A common space for harmonic peacemakers
The Faiths of the Past and the Challenges of the Future: The Start of Interfaith Efforts
There has always been interaction and borrowing of ideas among spiritual and religious groups. Early Christianity took ideas and rituals from the Jewish milieu of its early members including its founder, Jesus. However, ideas from the mystical traditions of the Middle East and Greece were also incorporated — Neo-Platonism as well as aspects of the Eleusinian and other initiation rituals. Christian Gnostic groups had relations with Zoroastrian thought and probably Buddhists from India.
In Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries in reaction to the violent religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation, humanists such as Erasmus appealed for tolerance and tried to find an intellectual basis for reconciliation. The Erasmian spirit found one of its most beautiful expressions in a small but influential group known as the Domus Charitatis (the Family of Love). Founded in the 1540s, the Family of Love recruited its members from all over Europe and included both Catholics and Protestants. The Familists placed an emphasis on the practice and growth of spiritual love as a way of building bridges between dogmatic religious positions.
During the same period of the 16th and 17th centuries, in a more esoteric way, the alchemists turned to a wide variety of sources in their search for a symbolic language to express the mystery of both physical and spiritual transformation. In addition to Christian symbolism, they used the symbolism of Greek and Roman mythology, Gnosticism, the Jewish Kabbal and Islamic culture. Drawing on such a wide variety of traditions, the alchemists paved the way for the gradual interest in the study of the world religions in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries.
However, we can date the start of formal inter-religious understanding and cooperation from the first World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago. In 1893, interfaith dialogue was almost unknown in the United States when immigration up until that time was nearly exclusively Christian with the addition of a small number of Jews coming from Germany and Central Europe.
The 1893 World Parliament of Religions (sometimes called the World’s Congress of Religions) was convened in Chicago in connection with the World Fair of that year. (1). The Parliament owed much to the efforts of its organizing president, John Henry Barrow. Barrow was a well-known Chicago lawyer as well as a Swedenborg minister. The Parliament was heavily weighed in favour of liberal Protestant denominations: the Unitarians, the Universalists, the Congregationalists along with two more conservative Protestant churches: the Presbyterians and the Baptists. The Roman Catholics were represented by the prominent Cardinal Gibbons.
Barrow depended on his contacts in Chicago with members of the Theosophical Society for advice on Asian religions. Thus Annie Besant, President of the Theosophical Society, living at its headquarters in India and active in Indian reform movements suggested the Asian speakers — all of whom represented a modern, social reformist wing of their faiths. Annie Besant participated and had insisted that there be an important contribution from women highlighting their specific roles — a theme then new to the largely hierarchical and patriarchal structures of religious groups.
Buddhism was represented by the theosophically-trained H. Dharmapala, an educator and social reformer in what is now Sri Lanka but not a member of the orthodox Buddhist Sanga of the island. The Zoroastrians were represented by an Indian Parsee, Jananji Modi, a friend of the Theosophical Society and a friend of the Oxford scholar of religions Max Muller who also played an important intellectual role in the preparation of the Parliament. Muller did not attend but sent a paper on “Greek Philosophy and the Christian Religion” which was read by Barrow. An aspect of Indian thought was represented by B.R. Nargarkara of the reformist Bhahmo-Sumaj who quoted its spirit saying “When scriptures differ, and faith disagree, a man should see truth reflected in his own spirit…We do not believe in the revelation of books and men, of histories and historical records for today God communicates His will to mankind as truly and as really as He did in the days of Christ or Moses, Mohammed or Buddha.”
The most striking voice of Indian thought came from the young Vivekananda (born Naremdranath Datta to an aristocratic Calcutta family.) He alighted in Chicago in ochre robes and turban and gave a series of talks to the 4,000 attendees of the Parliament. Vivekananda, a follower of the more mystic thinker, Ramakrishna, defined Hinduism as a few basic propositions of Vedantic thought, the foremost being that “all souls are potentially divine”, and he quoted Ramakrishna that “the mystical experience at the heart of every religious discipline was essentially the same.” Being 31, Vivekananda had the energy to travel throughout the United States, meeting intellectuals who were discovering Indian thought not through translations of Indian scriptures as had Emerson and other New England writers but through a learned and dynamic Indian.
From the USA, his writings spread, influencing such thinkers as Leo Tolstoy and Romain Rolland who wrote a Life of Ramakrishna and a Life of Vivekananda (1928). Later the English writer, Aldous Huxley, wrote The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. Vivekananda’s enthusiasm for the USA as a new land unburdened by the old ways was boundless, and quite fittingly, he died on 4 July, 1902 — the US national day. He was just 39 years old but was exhausted from ceaseless work and untreated diabetes.
For many decades, the exposition of Indian thought by Vivekananda was considered to be Hinduism. It was not until the late 1950s and the coming to the University of Chicago of Mircea Eliade, the Romanian specialist of Indian religious thought that the many different strands of Hinduism were stressed. Hinduism was a term coined by the English colonists as they wanted a term to cover all Indian thought as they were already used to “Islam” for the Arabs and “Christians” for the West. At the start of the English colonial period in India, Indians never referred to themselves as Hindus, but used more often the term dharma —the law of Nature — for their faith. Likewise Buddhists also never spoke of themselves as Buddhists. Buddha was also said to have explained the dharma which had existed eternally, and they were only following the dharma as explained by the Buddha; they were not following the historical Buddha.
Since 1893, interfaith discussions have increased, but many of the issues have remained the same: how to make religious thought relevant to the social-economic-political issues of the day. Can religious organizations play a useful role in the resolution of violent conflicts.? (2)
It is important to build on past efforts, but many challenges remain. These challenges call for responses from a wide range of people and groups, motivated by good will to break down barriers and to reconcile women and men within the world community.
1) For a record of the talks and statement of the Parliament see: Rev Minot J. Savage The World’s Congress of Religions (Boston: Arena Publishing Co. 1893, 428pp.)
2) For a useful overview of recent multifaith dialogue and cooperation by a participant in many of the efforts see: Marcus Braybrooks Faith and Interfaith in a Global Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Co-Nexus Press, 1998, 144pp)
Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens