My personal reflection upon the parliament of the World’s Religions 2009 in Melbourne include the following,
I met some marvellous people from many religions at the Parliament. I give thanks to God for this wonderful privilege of meeting in a safe space and for allowing the possibility of friendship. Truly, we are made by a loving God in love and for love. This is seen supremely in ‘God who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ [2 Corinthians 5:19]. Thank you to all those who took time to spend with me. I am enriched by your gift.
The “common” ground around which the world’s religions gathered was compassion, poverty, climate change and an ethic for the global economy. These three areas received significant attention during the Parliament and various declarations of commitment were made. This was all very good. In the area of social cohesion which was a major area to which I dedicated some time, it was very difficult to go beyond a fairly superficial treatment of key themes such as mutual respect, compassion and justice.
Speakers were reluctant to ask the hard questions of other religious adherents. And even when a “difficult question” was asked, for example, “Why is Muslim-Hindu dialogue so sparse?” the Muslim and Hindu participants failed to engage in any significant way with this question. To say this in another way, participants tended to overstate the positives of their own religious communities and to understate the negative aspects of their own religious communities. The question is, Do I do the same? Participants were largely from the moderate and liberal sections of their particular religious group. This meant that the so called fundamentalist and conservative extremes were absent. An unfortunate result of this was the above mentioned superficial treatment of some issues.
A positive aspect of the Parliament was the good will that existed. This made for helpful personal conversations at meal times and also a civility within the seminars and major sessions. It was a good opportunity to learn of the world’s religions. I particularly appreciated the Hindu and Buddhist delegates who presented their religions without some of the westernised aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism that appear in the Australian context.
I have no doubt that the only way to engage productively in inter-faith dialogue and activities is for the participants to clearly retain their religious integrity.
Outside of the conference centre a group of Christians held two big banners declaring that Jesus is the only way to God. To my mind, their approach was not an effective way to engage with the participants in communicating Christ and it was unnecessarily offensive. A better approach is to be like the Apostle Paul in the marketplace at Athens where he spoke with people and then was able to enter into conversation with them about the “unknown god” (Acts 17). I appreciate that Paul was run out of the marketplace! However, it does seem to me that he was able to quote two of their poets to them and had entered into some understanding of their cultural context before speaking of the resurrection. The Anglican worship service was attended by some non-Christian people and we received very favourable comments. I preached on repentance for forgiveness of sins, reconciliation and life in Christ - in 15 minutes!
A major benefit of spending a week with people of other religious beliefs was the opportunity to understand their beliefs and practices more fully. The experience allowed me to continue to improve my conversational skills in speaking with people of other faiths. I find it important to have a vocabulary that connects with people and avoids unnecessary misunderstanding and offence.
Perhaps my major regret was that I did not invite two or three younger Tasmanian Anglicans to accompany me to the Parliament. This would have been a great opportunity for them and also for me to learn through their eyes.
My final reflection: there is a Helper who in grace and mercy has reached down and walks beside us, empowering and transforming us to live as our Creator created us to live. While there are many noble goals and disciplines in the non Christian religions there is No One to redeem, empower or plead for them before the heavenly throne. The absence of the Tri-une God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit who is relational within Godself leaves a world without hope. The outstretched arms of Love seek to bring reconciliation and meaning. In my estimate, one of the reasons why there are mystical elements within the world’s religions is that adherents are seeking personal communication and experience with the “Unknown.”
A self-descriptive sentence which came to me while on retreat some years ago continues to capture my ongoing walk with God: I am a child of God on a pilgrimage of faith in Christ in the midst of a chaotic world.
It was a good decision to attend the Parliament of the World’s Religions 2009.