The Global Congress World's Religions Proceedings 1980-1982 Edited by Henry O. Thompson

III The Global Congress Of The World's Religions -- A Hope For Mankind -- by Dr. Francis Clark

It is written in the Holy Qur'an: For those who believe and work righteousness there is blessedness and a beautiful bourne of final return.
(Surah 13.29)

Each of us, in our different ways, may make this text our own. The Global Congress of the World's Religions is a meeting of those who believe, of those who hear a command to work righteousness, of those who feel or seek blessing, of those who look to a yet unrealized goal and fulfillment as the ultimate meaning of human life. Because we can all acknowledge there a description not only of ourselves but of those who stand with us at this place of meeting, there is a daring hope in our hearts. We dare to hope that from these small beginnings there may grow a fellowship of believers and of religions which will spread around the globe and embrace the whole of mankind.

We have come here for the inauguration of the Global Congress of the World's Religions. In its Latin origin, the word inaugurate does not mean merely "to make a formal beginning"; etymologically it means to make omens concerning what is to be begun. As we stand here at the gateway of our great hope, it is permissible, perhaps even advisable, to look at the omens -- that is, to offer some kind of prognostication of the dangers, opportunities and eventual achievements that may lie ahead.

I have said that ours is a daring hope. To many people it must seem not merely daring but fond and foolish. Let us look squarely at some of the chief reasons why many would see our hope as foredoomed to disappointment.

World history shows how intractable are the religious divisions of mankind, how difficult it is to pierce the fog of mutual incomprehension, how futile have been the efforts of those who have at various times attempted to raise a banner of worldwide religious fellowship. There are the impacted barriers of nationality, of language, of race, of culture. There is the long sad story of man's inhumanity to man even in the name of religion. There is the bitter legacy of rivalry, of suspicion, of resentment -- yes, even of hatred -- between religions and religious people. There are the even stronger obstacles raised by the sincere and impassioned loyalty of men to their own creed; there are the hallowed codes of piety, conduct and ways of worship that, over long centuries, have served to stamp each religion as separate and self-enclosed. And there are the deeply held doctrinal beliefs which, in different ways, give a higher sanction to the religious apartness and pluralism of mankind.

Furthermore, even if we can hope that in this age, at this critical juncture of human destiny, it is at last possible to loosen the shackles left by the sad history of religious antagonism in the past, is it not delusion and hubris on our part to imagine that we, this little group who have set ourselves to this task, can bring about the global change of heart which is needed if this ideal is to become reality? We are a small band of individuals, brought together by a seemingly random combination of circumstances. We know our weakness, our doubts, our limits of vision and capacity. We are not saints, or gurus or sages. We are not religious leaders commanding the loyalty and devotion of the multitudes. We are not accredited representatives of the organized religions, churches and sects. How then can we claim to speak for anyone but ourselves? By what right do we presume to summon into being a global congress of the world's religions?

When we go out to ask others to join us, when around the world they begin to take note of our appeal, will they not ask for our credentials, and judge them as insufficient -- or worse? Those who probe further will ask whence the first impulse for this movement came. There will be those who object that it came from a suspect source. They will form sinister surmises about our motivation, aims and activities. If our enterprise is to make progress and succeed, it can only be by winning over the hearts of men and women of good will, by persuading them to approve what we are doing and to join with us. For this there must be mutual frankness, respect and trust. Religious leaders and those who are influential in guiding religious opinion will soon become aware of the rumors and criticisms that will inevitably arise. They will prudently withhold support from a venture which is assailed as dubious in its origins and propagandist in its intent.

In an atmosphere clouded not only by suspicion and innuendo but also by conscientious misgivings of good people about the source and bearing of our design, how can we expect that our efforts can achieve any significant success? If the GCWR cannot attract the sympathetic interest and participation of those who lead and influence the main corporate religions of the world, if therefore it cannot effectively become a forum for believing humanity, it will not be able to speak for the masses of believers everywhere: it will belie its name, for it will not be a global congress of the world's religions. It will be branded as a failure; it will be dismissed as an unrepresentative group of individuals; or, more harshly, derided as a coterie of religious eccentrics.

All these obstacles are surely daunting enough -- historical, doctrinal, devotional, psychological obstacles. Yet there are also the daunting obstacles in the organizational and practical sphere. For the Global Congress to realize its objectives there will be required a planning operation of ever-increasing magnitude and complexity. There will have to be an outpouring of energy, or resources, of skills, of dedicated and unremitting staff work. Moreover, those who must co-ordinate these plans and see them through must possess in good measure the quality which Aristotle called megalopsychia or greatness of soul. The challenge and the needs call for no ordinary degree of determination. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying: 'This man began to build and was not able to finish." Luke 14.28-30.

Or even if the enterprise does not fail outright, it may still not succeed. We must remember that we are not the first who have trodden this path. Many men and women of good will have been fired by the same ideal of bringing the religions of mankind into amity and concert, have launched movements and founded institutions to bring the vision to reality. Although they have done much that was useful and noble, and some of their associations are still worthily in existence, none has succeeded in achieving the great design. Their impact on the world and on the religions of mankind has been, relatively speaking, very small. What reasons have we for confidence that this new venture will go further than those others?

The Aims And Independence Of The GCWR

There, then, are the main obstacles in our path, formidable enough to daunt even stout hearts. That you are not daunted is shown by your presence here. All those of us who set our hands to this undertaking show by doing so that we do not regard those obstacles as insuperable, that the hope that is in us is not blind or baseless.

We do not regard as merely Utopian the vision of a plenary gathering of the world's religions, of a forum in which believing men and women from the whole Earth may come together "in mutual respect and common concern." It was once considered merely Utopian to aspire to bring the nations of the world into congress to consult together on the temporal and material concerns of humanity. Yet that aspiration has been realized to an astonishing extent in this latest century of mankind's long history. Surely a still greater degree of mutual understanding and cooperation should be possible among those who are concerned not only for the temporal and material, but also for the religious and spiritual welfare of mankind.

This is the age not only of multinational companies, of international agencies and intercontinental ballistic missiles, but also of global concern for the human family and its imperiled future. There is, for the first time in history, a truly universal sense of co-responsibility for the whole of our one race and for the environment which is our shared home. The religious perspective embraces all this in a wider vision. If the old religious antagonisms and apartness made a global congress of the world's religions impossible in the past, surely the new needs and opportunities make it possible in this age.

For indeed it is the religious apartness of mankind that we seek to challenge, not its religious pluralism. We must be insistent that what we seek is not a dilution of all religions into a neutral brew in which each loses what is distinctive to it; nor a higher synthesis which would attempt to distill from the best elements of all religions a new quintessential super-religion. We take the religious pluralism of mankind as a basic presupposition: it is not one of our aims to abolish or reduce it. Deep religious faith and commitment will not be a hindrance, but a help in our work for the Global Congress. I for one would not be standing here today, nor would I continue in this venture tomorrow, if it meant any abandonment or compromise of the faith which is the bedrock of my own life.

Yes, to all appearances, it does seem that the human, moral and physical resources available are unequal to the task ahead. Yet those who believe in the purposeful direction of human life and of universal history do not think that the outcome depends merely on the capacity of the puny human instruments involved. There have been many noble enterprises in human experience which have issued from lowly origins. Weak, despised and sinful though the human agents were, their work yet prospered beyond all expectation. We know that we shall meet opposition; the greater, the more progress. Each one of us has a commitment and involvement which must be constantly revived and assessed. We must be true not only to our shared ideals but also to ourselves and to our own consciences.

We must frankly face the force of the psychological obstacles and reservations which I referred to earlier. We can only surmount those obstacles by insisting on our genuine independence of judgment and action. While we must duly acknowledge our debt of thanks for all help and resources generously provided for the Global Congress, we must make it very clear and firm that the Congress is not being manipulated. We must make it very clear and firm that the Congress follows unhindered and with full freedom of action the stated aims and policy for which it was instituted, and is swayed by no ulterior motives. I regard this as a cardinal point, on which the future of the Global Congress must hinge. If there is doubt or obscurity about its independence and motivation, others will not associate themselves with its work and aims, and this great project will be stillborn.

An Affirmation Of Hope

But enough of the omens of disquiet. Our inauguration is a time not merely for prudent reckoning of the difficulties ahead, but much more for a ringing affirmation of the hope and aspirations that have brought the Congress to birth. If in Latin the verb augurare meant 'to consult the auguries' to see if they were propitious, and even implied a sense of foreboding, in Italian augurare has become a more joyful word, used to express optimism and well-wishing. The keynote today should not be of foreboding but of well-wishing expectancy.

We have before us a statement of the aims of the Global Congress of the World's religions, and of the spirit with which it should be animated. We have a summary of the spiritual values to which it will witness and of the human needs with which it will be concerned. Yet these ideals and objectives, noble as they are, cannot exhaust the significance of what the Global Congress of the World's Religions may become. Our plans, our discourses, our documents of association can only be at a surface level. What we see and foresee is but the outward register of reality; what is truly significant, what ultimately matters, is hidden from our gaze in an inner eternal register of reality. We who believe in a Power, and Law, and Love, that is higher and deeper than that of the human individual, and who bow in reverence before it, need no reminding that we shall not be the first authors of what will come to be. We cannot discern what is truly loss or gain sub specie aeternitatis. There all our planning, theorizing and activity is of far less avail than humble prayer and meditation.

There are those who would see in the global outreach for religious cooperation and co-responsibility in the present age a manifestation of the emergence of a new stage in the spiritual development of humanity. Is there a providential, or at least a teleological advance of spiritual consciousness, analogous to the emergence of higher forms of cognition in the long history of biological evolution? Are we called to take a willed part in this process, and to assist others to reach those higher levels of spiritual life, knowledge and love? This insight, differently expressed in different cultures, is shared, for example, both by the disciples of Sri Aurobindo and by the disciples of Teilhard de Chardin. Some see in this insight a special motive-force for forwarding the work of the Global Congress of the World's Religions.

Certainly their conviction, like other lofty insights and spiritual aspirations, may serve as an animating motive for those who work toward the objectives of the Global Congress. On the other hand, it is not proposed as a premise which all must accept who embrace the ideals of the Congress. There are other believers who do not see the situation of mankind as an upward progress to new levels of spiritual awareness, but as a dire spiritual predicament in which every human being stands always in the same absolute need of liberation. Those who have such a religious perspective are as much at home in the Global Congress as those whose perspective is one of evolutionary optimism. The GCWR proposes no premises or tests; it is outside its scope to pronounce on the faith-premises of those who participate in it. Even if they hold diametrically opposed interpretations of mankind's spiritual condition they are all welcome to 'The Tent of Meeting' where all believers and beliefs have a right to be.

Ultimate Questions

Does this mean, however, that the GCWR can only be a pragmatic institution with humanitarian goals, simply a religious counterpart of the global secular agencies which are also concerned with the physical needs and problems of mankind? Does it imply that at the deeper level of religious belief there can be no meeting of minds in the GCWR? Must the Global Congress exclude from its subjects of discussion all questions relating to the meaning and purpose of human existence, and the way to attain that purpose? Surely we cannot admit that it is so. Although the GCWR cannot be a debating chamber to discuss the rival merits of specific doctrines about mankind's situation and destiny, there is, at a deeper level still, a basic community of insight and attitude among all religious people which enables them to understand and esteem other believers in a way that the non-believer cannot.

Even though the various religions have varying interpretations of the meaning and purpose of human existence, and of the path to attainment, they all share a common conviction that such a spiritual diagnosis and prognosis of the human situation is possible and necessary. One may say that in every religious interpretation of life there is a three-fold aspect: first, there is the starting point or given situation in which man finds himself and in which religion is declared to be relevant; secondly, there is the development, fulfillment or goal toward which the believer should progress; and thirdly, there are the ways and means to proceed from the initial situation to the desired goal. Thus it is meaningful to ask of every religion these three questions:

1. From what situation does religion take its starting point?

2. To what does it declare that men are or should be advancing?

3. By what means does it say that men are to make this progress?

Simple questions, yes, but basic ones. For the believer, nothing is more important than the answers to these questions. The religions of the world, each in its own way, give answers to these questions. But they have never yet come together in reverent fellowship to ask these questions of one another, and to listen to the answers. If the Global Congress provides a forum for such a basic dialogue of believing mankind, it would not be with the aim or hope of deciding which of the diverse answers are the right ones. But even to talk together at the most basic level of all must produce a deepening of spiritual awareness and of sympathy in those who participate.

I indicate this area of global dialogue, concerned with what I may call that of cosmic interpretation, because it may be lost sight of in our immediate concern with the pressing problems of today, which to some appear as the whole agenda of the GCWR's program. So before concluding I will say something about each of the three aspects I have distinguished, to indicate the subject area which such a dialogue on 'cosmic interpretation' would cover.

From What?

All religions, then, can be said to offer a key to understanding man's existence and his place in the universe. All of them take some account of a 'starting point' or given situation in which man finds himself and in which religion is declared relevant, both for the individual and for the community. A religious outlook may assert and accept man's given situation as good, and stress life-acceptance rather than deliverance from evil. Often, however, as I have remarked earlier, religious interpretations of the world include a more somber concept of an initial predicament in their account of the situation in which religion is meaningful and important. It is inappropriate to contrast life-accepting religions and life-redeeming religions as if the former were optimistic and the latter were pessimistic. Although the latter explain that man is in a dire predicament, the message of liberation from that predicament is not a message of pessimism but of joyous optimism.

The predicament from which human beings are to be liberated, or which is to be made more bearable, may be identified in very concrete terms as the miseries, dangers and material necessities of day-to-day life. In the more metaphysical religions the predicament is explained in less material terms. There may be a sense of spiritual insufficiency, a sighing for release from present anxiety and sorrow, or from ignorance and spiritual blindness, together with a yearning for some higher development of life or soul. The predicament may be conceived as the threat of dissolution of man's personality in death; it may be the weary wheel of metempsychosis, by which the transmigrating soul must ever return to new incarnations in this world of misery; it may be ignorance of true reality, or slavery to desire; it may be a state of sin, regarded as either a contamination making one personally unworthy, or as an alienation from God, or as both; it may be divine wrath and chastisement, or hell or cosmic evil; or the ultimate predicament from which men yearn to be released may be regarded as self or existence itself. Some religions describe the predicament of man's life as a combination of several of those elements.

To What?

A religion is never a merely static system. It implies direction and dynamism it is a search, a movement, a way. For each individual it offers a progression from the initial life-situation toward some kind of further development or fulfillment. For society as a whole it offers a corporate purpose to be realized, for at least the renewed realization for each generation of a traditional and prized socio-religious system. The promised goals may be visualized as wholly obtainable in the here-and-now: for instance, as satisfaction for material needs and desires protection from evils and dangers in everyday life, and prosperity both for the individual and the social group. Or the goals may be conceived in more spiritual forms: for instance, as growth in true knowledge of reality; or as perfection of human personality, character or mental attitude; or as the attaining of harmony with the nature or cosmic forces. Or they may be explained in terms of an after-life or of a supernatural transformation. In this case there may be a shorter-term goal in this present world, and longer-term goal in some other sphere of existence.

So the fulfillment may be conceived as only begun in this life (for example, by spiritual rebirth, by forgiveness of sins and justification, by victory over evil and demonic powers, by meriting a nobler reincarnation by illumination and mystical union, by moral perfection), while still awaiting a consummation in a final state beyond this mortal existence. This final state may be conceived as spiritual immortality, or as bodily resurrection, or as heaven and heavenly rewards, or as Nirvana, or as absorption in the All, or as personal union with God, or as a combination of such elements making up eternal beatitude.

By What?

A life-accepting religious ideal will hold out patterns of conduct and religious response by which the desired acceptance or enhancement of life, nature and cosmic good may be made. Soteriological religions may be distinguished by their different doctrines about the way deliverance from evil, and achievement of beatitude, is to be brought about. Some may attribute the saving process wholly to divine action; others may attribute it to man's striving; others again may assert that the process includes both elements. There may be belief in the existence of a savior, or saviors, divine or human, who perform a work of liberation from which the worshipers may consequently benefit; or at least of a mediator or teacher who reveals to men the path by which their deliverance can be sought. There may be a ritual system, usually administered by a priesthood, through which the benefits of salvation are communicated to the initiates. Often there is also emphasis on observances by which a man must work out, or at least cooperate in his own progress to the goal. In almost all religions, prayer and worship in some form have a central place among the duties of the believers.

In some religions, the practice of a religious way of life and code of conduct is given paramount importance and may be of more concern than doctrines, a spiritual experience or other-worldly expectations. A religious sanction is extended to morality and commonly -- though not universally -- the observance of the ethical code is included among the necessary means leading to the religious end.

Likewise the social dimension is vital, and the role of believers within the religiously sanctioned community is of great importance in their path to the goal. In some instances there is a significant distinction between the sacred community and society around it, but in other instances such a distinction is not valid.

From what power does religion take its rise and course? Some religions hold that the initiative comes from man's side, and that he can attain the goal of religion by his own seeking. In several religions the primacy of the divine initiative is a fundamental tenet. They insist that the religion is above all a self-disclosure by God, without which man could never find God, however long and earnest his search. Commonly religions which stress the divine self-revelation also admit a divinely bestowed desire, tendency, or at least receptivity in man himself, by which he is capable of being directed to the final goal of religion, by making a free response.

The Call Of The Holy

I have dwelt on these questions of cosmic interpretation because they are the context of discourse of the world's religions, which we hope will eventually, within the Global Congress, enter into dialogue on fundamentals. I have also dwelt upon them because they remind us that in the thinking, saying and doing, of the GCWR there is, or must be, a dimension which is lacking in all other international and trans-world associations. That is the dimension of the Holy. The Global Congress of the World's Religions may have the advantages of distinguished academic participation, of an admirable constitution, and of an efficient organization: these are necessary, but in themselves they provide only the skeletal structure of the body. It is only the Holy -- acknowledged in thought, word and deed -- that will make these dry bones live. 

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