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Some Contemporary Scholars to Whom I am Indebted
(My scholarly ancestry follows below)
under construction

Akbar Ahmed
Al Truesdale
Pandurang Shastri Athavale
Robert Bellah
Morris Berman
Marcus Borg
Joseph Campbell
Chen-Chi Chang
Forrest Church
Don Compier
Wendy Doniger
Father Robert Drinan, SJ
Diana Eck
Bart Ehrman
Mircea Eliade
Matthew Fox
Bud Heckman
Douglas Hofstadter
Steve Jeffers
S Mark Heim
Suzannnah Heschel
Paul F Knitter
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Amy-Jill Levine
Molly Marshall
Martin Marty
Timothy Miller
Robert Muller
Elaine Pagels
Eboo Patel
Stephen Prothero
Karl Shapiro
Bishop John Shelby Spong
Huston Smith
Daniel Stevenson
Al Truesdale
E O Wilson
Bousma, Burhoe, Tapp, Wieman, Patterson, Kübler-Ross, Cox, Gendlin, . . . 

Distinguished theologian Paul F Knitter visited Colonial Congregational Church in Prairie Village 2018 April 20 and spoke on "Attitudes toward the Religious Other: The Christian Landscape," ways Christians can approach thinking about those of other faiths. 
     Vern had a chance to speak briefly with him before his presentation and mentioned that his 2002 book, Introducing Theologies of Religion, is one of the sources for Vern's class, "Ministry in a Pluralistic World," at Central Seminary.
     Vern also commented during the forum after the lecture. One point of discussion was the difficulty of one person representing an entire faith tradition with its many historical and contemporary expressions. Vern noted that the Kansas City Interfaith Council was organized in 1989 not with representatives of 13 faiths, but with 13 people from different faith backgrounds, thus avoiding this easy trap. Even Christians forget that their faith today might be very different from another Christian's faith across the street (even within Protestantism, not to mention Catholicism or Orthodoxy) or in other parts of the world; and historical development is seldom recognized -- a Southern Baptist today may be very different from one 50 years ago. 

Thanks to Jen Greene for these photos.
2018 April 30, Stephen Prothero and Vern discuss the merits of Prothero's 2010 book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter, which Vern is using as one of several texts at Central Seminary. Another member of the audience at the annual Religious Studies lecture at KU happened to have a copy of the 2011 column Vern had written about the book and showed it to them. Prothero signed Vern's copy of his new book, Why Liberals Win (Even When They Lose Elections). Prothero's lecture reviewed his earlier and continuing concern about American religious illiteracy, about which he wrote in his 2007 Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't. 
     Prothero's website is http://stephenprothero.com/.

In Vern's Westort home, Vern and Bud Heckman in 2006 plan the nation's first Interfaith Academies, one for religious professionals and one for students, to be held in Kansas City, in part because of access to onsite visits to various religious communities. The 2007 Academies were sponsored by the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, Religions for Peace-USA at the UN Plaza, the Saint Paul School of Theology which also provided housing, and the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council. Vern also served on the international faculty of scholars. Bud completed editing his book, Interactive Faith, during the Academies.

Vern discusses a recently published book with the prolific writer Martin E Marty of the University of Chicago, visiting in Kansas City. The story around the Div School when Vern studied there was of a grad student who phoned Marty's office. The professor's secretary answered. The student said, "I'd please like to speak with Dr Marty." The secretary responded, "I'm sorry, Dr Marty has just begin writing a new book." The student replied, "OK, I'll just hold on the line until he's finished."

Vern here visits with another University of Chicago Divinity School professor, Wendy Doniger, who stirred international controversy with her book 2009 book, The Hindus: An Alternative History; it was the #1 best seller in India, but then a court case involved charges of heresy and the book was withdrawn by its publisher in India. It has since been issued there by a different publisher. Also a prolific author, Dr Doniger held the post of  Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of History of Religions. 

Te paths of Harvard's Diana Eck, founder of the Pluralism Project, and Vern have crossed several times. She delivered a key address at the ground-breaking initial conference of the North America Interfaith Netrwork conference in 1988, "A North American Assisi. During another visit to the area, Vern gave her the text of Kansas Governor Bill Graves' 1997 Ramadan  Proclamation, thought to be the first by any governor. The text was included in her 2001 book, A New Religious America (page 354), and when she came back to Kansas City in 2005, Vern confessed that he had ghost-written the Proclamation for Governor Graves.

"Responsible" for the controversial phrase "Civil Religion" (from his classic 1968 essay), and famous for his 1985 book Habits of the Heart, sociologist of religion (University of California at Berkeley) Robert Bellah was in Kansas City in 1999 when Vern interviewed him for The Kansas City Star March 17. Bellah's 2011 book, Religion in Human Evolution, is on Vern's list of the most important books in the field if you want to have an informed conversation. 
     I've not met Robert Wuthnow, but he did call me on the phone when he was working on one of his books. This 1988 article on Civil Religion remains important: Divided We Fall: America’s Two Civil Religions .

Mircea Eliade was my teacher at the University of Chicago Divinity School -- and my next-door neighbor. He and his wife Christinel presented a gift (now politically incorrect) of a lotus ashtray with individual petals to my bride and me at our wedding in 1970. (I had told Mrs Eliade that when I first arrived on campus, I was convinced Eliade was wrong about a certain characteristic of myths, but when I studied with her husband, I discovered he was right. She was amused by my grad student naïveté.) Through his students and his dozens of books and his editing of the massive 15-volume Encyclopedia of Religion, Eliade remains probably the most influential teacher of "history of religions," a field he practically created. 

I first met Huston Smith in 1969 or 1970 at the Div School at the University of Chicago where he had studied and had returned to report on a second trip to Tibet. We kept running into each other at various meetings and became friends. I have never met anyone who more appropriately can be termed a "gentleman." Born in China, in this 2005 photo at the Kansas City Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, he looks very like a Taoist immortal! Author of the all-time best-selling The World's Religions, he consented to being interviewed for my Kansas City Star columns repeatedly. I cherish taking him to his parents' graves in Marshall, MO. I collected some other photos as a remembrance when he died in 2016, aged 97.

Campbell had retired when I met and studied with him, first at a week-long seminar in Santa Barbara. Long familiar with his Hero with a Thousand Faces, I asked him about adpating the three-part sequence he theorizes for the individual's spiritual journey into a four-part liturgical pattern for groups. The Kansas City Friends of Jung brought him here several times after that. In 1988 Campbell became known to a wider audience through the Bill Moyers PBS "Power of Myth" six-hour poorly edited and sometimes inaccurate interview series. He was trained in literature, and his study of religion was without much scholarly expertise, which led him to flawed assumptions. In my view, Campbell was a convincing story-teller, a bit if the charlatan, elitist, proto-fascist, crypo-anti-Semite, a great spiritual entertainer. Perhaps there is no better indication of his self-absorption and scorn for social structures (from which he himself benefited) than his facile advice, "follow your bliss." Still, I learned much from him and value the way he was able to show a large audience hungry for spiritual fare how myths are powerful paths to the sacred in our secularistic age.

Robert Muller was the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General under three Secretaries-General and became Chancellor of the University for Peace.

Pulitzer-prize poetry winner Karl Shapiro taught writing poetry at the University of Nebraska. 

His was a memorably free-wheeling graduate seminar which ironically helped me understand form. He supported the wildest literary experiments from the students in such a way as to demonstrate that poetry generates an extraordinary range of reactions and interpretations. And personally, when I got into a bit of a jam as a graduate teaching assistant, he helped get things resolved the right way.

I think I also learned some things from him about how to teach.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (we called her "Dr Ross") was one of my clinical-pastoral education internship supervisors at the University of Chicago hospitals when I was studying for my doctorate. She was known as the "death lady" because of her ground-breaking study of dying patients. When she first began, she asked all the MDs for the names of their dying patients, and they all said they had no patients dying. Those were the days of deep denial. As her study progressed, she became well-known. When I was her student, Life magazine came to feature her work (before her 1969 book On Death & Dying was published), and she handled that attention with minimal fuss as they observed. It was just another routine class -- shocking, heart-breaking, profoundly disturbing. She would interview the dying patient on one side of a half-silvered mirror (always with permission) while we students were on the other side. When the interview was over, she would come to our side. Her first question always was, "What was your gut reaction?" She taught us that we could not help anyone else unless we were aware of, and could manage, how we felt about the situation. 

She was not only brilliant but also a bit crazy, and I cannot forget a time just the two of us were in the chaplain's office. She went off on her views of the afterlife which she kept hidden from the public for some time until her reputation as a thanatologist was established. I was really uncomfortable. It felt like an intellectual assault and I was the victim. How could I argue with Dr Ross? but silence felt like I was conveying agreement.

Her "five stages" -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance -- have pretty well been disputed, but she moved our culture forward dramatically in dealing with the realities of dying and death. She was, in all, a great teacher.

My first year of graduate work was at the University of Nebraska where I had completed my BA. There I had the great good fortune to study with Garma Chen-Chi Chang, a Buddhist scholar who fled mainland China and was a visiting professor of religious studies from Penn State where he became Emeritus Professor. One day he told the seminar that our assignment for the next session was a 20-page paper on shunya, the Buddhist "void" or "emptiness." I was a bit of a smart-ass in those days, and (before the personal computer) had a ream of typing paper with me. Under the seminar table I counted out 20 blank sheets and then announced: "Professor, I have my paper ready now," and handed him 20 empty pages. He took out his grading pencil, looked at the "paper," and, making a beautiful Buddhist circle on the top sheet, said, "Ah, very good, Mr Barnet; and I have your grade ready now," as he handed me the zero, answering my joke with what I hoped was his joke. 

The first term, as I remember, we used Huston Smith's The Religions of Man (later The World's Religions) supplemented with Chang's rigorous comments, and the second term we focused on the varieties of Hinduism and particularly Buddhism. I cherish my notes, especially his own translation of portions of the Vimalakirti Sutra (now available in several English translations) which is one of my most prized of all the world's scriptures, along with the Heart Sutra and the utmost prize of the Hwa Yen Sutra, about which Chang later wrote in his The Buddhist Teaching of Totality. I loved learning about Fa Tsang (Fazang), the Golden Lion, and the room of mirrors for the Empress Wu Zhao (Wu Zetian).  Perhaps best known among his other books are The Practice of Zen and The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa.

I happened to visit his home one time and was amazed at how spare -- empty -- his space was. Somehow to me that was a demonstration of the void, and a few years later I was writing my doctoral dissertation on Voidism: A Theology for the Practice of the Liberal Ministry. 

I don't have a photo of Douglas Hofstadter, but when I had lunch with him, courtesy of the computer science department at the University of Kansas before he gave the most amazing lecture I have ever heard, he signed my first copy of his first book which I still think is the most amazing book ever written.


Father Robert Drinin, SJ (I didn't take this photo!) about the time the Vatican forced him to give up his seat in the US House of Representatives.



My Religious Studies Ancestry
see partial list of contemporary scholars above

My religious studies ancestors*--
     (I should probably begin with Heraclitus and Nargarjuna)
Jean Bodin, 1530-1596
Herbert of Cherbury, 1583-1648
Friedrich Schleiermacher, 1768-1834
Max Müller, 1823-1900
William James, 1842-1910                tangential:  Max Weber, 1864-1920
John Dewey, 1859-1952
Rudolf Otto, 1869-1937
Gerardus van der Leeuw, 1890-1950
Garma Chen-Chi Chang, 1920-1988 (my teacher, 1965)
Mircea Eliade, 1907-1986 (my friend and teacher, 1967-1970)

My siblings --
Georges Bataille, 1897–1962
Wilfred Cantwell Smith, 1916-2000
Michel Foucault, 1926-1984
Ninian Smart, 1927-2001
Robert Bellah, 1927-2013
Richard Rorty, 1931-2007
Jonathan Z Smith, 1938-2017
Wendy Doniger, 1940-
Bruce Lincoln, 1948-
Tomoko Masuzawa
Talal Asad

Edward Said

*By which I mean to exclude
         important folks with influential opinions about religion,
         significantly defective in my view such as, for example:
Emile Durkheim
James G Frazer
Bronislaw Malinowski
Edward Burnett Tylor
William Robertson Smith
Sigmund Freud
Karl Marx



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