Tension in Barcelona:Parliament of World’s Religions 2004

On July 7-13, some 8000 persons gathered at the Forum Barcelona,
Spain, for the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions. The 2004 theme
was Pathways to Peace: The Wisdom of Listening, The Power of Commitment.

Rigid structures of meeting style and personnel (often reflecting the
social and cultural biases of historical religion) found themselves in
palpable tension with spontaneous gatherings and discussions among
attendees asking wide-ranging questions of religion and of the
Parliament. Can meetings like this be less a “trade show” of world
religion and more an authentic spiritual experience? Can the Parliament
be a vehicle for universal understanding that is capable of ameliorating
long-standing historical inequities among cultures and economies,
genders, and racial and ethnic groups? Is religious experience today
holistic enough to fruitfully address complex world problems like
environmental destruction, disease, socio-economic inequity, and war?
Are there frontiers for religion itself, like balancing historical
assumptions of patriarchy with new appreciation of the “divine

Questions like these were widely heard in Barcelona, forming the
broader challenge to a Parliament whose organizers had, on the surface,
successfully created a mix of daily plenary sessions (highlighted by
religious leaders and celebrities); formal presentations, panels and
discussions; film, music and dance; devotional observances; and
occasions for spontaneous gatherings — all a diverse laboratory in
which Parliament attendees could participate. Topical issues were also
well treated, including programs on environmental care and
sustainability, water, HIV-AIDS, restorative justice, women’s voices,
human and children’s rights, and dialogue of civilizations. Not only
organized religions but also diverse religious organizations,
associations, and outreaches were well represented.

Finding one’s place in such a large event seemed a daunting task at
first for most. However, the orderly arrangement of programs, somewhat
reminiscent of a theme park, allowed participants to eventually settle
in, trust their own intuitions and let imagination be their guide.
Similarly, diversity of venue and tension among issues about religion
and daily life also allowed profound opportunity for individuals to
measure their own experiences.


Here are some brief reports from participants showing the diversity of experience.

Martha Gallahue. The selection of participants was
highly creative and supportive of both experiential and traditional
“theological” approaches. Although collaboration was emphasized, finding
meeting times for spontaneous coalitions, including youth and women,
was difficult. Elitist leadership took precedence over the highly
motivated spiritual grassroots activists energized to solve global
challenges. The most progressive elements at the Parliament were
interspirituality programs based on the universal core of all religions,
the celebration of common humanity and mandates for personal
responsibility in global transformation. The nonverbal message of total
commitment of heart, beyond the dualism that codifies traditional
religions, was presented in diverse modalities – ceremonies,
presentations and dialogic exchanges. The future lies in spiritual
practice, in the release of concepts we no longer need, and in our daily
person-to-person, community-to-community efforts to heal a wounded

Martha Foster. As a lifelong educational media
professional, I see enormous potential in the Parliament for media
training and coverage, and for public education via broadcast and home
video. The Barcelona Parliament was covered live on European TV and a
vast number of audio and video interviews were conducted for future
broadcasting. The Parliament offers a valuable training ground for
religious and spiritual organizations on how to relate to the secular
press. There are important stories to tell about the role of religions
in a fragmented world. The media will play a significant role in
reaching a worldwide audience eager for spiritual nourishment.

Kurt Johnson. The largely topical Symposium on “Science
and Religions” came alive in discussions which questioned whether
science can ever “get on board” with an emerging higher world
consciousness. Discussions acknowledged the primary role of presence or
heart in addressing world problems, with intellect a secondary function.
Can conventional science be helpful at all? As noted by many, the
philosophy of science emerged from the Popperian revolution of the
1970’s, which replaced the older paradigm of deductive proof with the
inductive mode. This means that any hypothesis about reality (or how it
works) is welcome as long as it is testable, that is, can be
corroborated as more or less useful to overall understanding. Within
science, “systems theory” is able to articulate wide-ranging views of
reality. If elegant and comprehensive enough it will allow apparently
contradictory experiences to share a common context for understanding
and inquiry (as has happened in quantum theory). Progress in this kind
of theoretical or speculative work is more likely than the development
of instruments able to measure the subtle phenomena higher consciousness

Alan Steinfeld. One of the highlights was the panel
discussion on World Global Consciousness and Spirituality. The morning
panel was followed by roundtable discussions where the room itself
seemed to be a microcosm of the world. There was a sense that global
consciousness had gone beyond dialogue and had, for some brief shining
seconds, manifested in full Presence. When African singer Jean Paul
presented his sweet sounding soul songs, one sensed a connection to the
planet and humanity throughout time and could see humanity as a great
entity with each of us as various parts of its planetary body. Another
highlight was the presentation on “The Meaning of Awakening in Modern
Spiritual and Scientific Contexts” where Dr. J. J. Hurtak presented the
physics of light as related to science and spiritual dimensionality with
his newly completed film “The Light Body”. A downside of the Parliament
was inequity in the number of presentations by women, although this was
not surprising considering that most religions originated from or are
run by men. Dr. Jane Goodall who has brought us closer to understanding
the emotional lives of chimpanzees, is a glowing example of one who has
transcended her own views in favor of something larger. Amritanandanmayi
Devi said, “Viewing religion externally creates more and more division.
We need to see and understand the inside, the essence of religion from a
spiritual perspective. Where there is true spiritual experience there
will be no division — only unity and love”. Service appeared central.
The Parliament must be saluted for offering its program in that spirit.

Matthew Mitler. Great diligence is required to
balance an inner inquiry with an outward aim. At Dieci Theatre Company
we look for an artistic work of mind, heart and body. In Barcelona, we
found a luminous example of such a practice.

The Sikh community, which was a co-presenter for the Parliament, had
made an offer to serve a vegetarian lunch for whoever wished to eat. It
was difficult to imagine how this could be possible, considering that
some 10,000 people were in attendance, But by nature, being starving
artists, the eleven members of Dzieci journeyed to the seaside for our
free meal.

An enormous white tent had been erected, and as we approached, we
were greeted by one smiling Sikh after another, gently welcoming us and
guiding us inside. In the vestibule we were directed to remove our
shoes, then we queued up to wash our hands. Another gracious host dried
our hands, then passed us along to a group of young women who covered
our heads with white kerchiefs and gestured for us to enter the main

The entire space was given a lively elegance by a red carpet that
covered the entire ground. Our mouths hung open in awe; the impression
was so profound. Hundreds of people were seated on the floor in neat
rows, already enjoying their meals. In the back, we could see a
partitioned area where the food was being prepared. To the side were
exhibits about the Sikh community, as well as an area set up as a
temple, from where we could hear the continuous hum of a chant. In the
heat of Barcelona summer, we noticed the tent was surprisingly
air-conditioned. A line of young women eagerly pointed the way to an
empty seating area on the floor, and we gratefully took our places.

We sat cross-legged, in front of plastic plates, and instantaneously a
line of turbaned waiters came through, each heaping diverse portions of
aromatic vegetarian victuals, bowing, smiling, and looking directly
into our eyes. We were so honored that we felt a call not to eat in a
habitual manner. As we had been blessed, it was only appropriate to
bless our food, and to try to eat with the same attention that was being
bestowed upon us. As I looked around, I was struck by the variety of my
dining companions, who by now numbered close to a thousand. Whether in
Robes of saffron or crimson, Brooks Brothers suits or sensible shoes,
African prints or Gap khakis all were eating communally. All were served
as equals with precision and love.

The Parliament itself seemed overlaid with talk about religion, about
spirituality, about peace. What was touched? What was changed? In a
white tent, beside the Mediterranean Sea, the word became action.

One final impression rests in my soul. Each day, as I left the dining
hall and removed my head scarf, I noticed a lone Sikh gentleman, aged
and stooped over, tenderly picking up a pair of shoes from the hundreds
lined up in the foyer, carefully dusting them off, and placing them
neatly back on the shelf, before moving on to the next pair.