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The 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions

Part One: Interreligious Dialogue or New Age Rally?

by Elliot Miller

from the Christian Research Journal, Fall 1993, page 8. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.

Saturday morning, August 28: I have just picked up my press pass and information packet and am trying to exit the fourth floor of Chicago's magnificent Palmer House Hilton Hotel. The lobby is so packed with bodies it takes me 15 minutes to move 100 feet, and 15 more minutes to find an opening on an elevator. And what a spectacle this throng is: from saffron robes and shaven heads to tightly wrapped turbans and flowing beards, this is the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions, and it seems no religion lacks a delegate here.

There are representatives from seemingly every school of Hinduism and Buddhism; Jains, Sikhs, Confucianists, and Taoists; Zoroastrians, Jews, Muslims, and Baha'is; representatives of numerous indigenous religions, especially native American traditions; Mormons; Rastafarians, witches and other neopagans; Theosophists and numerous other New Agers; Catholic clergy and laity and liberal Protestants; even a few evangelicals (although most of them, like me, are here to observe and report, not to join in the spirit of the event). The delegates are generally courteous and friendly. The halls of the hotel are charged with excitement and anticipation -- we all expect to see history in the making.


Such expectation can be attributed in part to the knowledge that 100 years ago the original World's Parliament of Religions -- held in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition of the Chicago World's Fair -- did indeed have a profound affect on 20th century religion. Although the gathering was predominantly Christian, both in delegates and themes -- and was not truly global (since the majority of the world's religions were not represented), it provided the occasion for a very favorable introduction of certain Eastern and Near-Eastern religions to the West (e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism, the Baha'i Faith).

It was at the first Parliament that Swami Vivekananda won over his audience -- many of whom had low expectations of an "uncivilized heathen" -- with his genteel manner and erudite presentation. Vivekananda was a 30-year-old Indian disciple of Sri Ramakrishna (1836-86), a revered "avatar" (god-man) who claimed he had followed the devotional teachings of several religions (including Christianity) and found them to be essentially the same as those of his own Hindu faith. Vivekananda developed this theme with great success at the Parliament, speaking reverently of Christ and affirming that the God worshiped by many names in the world's religions is one and the same. Capitalizing on his popularity, after the Parliament Vivekananda established "Vedanta Societies" (affiliated with the Rama-krishna Order in India) in several American cities. These were the first missionary outposts for an Eastern religion in the U.S., to be followed by Swami Yogananda's Self Realization Fellowship in the 1920s and literally hundreds more, especially after immigration restrictions were lifted in 1965.

The first Parliament is also marked as the beginning of the interfaith movement, with its formal pursuit of dialogue and cooperation among the world's religions. Today the interfaith movement is robust (as evidenced by the massive turnout for this year's Parliament), with several organizations carrying on its work, including the London-based World Congress of Faiths; the World Conference on Religion and Peace, in New York; and the Temple of Understanding, out of New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

The religious landscape in the West has changed dramatically over the past 100 years, and the 1893 Parliament contributed significantly to that change. As the centennial of that celebrated gathering approached, it seemed to many observers (including myself) that -- as a result of all that change -- the world was now extremely ripe for another such parliament.


Interfaith workers in Chicago recognized this golden opportunity to promote their cause. "It began five years ago as the brainstorm of a dozen Chicago Baha'is, Buddhists, Hindus and Zoroastrians. They enlisted a few Christians in their effort to reprise the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions...."[1]

Organizers told the press that the purpose of the eight-day convocation was to promote understanding and collaboration among the world's religions. According to The San Diego Union Tribune, parliament leaders hoped to "reach agreement on a universal declaration of human values, and perhaps even lay the groundwork for a future organization akin to a United Nations of Religions."[2] "'I'm very much in favor of a United Nations of Religions,' says Asad Hussain, president of the American Islamic College in Chicago and a trustee of the parliament. 'We are going...for a religious renaissance that will give real hope and happiness to the people of the world.'"[3]

According to David Ramage, chairman of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, "Never has there been so large a meeting of representatives from every faith in the world."[4] There were 6,500 in attendance from about 250 religious traditions.

The diversity of faiths represented reflected the changing face of American religion. In Chicago alone there are roughly 100,000 Hindus, 155,000 Buddhists, 2,500 Jains, 500 Zoroastrians, 2,000 Baha'is, 15,000 Native Americans (not all of whom practice their traditional religions, of course), and 250,000 Muslims.[5] As the Christian Century observed: "A century ago Jews and Catholics looked to the Parliament to find greater recognition and acceptance in American life; at this year's event religious movements such as the Fellowship of Isis, the Covenant of the Goddess, and the Lyceum of Venus of Healing sought attention and respectability alongside older, more established traditions."[6]

Not all religious traditions were well represented. Along with evangelical Protestants, orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Muslims were conspicuously absent. Mainline Protestants[7] and followers of Japanese religions were also low in number.

Roman Catholicism, however, had a strong presence. Archbishop of Chicago Joseph Cardinal Bernardin participated in the opening and closing ceremonies. In a major presentation, Archbishop Francesco Gioia, a Vatican official, presented the official position of Rome on religious dialogue. And there were numerous religious and lay Catholics making presentations and participating in dialogue.

Mother Teresa was to have been a featured speaker, but she was unable to attend due to health problems. "You are doing God's work," she told the Council's executive director, Daniel Gomez-Ibanez, in a phone conversation. "I wanted to come very much. I know that your work is very important because you are working for the glory of God and the good of the whole world."[8]

The Parliament's planners also scheduled another celebrated religious figure: the Dalai Lama, spiritual and temporal head of six million Tibetans. In this case they were not disappointed. He charmed the press on Thursday, and -- during the closing festivities at Grant Park on the night of Saturday, September 4 -- he drew a spirited response from the estimated 20,000 in attendance. The scent of marijuana wafted through the air as the Dalai Lama, Cardinal Bernardin, and others spoke that evening of the sobering challenges facing humanity in the 21st century.

Included among dozens of notable speakers during the week of the Parliament were former United Nations assistant secretary-general Robert Muller, noted and controversial Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung, and Gerald O. Barney, a "global modeler" who directed the U.S. government's Global 2000 Report to the President (1980). Barney's most recent project is the Millennium Institute, a nonprofit organization which over the past decade has "helped research teams in a fifth of the countries of the world as they prepared a long-term outlook for their country."[9]

(It should be noted that, contrary to what has been rumored in some evangelical circles, Charles Colson was not a participant in the Parliament. Rather, he was granted the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, an award that has been bestowed annually for the past 20 years. Because Sir John Templeton was also a trustee for the Parliament, the two events were scheduled to occur in the same city during the same week -- but not at the same location. Nonetheless, perhaps because Colson is an evangelical, the award ceremony was barely noted at the Parliament. In his acceptance speech before an interfaith audience of thousands, Colson delivered a powerful prophetic warning concerning the social dangers of cultural relativism, utopianism, and other beliefs that were being heavily promoted all week at the Parliament.)

As conferences go, the Parliament was extraordinarily packed with programming and grueling in its schedule. There were a total of 12 plenary sessions (often over three hours long) and almost 800 symposiums, lectures, workshops, exhibits, off-site cultural events, films, and live performances.

Having attended several New Age conferences and expositions, the Parliament had a familiar feel to me. The structure of the programming, the mood of the event, the topics discussed, and the kinds of people in attendance were often reminiscent of those kinds of affairs. However, this convention was also different in that it was truly a gathering of representatives from all the world's religions, and many of those faithful do not possess a New Age mindset. But in the spiritually charged atmosphere that pervaded the Parliament such religious adherents could be especially vulnerable to the ideology of the New Age.[10] In effect, the event had the potential to move the vision of a world politically and spiritually united around New Age values and mysticism from the Western middle class to the world's religions at large.


Did such a promotion of the New Age agenda underlie the Parliament's ostensible purpose of furthering interreligious dialogue? I suspected beforehand that this was the case, after noting that many prominent New Agers were involved at different levels with the organization of the event. As the week unfolded I became increasingly convinced: the occasion of the first Parliament's centennial was being exploited by the present Parliament's organizers, who wished to gather the world's religious leaders and then win them over to their own cause.

Robert Muller: "Interfaith Understanding"

It seemed no accident that the first plenary address, "Interfaith Understanding," was delivered by Robert Muller, a leading New Age political figure. His message was classic New Age: "There is one sign after the other, wherever you look, that we are on the eve of a New Age which will be a spiritual age. There is no doubt about it. There is now a convergence of religion and science," he affirmed, pointing to the fact that scientists are now studying consciousness, meditation, prayer, and religious faith; and that the World Health Organization now recommends spiritual healing and spiritual practices.

Muller cited a report by the Carnegie Foundation which concludes that the absence of spirituality is the cause of the breakdown of Western civilization. At the heart of our present crisis is a spiritual anarchy and impotence. There are no compelling convictions to unite us. Since none of the ideologies presently controlling our societies can bring about an integration of the various spiritual traditions, "men everywhere are searching for a new universalism" (i.e., an approach to spirituality that can integrate existing approaches and thus bring the various religions together -- which is what the New Age movement claims to do).

Muller affirmed that this search for a new universalism coincides with the fact that

Even the astrologers? In fact, it was astrological myth that provided the initial basis for New Age optimism ("This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius"). And so, of course, Muller could not resist citing astrological support for believing the Parliament would help usher us into the New Age.

Muller observed that the United Nations has gone from providing material aid to the nations to providing an ethical framework for international problems (e.g., human rights). "But the last stage has not yet been arrived at in [the] United Nations, and it is the stage which Sri Chinmoy [the Hindu "guru of the United Nations"] and so many of us in [the] United Nations have heralded; namely, we must add a last dimension to this, which is the highest, which is the greatest, which is the one which would put everything into place; namely, the spiritual dimension....This is why this Parliament is so vitally important. It comes at the right moment."

Muller explained that in this post-Cold War era, as we prepare to enter the 21st century, the heads of state are wrestling with the question: "How are we going to govern this planet?" As they work on formulating the new political world order, it is being brought to their attention that we need a new spiritual world order as well. He advised that the conclusions and recommendations of the Parliament be submitted to the UN as a contribution to the thinking being done on the new world order. He proposed that another Parliament of the World's Religions be held in the year 2000 to see where we stand, and -- making his most important observation as a former UN official -- he urged that a permanent institution be created:

And so, Muller would like to see a world spiritual agency which has political clout -- but one which is wedded to the "new universalism" of the New Age.

Gerald Barney: "What Shall We Do?"

With the tone set by Muller on opening night, the assemblage was prepared for the Parliament's "major address" the following afternoon: Gerald Barney's "What Shall We Do?" Barney's was the most important address of the week because it provided the world's religions with a compelling reason to put aside their differences and lead the way in a planetwide revisioning of society. Again, it seemed no coincidence that this is the same justification New Age thinkers have long used in calling for a planetary transformation: the global "megacrisis." At the request of the Parliament's Council, Barney prepared Global 2000 Revisited: What Shall We Do? a partial update of his 1980 report. His address was a summary of this report (a printed summary -- from which I quote below -- was also distributed to Parliament delegates).

Barney is clearly a man with a mission, and by his own standards he may have the most important mission of all time. He is trying to communicate a message to the entire planet: the Earth is in serious trouble, comparable to the threat of a nuclear war. There is still time (maybe five to ten years) to do something about it, but many trends are moving us in the wrong direction. This complex crisis can be called the Global Problematique.

Using charts and graphs, Barney informed us that our children could live to see the Earth's population grow from six to 24 billion. Such "rapid growth...cannot continue through the 21st century and will come to an end either by human decision and action or by an uncontrollable increase in deaths."[11]

Barney explained that even with the help of yield-increasing technologies the world's food supply will not be able to keep up with the current rate of population growth, and any effort to make it do so could have devastating environmental consequences. If we wish to avoid seeing first the poorer southern nations and then also the industrialized northern nations "spiral downward into increasingly desperate poverty exacerbated by global environmental deterioration," we must change our thinking and ways. All people must

Barney acknowledges that the choice for a sustainable future will be difficult. Perhaps the chief among several reasons for the difficulty is that we will have to accept that our concept of progress -- the American Dream -- has failed: all nations and individuals cannot one day live as the wealthiest nations and individuals do now. We thought the Earth's resources could be exploited by as many humans as we could conceive, but the Earth rejects that notion. Therefore, "if we people of Earth are to avoid a massive disaster within the lifetime of our children, our most critical and urgent task is to bring forth a transformed vision of progress, one of sustainable and replicable development."[13] This new vision of progress must be holistic, seeing the relationship between the welfare of our economy and the welfare of the Earth and all its inhabitants, both human and nonhuman. It must be spiritual in nature, and so it must emerge from the world's religions. Thus he made his appeal to the delegates at the Parliament.

Barney also understands that only if the world's religious leaders promote such a major shift in values and vision will the people of the Earth accept it. But currently the world's religions are doing much to exacerbate the problem rather than to solve it. Their approach to the Earth is often anthropocentric (human-centered). He specifically stated that his own faith, Christianity, is not a sustainable faith as practiced now (e.g., the Catholic church's opposition to birth control and the biblical teaching that man is to take dominion over the Earth). Thus he asked the spiritual leaders, "What are the traditional teachings -- and the range of other opinions -- within your faith on the possibility of criticism, correction, reinterpretation, and even rejection of ancient traditional assumptions and 'truth' in light of new [scientific] understandings or revelations?"[14]

Since changing course will require an immense amount of spiritual and emotional energy -- "enough to change the thinking and lives of five billion people,"[15] Barney's strategy is to "make the most of the opportunity" afforded by the coming of a new millennium. The Millennium Institute is attempting to organize a planetwide celebration that will help create the psychological atmosphere for "dying" to our old 20th century ways of thinking and being and coming alive as citizens of the Earth: "Every person must learn to think like Earth, to act like Earth, to be Earth. As a part of this learning process we must all think through how our part of Earth can contribute to the new....What laws must be changed, what traditions, what beliefs, what institutions?"[16]

Citing a recent papal message addressing the relationship between religion and science, Barney applied what the pope wrote to the relationships between religions: "This lesson of Pope John Paul II might point the way for a new approach to the distrust, hatred, and violence that currently plagues interreligious relations. Might there be beyond the 'partial and contrasting perceptions' of the many faith traditions 'a wider perception that includes them and goes beyond....them?'"[17]

Leo D. Lefebure, writing for the liberal Christian Century, commented: "For me and many other participants, Barney's address was the most powerful presentation of the entire Parliament. The speech crystallized the aim of the event and set forth a clear and compelling agenda for inter-religious cooperation for the sake of all life on the planet. The tensions that surfaced later in the week could not diminish the cogency of Barney's plea for leadership."[18]

The respondents to both Barney and Muller's addresses rarely differed and never presented a strong countering view.[19] This made the Parliament more a rally for the New Age agenda than a legitimate forum for the exchange of ideas among religious people.

In the closing plenary address the Dalai Lama restated many of Barney's concerns. But his speech was more important to the Parliament because of who he is than for any original contributions in what he said.

"From Vision to Action"

During Monday evening's plenary session, "From Vision to Action: Celebrating Dialogue," CRI president Hank Hanegraaff and I watched in amazement as the New Age hand guiding the event became unmistakable. Each new presentation that evening was calculated to effect a conversion to New Age thinking. The Parliament's program catalogue called it "a process of orientation for thought and action."[20] No avenue of persuasion was ignored -- from the logical, emotional, experiential, and psychic to the use of peer pressure, humor, imagination, and the manipulation of the subconscious.

It began with an "interactive musical performance" called the "Truth Spin Dance." The dancers in the performance would periodically engage in verbal duels over their perceptions of truth. This had the affect of mocking the very notion that there could be only one ultimate Truth. (In this regard, a reference to "the Gospel Truth" drew the loudest laughter from the crowd.) After this session an impressionable spectator might well have concluded that it is very inappropriate and politically incorrect to believe in the existence of objective, knowable religious truth.

Out of the dark during that performance a voice revealed the true goal of the Parliament: "We are building a sacred place that will hold all our polarities and our paradoxes." In other words, the Parliament's goal was to construct a religious edifice flexible enough to house all the world's faiths under one spiritual roof.

Next the "Dialogue Project" from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) took the stage. (The Dialogue Project is a team that facilitates dialogue between all types of groups experiencing differences.) In an effort to help participants see the earth-shaking potential of the Parliament they began with "What If...?" -- a performance piece which asked questions like:

The New Age tone of the evening began to heighten as a woman from the Dialogue Project discussed the importance of cultivating a vision of humanity achieving its collective potential.[21] We were told that dialogue equals deeply hearing another in a new way. Rather than relying on our minds in the dialogue process, we need to receive our answers from "Spirit" (the pianist demonstrated the difference between playing learned music from the mind and improvising from Spirit).

Various methods employed in humanistic psychology were then used to teach us how to really dialogue with one another. First the audience was led through an exercise of humming various tones. Then they were instructed to get together with people they didn't know and "build thoughts together" by taking turns spontaneously (i.e., "from spirit") adding words to sentences. Finally the delegates were led through an imaginative experience of temporarily letting go of their beliefs and "noble assumptions." Dialogue often requires suspension of one's own beliefs, they informed us. "Take one side of an issue and clench your left fist, feeling the intensity of that energy. Do the same with your right hand. Now let all your fingers go -- imagine you are holding the space for differences to coexist."

Next came an effort to get the participants involved in the New Age networking process.[22] Ella Cisneros, founder of Togethernet, explained how to get on her global computer network "to bring us all closer." Then members of the Parliament's program committee explained that over the following four days there would be a "Parliament of the People," the goal of which was to prepare and deputize Parliament participants to carry on its work when they returned to their homes. Tuesday's session would be devoted to "visioning"; Wednesday's to identifying challenges to that vision; Thursday's to putting together a strategy; Friday's to making individual commitments to make a difference. These kinds of approaches to initiating grassroots action for the cause of global unity have been employed by many New Age activist groups, such as Planetary Citizens.[23]

To inject a sense of cosmic urgency into becoming involved with this Parliament of the People, New Age visionary and activist Barbara Marx Hubbard shared her concept of "conscious evolution."[24] According to this classically New Age scenario, the current world megacrisis (Barney's Global Problematique) is of an evolutionary order -- the crisis is actually the birth of a new, living planetary system (i.e., a Global Being, or "Gaia"). In each of the world's religions there exists a seed, pattern, or blueprint of what is coming next in evolution. Our purpose is to speed up this process.

Now, because of the population crisis women can no longer reproduce to the maximum. But, Hubbard explained, there is a positive side to this: the energy that used to go into procreation is now being channeled into co-creation. Women are now emerging as a creative force. Just as they once created children through the joining of their genes they now are creating the next stage in evolution through the joining of their genius. (At this point I wondered what those delegates who were conservative adherents to their own faiths and not a part of the New Age network were thinking about the evening's heavy doses of indoctrination.)

Hubbard concluded by proposing a parliament of the peoples of the Earth, connected up as a spiritual democracy. She explained that the vision of the Parliament's organizers is to see the event generate a whole series of ongoing parliaments, globally and locally. If inspired amateurs like the Parliament's staff could put this event together, she pointed out, inspired amateurs like those in the audience could go out and replicate the same event many times over.

The Paradigm Shift

Apart from the plenary sessions, the New Age perspective of the Parliament's organizers came across on several occasions. For example, program chair Jim Kenney stated during a Friday afternoon presentation that he is deeply convinced we are going through a paradigm shift. The sense that a profound transformation is going on is dawning and growing and spreading worldwide. "The conversation in the corridors [of the Palmer House] bespeaks this." This paradigm shift is all about interdependence: every thing and event in the world is intimately related, which leads to the even more radical conclusion that there is only one Grand Event unfolding (i.e., the New Age process philosophy view of God/the Universe as more fundamentally Event than Being[25]). When a paradigm shift takes place, Kenney assured us, "it changes absolutely everything."

As will be demonstrated in the second and final installment of this report on the Parliament, the implication of this paradigm shift for the world's religions is that all religions are interrelated. In the New Age, it will not be considered acceptable for any religion to make an exclusive claim to the truth.


1 Michael Hirsley, Chicago Tribune, "Centennial Conference to Unite World's Religions Starts Today," The Salt Lake Tribune, 28 August 1993, D1.
2 "Interfaith Gathering Begins," The San Diego Union-Tribune, 28 August 1993, B-9.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 David S. Toolan, "Chicago's Parliament of the World's Religions," America, 25 September 1993, 3.
6 Leo D. Lefebure, "Global Encounter," Christian Century, September 22-29, 1993, 887.
7 At least on stage. I personally met quite a few liberal Protestants in the audience.
8 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions Catalogue, 8.
9 Gerald O. Barney with Jane Blewett and Kristen R. Barney, Global 2000 Revisited: What Shall We Do? (summary) (Arlington, VA: Millennium Institute, 1993), 1.
10 For a detailed description of the New Age agenda see Elliot Miller, A Crash Course on the New Age Movement (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989).
11 Barney, et al., 5.
12 Ibid., 8.
13 Ibid., 9.
14 Ibid., 10.
15 Ibid., 11.
16 Ibid., 13.
17 Ibid., 14.
18 Lefebure, 887.
19 An example of the few countering views that were expressed: Samuel Ruiz-Garcia, the Roman Catholic bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, maintained that it's not the size of the family that is creating our food crisis but who is controlling the food.
20 Catalogue, 23.
21 See Miller, chapter 1, for background on this emphasis in New Age thinking.
22 Networking (sharing information and cooperating toward various ends) is a defining feature of the New Age movement. See Miller, chapters 1, 5, and 6.
23 See Miller, chapter 6.
24 See Miller, chapters 3 and 4, for a description and critique of this theory/myth.
25 For background on this concept, as well as the related concept of the paradigm shift, see Miller, chapters 3-4.

End of document, CRJ0033A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"The 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions, Part One:
Interreligious Dialogue or New Age Rally?"
release A, December 20, 1993

At the same time this file was made available CRI released the companion file ENDREV-A.TXT (original CRI file name), "The Enduring Revolution," an address given by Charles W. Colson in receipt of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion during the Parliament of the World's Religions. ENDREV-A.TXT should be available from the same source as this file was for you.

If you would like to read the second part of the above article on the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions please subscribe to our Journal and ask for the Winter 1994 issue. The digital form of this second part will not be immediately available.

A special note of thanks to Bob and Pat Hunter for their help in the preparation of this ASCII file for BBS circulation.

Copyright 1993 by the Christian Research Institute.

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