Editor’s Note: The following article – an adaptation from Teichrib’s book, Game of Gods – takes us to early meetings of the United Religions Initiative. This text was excerpted from chapter 12, a section exploring the history and scope of the interfaith movement in light of world order aspirations.
To learn more about Game of Gods, go to www.gameofgods.ca.
Due to space restrictions, the footnotes found in the original text have been removed.
Foundry United Methodist is an historic church in the heart of Washington DC. Located between the Logan and Dupont circles at the corner of 16th and P streets, less than 1,500 yards due north of the White House, this congregation is bound to the rich heritage of the nation’s capital. Abraham Lincoln graced its pews, as did Andrew Jackson, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the 1990s President Bill Clinton and his family attended, with the president even preaching from its pulpit.
I went to Foundry in November 1999, not to hear a Sunday morning sermon but to attend a meeting of internationalists and faith leaders. The millennium was upon us, and in the search for world peace and justice, what could religions do? Would it be possible for politics and diverse faiths to join in achieving common goals? A lead-up letter from the host said this: “Recognizing the need to work together to strengthening the United Nations, religious groups are creating a powerful voice of unity – a core principle of world federalism.”
Organized by the Chesapeake branch of the World Federalist Association (WFA) – a leading, pro-world government lobby group – this event pulled together representatives from Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, the Bahá'í and Sikh communities, and Soka Gakkai. A Catholic perspective was given by long-time World Federalist and UN reformer, John Logue. Protestant views came from the Foundry’s own senior minister, Dr. J. Philip Wogaman, with input from the Reverend James T. Christie of Southminster United Church. Christie was then council chair of the World Federalist Movement.
A Draft Summary Statement was distributed to those attending, calling for “religious and political leaders to develop a shared vision of global unity and governance for the new millennium.” Noting that the United Nations had met with religious personalities the month before to focus on the “oneness of humankind and for the growth of planetary consciousness,” the Statement implored a new partnership and purpose, connecting the dots between global governance and spirituality,
“Government can have spiritual as well as practical value… The gap in democratic governing institutions beyond national boundaries is a spiritual gap in an interdependent world… We call for a widening circles of dialogue and efforts, involving world religions working together constructively with trends toward the ideals of world governance, so that the unity of humankind can be brought to a new level of world reality in the millennium to come.”
I attended this event to better understand how spiritual politics was envisioned. After interacting with World Federalists, listening to speeches and panel discussions, it was evident that the prevailing motif was this: We must redeem ourselves. How? By creating an orderly and just society, celebrating our diversity within a great federation of humanity – for this is our only hope to free the world of violence.
A new organization – a movement, really – I was particularly interested in had a special place at the conference. The Vice President of the United Religions Initiative (URI), William W. Rankin, was invited to deliver a keynote address and participate in a panel discussion. During lunch hour I discovered that a major reason for his involvement was to court a relationship with the WFA. Could the URI find an ally in the World Federalist community? Yes. Would the WFA uphold the URI in its development? Of course!
After all, the goal of the initiative was the creation of a United Religions.
URI for UR
In February 1993, William E. Swing, the Episcopal Bishop of California at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, received a life-changing telephone call from the United Nations. Would the Cathedral host an interfaith assembly to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the UN? Agreeing to the request, Bishop Swing found himself pondering the future of religion. The celebration was important for the occasion, he understood, but something more lasting was needed. The nations of the world had the UN, but religions were without a comparable structure. Framing his thoughts around the narrative of faith and conflict, he decided it was time to create a United Religions.
Immediately another thought struck the Anglican Bishop,
“For a second, but only for a second, I allowed myself to consider the first of the Ten Commandments. Primitive and structural! ‘Thou shalt have no other gods but me.’ If a religion prides itself on keeping the first of the Ten Commandments, then it will pride itself on what it does about the ‘other gods.’ Holy writings will be filled with the stories of how the people of the other gods were slain, and the purity of the religion was maintained against the threat of assimilation. How can history compete with the Divine command to have ‘none other gods’? If the planet Earth is ever going to have a chance of continuing as a cosmic oasis in the vastness of the universe, perhaps we need to take a second look at the first Commandment.”
Theologians and historians could argue, quite rightly, that his view of the first Commandment and the associated Judeo-Christian worldview were skewed. Nevertheless, his perspective on religion and violence – and the absence of a permanent institution for faith leaders – were sparks of inspiration: If a United Nations, why not a United Religions?
That summer the Bishop met with officials from major interfaith groups in the hope of soliciting support for a United Religions (UR). To his dismay there was little interest in the project. The World Conference on Religions for Peace, a coalition of faith leaders, had already been issuing resolutions and recommendations since the early 1970s. The International Association for Religious Freedom, the world’s oldest interfaith organization, had been building networks and fostering dialogue since 1900. The Temple of Understanding in New York City was known for its spiritual influence within the United Nations. And the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions was busy preparing for its historic gathering, the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions.
Was there room at the table for a United Religions? Would not a “United Nations” of religions be too bureaucratic, too expensive, too risky? The very idea suggested an infringement of existing sensibilities.
Marcus Braybrooke from the World Congress of Faiths and a fellow Anglican was the only person who offered a small measure of encouragement, suggesting the UR might emerge from a youth movement.
“It was abundantly clear,” penned the Bishop, “that none of them wanted anything to do with the creation of a United Religions.”
Swing was undeterred. “I was ready to commit to be a catalyst,” he wrote in his autobiography. In time, some of these same organizations would come alongside the URI.
Taking Braybrooke’s advice a multi-faith Youth Conference was arranged through the University of San Francisco, right on the heals of the UN anniversary. The Bishop wanted students to explore his interfaith concept, but the university insisted on a different focus. With the goals in conflict, a group of frustrated students walked out and formed their own impromptu gathering on the campus lawn. Swing recounts the situation,
“When a large enough group arrived, they held hands and prayed and sang songs of their traditions – Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and on and on. Before our eyes we witnessed a grassroots display of spontaneity… I couldn’t help but think at the time that in getting ready for the U.N. 50th service at Grace Cathedral, it took over a dozen people working for two years to design a liturgy that would not be offensive to some traditions, and here were these young people making it up as they went along in a matter of minutes.”
It was an experience that would foreshadow the URI model.
After the UN gala wrapped up, full attention was given to the UR dream. Bishop Swing traveled around the world meeting with religious personalities in the quest to raise awareness. Visiting India he spoke at the Maramon Convention, a large Christian conference annually hosted by the Mar Thoma Church. Maramon attendees responded with shock at the suggestion of interfaith universalism: Salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone. The Bishop was confronted with the question – “Who is Jesus Christ for you?” Conversely, some of Mar Thoma’s leadership would afterwards join the United Religions Initiative.
He spent time with Mother Teresa and Karen Singh, a prominent Hindu statesman and a giant in the field of interfaith work. He visited the Ramakrishna Ashram, the launching point of the modern Advaita Vedanta movement and the spiritual home of Swami Vivekananda. Traveling to New Delhi he went to the Lotus Temple, the impressive, marble-clad Bahá'í House of Worship with its 27 free-standing “petals.” In Dharamsala he visited the Temple of the Oracle before meeting with the Dalai Lama.
Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, England, Turkey – from the headquarters of the World Council of Churches in Geneva to a meeting with Hans Küng in Tübingen to the Vatican and Pope John Paul II, Bishop Swing’s “remarkable journey” became renowned within the interfaith community. Some with whom he met were delighted; others disapproved. Nevertheless, the religious world was now on notice and watching.
After his journey, Juliet Hollister from the Temple of Understanding and Robert Muller teamed with Swing in a public letter appealing for broad support: “You are invited to join the United Religions Initiative to help change the world.” An early URI fact-sheet explained the mission,
“The mission of the United Religions Initiative is to create the United Religions – a permanent assembly where the world’s religions and spiritual communities will gather on a daily basis, in prayer and meditation, dialogue, and cooperative action, to make peace among religions so they might be a force for peace among nations, for addressing urgent human need, and for healing the earth.”
Target deadline for United Religions: Year 2000.
Structural assistance came from unexpected sources. Management guru and designer of the Appreciative Inquiry model, David Cooperrider, offered his expertise in fleshing out the vision. Dee Hock, founder of the Visa credit card, was commissioned to facilitate the URI Charter writing process. Cooperrider and Hock, with other consultants, guided the project away from the typical composition of other interfaith groups. Rather than a leadership driven entity, focus on the grassroots. Instead of an organization, allow it to become an organism.
Like the protesting students who spontaneously formed their own interfaith circle, the URI would spawn Cooperation Circles: “self-organized groups which are locally rooted and globally connected.” As the Charter process moved forward with a summit at Stanford University, including the input of Neale Donald Walsch, and as regional URI meetings took place around the world, Cooperation Circles started forming on university campuses, in churches, and within home settings.
“In theory, I had anticipated that a Charter would come first, and then the Charter would give birth to a community,” explained the Bishop. “What actually happened was that when we gathered to begin writing the Charter, a community broke out.”
The objective was still a United Religions by the millennium year, and on June 26, 2000 – the day the United Nations Charter was signed 55 years ago – the URI Charter was officially launched through a Global Summit in Pittsburgh, the “city of bridges.”
I attended the first half of the weeklong Summit, which took place on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University. So did approximately 300 others from 39 spiritual traditions and faiths: followers of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Wicca, and Bahá'í. An “appreciative litany” was included in our welcome package,
“Accept a blessing from the Names we bring, hundreds,
Thousands of names for what is most precious to us –
Adonai, Allah, Brahma, Buddha, the Christ, the Spirit, the Tao,
Father Sky & Mother Earth… Precious names, sacred names,
And many, many more become our blessings for each other…
We claim this site as sacred space…”
The Summit started with an Earth Blessing, an Indigenous smudging circle on the campus lawn, followed by a reception at the towering Cathedral of Learning just a few blocks away. The next morning, June 26, began with a Sacred Opening to “invoke the sacred in any way.” This was the day of the Charter signing ceremony and after lunch a long processional made its way to Carnegie Music Hall. I remember walking behind Pagans and Buddhists and Christians, all moving to where the Charter ceremony would take place.
If you have been to the Carnegie Music Hall, you understand the sumptuousness of this locale: Rich crimson velvet, vaulted gold ceilings, and a foyer with imported marble pillars upholding a 50-foot high baroque-styled ceiling. To my front, on the expansive stage, rested a table with the venerated Charter and behind this a bronze serpent posed horizontally on a stand.
Music and meditation set the tone, creating an auditory backdrop for the attending dignitaries in their cultural and religious dress. It was a spectacle of diversity and spirituality.
The ceremony itself included the reading of a letter from the United Nations Association of San Francisco: “We work together with you for justice and healing, for the Earth and all living things.” The facilitator of the Cooperation Circle at the United Nations was supposed to connect to the ceremony through a networked telephone call routed into the Carnegie sound system. This bridge from the UN to the URI was to be a highlight, but the technology failed and the call was cancelled. However, the point was made: “The URI is connected on the ground and around the world.”
An interesting situation occurred when, on that day, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette announced that the Roman Catholic Church did not align with the URI vision. During the ceremony the Director of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, Gerard O’Rouke, soundly rebuked the paper,
“I want to correct something that I saw in your paper today in this city. I am here officially as a member of the Catholic Church, and this is where I should be… I am officially here. It’s where the Church should be right now – and it is here.”
At the end of the week Donald Frew from the Covenant of the Goddess performed a “traditional Wiccan foundation blessing” during the Summit’s closing ceremony. Frew, who led a URI Cooperation Circle titled Spirituality of the Earth, wrote-up an invocation specific for the occasion,
“We had always used fairly generic terms like ‘Lady’ and ‘the Goddess’ in our public interfaith blessings. In this one, I specifically invoked Hekate and Hermes by name, and Bishop Swing was right there raising his arms in invocation with the rest of the Circle! We have, indeed, come a long way.”
The Charter summit was bittersweet for the Bishop. On one hand the URI was asserting itself as a serious movement within the interfaith community, an undeniable organizational and personal victory. But the original hope of a United Religions was out of reach. Swing puts this into perspective,
“On June 26, 2000, a dream died for all practical purposes… Ironically, in my pursuit of a United Religions, I had missed on the vision. I had completely missed on the response of religious leaders. I had entirely missed on the timing of events. And I totally missed on the planning that would make it happen… Not on my watch, but a United Religions is on its way.”
In considering the foundational worldview of interfaithism, Bishop Swing – viewing this through a universalistic lens – pondered the depths of Oneness: “The interfaith challenge is to grow a heart for the assumed Oneness that exits in atoms and Muslims, galaxies and Buddhists, nature and Jews, universes and Universalists.”
World Federalists were barely noticeable at the Charter Summit. I recognized one or two faces, but no one from the WFA executive attended that I could see. Someone from the Pittsburgh branch of the WFA had been there, as literature had been placed – if my memory is correct – on a table near the entrance to the URI Meditation Room. This lack of World Federalist involvement surprised me, for the two movements had the potential to dovetail in a profound way.
Maybe like Swing’s assessment, the WFA had “missed on the timing.”
Carl Teichrib is a researcher, writer, and lecturer focusing on the paradigm shift sweeping the Western world, including the challenges and opportunities faced by Christians.
Over the years he has attended a range of internationally significant political, religious, and social events in his quest to understand the historical and contemporary forces of transformation – including the Parliament of the Worlds Religions, Burning Man, and the United Nations Millennium Forum. Since the mid-1990s, Carl’s research has been utilized by numerous authors, media hosts and documentary producers, pastors, professors and students, and interested lay people. From 2007 until the end of 2015, he edited a monthly web-based magazine,Forcing Change, documenting and detailing the worldview revolution underway – points of pressure, forces of change. See Carl’s excellent article on Transformational Festivals.
Carl’s biases are transparent: he embraces an evangelical Christian perspective, is pro-liberty versus politically imposed equality, pro-individualistic versus consensus collectivism, and pro-free market.