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The 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions

Part Two: The Fundamentalism of Tolerance

by Elliot Miller

from the Christian Research Journal, Winter 1994, page 16. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.

At times it was hard to take the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions seriously. On several occasions during the eight-day convocation (August 28-September 4), the wacky New Age undercurrent that moved through the event became evident. For example, in a plenary session entitled "Voices of Spirit and Tradition," it was laughable to find -- alongside representatives of Native American, Chinese, and Indian traditions -- an American woman from a pantheistic neopagan cult representing "the tradition of Egypt." Invoking not only the Egyptian goddess Isis but also the Greek goddess Diana, she (mis)informed us that in Egyptian tradition, everything is One and all is divine.

It would be a mistake, however, to write off the Parliament as just one more far-out New Age extravaganza. As we saw in Part One and will see below, this historic gathering of the world's spiritual leaders may well have far-reaching consequences for religion on the planet. And, considering the dominant themes that ran through the mega-event, any such consequences could have ominous implications for religious conservatives from many traditions, including evangelical Christians.


It is impossible to give here a detailed account of each plenary session, let alone the numerous significant lectures, panels, and so forth. But it is possible to report on some of the dominant themes that surfaced in various presentations throughout the week.

One concern that weighed heavily on many a speaker's heart was religiously incited violence: it was often repeated that roughly two-thirds of the world's armed conflicts are fueled by religion (e.g., Muslim vs. Jew; Catholic vs. Protestant; Hindu vs. Sikh). The Parliament took as its mission the lofty task of bringing peace among the world's religions.

This theme of peace is a cause Christians should be able to support, at least in principle. There is nothing within their faith that calls them to hostility or warfare, but rather to make peace (Matt. 5:9). However, their ability to jump on the bandwagon of peace that was launched at the Parliament is greatly hindered by the way this cause was exploited for the New Age agenda. In other words, the cause of religious warfare was frequently identified with fundamentalism -- vaguely defined as the dogmatic belief that only one's own religion is true (thus associating all adherents of exclusivistic faiths with such militant fundamentalists as the Muslim Hezbollah). And the solution to religious conflict was often identified with unity among religions -- vaguely defined as each religion accepting that, in some underlying sense, all religions are true.


In responding to Robert Muller's plenary address on "Interfaith Harmony and Understanding," Swami Ghahanananda, Vice President of the Ramakrishna Order, proclaimed:

Another respondent to Muller, Dr. L. M. Singhvi, Jain scholar and Indian diplomat and parliamentarian, added these thoughts: "The success of this centennial succession lies in the ability of humankind everywhere to mobilize the moral will of mankind to give a new sense of direction and purpose, a new momentum to the concept of the inherent unity and togetherness of all religions and spiritual traditions in the common cause of building in the third millennium of the Gregorian calendar an enduring, eternal temple of the true togetherness of humankind."

Swami Chidananda Saraswati, "one of Hinduism's most senior and most respected monks,"[1] affirmed on Tuesday night (August 31) that "there are not many religions, only one."

The Rastafarians, in a musical performance, prayed: "Whatever we call your answer to all of them."

Hindu S. N. Subba Rao, head of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, proclaimed that if all religions are one, the next step is for us to say, "All religions are mine." We should pray one another's prayers, he added.

During the Parliament's youth night, "The Next Generation," the young presenters stated that they accept what Vivekananda said: "We believe not only in religious tolerance, but that all religions are true."

One might have supposed that this belief in the fundamental unity of all religions was only the view of certain presenters and not the official position of the Parliament itself. However, this notion was dispelled on several occasions. For example, during Tuesday night's plenary session on the "Inner Life," the Parliament's vice-chair and program chair, Jim Kenney, gave a brief exposition of the concept of the "Sacred Wheel" (he expounded on this more fully during a major presentation).

According to this metaphor, religion can be likened to a wheel, "the spokes representing the varieties of religious expression, the rim representing the level of most superficial involvement in one's own tradition, the hub representing the shared heart of all religious wisdom."[2] At the spiritually immature level of the rim, Kenney explained, the differing concepts of God separating the world's religions seem insurmountable. One sees one's own religion as having an exclusive handle on truth. As one progresses down the "spoke" of his or her tradition toward the hub, however, one realizes that the language of all religion -- including language about God -- is symbolic. The more one moves down his or her spoke, the closer one draws to the other spokes (i.e., religions), until they all converge at the hub. What is at the hub? Kenney's Zen master called it "the brilliant blue of empty sky." It is "nothing but everything," the common experience at the core of all religions.

Kenney observed that 100 years ago attendance at the first Parliament was a risky venture, because the "rim view" dominated the world. Over the past 100 years we've made the "dangerous and daunting journey down the spokes." This does not mean that in the New Age we will get rid of the rim and have only one world religion, but rather we will recognize our unity in the midst of our diversity. Although this analogy is fundamentally flawed (as demonstrated below), the audience embraced it with joy.


Such stress on the fundamental unity of all religions naturally leads to antagonism toward any exclusivist view of truth. "If the goal of religious unity is to be reached," one speaker told the session on "Voices of Spirit and Tradition," "people must be weaned of dogmatism." For how can a pluralistic culture experience union in the divine, he asked us, unless we are weaned from the divisive doctrines of the divine?

Ananda W. P. Guruge, Buddhist respondent to Muller, expressed the sentiments of many at the Parliament when he affirmed:

A similar vein was struck in Rabbi A. James Rudin's response to Gerald Barney's keynote address. He observed that there are "two pincer movements" to Dr. Barney's dream: antireligious people and religious extremists. Regarding the latter he commented that they are too concerned about preserving pure doctrine ("only my holy book is true") and not concerned enough about solving the earth's problems. Thus they are fearful of the 21st century. He concluded that in the 21st century, religious groups will have to join together to oppose both of these pincer movements "before they destroy us."

L. M. Singhvi spoke of the desire for humankind to fulfill its positive civilizational destiny


The plethora of lectures and activities on stage represented only one aspect of the Parliament. In formal closed-door meetings and in informal encounters and discussions, the vision of dialogue and cooperation among religious leaders was being advanced.

Informally, the long-range affects of the networking resulting from this convocation are difficult to calculate, but no doubt they will be more than we can imagine. Time and again throughout the hotel I overheard representatives from this publishing house establishing contact with that spiritual teacher, this New Age environmentalist enlisting the cooperation of that Catholic nun, and so forth.

The Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders met for three days in closed sessions at the Art Institute of Chicago. The trustees of the Parliament convened the Assembly "to foster future collaboration, to endorse a 'Global Ethic' statement, and to advise the trustees on common values and future projects. This body consisted of the 150 members chosen by the Council, the local host committees of the different traditions, and the cosponsors."[3]

Due to protests from some members of the Assembly (see below), the Declaration of a Global Ethic -- which was intended to be the crowning accomplishment of the Parliament -- could only be heralded as "an initial declaration toward a global ethic." All the same, it marked the first time in history that leaders of all the world's major religions endorsed a common statement of ethics. Among the hundreds who signed the document were the Dalai Lama, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, and the Rev. Wesley Ariarajah, deputy general secretary of the World Council of Churches, representing most Protestant denominations. "In signing the declaration delegates were personally endorsing the document; their actions were not binding on their religious bodies. Nonetheless, participants hoped that the number, religious diversity and 'moral credibility' of those signing would lead to formal institutional recognition."[4]

The Global Ethic was primarily drafted by the renowned Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Kung, who spent more than a year crafting the 5,000-word document. In what was likely the best-attended nonplenary address during the entire week, Kung stated that there can be no new global order without a new global ethic. Nonetheless, the basis for this global ethic can already be found in the world's religions. It is easier to agree on ethics than on doctrines, he stated. Unlike many speakers at the Parliament, Kung refused to call for a unity of religions, but only for peace, understanding, and a certain degree of cooperation.

According to the New York Times:

As we saw in Part One, Robert Muller called for the establishment of a permanent Parliament of Religions as "the most important single result that could come out of this parliament." Other leading participants echoed the same appeal, including the Dalai Lama.

Will this vision be realized? Time will tell. According to the Christian Century, "The council for a Parliament of the World's Religions will continue to work under the guidance of a newly elected board of trustees....Efforts are being made to establish an international organization, though some forces in existing international interreligious bodies are reluctant to see a new structure emerge."[6]


The Parliament may ultimately succeed in its goal of catalyzing a world spiritual institution similar to the United Nations. But at the gathering in Chicago there was much to suggest failure.

As I sat alone at dinner after the opening session, the enthusiastic conversation on both sides of me centered on what was most striking about the event: all the speakers were saying the same thing. Whether Catholic, Buddhist, Native American, or Baha'i, all upheld such themes as the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. All speakers seemed to be reaching out in affirmation to the members of other faiths. Love and tolerance were triumphing over distrust and conflict. But on further observation this celebrated unity often proved to be chimerical.

Part of the illusion could be attributed to a general ignorance of what the various religions really believe. Many of the speakers sounded as though they accepted the religions of everyone else while in fact they were preaching their own distinctive doctrines and making the most of an evangelistic opportunity.

At several points the Parliament turned into a commercial for the Baha'is. For example, in a plenary session titled "Voices of Spirit and Tradition," a Baha'i read from The Song of the Prophet, written by Baha'i founder Baha'u'llah. To most of the audience the reading sounded like an affirmation by God of His presence in all religions. But it was actually Baha'u'llah speaking, preaching classic Baha'i doctrine: just as God had been manifest to previous ages in Abraham, Jesus, and other founders of world religions, so he was manifest to this age in Baha'u'llah: "This is the message for a new dawning...when my teachings shall unite the world."

Given their commission to unite the world through Baha'u'llah's teachings, the Parliament provided a missionary bonanza for Baha'is. They could sound ecumenical in ascribing value to all the world's religions. In actuality they were only affirming those religions' past value, while pointing to their own faith as the present fulfillment and replacement of all previous religions.

Another example: in one of the opening invocations Dr. Irfan Khan of the American Islamic College cried out to God in prayer that He would make all people servants of the one God in one united family. Though the prayer sounded great to the ecumenical mind of the Parliament, it could easily have been declaring nothing more than the ultimate Muslim goal of uniting all humanity under the banner of Islam.

Now, it could have been that Dr. Khan's intentions were broader than this. But even if they were, does this really signal a breakthrough in interreligious relations? Islamicist Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in a symposium on "Religion and Violence," "made the dismaying point that very little of the irenic things said by the genial Muslim presenters in the conference would be recognized in the countries of their origin."[7]

It was generally assumed at the Parliament that great breakthroughs in dialogue between religions were taking place all around us. And yet, as Buddhist interfaith worker Suwanda Suganasiri told The Toronto Star, except for the Christian delegates the theme often seemed to rather be monologue than dialogue.[8] Religious groups boldly used the lecture opportunities to advertise the value of their own traditions. A small sampling: "Zoroastrianism: An Ancient Religion for Modern Man"; "Taoism: Ancient Wisdom for the Modern World"; "Bhakti Yoga -- The Origin and Essence of All Religions"; "Ask -- By All Means -- What Jainism Can Do for You"; "How Hindu Thought Can Unite the Divided World"; "Unity [School of Christianity] Leaves No One Out."

Dialogue was not the only ecumenical quality in short supply at the Parliament: even tolerance among the varied faithful was often noticeably absent. At times the intolerance was subtle and even humorous, such as when an Indian woman -- unaware that she was being viewed on screen by thousands of participants in the spillover ballrooms -- rolled her eyes at the sound of horns included in the Roman Catholic "Music of the Baroque." At other times, such as during a presentation on the "Voices of the Dispossessed," the animosity was frightening. Twice Hindus attempted to shout down Indian speakers -- the first a Kashmiri and the second a Sikh from the Punjab -- recounting atrocities suffered by their people at the hands of Hindus. Some of the Hindus even rushed toward the stage, where they were escorted out of the ballroom by police. In the second incident the entire meeting was brought to a stop, and the speaker was not allowed to continue, which provoked a fresh outbreak of protests from Sikhs in the audience. The shaken assemblage -- some weeping over the apparent inability of religious people to get along with each other, even at a gathering such as this -- linked arms and joined in a chorus of "We Shall Overcome."

Rifts in the ecumenical spirit multiplied as the week progressed. The Orthodox Christian Host Committee dropped out of the Parliament because of the participation of "certain quasi-religious groups" -- apparently neopagans -- "with which Orthodox Christians share no common ground."[9] Buddhists expressed their dismay at being included in "one religion under God," since they do not believe in God.[10] Four Jewish organizations withdrew their cosponsorship of the Parliament because Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam was allowed to speak at the invitation of the African-American Host Committee.

The division among the Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders over the Global Ethic document arose because some representatives felt it was too Christian and Western in orientation (e.g., using biblical language in forbidding murder and stating the Golden Rule). Though the Assembly had no authority to pass resolutions, they did so anyway. One resolution condemned a 1493 decision by the papacy to divide territories in the Americas among European Catholic monarchs, asserting -- over the protests of Catholics and others present -- that this resulted in the genocide of 145 million indigenous people.

All of this discord only demonstrated the implausibility of the goal: how could the world's religions ever come together on their own? Wouldn't such a linkage only be possible if dissidents were somehow forcibly removed from the equation?


Although I would normally identify myself as an evangelical Christian rather than a fundamentalist, it seemed clear that evangelical Christians were included in many of the derisive references to fundamentalists made during the Parliament. Therefore, in the interest of not only evangelical Christians but all religious people who Parliamentarians would label fundamentalists, I present the following response.

What Was Good about the Parliament

As A. James Rudin observed, we all live in an increasingly multireligious and multiethnic society -- we can never go back. As members of various faiths live and work side by side, the value of tolerance -- respecting the other's right to worship according to the dictates of his or her own conscience -- should be self-evident.

The Parliament of the World's Religions upheld several principles that should be valued by all religious people. One example, noted above, was its resounding call for an end to religiously fomented war.

There are common ethical teachings (e.g., the Golden Rule) in the world's religions that can serve as a framework for interreligious relations. They can also provide a base for a united response to many of the crises of our time. Thus, the Declaration of a Global Ethic is a praiseworthy product of the Parliament.

The Parliament is also to be commended for bringing the people of the world together to tell their stories, share their cultures, and seek understanding of one another. The plenary session on the "Voices of the Dispossessed" -- which related the plights of displaced peoples on every continent -- appealed to moral sensibilities deeply imbedded in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.

Unfortunately, whatever was good about the Parliament was overshadowed by its dominant emphasis on unity and communion among the world's religions. The assertion that all faiths worship the same God is factually indefensible, and the unity advocated at the Parliament would violate the integrity of many of the religions represented there.

The Ultimate Irony:
Putting God Aside for the Sake of Religious Unity

"We are all one under our God," said Dr. Leon Finney of the Apostolic Faith Church. But many at the Parliament did not believe in only one god; others did not believe in any god at all. And those who do agree that there is one God cannot agree on whether God is a He or a She or an It, on what this God is like, or on what He/She/It has done in history for humanity's salvation -- if anything.

Faced with this Babel of religious beliefs, Robert Muller offered the following advice: "Let all the religions work on what they have in common. And what divides them, put aside for the very end. If you want to have an agreement whether to believe in God, in several gods, or in no god you will never get an agreement because there's no commonality. So leave these aside, and take the subjects which we have in common," which he proceeded to describe as ethical concerns.

The problem with Muller's suggestion is that a religion's belief about God or Ultimate Reality is its very heart and soul. It is the goal of its discipline and the focus of its devotion, determining everything else about its faith and practice. If religions differ as to the nature of Ultimate Reality, any commonalities they may have in ethical teachings are merely incidental. As was acknowledged above, such commonalities can serve as a basis for cooperation on certain pragmatic issues, but they cannot provide a sufficient foundation for erecting "the enduring eternal temple of the true togetherness of humankind" spoken of by L. M. Singhvi. They do not provide justification for praying each other's prayers or for affirming that all religions are true.

The Sacred Wheel:
All Religions Are True, but Some Are More True than Others

To overcome the obstacle to religious unity posed by conflicting conceptions of God, Jim Kenney presented his analogy of the Sacred Wheel. This analogy, however, is an insult to any religious person who does not hold to a pantheistic ("God is everything") world view. In a pantheistic scheme, God is formless and thus can only be experienced; He cannot be conceptualized. Thus, in this view, all religious language is symbolic of the ineffable mystical experience that lies at the heart of all religion. On the other hand, in a theistic world view God has definite attributes that can be known. Thus -- though symbolism does play a role in religious language -- the differing conceptions of God that separate the world's religions are very real.

By stating that as people progress down the "spokes" of their religions they will realize those differences seen at the "rim" are not insurmountable after all, pantheists like Kenney are in effect telling theists that they know what actually constitutes maturity on the theists' own spiritual path. This position arrogantly dismisses the testimony of such theists as evangelical Christians, who affirm that as they grow in Christian experience the distinctive doctrines of their faith become more profound and literal to them, not less so.[11]

Kenney's analogy is flawed because, while theists are supposed to progress from the rim where they view God differently from other religions down to the hub where they reach the common religious experience of "empty blue sky," pantheists, such as his Zen Master, are already speaking of God as "empty blue sky" from the level of the rim. In other words, the alleged experience of the hub matches the pantheistic "rim" conception of God. Since the pantheists' religious language does not suffer from the same problem that the theists' allegedly does, it becomes clear that the analogy is actually a pantheistic model that attempts to subsume theism into itself.

I pointed this out to Kenney in a discussion after the Tuesday evening session, and he commented that it was an interesting critique that he'd never heard before. Nonetheless, he presented the analogy again, unchanged, in a major presentation three days later.

When the "Tolerant" Are Less Tolerant than the "Intolerant"

When spokespersons for the Parliament ask us to accept that all religions are true, they go beyond asking us to show tolerance, compassion, understanding, and respect to the followers of other religions (things which most evangelical Christians are motivated to do). Rather, they are asking us to commit to a particular metaphysical view on no other grounds than that it has become the politically correct view.

This metaphysical view is a religious relativism which states that truth is partially grasped by all religions but cannot be fully (exclusively) possessed by any. Such a view of truth presupposes that a special, uniquely authoritative revelation by God cannot or has not been given. Thus, it excludes at the outset the claims that provide the historic foundation for theistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. On the other hand, it fits in quite well with pantheism or even panentheism (God is in everything), since the underlying oneness of all reality in pantheistic/panentheistic systems allows for all religions to have a partial but incomplete grasp on truth. The outcome of all this is that if a doctrinally orthodox Jew, Christian, or Muslim buys into the form of relativism advocated at the Parliament, he or she will be switching -- at least implicitly -- from a theistic to a pantheistic or panentheistic world view; which is to say, switching religions. This can be done while still professing to represent one's native faith.[12]

Relativism is only one of many possible ways of viewing reality, and it is by no means a proven view; in fact, it has been shown to have serious flaws.[13] Were tolerance and cooperation toward productive ends the true objectives of the Parliament? Or was its actual agenda, as I submitted in Part One of this article, a binding together of the world's religions through the glue of New Age pantheism (the "new universalism" spoken of by Robert Muller)? If the Parliament's interfaith leaders want us to believe the former was/is their goal, they should respect the fact that any given way of viewing reality, including their own world view, excludes other ways of viewing reality. They should appeal for tolerance of differences without demanding acceptance of differing views as legitimate.

As it stands, much of the rhetoric heard at the Parliament can only be interpreted as threatening to fundamentalists. L. M. Singhvi's assertion that the "fundamentalism of tolerance" is "the only fundamentalism today which humanity can countenance" graphically illustrates that a "fundamentalism" (i.e., a belief system which condemns other belief systems as false) of some sort is unavoidable. It is clear from the overall content of his speech that Singhvi equates tolerance with accepting "the inherent unity and togetherness of all religions."

The fundamentalism of tolerance is just as dogmatic as any other fundamentalism, only it is deceptive in its profession of tolerance. Actually, it is only tolerant of other expressions of the same world view (a Jain relativist being tolerant of a Jewish relativist is not much different than a Presbyterian being tolerant of a Methodist -- they may differ as to certain details of religion but they agree as to the larger picture). It may actually prove to be less tolerant, since it does not seem to recognize the right of others to reject its relativistic view.

To tie the attainment of world peace to a universal acceptance of the fundamentalism of tolerance is to foist yet another destructive division upon humankind. Those who are peddling this "new universalism" are ready to sacrifice any serious concern for truth on the altar of an expedient but artificial religious unity. If the antifundamentalist sentiment so powerfully evident at the Parliament continues to spread throughout society, those who the "politically correct" label "fundamentalists" can expect increasing opposition and even persecution, perhaps one day from the government itself.


1 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions Catalogue, 24.
2 Ibid., 60.
3 Leo D. Lefebure, "Global Encounter," Christian Century, September 22-29, 1993, 888.
4 Larry B. Stammer, "Meeting of World Religions Leads to Ethics Document," Los Angeles Times, 5 September 1993, A16.
5 Peter Steinfels, "More Diversity than Harmony," The New York Times (national edition), 7 September 1993, A13.
6 Lefebure, 889.
7 David S. Toolan, "Chicago's Parliament of the World's Religions," America, 25 September 1993, 4.
8 Michael McAteer, "Religious Parliament a Noisy Step Toward Interfaith Tolerance," The Toronto Star, 25 September 1993, K14.
9 Lefebure, 889.
10 Ibid., 887.
11 See, e.g., A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961).
12 It is clear that many of the professing Christians at the Parliament had indeed made the switch. I will provide examples and commentary in the JOURNAL's Spring 1994 Viewpoint column.
13 See, e.g., Francis J. Beckwith, "Philosophical Problems with Moral Relativism," Christian Research Journal, Fall 1993, 20-23, 39.

End of document, CRJ0170A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"The 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions. Part Two: The
Fundamentalism of Tolerance"
release A, August 31, 1994
R. Poll, CRI

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