Last week's gathering of the World Parliament of Religions in Cape Town, South Africa, continued a project started over a century ago. It again posed a question that probably hovered over the first assembly in Chicago in 1893. Can bringing together representatives of the globe's many faiths, in itself, make a difference in the world?
The Cape Town meeting was the third such event, the second being a centennial observance, also in Chicago, in 1993. The idea now, as distinct from the 19th century inaugural, is not just to celebrate the diversity of religious traditions, but to unite in a plan of action - to have religion take the lead in setting an agenda for positive social, civic, and economic change.
As a featured speaker in Cape Town, the Dalai Lama, said: "We should do more to promote basic human value," and not "just talk religion."
A century of wars, technological change, increased wealth, and general progress in ideas has made the world more aware of a need for a deeper perspective in our daily lives. Religions, like businesses, have become globalized, expanding and blending ideas on what are higher truths and the ways to act on them in harmony with other faiths.
Hence the gathering agreed on two points: (a) the enumeration of various "gifts of service" that could help the human race and (b) a "Call to our Guiding Institutions" to take part in that work. The gifts range from one person's support through prayer of another, to efforts to strengthen systems of justice, to conducting commerce in a way that doesn't damage the environment. The institutions include every major building block of national and international society.
The goals put forward in Cape Town are admirable. But as the organizers of that event well know, such high-sounding words can all too easily echo briefly in today's media labyrinth and float off into oblivion. It's noteworthy that one of the parliament's introductory documents strikes this fundamental, practical note: "Earth cannot be changed for the better unless the consciousness of individuals is changed first."
That inner transformation, including a stronger sense of ethics and duty to others, occurs when human consciousness is touched by a motivating power higher than narrow self-interest.
That power, in a word, is God-inspired love. If the world's religions have reached the point where they can work together for the good of humanity - putting aside questions of denominational turf and doctrinal differences - we can all be blessed.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society