In Interfaith Encounter

Alan Race assesses the impact of the Parliament from a contemporary point of view in the following way, comparing it to the centennial event of the Parliament held in1993:

From the perspective of those involved in organized international movements for interfaith dialogue, the first Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in Chicago in 1893, is being reclaimed as the beginning of ‘the interfaith movement’ in the modern era. Max Müller, the famous philologist and scholar of Indian traditions, called the Parliament ‘one of the most memorable events in the history of the world’. Inflated though that assessment may be, the Parliament was a moment when East met West in an organized setting for the first time on a grand scale, in an attempt to generate a new mood of religious relationships in dialogue.
However, analysis has shown how the social and cultural context of Chicago in 1893 affected the nature of the dialogical exchanges that took place. So Richard Seager, the historian of religion, has written: ‘Dazzled by their own accomplishments and charmed by their own magic, Americans were primed to encounter the Asians at the World’s Parliament of Religions not in “real” time, but in the realm of America’s messianic myth.’ The same writer has noted how the centennial event of the Parliament, held in 1993 in Chicago, reversed the contextual deficiency of the first event: ‘The contrast between 1893 and 1993 suggests that the national, racial, and religious triumphalism that was part and parcel of the liberalism of the first Parliament has been chastened.’ As a result of social analyses of this kind, the dialogue movement is being made aware of the contextual factors which affect interreligious dialogue, factors such as religious representation and the operation of subtle cultural and political power relationships in the dynamics of meeting.

It is not unfair to claim that the lasting value of the first World’s Parliament of Religions has been symbolic. Yet a number of themes emerged at that Parliament which have continued to surface in subsequent dialogue endeavours. These are:

  • the struggle of ‘interreligion’ against the ‘absence of religion’ in modern secularism;
  • the need to overcome the historic connection between religious disagreement and violence;
  • religion as a liberating and motivating force for good in the world.
  • the significance of the Golden Rule (‘Do to others what you would have done to yourself’) as a potential focus for developing shared values between traditions;
  • the problematics of absolutism in commitment to a particular religious path versus the relativism of granting parity of value to all;
  • the possibility of a mystical unity of the religions.

If the Parliament deserves its standing as the fountain of institutional dialogue at the start of a new phase in global history, it was important not so much for determining the shape of things to come, as for raising a number of dialogical issues that have proved to be perennial.