Having done their homework, the organizers of the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions were careful to see that those poorly represented in the 1893 Parliament were there in force a century later. Native Americans took center stage, Bahais were prominent in all departments, more Muslims and Sikhs were present than anyone would have dreamed possible. And one never saw so many Jains in one place! The reading of long prosy Protestant papers had also been greatly reduced. So we have to mark progress in terms of justice, balance of representation, and exposure. A real gain, no doubt.
However, to me the most significant difference between the first and second Parliament was something for which neither religion nor the organizers of this latest one can take much credit: the narrowing distance between speaker and audience. In the first Parliament, speakers stood on platforms above the crowd and spoke or read to passive listeners in rows beneath them; perhaps a few questions were permitted at the end. Everything was quite formal.
By contrast, this time it was more of a fair or festival. Everyone got into the act. Speakers often sat among us like fellow learners. There were panels, joint presentations, dialogues, discussions — involvement, participation, and generally the expression of greater democracy in the learning process.
Credit to psychology
This is largely to the credit of psychology and, specifically, the art of communication. In these past hundred years, the ways of engaging in discourse, dialogue and exchange have been studied, critiqued and practiced and the “I-talk-to-you, you-to-me” mentality mostly curtailed. Our age is witnessing more awareness of what Beatrice Bruteau terms the “I-I” in human relationship. We now take turns standing in the other’s shoes.
This is not to say that in the 1993 Chicago Parliament all dialogue-making was successful. I often felt a serious lack of focus. First, breadth of appeal seemed at times to count for more with the framers of a topic, than the specific, crucial questions implied. Second, if a panel did fix its collective gaze on an issue, keeping it there seemed surprisingly difficult. The object under the lens would soon grow fuzzy.
Dialogue is an art. Conversation itself is an art. In England I knew of a “Listening” Society, devoted exclusively to the art of listening. It printed and circulated brochures to make people more aware of its importance. Sri Ramakrishna used to say that he felt the Divine Mother could (and would) speak to him anywhere, anytime. “Never approach anything,” said Swamiji, “except as God.” Are we not required to be ever alert to the Voice of Truth, never knowing on what breath of wind it may be wafted?
It may be appropriate to recite here some obstacles to proper dialogue:
a) Arriving at conference or meeting with an announced agenda of your own, when your invitation did not call for it.
b) Having a hidden agenda — hidden not only from the others, but even perhaps from yourself.
c) Failing to really listen; your attention is already devoted to formulating a reply or making a statement.
d) A mental set which involves prejudice regarding your partners or their presumed views.
e) Personal insecurity: fear of your own vulnerability regarding your views
or your own vulnerability if attacked.
f) Conscious or subconscious determination to avoid discussion of certain points.
Impairments of this sort can occur in those of us who believe in dialogue and wish to carry it on. So in a conference such as the one recently held in Chicago an additional difficulty can present itself — will one who is acknowledged to be an authentic representative of the faith also be appropriate for dialogue? Not necessarily. Too much self-assurance or zeal can get in the way to effectively mar good dialogue. It is disheartening to see faith representatives arrive at a panel or discussion speak their piece, pay little attention to their neighbors — and leave. As a Quaker once put it: “The experience of others, especially in circumstances different from our own, helps us to discover what is true for us and may help us to sense real kinship. We are constantly reminded that Truth is greater than the knowledge any of us has of it. God did not put all the fruit on one branch.”
published under the title: Where Has a Century Brought Us?
Vedanta Free Press
volume 2, no. 3
reproduced with permission