Religions Today: Reflections on Parliament 2015

I just returned from the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City. It was a massive event. Everything I experienced makes up only a tiny fraction of what was happening there. Nonetheless, it was easy to get a sense of some of the trends, themes, and issues that characterize religions today. My overall assessment is that, in many ways, religions today hold the same ambivalence that religions always have. Each tradition has some problems, but each also has much promise. There is dignity and disaster in every religion. What is unique in the 21st century is the planetary scale of religions. Whether they like it or not, religions are entering an epoch in which they must address the intertwining of humans with one another and with the finite planet.        

You could say that, after the death of nature and death of God, religions are entering a postnatural/postsecular phase—a planetary era of of ecology and ecumenism. Religions are becoming increasingly engaged in the work of responding to global ecosocial problems, such as climate change, income inequality, and the rights and dignity of women and indigenous peoples. To be sure, some religious practitioners and communities are responding to those problems better than others, which is to say, some are responding more peacefully, justly, and sustainably than others.

One example of a peaceful, just, and sustainable response to contemporary ecosocial problems comes from Sunderlal Bahuguna, whose sacred activism was the focus of my panel, which included myself, George James, Bidisha Mallik, Christopher Key Chapple, and Pankaj Jain. Some other examples came from panels on The Earth Charter, the Pope’s recent encyclical (Laudato Si’), community resilience, and the religious ecology of a growing community of surfers in India (see Cast A Wave)

One of the more troubling trends at the Parliament was the self-congratulatory triumphalism with which some individuals lauded religious efforts to solve the world’s problems. It is important to bear in mind some basic lessons from history about the harm and violence wrought with the here-we-come-to-save-the-day attitude. Far from solving problems, that triumphalist attitude has been a prominent justification for many of the actions that are responsible for the world’s problems. Pretentious optimism notwithstanding, the Parliament surely facilitated many positive contributions toward building a peaceful, just, and sustainable planetary civilization.

I enjoyed the incredible diversity of the event—religious, cultural, racial, linguistic…. Part of that diversity was apparent in the diversity of fashion, as many religious practitioners donned their traditional garb. There was also something humorous about so many religious hats, robes, and wraps. Religions today can be understood as a form of cosplay. Religious conventions and cosplays events look surprisingly similar. Thinking of Marx (“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce”), one might get a sense that the tragedy of the authoritarian hierarchies exhibited in the distribution of religious outfits is repeating itself as the masquerade of religious cosplay.

Along similar lines, it is worth noting the excessive consumption and high carbon footprint of the Parliament. I’m not just talking about the air travel required for an event like this. The incredible amount of glossy paper flyers, disposable cups, plastic lids, and bottled water was a product of thoughtless organization, not to mention that it rendered farcical the Parliament’s emphasis on sustainability. However, I do not want to conclude on that note. Eco-hypocrisy is inevitable in the Anthropocene. The most rewarding part of the Parliament was, for me, the opportunity to see old friends and meet new ones, forging alliances in our shared struggles to learn, love, and coexist.

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