The Parliament of the World's Religions, which concluded yesterday in Barcelona, marked one happy development on the God Beat: seeing the latest on-site journalism by Gustav Niebuhr, former religion correspondent for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, who now teaches at Syracuse University. Niebuhr wrote this report for Beliefnet, while Geneive Abdo of the Chicago Tribune filed stories on July 8, Saturday and yesterday. Abdo hit her stride in the Saturday piece, in which the first three paragraphs perfectly captured the spiritual ambivalence of any this come-one-come-all gathering:
BARCELONA, Spain -- In a quiet room, spiritual leader Hum Bui and his followers, women dressed in sky-blue tunics with cone-shaped headscarves, enlighten a mesmerized crowd about their Vietnamese faith.
Their founder established the CaoDai movement in 1925 to deliver a message: "There are many religions, but all religions are one, have one origin, one principle."
In a chaotic hall downstairs, where about 7,000 people mill about, Ayatollah Hahdi Tehrani, an Iranian cleric from the holy Shiite city of Qom, is holding his own seminar. "There is a difference between movements and cults, and real religions such as Islam, Christianity and Judaism," he said. "It is up to those from bona fide faiths to guide the misguided."
Syncretists need not fear, however: most quotes from parliamentarians stressed the dangers of believing that one truth means one faith is correct and another is not. Abdo cited the followers of Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati:
Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, known simply as "Ma," sent about 60 devotees to spread the word about her Kashi Foundation, an interfaith movement with Hindu roots that has ashrams in U.S. cities, including Chicago and New York. The largest ashram, an 80-acre community near Sebastian, Fla., serves as headquarters.
Once a Jewish homemaker from Brooklyn, N.Y., Ma became a Hindu guru, say her followers, to broaden traditional notions of faith. "Ma always says, 'When someone tells you their way is the right way, run the other way,'" said Sita Ganga, the foundation's public relations director.
Abdo also mentioned Deepak Chopra:
Deepak Chopra, the author of 29 books who has made the transformation from a holistic health expert to an Eastern guru, drew a packed audience. With his closing remark, "When we heal the rift in our collective soul . . . we will be filled with love," the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
For Chopra's admirers, his charm lies in his disdain for traditional religion, which he described as "idiotic" at the parliament.
That's pretty hostile stuff as a step toward healing the rift in our collective soul. A friendly suggestion to the parliament's organizers: Next time, meet in Philadelphia, invite Bootsy Collins as a plenary speaker and change your name to the Parliament of the World's Funkadelic Religions. Attendance, media coverage and universal goodwill should double, at least.