Very soon the Parliament of the World’s Religions will meet here in Melbourne. The week-long event (Dec. 3-9) will be attended by many thousands of people from around the globe. According to their website, this Parliament is “the world’s largest interreligious gathering”.
This event “brings together the world’s religious and spiritual communities, their leaders and their followers to a gathering where peace, diversity and sustainability are discussed and explored in the context of interreligious understanding and cooperation.”
To gain some appreciation as to just what this Parliament will be all about, it is helpful to look at its history. Since 1993 the Parliament has been meeting every five years. In 1993 it was held in Chicago, in 1999 in Cape Town, and in 2004 in Barcelona.
But it has a much more extensive history than that. The very first meeting, called the World Parliament of Religions, was held in Chicago on Sept. 11-27, 1893. To see how it has evolved, it is worth comparing the 1893 Parliament with the second one, held a century later. (What follows draws heavily from Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism, IVP, 2001, pp. 110-118.)
The first Chicago meeting was held in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition, which celebrated Western technological achievements. Both events were characterised by optimism and a growing sense of confidence about the progress of (Western) civilisation.
At the first Parliament there were 41 different religious groups in attendance. However, non-Christian representation at the meeting was clearly in the minority. While some delegates saw the event as an opportunity to learn about other cultures and religions, and more fully cooperate one with the other, it was for the most part a Christian event.
The chairman of the Parliament was a Presbyterian pastor, and most of the organisers were Christians. Most of the delegates were Christians, and a majority of the papers presented were by Christians. Many saw it as a great opportunity to present the claims of Christ to the non-Christian participants.
Says Netland, “At least a dozen Christian missionaries were featured in the program. Christian hymns were sung, and the Lord’s Prayer was repeated in each day’s worship, and the final session ended with the triumphal singing of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’.”
Nonetheless many Christians criticised and boycotted the event, fearing it would negatively affect Christian overseas missions, downplay the uniqueness of Christianity, and lend credibility to other religions. Evangelist D. L. Moody held a rally across the street from the Parliament, praying for the delegates.
Indeed, while many delegates were promoting the superiority of Christianity, the predominant theme of the Parliament was that of theological liberalism, with its emphasis on the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. In fact, the motto of the conference was taken from Mal. 2:10: “Have we not all one Father? Hath not God created us?”
The idea was to unite all religions against irreligion, and to unite theism against materialism. Never mind that some groups, such as Buddhists and Confucians, could rightly complain about theism being far from descriptive of their religions.
Thus while it was an overwhelmingly Christian event, it was sadly dominated by Protestant theological liberalism. They were happy to maintain the superiority of Christianity, but equally happy to learn about the good that could be found in non-Christian religions.
But perhaps the real winners to emerge from the Parliament were those from Asian religious traditions. For example, Buddhists from Japan returned home believing that the conference provided them with an excellent platform to promote Buddhism in America.
Other Eastern religions also seemed to benefit from the Parliament. Indeed, the New York Times hailed Hindu Swami Vivekananda from India as “undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions”.
His promotion of the syncretistic and inclusivist nature of Eastern spirituality struck a chord with many: “Do I wish that the Christian would become Hindu? God forbid. Do I wish that the Hindu or Buddhist would become Christian? God forbid. . . . The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth.”
He concluded his address at the final session with these words: “If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world, it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written in spite of resistance: ‘Help and not fight,’ ‘Assimilation and not Destruction,’ ‘Harmony and Peace and not Dissension’.”
Now move ahead one hundred years to the Aug. 28 – Sept. 5, 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions, also held in Chicago. The contrast between these two events could not be greater. This was a full-blown celebration of religious diversity, with more than 6,000 delegates coming from all over the world, representing 125 different religious groups.
The major focus of this conference had to do with how people from differing religious traditions needed to learn how to get along and cooperate in order to deal with global problems such as war, injustice, racism, poverty and pollution.
While Christians were in attendance, they tended to keep a low profile, seeking not to be offensive. If Christians were quite ready to proclaim the superiority of Christianity a century earlier, they surely were not this time around. Indeed, it was believers from other religions who were on the offensive, proclaiming their own religious excellencies.
While delegates from non-Christian religions were far from shy about proselytising and extolling their own religions’ virtues, Christians were conspicuous by their silence and acquiescence. Indeed, one Christian observer made this plaintive remark:
“Throughout the eight days of the 1993 meeting, I repeatedly wondered why there was hardly a word and not a single paper that set forth in a clear and comprehensive fashion what Christianity is today, who Jesus Christ is, what Christians believe, the Christian basis of religious authority, or the Christian view of the Misseo Dei or the mission of the church.”
Of course part of the reason for this was due to the fact that most conservative Christians simply stayed away from the conference, not wishing to lend legitimacy or credibility to the religious smorgasbord on display. But another part of the reason has to do with a weakening of Christian conviction, and a refusal to still champion Jesus Christ as “the way, the truth and the life”.
In an age of tolerance, political correctness, relativism, pluralism, and multiculturalism, many believers have become afraid, even ashamed, of proclaiming the uniqueness of Christianity, defending its truth claims, and upholding Jesus Christ as the only way to a saving relationship with God.
Indeed, if Swami Vivekananda was the star of the show a century earlier, another religious polyglot, the Dalai Lama, was the leading light at the 1993 meeting. His closing remarks, “The Importance of Religious Harmony” – presented to a crowd of 20,000 people in Grant Park – were equally opposed to the unique truth claims of biblical Christianity:
“Each religion has its own philosophy and there are similarities as well as differences among the various traditions. What is important is what is suitable for a particular person. We should look at the underlying purpose of religion and not merely at the abstract details of theology or metaphysics. All religions make the betterment of humanity their primary concern. When we view the different religions as essentially instruments to develop a good heart – love and respect for others, a true sense of community – we can appreciate what they have in common….Everyone feels that his or her form of religious practice is best. I myself feel that Buddhism is best for me. But this does not mean that Buddhism is best for everyone else.”
Such was the worldview of the 1993 Parliament, and such has become the predominant way of thinking for most Westerners today. In such a climate, one can only expect things to get worse, in terms of standing up for the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the Christian Gospel.
The Parliament to be held soon in Melbourne (funded by our tax dollars) will of course simply be more of the same. I do notice in the list of major speakers that a few well-known Christians will be there. But I am not sure why. If they are there to defend the exclusive nature of biblical Christianity, and be a light to non-Christians about the Christian worldview, then I wish them well.
But one wonders what exactly they will achieve, if their aims are anything less than this. Here is not the place to address the many shortcomings of the push for a world religion, or the severe downsides to interfaith dialogue. I have written that up elsewhere.
Suffice it to say that this Parliament will do much for those who do not believe in absolute truth, in divine revelation, and in such things as objective truth and the law of non-contradiction. But for those who take the teachings of Jesus Christ very seriously indeed, this event will prove to be both grievous and alarming.
We can pray for it. We can go there and seek to witness for Christ. But we cannot lend it any serious Christian support or endorsement. It goes against most of what the Christian gospel stands for. At such a time as this, we can only say with Luther, “Here I stand, I can do no other”.