for humanity to live together in a global society was scarcely mentioned, although HH the Dalai Lama insisted that the root cause of the world's problems was the failure to recognise that this is a moral universe. Maybe this is the price of moving from the margins to centre stage. It has been of great importance to engage the leaders of major faith communities in interfaith cooperation, but they are less likely to question traditional teachings.

Interfaith history can too easily seem to be a history of conferences and organisations: but primarily it is the history of an ever-increasing number of people of different faiths and from different countries across the world, catching the dream of a fellowship of faiths and of our shared humanity. The two volume record of the 1893 World Parliament of Religions has on its cover the words of the prophet Malachi – ‘Have we not all one Father? Hath not one God created us?’10 We might not choose those words today, but only as more and more people realise this truth and act upon it will the walls of separation be broken down, wars cease and the nations devote their resources to feeding the hungry, healing the sick and caring for our planet.

Towards the close of the 2009 Parliament of World Religions some of us gathered to pray by name for every country in the world, while others waved that country’s flag, and we joined in the words ‘May Peace Prevail on Earth.’ That is still the dream, but we have to act together to make it a reality. In the words of an Indian teenager, ‘Dream and Sweat.’11

1 Marcus Braybrooke, Pilgrimage of Hope: One Hundred Years of Global Interfaith Dialogue, London, SCM Press, 1992, p.13. More detailed accounts and references about the organisations mentioned in this article can be found in this book.

2 One of the best know expressions of the view that Christianity is the fulfilment of other religions is The Crown of Hinduism by J.N Farquhar, Oxford University Press, 1913. See also Kenneth Cracknell, Justice, Courtesy and Love, Epworth Press, 1995.

3 It was originally called ‘The International Council of Unitarian and other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers.’ There have been a number of changes to the name.

4 See further Marcus Braybrooke A Wider Vision, A History of the World Congress of Faiths, Oxford, OneWorld, 1996

5 From a leaflet entitled ‘Six Days of Hope.’ No date, quoted in Pilgrimage of Hope, p.93. See pp. 93-113 for an account of the early years of the Temple of Understanding.

6 1985 and 1988

7 See my Faith and Interfaith in a Global Age, Grand Rapids, Co-Nexus Press and Oxford, Braybrooke Press, pp. 34-41. The first two chapters give a fuller account of developments summarized in the last two paragraphs. Visions of an Interfaith Future is a record of Sarva Dharma Sammelana,. It was edited by David and Celia Storey and published by the International Interfaith Centre Oxford.

8 Many of the organisations are listed under IION on the website www.interfaithorganisations .net

9 Quoted by Kusumita Pedersen, op.cit, p. 73.

10 Malachi 2, 10

11 The words were on a poster that I saw at a conference in India.