The Global Congress World's Religions Proceedings 1980-1982 Edited by Henry O. Thompson
In this paper someone on the periphery of the Global Congress attempts to step into the shoes of its board members and speak as a voice on the inside.
I speak as one whose adult life has been dominated by and lived in the interface of the variety of religions in America and the world. The realization of that interface came in my family where Methodists, Southern Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses and Pentecostals existed in a tolerated truce. As I grew older and encountered not only the variety of Christians but those of other religions as well I came to know that the intensifying of the dialogue between religious leaders and members of all faiths is one of the crying needs of our world today. I have been involved in other interfaith endeavors and have watched some modest success but much more failure in handling the vital issues and forces of interfaith communication with any degree of skill and sophistication.
Thus I welcomed the word that the Global Congress was to be formed. It offers the best possibility on the horizon of realizing many of the dreamed for goals of the past decades. While having no official position with the Congress and its board of trustees, I strongly identify with the vision that brought it into existence. Thus I speak as both the hopeful outsider eager that the Congress accomplish its self-assigned task and an insider already identified with the on-going efforts on its behalf.
This statement is personal -- directed to the present members of the board of the GCWR and through them to the potential members and the future participants in the Congress' activities. It attempts to clarify a perspective and point a direction; it is offered with the passion of a true believer and yet is given freely to the Congress to use, abuse, change, distort or toss as it sees fit.
The Global Congress of the World's Religions was formed in November 1980 as a place and a space where men and women of many differing religious perspectives can come together and share one another's life and experience and act upon mutual concerns. Having developed out of the vision of a few, it seeks to become global in its outlook and to steadily increase its circle of involvements.
While many "interfaith" efforts have come and gone in the past, the members of the GCWR know that interfaith activity on a global scale is a necessary aspect of religious activity in our generation. We are therefore committed to transcend the limitations of the past and reach to the possibilities of the future.
We accept the fact that the conditions of the world demand we act, that as responsible religious leaders we speak to one another and to the world, and that we call upon our colleagues to join us. The international problems of hunger, racism, religious persecution, the spread of technology, the monumental increase of population, the proliferation of power weapons in the hands of larger and larger armies, and the need for a reclarification of the values common to the race impinge upon life to the degree that religious leadership can neglect to speak to them and act upon them only to humanity's detriment.
As a Congress we do not come forth to establish hegemony over the life of humanity, but to establish within our human context an opening through which humanity can move to its own future better equipped to understand itself and to affirm those values that tie individuals together: respect, compassion, integrity, fidelity and patience in the face of adversity. We activate those structures that bring people together -- bridges of understanding, skyscrapers of tolerance and conduits of communication.
Thus the GCWR will be neither a debating society a haven for a few academics nor a place for the already religious to search for the possible common denominators of the religious life. It shall be a place of study, of life, of activity. It will be an agoura where all shall be welcome to come and bring the jewels of their faith. Once together, in our places of meeting, we will not hide our jewels, but show to one another the things most valuable to us. We will continually learn anew that people of faith are most empowered and creative when they speak and act out of deeply held convictions and spiritual insights. We ask not that they be put aside but put to use in the common cause.
The Congress will be a forum for study and application. We will work together to discover the spiritual affirmations and moral values to give to the world and its leaders and will establish specific programs and thrusts to apply those affirmations and values in the life of people. Thus the Congress will be a "global village square" where the residents of town and country will assemble in a creative ferment of social, cultural and spiritual dialogue.
The Congress must embody in its own life the possibilities it offers to others. In organization and program it shall be its own best model of cooperation, communication, compassion and celebration. It shall be artistic without neglecting the encounter with technology. It shall be open in its celebration without running roughshod over the sacred space of its members. It shall watch that in its drive, to aid the world in its problems that the joy of the spirit that animates shall not depart from it.
As an organization, the Congress will raise its tent of meeting regularly in the oasis of life to bring the tribes of humankind to the table of deliberation and resolution. We will affirm our heartfelt conviction that the history of the human race is a common story.
The GCWR inherits and affirms the long history of interfaith encounter that took a decided turn from missionary assault to mutual respect and dialogue in 1893 at the World Parliament of Religion in Chicago. We see ourselves standing in the tradition created by that parliament and the many organizations, conferences and dedicated individuals that it inspired. We also seek to transcend the shortcomings of previous interfaith efforts that have had a relatively small audience and which have only begun to produce the desired effect of promoting toleration, understanding and respect among members of various religious groups.
In examining the previous efforts of inter-religious cooperation and programming -- several obvious barriers loom before us as major road blocks. They may be summarized under four headings:
1. Concentration on low priority concerns
2. Lack of grass roots support
3. Theological naivete concerning religious differences
4. The narrow a focus
Many interfaith and ecumenical efforts have found their focus in the commonly held beliefs of most religions. Such beliefs include the oneness of humanity (i.e., brotherhood), worship of a supreme deify, the broadening experience of meeting with someone different (togetherness for its own sake). At first glance these beliefs are sound, reasonable and noble. Few would dissent. However, they are vague and abstract, and function at some distance from religious passions.
When viewed on a functional level, these propositions are far from the central matters that inspire and hold religious devotion. The religious life is built around a piety that acknowledges Jesus as Lord, the Truth heard from the lips of the Prophet, the experience of satori and samadhi, the discovery of a new identity as a result of having become aligned with a definite religious perspective, or the salvation from the "world" in a deep conversion. Out of the religious experience (and we note that religious experience "in general" does not exist in the real world, only particular religious experiences) and piety of the different faiths come the moral imperatives, prophetic insights, and saintly lives we look for.
If we call people together under the few common beliefs of religious life, we in effect distract people from those factors that have truly empowered their religious expressions, and in many cases, we threaten the religious life itself by placing ourselves over against the depth of faith.
GCWR must so structure itself as to invite, celebrate and make a central place for the particularities of the faith of its members. There must be room to share the salvation that comes in Jesus and the enlightenment being spread by the Buddha; there must be room to chant "Hare Krishna" and "Om" and to hear the voice of the Orthodox cantor's lament; our ears must register the beat of the African drum as well as the strains of the pipe organ and the steel guitar; our spirits must look into the mystic light and our ears strain to hear the other voice of the Spiritualist medium; we must clear space for the dancers before the Great Mother and for the children of the Prophet to spread their prayer rugs.
In so doing we will accept religion at its heart and accept people of faith in and with their faith. We thus call on one another not to abandon faith, or change faith but to move to the highest our faith envisions for us.
To accept plurality on this level is qualitatively different from an approach asking people to set aside their own peculiarities for the sake of a few common goals and values. The suggested course of action affirms that we find the best in human attainment in and through the particular and peculiar distinctives of religious faiths and the differing emphases they project. This approach also assumes in a radical manner that no one path of action will be suitable for everyone, that the differences of contemplatives, bureaucrats and the activists are mutually supportive of the whole, not competitive paths to be evaluated against each other. The spiritual realm is a flower garden, not a sea of sameness.
Interfaith dialogue can proceed on several levels -- with a focus on scholars, religious administrators, clergy or lay people. In the past, interfaith structures have tended to concentrate upon scholarly dialogue, rarely moving to include religious administrators and even more rarely seeking to involve clergy and laity as such. Unfortunately scholarly discourse allows much room for impersonal speech, and psychological distance can be maintained. Thus scholars open few avenues to their communities of faith by academic interfaith dialogue. While affirming the vital necessity of such dialogue, on a practical level, it needs continual financial support and produces no immediate and direct return to the religious communities that initially support the scholars.
The support of religious administrators, from bishops to convention presidents to board and agency heads to delegated representatives becomes absolutely necessary to the success of any ecumenical organization. They hold the power in those organizations to which most religious people give their primary allegiance. If administrators are excited and involved in interfaith work, they bring financial and programmatic support. If they see an interfaith activity becoming competitive they can block support, as they tend to be children of the organization that created their job and hence protective of it. The GCWR needs to so structure its growth that religious administrators are immediately brought into the active part of program planning.
Finally, the clergy and laity, those who make up local congregations and assemblies should be the people we ultimately hope to reach. Change, religiously lies in their hands and both scholars and administrators can be slowed or even stopped if they receive no support from the local leadership. The changes envisioned by the Global Congress must also receive their support if they are to be enacted.
The Berkeley (California) Interfaith Council has already demonstrated the possibility and benefit of interfaith cooperation on the local level. The GCWR should move immediately to foster the creation of similar structures in other metropolitan areas. Besides providing channels through which the Congress can implement its international programs, the practical benefits to the Congress are immense. These local groups would supply both directly and indirectly financial support to the international body. When programming is planned for a particular area, they would supply the local committee to implement arrangements. They also provide the necessary reaction base for actions taken by the Congress. During the period when the GCWR is still building its financial base, they can begin and carry through on programs that we can only dream about.
In the past, interfaith activities -- those beyond mere getting together to learn about each other -- have tended to minimize the actual differences between religions. Anyone trying to write an ecumenical statement knows that there is almost no statement on religious matters that someone religious will not object to. Among the deeply religious there are those who strongly object to the proposition that all humans are one family, or that there is a Supreme Deity, or that even interfaith activity is of value. As a Congress, we err if we assume the posture that all religions are one -- or the equally debatable position -- that there is a core of religious belief that all truly religious people hold in common. The more broadly based arena for agreement and affirmations tend to be over shared questions and concerns rather than beliefs. We come together to share our various insights and perspectives -- not to reach consensus on the theological and religious questions or to find and create a unity to those problems -- that are of common concern and which demand an answer. Thus we can affirm that we do not have to demand theological agreement before we begin to work together to relieve human suffering. While acknowledging our differences, we can proceed to deal with the pressing concerns of human life.
From personal experience, I have viewed how at least one ecumenical body models for us the way we can treat the unresolvable differences that will surely arise. The Evans ton (Illinois) Ecumenical Action Council had several groups within it that wished to explore and act upon ideas that both lacked general interest and in one case was a matter of grave dissent by the majority of Council members. The one case involved an on-going dialogue/action program by a group who had accepted liberation (a Marxist based) theology. The Council did not wish to speak positively on this issue but, at the same time, was able to allow the group to function as a task force that carried on its program under the Council umbrella. It frequently brought matters of particular interest to the Council and generally, to this day, has operated in an atmosphere of acceptance of motivation on a personal level while members of the Task Force and Council agreed to disagree. They learned to live with an unresolvable difference. The Council still is somewhat hostile to liberation theology, but most would agree that the tangible results of the Task Force's actions over the past decade have been much more positive than negative.
The differences in perspective become all the more visible when one begins to actually look beyond the major religious labels that we give sects of believers (Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, etc.) to the actual organizations that make up the major faiths (there are close to 1,000 Christian bodies in North America alone) and the extreme variety manifested there. Besides the so-called major faiths, there are thousands of different, neo-conventional and other minority faiths, all of which contribute to the world religious scene.
The issue of actual religious diversity raises the question for us of representation both formal and informal. Stated in "Christian" terms Catholics do not speak for Baptists who do not speak for Pentecostals who do not speak for Quakers. Ritualists do not speak for free church worshipers and trinitarians do not speak for Apostolics. The Orthodox do not speak for the non-Orthodox be they Monophysite, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science or Kabbalistic.
While there is always area for convergence among different religions, and area for classifying sets of religious organizations as the "same" in essence, we will do ourselves harm if we overlook the genuine differences within the religious community and leave a sect of religions out because they do not accept as a representative the one we have selected.
Many interfaith groups have failed by adopting a program of too narrow concern. This problem does not seem to haunt the GCWR at present. The more expansive our vision and concern, the more people will find a home with us. The diversity of interest, structure, programs and topics of consideration by the GCWR will go far to insure our future.
Members of the GCWR come from many lands -- India, Ceylon, Japan, Togo, Israel, England, the United States -- to mention a few. They are Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Christians, others. About things religious -- there is little about which we agree -- but in coming together we have grown, in ways often inexplicable, but we have added depth to faith and have broadened our perception of the world. We have found a common bond -- a mutually shared sense of responsibility for the global family living in an increasingly smaller world. We see a need to bring a moral perspective and spiritual vision to the global village. We are increasingly propelled out of the parochialisms within which we were raised.
As a body we do not seek to mold ourselves into a single faith, to blend all religions into a uniformity of either faith or practice. Some of our members believe such blending is both possible and desirable, but as a body we celebrate our pluralism and the possibilities such pluralism offers. We do not seek to convert each other, though some members undoubtedly feel the world would be a better place if all accepted their faith. We do expose ourselves, and our most tender and vulnerable parts in the dialogue with that which is different, thus risking all we hold dear.
The GCWR is not a political organization. It has no desire to meddle in the affairs of national governments. It seeks rather to speak to the mind and spirit of the religious community and offer its insights on issues of importance political or otherwise. Where it does not choose to speak, it encourages its members to come forward and articulate their concerns individually. As a voice of hope and compassion, it appeals to the moral conscience and spiritual heart of the world's leaders and the centers of the world's power on behalf of humanity.
The GCWR is not a legislative council that will impose its rules and wishes upon its members. It seeks no power over its members; rather it seeks to empower its members through the spirit that enlivens its voice. It intends to create an environment of ferment within the soul of its members that will lead to a desire to transcend the present and act upon the future.
We are a forum for the religious community. We invite delegates from all religious bodies, both official and unofficial. We have a special responsibility and opportunity to seek out the leaders of non-Western, particularly third world, churches and religious groups and offer them a platform they would otherwise be denied. Creating space for them to offer their leadership to the world will be one important act justifying the GCWR's existence.
In opening space in our midst we must also not neglect those individuals who will never be positioned to represent a religious body, yet who speak from the heart of the religious life -- the prophets, the activists, the few whose authority comes from sanctified living, or the lay person with a vision to share.
The Global Congress now takes its first steps. These important steps set our pace, and determine how the world will view us and the level of success that we can expect in reaching our goals. We must be both bold to act and thoughtful to measure our steps.
Upon the new history we begin. Let us take care that from the first we set in motion, if only symbolically, all we intend for the future. Let us seek to support our own program and allow its support to grow out of the merits of its accomplishments. While being responsive to the whole religious community, let us be flexible so that at appropriate moments we can mirror its concerns, speak for it to the world, and speak to it the words it should hear.