Some would call Gerald Barney a hopeless dreamer. As a nuclear physicist and author of a US government report that sold 1.5 million copies in nine languages, he turned down big business for a chance to change the world.
Spirituality and social justice became Mr. Barney's prime passion after he wrote Global 2000, a 1980 report on the world's economic and environmental future. Instead of accepting an offer to be a banker, he founded the Millennium Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Virginia.
Last week, one of Barney's most ambitious proposals came a step closer to reality as 7,000 people representing every conceivable religion and spiritual strand gathered in Cape Town in a massive, multifaith effort to establish a new global ethic. "I know it sounds impossible - like putting a child up against five huge sumo wrestlers," says Barney. "But this is at least a step. Without spiritual grounding, visions of a better world cannot be realized."
Christian theologians and Buddhist monks, Jews and Jains, Aumists, African healers, Zen masters, and even New Age disciples met at a World Parliament of Religions here. Participants presented seminars on some 200 projects promoting diversity and peace. Barney hopes the 104-page list, "Gifts of Service to the World," will inspire similar efforts elsewhere. Examples include:
In Brazil, a massive sports tournament is being held to reconcile adolescents and police. Some 40,000 young offenders and Brazilian Indians are competing on soccer and basketball teams, with officers acting as referees and organizers.
In Sri Lanka, a movement in 11,000 villages encourages rural people to share labor and time to fulfill community needs.
And in the United States, the InterReligious Council in New York organized "dialogue circles" of people from different genders, races, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
"This is not a one-shot deal to defuse tension," the program's codirector, Milady Andrews Morgan, said after presenting the project.
"We have dialogue circles that have been meeting for years.... Some people who might never have become friends are now inviting each other home, and to each other's churches."
The World Parliament of Religions recognized the world's most powerful institutions also need some spiritual grounding. It called on "guiding institutions" - from multinational corporations and governments to educational institutions and the media - to assess ways they can better the world. The "Call to Our Guiding Institutions" received input from 500 religious leaders, but it contains almost no solid suggestions and critics at the conference openly wondered about its impact.
Even the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader and the keynote speaker of the conference, called for a more active stance. "We should do more to promote basic human value, [rather] than just talk religion," he said. He suggested sending interfaith delegations to areas where wars are being fought in the name of religion.
Barney concedes the appeal may be reaching for the moon, but he notes that people in high places are surprisingly openminded. The Millennium Institute designed an alternative model for World Bank lending practices that would give developing countries some credit for environmental and social programs. "
That's one thing that could make the world a radically different place," says Barney. He says the bank's head, James Wolfensohn, agreed to review it.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society