A Pagan's Perspective on the 1993 Chicago Centenary of the Parliament of the World's Religions

28 August - 5 September


Michael York


As part of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, a Parliament of the World's Religions was also held. Ostensibly, this last was to bring together the different religious views of the world. In actuality, as records from the time reveal, the not-so-hidden agenda was to prepare the world for conversion to Christianity. However, at least among religious marginals, the 1893 Parliament has been celebrated ever since as a great event. Swami Vivekananda's address to the assembly brought to the American consciousness for the first time an awareness of the validity of other religions beyond the exclusive orbit of Judaeo-Christian spirituality. In reality, however, Vivekananda's message was received as well as it was because he presented a Vedantic version of a whitewashed Hinduism that seemed relatively compatible with Christianity.

Times have now of course changed, and we live in a world in which the very idea of plurality and diversity, while still far from anything close to universal acceptance, has continued to make headway among those who think. Or is it in the first place that there are now more people in the world who think? In any event, the original Parliament has understandably become a living part of the City of Chicago's local history. And Chicagoans, like most Americans, like to remember anniversaries, especially 100 year ones. So with the excuse for a truly American-style and American-sized celebration, along with the fact that perhaps there are more thinking people today, more globally aware people today, and more pluralistically minded people today, in 1988 a group of Chicago citizens formed a 'Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions' with an eye toward using the 1993 occasion for establishing a more permanent religious forum of ALL the world's religions. No one was to be spared, oops, ignored. This did not mean that everyone who was invited actually accepted their invitation. For instance, the Fundamentalists did not come - or at least they came only as far as the doors of the Palmer House Hilton venue where they picketed and handed out anti-Parliament/anti-Satanic brochures. But among the wide sweep of those who were invited and did come were the pagans, and if not in overwhelming force of numbers, they came at least colorfully in exotic robes and assorted paraphernalia. In the very least, we pagans maintained the most noted presence among old-comers and new-comers alike.

The Chicago Parliament of 1993 was an ambitious undertaking which ultimately brought together six and half thousand religious leaders and representatives. With pagans also invited and present and on par with the others, it was like finally coming home. We participated in morning and evening communal prayer sessions, in ritual performances, in an offsite but well-publicized full moon celebration, in plenary addresses, in major presentations, lectures and workshops. We were seen, we impressed, and, yes, we also at times antagonized.

In being motivated by ecumenical interests and the desire for peaceful cooperation within the framework and realities of contemporary pluralism, the 1993 occasion differed from its predecessor on several counts. Most importantly, its primary objective was to bring together people of various and variously different persuasions in a spirit of cooperation and acceptance. Along with the Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Moslems and Jews, there were 120 other religious groups present. The communities represented on the host committee alone included the African American, Anglican/Episcopal, Bah†'°, Buddhist, Pan Orthodox, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Native American, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Sikh and Zoroastrian. Among the many co-sponsors were the AIDS National Interfaith Network, the Anthroposophical Society in America, the Brahma Kumaris World Spirituality University, the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem, the Free Daist Communion, the Joseph Cambell Society, the Kiwanis Club, the Association of Rastafarian Theologians, the Liberal Catholic Church, the Theosophical Society, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Unity School of Christianity. Among known world religious figures who came to Chicago, there were the Dalai Lama, Karan Singh, Swami Balasiva Yogeendra Maharaj, Sri Chinmoy, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, Satguru Sivaya Subrahmunyaswami, Thich Nhat Hanh, Swami Bhaktipada, Harvey Cox and, among my favorites, the unforgettable, compassionate and Brooklyn-born Ma Jaya Bhagavati. All in all, there were more than six hundred speakers.

Among the spectrum of what we might identify as pagan were delegations from the Fellowship of Isis, the Lyceum of Venus of Healing, EarthSpirit, the Covenant of the Goddess and Circle Sanctuary. Pagan speakers included Olivia Robertson, Cara-Marguerite-Drusilla, Diana L. Paxton, Brandy Williams, Donald H. Frew, Phyllis Curott, Andras Corban Arthen and yours truly ('The Viability of a Pagan Theology in a Postmodern World' - what else?). Also participating were Circle's Selena Fox, Ár nDraíocht Féin's P.E. Isaac Bonewits, COG's Deborah Ann Light and FOI's Caroline Wise. The Native Americans, still steaming by not being invited in 1893, were also present and played a significant role in the opening directional blessings held to launch the Parliament in a harmonious spirit. Apart from the (Neo-)pagans, other innovative spiritual orientations which enjoyed noteworthy profiles on par with the more traditional included Humanists, Metaphysicians and Bahaists. Also attending were Taoists, Shintoists and followers of the Orisha religion. Conspicuously absent, on the other hand, were most New Religious Movements whether the Unification Church or the Church of Scientology. Apart from the Urantia Foundation and the International Church of Metaphysics, there was no obvious New Age presence either.

One focal moment of the entire Parliament fell on day two when Dr. Gerald O. Barney of the Arlington, Virginia-based Millennium Institute addressed a plenary session with a report entitled `Global 2000 Revisted: What Shall We Do?' This was an in-depth analysis of the approaching impasse projected for approximately the year 2020 when the shrinking limits of terrestrial food production resources will no longer be able to match human population growth patterns. In a clear-cut delineation of the problems faced by the world and humanity and a voice breaking with emotion, Barney appealed for a concerted awareness and world cooperation to head off what will otherwise certainly become a global catastrophe. "I must tell you honestly," he asserted, "that many people now wonder if any of our faith traditions have the wisdom we need for the future. ... Many feel that our faith traditions have become a very central part of the human problem."

As part of its 1988 Mission Statement, the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions sought promotion of understanding and cooperation among religious communities and institutions as well as the encouragement of a harmonious spirit in which to celebrate openly and mutually the rich diversity of religions. Along with the objective of convening the Parliament itself, the Council endeavoured to assess and renew the role of the world's religions not only in relation to personal growth on a spiritual level but also concerning the critical issues and challenges facing the global community as a whole. Toward these ends, the Council desires to promote interfaith groups and programmes to carry the spirit of the Parliament into the twenty-first century.

However, the reality of the Parliament often proved to be a different matter. For the third day of plenaries, a session entitled `Voices of the Dispossessed' was scheduled to hear the views of the refugee. If the dispossessed was Haitian or Liberian or even South African, there was general sympathy. But when a Moslem refugee from Kashmir spoke uncompromisingly, Hindu tolerance came to reach its breaking point, and an uproar erupted in the auditorium. This was repeated once again when a Punjabi Sikh took the podium. His one-sided litany of the horrors which have befallen his people surpassed even that of the Kashmiri Moslem, and this time total bedlam swept the floor - resulting in the police removing all the speakers from the stage. One section of the audience broke into the refrain 'We shall overcome', and this was then taken up by the others present. The Native Americans finally came to the rescue with a healing circle dance in which everyone was invited to participate. The Parliament disarray was soothed at the conclusion of this ritual when each person was asked to embrace the one next to them. In the very least, it was a highly emotionally charged moment.

If this feat along with the opening day invocation of the directions were the highpoints for the Native American contribution to the Parliament, much of the rest seemed downhill when the indigenous American community became divided over the drafting of a 'Declaration of War' (yes, War) targeting especially New Age profiteers but also Neo-paganists [sic.] The Native American grievances are overwhelming and include loss of the sacred homelands, decimation of their peoples, violations of their human rights, display of revered objects in museums and appropriation of their rituals and names by pretenders. Meanwhile, as if this were not already enough, the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Chicago withdrew from the Parliament reputedly because of the pagan presence. I heard the term 'quasi-religionists' being bandied about. The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith also withdrew, this time due to the talk scheduled by Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam.

The capstone to the disillusionment over the goals and ideals envisioned for the 1993 Parliament, however, was attained on the third and final meeting day for the privately held Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders which sought (1) to provide an opportunity for Assembly members to come to know other spiritual and religious leaders in ways which could support future collaboration and action together for peace, the relief of suffering, and the preservation of the planet, (2) to offer the Declaration of a Global Ethic and its supporting Principles for endorsement by Assembly participants, and (3) to identify common values and to propose projects, actions, or programmes to the Trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions. Apart from the Jews and Neo-pagans, virtually all the 150 or so delegates broke out in pandemonium, screaming and pounding fists on tables over the issue of the Global Ethic declaration. Each faction wanted special mention of its own grievances and complaints.

The global declaration has been largely the work of the Swiss Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng and was designed to address the issues of economic, environmental and political crises confronting the very survival of the world. It embraces a call for humane treatment of all peoples along with mutual respect for diversity and individualism. Sexual discrimination, 'limitless exploitation' of the environment, and the use of violence are condemned, while economic parity, intrinsic dignity and non-violent resistance "whenever possible" [sic.] are pledged. There is no mention of the word 'God' nor explicit reference to the population explosion and the contested issue of birth control. While the role of religion is clearly recognized as having contributed to aggression, fanaticism and hate, the Global Declaration is grounded on what is perceived as a universal minimal ethic already contained within "our often millennia-old religious and ethical traditions" - "an ethic which is convincing and practicable for all women and men of good will, religious and non-religious." From the beginning, Küng's draft was considered as only the first step toward a more permanent and complete consensus on ethical behaviour. Eventually, the majority were persuaded to sign the Declaration as it stood, and the option was left open for the others to sign at a later and unspecified date.

Meanwhile and separately, the Native American elders gained the upper hand and succeeded in re-drafting the Declaration of War into a Declaration of Vision. The New Age and Neo-paganist clauses were dropped, and the overall tone of the final statement was more conciliatory and moderate. The grievances of the Indigenous Nations and their dehumanization were nevertheless still included, and the proclamation specifically asks that the Inter Cetera Bull of 4 May 1493 be rescinded by Pope John Paul II. The Declaration ends with the words: WITH RESPECT FOR ALL LIFE, WE THANK YOU.

For the rest, despite all our pagan invocations in packed auditoriums, despite a stunning performance of ISIS OF THE ONE THOUSAND NAMES accomplished by the Fellowship of Isis and the flamboyant and sistrum-rattling procession through the hotel's main lobby which followed it, and despite a performance of A DECLARATION OF INNOCENCE by the Lyceum of Venus of Healing (sounds like, a friend from Los Angeles said, a massage parlour on Melrose Avenue), at the end of the day it was the Dalai Lama who stole the show during a keynote address he delivered to the concluding plenary held in the Petrillo Bandshell of Grant Park. He simply said EVERYTHING that everyone wanted to hear. While acknowledging that there is little to be done concerning death caused by such natural calamities as flooding and earthquake, the Dalai Lama deplored the unnecessary deaths caused by starvation, human violence and warfare, or through ignorance and lack of proper medical research. He specifically mentioned Aids and not making social lepers out of people with the HIV virus. He also spoke unremittingly at great length about the urgency for birth control as the world's population spirals toward astronomical proportions. The audience sat through this harangue virtually in delighted but silent shock. Eventually and almost as a coda, the Dalai Lama concluded by acknowledging that there were more preferable means of achieving birth control than others. With tongue in cheek and now casting an eye toward Roman Catholic Cardinal Bernardin, he proclaimed, 'Ideally, we need more monks and nuns!' Finally, the exiled spiritual leader mentioned, yes, the need for pluralism. 'Yes,' he insisted, 'I wish that everyone could be Buddhist, but I realize that we are not all the same.  And because we are all different people we need different religions.' This was the strongest assertion for religious pluralism yet to be made by any spiritual leader and came as a slapping retort to the Pope's own condemnation of relativism delivered in Denver, Colorado a few weeks earlier. The Dalai Lama concluded his address simply and with the request that now that we have all talked about the world's problems we go home and actually do something about them.

This last echoed the quieter but persistent undercurrent brought on and continued by pagan participation. For despite all the grand pageantry, Nefertiti headdresses, feathers and bangles, our best moments were to be found in the likes of LVH's Reverend Phoebe Wray who, during a small scheduled gathering, appealed to all religions to come together to institute a re-planting trees programme "for the children of Bosnia." This is paganism at its best: its simplest, its most pragmatic, its most compassionate, and its get down to earth and do it approach. Oxleas Woods lives!