The dream began five years ago at an interfaith service at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. That's when Bishop William Swing, who oversees the Episcopal Diocese of California, envisioned an organization patterned after the United Nations but designed to bring together the world's religions.
Easier dreamt than done.
Swing immediately thought like a bishop: Start at the top. So he went to the Vatican and talked to Cardinal Francis Arinze, the pope's top man for interfaith dialogue. The cardinal was not exactly inspired.
"If this is of God, I will not be able to defeat it," Swing remembered him saying. "If it is only of human beings, it is not going to amount to anything."
Several more responses like that convinced Swing that the United Religions Initiative must be born from the bottom up, not the top down.
In the last five years, Swing has circled the globe several times and raised millions of dollars from Northern California philanthropists, Silicon Valley venture capitalists, and other private donors inspired by his vision. Ready or not, the United Religions is coming to a church, temple, synagogue, or ashram near you.
But in its formative stages, one of the first problems Swing faced was deciding which religions to include in the United Religions and how they should be represented. After all, one man's religion is another man's cult. And how can anyone claim to speak for all the Muslims and Hindus of the world, or for the eclectic neo-pagan community?
Plus, the organizers of the United Religions want women to be equally represented at all levels of the organization. And despite a few advances in some circles, most of the world's religious hierarchies are still old boys' clubs.
Their solutions are contained in the United Religions Initiative Charter, which will be signed at a June 26 ceremony in Pittsburgh and at other celebrations around the world between May and December.
You can read the whole document at www.united-religions.org, but the basic idea is that any group of people from a mix of religions, spiritual expressions, or indigenous traditions can become part of the United Religions by forming a "Cooperation Circle." These groups, which can be as small as seven people, apply for membership and embark on a local project that promotes the UR's fundamental beliefs.
Those beliefs are summarized in a list of 21 principles, such as promoting nonviolent conflict resolution, protecting the environment, encouraging religious tolerance, and working for justice and peace.
At the international level, a 41-member Global Council will coordinate the organization, with 24 members elected by the world membership in eight regional elections. That group will select a dozen at-large trustees to help ensure diversity; the last five seats will be taken by Swing and other leaders chosen from United Religions' current board of directors.
"It's like nothing ever seen in the world of religion," said Swing, sitting in United Religions headquarters at the Presidio in San Francisco, a former Army base that overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge.
As the UR prepares for its June 26 "Birth Day," its leaders must beware the temptations that plague similar groups, like the Parliament of World Religions, which meets every five years to promote interfaith cooperation. Both organizations seem to have trouble attracting mainstream religious leaders, especially ones with conservative, traditionalist, or fundamentalist leanings.
Interfaith groups can be taken over by fringe movements, or devolve into feel-good encounter sessions full of liberals preaching to the choir, rather than real-world prophets capable of converting people of all faiths.
But as Swing and his interfaith compatriots point out, it's never been easy sitting down with Muslim extremists who thinks you're the Great Satan or fundamentalist preachers who fear you're the anti-Christ imposing one-world religion on the people of God. Someone, they say, has to take a stab at it.
Spiritual intolerance and religious persecution show no signs of subsiding, whether in the killing fields of Kosovo, the rice paddies of Indonesian, or the American Bible Belt. At least the dreamers at the United Religions are searching for a solution.