Since earlier this year, the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions has been compiling a ‘State of the Interreligious Movement Report’ that would provide a comprehensive snapshot of where the interfaith community is at this juncture, and which could serve as a valuable resource for interreligious groups, organizers of interfaith events, academic researchers, funding organizations, etc. To take advantage of the presence of so many and diverse religious representatives in Monterrey, the Council organized a ‘Gathering of Experts’ – to be held over the two days following the Encuentro – in order to generate more material for the report.
I was one of those invited to participate, so on Tuesday and Wednesday, in sessions lasting from early morning to mid-afternoon, I joined some thirty other presenters for round-table discussions of such questions as: How do you define ‘religion’? Is there a presumed definition of ‘religion’ in the interreligious movement? Are there many such definitions? What has been the impact of modernity on contemporary religion? What should be the relationship between religions and political institutions? How do you determine who are legitimate representatives of religious traditions in interreligious work? What is the greatest challenge to religion in the twenty-first century?
As background for our discussions, we had read an article entitled The Interfaith Movement: An Incomplete Assessment by Kusumita Pedersen (one of my colleagues on the Parliament’s board of trustees), which had originally appeared in the January 2004 issue of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies and provides a good model for the kind of descriptive and evaluative report that the Council is preparing; and a thought-provoking essay by Parliament staffer Jeff Israel on What Counts as ‘Religion’ in the Interreligious Movement?, which analyzes five popular (and conflicting) definitions of religions: as channels of transcendent and universal truths, as convenient delusions, as moral communities, as personal experiences of the sacred, or as organized systems of meaning. Neither these classifications nor the questions posed above were to be interpreted as ‘correct’ or ‘definitive’ – their purpose was mainly to stimulate thought and generate discussion.
Dirk Ficca provided a brief but very clear articulation of the Parliament’s mission and philosophy. He noted that the Parliament’s job as an organization is not to advocate specific points of view or adjudicate disputes among the world’s religions, but rather to provide the environment where those ideas or conflicts can be openly and fairly discussed. He stressed that the Parliament seeks to promote harmony, rather than unity, among the world’s religions; convergence of ideas, not necessarily consensus; facilitation, rather than structure; and trust, rather than agreement.
He also did an outstanding job steering our conversations over those two days, as we brainstormed, asked questions of each other, and provided examples and models based on our own spiritual traditions. I won’t go into further detail about those discussions here, both because it would take up too much time and space, and also because the specifics really belong in the report, which is due to come out later this year. But I will say that, based on those talks and on what I’ve read so far, anyone who’s interested in interfaith relations should be sure to check the Parliament’s website in the upcoming months and get a copy, since it looks like it will be a comprehensive and valuable tool.
One section of the report will include listings of interfaith resources from the various religions represented, mostly culled from online sources. I was glad to have read the first draft of the report prior to the Encuentro, since we were listed in that section as 'Neo-Pagan and Wiccan' – an unsatisfactory though understandable classification given that, even among ourselves, there's no definitive consensus on taxonomy. There are Wiccans and Neo-Pagans in our community, to be sure, but then there are all those of us who aren't; to use those two designations automatically excludes all the thousands of pagans who don't fall under those categories. As I pointed out to the people drafting the report, to keep those classifications would be tantamount to saying 'Baptists and Mormons' instead of 'Christians'; that would probably not make the Catholics and the Presbyterians very happy. Thankfully, by the next draft the listing had been changed to simply read 'Pagan.'
Following today's meeting, the Parliament arranged for us a guided tour of one of the local museums. At breakfast this morning with Joe Runzo and Nancy Martin, they’d expressed an interest in having dinner someplace other than the hotel (but for a few Mexican touches, the food typically has been fairly bland American fare). I told them about El Rey del Cabrito, which piqued their interest, so we made plans to go there after the tour. I also told them about a different museum, which, as luck would have it, is featuring an exhibit of works by Frida Kahlo, one of my favorite painters, celebrating the hundredth anniversary of her birth, and that interested them as well (prior to my trip, I made plans to visit the Frida Kahlo Museum when I got to Mexico City, but this exhibit in Monterrey was an exciting, unexpected bonus).
Late afternoon, a chartered bus took us to the Museo de Historia Mexicana. The group of us in the photo taken at the entrance of the museum includes, from left to right: Bhai Sahib Mohinder Singh (Sikh), Seshagiri Rao (Hindu), Anop Vora (Jain), Raksha Shah (Jain), myself, Joseph Prabhu (Catholic), and William Lesher (Lutheran).
The exhibits were quite interesting, tracing the history of México by organizing it into four main stages – the Amerindian period from pre-history up to the arrival of the Spanish conquerors; the Virreinato de Nueva España (the Viceroyship of New Spain, which extended from what is now North Dakota to British Columbia, and all the lands directly south all the way to Costa Rica, also including Louisiana, Florida, and all the islands in the Caribbean as well as the Philippines, governed from Mexico City, and lasting from the early 1500s to the early 1800s – a fact which surprised some of my colleagues, since most Americans don’t seem to realize that, for quite a long time, more than half of what is now the U.S. was under Spanish rule from México); the XIX century, when México gained its independence from Spain; and, finally, modern México.
The tour was marred, however, by some of the references which our guide made toward the indigenous peoples of this land and their cultures (though I imagine that he was really just repeating what some museum curator had instructed him to say). The average tourist might have accepted his remarks at face value, but given the composition of our group, his narration came across as very bigoted and paternalistic. One of the delegates – a Catholic woman who works with indigenous communities in Oaxaca – was particularly incensed, and took it upon herself to give us a running ‘translation’ of the guide’s comments which reflected more accurately the realities of indigenous history, life and culture. Prior to my trip, several of my Mexican friends had warned me that
Nancy, Joe and I decided to skip what remained of the tour and go, instead, to the Kahlo exhibit, since we’d been told that the museum where it was being held was about to close. We walked for several blocks and finally came upon the MARCO, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey, with more than an hour to go before closing time. I have been fascinated with Frida Kahlo since my early childhood, when I came across a photo of her in a magazine – probably while she was still alive – and couldn’t take my eyes off her for hours. I had never seen anyone like her before: not so much the physical landscape of her face (though that, in itself, was riveting enough) as the dark, mysterious, terrifying and impish beings that dwelt upon it; beings that, as a small child, I could not yet name, but which seduced and scared me just the same.
Kahlo, popularly called La paloma herida ('The Wounded Dove') in México, had a complicated and tragic existence (polio at 6; an autobus accident at 18 that left her broken and on the edge of death, followed by dozens of surgeries over the rest of her life; a tempestuous, love/hate marriage of 25 years to the famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera; several miscarriages, the eventual amputation of a leg, etc.) which kept her in constant physical and emotional suffering; yet, throughout it all, she was able to maintain a keen sense of humor and an insatiable lust for earthly pleasures. Perhaps more than any other artist, she was fearlessly willing to turn herself inside out. Her self-portraits, mostly in a style and palette reminiscent of her maternal indigenous roots, became an external reflection of her surrealistic interior universe, simultaneously beautiful, whimsical and gruesome – André Breton famously described her art as "a ribbon tied around a bomb." (Besides, you have to figure that anyone who was lovers with Diego Rivera, Josephine Baker, Georgia O’Keefe, Picasso, Chavela Vargas and Leon Trotsky must have had something very special going on…) Though she’s been well-known all along in the Hispanic world, Kahlo hadn’t received nearly as much notice in the
The exhibit at the MARCO (at least some of which will apparently tour the U.S.) included some of her most famous works, such as My Nurse and I, The Bus (the museum did not allow the taking of photographs inside the exhibit hall, but the shot on the right is of a cardboard representation of this painting on display at the entrance), The Broken Column, Frida and the Miscarriage, Without Hope, Henry Ford Hospital, A Few Small Nips, Flower of Life, The Dream, The Accident, and perhaps the best known of all, TheTwo Fridas.
One brilliant aspect of the exhibit, in addition to the paintings and sketches, was the 'letters room.' Just prior to the event, in August, there had been an announcement that some of Kahlo's letters to her physician, who was also her confidant, had been unsealed and would be published in a book entitled Mi doctorcito ('My Beloved Doctor,' the way in which she began all her correspondence to him). These letters reveal much more in depth some of the turmoil that fueled both her creativity and her suffering. In this one room, the museum exhibited several dozen of her letters to various people over the course of her life, including some of the ones found in the new book. The letters were inserted back-to-back inside thin panels of clear plexiglass, about two feet square, which hung in rows from long wires attached to the ceiling.
Given that the room was not particularly well lit, and that the letters were mostly written in Frida's own, fairly small hand, in order for people to read them they had to get right up close. That put each viewer literally just a few scant inches away from the person reading on the other side of the panel, though they couldn't really see each other because the letters blocked their view. So here were all of these people, reading the intimate correspondence of this most intimately revealing artist, while they themselves were standing in such intimate proximity to complete strangers, that they might as well have been dancing...