The World's Parliament of Religions: The East/West Encounter, Chicago, 1893. By Richard Hughes Seager. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1995. Pp. xxxi, 208. $35.00.)
The World's Parliament of Religions is well known to historians. Held in Chicago during the 1893 World's Fair in a hall that was later to become the Art Institute, it brought together representatives from religious traditions throughout the world. Its goal as "to unite all religion against irreligion." As the author put it, "the Parliament was a liberal, western, and American quest for world religious unity that failed" (p. xxviii). It failed, according to the author, because "the God of the organizers of the Parliament turned out not to be quite the same as the Gods of the Asians" (p. xxix). This encounter between East and West is the perspective from which the author interprets the 1893 Parliament of Religions. By using concepts from the history of religion he is able to offer a new and insightful interpretation that enriches our understanding of this religious gathering.
The 1893 World's Fair was America's quadricentennial salute to Christopher Columbus. Centered along the lake shore of Chicago a new city, labeled the White City, emerged within the old. Designed by Daniel Burnham, it evoked a mythic past that represented the United States as the New Rome, "heir to the western tradition and as apogee of human civilization" (p. 13). Seager views this Columbian myth of America and the White City as typical of the cultural imperialism present at that moment in American history. As grand as it was, the Columbian myth was not very inclusive. Most of all it excluded many of those cultures that were attributed along the Midway Plaisance. A major feature of the exposition, the Midway was a "living ethnographic display" of the world's peoples. Along with people from the West were people from the East; it was the culture and religion of these people from the East that challenged the validity of the Columbian myth and the superiority of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
After analyzing the Columbian myth present in the White City and the contrast presented by the exhibits of the Midway, the author then examines the papers presented at the Parliament of Religion. …