Reflections on Parliament of the World’s Religions: Curiosity, Complexity & The Cosmos

Photo by Sawyer Bengtson on Unsplash

In August, I had the opportunity of attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. As a newly graduated Seattle University alumna, I was at the Parliament representing the Center for Ecumenical and Interreligious Engagement (CEIE) at Seattle University, alongside our Director Dr. Michael Reid Trice and my colleague and SU alumna Cloë Poole.

This was my first time in Chicago, and wow, I was delighted. There was a riveting energy from the city. An old flame; a scholastic air coupled with liveliness, beauty and nature. Brick buildings boarded the foxglove foliage. The Parliament of the World’s Religions transpired on the bonnet of Lake Michigan at McCormick Place Convention Center, celebrating the 130th anniversary of the globally renowned convening.

On the first day, after Cloë and I gulped down our coffee at a local coffee house, we entered the doors of the Parliament. We could feel the energy in that room and could see the crowds of people from afar. As we got seated for the Opening Plenary, we kept exchanging glances of excitement and gratitude.

“Love is the greatest conqueror of the planet,” said Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson shortly into the opening ceremony. I felt a sense of peace and ease when I heard these words. As we were all gathered in that room in the morning on, I had a mix of emotions – excitement, curiosity, mild anxiety. But somehow the idea of love being the greatest champion on this planet was a delicate but vital thing to hear that day.

Throughout the week, I was enlightened and surprised by a variety of things. As Cloë and I got to explore Chicago during our free time and as we heard snippets of Chicago’s eminence from the many speakers at the Parliament, we learned that Chicago is the city that birthed the modern interfaith movement.

I come from an Armenian Apostolic background where Christianity has a strong symbolic significance in my culture. For one, I was baptized in Etchmiadzin Cathedral in Armenia at the age of four. I can actually recall this old memory because of how significantly spiritual it felt to me at the time. However, I grew up in a non-practicing household. I’d attend church only a couple times a year, but I always knew that our religion was an important token for liberation and love. From the 1915 Armenian Genocide to the current-day upheavals in the Caucasus where Armenians are still subject to a kind of eliminationist rhetoric from its neighbors, our people’s strength and resistance lives in our hearts. It lives in our blood.

How do I tie this to my experience at the Parliament of the World’s Religions? Well, attending the world’s largest and most diverse interfaith convening of people of faith and spirituality was a large deal. I arrived with an open mind and curiosity, and left feeling more curious, affirmed, and acknowledged.

One of the most memorable moments for me during the Parliament occurred during a workshop led by Dr. Michael Summers, a professor of planetary and atmospheric sciences at George Mason University. Dr. Summers gave a very impressive presentation that led the audience through the potential of life on other planets and how vast the cosmos is. I’ve always found learning about astronomy quite fascinating, so I was all ears during his presentation.

When Dr. Summers explained what the merging between science and religion meant to him, I had a bit of an awakening moment. When asked from an audience member about the certainty of God and why humans know to use the word ‘God,’ Dr. Summers said this in paraphrase: God is the name we have given the infinite, i.e., the cosmos, but it’s just a name.

He continued to explain how such a form of purposefulness and complexity in the world around us – from the effortless spirals found in nature to the raindrop found on a tender herb – make it hard for us to fully imagine Creation because the notions of Complexity and Unpredictability keep a complete grasp of Creation out of our reach. And when I say “Creation,” I am referring to the Universe. The Cosmos. Just Everything.

The relationship between science and religion can be an intimidating and even unapproachable conversation, but Dr. Summers managed to shed light on the subject from a very fascinating perspective. It was those kinds of workshops and lectures that were moving and, in my opinion, once-in-a-lifetime talks, where a kind of epiphany “grazed across my consciousness and lit up my vision for a moment in the serene darkness of it all,” as Dr. Trice put it. Cheers to more fascinating conversations and moments like these. Thank you to the Parliament and Chicago.