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I am now home from the World Parliament of Religions (WPOR) in Toronto, trying to reorient myself from that wonderful, uniting, spiritual experience.
While getting back to my own daily life, I want to reflect on what I learned and how the WPOR is inspiring me to action.
Previously in this series of essays, I promised to use this final installment to share highlights of each of the event’s six major themes. However, as I now sift through my notes and my thoughts, I realize that is not only impractical but also misleading. Why? Because the World Parliament’s themes were interwoven rather than explored as discrete topics, and because those themes are simply too important to limit to one essay.
That being the case, I’ll reflect on what I learned in two final essays rather than one. As a whole, though, the entire gathering made me think about this quotation from the Universal House of Justice, the democratically-elected leadership body of the world’s Baha’is:
Yet there is reassurance in the knowledge that, amidst the disintegration, a new kind of collective life is taking shape which gives practical expression to all that is heavenly in human beings. – The Universal House of Justice, To the Baha’is of the World, April 2015.
The disintegration of society the Universal House of Justice referred to has become increasingly obvious to many people—but we rarely get to see that “new kind of collective life” which “gives practical expression to all that is heavenly in human beings.” I saw it at the World Parliament of Religions, so let me tell you what I witnessed.
WPOR Theme #1: Indigenous Peoples—The Spiritual Evolution of Humanity
The concerns of the world’s indigenous peoples, their sufferings from colonization and prejudices, and their immense contributions to our world past and present—these were intrinsic to WPOR. For example, almost every speaker or presenter began by acknowledging the fact that Toronto sits on traditional native lands. Indigenous people frequently contributed to the formal program, with their perspectives on climate change especially valued as we considered our relationship to the Earth and to each other. Indigenous music and other cultural artifacts uplifted us, whether during an organized entertainment segment, visual displays along the hallways, or booths in the exhibit hall where attendees shared conversation and ideas.
Far from residing on the fringes of society, indigenous people and their ideas were very much in the forefront of both thought and action at WPOR. This prominence mirrored the Baha’i ideals and principles regarding the indigenous people’s of the world:
The fundamental principle of the oneness of mankind, and the aim of the [Baha’i] Faith to promote unity in diversity, underlie the Bahá’í approach to indigenous peoples. Their rights are inseparable from human rights for all, and the Bahá’í Faith upholds the right of indigenous peoples to develop and take pride in their own identity, culture and language. – The Universal House of Justice, from a letter on Traditional practices in Africa, 16 December 1998.
WPOR Theme #2: The Dignity of Woman Across the World’s Wisdom Traditions
Women of all ages, geographic origins, cultural traditions, and religious thought presented and participated in every moment of the World Parliament of Religions. I found this especially valuable in the non-verbal aspects of the event, such as the arts. Women also played more formal roles, where they had an equal position to men in introducing, mentoring, speaking, discussing, and performing. Rather than feeling like condescension to a feminist-driven mandate for equality, it felt exactly what the word “dignity” suggests—both acknowledging and honoring women as equal partners in life and on our planet.
These Baha’i quotations seem to sum it up:
Women have equal rights with men upon earth; in religion and society they are a very important element. As long as women are prevented from attaining their highest possibilities, so long will men be unable to achieve the greatness which might be theirs. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 134.
The equality of women and men is not a condition whose effects will be limited to half of the world’s population. Its operationalization will revolutionize all facets of human society. – Toward a New Discourse on Religion and Gender Equality, Statement of the Bahá’í International Community
Theme #3: Climate Action—Care for Our Earth, Responsibility for Our Future
When I first learned about the World Parliament of Religions in Toronto, I saw “Climate Action”—not just “Climate Change”—on the agenda as one of the major themes. That’s when I knew I wanted to go.
I realize not everyone reading this will agree that this is the most important challenge facing humanity at this time, but perhaps we can agree that we must seek answers to deal with not only the threat to our climate and all life on the planet, but also must deal with already-occurring, often catastrophic losses that the Earth and its species have suffered. If ever we needed both science and religion to work together, surely this is it!
The following statement from the Baha’i International Community sets the standard:
A response to climate change will require profound changes at the level of the individual, the community and the nations of the world. These will no doubt be informed by continuing progress in the arenas of science, technology, economics and policy. To complement the processes of change already underway, we consider the concrete ways in which the principle of the oneness of humanity could be operationalized at the above-mentioned levels and could serve to build momentum, support and intellectual capacity for more integrated and just approaches to the solution of the challenge before us. – The Baha’i International Community, Seizing the Opportunity: Redefining the challenge of Climate Change, 1 December 2008.
Almost every session—regardless of day, theme, topic, presenter, or focus—mentioned the challenge of climate change. The situation has become so extreme, and the consensus among people of faith so strong, that I kept hearing over and over about the threat to our planet, the impact on every living thing, the urgency of the problem, and the need to find practical, spiritual solutions both at the systemic and the individual level. Perhaps, I went away thinking, the increasing unanimity about the environmental problems we face among the world’s great Faiths may provide the global consensus we need to address this massively important issue.