By James F. Lawrence, Dean, Center for Swedenborgian Studies of the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley, CA)
The 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions in October drew a whopping ten thousand participants from seventy-three countries, thirty major religions, and 548 “sub-traditions” to the five-day conference held in Salt Lake City. The colossal multifaith religion celebration, however, also coincided with a mushrooming Islamophobia regarding the planet’s second-largest faith tradition. Islamophobia is more than fear and loathing of Islam: it is slander and vilification in broad brushstrokes.
“What would Swedenborg do about Islamophobia?” is a discerning question to pose given that the now-iconic Parliament of the World’s Religions arose originally from Swedenborg’s pluralist thought. That Swedenborgian thought birthed interreligious dialogue is surely a quite underappreciated aspect of the interfaith movement’s history. It happened through Chicago Swedenborgian layperson Charles Carroll Bonney, a prominent jurist, once on a short list for U.S. Supreme Court nomination, who was a renowned legal reformer and a vocal critic of the exploitation of recent immigrants as cheap labor. Bonney was president of the exposition’s congresses at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which was being held to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus landing in the Americas. They planned two hundred congresses on all manner of topics and fields, but Bonney had a late-breaking brainstorm for a congress featuring the world’s religions. The resulting Parliament of the World’s Religions became far and away the resounding legacy of the exposition.
Bonney’s vision for that first-ever broad multifaith gathering was an antidote for the times, coming at the end of a religiously fractious nineteenth century that spawned hundreds of schismatic and entirely new religious movements, all of which seemed to specialize in passionate polemics. Swedenborgians had been among the most energetic in the doctrinal wars, yet Bonney, yearning for a wholly new approach to religious diversity, saw in Swedenborg all the makings of a pluralist philosophy based on a respect for the integrity of effort and purpose in all religions. “In this [the Swedenborgian] Church I was taught the fundamental truths which made a World’s Parliament of Religions possible” (quoted in Dole, With Absolute Respect, 21).
Bonney, in fact, interprets forward from Swedenborg’s context to his own, as Swedenborg tends to be hypercritical of all traditions, including Islam (under the rubric “Mohammedans”), even as he also spies the good foundation in various traditions, including Islam. One might say Bonney cherry-picked passages from Swedenborg, or one might say Bonney performed constructive theology in a contemporary context. The latter interpretation fits because Bonney’s embrace of religious pluralism was intentional and believed to be the right approach for the times, even as Bonney likely believed Swedenborg’s critique of traditions was necessary at the time they were penned. As such, Bonney harvested passages from Swedenborg’s Divine Providence emphasizing the twin virtues of recognizing a higher power and living ethically, virtues that if put into practice lead to refraining from bad deeds (see Divine Providence #322-8). These are two qualities that Swedenborg affirmed in Islam repeatedly.
George Dole, in his superb monograph on Bonney—still the only serious treatment of this early religious pluralist yet done—has termed Bonney’s interfaith Swedenborgian construct as one of “absolute respect” in interreligious dialogue, and this ethic stems from Swedenborg’s premise that all people sincerely striving to live according to the best they know—or, as Bonney puts it, “to the dictates of their conscience”—are heading in the right direction. On this basis traditions can relate to one another fruitfully. Laying this new ground for regarding differences in religion, Bonney declared in his opening “Words of Welcome” at the first Parliament: “This day a new flower blooms in the gardens of religious thought, filling the air with its exquisite perfume.”
So what about the raging Islamophobia today? The poison pill people are swallowing may be made of myth. Islamophobists believe the acts of ISIS are intrinsically Muslim, and that all Muslims secretly applaud the ISIS’s violence. A brouhaha has developed on the question of what Muslims everywhere really believe and feel about ISIS’s obvious evil actions. Yet a recent examination of the matter by the Pew Research Center, the source most trusted as neutral by religious sociologists, reveals that Muslims internationally in overwhelming numbers hold a negative view of ISIS (see https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/17/in-nations-with-significant-muslim-populations-much-disdain-for-isis/). Most Muslims regard ISIS as committing very, very bad deeds.
That the violent strand of Islam deserves disapprobation goes without saying, but Islamophobia spews vitriol without distinction on all 1.2 billion Muslims, and Islamophobists show themselves to be utterly ignorant of the fertile diversity within Muslim thought worlds. Fatwas against violent forms of jihad have been shaped time and again by liberal, progressive, reformist, and modernist Muslims. These movements and schools work via varied methods to interpret the Qu‘ran in forward-looking ways that seek to bring Islam to the challenges of the contemporary world. This is quite similar to the distinctive methodology that Swedenborg and Swedenborgians utilize, interpreting spiritual meanings of biblical passages describing warfare to mean that the battles are the inner combats necessary in individual and social regeneration. (Learn more in Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam)
The time is again right to hark back to the Swedenborgian origins of religious pluralism for some useful reflection as we contemplate where we are today and how to respond to the beast of Islamophobia. And George Dole’s monograph on Charles Carroll Bonney and his Swedenborgian theology, which was written for the centennial of that first Parliament, should be required reading.
Bonney, Charles Carroll. “Words of Welcome,” in The Dawn of Religious Pluralism: Voices from the World’s Parliament of Religions, 1893, ed. Richard Hughes Seager. La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 1993.
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Browers, Michaelle and Kurzman, Charles, eds. An Islamic Reformation? Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004.
Burrell, David. “God, Religious Pluralism, and Dialogic Encounter,” in Reconstructing Christian Theology, Rebecca S. Chopp and Mark Lewis Taylor, eds., 49-78. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994.
Corbin, Henry. Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam, trans. Leonard Fox. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1995.
Currie, Sage. “An Inclusivist Position on Religious Pluralism: Moving Beyond Swedenborg,” in Studia Swedenborgiana 15:1 (Dec. 2005): 1-19. https://www.baysidechurch.org/studia/default.asp?ArticleID=212&VolumeID=…
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Dole, George F. With Absolute Respect: The Swedenborgian Theology of Charles Carroll Bonney. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1993.
Kurzman, Charles ed. Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
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Seager, Richard Hughes, ed. The Dawn of Religious Pluralism: Voices from the World’s Parliament of Religions, 1893. LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1993.
_____. The World’s Parliament of Religions: East/West Encounter, Chicago, 1893. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2009.