10 Very Cool Things About the Parliament of the World's Religions

On October 16-19 a Parliament of various religious traditions was held in Salt Lake City. The first of these was held in Chicago in 1893, and after a century hiatus, another one in 1993. Subsequently the Parliament has met every five years. The mission of the Parliament is: "to cultivate harmony among the world's religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world."

This year 9,500 people gathered for what was clearly the "coolest" religious gathering I've ever attended (as a minister who's ordination was more than a quarter century ago I've been to a few). I went as a representative of my family of Baptists (the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship) and was inspired, educated, and challenged. Since I wrote about going to the meeting in my last blog post, I thought I'd write about having gone. It was so cool.

I guess cool isn't a theological word, but here's why it fits:

1) The emphasis of the gathering placed understanding over conversion and community over ideology. Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, Christians and Pagans (the intentional kind) were together in dialogue about mutual interests. I've nothing against any kind of evangelism. The loud subway preachers telling me to repent have a point. But it was nice to be in a setting where the prime emphasis was on our common humanity.

2) The programmatic focus was on what deeply matters to all: undermining extremism, working on climate change, attacking extreme poverty, addressing gender equality, etc.

3) As apposed to the Baptist meetings I've attended the majority of clothes were not bought at Macys and J.C. Penny's. There were robes of every color and headdresses of every conceivable shape. I saw scarves of every length, pointed hats, and even wings on the "angels of peace." Besides being visually fascinating, it was a moving reminder of those for whom faith is not just a Sunday morning dress up affair -- it is what they put on every day.

4) Also in contrast to most protestant meetings today, there was a heck of a lot of youthful energy. There was an enthusiastic embracing of the fierce urgency of now. The planet clearly needs our thoughtful good will to empower religious people to cross ideological/traditional boundaries. The Millennial generation is well suited to such adventures it seems to me.

5) That being said, one of the best moments of the meeting came from 81-year-old Jane Goodall. The famed primatologist and anthropologist gave a very understated, but powerful, message at an evening plenary session. The house came to its feet after she gave an eloquent call for humans to bring their heart and their head to address the needs of our endangered planet. And it was a reminder to we who speak for a living that you don't need to scream to inspire. To be sure a very good head, and a long authentic life, helps.

6) There are not many places you can go and hear an interaction like this: Woman to Sikh man: "Is it okay if I sit here? Are you allowed to talk to women?" Sikh man: "Don't ask me. Ask my wife!"

7) It was the best reminder that though you maybe a middle-aged white Baptist preacher who hails from Oklahoma now living in New York City dressed in a cheap suit, you do share deep and abiding concerns with a young hairless Buddhist monk in an orange robe.

8) In no other gathering have I seen hundreds and hundreds stand in long lines to eat on the floor. Nishkam Centre, a U.K.-based Sikh organization, hosted free lunches at the Parliament. The meal, called a langar, is a fundamental component of the Sikh faith. They offered diners an egalitarian experience of sharing a meal on the floor in recognition of our common humanity.

9) Another cool factor: there was none of the absurd compartmentalization that has too often characterized church gatherings. Our spiritual values call us to a compassion that is personal, social, and political. There were people of deep faith, and clearly of a mystical bent, but also a lot of talk about faith that hits the streets on behalf of those in need and faith that calls us to make personal AND political changes in response to the greatest challenge of our age: climate change. The emphasis on science and a "best-practice" approach to action was refreshing in a religious setting. Though I'm sure Richard Dawkins would not believe it, there was very little "magical" or "superstitious" thinking in evidence.

10) In no other setting could you hear Pope Francis's chief envoy to the United Nations, the chief Imam of Mecca, the evangelical Brian McLaren, and two Native American "chiefs" all say the same thing: the greatest challenge of our era is to stop the destruction of our common planet.

The "uncool" thing? We Baptists (largest protestant denomination?) were not present in number or visibility. This is not a travesty like global inequality, but a shame nonetheless. I fear that sometimes my faith family suffers from the particularly American disease of exceptionalism. I'm just hoping we don't "except" ourselves out of engagement in our call to tackle the most important challenge of our age - to be a part of God's saving work in this world, and planet, of great need.