In mid-August, I got to spend a week in Chicago at the Parliament of World Religions (Aug 14-18). The PoWR meets every 3 years or so in different cities around the world. This year, the Parliament returned to where it began.
In 1893, a Swedenborgian church leader named Charles Bonney thought it would be a good idea to have a gathering of world religious leaders in conjunction with the World Columbian Exposition also happening in Chicago. Bonney teamed up with a Presbyterian minister, John Barrows, to chair the event. Bonney drew up a code of ethics for the gathering and then got to work inviting people from around the world.
We can credit Bonney with introducing America to yoga and much Eastern philosophy and practice. Swami Vivikenanda became a superstar guru after his time at the first Parliament. Likewise, the Jains, the Theosophists, the Christian Scientists, Zen Buddhists, the Bahai, and many Spiritualists were represented at the first Parliament. The first Parliament is likely directly responsible for popularizing many faith traditions that were previously unknown in America at the time.
My reason for being at the PoWR was because some of the metadata from the Johns Hopkins psychedelic study for religious leaders was presented, which I was a part of in December of 2018 and January of 2019. As the study release gets closer, it is clear interest is high in what religious leaders experienced during the study and how it impacted their work. I am not disclosing anything that hasn’t been said when I say that Dr. Roland Griffith, the leader of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelics and Consciousness, and Dr. Anthony Bossis, who headed the study at NYU, consider this study to be the pinnacle of their work in non-ordinary states of consciousness. What makes the Religious Leaders Study unusual in the short history of studies at Johns Hopkins and NYU is the desire of those who participated in the study to gather together and get to know one another. By various synchronistic events and clever networking, several of us back in November of 2020 were able to connect. That spread until we were able to gather as a group for a retreat in 2022. One of the code phrases in the psychedelic community is “Find the Others”. It is not an exaggeration or hyperbole when I say that I have found my people in this eclectic group of spiritual leaders who have been through the study. Of the 24 of us who went through the study, 13 of us were able to gather in Chicago.
The Space and Place
Chicago’s O’Hare airport is almost 45 minutes outside the center of the city, which makes any trip longer than it already was. I got into Chicago in the late afternoon and I was very tired. For reasons unclear to me, I ratcheted up a major anxiety attack while waiting for the plane in NYC. None of my meditation or mental techniques worked to settle it down. So by the time I got to Chicago, I was unfocused, irritable, and physically uncomfortable. You don’t really need to know all that, except that it is the reason I got suckered into taking a $200 taxi ride into the city to my hotel. Now I know that anxiety directly affects my executive function and ability to say “No”. Learn from me. Say no to the people who are trying to get you to ride in their taxi.
Fortunately, I was able to choose my own room at the Hampton Inn at McCormick Place. Weirdly, the Hampton Inn is one of three hotels in one building. Everyone registers at the same desk, but then you go to one of three entrances attached to the lobby of the hotel. It is very strange. But by pre-choosing my room the day before, I was able to get a corner room at the very top of the building for no extra money. Floor to ceiling windows looked out over the city to the north and out over the western parts of the city. It was a great view.
I arrived on a Saturday, and things really didn’t start for the Parliament until Sunday afternoon. So on Saturday morning, I explored the McCormick Conference Center. Or Centers. McCormick Place is unbelievably huge. It comprises at least 6 buildings, which themselves comprise at least three floors of conference spaces, which can be divided up in any number of combinations. The conference spaces are the size of airplane hangars.
In between the buildings are skyways which connect the conference areas to one another and to the immediate hotels.
Within the buildings are food areas and the main building has a small indoor mall. It is a bit overwhelming. And, as an aside, I am certain the pandemic did a major number on the financial flow for the space.
The building for the PoWR was the Lakeside Center, which is the building closest to Lake Michigan. The back patio area overlooks the lake.
The People and Presentations
On Sunday, the conference began with a parade of represented religions. I met my friend, Dave, and we watched the parade go by on Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard. It was a colorful gathering. All the major world religions were represented, as well as lesser known and unusual spiritual movements.
By far, the most represented, and most colorful, group were the Sikhs.
Sikhism is a monotheistic, service oriented religion that arose in the 15th century in Pakistan and eastern India. They represent the fifth largest religion in the world. Defined by an egalitarian worldview and a deep commitment to justice, the Sikhi have a rightful reputation of profound care for those in need and a deep prayer and worship life. They also have colorful clothes. The men wear turbans and many have fantastically groomed hair and flowing beards and mustaches. Both men and women wear elegant pastel colored flowing clothes designed for hot weather. During the reign of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Sikhs were forced out of the country. Many chose to come to Chicago and Milwaukee.
There was a strong representation of several Hindu groups representing different yogis and gurus. An interfaith group had a small contingent of priests, rabbis, pastors, and congregants. There were a few pagan and witchcraft groups
all of whom had great outfits, which led me to say to my friend, “I think we Protestants might need to up our costume game.” A small team of Catholics and a very small cohort of Protestants rounded out the parade.
My favorite UFO cult was also in the parade, the Raelians.
The Raelians were founded by a Formula 1 driver, Claude Vorilhon, who had a close encounter with aliens called the Elohim. The aliens gave him the ‘cosmic download’ and disclosed to him that they were responsible for the creation of human beings and all of life on the planet. This inspired Vorilhon, now called Rael, to create the Raelian church, first in France, and then headquartered in Quebec, Canada.
The Raelians consider themselves to be a ‘science religion’, promoting cloning, radical free love, communitarian living, non-violence, and the Age of the Apocalypse, which we are now living in. The Raelians consider the Bible a type of science book as well. They also have a weird side project that seeks to reclaim the swastika from the Nazis. Comparatively speaking, the Raelians are relatively harmless, being advocates of world peace, free love, gender freedom, and spreading the awareness of our alien origins.
The Best Parts
The conference began on Monday morning with a plenary welcome session, which primarily involved a procession of all the groups that were in the parade, plus some new ones. After a while in the plenary session, several of us went to wait in line to get registered for the week. There was an organizational miscalculation, it seemed to me, in how this was handled. A line stretched from the registration tables all the way around the conference center and back into the skyway. The line moved very slowly, but allowed for several of us to catch up with one another as we waited. I think the organizers anticipated fewer people all at once and thought the QR code registration process would be quicker. Neither were true. We waited for 2 hours to get registered.
The Parliament was a 5 day affair and each day was filled with a plethora of workshops and more presentations than one could attend. Two meaningful presentations were the ones organized by The Riverstyx Foundation. The co-director, Miriam Volat, was able to set up two workshops with indigenous spiritual leaders from the Amazon, the southwest of America, and Gabon, Africa to discuss plant medicine and the spiritual connections available through them.
The psychedelic scene in America is primarily white, male, and medicalized. Interestingly, however, many of the new companies focused on psychedelics and psychedelic therapy are run by women. We, who are involved in various psychedelic groups, often act as if psychedelics is a brand new way of accessing the world.
The truth of the matter is that psycho-active, entheogenic substances have been used by indigenous cultures around the world for millennia, eons even. I was grateful, therefore, to hear the voices of those who see these substances as simply an extension of their way of life.
The shamans and spiritual leaders expressed deep concern that the incorporation of psychedelic substances was merely an extension of Western pillaging of local resources. Underneath that concern was a concern that the psychedelic space itself was being colonized again by the machine of Western expansion. I appreciate and respect these concerns. In fact, for some of the medicines – ayahuasca, toad venom, iboga, and peyote – I decided that I would only ever partake of them if I were invited by leaders of those villages who use them. I am aware there are good arguments in multiple directions for such a view, however.
The primary talk all of us from the study were there to experience was the one that happened on August 17 at 5:30pm. The title of the panel discussion was “Sacramental Plants and Fungi: Historical and Scientific Insights for the Religious Life”. The panel was impressive. Elaine Pagels is a New Testament scholar. Her focus is on early Christian history and movements, most particularly the Gnostics. Dr. Pagels is one of my most-read authors throughout my seminary studies. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan monk who is also a very popular author and workshop leader, particularly around contemplative theology, life transitions, men’s issues, and the Enneagram. Mike Young was one of the participants in the Marsh Chapel Experiment back in 1962, and is the only living participant who speaks of the experience. Bob Jesse has been in the background of psychedelic research for decades now and is a gentle, yet constant presence in many different parts of the vast lotus flower that is the psychedelic renaissance. Jaime Clark-Soles is a professor at Southern Methodist University and Perkins Seminary and the author of several books on Paul and the New Testament. The discussion was facilitated by the always talented and well-spoken Rachael Petersen, who is involved in about 16 things at once, one of which is the Psychedelic and Religion Program Director at Riverstyx Foundation.
This panel discussion covered some of the meta-conclusions from the Johns Hopkins Religious Leaders Study, which should be released any day now. It also covered the history of psychedelics and its intersection with religion and spirituality throughout its history. There was discussion about the future of the relationship as well.
From my perspective, as a (former/in-between) pastor, the opportunity for church leaders and congregants to participate in meaning-making with the broader culture regarding these mind-expanding and mind-altering experiences is vast and profound. While it is easy to make the experiential the pinnacle of religious experience, it is also apparent that at the foundation of all the great world religions is, very simply, a profound, extraordinary spiritual experience. From that experience comes the development of cosmologies, theologies, rituals, and dogmas. Churches, synagogues, mosques, sanghas, temples all provide the opportunity to make meaning and provide clarity for those who have had extraordinary experiences.
This was echoed by the panel participants. The issue, as with so many things, is openness and willingness to listen and open the doors of spiritual houses to seekers of meaning and experiencers of the extraordinary.
From left to right: Richard Rohr, Mike Young, Jaime Clark-Sole, Bob Jesse, Elaine Pagels. Missing: Rachael Petersen
Chicago is a beautiful city and a few of us signed up for an architecture river cruise for our final full day in the city.. A friend told me the layout of the city was designed by a follower of Emmanuel Swedenborg. After some quick research, I found out this man was Daniel Burnham. His influence on Chicago was all-encompassing.
The city we see today is because of Burnham’s design work. The layout was intended to mimic Swedenborg’s description of Paradise. Most cities are built with a certain deliberateness in their layout, but Chicago seems particularly deliberate. The skyline is curated and the city seems to guide people to particular areas and viewpoints. Part of this is because the city is shaped by its proximity to Lake Michigan and is divided by the confluence of the canals and tributaries of the Chicago River. Chicago has 137 skyscrapers (compared to New York City’s 314, across all the boroughs), most of them visible from the river. Many of them have been built in the last 20 years.
The last picture is of the apartment building in which Bob Newhart lived for his eponymous and hilarious television show. The architect who built these apartments, Bertrand Goldberg, believed architecture should reflect, rather than reject, nature, so his buildings have no straight lines.
Most conferences, it seems to me, are an excuse to get to know new people and to hang out with the people you want to know better. The meetings and workshops and plenary sessions are flower boxes and adornments for that larger purpose. This was most certainly true of my time in Chicago. I made new friends, deepened connections with older friends, and found fellowship with acquaintances and friends alike.
One of the outcomes of my participation in the Johns Hopkins psychedelic study was the sense that things that I formerly believed in had now become known. It is one thing to believe something and another to experience something. Belief, for all of the focus on it in my religion, is really not the ultimate goal, since belief is only the trust in the experience of another’s experience. I believe that Jesus and his disciples experienced certain things and that Jesus said some other things.
Belief is not knowing, and when we know a thing, we no longer even need to believe in the thing. The thing exists and has presence because it is known. It turns out that this shift from belief to knowing is an aspect of the mystical experience. This quality is called the ‘noetic’, the sense of direct experience, or of an experience being ‘more real than the real’. I had several things in my Johns Hopkins experience that moved the needle from belief to knowing, but one of the big ones was the continuation of connection between people across time and place. Beauty, united mysteriously to grief and remembrance, is the gossamer thread that ties us to one another.
And that is how I feel about the beautiful people with whom I am connected by way of our time alone during our sessions during the Religious Leaders Study at Johns Hopkins and our time together since we have come to know one another over the past couple years. I am grateful we got to spend time with one another in one of the great American cities, Chicago.
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