At the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions

The Parliament of the Religions of the World—often shortened to the Parliament of World’s Religions—was first held in Chicago in 1893.  A century later it was reconvened in Chicago (1993), and has been held four times since; in 1999 (Cape Town), 2004 (Barcelona), 2009 (Melbourne), and in Salt Lake City in October of 2015.  My presentation on “Psychotherapy, Religion and Spirituality” was among the many programs.

The Parliament is an event that is certainly like no other I’ve heard of; thousands of people from all over the world convening to participate in what looks like hundreds of presentations, emphasizing the sacred in our relationships with the natural environment, the economy, people around the world, one another, and ourselves.  The sheer diversity of people, and the wonderful diversity of attire, was a visual feast!

Women’s identity, equality, empowerment, and sacredness, was a theme of this Parliament.  For example, I am writing these notes in a long hallway whose walls are filled with dozens of vivid silk hangings of representations of sacred women and goddess figures from several traditions.

I attended a program called “Changing Tides,” presented by a panel including Barbara Morgan (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, chaplain at MIT and Harvard and assistant professor at Brigham Young University), Lucy Forster-Smith (Presbyterian, Head Chaplain at Harvard University), Maytal Satiel (Jewish chaplain at Yale), in which these chaplains at major universities discussed their experiences with changing attitudes and needs in the students with whom they work.  More students are identifying as “spiritual but not religious,” or, if identifying as religious, still want to learn about other faith traditions.  Even among chaplains, I was surprised to learn, there are some who do not identify with a specific faith tradition.

The Plenary 1 session was entitled “Focus on Women,” and featured addresses by women of several faiths who have achieved prominence in education, administration, human service, care of the earth, and nurturing in faith and in the spirit, including Dr. Serene Jones, president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, Grandmother Mary Lyons, an Ojibwe Elder, and several others.  I was blown away by Marianne Williamson’s address—what a smart powerhouse!—in which she challenged the faiths represented at the Parliament, as often being responsible for the subjugation of women.  This was a particularly gutsy observation in a gathering of people advocating that the principles of their faiths support the equality, empowerment, and sacredness of women.  Williamson spoke her piece forcefully, and received enthusiastic applause.

In the programs that I attended, the emphasis on women’s natural sacredness and oppression was powerful, but seemed one-sided in a way.  The implication often seemed to be that, if only society would stop being so wretched in abusing and suppressing women, women would assume their natural role as sacred healers, nurturers, and goddess-types.  The learning, the effort, the self-confrontation, the sorting-out of the essential from the superficial, identifying what really matters most from what one has been conditioned to believe, getting past errors in perception and action acquired along the way, finding and living one’s way into a fuller life—which every human being has to do, and which each of the speakers undoubtedly had to do, in order to achieve her accomplishments and role in life—seemed somehow to be taken for granted, not included in the narrative.

My presentation was part of a two-part shared presentation, which began with “Diversity and Interfaith Dialog in Counseling and Psychotherapy.”  The panel of presenters included three who are active in the Pagan tradition—little did I know that there was such a tradition, so developed!—including Shel Skau, the moderator, Drake Spaeth from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and the very impressive Vivianne Crowley.  My presentation, “Psychotherapy, Religion and Spirituality,” followed, and seemed to go quite well; the audience seemed to be attentive, most stayed throughout the presentation, there were more people than seats (some sat on the floor, in a room seating about 50) and people laughed at the right places, always a good sign!

As I left the huge Salt Palace convention center for the last time, I passed a scruffy, disheveled looking young man, long-haired and bearded, sitting on the ground by a tree, surrounded by a bunch of signs that ran up the tree, with various aphorisms. One was about turning knowledge into action, which is certainly a key theme in spiritual life, and in psychotherapy too:  we rarely learn things about ourselves in therapy that we didn’t know, in some way, before, but weren’t acknowledging and living.  It seemed to me that this man was himself exemplifying what his sign said we shouldn’t do; as if he believed that, sitting on the sidewalk with his signs, he was turning knowledge into action.  He was a living sign, albeit unconsciously.