Parliament of the World's Religions

The Esoteric Dimensions of the Parliament of the World’s Religions

In 1893, the first Parliament of the World’s Religions was convened at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This historic event brought together representatives from a number of world religions, including one of the first introductions for Americans and Western Europeans to the religions of Asia on Asian terms. Swami Vivekananda gave a famous speech at the Parliament and received a standing ovation from over 7,000 listeners. Soyen Shaku, the first Zen Buddhist master to teach in the United States, made his American debut at the Parliament, and his speech was translated into English by his young student, D.T. Suzuki. The Parliament is considered to be the birth of the modern interfaith movement, and the first formal interfaith gathering to be held in world history. Since the first Parliament, the event has coalesced into an organized movement with regular occurrences, with other historic Parliaments held throughout the world over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Parliament of the World's Religions
Theosophists at the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Yet it is often forgotten that the Parliament was spearheaded by figures associated with esotericism. The primary organizer of the Parliament was the Swedenborgian layman and judge Charles Carroll Bonney. Representatives of spiritualism and Christian Science gave presentations at the Parliament alongside representatives of what are now considered to be more traditional “world religions.” And above all, the Theosophical Society contributed a number of speakers to the Parliament, including Anne Besant herself. Henry Steel Olcott, president of the Theosophical Society at the time, wrote this about the success of the Parliament for Theosophy:

As the World’s Parliament of Religions was to meet at Chicago in the following September, and as it had been arranged that our Society should participate in it, I deputed the Vice-President, Mr. Judge, to represent me officially, and appointed Mrs. Besant special delegate to speak there on behalf of the whole Society. How great a success it was for us and how powerfully it stimulated public interest in our views will be recollected by all our older members. Theosophy was presented most thoroughly both before the whole Parliament, an audience of 3,000 people, and at meetings of our own for the holding of which special halls were kindly given us. A profound impression was created by the discourses of Professor G. N. Chakravarti and Mrs. Besant, who is said to have risen to unusual heights of eloquence, so exhilarating were the influences of the gathering.1Henry S. Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, Fifth Series (1893-1896), 35.

From all of this, it is clear that the first Parliament of the World’s Religions constituted a unique public moment for comparative religion, interfaith dialogue, and Western esotericism — a moment when the lines between major “world religions” and esoteric movements were still being formulated, when representatives from new religious movements could stand side by side with representatives from Christian denominations and ancient Eastern faiths.

Of course, as those of us involved in the esoteric community know, the promise of this moment has not exactly been fulfilled since then. In many ways, esotericism has retreated back into a private and limited sphere, and since the 1970s “occult revival” esotericists have further distanced themselves from the mainstream religions, which they often view with skepticism or outright hostility. Peregrin Wildoak recently wrote a great blog post explaining the dangers of such an approach to religion by esotericists, labeling it a “broken triangle.”

World's Columbian Exposition
The White City at the World’s Columbian Exposition.

But the esoteric connections of the Parliament didn’t end with the event itself. The president of the scientific section of the Parliament, Dr. Merwin-Marie Snell — early scholar of comparative religion, Roman Catholic convert, and scion of a well-to-do New England family — gave a talk at the closing of the Parliament entitled “The Future of Religion.”2Merwin-Marie Snell, “The Future of Religion: A Farewell Address Delivered Before the Parliament of Religions at Its Last Session,” (The Open Court, a Quarterly Magazine, Oct. 5, 1893) 7, 319. In this talk, Dr. Snell speculated on the utopian possibility of a future universal religious body, a fellowship that could unite all the religions into an organized whole:

Is it conceivable that all diversities of race and talent and thought and tendency and environment may ultimately be coordinated into a world-wide organization? Can the religious federation of humanity be regarded as within the limits of a rational and legitimate hope?

As I have described in a previous article, Dr. Snell, a Roman Catholic philosopher, used the example of the Papacy to show that the ideal of universality was indeed already present in the world, and thus to answer “yes!” to his questions above.

It is important to note that this “world-wide organization” of religions would not be an attempt to homogenize the traditions it represents. According to Snell, to be true to the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in all religious traditions, the “religious federation of humanity” would have to avoid minimizing or reducing the differences between the incredible diversity of world religions; it would have to

be based, not upon a minimizing of religious differences, not upon a rejection of all but a few supposed fundamentals, but upon a full and unreserved acceptation of all the elements of all religions. Vain is his task who would lastingly suppress any manifestations of the spiritual sense which any time and any age has witnessed. Religion is eternal, not only in its essence, but in its infinitude of forms. Truth is one, but the aspects of truth are infinite; beauty is one, but the manifestations of beauty are endless; goodness is one, but the applications of goodness are innumerable. The human mind is broad enough to contain and reconcile all doctrines; the human heart is large enough to embrace and harmonize all sympathies and adorations; the human will is strong enough to execute all duty, while facing all alternatives of possible duty.

Dr. Snell concluded his speech with a stirring image of the utopian future of religion, a vision based on his unique concept of heterogenous unity — the possibility of organically integrating the religions of the world without destroying their unique, individual expressions:

To sum up, the religion of the future will be universal in every sense. It will embody all the thought and aspiration and virtue and emotion of all humanity; it will draw together all lands and peoples, all kindreds and tongues, into a universal brotherhood of love and service; it will establish upon earth a heavenly order, and make all incarnate spirits vibrate with the harmony of the celestial spheres.

In some ways, Dr. Snell’s vision here reminds me of Pope Francis’s image of the polyhedron as the proper symbol of the integration of the many within the one, which he often uses in his speeches to the World Meeting of Popular Movements — the Pope’s historic bringing together of grassroots movements struggling for justice across the world in annual meetings held at the Vatican and in local regions. As the summary of the meeting in Rome in 2014 states:

The method essential to this struggle is the culture of encounter, ‘where the aggregate does not wipe out the particularities.’ The Pope graphically expresses this insight with the image of the polyhedron, ‘a geometric figure with many different facets. The polyhedron reflects the confluence of all the partialities that in it keep their originality. Nothing is dissolved, nothing is destroyed, nothing is dominated, everything is integrated’.

This image of the polyhedron, a shape that contains the “confluence of all the partialities that in it keep their originality,” could also be a symbol for the kind of integrality espoused by Dr. Snell in his farewell speech to the Parliament — an image that differs greatly from visions of religious unity that smooth out the rough edges or differences between the traditions in the search for a reductive harmony.

Remarkably, though he was an accomplished academic scholar of religion, Dr. Snell didn’t leave his ideas about the need for a universal religious organization in the abstract realm of theory. Starting in 1907, he put his vision into practice by founding the Universal Brotherhood (also known as the Integral Fellowship and the Mahacakra), a secret society which aimed to unify all of human knowledge and human religious organizations in the light of the concepts of Integrality and Universality. The UB was not intended to be one organization among many, but instead to be the esoteric heart and integrative organism behind all other human organizations and endeavors. The UB wished to unite humanity — and, ultimately, the whole macrocosm — in a fellowship that would herald a utopian age of universality and harmony. In some ways, the UB was the esoteric expression of the ideals of the first Parliament.

Though the UB at one time included such occult luminaries as Charles Stansfeld Jones (Frater Achad) — the “magical son” of Aleister Crowley, who recruited many of the early North American Thelemites into the group; Paul Foster Case, founder of Builders of the Adytum; and prominent members of Anne Besant’s Theosophical Society, it of course never accomplished (or, perhaps more accurately, has not yet accomplished) its full aim of uniting all human organizations or harmonizing all of human knowledge. In any case, such a concept would soon seem quaint at best and naively impossible at worst in the late twentieth century age of postmodernism and, in the esoteric community, chaos magic and other decentralized forms of esoteric practice.

In the midst of this era of chaos theory and postmodernism, the anarchist and esotericist Hakim Bey raised the specter of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in his short piece, “For a Congress of Weird Religions.” Bey’s piece later appeared in his infamous 1985 book, T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic TerrorismIn the essay, Bey outlines a philosophy for what he calls the “Free Religions, including the Psychedelic & Discordian currents, non-hierarchical neo-paganism, antinomian heresies, chaos & Kaos Magik, revolutionary HooDoo, ‘unchurched’ & anarchist Christians, Magical Judaism, the Moorish Orthodox Church, Church of the SubGenius, the Faeries, radical Taoists, beer mystics, people of the Herb, etc., etc.”

According to Bey, “there exists a need for radicals to penetrate the institution of religion itself rather than merely continue to mouth 19th century platitudes about atheistic materialism.” His answer to this endeavor is to propose a “Congress of Weird Religions,” an antiauthoritarian anarchist version of the World Council of Churches or the Parliament of the World’s Religions:

Having once lived near the Hdqrs of the World Council of Churches, I like the possibility of a Free Churches parody version — parody being one of our chief strategies (or call it dé­tournement or deconstruction or creative destruction) — a sort of loose network (I dislike that word; let’s call it a “webwork” instead) of weird cults & individuals providing conversation & services for each other, out of which might begin to emerge a trend or tendency or “current” (in magical terms) strong enough to wreak some psychic havoc on the Fundies & New Agers, even the ayatollahs & the Papacy, convivial enough for us to disagree with each other & yet still give great parties — or conclaves, or ecumenical councils, or World Congresses — which we anticipate with glee.

The Free Religions may offer some of the only possible spiritual alternatives to televangelist stormtroopers & pinhead crystal-channelers (not to mention the established religions), & will thus become more & more important, more & more vital in a future where the demand for the eruption of the marvelous into the ordinary will become the most ringing, poignant & tumultuous of all political demands — a future which will begin (wait a minute, lemme check my clock) . . . 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . . NOW.

Of course, Bey’s proposal here both has much in common with the Parliament of the World’s Religions and many differences from it, as his combative support of what he labels the “free religions” renders his Congress a less-than-representative body in terms of world religious practice. But Bey’s use of the utopian vision of the Parliament here, and his suggestion that such a movement might spark “a trend or tendency or ‘current’ (in magical terms)” illustrates the lasting impact of the Parliament of the World’s Religions on Western esotericism.

Reclaiming this vision, this “current” begun in 1893, for the esoteric community, would go a long way toward reintroducing esoteric beliefs, practices, and organizations into the mainstream of interfaith dialogue and theology. It would also contribute toward that perennial dream of Western esotericism, the universal reformation of the whole wide world, as expressed in the classic manifestos of Rosicrucianism.


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