Personal Reflections on the Parliament of the World’s Religions
Charles Kullmann, CSP
Traveling to Melbourne, Australia is certainly exciting. Traveling there to join 5,000 people for The Parliament of the World’s Religions was really exciting! It was a wonderful experience.
For the last three years I have been a member of the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Interfaith Council. This experience has opened me more to the wonder and blessing of Interfaith work. The experience of the Parliament only deepened and broadened that for me.
The Parliament opened with a bang for me in a great panel discussion on “Poverty Must No Longer Be with Us.” Katherine Marshall of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs made the point that we are the first generation in human history where we do not have to have the poor always with us, that we can in fact eliminate poverty. Jim Wallis and Joan Chittister also gave particularly powerful messages on this panel.
Prayer Together? An Ongoing Dilemma
One of the things I noticed was a difference in approach to interfaith work amongst the delegates. This most clearly came out in a session entitled: “Praying Together in Times of Happiness, in Times of Sorrow? The Ongoing Dilemma for the Interfaith Movement.” Most delegates come wanting to express their own particular faith and learn about the faith of others. But there are some who attended the conference who identify their spirituality as “interfaith,” including a number of “interfaith” ministers. The presenter of this session explained the Parliament’s policy of not having any joint prayer services. Those who identify themselves as “interfaith” objected to this policy, wondering why we cannot “check our labels at the door” and all pray together. But most of us were not there looking for some lowest common denominator of spirituality where all differences and distinctions are bleached out. I spoke for wanting to come to know the other in their distinctive otherness and particularity, and most seemed to agree with that.
Seeing Ourselves More Clearly
I found the experience personally rewarding in deepening my commitment and appreciation of my Catholic Christian faith. When I am always dealing with people of my own faith, so much of the substance of the faith begins to be taken for granted. It becomes like a beige background that is just assumed. But when I begin dealing with the radical monotheism of the Muslims I come to a greater appreciation of my Trinitarian belief. When realizing that Buddhists do not make prayers that are addressed to a deity but offer aspirations or good wishes, I come to a deeper awareness of what I am doing when I pray. Or when studying the Hebrew Scriptures with Jews I come to understand better the great treasures we Christians have inherited with and from the Jewish people. In that more vivid contrast I have come to understand and appreciate my faith more. The experience of interfaith work does not smooth over the differences of the religions, but brings out the contrasts while simultaneously highlighting the common humanity that we share. It really is true that in encountering the other we see ourselves more clearly.
I have even come to a better appreciation of being Roman Catholic, having attended at the Parliament a Catholic Coptic Rite Eucharist, which normally lasts two to four hours. The clarity, simplicity and “cleanness” of the Roman Rite came into clearer focus for me. It appeals much more to my Western taste for efficiency!
There were some technical glitches in the Parliament, some of the plenary sessions were poorly organized, not all the speakers were of the same quality, and I never did get the hang of going up the escalator on the wrong side. But certainly Katherine Marshall, Sr. Joan Chittister, many of the Moslem speakers, and Fr Hans Kung, were all excellent. I am glad I went.
Being at the Parliament with about a half-dozen other members of the SF Interfaith Council was a blessing in that we shared lunch each day comparing notes, sharing observations, passing on tips and suggestions about which speakers were really dynamic and which were rather dry, and pooling knowledge. It enabled us not just to listen to others talk about interfaith dialogue, but to live the experience amongst ourselves. That kind of process made the experience more vibrant and real.
Fr. Charles Kullmann, CSP, is pastor of Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, CA., and a member of the city’s Interfaith Council.