Sep 112016


The Parliament of Religions opened on this date in 1893 at the World’s Congress Auxiliary Building which is now The Art Institute of Chicago, and ran from 11 to 27 September. Today it is recognized as the occasion of the birth of formal interreligious dialogue worldwide, with representatives of a wide variety of religions and new religious movements. It was not entirely representative of all the faiths of the world, but it was a good start.

In 1893, the city of Chicago hosted the World Columbian Exposition, an early world’s fair. Consequently, because so many people were coming to Chicago from all over the world that many smaller conferences, called Congresses and Parliaments, were scheduled to take advantage of this unprecedented gathering. One of these was the World’s Parliament of Religions, an initiative of the Swedenborgian layman (and judge) Charles Carroll Bonney. The Parliament of Religions was by far the largest of the congresses held in conjunction with the Exposition. John Henry Barrows, a clergyman, was appointed as the first chairman of the General Committee of the 1893 Parliament by Charles Bonney.

Representatives of various faiths included:

The Jain preacher Virchand Gandhi.

The Buddhist preacher Anagarika Dharmapala was invited there as a representative of “Southern Buddhism,” the term applied at that time to the Theravada.[citation needed]

Soyen Shaku, the “First American Ancestor” of Zen.

An essay by the Japanese Pure Land master Kiyozawa Manshi, “Skeleton of the philosophy of religion” was read in his absence.

Vivekananda represented the faiths of India as a delegate and introduced Hinduism.

Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, an Anglo-American convert to Islam, and the former US ambassador to the Philippines.

Rev. Henry Jessup, represented Christianity but also introduced the Bahá’í Faith.

There were also representatives of new religious movements of the time, such as Spiritualism and Christian Science. The latter was represented by Septimus J. Hanna, who read an address written by its founder Mary Baker Eddy.

Absent from this event were Native American religious figures, Sikhs, and other indigenous religionists. Nonetheless, it was a good start.


Swami Vivekananda was one of the most important speakers on the opening day of the parliament.  Vivekananda (Bengali: স্বামী বিবেকানন্দ), born Narendranath Datta, was an Indian Hindu monk, and a chief disciple of the 19th-century Indian mystic Ramakrishna. He went on to be a key figure in the introduction of the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world and is credited with raising interfaith awareness, bringing Hinduism to the status of a major world religion during the late 19th century. He was also a key force in the revival of Hinduism in India, and contributed to the concept of nationalism in colonial India.

The general area of south Asia that was at one time under British colonial rule, has been torn apart by sectarian violence in the name of various religions for centuries  – Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, etc.  Vivekananda believed that he could unite these various faiths and, in the process, expel the British. His agenda was partially realized; the British were eventually expelled, but the sectarian animosity remains. His speech in Chicago is legendary. He was very timid when he rose to address such a large audience which numbered over 7,000 and began (famously):

“Sisters and brothers of America …”


These words got a standing ovation from the crowd which lasted for two minutes. When silence was restored he resumed his address. He greeted all nations on behalf of “the most ancient order of monks in the world, the Vedic order of sannyasins, a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance!” It is not some quirk or coincidence that a Hindu should preach these words. Hinduism is extremely open to all manner of concepts of divinity and spirituality. In the speech Vivekananda also remarked about Hindus, “We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” There are even some Hindus who are technically atheists. Of course, there are also some pockets of rigidity and narrowness of vision within Hinduism. All faiths have their zealots. But at root Hinduism teaches that we all find God in our own way, and there is not a single path that is privileged.

When I was a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian church, my last step before ordination was oral examination by the entire presbytery. This is normally a routine procedure, but I hit a bit of a stumbling block. Being a professional anthropologist had raised some red flags in a few eyes. The formal Presbyterian organization, PC(USA), of which I was a member, is a strange beast. It was created by shoving together distinct organizations that had once been distinct, but were forced into each others arms by financial exigency. One branch in the US South was extremely conservative, and did not lie easily with more “liberal” Presbyterians. My presbytery was known for being extremely “liberal” but it had a small conservative, evangelical faction that was always causing trouble at presbytery meetings. This faction decided to make a point at my examination for ordination.

For ordination each candidate writes a “statement of faith” which is distributed to all members of the presbytery before the examination and becomes the basis for questioning. An evangelical member of the presbytery opened the questioning with the deathless: “I have eleven questions to ask you about your statement.” All the other members of the presbytery groaned in unison, but I smiled, “Bring it on.” I’ll debate anyone on any topic – anywhere, any time.

First question: “Do you believe that Jesus is the only route to salvation?”

This is pretty stock stuff for conservatives, who are adamant that Christianity is the only true faith. My reply was not what they expected, nor wanted.

“I do.” (So far, so good). “But I would not be so arrogant to state categorically that I know what the voice of Jesus sounds like. He may sound like Buddha or Mohammed for all I know.”

That set the cat among the pigeons. Even some “liberal” members were shocked. When it came down to asking me to leave the room after the questioning was over so that the members could vote on my ordination, I had a long wait – much longer than usual. One of my friends left the voting for a few minutes and came out to say, “It’s tough going in there, but you’ll pass.” I wasn’t worried. If they didn’t want me, I didn’t want them either. In the end I was voted in overwhelmingly. Presbyterians just like the sound of their own voices – a lot. I had raised some important issues, which is all I ever want to do.

The thing is that I strongly believe that very few people have the remotest clue about God. For a taste of my ideas about God go here — Here is a sample:

So what is God? I told you – I don’t know. I’m pretty sure of what God is not – not male or female for starters (which is why I assiduously avoid pronouns); not an old guy in the sky sitting on a throne and making things work; not my friend in any conventional sense; not human in any respect. Somehow we have to break free of our limited vision, but how? I’d say that a good starting point is the cross-cultural study of religion. It’s not that I think that Buddhism or Jainism or Hinduism or whatever has a better view of God; they have a different one. Maybe when you put all the visions together you can build a better picture.

That was the agenda of the first Parliament of Religions, and, to a limited extent, it continues. Building bridges and ecumenism are not popular these days. Nationalism and xenophobia are much more popular than ever, and politicians love to use religion as their weapon. Christians can be among the worst offenders. As we know, radical Islam raises its voice these days. In no case is religion actually talking. These are political zealots using religion as a rallying point.


Instead of fostering such conflict I’d like today to be a day of harmony even though it is the anniversary of 9/11 which saw the U.S. and the world torn apart, with the effects very much still with us. Islamophobia and conflict are on the rise in Europe and the U.S. Jesus preached peace – “Love your enemies.” One of my favorite Bible verses in Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock” He doesn’t follow up with “Open and I will come in and preach to you.” He says: “if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” Jesus knew that eating together breaks down barriers. Ancient Jews knew it too. They developed incredibly complicated dietary laws precisely to stop people eating with them. They knew it would lead to friendship and assimilation and they didn’t want that.


You are different. Take today to eat with people, especially strangers. I do it all the time.  When I cook I serve a lot of different dishes and I put them in the middle of the table so that guests can help themselves. This is the norm in China, of course, but also throughout Asia and the Middle East, as well as parts of Africa.  I’ve never liked plating up individual dishes. That’s why I could never be a chef. I want everyone to come together.

What you are going to have to do is think of a dish or dishes that go well communally. I mentioned this recently in my post on the Hajj where big rice dishes featured. I can’t be a whole lot of help because I have only one guest for dinner this evening. I’m roasting a chicken with potatoes and leeks served on one dish – help yourself. I’ll post photos after dinner. Meanwhile some ideas:



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