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Dining at the Smorgasbord of World Religions

“Honestly, I had no idea there were so many religions in the world. What I want to know is why that is.”

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Religiosity is the innate human capacity for meaning making. Its primary tools are art, music, dance, story, myth, ritual, and contemplative practice. Religiosity is dynamic, fluid, and evolving, pointing us toward ever greater levels of consciousness and ever wider circles of compassion. Religion is the organizational structure that transmits past expressions of human religiosity to future generations. Over time religiosity’s dynamic, fluid, and evolving nature becomes ossified in religion’s penchant for hierarchy, continuity, power, and control. While religiosity is always about imagining tomorrow, religion is almost always about replicating a no less imagined yesterday. It is with this understanding (some might call it bias) that I attended the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto.

The original Parliament was a one-time event held in conjunction with the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. A century later it roared back to life and continues to flourish as a gathering place for thousands of people committed to interfaith harmony.

At the Parliament interfaith harmony doesn’t mean differing religions finding common metaphysical ground, but different people from differing religions making friends with one another. The unspoken assumption behind the Parliament is that friends are less likely to kill one another in the name of their respective Gods. Friendship is not likely to occur in formal lecture sessions or panel presentations, and the real magic of the Parliament happens in the unscripted conversations held in the hallways, food court, and exhibition hall. What follows are snippets from some of these conversations.

Belonging and Believing

Peggy Merrell (not her real name) is a nurse practitioner with a focus on hospice care. This is her first Parliament. “Honestly, the thing is overwhelming. Thousands of people, hundreds of religions . . . I had no idea there were so many religions in the world. What I want to know is why that is. I mean, the differences between some of them seem tiny, irrelevant, even silly. Why are we so fiercely focused on our particular religion?”

A professor of comparative religion sharing a table with us took up her question. “Religion is all about belonging. The cost of belonging is believing in the absolutes affirmed by the group to which you wish to belong. Different groups distinguish themselves from one another by affirming different absolutes. The smaller the differences between absolutes, the more important the differences become and the more fiercely people cling to them.”

“I think the professor is on to something,” I said. “I’d only add that for me religion is an art form no different from music or art. There are so many religions for the same reason there are so many poets, artists, musicians, dancers, writers—people are creative by nature.”

“True enough,” the professor said, “but your metaphor is limited in that no one claims Beethoven is true and Bach is false, or that people who love the one cannot marry someone who loves the other, or that if you love both you are anathema to each. And nobody is killed because they prefer Coltrane to Dylan.”

Peggy looked shocked and stared at the professor, who just smiled, shrugged, and turned around to talk with someone else.

The unspoken assumption behind the Parliament is that friends are less likely to kill one another in the name of their respective Gods.

Your Truth, My Truth, and Truth

I was browsing a book table in the Parliament’s Exhibition Hall when a gray-robed Korean fellow touched my wrist and said, “There is no truth here. Look, here are three different books by three different people who claim to have died and gone to heaven and then returned to tell us about heaven—yet the heavens they each describe have no relation with one another. No truth, just fantasy. And people will buy the one that most closely mirrors their own opinion about heaven whether or not that opinion is sound.”

“So you’re saying that people’s quest for truth is rooted in confirmation bias: What is true is what confirms my opinion about what is true?”

“That’s it.”

“So what do we do about that?” I asked.

“Follow the advice of Master Seung Sahn: Only don’t know. As soon as you know, what you know is false.”

I pondered that for a moment and thought, But wait. If I know that I should only not know, isn’t only not knowing wrong as well? I might have put this question to him, but by the time I formulated it he had disappeared into the crowd.

Does God Exist?

An elderly Indian woman called me over, points to my yarmulke, and asked me, “Does God exist?”

“No,” I said, “God doesn’t exist, God is existence.”

“Clever,” she said. “There are many Gods at the Parliament and they are not the same. Ask a Jew or a Muslim if their Gods had a Son, and they will tell you no. Ask a Christian if her God revealed the Holy Qur’an to Mohammed through the angel Jibril [Gabriel] and she will say no. Is any of these Gods the One True God?”

“Religions are stories we invent to make meaning out of life. The Gods of the world’s religions are characters in these stories. They are no more true or false than Hamlet or Harry Potter is true or false.”

“So there is no One True God?” she asked.

“Not one you can fit into a story,” I replied. “I’m with Lao Tzu, who wrote, The Tao that can be named is not the Eternal Tao. The God you can name, define, and worship in some organized way is not the Eternal God,” I said.

“You are a clever boy,” she said as she walked away. “Too clever, I suspect.”

—Rabbi Rami Shapiro


Rabbi Rami Shipiro

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, essayist, poet, and teacher. His spiritual advice column, "Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler," addresses reader questions pertaining to religion, spirituality, faith, family, God, social issues, and more.

His newest book is Surrendered—The Sacred Art: Shattering the Illusion of Control and Falling into Grace with Twelve-Step Spirituality.

He has this to say about religion: “To me, religions are like languages: no language is true or false; all languages are of human origin; each language reflects and shapes the mindset of the civilization that speaks it; there are things you can say in one language that you cannot say or cannot say as well in another; and the more languages you know, the more nuanced your understanding of life. Judaism is my mother tongue, yet in matters of the spirit I strive to be multi-lingual. In the end, however, the deepest language of the soul is silence.”

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