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Setting the Interfaith Agenda


Setting the Interfaith Agenda

by Paul Chaffee

Twenty-five years ago the Parliament of the World’s Religions endorsed Towards a Global Ethic – An Initial Declaration. For all the Global Ethic has and has not achieved, much discussed in this issue of TIO, the document set the agenda for the interfaith movement that has blossomed around the world in the quarter-century since it was published. More than ever before, it deserves our attention and study because it continues to state so clearly what humankind needs to survive in an increasingly threatened world.

Following the 1993 Parliament, there was no institutional support structure to move the Global Ethic forward. Professors Hans Küng and Leonard Swidler have shared libraries of resources for studying the Ethic, but there is no organization solely dedicated to achieving its goals. That said, the Declaration identifies the central issues religious communities need to address in the coming years, and it has been an inspiration to thousands who have joined the interfaith cause and those creating the ensuing charters which carry on the cause, such as the United Religions Initiative Charter, the Earth Charter, and the Charter for Compassion.

Foundational documents like the Declaration remind us of where we’re headed, of our most important goals, of why the cause is so important. I’ve used the opening paragraphs of the document for unison reading in worship services, an empowering exercise. After naming and acknowledging the pain in the world, the Global Ethic is full of hope, affirmation, and guidelines about what it takes to live a globally ethical life.

After burying myself in this material for the past two months, two issues surface for me. First is bafflement at how the growth of peace and justice movements – how the emergence of new resources and devoted activists – in the aggregate don’t seem to have moved the needle on the persistence of religiously motivated violence. One keeps hoping for a tipping point, where the gifts of forgiveness and reconciliation break through to transform the violent impulse. It happens sometimes, but not nearly enough.

The more encouraging take-away for me is how the evolution of ‘interfaith dialogue’ is moving in the direction of actually transforming relationships. ‘Interfaith dialogue’ can indeed be a shallow, feel-good exercise making almost no difference at all. Rather than abandon dialogue, however, we are being taught how to focus our dialogue in life-changing ways.  The alchemy of turning disagreement into collaboration is being developed in a number of different settings, and the results can be deeply gratifying. Katherine Marshall’s concluding piece is about how the Global Ethic is reflected in the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (called the Global Goals by some). As SDGs, the goals can be discerned metrically, with “clear targets, quantifiable goals, interim objectives, named accountabilities, and deadlines,” Marshall writes. A ray of hope. Something real, that is improving the planet.


A week from now the Parliament of the World’s Religions will be sponsoring a free three-day program on the Global Ethic.  It begins with a two-day academic conference featuring religious leaders from various traditions (April 23- 24 at the University of Chicago Divinity School). Their subject: Grappling with the Global Ethic – Multi-religious Perspectives on Global Issues. Then on April 25 an interactive interfaith forum will address Faiths Together for Change: Acting on Chicagoland’s Critical Issues (at Chicago Theological Seminary).

If you don’t live near Chicago, why not have your own local Global Ethic interfaith gathering? It takes us back to our roots, to why we do what we do.


Header Photo: Pixabay