The scholarly Reverend Alfred Momerie of the Church of England came to Chicago in September 1893 to take part in the first World’s Parliament of Religions. Afterward. he called it “the greatest event so far in the history of the world.”

Over 17 days, a total of perhaps 150,000 people gathered in what is now the Art Institute to hear Catholics, Protestants, Jews. Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, Zoroastrians, Jains, Confucians, and Shintoists explain their faiths to standing-room-only crowds. For the first time, Oriental religions spoke for themselves to a Western audience.

The spectacle alone was a media feast. Chicago philosopher Paul Carus wrote in the magazine the Forum: “Cardinal Gibbons, when he delivered the prayer at the opening of the first public session, wore his official crimson robes. The prelates of the Greek Church, foremost among them the Most Rev. Dionysios Latas, Archbishop of Zante, looked very venerable in their sombre vestments and Greek cylindrical hats. The Shinto High Priest Shibata was dressed in a flowing garment of white, decorated with curious emblems. . . . Pung Quang Yu, a tall and stout man, an adherent of Confucius, and the authorized representative of the Celestial Empire, appeared in Chinese dress. There were present several Buddhist bishops of Japan, in dress which varied from violet to black. The turbaned Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda, in a long, orange gown . . .; Dharmapala, the Ceylonese Buddhist, in his robe of white . . . and many more . . . appeared upon the stage and spoke their minds freely on subjects over which in former ages cruel wars were waged.” (Less exotic speakers included Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass.) True, the overwhelming majority of the speakers were Christians–more than three-quarters, by one count–but for the first time, not all were.

The Parliament of Religions was the largest of 20 “world’s congresses” held in Chicago that summer. The subjects of the others included labor, literature, public health, temperance, and Sunday rest. They shared a motto–“Not Things, but Men; Not Matter, but Mind.” Their idealism was supposed to balance the materialism of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition six miles south on the Hyde Park lakefront, with its colossal statuary, groaning dynamos, and belly dancers on the Midway.

The parliament did inspire a rapturous if not entirely justified optimism. Paul Carus thought it signaled “the dawn of a new religious era” in which “the narrow Christianity will disappear.” Buddhist abbot Soyen Shaku called it “the forerunner of the future universal religion of science.” Reverend John Henry Barrows, the parliament’s chairman and driving force, believed it was “a grand field for Christian apologetics” and that it would speed recognition of Jesus Christ as the sole savior of humanity.

These men would have been most unhappy with the 20th century if they had lived to see much of it. Narrow sectarian religions persist and proliferate; Christianity is no nearer to conquering the globe now than it was then; and within a few years after 1893, the much-cherished memory of the parliament itself had vanished from mainstream U.S. life.

But they would undoubtedly be grinning now. History, that great practical joker, has pulled yet another switcheroo. The famous 1893 world’s fair will have no Chicago successor in 1992, despite the labor of the city’s movers and shakers. But what’s now called the Parliament of World’s Religions–gathering itself like some improbable phoenix, with a one-room office and an unpaid administrator and a host of volunteers–is scheduled to be reborn at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel on the evening of November 4.

John Henry Barrows, describing the closing ceremony of the 1893 parliament: “For more than an hour before the time announced the eager crowds swept up against the doors of the Art Palace. The throng extended from the doorways to Michigan avenue and thence for half a block in either direction. It is said that ticket speculators were at work, and that three and four dollars were demanded and paid for cards which admitted only to the . . . overflow meeting. . . . It is quite within bounds to say that the spirit of the closing sessions of the Parliament was Pentecostal. Such manifestations of love, fraternity, hopeful religious enthusiasm, the world has never seen before in any such assembly of the children of our common Father.”

Exactly 100 years ago, in the fall of 1889–even before Chicago had landed the 1893 world’s fair–prominent city attorney Charles C. Bonney published a grandiose proposal for a “world’s congress.” “Statesmen, jurists, financiers, scientists, literati, teachers, and theologians” would meet in conjunction with the proposed world’s fair to discuss everything from religion to international law to “the practicability of a common language.” The idea caught on, one Congress became twenty, and Bonney became president of the World’s Congress Auxiliary.

Bonney himself adhered to the gentle, universalistic, and somewhat mystical teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg’s New Jerusalem Church. Bonney’s 1890 statement about the parliament-to-be meshed well with the Swedenborgian credo: he said the parliament would attempt “to unite all Religion against all irreligion; to make the Golden Rule the basis of this union; [and] to present to the world . . . the substantial unity of many religions in the good deeds of the religious life.”

To preside over the congress on religion Bonney appointed the magnetic pastor of Chicago’s fashionable First Presbyterian Church, John Henry Barrows. “If it was Bonney’s inspiration to hold the religious congresses,” writes Kenten Druyvesteyn in his 1976 University of Chicago dissertation on the parliament, “it was Barrows’s energy and single-minded determination that made the idea a reality.” Barrows assembled a committee of Chicago churchmen–14 Protestant clergymen, one Roman Catholic archbishop, and one rabbi–and in four years of arduous planning and preparation, the committee sent out more than 10,000 letters and 40,000 documents.

Barrows himself was a fascinating compound of “generosity and arrogance” (to use Richard Seager’s phrase in his 1986 Harvard dissertation on the parliament). He not only left his imprint on the parliament but afterward compiled and edited a two-volume written record of the proceedings, prefacing them with his own 250 pages of chronicle and summary. Barrows was by all accounts personally warm and open-minded, a spellbinding speaker and not a man to stickle over small points of dogma. He had no trouble working with the liberal Reverend David Swing, who had been driven out of the Presbyterian fold in a heresy trial some years before. Barrows could have played it safe with the parliament and limited it to the then-noteworthy feat of getting Catholics and Protestants and Jews to share a stage amicably. But he went to considerable effort to attract representatives of non-Western religions.’

Barrows’s openness had limits, however. He never wavered in his belief that Christianity was the one true religion; he simply had more sophisticated ideas than did fundamentalists about how to convert the heathen. (True fundamentalists had nothing to do with the parliament.) An urbane and gracious host both on and off the stage during the parliament, he remained quite sure that Hinduism, for instance, was idolatrous nonsense. In 1897 he published a book of his lectures entitled The Christian Conquest of Asia.

On Sunday, September 3, 1893, shortly before the parliament opened, Barrows was delighted to have five Buddhist delegates attend his church, First Presbyterian; he wrote later that they “reverently listened to a sermon on ‘Christ the Wonderful,’ a discourse preceded by the baptism and reception of three Chinese converts.” It appeared to him “as if the Parliament had already opened beneath the splendor of the Cross.”

Nuts, replied social critic Matthew Mark Trumbull, skewering the parliament’s Western chauvinism in the Chicago-based weekly Open Court: “It is only half an incident, and it will not be complete until five Presbyterian ministers assist at the Buddhist service on the Sunday following. This ‘benign incident’ we shall never see. . . .”

Reverend E.J. Eitel, writing to Barrows just before the parliament: “Let me warn you not to deny the sovereignty of your Lord by. . . . coquetting with false religions. I give you credit for the best intentions, but let me warn you that you are unconsciously planning treason against Christ.”

Skeptics like Trumbull were the least of Barrows’s problems. He had to deal not only with those who feared the parliament might be too successful at unifying the world’s religions, but with those who feared it might degenerate into a brawl. “Many felt that Religion was an element of perpetual discord,” Barrows wrote afterward. “It was said that there could be no Congress of Religions without engendering the animosities which have embittered much of man’s past history.” So the committee laid down the ground rule that kept the assembly (mostly) conciliatory: “Controversy is excluded. . . . Advocates will present their own views, not attack the views of others.” The parliament was to be a “frank international assembly for mutual conference, fellowship and information, and not for controversy, for worship, for the counting of votes, or for the passing of resolutions.”

On the other hand, what if people tried to smoosh all faiths into one generic religion, or pick and choose their favorite bits from each? Or decided that it was no matter which they chose, or none? Barrows insisted that the only equality intended in Chicago was a parliamentary equality. It was not to be interpreted as a judgment that one religion was as good as another.

And harmony by and large did prevail–perhaps in part because the audience and speakers were overwhelmingly Christian. (The parliament opened with the Lord’s Prayer and the singing of the Doxology!) One rare exception came when Mohammed A.R. Webb, an American convert to Islam, tried to defend the practice of polygamy; he was hissed and heckled until he changed the subject. (In his book Barrows mentioned the incident but edited out Webb’s offending words.) By contrast, no outcry greeted Reverend Joseph Cook when he asked, “What religion can wash Lady Macbeth’s right hand?” He pointed in turn to “Mohammedanism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Brahmanism,” and found each one lacking. Of course, Christianity was the answer. Nor was the University of Chicago’s William Wilkinson hissed when he described the Christian attitude toward all other, “erring” religions as “universal, absolute, eternal, unappeasable hostility.”

Despite this home-field bias, the 1893 parliament is far better remembered in India than in Chicago because it gave Orientals a platform before a Western audience. Even parliamentary equality was better than what they had had before. And they definitely had something to say. Besides expounding their own credos, some brought a radical religious pluralism to the Chicago gathering. “Do I wish that the Christian would become Hindu? God forbid,” said the charismatic Swami Vivekananda, by all accounts the parliament’s number-one media sensation. “Do I wish that the Hindu or Buddhist would become Christian? God forbid.” An eloquent and even more pointed criticism of Western chauvinism came from the Japanese Buddhist Kinza Riuge M. Hirai:

“You send your missionaries to Japan and they advise us to be moral and believe Christianity. We like to be moral, we know that Christianity is good; and we are very thankful for this kindness. But at the same time our people are rather perplexed and very much in doubt. . . . For when we think that the treaty stipulated in the time of feudalism, when we were yet in our youth, is still clung to by the powerful nations of Christendom; when we find that every year a good many western vessels of seal fishery are smuggled into our seas; when legal cases are always decided by the foreign authorities in Japan unfavorably to us; when some years ago a Japanese was not allowed to enter a university on the Pacific coast of America because of his being of a different race; . . . when we see some western people in Japan who erect before the entrance of their houses a special post upon which is the notice, ‘No Japanese is allowed to enter here’–just like a board upon which is written, ‘No dogs allowed;’ . . . [then] we unintelligent heathens are embarrassed and hesitate. . . .”

Reverend Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a Chicago Unitarian, writing approvingly of the parliament: “Christianity was thrown on the defensive on the floors of the Parliament. . . . The Christ of dogma, the Christ of a ‘scheme of salvation,’ of a vindictive soul-damning god-head was threatened. There was little place on that platform for any atoning blood that will snatch a murderous and thieving Christian into heaven and plunge an honest, life-venerating pagan into hell.”

The parliament did not convert anyone: not the Hindus or the Buddhists or the far more numerous Christians. But it did force Americans to realize, as Richard Seager put it in his dissertation, that “something in the formula that equated America with universal freedom and universal history, and then equated both with the values of the Christian religion, would have to give.”

Or it would have had to give, if most people had not promptly repressed the whole idea. After the parliament, a few of the Orientals made North America their mission field: Vivekananda and the Ceylonese Buddhist Dharmapala both undertook extensive lecture tours on behalf of their faiths; Soyen Shaku sent his Zen disciple D.T. Suzuki to the United States for years of work and study, and himself returned to preach in 1906-7. Their work made modest inroads but no dramatic change in the mainstream U.S. religious landscape.

Contrary to the expectations of some, the comparative tolerance of the parliament did not shame uncooperative fundamentalists into silence either. They came back strong, condemning the parliament’s apparent openness to heathen superstition. “It puts new hindrances in the way of Christian missions,” complained Arthur T. Pierson, editor of Missionary Review of the World. “The tendencies of our times are towards a fellowship broader than the Word of God allows.”

In a separate but parallel conservative trend, Pope Leo XIII in 1895 ruled that Catholics should attend no more “promiscuous” general meetings but hold only “assemblies apart,” and in 1896 forced John J. Keane, who had been prominent in the parliament, to resign as rector of the Catholic University of America.

On the optimistic side, Charles Bonney and Paul Carus established a loose-knit “Religious Parliament Extension” in an effort to promote the idea of broad religious toleration and to hold a second such gathering at the 1900 Paris world’s fair. The parliament, Carus insisted, “has created a movement that will both increase and endure . . . [and] will be a powerful factor in future history that will work for peace and goodwill throughout the earth. . . .” But France was unwelcoming, and the extension movement faded away.

As if to add insult to injury, the parliament also faded out of the histories of religion. Standard works in the field, such as Sidney Ahlstrom’s A Religious History of the American People and Winthrop Hudson’s Religion in America, mention this would-be epochal event very briefly. The first volume of Modern American Religion (1893 to 1919), by Chicago’s own Martin Marty, is exceptional in giving the parliament 7 pages out of 319.

Much of the raw material of the parliament’s history is gone for good. The John Crerar Library disposed of “more than forty volumes of letters and scrapbook material belonging to Charles Carroll Bonney” sometime in the 1950s or 1960s, according to Druyvesteyn. At roughly the same time the Chicago Public Library destroyed plans and correspondence relating to the parliament and the other world’s congresses “for lack of space.”

Swami Gnaneshwarananda in a 1930 address, as described in the Vivekananda Vedanta Society Golden Jubilee souvenir book of 1980: “Speaking of India and America as geographical antipodes, he [Gnaneshwarananda] noted that when the two opposite ends in an electric battery meet, they manifest a tremendous energy: so when these two, ancient India and modern America can assimilate the best in each other’s culture, a powerful advance in civilization may occur.”

The ones who did not forget were those who owed most to the parliament (and who were least threatened by the enlargement of America’s spiritual universe)–the Buddhists, the Baha’is (whose faith was first mentioned in this country, though in a garbled way, from the parliament podium), and especially the Hindus. Vivekananda toured North America twice before his death in 1902, and in 1930 his followers established the Vivekananda Vedanta Society in Chicago (now at 5423 S. Hyde Park). The Vedanta tradition of Hinduism is much more open theologically to religious pluralism than is traditional Christianity, so keeping alive the memory of the parliament was more than pro forma. For years the Chicago Vedanta society has observed the September anniversary of the parliament by inviting in speakers from several other faiths. And in the 1980s, when the centennial of the parliament began to draw near, it was a swami who decided to do something about it. “There would be no Parliament of the World’s Religions,” says the current Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions in its first annual report (July 1989), “if Swami Sarveshananda had not pulled it into existence out of his telephone.”

Perhaps the biggest difference between 1893 and now is that today he could just call: virtually every world religion is now represented in metropolitan Chicago. “We don’t have to write 10,000 letters,” exults Ron Kidd. Reared as a Catholic and now a Zen Buddhist, he is administering the council on a deferred-pay basis. “These religions are already here,” says Kidd. “This says we may be doing something for Chicago in bringing all these groups together.” This time around, the council’s board of directors includes local believers in Islam, Vedanta, Buddhism, Baha’i, and Zoroastrianism, as well as Christianity and Judaism. The council’s interfaith worship services have gone further and included Native American and African traditions as well.

But why bother? It’s no longer news that different religions can share a platform without anyone starting a crusade. Of the people I talked to, not one expressed a desire to convert any other to the true faith. And just observing the centennial of what is now a fairly obscure event hardly seems sufficient cause to mobilize hundreds of volunteers for months on end. What’s the point? I asked Kidd. What will we have after this parliament that we don’t have now?

“Sets and sets and sets of working relationships between people in different religions,” he replied. “There are points of contact now, but they are very selective and most often among leaders.” And sometimes not even there: the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago includes only Christians and Jews. In a city where there are as many Muslims as Jews, as many Buddhists as Episcopalians, the parliament can help add new voices to the Chicago dialogue.

“For instance,” Kidd says, the parliament may promote understanding “in neighborhoods with no sense of neighborhood due to ethnic and social diversity. Or when one religious denomination is caught up in controversy and you know someone in that religion, you might discuss it with them instead of just sitting back and saying, ‘There they go again.'” But most important, the parliament should address social problems, “deal with those issues it will require immense public will to solve–crises in the environment, nuclear weapons, world debt, etc.” A preliminary list of themes to be tackled includes earth and the human presence; social justice; politics; science, technology, and religion; and education, literacy, and culture. “Though our problems are material,” says Yael Wurmfeld, a member of the program committee and a Baha’i, “the solution is a spiritual solution. And to develop that, we need a consensus on how to address critical issues of life and the planet today.”

Well. You don’t have to be a militant atheist to wonder whether this can possibly work. Could any such diverse group agree on anything more specific than, say, “Pollution is naughty”? More to the point, can religious traditions adapt their traditions fast enough to both keep their bearings and deal sensibly with new conditions? After all, one reason gays have found little acceptance in Christian circles is that many Christians still take seriously the social mores of a small desert tribe that had to reproduce bountifully or risk extinction.

On the other hand, what group is likely to do any better? UIC political scientist, United Church of Christ minister, and former Chicago alderman Dick Simpson makes the point that, historically, religions are the only bodies that have been able to demand sacrifices from their members over a long period of time. (And “sacrifice” is a good word for what any solution to global warming or third-world poverty will require of U.S. residents.) No business enterprise or political movement can make that claim.

Of course, those sacrifices have been made to accomplish religious objectives, but, says Simpson, “The great world religions all teach compassion and the dignity and importance of human life. So 12 to 18 million people starving every year in the world is already a religious problem. But no one religion can solve it. We’re talking about the literal undoing of creation–for instance if all the eagles in the world were lost, what would the scriptures about ‘rise up on wings of eagles’ mean? Or baptism. You don’t baptize a child with polluted water.

“When religious people actually apply religious teachings to social problems–as in the Catholic bishops’ pastoral letters–the results are often quite surprising, not traditionally liberal or conservative. The excitement of a parliament is not coming in with a prepackaged agenda of some kind, but in forcing some reflection on problems that conscience cannot avoid.” Simpson would like to see the parliament become even more parliamentary with official delegates from the various faiths, empowered to act on proposals.

The formal anniversary gathering will happen in the summer of 1993. But could all this be accomplished during just those two weeks? No, and the council isn’t planning it that way. Members prefer to speak of the parliament as a continuous process beginning at the opening ceremony this November 4 and continuing at least until 1993. “From my point of view,” says, Dr. George Cairns, chairman of the worship committee and assistant pastor at People’s Church in Uptown, “this is it. The 1993 event is kind of anticlimactic.” His committee has held three interfaith worship services so far this year, one at People’s Church, one at the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, and one at the Zoroastrian Center of Chicago in Hinsdale.

“As far as we know,” says Cairns, “we’re the only group this diverse anywhere engaging in a sequence of interfaith worships. There’s a kind of spiral of understanding that develops.” Cairns, a psychologist by training who had no religion for 25 years, says that, rather than a mere exchange of views, he prefers the process of planning the worship, worshiping, and evaluating the event: “If you do stuff together, it helps create a kind of human understanding that goes beyond academic interchange.”

And people are already doing stuff together under parliament auspices. Members of the Vivekananda Vedanta Society and the First Presbyterian Church (Barrows’s old church) have been reading and discussing together a Vedantist interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. Baha’is in Evanston have been exchanging visits with the Thai Buddhist temple on West 75th. And an unusual interfaith meditation group for Christians, Buddhists, Vedantists, and Sufis has been meeting monthly.

Still, the parliamentarians don’t advocate picking and choosing your favorite pieces from each tradition, or trying to merge them into one homogenized religion. “The validity and depth of each requires that you take it whole and wrestle with its paradoxes,” says Cairns. “If you try to blend things to resolve the paradoxes, you lose something.”

Charles Nolley, former chairman of the board of directors, in the introduction to the council’s 1989 annual report: “Early on, we made a commitment to ourselves that this Parliament would not be organized by an elite few for the many. Rather, we have set for ourselves the far more difficult task of incorporating as much diversity as possible, not only in our programs but within the very fibres of our organization. We have eschewed centralized authority in favor of consultation and sought continually to widen the circle of those participating in our work. . . . By so doing, we have elevated what might have been approached as a purely administrative challenge to the level of a spiritual exercise of profound importance. By so doing, we have gone beyond merely planning a Parliament of the World’s Religions for 1993. We have actually created the Parliament among ourselves.”

The 1893 parliament was organized, in a sense, from the inside out, with Christians and Jews inviting other religions to Chicago as guests. The 1993 event, so far, has been almost the other way around. Other faith communities, says Dr. Ghulam Haider Aasi of American Islamic College, “don’t feel themselves anymore as guests. They are enthusiastic to be hosts too.” The council’s board of directors is now chaired by a Vedantist, the vice-chair is a Zoroastrian, the administrator is a Buddhist. Cosponsoring groups include the Archdiocese of Chicago, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and other Christian groups, but as Kidd says, “The Christian establishment is looking kindly upon the parliament and blessing its efforts, but I don’t think they have made it their baby.” And though diversity gives the council some unusual strengths, it does not necessarily bring in the dollars.

And the parliament has reached an organizational crossroads at which money becomes crucial. So far the council has had no paid staff; its Loop office has been donated by Paul Carus’s grandson, M. Blouke Carus, head of Carus Corporation and Open Court Publishing Company; and American Islamic College has contributed board-meeting space. But now to organize a full-scale event, the council needs more. “We all feel and have been given reason to believe that funds will be available from the big foundations,” says Kidd. “But we have made no formal proposal yet because we don’t have the money–the ‘planning grant’–to put it together. These big proposals can run 400 pages. The real key to whether this is going to fly is whether we can get the $1,000 to $ 5,000 donations, from individuals and institutions, to put [a proposal] together to go for the big money.” He estimates that the council needs to raise 50 to 100 thousand dollars in the next year. “That’s a mighty effort. We chose to develop the work first, and then to look for money. But I think we’ve grown about as far as we can on that basis.” (Individuals will be able to join the council, probably at $25 a head, starting November 4.)

Besides money, parliamentarians worry about three challenges their movement may face as it goes public: conservatives, causes, and cults. Despite the optimism of many at the 1893 parliament, this century has not seen a withering away of the conservative attitude that “my faith is the only true faith and you’ll go to hell if you don’t join.” “I haven’t met anyone who has criticized the parliament as a bad idea,” says Kidd, but he hasn’t so far spent any time knocking at unsympathetic doors either. (There have been whispers about the November 4 kickoff being picketed.) Cairns says he respects the fear some conservatives have of losing their cultural or spiritual identity, “but I don’t think it’s an adaptive strategy not to engage in dialogue.” As for the doctrinal view that he is less a Christian if he isn’t trying to convert his fellow members on the worship committee, “I disagree theologically,” he says. “And the idea that a Gandhi or a Buddha was not a deeply spiritual person is just incomprehensible to me as a 20th-century scientist.”

Conservatives may just ignore the parliament; other groups will want to move it in their own directions. Militant feminists, minority advocates, liberation theologians, and gay-rights advocates have not been conspicuous in the parliament’s early stages. But as it expands its inquiries into social justice, there is every reason to expect to hear from them–and from churches against which they have grievances. The solution might be to take on such controversy in stages. Says Swami Varadananda of the Vivekananda Vedanta Society, “We need to get broad mainstream support to start, and then reach out.” Cairns, though a strong social-justice advocate himself, argues that “if an issue so divides you that you can’t be with someone else in a caring kind of way, then you’ve missed the point.”

Finally, will everyone remain seated around the same table if the Scientologists or the Unification Church want to join? “I would hate to get into the business of trying to sort between churches and cults,” says board member and program committee chair Jim Kenney, a former professor of religion at Lake Forest and Barat colleges and executive director of Common Ground, a forum for religious inquiry in Deerfield. “I don’t see how it can be done. But I see [the question of cults] emerging as a very hot issue.”

Despite these actual and potential headaches, the parliament activists already seem buoyed by an anticipatory thrill, much like the one enjoyed by the 1893 parliamentarians. “One of the nicest things about this job,” chuckles Ron Kidd, “is the wonderful people you get to meet.” Board chair Daniel Gomez-Ibanez says the parliament hopes to look beyond 1993, “to leave a legacy for Chicago, and perhaps for other places.” What kind of legacy? “Some kind of forum for dialogue,” he says, “or a sanctuary where different communities could meet together for understanding and cooperation. Religious leaders in Chicago are all so warmly receptive to this, the idea seems so compelling, that I see it as almost inevitable.”

Kenney agrees. “My own view, not the parliament’s view, is that this is a real paradigm-shift time. The theme in every discipline is discovering some kind of radical interdependence, some kind of unity. At Common Ground, our theme has always been that religions somehow converge in some way, without losing their own identities. Fifteen years ago that was an extremely controversial idea, but it’s much less so now. It’s an idea whose time has come. My idea is that fundamentalism, jingoism, and nationalism are patterns of backlash for the moment.”

Such hopes are not new. Historian Martin Marty describes the founders of the 1893 parliament as “modernists,” liberal optimists confident that religion must achieve greater unity and modernity, must progress in the direction of science, must shuck off extraneous superstitions in favor of the pure beliefs that all faiths allegedly share. Yet their advanced views somehow got derailed by 20th-century reality. What had looked like an inevitable progress proved limited and halting at best. Both religious apathy and narrow fundamentalism have flourished; words like “genocide,” “nuke,” and “underclass” have had to be invented. Can the 1993 parliamentarians force the 21st century onto a better track?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell; photos/Loren Santow.