Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The United Religions Initiative, a Bridge Back to Gnosticism

by Lee Penn


Lee Penn examines the gravely flawed United Religions Initiative founded by Bishop William Swing of the Episcopal Church.

Larger Work

New Oxford Review



Publisher & Date

New Oxford Review, Inc., December 1998

Bishop William Swing of the Episcopal Church's Diocese of California thinks he is building a religious bridge to the new millennium, and he wants everybody on Earth to cross it with him. His United Religions Initiative (URI) is trying to create a kind of parliament of religions, "a permanent assembly, with the stature and visibility of the United Nations, where the world's religions and spiritual communities will gather on a daily basis, in prayerful dialogue and cooperative action, to make peace among religions and to be a force for peace among nations." As Bishop Swing has said, the world is moving toward "unity in terms of global economy, global media, global ecological system. What is missing is a global soul." And how will this global soul be found or created? By conferences, networking, fundraising, declarations, and press releases.

The URI to date has held three annual summit conferences, each time with more attendees, among them various Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists, Baha'is, Sikhs, Hindus, Zoroastrians. New Age followers, Wiccans, and representatives of aboriginal religions. (There have been no representatives from the Vatican or from evangelical Protestant churches.) These conferences have called for a 72-hour worldwide religious "cease-fire" on December 31, 1999, and have issued a draft "United Religions Charter." In June of 2000, the URI plans to stage global ceremonies marking the signing of this Charter, for by then the URI hopes to have enrolled 60 million people in what it describes as "a Worldwide Movement to create the United Religions as„a lived reality locally and regionally, all over the world."

This may all sound like just a fond liberal dream, but the URI is gaining support, and it plans to raise $10 million between now and 2001, with Dee Hock, creator of the Visa card, helping Bishop Swing on fundraising and organizational development. In the past two years, interfaith meetings to build support for the URI have occurred in Great Britain, New York City, Argentina, South Africa, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Los Angeles, India, Kenya, Japan, Brazil, and Belgium.

The URI has branch offices in Washington, D.C., and Belgium, but its headquarters is in San Francisco, and on its full-time staff is the Rev. William Rankin, formerly the dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (It was Rankin who said — regarding the ecclesiastical trial of Episcopal Bishop Walter Righter for ordaining an openly homosexual deacon — "Heresy implies orthodoxy, and we have no such thing in the Episcopal Church." Truer words were never spoken.) In addition to Bishop Swing, two prominent Anglican bishops support the URI: James Ottley, the Anglican Observer at the United Nations, and Samir Kafity, Bishop of Jerusalem. Many liberal Protestants are participating in the URI; no evangelicals are doing so. No Eastern Orthodox bishops are currently active in the URI, though in 1996 Bishop Swing received a statement of support from Shenouda III, Pope of the Coptic Church, and from a bishop of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church.

Within the Catholic Church, opinion about the URI is divided. Rome stands firm against it, but some theologians, priests, and sisters — and a few members of the hierarchy — actively support it. At Rome in 1996, Bishop Swing met with Cardinal Arinze, head of the Vatican's Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue. Bishop Swing received a firm rebuff from the Cardinal; he reported that the Cardinal "said that a United Religions would give the appearance of syncretism and it would water down our need to evangelize. It would force authentic religions to be on an equal footing with spurious religions." Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who works under Cardinal Arinze, pointedly ignored Bishop Swing's invitation to attend the 1997 URI summit conference.

Some Catholics, however, are not following Cardinal Arinze's lead. Paul Evaristo Cardinal Arns, the recently retired Archbishop of Sao Paulo, Brazil, is claimed by the URI as a "strong supporter," and Archbishop Anthony Pantin of Trinidad is forming a URI support group in his country. Fr. Gerard O'Rourke, director of ecumenical affairs for the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, has been an enthusiast for the URI from its beginning, serving on its Board of Directors. He took part in its 1995 interfaith service which announced the URI to the public. Other Catholic URI supporters include Fr. John LoSchiavo, SJ., Chancellor of the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco (and a member of the URI Board), and Fr. Luis Dolan and Sister Joan Kirby (associated with the Temple of Understanding). Theologians supporting the URI include Paul Knitter, senior editor of Orbis Books and professor at Xavier University, and Hans Kung. (Both are dissenters from the Magisterium.)

Meanwhile, the quest for a global soul is also attracting some global power brokers. Billionaire currency speculator George Soros has added the URI to the long list of recipients of his largesse. He also funds Choice in Dying (which supports legalizing assisted suicide), needle exchanges for drug addicts, and groups that his foundation believes "will protect women's access to comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion." Soros's ambitions, like Swing's, are large, but he is not daunted. "It is sort of a disease when you consider yourself some kind of god, the creator of everything, but I feel comfortable about it now since I began to live it out," he has said.

The Gorbachev Foundation's "State of the World Forum" is another ally of the URI. There is no formal link between the Gorbachev Foundation and the URI, but URI staff member Paul Andrews has said, "We are friendly colleagues. Some people go to both meetings." One of these people is Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral (Bishop Swing's own parish); Jones is a member of the Forum's San Francisco Coordinating Council. URI supporter Robert Muller, former Assistant Secretary-General of the UN and Chancellor of the University for Peace in Costa Rica, is on the Forum's International Coordinating Council.

The State of the World Forum was a co-sponsor of the 1996 URI summit conference, and the Forum's own glittery annual meetings in San Francisco (intended to establish "a kind of global brain trust") attract the usual assortment of rich people, celebrities, activists, and gurus. On the spiritual side are Stanislav Grof (a "transpersonal psychologist"), Hal Puthoff (an ESP researcher), Barbara Marx Hubbard, Charlene Spretnak (of the Green Party), Matthew Fox, Sam Keen, Deepak Chopra, Ram Dass, and Tony Robbins. The most prominent self-identified Catholic attending the meeting in 1997 was Frances Kissling, executive director of Catholics for a Free Choice, a group that supports legal abortion.

More substantially and more worryingly, other notable members of State of the World Forum committees include Bruce Alberts (President of the National Academy of Sciences), Kim Daejung (President of South Korea), Willie Brown (Mayor of San Francisco), John Schlegel, S.J., (President of the University of San Francisco), Federico Mayor (Director General of UNESCO), and, of course, Ted Turner.

Documents from the 1995 State of the World Forum show some of what these folks want us to do. We must "create an ecumenical, ecological theology centered in a renewed sense of reverence for the environment"; religions must "wrestle with questions of sexuality, contraception, abortion, and family planning" in order to control population growth. Gorbachev got more specific in 1997, saying that "for a certain transitional period families should limit themselves to one child." Once the world's population is stabilized, the former Communist premier would consider upping our ration to two children per family.

Schemes for global government and notions of the global soul drift in clouds of gaseous rhetoric from Gorbachev's Forum, Swing's URI, and various prophets of the New Age who support the URI. One such prophet is the aforementioned Robert Muller, who describes himself as a Catholic but whose many writings consistently offer a different notion of salvation. As he said in an interview in a Theosophist newsletter, "The UN is humanity's incipient global brain. ...We still need a global soul, namely our consciousness and fusion with the entire universe and stream of time." He has written that our "supreme interests" include "the apotheosis of the human race," and blandly asserts that "the world's major religions in the end all want the same thing." He has declared his belief in karma and reincarnation, but to those who balk at political and spiritual globalization he promises a hellish destiny: "Their souls will be parked in a special corral of the universe for having been retarding forces...."

Muller wrote the World Core Curriculum, now being taught in "Robert Muller Schools" around the world, and thinks it should be the basis for universal educational reform. The World Core Curriculum Manual says that the "underlying philosophy" of the Muller Schools "will be found in the teachings set forth in the books of Alice A. Bailey by the Tibetan teacher, Djwhal Khul (published by Lucis Publishing Company) ...and the teachings of M. Morya as given in the Agni Yoga series books." What those books "set forth" is Theosophy, a Gnostic movement that arose in the 19th century and has had significant influence on New Age and occult movements worldwide in this century. A vice president of the Lucis Trust (which issues the Theosophist newsletter cited above and runs Lucis Publishing) has said of Muller that he "apparently has been influenced by Alice Bailey's works.... We have been a great supporter of his work."

(Alice Bailey, be it noted, wrote in 1946 that the new United Nations should be ready to use the atomic bomb against aggression, "whether that aggression is the gesture of any particular nation or group of nations or whether it is generated by the political groups of any powerful religious organisation, such as the Church of Rome, who are as yet unable to leave politics alone." You read it here first: This fountainhead of New Age globalism was prepared to nuke the Vatican.)

Another New Age supporter of the URI is Barbara Marx Hubbard, a "futurist." Hubbard endorsed the URI, saying that "joined with other comparable efforts," it may be the catalyst for a "great awakening" of the planet, a "Planetary Birth Day." Her basically Gnostic message is delivered in book after book. Here, culled from her works, is a synopsis of the gospel according to Hubbard. — Salvation? "Multitudes of self-saviors is what we are, for those who have eyes to see." The Fall? "The serpent symbolizes an irresistable [sic] energy that is leading us toward life ever-evolving." The body? "We will soon be released from the fleeting imprisonment of mind by the material world." Man's place in the universe? "We can create new life forms and new worlds. We are gods!" The problem of evil? "Evil — the devil — is evolution's selection process that constantly weeds out the weaker from the stronger." The Scriptures? Hubbard offers us Episcopal Bishop John Spong of New Jersey as a reliable interpreter of the Bible. He's the bishop who recently said, "Theism, as a "way of defining God, is dead." The doctrine of Christ? "The New Order of the Future will help emancipate Christ from the walls of the church to reveal him to be the potential in each man and woman on Earth." The scandal of the particular? "The period of separate sects and dogmas gives way to the period of co-creative consciousness when everyone is attuning [sic] to the same pattern." Male and female? "Your adolescence will be a joy. You will be androgynous." As for self-murder: "When we feel that our creativity has run its course, we gracefully choose to die. In fact, it seems unethical and foolish to live on."

For those of us who don't get with the program, the alternative Hubbard offers is irrelevance and extinction — "like the dinosaurs." Hubbard warns that "the selection process will exclude all who are exclusive." (And you thought evolution was a random process.)

Even better known perhaps than Muller and Hubbard is Neale Donald Walsch, whose cozy Conversations With God books have made him the Don Camillo of the New Age. The URI has given Walsch the leadership of its "Committee on Spirituality and the Global Social Agenda." Yet even with Walsch's and God's awesome responsibilities, the two still take time for the chats that have produced their bestsellers.

Walsch's celestial confidant has told him that "There's no such thing as the Ten Commandments." "God's Law is No Law. This is something you cannot understand. I require nothing." "Hitler went to heaven..." "There is no hell, so there is no place else for him to go." "Obedience is not what I want from you. Obedience is not growth, and growth is what I desire." Adam and Eve "are said to have committed Original Sin. I tell you this: it was the Original Blessing." The sin of envy? Envy, God informs Walsch, "is a motivator. It is pure desire. It gives birth to greatness." In fact, God has said, "Forget about religion," and "It is religion which has filled the hearts of men with fear...." God has also informed Walsch of His wish for a bicameral world government and the redistribution of wealth. One bit of this divine plan is worth quoting more fully: "Nothing could be purchased without [the world government's] Credits. There would be no other negotiable currency." There is a biblical warning about this kind of system: St. John the Divine said there would come a time when "no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.... His number is 666" (Rev. 13:17-18).

Other New Age supporters of the URI include the Very Rev. James Parks Morton, formerly the Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, and now President of the Temple of Understanding. While at St. John the Divine, Morton said, "The language of the 'Sacred Earth' has got to become mainline." He acted on this belief by holding St. Francis Day communion services that invoked the gods Ra, Ausar, and Yemenja. It was from the pulpit of this cathedral in 1979 that James Lovelock first publicly explained the Gaia theory — that the earth as a whole is a living, conscious organism.

The attraction of New Age leaders to the URI should not be a surprise, given the influence of the New Age movement in Bishop Swing's own diocese. Matthew Fox, formerly a Catholic priest, was accepted into the Episcopal priesthood in 1994 by Bishop Swing. Since then. Swing has offered unswerving public support to Fox, allowing "Rave Masses" to occur at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and lending $85,000 of diocesan money to help Fox establish the University of Creation Spirituality. (Grace Cathedral is also home to Veriditas, led by Lauren Artress, an Episcopal priestess and an honorary Canon of the Cathedral. Veriditas promotes walking through labyrinths as a transformative spiritual experience, way for people to "be reminded of our soul-assignments," a means for "being connected to the Divine feminine.")

Regarding New Age advocates' influence on the URI, Fr. O'Rourke has said, "No one person has that kind of dominance in this organization. If our board thought they were creating a platform for the New Age movement, they would hit the ceiling." Well, maybe the URI board should now meet in a room with a padded ceiling.

Despite concerns arising from the Twilight-Zone-ish agenda of some URI supporters and allies, shouldn't Catholics and other traditional Christians support the URI? Isn't a movement toward global understanding, even if imperfect, worth supporting?

In a word: No. The URI is gravely flawed, from its foundation up. Christians should not offer it any support, though they ought to monitor its activities closely.

The first problem is that many prominent URI supporters openly equate evangelism — preaching the Gospel — with conquest and manipulative proselytism; they see orthodox Christians as "fundamentalists" who put "peace" at risk. This bias does not appear in official URI documents, but it does appear when URI supporters speak as individuals. At a February 1997 URI forum at Grace Cathedral, URI board member Paul Chafee said, "We can't afford fundamentalists in a world this small." URI board member Rita Semel said that fundamentalism "comes out of fear and ignorance." At an April 1997 URI forum, board member Sri Ravi Peruman said that religions have "invaded and crusaded," "subverted and converted." Pacific Church News reported: "Calling statements about 'authentic religious freedom' for everyone, 'the freedom to proselytize,' Peruman said that there should be a universal Declaration of Rights not to be converted to another religion." The San Jose Mercury News reported that at the 1996 URI summit conference, URI supporter Robert Muller said that "peace will be impossible, ..without the taming of fundamentalism through a United Religions that professes faithfulness 'only to the global spirituality and to the health of this planet.'"

The second problem is that many prominent URI supporters favor religious syncretism and wish to promote a novel. Earth-centered spirituality. Again, this is not in official URI documents; they reiterate that "there is no desire to create one big religion." However, in 1996 Bishop Swing spoke of the world's youth adding "a little yoga to the words of The Prophet. A little Catechism to a little Dharma.... One way or another, in Bangalore or in your grandchild, a United Religions will happen." Bay Area newspapers reported that in the 1995 interfaith service at which Bishop Swing announced the URI, "prayers, chants, and incantations were offered to a dozen deities." "Holy water from the Ganges, the Amazon, the Red Sea, the River Jordan, and other sacred streams" was mixed in a common "bowl of unity" on the altar of Grace Cathedral. At the 1997 URI summit conference, a public worship service included a procession of 15 banners representing 15 religions (including a banner for the Wiccans, the neopagan witchcraft movement). The fifteenth banner had on it an empty silver circle, representing "the religions which are to come."

The third problem is that the URI leaders take a feminist worldview for granted. Bishop Swing said in 1997 that one reason he expanded the scope of the URI to include New Age movements (he calls them "modern spiritual movements") is that they include women as leaders, while traditional religions do not. (Cardinal Ratzinger replied succinctly to feminism in Salt of the Earth: Feminist ideology "traces all existing institutions back to power politics. And this ideology corrupts humanity and also destroys the Church.")

The fourth problem is that URI leaders view religion as captive to the world. Anglican Bishop James Ottley, a URI supporter, said in 1997 that "the world's agenda is the agenda of the church," a sentiment expressed in other words by many URI proponents.

The URI's close connection with the New Age movement means the URI is promoting something Pope John Paul II denounced in Crossing the Threshold of Hope: "the return of ancient gnostic ideas under the guise of the so-called New Age." The Pontiff added, "We cannot delude ourselves that this will lead toward a renewal of religion. It is only a new way of practicing gnosticism — that attitude of the spirit that, in the name of a profound knowledge of God, results in distorting His Word and replacing it with purely human words." The Pope said that Gnosticism "has always existed side by side with Christianity, sometimes taking the shape of a philosophical movement, but more often assuming the characteristics of a religion or para-religion in distinct, if not declared, conflict with all that is essentially Christian."

The documents of Vatican II and the encyclicals of John Paul II don't support Catholic participation in the URI either. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church rejects the notion that all religions are of equal value; it also states that "Each disciple of Christ has the obligation of spreading the faith, to the best of his ability." The Decree on Ecumenism — which deals with unity among Christians, not unity among all religions — says, "Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism which harms the purity of Catholic doctrine and obscures its genuine and certain meaning." The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions states that the Church "is in duty bound to proclaim, without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life." The Declaration on Religious Liberty says that the Church's support for religious freedom "leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ." In the apostolic letter Tertio Millennia Adveniente, John Paul II says that in Church-sponsored dialogue with "the leaders of the great world religions," care will always be taken to avoid "the risk of syncretism and of a facile and deceptive irenicism." And in Ut Unum Sint, an encyclical dealing with unity among Christians, John Paul says, "The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth."

Many of the URI's leaders, supporters, and allies are liberal Protestants, dissident Catholics, New Age adepts, feminists, and wealthy progressives with a plan to save the world. With a cast of characters like this, how could the URI go in a positive direction? Most prominent URI supporters have agendas that are inimical to orthodox Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, and traditional Islam. If the URI succeeds in gaining global influence, it will become another opponent of the Church, another supporter of the already dominant relativist worldview.

A prayer card issued in 1996 by the URI contains an image of the birth of a new star, with the slogan, "Join a world waiting, ..for the birth of a new light... United Religions." We Christians already have a light that cannot fail, for Christ said, "I am the light of the world" (Jn. 9:5). There is no reason to "join a world waiting for the birth of a new light" that is not Christ, for Christ said, "take courage, I have overcome the world" (Jn. 16:33).

Bishop Swing has asked for prayers on behalf of the URI. In a spirit of true ecumenism, let us respond to his request. Roman Catholics may begin: "O God, look mercifully upon all those who are seduced by the deceit of Satan, that all heretical impiety may be removed and the hearts of those who err may repent and return' to the unity of Thy truth." The Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics may join in: "Those who depart from the Orthodox Faith, dazzled by destructive heresies, do Thou enlighten by the light of Thy holy wisdom, and unite them to Thy Holy, Apostolic, Catholic Church." And evangelicals may close the prayer: "In Jesus' name. Amen!"

We can let Bishop Swing have the last word. On September 11, 1996, he extolled the URI to a meeting of 200 San Francisco Episcopal lay leaders, and said: "We're talking about salvation history here. If I'm wrong. I'm dead wrong." The Bishop has spoken; the case is closed. •

Lee Penn, a health-care information systems con- sultant in San Francisco, is a member of Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Russian Center, aparish of the Russian Catholic Church (one of the 21 Byzantine Catholic Churches in communion with the Holy See).

© New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706, 510-526-5374.

This item 967 digitally provided courtesy of