The Paul Carus Award for Interreligious Understanding
by M. Blouke Carus
This article was originally published in Religion East & West, Issue 3, June 2003.
A major award “in recognition of an individual, community or organization that has contributed in an extraordinary way to the international interreligious movement” will be given in the name of interfaith pioneer Paul Carus at the next Parliament of the World’s Religions, to be held in Barcelona in 2004.
Paul Caruss (1852-1919), the German-American writer and publisher, was an organizer of the first Parliament of the World’s Religions, held at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The award in his name will be sponsored by the Carus family, which is best known for its publishing house, Open Court. In announcing the award, Paul Carus’s grandson, M. Blouke Carus, also announced that his family had pledged an additional $1 million in support of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, formed in 1988 to organize the revival of the Parliament. The Parliament of the World’s Religions reconvened in 1993 in Chicago and in 1999 in Cape Town.
A transcript of an address given by Blouke Carus in December 2001, following his announcement of the Paul Carus Award, is given below.
I come to you this evening not as a theologian or a philosopher, but as a lifelong student of education and business. In the few moments I have, I would like to give you a feel for the reasons behind our family’s decision to sponsor an award in the name of Paul Carus. Why this support for the work of the Council, over a century after Paul Carus gave a speech at the first Parliament of Religions in 1893 in Chicago?
In establishing a Paul Carus Award in recognition of exemplary work in promoting interreligious understanding and cooperation, our hope is to draw attention to the importance of fostering interreligious understanding and cooperation among diverse religious and spiritual communities, thus serving the same purpose as other awards such as the Nobel Peace Prize. The Carus Award will make visible the good work done by the nominees and by those selected, and it will help them gain the recognition and resources they need in order to achieve their objectives. All this resonates with the pioneering work of Paul Carus, who over a century ago spent a productive life working with many of the world’s religious leaders to establish a continuing dialogue among the leaders, adherents and communities of the world’s great religious and spiritual traditions.
One of the consequences of a rising global economy is that we can now see more clearly than ever before how interdependent we are. Each country in the world has unique resources of one kind or another that can play a role in the world economy, that can add value and can produce wealth. I’m thinking not only of minerals or agricultural products, but also of beautiful scenery, archeological remains, the unique cultural heritage of each country, the industry of its people. In America, as one of the newest countries, and as one of the wealthiest and most culturally diverse nations, we can see evidence in our supermarkets and superstores of items produced in the most surprising places, because of our global economy. We see on television and we read about remote parts of the world on a daily basis, and with the computer and Internet we can communicate with just about anyone we wish to. More than a century ago, at the first Parliament of Religions in 1893, who could have imagined that this would be our world today? Yet with all of the marvelous technological gizmos and the power of each of us to have the world at our fingertips, we are unfortunately still in the Dark Ages spiritually. We truly have to admit bankruptcy in the ethical, moral and therefore in the religious sense, For all of us who claim to be spiritually inclined, it seems obvious that we must also think about the majority of our fellow men and women throughout the world who are still on the margins of physical existence, who are daily threatened with violence, and who do not yet have the resources or the infrastructure to participate in the finer and more pleasurable things in life.
Perhaps it took the tragedy of September 11 to shake us out of our lethargy to recognize the need to better understand our culture and ourselves and to try to understand why America is hated as much as it is in many countries. We will never be able to understand, though, the senseless, evil, heinous terrorist act of killing thousands of innocent Americans. Yet, as much as we may try, how can we appeal to the higher, spiritual aspirations of humankind if we ourselves are not yet familiar with the most important beliefs and motivations of other cultures, other traditions, namely the world’s major religions? Unfortunately, the so-called multiculturalism we hear about is usually superficial and doesn’t come close to meeting our deeper aspirations. In our quest for world peace, why not start right here at home by learning to appreciate the great religious and spiritual traditions of others? This is the work of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. It gives us a unique opportunity to move beyond ignorance or mere tolerance to a deeper understanding of each other.
In light of recent events, I think we can safely say that Paul Carus saw these needs most clearly, as reflected in the words he wrote shortly after speaking at the first Parliament in 1893 1
It is difficult to understand the Pentecost of Christianity that took place after the departure of Christ from his disciples.
But this Parliament of Religions was analogous in many respects, and it may give us an idea of what happened in Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago. A holy intoxication overcame the speakers as well as the audience; and no one can conceive how impressive the whole proceeding was, unless he himself saw the eager faces of the people and imbibed the enthusiasm that enraptured the multitudes.
Anyone who attended these congresses must have felt the thrill of the divine spirit that was moving through the minds of the congregation. We may rest assured that the event was greater than its promoters ever dreamed of. They budded better than they knew. How small are we mortal men who took an active part in the Parliament in comparison with the movement that it inaugurated! And this movement indicates the extinction of the old narrowness and the beginning of a new era of broader and higher religious life.
Paul Carus saw the Parliament of Religions as the most effective vehicle and strategy to cultivate an understanding of all world religious and spiritual traditions. His vision was revived in the holding of the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions here in Chicago, and in the issuing of the document Towards a Global Ethic: An Initial Declaration, which described the ethical common ground shared by the world’s religious and spiritual traditions and called for mutual understanding and appreciation. Paul Carus’s vision also embraces the Call to Our Guiding Institutions, which was issued at the 1999 Parliament in Cape Town. This document challenged the world’s guiding institutions to address the critical issues facing the world in more responsive and responsible ways. Paul Carus was right: dialogue among the world’s religions provides a new and exhilarating opportunity to address the larger problems of the world,
As a passionate advocate of the religious parliament idea, Paul Carus devoted a major part of the resources of the family publishing company, Open Court, as well as his time and energy, to introduce Eastern thought into America. He corresponded with religious leaders throughout the world, including Shaku Soyen of Japan, Vivekananda of Sri Lanka, and Dharmapala of Thailand, and he brought D. T. Suzuki from Japan to LaSalle, Illinois, to help him translate Laozi’s works and other Chinese classics into English. Paul Carus also became the secretary to the Religious Parliament Extension, which was formed to encourage all the major religious groups to meet again. However, despite his lifelong passion to continue the work of the 1893 Parliament, his efforts unfortunately failed.
Why was Paul Carus so passionate about continuing the work of the 1893 Parliament? For him:
The great prophets of mankind, such as Zarathustra, Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, Moses, Christ and Mohammed, are distinguished by breadth and catholicity: The disciples and followers of these great leaders did all they could to preserve the original texts of these great leaders, and in so doing they have sometimes produced a sectarian attitude in our religions which detracts so much from their catholicity; establishing the authority of tradition as the highest court of appeal in question of religious faith and truth.
That is why he devoted so much energy to studying the great religious leaders themselves. He believed that as we study their thoughts, we widen our scope of understanding of problems of life itself and multiply ways we may have of dealing with them. He believed that the benefits we gain by becoming familiar and sympathetic toward other religions are far more useful than wasting efforts to defend our own cultural traditions as the most significant purpose of life.
As Paul Carus believed, and as we are now experiencing, mutual understanding is one of the greatest needs in our new millennium, and mutual understanding and empathy towards other great religions will not be possible without a recognition of the essential unity of the human family. Although each religion has its own character and cultural traditions, there is an ethical common ground we all can subscribe to. The very act of studying the cultural traditions of the world’s religions can generate in the individual a habit of thinking in general terms about the problems of humanity, instead of the tendency to view all things exclusively from the standpoint of his or her own group’s frame of reference.
Paul Carus concluded that the dialogue among the world’s religious and spiritual communities is essential in order to purify all traditions of their narrowness and of all demand for blind subordination, of the sectarian spirit, and of the Phariseeisrn which sakes it for granted that its own devotees alone are good and holy, while the virtues of others are but polished vices. The religion of the future cannot he a creed upon which the scientist must turn his back, because it is irreconcilable with the principles of science.
It seems obvious to me that this sectarian spirit that we have inherited from ancient times, as Paul Carus describes it, is the root cause of most religious conflicts. The mature leaders of all the major religions must disown the fanatics of their traditions, who profess to possess the ultimate “truth” and who are using religion as a pretext for all kinds of inhuman behavior and for political power.
We of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions see our role nor only as peacemakers, but also as the long-term instruments to bring our own religions into the new millennium, in to a new recognition that members of other faiths are also religious, are also human, and are truly members of our own extended human family. If we can mature enough to broaden our views and recognize that there is an ethical common, that there are the resources in each tradition for mutual respect and understanding and for a “Global Ethic,” then we can strive to purify our own communities. Then we will be strong enough to devote our creative energies to preventing a recurrence of the great horrors of the past century, among which religious persecution features prominently.
We think of the events of September 1 t as devastating, and they were. Yet even they pale when compared to the millions who died in the past century ‘because they held the wrong religious beliefs in a hostile environment. It is unfortunate that the media doesn’t report these events more fully as they occur in the present
What can we do to change these disasters? How can we have the strength, the energy and the organizational ability to make a difference and change man’s inhumanity to man? As Paul Carus pointed out in his book God: An Enquiry, in which he reinterpreted the Lord’s Prayer as “Man’s Highest Ideal,” it is a mistake in any prayer to implore the Almighty to solve problems for us or to change the world in our favor. Rather, what we need from the Almighty is the strength, the insights, the imagination, the tenacity to do these things ourselves. Such a prayer is actually much more powerful and better able to fulfill our aspirations. It is truly amazing what one or two or three people can accomplish if they put their minds to it. For inspiration, all we have to do is to attend the Parliaments of World’s Religions like the ones in 1993 and 1999, or the one to come in 2004. After all, the spiritual dimensions are too often missing in our world, and yet it is the spiritual aspects of our soul or inner life that give us focus, direction and meaning.
In Paul Carus’s own concept of life after death, he is with us tonight, not because he is my grandfather, but because the Parliament is once again meeting and there is a strong organization behind it. In the same way that Bach, Mozart or Beethoven are with us when we hear their music, or as Shakespeare is brought to life when we see one of his plays, Paul Carus is with us tonight in the continuing work of the Council. This work is certainly an incredible vindication of Paul Carus’s dream. The members of the Carus family therefore are proud of this work and willing to make a major sacrifice of our family resources to support the Council, to offer an award in the name of Paul Carus, and to foster ethical and spiritual growth by means of interreligious understanding and cooperation worldwide.
Published with the author’s permission.