By Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions appeared in November 2015 The Messenger
We drove 20 hours straight through. Through midnight, winding mountain roads under construction. As sun was setting we found ourselves in the high plains, the badlands just like out of a Clint Eastwood movie. In the dark roads we found ourselves penetrating deep mysteries about human language. My companions were an Eckenkar cleric and an artist. We started talking about dream imagery and symbolism. This led to a discussion about trying to express the inexpressible. I mentioned that when spirits tried to express their ideas to Swedenborg using his natural language, they were utterly unable to. Yet, Swedenborg wrote 30 volumes about these same spirits who couldn’t use human language. My friend said, “But isn’t that the poetic challenge.” Then I thought about Diotema teaching the young Socrates. She said that her philosophy was so deep, she didn’t know if Socrates could understand it. Diotema started talking about The Good, but confessed that it was too elusive for human comprehension. She said the closest we could come was The True. This led me to consider Plato’s Phaedrus. Socrates says that when it comes to explaining the relationship between the eternal unchanging world and our changing world of experience, he couldn’t use philosophy. This founder of philosophical reasoning had to resort to poetic myth. He then related his story about the charioteer in heaven, following his god in the circle of stars. There is an unruly steed and a noble steed drawing the chariot. The unruly steed can assume dominance and drag the chariot down to earth, and we are born. Our task on earth is to find our way back up into the stars. This was all Socrates could say about how we end up born. And driving the chariot, the unruly steed, and falling from the circle of stars are all symbols. Reason fails Socrates. Sometimes poetry, metaphor, myth, and parable are the only or the best ways to convey truth. Like correspondences, and heavenly representations.
We rolled into Salt Lake City around 6:30 AM as the final tones from Beethoven’s Mass in C played from my iPod. We sat in a Starbucks, getting our heads together finding our bearings. We located the Salt Palace convention center, registered, and the glossy program guide they gave us was 369 8 ½ x 11 pages. Seminars were grouped according to 26 categories including 9 religions—social issues like Wealth Gap, War/Hate/Violence, or Climate Change; and there were practicums such as Religious Observance, and Training, and experiential presentations like drama, music and film. There were several different presentations offered at the same time, so one had a great variety of choices about what meetings one would attend. Sometimes, one wanted to attend two or more meetings that were held at the same time!
We went to the opening ceremony. It began with First Nations’ drumming as the Ute elders and chiefs processed in. The Ute Chief welcomed us onto their tribal land. The Muslim chair of the Parliament of the World’s Religions gave a stirring address punctuated with the recurring question, “Are you with me?!” A Rabbi, Latter Day Saint Elder, the Governor of Utah, and Baha’i PWR board member all gave inspiring talks about sustainable earth, women’s rights, poverty, violence in the misused name of religion, peace, and interfaith understanding. Prayers concluded the opening ceremony by a Buddhist monk, Catholic woman, Jain cleric, and UN ambassador. The 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions—Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity—had begun!
Vast convention space was devoted to exhibitors. These included schools like the Graduate Theological Union or Claremont School of Theology or Chicago Theological Seminary. There were other schools of vaguer substance largely of New Thought movements such as Love Now, School of Metaphysics, Living Miracles, and Science of Spirituality. There were crafts, jewelry, clothing, and curios from different ethnic traditions such as First Nations and Tibetan. Also numerous book publishers exhibited their works. An equally spacious room was devoted to rest and gathering. Couches and benches were set in the carpeted room.
The whole experience was intense. There were music, dance, drama, and lectures. Tibetan monks were creating a mandala out of colored sand. A Jain temple was erected in the front foyer. At one seminar, I was somewhat surprised to see a Hindu Swami, dressed in traditional saffron robes and cap, with a beautiful smile, lecturing from a smart tablet. As I attended to this particular lecture about religious identity, while the presenters lectured sacred singing and chants wafted into our room from the one next door. Presenters were university professors, chaplains, religious leaders, Jews, Hindus, Christians, Wicca, Muslim and more religions than I could count. All shared their messages in harmony and with respectful collegiality.
A sacred fire was lit at the entrance to the convention center throughout the Parliament and was tended by First Nations representatives who had set it up. One morning, as we were about to enter the Salt Palace Convention Center, we found First Nations women drumming and singing a chant in their native tongue as we all formed a circle around the fire. This was a prayer of welcome and they “gifted” it to us.
On Saturday night, the city of Edmonton bought dinner for the 32 of us who made the pilgrimage to the Parliament. We gratefully dined on a choice of beef, chicken, or salmon. Vegan and vegetarian dishes were available for those whose tastes required that cuisine.
But the PWR isn’t only lectures. Experiencing different religions also means experiencing different cultures. And that means different forms than only lectures. I viewed a film made by an Edmonton filmmaker called “Brothers in the Buddha.” It is about a Vietnamese teen, living in Edmonton, who made the decision to become a Buddhist monk. The film was paced to match the life of the teen. When he was in high school, playing basketball and walking down crowded school halls, there was booming pop music and the editor made short cuts from scene to scene. In the monastery, the scenes lingered and the music was meditative. The shots of meditation were longer and one felt as if we had been carried into the serenity of the monastery. When I left the film and came out into the hustle and bustle of the PWR convention halls, it was jarring after the monastic calm the movie transported me into.
My friend from Edmonton and I decided to experience the free lunch that the Sikhs provided every day. At all Sikh functions, free food is served. It is a holy ritual called “langar.” One primary reason for this is to dissolve the boundaries of the Hindu caste system. In the caste system, one cannot eat with members of a higher caste. In its most extreme form, if even the shadow of a low caste passer-by falls on the food of a high caste, the food is discarded. At Sikh means, everyone eats together and caste has no voice in these communal meals. In North America the tradition also works. People of different socio-economic backgrounds mix and eat together—lawyers, business men, blue collar workers, teachers, clerics all sit together on the floor and eat together. We took off our shoes and wore headpieces that they handed out to follow Sikh traditions. The bean dish and spinach were very spicy and one needed the rice and pita bread they served to help ameliorate the hot flavor.
A stage was set up in the meeting area of the convention centre. We watched adorable Chinese children dance in colorful garb. A children’s choir came on stage next. They belted out their songs with heart and soul. It was hard for me to restrain my tears to hear these children sing, “Who knows what miracles you can achieve/When you believe.”
Our last night together was rounded out in glorious fashion: an interfaith concert in the Mormon Tabernacle. After opening remarks there was an opening devotion by Indigenous Peoples, a Muslim intoned call to prayer, and Jewish, Quaker, and Episcopal invocations. A memorable line from the Indigenous People was, “You can only breathe in so much air before you have to give back.” The following stellar performance featured a bagpipe band, Tibetan song with a display of swordsmanship, Hindu dancers, a Catholic musical setting of Mother Teresa’s daily personal prayer, a sitar ensemble, and, perhaps the highlight of the evening, a children’s choir, followed by Sikh meditation music, a Baha’i choir, Cambodian Buddhist dancers, sung Jain mantras and sutras, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Burundi drumming, Sufi “Whirling Dervishes,” and closing remarks. With such a packed program, it is not surprising that the event planned for two hours actually went three.
Though there was a closing plenary session scheduled for the next day, I let this glorious musical interfaith celebration conclude the Parliament of Religions for me.