04 December 2009

Parliament: First night

2009 Parliament of Religions

I write to you after lunch on the first full day of the Parliament. There are so many fascinating talks and events that it's hard to find time to write.

Last night we had the first plenary session: greetings from various local dignitaries, and invocations from many different traditions that included prayers, chants, music, and dance. I was particularly impressed by the Sikh invocation; with their booming voices and great beards and swords, they were physically imposing, but more importantly the brought a tremendous measure of that thing that we lamely call “energy.” The Sikhs have got it going on. There was also a Shinto sign language dance performance that really struck me: the music was a bit schmaltzy, but the dozen women dancing were so graceful together they could have made an Eminem track seem appropriate to the occasion.

No Pagan invocation; we're small potatoes. But we had a rabbi singing in Hebrew. Comfort food!

The plenary started with a quick history of the Parliament. The first round was done in Chicago in 1893, and a century later the current organization picked up the mantle for a second session. The rhetoric and imagery is stirring to a cosmopolite American like myself: better understanding through dialogue, leading to a better world. Vibrancy through diversity. Harmony arising from the values we all share. I remind myself that the world also contains sharp religious divisions — theocrats turning the power of the state to intolerance, terrorists claiming justification in religion, wars between and among states over religious differences — but here, the Enlightenment dream of fraternity (“siblingity”?) between all peoples seems almost within reach.

Seeing pictures from the first Parliament, and the people walking the convention center halls, there is the vivid imagery of people in colourful costumes: robes and turbans and collars and pendants and coats and hats. There are a lot of monks in saffron, and a surprisingly big contingent of New Thought / Unity folks around wearing white scarves as a way to find one another in the crowd. At first I felt a twinge of cynicism, thinking that perhaps this was only a kind of Diversity Theater, but it's hard to stay cynical. I myself have been wearing, in addition to my usual suit-and-tie, an ornate beaded Tree of Life necklace that I constructed for myself last year. It has already been a real conversation-starter, which is part of the point of so many people dressing up: we are all, in a sense, acting as ambassadors, and dressing the part is an act of respect both toward each other and toward ourselves.

Many of the speakers at the plenary made much of honouring the indigenous peoples of Australia, and a striking digiridoo performance was part of the beginning of the ceremonies. To hear White Australians talk, they are committed to justice and respect for the nation's indigenous people; I cannot claim to be sophisticated about Australian politics and culture, but I'm attentive enough to know that the reality doesn't match the rhetoric. Perhaps in truth, justice for indigenous people is as anemic as in the US, but it certainly seems to have a lot more rhetorical juice, which is refreshing.

The other striking rhetorical theme of the evening was the global environment. Speakers mentioned it again and again; at one point, someone alluded to us striving for a “just, peaceful, and sustainable world.” There are numerous events on the program devoted to global warming and the environment, as well. I later heard a few Pagans grumbling about these Johnny-come-latelies to lovin' the Earth. But discussing it with Thorn, we found ourselves saying that when it's uncontroversial to put sustainability on the short list with peace and justice, it's time to declare victory. Would that all this attention didn't reflect the depth of the crisis.

I left the plenary utterly exhausted. But even so, it was hard not to be exhilarated by the extraordinary circumstances of an event like this.

Next up: Kicking things off with Pagans.

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