Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Another September 11th Anniversary

My amazing daughter worked the costume crew at Opera Theatre of St. Louis when John Adams’ opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” was staged a few years ago. She was dresser for one of the Palestinian characters and noticed Adams himself visiting the rehearsal. (My wife and I had shaken hands with Adams in the 1990s when he won the Grawemeyer Award for his violin concerto.)

This production of “Klinghoffer” became locally significant because it opened an opportunity for religious understanding. The head of Opera Theatre met with local Jewish leaders, and an interfaith forum was held, and a tradition began of an annual interfaith service around the time of 9/11 each year.

Scene from the 1893 World's Fair, from
It’s worth noting another 9/11 anniversary: 120 years ago, the World’s Parliament of Religions convened as part of the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The parliament began Sept. 11, 1893 and ran through the 27th.

The assembly is now recognized as the birth of formal interreligious dialogue in the world. Ironically, Native Americans and other representatives of indiginous religions were not included (considering that the exposition commemorated Columbus’ first voyages to America). But representatives of Islam, Christian Science, Buddhism, and Hinduism met with the admittedly Christian-heavy assembly. Baha’i, a very new faith at that time, was mentioned at the gathering, and Bah'ais soon participated in interfaith groups.

One notable attender was Soyen Shaku, the Zen teacher credited as the ancestor of Zen practice in the United States. Swami Vivekananda represented Hinduism. A local colleague of mine, a swami in the Vedanta Society, has spoken to one of my classes about the importance of Vivekananda, not only in this particular visit but also for Hinduism in the U.S.

Among numerous sources about the parliament, this article gives a good summary and discussion of the importance of the 1893 event: http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/bce/worldparliamentofreligions1893.htm. The event is significant for the development of study of comparative religion (one of my own primary teaching areas for as long as I’ve been teaching), as well as for Christian ecumenism and missionary efforts, and for the growing multiculturalism and religious diversity in America as immigrants from Asia increased during the early and then the mid 20th century. As the article’s last quoted author puts it, “other deities had been tucked up in [America’s] sacred canopy.” Mutual religious understanding became an ongoing and necessary goal for Americans as “new ways to be religious” became characteristic of the nation. All of us who value interfaith and ecumenical understanding--- not only as an activity but as a way of being religious---appreciate the 1893 event.

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