It is a conversation that is perhaps 130 years in the making and could likely only happen in a place like Chicago, just as it did for the first time during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

The Parliament of World Religions (PoWR) this summer (Aug. 14-18) will once again grace the Chicago lakefront bringing together faith leaders from every corner of the globe. It’s been three decades since the PoWR was last in Chicago and six years since everyone has met in person due to the pandemic. So as one would imagine, there will be plenty to discuss.

What may surprise some is the prominence religion and science has held in these meetings over the years. This year is no exception, as the Institute for Religion in an Age of Science has led the creation of a ‘Science & Religion’ track exploring a variety of concepts from how faith communities can better support science all the way to a closer look at the history of religion and science scholarship in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, just south of where the conference will be held at McCormick Place.

The connection between the PoWR and religion and science can trace its roots to one man who lived roughly 90 miles southwest of Chicago over 100 years ago. Paul Carus described himself as an ‘athiest who loved God’ and from his stately mansion in LaSalle, Ill. wrote a great deal on the differences between Eastern and Western concepts of religion and in fact participated in the very first World’s Parliament at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

While many years have passed since the first PoWR, it is worth remembering this was the first time the world’s religious leaders ever met face to face. This tradition has continued, though face-to-face has been limited to screens in recent years..

Back in 1893 though, it had to be exciting to be in the same room and yet a daunting task when it came to communicating with one another. Today, we share so many of the same concerns whether it is related to human rights and ecology that act as a bridge to spark conversations. Language is less of a barrier today, which was perhaps the case  when D.T. Suzuki and Carus first met and then latertranslated the work of the Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao-Tze into English.

To that end, meetings such as the PoWR serve as a wonderful lesson to us today on how different lexicons can be translated, strict views on what constitutes the acquisition of knowledge can be explored, and that historical divides can be bridged by unlikely individuals that may call themselves scientists, pastors, theologians or lay persons.

The experience of that first Parliament is said to have profoundly changed Carus. Even before that first Parliament, Carus seemed to be very interested in religion and science. According to an article originally published on the Metanexus website in 2007 by his grandson M. Blouke Carus, it was understandable how the elder Carus could see scientific method and scientific truth, including the study and interpretation of the Bible, as becoming a new standard for all truth – including religious truth.

He grew up in a traditional Lutheran family and attended German Universities in the 1870s, just a decade or more following Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Yet, Carus, held big ideas in tension with one another and took a great interest in Eastern religions well before their introduction into popular Western culture.

In 1893, he delivered his paper before the Parliament titled, “Science: A Religious Revelation.” In it he wrote of the “missapplication of religious conservatism,” according to M. Blouke Carus.

As Paul describes himself as a faithful believer feeling the “burning flames of damnation,” the elder Carus seems very modern to the degree that some today also criticize dualistic ideologies in much the same way. Carus’ books and essays on the subject of science and religion with titles such as: The “Religion of Science” and “God, An Inquiry into the Nature of Man’s Highest Ideal and a Solution of the problem from the Standpoint of Science” are not far off from titles one may see in the 21st century.

I wonder how he would view some of the panel sessions to be held at this year’s PoWR, which include a discussion with Katie Hinman of AAAS’s DoSER program on science being taught in the seminaries and Wesleyan theologian Thomas Oord outlining the key concepts he’s developed on Open and Relational Theology.

“The nature of religious truth is the same as that of scientific truth,” Carus wrote. “There is but one truth. There cannot be two truths in conflict with one another. Contradiction is always, in religion not less than in science, a sign that there is somewhere an error. There cannot be in religion any other method of ascertaining the truth than the method found in science. And if we renounce reason and science, we can have no ultimate criterion of truth.”

Carus, who perhaps didn’t get the respect he wanted while he was alive, was very much ahead of his time. It is good to know that people have been pointing out that religion and science are not in conflict as far back as at least 1893. Then again it also reminds us that we still have a long way to go to bring these ideas to the fore in our time too. In fact, we may be repeating some of the same wisdom of decades ago.

In looking at this year’s PoWR program, especially from the faith and science lens, it is evident that in the sharing of ideas related to global problems, whether they are social, political, environmental or technological, that the world’s faith leaders have as much to learn from one another as ever before. It is undeniable too that there is value in participating in open dialogue – both in being eager to learn and in a willingness to be challenged. This openness in part is what holds a spark of what unites people of faith in every time and place.

Susan Barreto
Susan Barreto

Susan is an author with a long-time interest in religion and science. She currently edits Covalence, the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology’s online magazine. She has written articles in The Lutheran and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science newsletter. Susan is a board member for the Center for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, the supporting organization for the Zygon Center and the Zygon Journal. She also co-wrote Our Bodies Are Selves with Dr. Philip Hefner and Dr. Ann Pederson.

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