This week saw the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia. The Parliament is a significant interfaith event with the bold mission “to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world.” The history of the Parliament dates back to the World’s Congress of Religions of 1893 in Chicago which, bringing together Eastern and Western religious traditions, is seen by many as the birth of inter-religious dialogue. In 1993 a centenary event was held in Chicago, and the Parliament has since been held every five years (Cape Town in 1999 and Barcelona in 2004).
The 2009 Parliament was epic in scale with around 6,000 delegates from more than 80 countries, hosting more than 650 separate programs populated by an even larger number of speakers. The major speakers at the event included some of the world’s most influential inter-religious voices such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, President Jimmy Carter, His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, The Most Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, President Obama’s religious adviser Jim Wallis, editor of Tikkun magazine Rabbi Michael Lerner, and the heavy-hitting theologian Dr Hans Küng.
Andrew Cohen: Fans and Critics
Listed also among the major speakers was the “visionary thinker” Andrew Cohen. Cohen’s intentions for the Parliament, in which he was granted the unusual privilege of two full sessions to himself, was “sharing the profound spiritual perspective of Evolutionary Enlightenment and holding an Open Space/Question & Answer session on the role, meaning, and purpose of an evolutionary perspective on timeless spiritual wisdom.” Cohen also addressed the 2004 Parliament. Cohen’s popularity has been on the rise in recent years, thanks in part to his magazine EnlightenNext which can be found on newsstands around the world and in which he aligns himself with the great and the good of both orthodox religion and alternative spiritualities. Clearly he is speaking to issues that many people find compelling, and his two sessions at the Parliament suggest that the international interfaith community also finds Cohen’s message to be of high importance.
However, not everyone is so accepting of Cohen’s “evolutionary thinking.” Cohen’s own mother wrote a book called The Mother of God and critiques “the abuse of power, the incessant fear, the psychology of obsession” that went with her time as a devotee of her son. The blog What Enlightenment??! carries numerous other claims about Cohen’s allegedly unsavory methods. And Cohen’s 2009 Parliament appearance coincides with the publication of William Yenner’s American Guru, which catalogues “numerous examples of abuse on Cohen’s part.” The Parliament’s PR representative did not respond to inquiries about whether these allegations were taken into account when placing Cohen on the schedule. It is with the knowledge of both Cohen’s popularity on the one hand, and his detractors on the other, that I offer a brief account of Cohen’s two sessions at the Parliament. This is not intended in any way as an exhaustive critique of Cohen, rather a reading of one particular event that offered Cohen an opportunity to share the same platform as some of the world’s most established spiritual leaders, and in the process gain new levels of legitimacy.
Cohen’s Parliament Sessions
The first of Cohen’s sessions attracted a good number of attendees, with a bias towards middle-aged women. The first two rows of the audience appeared to be populated by people who knew one another, and had some existing knowledge about Cohen. A small handful of people appeared to be connected with Cohen, preparing the podium for him and observing the audience. Cohen came into the room pretty much on time, was introduced by a young female ambassador of the Parliament, and began to settle into his talk.
The body of his talk was no doubt nothing new to anyone familiar with Cohen’s work. Early on he declared “I have no solutions,” but that his teachings were directed towards “leading edge” individuals: the highly educated, the wealthy and the privileged. He spoke of how everything is plotted against an evolutionary process. He asked, “why live an ordinary life if we all have the opportunity to live an extraordinary life?” And that in order to answer this question we had to “think big, feel big” and tap into the “authentic self.” In order to achieve this we must draw upon a source of inspiration that has been in operation since the Big Bang. He claimed that he was “only interested in creating that which is new and hasn’t existed before,” following a godly creative principle that is characterized by “ecstasy and urgency.” Those who did not follow this principle, those who are not “turned on,” are “boring, uninteresting, uninspired, safe, predictable.” This was the core of his message, which was repeated and re-framed in a number of ways for the duration of the 90-minute session. During this first session, Cohen came over as a perfectly charming individual. He spoke well, cracked a few jokes, gave a few strangely geeky chuckles, and told a cute story about his dog. Apart from a brief mention of EnlightenNext, he did not plug any products or workshops, nor direct the audience how to find out more about his teachings. He finished the session bang on schedule, declaring that there was now no time for questions, but that he would dedicate the whole second session to these if the audience wished.
There is nothing specifically problematic about the content of his talk. The only real concern is that Cohen explicitly speaks to “the highly educated, the wealthy and the privileged.” But what of the poor? The poor, Cohen says, “need a different message”: exactly what message remains something of a mystery. Cohen’s message, of course, is that leading edge individuals should “affect the world for the better,” but the nature of this is not addressed. While it may be reasonable to claim that privileged Westerners need to be related to in a different way to the less privileged, the problem arises when we pursue Cohen’s evolutionary model: only the privileged are at the “leading edge” of evolution. Such a suggestion resonates with a long history of elitist thinking that can be found in its worst forms behind the history of colonialism, racism and eugenics, and in its more benign form in upper-middle-class “radicals” who wish to guide those who they perceive as the less intellectually capable proletariat. But apart from this elitist shadow, Cohen’s message was hardly controversial.
During the second session Cohen loosened up. As promised, he dedicated it to questions which largely consisted of positive feedback from the audience: “I want to thank you so much for your work,” “you’re so refreshing to hear” and so forth. The un-challenging nature of the questions meant that the majority of the second session comprised a re-telling of the first. The only shift in focus was that Cohen moved to distinguish himself from other spiritual teachers (of meditation, non-duality and so on), noting how he was one of only “a few” teachers focusing on evolution as a guiding spiritual principle (which is hardly new given the likes of Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo). In this session we started to see a few glimpses of Cohen’s infamous “rude boy” style: cutting people’s questions with a short “yes” or “no” answer, being slightly edgier. At one point, about to launch into a comment about being judgmental, Cohen quipped, “I’m at the World Parliament, so I have to be a bit softer than usual” (to which one woman shouted “No, don’t!”). But, again, the session was uneventful.
So, given that Cohen presented himself quite reasonably at the Parliament, we are left with two possible conclusions. First, the accusations leveled against Cohen by some ex-students are gross misinterpretations of his teachings and methods. Second, Cohen was very careful to cultivate a reasonable persona at the Parliament, thus simultaneously enjoying the legitimacy it bestows upon its speakers (disclosure: myself included) and funneling new students into his program where they come to know a somewhat less reasonable Andrew Cohen. The choice is yours.
Joseph Gelfer is an Adjunct Research Associate at the School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University, Australia. He is author of Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the Problem of Patriarchy and editor of Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality. His edited collection 2012: Reflections on a Mark in Time will be published next year.
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