The Interfaith Movement

sampleThe Interfaith Movement Today

The term ‘Interfaith’ can be difficult to define because it means different things to different groups. At its essence is a respect for those other than one's own group. To some, interfaith is an acknowledgement of different beliefs and understandings. It is not a blending, but an embracing, of the values and traditions of others. Others see the growing interfaith dialogue as a gradual shift to a worldwide 'religious unity' through its advocacy of a greater sense of shared spirituality. The School does not promote any particular point of view. We encourage all seekers to find their own truth.

We have asked Christopher Largent, a member of our instructional team, to share his perspectives on the birth of the interfaith movement. Mr. Largent presents several lectures at the School including “Foundational Topics for the Study of Spirituality,” and “Science & Spirituality.”

The Day Religions Saw Each Other: A Brief History of the Interfaith Movement

Christopher Largent

On September 11, 1893, the world changed. Religions from all over the planet met in Chicago to talk to each other. For the first time in recorded history.

Of course, native traditions had been talking to each other for millennia. Exchanging ideas and stories was a major factor in a community’s spiritual health. And the planet had seen tolerance before. Between Mughal India and Muslim Spain, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus had not only coexisted but had also built cultures that inspired humanity for generations.

But who would have imagined that, as the 20th Century was dawning, modern representatives of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Shinto, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam would sit down together in polite, respectful dialogue? The ‘we’re the best’ attitude of Western societies had previously precluded everything but conquest and conversion. But with the urging of Charles Carroll Bonney (a Swedenborgian), the West relented, and the World’s Parliament of Religions allowed human beings to have face-to-face discussions about their religions.

Chicago’s World Parliament of Religions spawned two movements: 1) an academic study of the history of all religions and 2) an interfaith dialogue movement that continues to the present day. In many places in the world, these two combined to create interfaith study groups. Some were huge organizations, such as the World Congress of Faiths, while others were small groups meeting in churches or private homes. Some produced insights. Others produced interfaith ministers.

And something was added that had been excluded from the 1893 Parliament: native and earth-based religions.

This addition represented a shift from seeking unity to respecting diversity. The World’s Parliament of Religions emphasized the former, hoping that the world’s religions would unite, as one of the objectives of the Parliament described it, to throw light on the problems of the world and thus to help secure international peace.

Most 20th-Century observers thought that the Parliament’s promise went unfulfilled. For these observers, wedded to the unifier perspective, the violent fragmentation of the 20th Century underlined the Parliament’s failure.

But the addition of native cultures shifted many interfaith groups to a diversity perspective. If cultures can come to respect each other’s differences, as traditional native societies did, everyone can get along.
Over the last decade or two, the two perspectives have come together. Many interfaith students see ‘spirituality’ as the unifier, within which all religions, even diverse individual paths, remain valid. As each of these cultures throws light on the issues the world faces, the world gains a huge number of problem-solvers.

So, perhaps, as the interfaith movement continues through the 21st Century, it will produce mentors for mutual respect and thus future peace, and the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions will have realized one of its most critical goals after all.

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