The Labyrinth of the Heart
The Parliament of the World's Religions,
Parliament of the World's Religions was held in Chicago in 1893, the
second, which I attended, was also held in Chicago a hundred years
later in 1993. the third Parliament was held in Cape Town, South
Africa, in 1999, and the fourth, which I also attended, was held in
Barcelona few weeks a few weeks ago, from 7th to 13th July.
The first Parliament is famous as the occasion when the eastern
religions were introduced to the West. In 1993 the religions that
took their place in inter-religious dialogue were those of various
indigenous peoples and various neo-Pagan paths. The Native Americans
made a great impact on the 1993 Parliament, with valuable work
resolving conflicts among other faith traditions, but also with the
Lakota busy producing their Declaration of War Against Exploiters of
Lakota Spirituality. While the Pagans held several workshops and
were accepted by many present, there was also opposition to them—I
think it was a Greek Orthodox group who refused to take part in an
event involving Pagans.
I am told that the indigenous peoples were also actively present at
Cape Town. On that occasion a discussion between the distinguished
scholar of religion Huston Smith and various Native Americans
regarding issues of importance to them (such as opportunities to
practice their religion in prison, and the peyote rituals of the
Native American Church) were filmed. Smith said that when he first
studied religion, indigenous beliefs were regarded as 'primitive'
and he did not mention them in the first edition of his important
book on The World's Religions. But after taking up a post at the
University of Syracuse, in the heart of Iroquois territory, he came
into contact with Native Americans, and the second edition of his
book has a chapter on "Primal Religions".
At Barcelona there were one or two programs each day on Native
American issues, described as "part of a series highlighting the
beliefs and practices of Native Americans". These covered both
teachings that they wanted to share with others, and problems that
they face. There was a particular input from Iroquois speakers,
including the singer Joanne Shenandoah and Chief Jake Swamp. There
were participants and speakers from all over the Americas, though,
but there did not seem to be any effort to include other indigenous
peoples (unless one counts one workshop on Gypsies).
There were three Pagan events on the program, showing the
multiplicity of Pagan paths and the presence of Paganism in many
countries (I think fourteen countries had Pagans represented). These
had a large attendance, about half Pagan and half interested others.
I was pleased to make contact again with Selena Fox, of Circle
Sanctuary in the USA. Michael York, from England, talked about Pagan
theologies, and Fred Lamond also spoke. Paganism in England was
described by John Belham-Payne, who seemed to me to be more negative
about the position of Pagans in the wider community than is
justified, particularly after the recent census. Because I had other
things on, I missed the Pagan ritual for peace one evening, and also
the meeting with Barcelona Pagans (part of a get-together of each
individual faith community).
There is one Native American representative on the Board of Trustees
of the Parliament, and also one Pagan representative. At the
gathering of "spiritual leaders" in Monserrat before the main
Parliament, ten Pagans were present among a total of three hundred
people of various faiths.
There were talks by representatives of various faiths, as well as
interfaith talks and discussions. These can do a great deal to
improve understanding of other faiths. A large contingent of Sikhs
came from Birmingham, and followed their spiritual practice of
serving food to other participants who joined them.
In addition to the formal program and informal get-togethers, there
were four assemblies on topics of world importance. These were on
supporting refugees, access to clean water, eliminating the burden
of international debt, and on overcoming religiously motivated
violence. I suspect that these assemblies did important work, but it
was not practical to attend just part of their sessions. I wonder if
some of the people whose names I recognised who were listed in just
one presentation were in the assemblies. For instance, the
eco-feminist writer and activist Vandana Shiva was in one panel, and
the panel on Christian-Buddhist relations had six participants,
including the feminist theologians Rita Gross and Rosemary Reuther.
The Catholic liberation theologian Hans Kung gave one of the main
presentations. The Dalai Lama, who gave the closing keynote at the
1993 Parliament, had planned to give the opening keynote this time,
but was not well enough to attend.
The assemblies were, of course, focussed on justice issues. the main
theme of the Parliament was on Pathways to Peace. Though some
speakers mentioned justice in relation to this, I was unhappy at the
uncritical praise of peace. On occasions when we were called on to
say "Let peace prevail on earth", I found myself refusing to say
that, and saying instead "May justice and mercy prevail"—it seemed
important to mention mercy and not justice alone.
It was because of this that I attended a talk on Judaism and
Justice. The speaker gave some very good material about justice in
the Torah. He did, of course, discuss justice in the
Israel-Palestine conflict, but though he was critical of Israeli
policy in many ways, I felt he was not critical enough.
I went to an interesting talk on Wisdom Stories, and the speaker
made some valuable points about storytelling. He began with a Coyote
story from the Paiute people. I was very uneasy about this, partly
because that particular story was a close parallel to Christian
stories about the Fall. I was not on this occasion concerned about
issues of "cultural theft", there is enough indication that the
stories like to be told, and that traditional tellers are happy to
have others tell the stories if they are told correctly (which can
include telling at the right time of year—even in English Pagan
culture, I feel very upset when a mummer's play is performed in the
summer). But Coyote is a very strange character, there is no
equivalent to his tricksterishness in European culture (not Reynard
the Fox or Loki), he can be a buffoon, a tricker of others and even
of himself, but also a creator. One Native American story-teller I
know says that "We are all Coyote's children". Consequently, I feel
that telling just one Coyote story without any context is a gross
distortion (not that Coyote would ever object to being gross).
Despite the gathering being held in Barcelona, and participants from
many countries, it felt a very American gathering. For example, of
the volunteers who helped organise the assemblies, fifteen came from
Europe and forty from the USA. Also, though there were of course
many participants from Asia, there were extremely few black people
A concert of "sacred music" was held outside the Sagrada Familia
cathedral, the famous building designed by Gaudi. Though
interesting, this was a little awkward. There were musicians from
about ten different traditions, each given about ten minutes. This
meant that there was not enough time to get used to an unfamiliar
tradition. Also, some of the works were clearly performance, and
others were as clearly prayers, and these mixed uneasily, especially
when the prayers were applauded. The whirling dervishes were moving,
but, surprisingly, the group that most affected me were some
Theravada Buddhists from Los Angeles. After a very short time of
their chanting, I found myself in a trance, and the friend I was
with had the same experience.
On one of the days we skipped the sessions, and went with a friend
who lives in Barcelona to Montserrat. The mountains here are very
dramatic, but Montserrat is most famous for its Black Madonna. She
lives in a glass case, which may be why I was not greatly affected
by her. Certainly when I visited the Black Madonna in Rocamadour in
France, I was very moved, and went part of the way on my knees. I
liked the stairway towards the Montserrat Madonna, with the walls
covered with mosaics of many women saints, and also the path away
from her, with majolica plaques to various aspects of Mary put up by
locals (for instance, the Hockey Club of Catalonia) and also with
metal lettering spelling out the various phrases of praise to Mary.
Did you know that there is a Black Madonna in Willesden in London?
The original statue was burned in 1538. In 1972, a new Black Madonna
was dedicated at the Anglican St. Mary's Church, Neasden Lane,
London NW10 and a dark, but not black, image made of oak was
dedicated by the Catholic Our Lady of Willesden Church in 1892.
While I enjoyed the Parliament, I did not find it as exciting as the
1993 Chicago one. I think this was because much of the material that
interested me I already knew about (and I attended some of the
events, such as the pagan ones, more in a spirit of giving support
than to learn things), and the large amount of interfaith work,
although extremely valuable, wasn't directly relevant to me. The
friend I went with, who is involved in interfaith issues, made some
valuable contacts. She also reported with enthusiasm on the
exhibition From Stardust to Us, a scientific history of the universe
with a strong spiritual element.
Pentacle 11, Samhain 2004
© Daniel Cohen
The Labyrinth of the Heart