|591 051228 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Same-sex story has its sacred role
Perhaps with greater religious
significance than “The Passion of the Christ,” “Brokeback Mountain” opens
Bear with me. From Mircea
Eliade, the towering 20th Century scholar in his field, these words are
difficult but important: “The History of Religions is not merely an historical
discipline, as for example, are archeology and numismatics. It is equally
a total hermeneutics being called to decipher and explicate every kind
of encounter with the sacred, from prehistory to our own day.”
I was his student, and I
think I know what he meant, and the scope of his claim.
Let’s begin with the term
“sacred,” a term he hesitated to define but seems to point to that on which
our life depends, the source of ultimate meaning, purpose and direction
for us, a pattern for making sense out of apparently disconnected events.
The sacred is the bottom line of all bottom lines. The sacred is contrasted
with the profane, the trivial, that which really doesn’t count in the final
Eliade thus argued that the
sacred is the key to recognizing and interpreting how persons and cultures
identify what is important to them, in our own time as well as the past.
Sexuality is often so powerful
that its eruption can disturb the social order. This is why religions have
often placed limits on its expression. Groups needing population growth,
for example, have prohibited masturbation, coitus interruptus and same-sex
behavior. Cultures with different needs have honored these very same ways
of being sexual.
Our civilization has moved
from defining marriage as primarily concerned with property rights and
arrangements between families to focus instead on the affection between
the partners. Reproduction was once the main justification for sex in marriage,
but now many people see marriage as a means to personal fulfillment.
Can anyone reading Annie
Proulx’s story, from which the movie has been adapted, fail to perceive
the fulfillment, the intensity of the feeling cowboys Ennis and Jack have
in each other? Each is to the other what ultimately makes their life meaningful,
Their lives fall apart because
they have tried to deny the sacred energy between them, twisted by the
homophobia preserved by religious limits from another era which justifies
perhaps even murder.
“The Passion of the
Christ” told us little new about the nature of the sacred; and I, like
many, thought it trivialized, profaned, the holy with its violence.
On the other hand, “Brokeback
Mountain” is a parable not just for gays but for our entire society about
false and genuine relationships. It asks specifically whether our culture
will support the sacred in genuine love or whether it will make demons
out of men who find the sacred with other men.
590 051221 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Call a Truce at Christmastime
A reader asks my opinion about
the “War against Christmas.” In brief, I see no attack on Christmas. Instead
I see an uninformed attack on the religious pluralism at the root of America’s
greatness. Incipient anti-Semitism is troubling, especially as Hanukkah
Some Christmas history. Mark,
the oldest Gospel, includes no story of the birth of Jesus, and neither
does the best loved Gospel, John. The stories in Matthew and Luke are strikingly
different, though each contains elements found in stories of other faiths.
Many modern scholars guess
that Jesus was born in the lambing season, perhaps February in Palestine,
when shepherds would be watching their sheep by night. But a Roman festival
at the winter solstice, Dec. 25 on the old calendar marking the birth of
the sun, was adopted by Christians as the religion spread through the empire.
Lists of holy days in early churches do not include Christmas, which was
first recorded as the Third Century began.
The Puritans who came
to America eschewed Christmas; the Pilgrims worked on Dec. 25, 1620. For
a time, until 1681, celebrating Christmas was a crime in Massachusetts.
As late as the mid-19th Century,
Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians in New York refused to recognize
Christmas with church services.
The U.S. Constitution does
not mention God or Christianity. The First Amendment guarantees religious
freedom. A treaty ratified by the Senate June 10, 1797, states that, “the
government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded
on the Christian Religion.”
Not until 1836 was Christmas
made a holiday in the U.S., and that was just in Alabama. It became a federal
holiday in 1870.
Some Orthodox Christians
do not observe Christmas until Jan. 6 or 7, and some Christians still refuse
to observe it at all.
The modern popular observance
of Christmas was influenced, ironically, by a Unitarian, Charles Dickens,
whose “Christmas Carol” focuses not on theology but rather on the needs
of the poor and the obligation of the well-to-do to help. Most of today’s
customs, such as the Christmas tree, derive from pagan sources, and Thomas
Nast’s and Clement Moore’s Santa figures are more secular than sacred.
Holy days in any tradition
deserve the respect from the rest of us. Those who insist on “Merry Christmas”
from store clerks instead of “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” when
the faiths of the partners in the exchange may be unknown, display forgetfulness
of the diversity our nation embraces. To my mind, they would do better
to complain about the games and toys of violence given to celebrate the
birth of the Prince of Peace.
There is no plot to deprive
Christians of Christmas. But surely we can join together in the sentiment,
“Peace, good will to all.”
589 051214 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Roots of unity grow out of respect
To show that interfaith activity is not
a centralized effort but rather widely disbursed, last week’s column began
to name some of the folks and organizations that bring into their work
an awareness of the many religions in our community. I’d like to list a
few more today.
In government, Jackson County
executive Katheryn Shields, Raytown Mayor Sue Frank, Congressmen Dennis
Moore (KS) and Emanuel Cleaver II (MO), former Kansas Attorney General
Bob Stephan, and Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius have all found ways
to celebrate our religious pluralism.
Two Johnson County churches
are especially noteworthy. The Church of the Resurrection’s series
on world religions, with local Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Jewish leaders,
led to Pastor Adam Hamilton’s new book on the subject. Village Presbyterian
Church’s many forums have contributed to our broadening horizon.
Downtown, Grace and Holy
Trinity Cathedral has hosted city-wide interfaith events. In Independence,
Andrew Bolton and others have brought resources of the Community of Christ
into interfaith dialogue.
Harold Johnson, Michael Stephens,
Bob Hill, Ed Chasteen and others have assisted various ministerial and
other religious associations and activities to embrace non-Christian faiths.
Bob Meneilly, an early proponent of interfaith bridge-building, created
the MAINstream Coalition whose clergy group works with issues transcending
any particular faith.
programs include an annual choral concert, congregational partnerships
and Anytown for young people. It also makes available Donna Ziegenhorn’s
“The Hindu and the Cowboy and Other Kansas City Stories,” a play drawn
from actual lives of people in our community.
Bill Neaves, a “born-again”
Christian, head of the Stowers Institute, unfailingly models respect for
religious perspectives with which he might personally disagree, an especially
important ability in areas where religion and politics overlap.
Myra Christopher of the Center
for Practical Bioethics, Steve Jeffers of the Shawnee Mission Medical Center
and Joan Collison at KU Medical Center are three among many bringing interfaith
insights into their fields.
Other organizations — the
Greater Kansas City Coalition for Worker Justice is an example — develop
their membership and plan their programming to be religiously inclusive.
Again, I’m out of space.
So many more to be named. What a great problem!
The American vision of religious
pluralism expands as we recognize that our differences can be blessings.
Respect, not uniformity, makes unity possible. Neighborliness, not conversion,
may be the better path to the divine.
588 051207 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Names show diversity is wide spread
Kansas City is blessed with folks who advance
interfaith understanding. This may not be part of their job description,
but they understand our sense of community benefits from strengthening
the American tradition of welcoming those of all religions.
In local government, Kansas
City Mayor Kay Barnes and Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Brooks, in their personal
lives as well as public leadership, have repeatedly demonstrated the value
An early hero of mine is
David Goldstein, now retired from the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American
Jewish Committee. His ability to build bridges with other minority groups
as well as with the larger community prepared the way for later successes.
Alan Edelman, with the Jewish Federation, is an extraordinary speaker whose
devotion to his own faith conveys a deep respect for others. Gayle Krigel’s
skill in promoting interfaith relationships through programs like Salaam
Shalom, is legendary.
Here are some distinguished
Muslim leaders contributing to interfaith activities. Rauf Mir has served
the Interfaith Council since its beginning. Ahmed El-Sharif organized the
American Muslim Council chapter. Shaheen and Iftekhar Ahmed created the
Crescent Peace Society. Bilal Muhammed leads Al-Inshirah Islamic Center.
If you want an inspiring
program about a nationally-known Muslim-Jewish friendship here, call on
Mahnaz Shabbir and Sheila Sonnenschein.
Buddhist Chuck Stanford,
Catholic George Noonan and Protestant David Nelson are among members of
the Interfaith Council whose leadership has moved Kansas City forward.
[Harold Johnson, Michael
Stevens, Bob Hill and others have assisted various ministerial and other
religious associations and activities to embrace non-Christian faiths.
Andrew Bolton and others have brought resources of the Community of Christ
into interfaith dialog.
[Bob Meneilly, an early proponent
of interfaith understanding, has more recently created the MAINstream
Coalition whose clergy group works with issues transcending any particular
faith. Harmony-NCCJ’s interfaith programs include an annual choral concert,
congregational partnerships and Anytown for young people.
[Bill Neaves, a born-again
Christian, head of the Stowers Institute, unfailingly models respect for
religious perspectives with which he might personally disagree, an especially
important ability in areas where religion and politics overlap.
Myra Christopher of the Center
for Practical Bioethics and Steve Jeffers of the Shawnee Mission Medical
Center are two among many bringing interfaith insights into their fields.]
I see I am out of space,
and I have just begin to name people and organizations to make the point
that “interfaith” in Kansas City is not centralized, but fortunately widely
587 051130 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Heartland has it's interfaith in the
Here’s a question I’m frequently
asked. “How is interfaith activity in Kansas City different than elsewhere?”
Here’s my four-part answer.
* Relationships, not social
service.— Unlike some cities (Wichita is a good example), Kansas City has
no powerful interfaith agency providing social services. Instead, many
groups, some secular, some religious, offer various kinds of assistance,
from food pantries to housing, from legal services to job counseling. While
different theologies are seldom impediments to cooperation in serving the
needy, no area-wide interfaith institution has emerged to replace existing
organizations already working hard to relieve the suffering of others.
“Interfaith” here means not so much social service as relationships across
* Dispersion, not centralization.—
What has emerged in Kansas City, especially since 9/11, is an understanding
that many religions are practiced here, and that our community is tempered
by affirming our kinship with one another. Civic leaders, groups
of friends and many programs in numerous organizations have leavened the
Heartland. We understand that business, government, education, medicine
and social life need to be informed by respect for religious diversity.
Most of us still don’t know much about faiths other than our own, and many
of us are fairly ignorant of our own faith, but we are learning from many
sources. “Interfaith” is not a one-stop operation.
* Lay leadership.— Kansas
City interfaith activity is energized largely by lay people, some of whom
I’ll name next week. This is true of the Interfaith Council, as well as
other groups. Many interfaith organizations elsewhere are run by clergy
and funded by the groups they represent. While such a system has financial
advantages, it also leads to the kind of religious politicking rarely found
* Research program. — Kansas
City may be unique in advancing a specific path for studying how the various
faiths relate to each other theologically, notably at the 2001 “Gifts of
Pluralism” conference. Then 250 people from 15 religions signed a Declaration
“to explore sacred directions for troubled times.”
The Declaration identified
three directions: environmental, personal and social. From the primal religions,
respect for nature was uplifted. From Asian faiths, insights into personhood
were identified. From monotheistic traditions came wisdom about how society
is best governed.
Following the conference,
the Interfaith Council established three task forces working for several
years to research how to strengthen these directions in every religious
practice. If the Council, reorganized this year, continues this study,
its fruition may benefit not only the Heartland but prove a model for interfaith
efforts far and wide.
586 051123 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Give thanks for the grasp of the holy
Is it all in our genes? At William
Jewell College Nov. 9 Harvard sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, seemed to suggest
that we will discover a biological basis for everything. Perhaps even religion
and ethics can ultimately be reduced to the laws of physics. His passion
to unify the sciences and humanities led him to write his 1998 book, Consilience:
The Unity of Knowledge, which all of Jewell’s first year students read.
One of several panelists
who had the joy of engaging him on various questions, I found myself saying
something I’d never quite thought out before. Though our respectful disagreement
was obvious, he complimented me on it. I wonder what you, dear readers,
who range from born-again Christians to atheists, might think. Let me know.
Here’s the gist of my argument:
The study of religion may
be informed by sociology, anthropology, psychology and other disciplines,
but it cannot be reduced to them because the holy transcends or bursts
out of the confines of any particular subject area.
We may encounter the holy
in a walk through the woods, at a family reunion, in making love, in reading
scripture, in hearing music, in viewing a painting, in playing golf.
Wilson can say that bio-psychology
can explain such experiences of the holy by describing electro-chemical
activity in the brain. I reply that an explanation of an experience is
not the experience, and an experience of the holy is not the holy itself,
which one can never fully grasp.
Because the holy is ungraspable.
We can’t grasp it; it grasps us. We can name it but we can’t explain it,
though it may move us and even change the direction of our lives.
Why is this so? Consider
the fact that the words “holy” and “whole” are derived from a common root.
This suggests that the “holy” is the intimation of the whole, the way things
fit and don’t fit.
We are embedded in the whole.
We can never wholly see that of which we are a part, any more than we can
see our own eyes without an external aid like a mirror. This is why we
need the mirrors of other religions to better understand our own. But there
is no mirror to see the whole of everything since it would have to be a
part of the whole, too.
In any way we speak of the holy,
words don’t join together easily. I cannot think of any faith that does
not at some point invoke mystery. And even atheists cherish encounters
with the awesome, that which cannot be fully explained.
We can’t control the holy.
We can’t buy it or sell it prove it. We can only open ourselves to it.
When we recognize the fragility of our hopes, the uncertainties of our
powers and the limits of our understanding, we can welcome the holy by
585 051116 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Kansas City keeps the interfaith
“It was a magical afternoon, a Kansas
City moment,” said Mahnaz Shabbir, one of the organizers of last Thursday’s
Table of Faiths luncheon.
I certainly felt that way,
too, not because I was the honoree enjoying the companionship of so many
friends in one huge ballroom, and not even because Mayor Kay Barnes spoke
with power and eloquence and balance about the horrors and hope of religion,
but because the day was evidence of what I have always said about Kansas
City: there is no better place for interfaith work to flourish.
When I founded the Interfaith
Council here in 1989, people asked, “Why didn’t you go to California or
the East coast where religious diversity is more evident and more accepted?”
I responded that we have
a great diversity here that few people know about, but all should. And
that the Heartland is not as easily jostled by fads and coast craziness,
so a surer, if slower, process can lead to a more secure interfaith community
Kansas City actually had
examples of interfaith work for decades before the Council was formed,
but the emphasis was usually on providing social service, rather than on
understanding each faith, and no organization was as radically inclusive
as the Council.
In the mid 80s, folks from
many faiths joined on the Sunday before Thanksgiving to share a meal, as
they and others will again this year, to celebrate the American promise
of religious liberty. From the friendships these dinners developed, it
was a short step to the creation of the Council.
But even before the Council’s
2001 “Gifts of Pluralism” conference, spread over parts of three days and
attended by 250 people from every tradition, I urged the Council to consider
independence from my own organization, CRES. This was arranged January
1 this year.
Again, a slow process resulted
in last week’s secure result.
But the process itself contained
the fortunate outcome.
As Mayor Barnes noted, when
CBS in 2002 was searching for the best response in America to the terrorist
attacks the year before for its half-hour religion special, it focused
on Kansas City. Although the Jackson County Diversity Task Force, which
I chaired, found persistent prejudice in the five-county area, we also
found remarkable stories of interfaith relationships.
While the theological character
of the Council has never been neglected, the energy of understanding comes
from renouncing fear and embracing friendship. In business, government,
the arts, the media, and educational, medical, religious and other civic
institutions, these Kansas City interfaith friendships have grown exponentially.
I don’t yet see a limit to this growth.
As I said Thursday,
“Once upon a time interfaith was an idea, then it became a Council, and
now it is a community.” Is it any surprise that I love this town?
584 051109 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Spreading St. Teresa's word is its
St. Paul wrote, “Let your
women keep silence in the churches” (I Cor. 4:34), but few churches enforce
this injunction. Some scholars understand it as Paul’s attempt to appear
respectable in the eyes of his culture which devalued women. While a few
religious groups still restrict women from sacerdotal functions, a trend
toward equality may continue.
But how could a woman with
spiritual power express leadership in former days?
Sr. Ruth Stuckel, C.S.J.,
associate professor at Avila University, delivered an address at Oxford
University this summer that gives one answer to the question. She wrote
about St. Teresa of Avila as a “16th Century Feminist.”
Sr. Ruth, who taught
at Avila for 35 years and recently observed her 50th Golden Jubilee with
the Sisters of St. Joseph, began her address borrowing a four-part interpretation
of the famous sculpture, “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa” by Bernini, in Rome.
Teresa’s beauty represents her sainthood. Her posture suggests her writings.
Her swirling nun’s robes connote her work founding monasteries. And her
bare foot portrays her as a reformer, as the “discalced” Carmelite order
did not wear shoes as a way of living independently of benefactors.
Sr. Ruth wrote, “Women struggle
to be recognized as human beings, and to receive the respect due to them
. . . . Equality of nature (worth not sameness) and equal treatment in
society are ideals that women strive to make realities.
“Teresa of Avila . . . broke
the mold for women then, and has something to say to women (today). In
her Autobiography, Teresa demonstrates her independence from the male-dominated
culture by entering the Carmelite Order against her father’s wishes and
trusting her experiences of God against the advice of her ecclesial superiors.
“In The Interior Castle,
Teresa articulates her teachings on (mental, distinguished from prescribed)
prayer. Fear of the Spanish Inquisition could not deter her from expressing
“Finally, in The Foundations,
Teresa shatters the images of a contemplative nun through her courageous
efforts in developing foundations of the order throughout Spain.
“Unlike the women of her
day, Teresa traveled extensively without a male companion, managed money
and negotiated property rights.
“Truly, Teresa was ahead
of her time. Teresa of Avila is a 16th century Feminist who can inspire,
encourage, and teach women of the 21st century how to stay in the struggle
for equality in a patriarchal society and church.”
It took a while, but in 1970
Pope Paul VI declared St. Teresa a “doctor” of the church.
Since Oxford, Sr. Ruth has
presented her paper at Avila and St. Teresa’s Academy. Studying and sharing
St. Teresa was especially rewarding, Sr. Ruth says, because she enjoys
helping others with their faith development and St Teresa is such an engaging
"Avila University is named in honor of
St. Teresa of Avila. Sister Ruth’s research raises awareness of the importance
of Teresa as a woman leader who can serve as a model for today’s world."
Marie Joan Harris, CSJ, Ph.D.
Provost and Vice President for Academic
583 051102 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Some live moral lives without God
Over time, this column may
do a fair job in promoting understanding of various religions. But it has
done a poor job — I’ll try to do better — in explaining the spirituality
of atheists, agnostics, and others who identify with no faith but are thoughtful
about their place in the universe and their responsibilities as moral creatures.
I call them Freethinkers,
a term that echoes with the enormous contributions such folk have made
to America, from the Deists like Tom Paine who called the colonies to independence,
to Carl Sagan, whose PBS tours of the heavens were inspiring even without
A Freethinker rejects religious
authority and tradition and insists life is better shaped by evidence and
reason. A recent study of the US and 17 other prosperous democracies argued
that by many measures the more “religious” the society, the more dysfunctional
it is. This seems to be true when evidence within the US is used to compare
states on items such as murders, divorce and teen pregnancy with certain
measures of religiosity.
Most freethinkers in my experience
do not make a public fuss about their views. But film director and playwright
Brian Flemming passionately questions Christianity in his new movie, “The
God Who Wasn’t There.”
Using legitimate scholarly
material, Flemming constructs a case that the gap of several decades between
the death of Jesus and the first records about him undermines the accuracy
of the stories.
Paul, who wrote the oldest
texts included in the New Testament, never met Jesus. Paul seems unaware
of the gospel stories or the teachings of Jesus. Paul’s epistles are energized
by a conviction about the death and resurrection of the Christ. Flemming
argues that the Christ is simply another version of Mithra, Adonis, Osiris,
Tammuz and other gods whose resurrections were celebrated by their own
One of the early church fathers,
Justin Martyr, is quoted saying that stories about Jesus are no different
than what others believe about “the sons of Jupiter.” A scholar interviewed
on the film says that of 22 characteristics of the typical hero story of
the time, the story of Jesus contains 19, compared to 22 for Oedipus, 20
for Theseus, 17 for Hercules, 16 for Perseus and so forth.
Modern urban legends and
fables throughout history provide examples where fiction became regarded
as fact, a process the movie suggests occurred with Jesus.
Flemming will be at
the Tivoli Tuesday at 7:30 pm for a screening. I’ll be on the panel following,
along with the Rev. Marcia Fleischman, co-pastor of the Broadway Church,
Robert N. Minor, KU Religion Professor, and a Freethinker yet to be named.
I’ll share my complaints
about the movie, but I do think it raises good questions.
582 051026 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Pluralism a good approach to diversity
How should we regard religions other
than our own? Evidence of religious diversity is all around us. How do
we respond to this reality?
Harvard’s Diana Eck, head
of the Pluralism Project there, offered three options at Village Presbyterian
Church last week-end.
She asked us to imagine seeing
a sincere person praying at a Shinto shrine. Do we suppose our God is listening?
If not, why not? Does the maker of all things (John 1:3) accept prayers
of adoration only if the devotee belongs to one particular denomination
* The “exclusivists” say
only one faith can be the path to salvation; all other ways lead to perdition.
An example. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod suspended minister David
Benke because he prayed “in the precious name of Jesus” 12 days after 9/11
with Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu leaders in Yankee Stadium. Authorities
in his church said Benke should not have dignified other faiths by sharing
the “Prayer for America” with them.
* The “inclusivists” say
that their faith is large enough to include all others. The Christian God,
for example, saves well-intentioned Buddhists even if they have never heard
about Jesus because such a Buddhist would certainly become Christian if
given the opportunity.
Eck said the “melting pot”
idea is a civil expression of this perspective. People from everywhere
are welcome to become Americans so long as they shed the peculiarities
of their appearance and customs and adopt American ways. The “come and
be just like us” invitation requires assimilation and conformity. In religion,
it erases differences in favor of uniformity.
Eck called the melting pot
“anti-democratic” in expecting people to give up what they cherish in order
to be accepted.
* The “pluralists” want neither
to reject nor to assimilate others; they want to encounter those of other
faiths. The metaphor Eck used works well in Kansas City: jazz. In order
to improvise jazz well, one plays one’s own distinctive part as one listens
closely to the other players. We can embellish the tune of religious liberty
noted in the Constitution.
Eck, whose book A New Religious
America argues that our nation is the most religiously diverse place on
the planet, recognized the many issues that arise in a nation of many faiths,
from the Air Force chaplaincy scandals to the arguments over the posting
of the Ten Commandments.
But she seemed optimistic
about America’s future when she cited progress in the relatively recent
acceptance of Jews in the life of Kansas City, in the once-prejudiced Ford
Motor Company now having its own interfaith council, and in the outpouring
of support for Muslims who had been attacked following 9/11.
In Eck’s view, the pluralist
approach is the healthiest way to respond to the fact of diversity.
581 051019 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
'Its turtles all the way down'
We know the chicken comes from the
egg, and an egg from a chicken, but where does it all start? And how will
More broadly, did the universe
have a beginning, and what happens at the end of time?
Some Buddhists decline such
questions and speak instead about the “very no-beginning” and “the very
no-ending” of the world. In some ways their view may parallel the “Steady-State”
cosmological theory, popular with scientists in the 50s and 60s.
A much earlier story, perhaps
inspired by a Hindu conception of the incarnation of the god Vishnu as
a cosmic tortoise, goes like this. A scientist lectures on the design of
the universe, and an old lady objects: “The crust of earth we see really
rests on the back of an enormous turtle.” The scientist responds, “But
what does the turtle rest on?” The lady answers, “That turtle sits on an
even larger turtle.” The scientist sees an opening in the argument, and
asks, “But what supports that turtle?” The lady replies, “You think you
have found a flaw in what I’m saying, don’t you? But the answer is very
clear. It’s turtles all the way down.”
Variations on this story,
told by scientists, philosophers and others, make it a fascinating urban
legend, about which you can read at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turtles_all_the_way_down.
An urban legend of another
sort appears this Saturday in Kansas City: John Dobson, 90 years old, an
amateur astronomer, inventor of a low-cost telescope mount named after
him, and an advocate of the Steady-State theory. Dobson spent 23 years
studying in a Vedanta monastery until he was ejected for sneaking out at
night to view the stars and gained street fame in founding the San Francisco
Sidewalk Astronomers. His ardent followers admire him for teaching others
how to make telescopes from scrap and for democratizing astronomy.
Most cosmologists have abandoned
the Steady-State theory in favor of the Big Bang.
The Big Bang theory says
that about 14 billion years ago suddenly the universe exploded into being
from a tiny, unimaginably dense point. Some religious thinkers have seen
this as scientific support for the Bible. But other scientists theorize
that before the Big Bang, there was a Big Crunch, when the universe collapsed
into that point. Perhaps, they speculate, that the universe continues to
oscillate between expansion and contraction.
More recently, however, the
discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating has led to
modified Steady-State theories with multiple small big bangs. And string
theory offers weird possibilities of other universes along side our
Dobson presents his remarks,
based on observation and in faith, Saturday morning at Unity Temple on
the Plaza, and Saturday evening to the Astronomical Society of Kansas City
at UMKC. For information, call the Vedanta Society, (816) 444-8045.
580 051012 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Communities give us keys to the sacred
It's an affair of the heart.
You meet these wonderful people, full of compassion and doing good things.
You want to know them and know what energizes them, to understand the religious
perspectives which give their lives meaning.
That's how I fell in love
with interfaith work. It’s by knowing people and enjoying their company
that our sense of community is strengthened.
The wisdom of many traditions
in our neighbors also provides us with keys to open doors to the sacred,
keys from others that may work for us.
Here’s a superficial example.
My own heritage is Christian, and I thought I knew what church bells meant.
Bells routinely say, “The service is about to begin.” I had heard them
at home; I heard the cathedral bells in Europe. In fact, I had even rung
the bell when I was a student.
It wasn’t until I saw a child
swinging a rope with a striker at the high end at a Shinto shine gong that
the church bell took on deeper meaning. I learned that the intent at the
shine was to awaken kami, the god, to attend to the devotee, and that paradoxically
the act awakens the devotee to the presence of the god. This key experience
helped me understand that the church bell does not merely call people to
church, but also can awaken the presence of the sacred in us; the bell
is not just an external ringing but also an internal resonance. It is not
a Pavlovian bell compelling us to go somewhere; it is rather an alarm clock
awakening us from secular slumber.
You may not have needed that
particular key, but I did. Behind the doors of our own faiths are obvious
and sometimes profound truths we forget or have yet to discover. Someone
from another faith may hand us a key.
Here are a few keys, A to
Z. From the American Indian, the key to solving our environmental problems—
and energy issues in particular—may be more in revering nature than in
any technological fix. A Baha’i key may be their architecture which models
human kinship. Buddhist techniques can free us from mistaking transitory
things for the permanent.
Christianity reveals the
redemptive power of vicarious suffering. Hinduism’s myriad images of the
divine may caution us about worshipping anything finite. Islam’s weighing
of individual and group interests may restore us to better balance. The
Jewish impulse, tikkun olam, repairing of the world, reminds us the world
is not the way God wants it to be and offers transcendence through service.
Pagan practices show the
power of natural ritual. The Sikh is literally a “learner”; so should we
all be. The Sufis remind us that faith can be ecstatic. The Unitarian Universalist
openness to new ideas is a yeast for our culture. In Zoroastrianism we
find ethical commitment characterizes the cosmic drama in which we participate.
You know you are really neighbors
when you exchange keys to each other's homes.
579 051005 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Huston Smith still belongs to the world
His life has been the study
of the world’s faiths. He practiced many of them intensively for years
at a time. He wrote the classic text on world religions and a dozen other
books. He is revered as “the dean of world religions.” Beloved teacher
Huston Smith, age 86, has every right to declare his love for the tradition
in which he lives and moves and has his being.
His latest book, The Soul
of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition, does that.
Readers of this column may
remember that last April I accompanied Smith to the graveyard in Marshall,
MO, where his parents, missionaries to China, are buried. Smith was born
and lived in China for 17 years, taught at Washington University in St.
Louis before he went to M.I.T, and now belongs to the world, even if the
major section of the new book concludes with a story of his flying to Kansas
I first encountered his The
World’s Religions when I was a student in 1965 and met Smith in 1969. Each
time our paths have crossed, my awe of him has grown. No one I ever have
met deserves the label “gentleman” more than Smith, and no one could better
be called a Christian. My comments about his new book, therefore, can hardly
be presumed detached or objective.
His solution to the existence
of evil in a world created by a perfect God does not satisfy me, and I
dislike his dependence on spiritual hierarchy, but these are quibbles to
show you my independent judgment.
The Introduction brings Smith’s
warning about modernity, detailed in his Why Religion Matters, into new
power. Without mentioning post-modernist thinkers, he agrees with them
that “the myth of progress (is) a cruel joke.” He names science, technology,
business, government, the media, education, art and even religion as “disastrous”
But unlike post-modernists,
Smith proclaims a transcendent reality “drenched with meaning,” available
in every tradition, though his personal story is Christian.
Part 1 is a brilliant 15-point
“grammar” for the spirit that he says can be found in all faiths.
Parts 2 and 3 are rewritten
from his chapter on Christianity in The World’s Religions, but with fresh
material and insights. For example, in his elucidation of the atonement,
Smith now invokes Abelard’s alternative to the view that a vengeful God
demanded a ransom in order to pardon sinners. Smith also shows ways to
resolve difficulties Christians have with scriptural passages like Jesus’
command to hate one’s family.
And he shows how to
appreciate texts suggesting salvation is limited to Christians. Here is
a hint: “though for Christians God is defined by Jesus, he is not confined
This is a chatty book, not
academic. You could read it in a single sitting, or several short ones,
though you would want to pause often as your soul is restored through the
love in which this book is drenched.
578 050928 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Look at it this way (or four ways)
Today, a miscellany.
* The free “Sacred Space”
exhibition in the lobby of the Community of Christ Temple in Independence
is remarkable for at least three reasons.
First, it is a multifaith
Second, the eight works include
three monotheistic traditions, two from Asia, and three from indigenous
peoples. Indigenous spirituality is still often regarded as “primitive”
in the pejorative sense of that word. But the show here captures the sophistication
our own culturally limited eyes often fail to recognize.
Third, the “portals” — such
as the mihrab from a mosque and the ark of the covenant in a synagogue
— open to depictions of the endangered natural environment. While interfaith
conferences on ecological issues are important, art such as this with the
accompanying explanations may ultimately be more effective in exploring
our understandings of the holiness of nature.
* Visiting Minneapolis several
months ago, I saw “Shortcut to Nirvana,” a documentary about the Hindu
Kumbh Mela, a mass religious gathering in India every 12 years. Following
the screening, I urged one of the producers to bring it to Kansas City.
The film is now at the Tivoli. (See Robert Butler’s review in last Friday’s
Not only will you find an
authentic curry of Indian religion — a mixture of hoax and enlightenment,
frustration and satisfaction — but you’ll be given a mirror in which, if
you use it, you can view the mess that is American religion, from the televangelist
who apparently has lost his power or his will to steer hurricanes, to the
New Age fakirs promising shortcuts to world peace.
* Several years ago I spoke
to a high school class and mentioned the Exodus. Only one student had any
idea what I was talking about — one of countless cases of ignorance about
the Bible particularly and of religious illiteracy in general.
Part of the problem is that
public schools have been poorly equipped to teach about religion. Fear
of teaching the bible as faith has made teaching the bible as cultural
artifact difficult. Now the Bible Literacy Project has published a textbook,
The Bible and Its Influence, which superbly demonstrates the importance
of knowing scripture in understanding our culture.
The book is not a sufficient
aid in understanding the bible, however. Better are textbooks like The
New Testament: A Student’s Introduction by Stephen L. Harris and The Old
Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible by Harris and Robert L.
* But there are more religions
in the USA than those based on the Bible, as Diana Eck’s A New Religious
America documents. Here the play, “The Hindu and the Cowboy and Other Kansas
City Stories,” displays them in a schedule you can now find at http://www.kcharmony.org/Hinduandcowboy.htm.
577 050921 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Godly compassion can thrive in our
The age-old question, “Are
people naturally good or evil?” freshly appears when, following Hurricane
Katrina, we see on the one hand rape and other violence, and on the other,
extraordinary generosity and compassion.
At the beginning of the 20th
Century, liberal theologians argued that humans were born naturally good
and that humanity was progressing “onward and upward forever.” But as the
century unfolded, the horrors of two world wars, the Great Depression and
economic exploitation were evidence used by the “neo-orthodox” to emphasize
the sinful nature of humanity.
Are people born to hurt one
another? Is sin an innate and inescapable fact or tendency? Here are some
snapshots of the controversy.
The debate was famously framed
when Pelagius (d. 418), disgusted with the immorality he saw among conventional
Christians of his time, called on them, as we would say to day, “to clean
up their act.” His followers did not believe people were necessarily born
sinful and therefore had the capacity to reform, even to be perfect.
But Augustine (354-430) taught
that people can do no good except by the grace of God. Humans cannot redeem
Pelagius and his teachings
were condemned as heretical in 431 at the Council of Ephesus, establishing
a conservative position.
Then in 1486 Pico della Mirandola’s
“Oration on the Human Dignity,” sometimes called the “Manifesto of the
Renaissance,” elevated the way people thought about their potentials and
advanced a liberal viewpoint in that remarkably empowered period in history.
Today these two theological
perspectives underlie some social opinions. For example, liberals tend
to view prisons as an opportunity for rehabilitation while conservatives
often hope for little more than punishment and gloomily cite recidivism
And now the theological debate
is complicated by new understandings of the role of the social environment.
For example, some argue that when Mayor Rudy Giuliani focused on presumably
small things like reducing broken windows, litter and graffiti in New York,
a new attitude of respect was created that caused the city’s dramatic drop
While the West has understood
evil as disobedience to God’s law, the East has usually found evil results
from ignorance of the way the universe works.
My own hunch runs like this.
Our social, economic and political order is generally wicked. And folks
are often so discouraged or self-centered that they will not work to improve
it. Yet most people, on a personal level, find ways to love and help others.
Outpourings after the tsunami and Katrina suggest that people must be basically
good for such strong compassion to survive and occasionally flourish even
under the brutality of our secularistic age.
The Hebrew tradition
and particularly the Christian versions of "original sin," focus
on willfully disobeying God's commands. In Asia, generally, the problem
is not that people willfully disobey a divine Ruler, but that they are
ignorant of what will be most beneficial.
This is not a unique insight of my own, but a pretty standard comparison
general between the Biblical tradition and the "Oriental" perspectives,
although it certainly applies to some ancient cultures like Ancient Egypt
where morality was undersood as cosmic prudence.
Disobedience implies knowing what the law is. Ignorance is not knowing
what the law is. The former may presuppose inherent sinfulness; the latter
may presuppose inherent goodness, as in the Buddha-nature. Consequences
follow both, but the assessment for the cure is different. In the former,
forgiveness; in the latter, enlightenment.
576 050914 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Theologian's thought embraces all of
I wanted to walk in his footsteps,
and so ten years ago I went to Kansas City’s Sister City, Seville, Spain,
where he lived from age 8 into his 30s, some 800 years ago. Especially
I wanted to walk up the old minaret once part of the mosque there. Almost
every day I walk to the County Club Plaza where I see a small copy of the
minaret across from Nichols Fountain.
Walking where Ibn Arabi
walked was easy enough, but trying to understand him is like wading through
an entire ocean: his thought is so deep, so treacherous, so life-giving.
Unlike theologians who chart lines between truth and error, his approach
is all-embracing. Thus peace is reached not by subduing one’s enemy but
by drawing a larger circle including both sides.
Grounded in the Qur’an, his
love is without limits: “My heart has become capable of every form: it
is a pasture for gazelles, an abbey for Christian monks, a temple for idols,
the pilgrim’s Ka’ba, the tables of the Torah and the book of the Qur’an.
I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s camels take, that is
my religion and my faith.”
He wrote some 700 books,
one of which in a new edition runs 17,000 pages. Another book, written
after he saw a beautiful woman in Mecca where he had gone on pilgrimage,
described the spiritual path in erotic terms. For this he was threatened
by authorities. Although his writings have been banned in Saudi Arabia,
many Muslims have regarded him as “the greatest shiekh.” Western scholars
are now discovering him.
Like the Christian mystic
and the Buddhist about which I’ve written recently, Arabi discloses a universe
through intimacy, then union, then identity, with every creature, enriched
by the experience of separation.
This is implicit in a hadith
(tradition) Arabi favored: God said, “I was a hidden treasure, and I yearned
to be known. So I created creatures in order to be known by them.” The
Creator and the creatures need each other separate to fully realize themselves
together. On the spiritual path, the process of discovering God is discovering
Paradoxically one discovers
oneself by abandoning the illusion of the self so that one becomes empty
as a mirror, reflecting only God. Then God is able to behold himself—and
become God—in such a degree as the mirror is polished and free of dust.
Then there is no distance
or difference between the perceiver and the perceived, the subject and
the object, the lover and the beloved, God and the devotee. We become the
eyes, ears, hands and feet of God.
When we are free of the dust
of mistaking our temporary, relative and separate forms as ultimate, then
in love we can see each person is also a mirror reflecting everyone else.
Then we behold God. Love, the yearning to know and be known in our
fullness, unveils the hidden treasure. Everywhere we walk, even in tragedy,
we are in the heart of God.
575 050907 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Comfort the bereaved with listening,
The gulf disaster raises many religious
questions. How can an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God permit
such devastation? Why are clear religious teachings against theft violated
when opportunity permits? How effective are our prayers for loved ones?
If God cares for each person, is it selfish to mourn the tragedy in our
own nation more than those killed on the Baghdad bridge, or the Iraq War,
or the other horrors and miseries of the world?
It is better to honor such
questions, rather than to feel guilty for thinking them. After all, theologians
and religious teachers have wrestled them throughout the ages.
I have no answers to Katrina,
but I do have a story.
Once, before the sacred scriptures
of the Buddhist faith appeared in the Japanese language, a devotee named
Tetsugen decided he would get them translated from the Chinese and have
them published in Japan. He knew that the process would involve considerable
labor since the texts would have to be carved on wood blocks, and he envisioned
an edition of several thousand copies for those who could read.
He went from town to town
to collect money for his project. A decade passed, and finally he had the
funds to proceed.
But just then the river overflowed
and created panic and famine. So Tetsugen used the money to buy food for
the people. In time he began again to raise money for the publication of
the holy sutras.
After many years, enough
donations had again accumulated to begin the project. But then an epidemic
broke out. Medicines were expensive, and death left many families destitute.
So Tetsugen gave away all that he had collected to help those in need.
And when people recovered, he pursued the project.
Finally his goal was realized,
and the scriptures were published in Japanese. But it is said that the
first two editions, which were never published, far surpass the third.
May I draw a moral from this
Tetsugen placed immediate
human needs over sacred texts. And because he saw the needs and heard the
cries, he brought more comfort than an inspirational message for which
the people were not yet ready.
When the corpse of one’s
loved one was rotting, it was not the time to talk about a grand tomorrow.
When we prematurely responded to those in extreme distress by saying things
like “New Orleans will be rebuilt better than ever, and America will be
stronger through this ordeal,” we distanced ourselves from the reality
of the moment and from those engulfed in it.
Better at such times than
fancying an answer to “Why could God let this happen?” is the comfort of
letting the bereaved know you are really listening and asking the same
574 050831 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
The Infinite has many aspects
So many readers commented on the column
a couple weeks ago about the Catholic mystic Nicholas of Cusa that I’d
like to sketch two other writers for you, a Buddhist today and a Muslim
next month, whose thought parallels Cusa.
We usually assume that the
universe is a collection of things separate and distinct from each other.
For example, Jackson and Johnson are separate counties. This is a useful
legal fiction; yet it is easily argued that they influence, and to an extent,
create what each other has become.
Similarly, we may think of
ourselves as independent beings, but who would we be without the genetic
inheritance from our parents, without nurturing we received or did not
receive, without the society which provides water and credit cards and
cell phones? Would we be as we are without Columbus and Martin Luther King
Jr? Do we exist independent of the oxygen we breath? Would we survive the
extinction of the sun?
These mystics say we are
embedded in the world to such an extent that to think of anything as separate
and distinct is illusory. Even a pen implies the anatomy of the hand that
writes with it, the Phoenicians sometimes credited with inventing the alphabet,
the geologic transformations that turned living things into oil from which
the pen’s plastic was derived, and an economic system sophisticated enough
to create, manufacture and distribute the pen, not to mention the lawyers
who find ways of being involved in transactions all along the way!
The mystical sensibility
is sometimes characterized as “one-ness,” but that is just as misleading
as the everyday notion of separateness. The vision of these mystics is
rather of mutual interrelatedness within what Cusa called God or the Infinite,
and what the Chinese Hua Yen Buddhist master Fa Tsang (643-712)
called the Void.
The Empress Wu Tse-T’ien
asked Fa Tsang to explain the doctrine of interpenetration and mutual containment
of all things in the Void. He built her a room with mirrors on all walls,
the floor and the ceiling. In it he placed a torch and an image of the
Taking her inside, he called
her attention to the countless reflections, each image imparting the others.
Producing from his robe a crystal ball, Fa Tsang showed the Empress how
the large mirrors and the small ball mutually generate and contain images
of each other. The infinite number of images possible, simultaneously arising,
was a metaphor for the mutual creation and interdependence of all things
in space and time.
Thus when we look at any
other human being, we can imagine that he or she has struggled, as we have,
with finitude, knowing little, desiring deeply, infinitely connected in
ways we cannot imagine. We are kin. And recognizing how limited he or she
is, and ourselves, embedded in a complicated network of circumstances,
paradoxically opens the door to the Infinite, one name for which is compassion.
573 050824 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Conquering genocide with community
The record of humanity’s violation of our
own kind in the name of religion or advancing civilization is not a happy
theme. Especially difficult for us to consider is the often-deliberate
acts against American Indians that some now call genocide. Many Indians
were exterminated. Others, denied use of their mother tongue, were converted
into Christianity, as those familiar with Johnson County, KS, history may
Some estimate the Belgian
genocide of the Congolese, continuing into the 20th Century, involved upwards
of 30 million victims. More recently, we recoil at the killing fields of
Cambodia, the massacres in Rwanda, the “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia, the
ongoing assault on Tibetans and their culture by China and the present
But the term “genocide” was
developed by a Jewish legal scholar and we most often associate it with
the Nazis. Estimates of their crimes go as high as 11 million, including
six million Jews. One third of the Catholic priests in Poland were slaughtered,
along with gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others.
What can be done to prevent
such calamities in the future, and to insure that our nation never succumbs
to the temptation to marginalize, then dehumanize and finally eliminate
people of certain faiths or extractions? Or more positively, how can we
strengthen our own community by fostering understanding among people of
Country Club Christian Church
is beginning a two-step program. First, it aims to deepen the connection
members have with one another. Then it plans to reach out to the larger
The tool is reading books
together and thereby “weave people together with a common thread.” member
Linda Nixon says. The congregation begins with Mary Doria Russell’s new
novel, A Thread of Grace, which portrays interaction between people
of different faiths during the Holocaust. “By reading a book together and
then discussing it in small groups, people get to know each other and a
synergy builds in the congregation.” says senior minister Glen Miles. The
study culminates with the author’s visit to the church Sep. 15. “Not only
do we look forward to building the community within the church but we hope
to reach out to the greater community,” says event chair Melanie Thompson.
Then on Sep. 18, an interfaith
panel explores “Resistance and Religion.” And on Sep. 25, Fran Sternberg,
daughter of Holocaust survivors, presents “Interesting Times: A Family
Trapped in History.” Guests are welcome at all events.
Nixon says the church is
also providing a learning program for children using books with related
For information, click on
“Book by Book” on the church’s web site, www.cccckc.org.
572 050817 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Mystic's vision unifies opposites
Religion, science and mathematics were
unified in the vision of the pre-Reformation mystic Nicholas of Cusa
(1401-1464). He may be remembered more in the history of science than
in theology because of his unusual views, though he served the Roman Catholic
Church in many ways and in 1448 was made a cardinal.
Cusanus, as he is also called,
envisioned a parliament of the world’s religions, was sent by the pope
to Constantinople to bring the Western and Eastern churches together and
was entrusted with correcting church and monastic abuses in the Netherlands
He developed calendar reform,
discovered that a concave lens could compensate for myopia, proposed a
system of proportional balloting and, before Copernicus was born, declared
that the earth is not the center of the universe, that it revolves around
the sun and that stars are objects like the sun.
I’d rank his De Docta
Ignoratia, Of Learned Ignorance, as one of the most profound works
in the library of Christendom. In it he says that our greatest wisdom is
to recognize how little we know. Books might contain information, but they
are not the source of wisdom. Human knowledge is really conjecture. More
important than the abstractions of theology are the experiences of the
But by love we can know the
What is the divine? In one
place in De Visione Dei, The Vision of God, he describes God as
neither Creator nor creation (and another place, as both), but rather the
“Nature of all natures.” Against his contemporaries, Cusanus saw change
and motion as the nature of perfection. Does this suggest that God is a
natural unfolding Process, as in the theology of Charles Hartshorne today?
Does he anticipate Paul Tillich’s understanding of God not as a Supreme
Being but as the “Ground of Being”?
Even more intriguing is his
understanding of God as the coincidence of opposites, which, in mathematical
metaphor, he calls the “Infinite,” where all things are reconciled. For
example, a circle and a straight line are opposites. But if the circle
is expanded to infinity, the circumference becomes just as flat as the
line. God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere.
While classical theology
places God, ultimate reality, at the top of the chart with creatures underneath,
Cusanus rejects both hierarchy and the idea that there is a center to the
universe organizing the rest. Rather the universe is organized in every
individual which implicates every other individual as they participate
In the language of psychology,
the paradox is that one can love others best when one loves oneself. And
loving self and others coincides with loving God.
571 050810 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
How many gods? Take a breath, think
How many gods are there? Islam is unambiguous
in its response: one. Judaism’s shema, a confession of faith, proclaims
there is one God for Israel. Christianity’s trinity proclaims three persons
in one God. Buddhists have no need of a creator God, and the joke about
Unitarians is that they “believe in one God — at most.”
But what Westerners call
Hinduism probably embraces more ways of answering this question than any
other tradition. It is said that Hindus believe in 330 million gods, but
there are many ways of counting. The trimurti, sometimes misleadingly compared
with the Christian trinity, consists of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the Creator,
Sustainer and Destroyer.
Some gods take many forms.
For example, the gods Krishna and Rama—and some Hindus would add Buddha
and Jesus—are some of the avatars of Vishnu. It gets complicated pretty
quickly because the Bhagavad Gita appears to present Krishna as more than
a manifestation of Vishnu.
Another Hindu way of looking
at God is with the pair of terms, Atman and Brahman. The former is usually
understood as the divine character within each person, and the latter is
the cosmic Self. Spiritual life moves toward realizing they are identical.
The Chandogya Upanishad,
on one hand, presents God everywhere present (Tat tvam asi— “That
thou art”), but the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad denies that God can be identified
with anything (Neti, neti—“not this, not that”).
Don’t worry about it. A famous passage in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
may put you at ease. The sage Yajnavalkya is asked, “How many gods are
there?” He answers by calculating the gods mentioned in the “Hymn to All
the Gods,” 3306. His questioner responds, “Yes, but just how many gods
are there?” This time the answer is 33. The repeated question results in
the following responses; 6, then 3, then 2, then 1 1/2.
This latest answer is sort
of like saying that, on average, there are 1.36 persons per car passing
through the Grandview Triangle. Hopefully no car contains exactly 1.36
persons. So what does this sacred text mean, “1 1/2 gods”?
Perhaps it is saying that
any attempt to name or define or quantify the Infinite is, in a sense,
silly, even if in some contexts it might be useful, as knowing the average
number of persons per car can be helpful in traffic management.
But the text continues. The
question is asked one more time, “Just how many gods are there?’ This time
the answer is, “One. . . . Breath. . . . They call him Brahman, the Undefined.”
So just when we think the answer is one God, we are reminded that attempts
to constrain the Absolute in human language may be misleading, though carried
forward by respiration itself.
570 050803 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Confront evil actively and creatively
When Jesus said, “Do not resist
an evil person,” what did he mean?
Warren Carter raises the
question in response to last week’s column reporting on an essay by Jim
Mathis of the Kansas City Christian Businessmen’s Community. Carter is
professor of New Testament at the Saint Paul School of Theology here. He
discusses this passage, Matt. 5:39, his book Matthew and the Margins, pages
In his email to me, Carter
suggests the translation is misleading. “To instruct people to not resist
an evil doer – if that is what Jesus is saying – makes little sense!
And it would be quite contrary to the biblical tradition. The tradition
expects people in relation to God to resist evil. What frequently
differs in the biblical writings are the means of resisting.”
He lists several options:
violence, changing one’s ways, “pronouncing judgment and consigning a person
or situation to God’s judgment,” retreat and “trusting God to intervene
(e.g. Psalm 37).”
Carter continues, “Jesus
is not teaching against this tradition of resisting evil. Rather
he is instructing on how to do so in a context where its power is overwhelming
and there are no legitimate democratic means of protest. The verb
translated “do not resist” is commonly used in ancient literature to denote
warfare and violent actions.” Carter says Jesus is condemning the use of
violence in resisting evil, but not condemning resisting evil. “Hence Jesus’
negative command ought to be translated, ‘Do not violently resist an evildoer.’”
When Carter looks at the
next verses, he sees Jesus outlining “active, non-violent, creative means”
to resist evil: “turning the other check, giving all one’s clothes, going
two miles with the soldier’s pack. These strange actions make sense in
a context where oppressed people have little power.” Walter Wink presents
a similar perspective, detailed at www.cres.org/wink.
Carter says the actions Jesus
advises “are self-dignifying means of protest that refuse intimidation,
momentarily seize the initiative from the oppressor and expose their excessive
power.” Carter recommends Weapons of the Weak and Domination and the Arts
of Resistance by James C. Scott for information about nonviolent protests
among powerless groups.
Carter agrees with Mathis
that Jesus endorses neither “fight nor flight,” but rather a third way
of engaging evil. Carter concludes that this method “is not passive but
comprises creative actions that express dignity and refuse to escalate
or normalize violence. Gandhi and King were practitioners. Will it work
in foreign policy? The question is difficult. Vietnam and Iraq demonstrate
graphically the ineffectiveness and unsustainability of military violence.
If there can be no peace without justice, a commitment to engage evil creatively,
actively, and nonviolently would be worth the effort.”
569 050727 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Meet violence with nonviolence
Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, religions
originating in India, are among those with strong teachings against violence.
The Jain faith is rigorous in its application of ahimsa, doing no harm.
The Buddha observed that “a person finds no justice by carrying a dispute
to violence.” The Hindu scriptures counsel, “If you want to see the brave,
look at those who can forgive. If you want to see the heroic, look at those
who can love in return for hatred.”
Gandhi condemned war not
only because of those who perish but also because it brutalizes the fighter.
As his work proved, social and political transformations can be led by
ennobling non-violent responses to oppression and injustice.
The great Chinese Taoist
text, the Tao Te Ching, warns that “even ornamental weapons are not a source
of happiness, but of dread.”
The abhorrence of violence
also characterized the early Christian church which found the teachings
of Jesus incompatible with war and capital punishment.
A great many newsletters
cross my desk, but none has surprised me more than the July issue of “Common
Grounds” from Homer’s Coffee House in Overland Park, a ministry of the
Kansas City Christian Businessmen’s Community, www.homerscoffeehouse.com.
Even more surprising is that Jim Mathis, who wrote its “Fight or Flight
or Something Better?” essay, told me that he has received no flack from
readers of the article.
After discussing the business
practices of Neiman-Marcus, a passage in Proverbs and the teachings of
Jesus, Mathis wrote, “I often wonder what would happen if a presidential
candidate said that from now on the United States would respond to the
arrogant dictators of the world with love and understanding. Or what if
our military leaders would admit that retaliation always leads to escalation.
. . .
“But I really think Jesus
was serious. He wasn’t just joking when he said, ‘You have heard it said,
“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you, do not
resist an evil person . . . . Love your enemies and pray for those who
“You might say, ‘Do that
and people will walk all over you,’ Maybe. You might also be perceived
as a man or woman of God . . . .”
Does Mathis’ citation of
Jesus apply to the age of terrorism? One can argue the early martyrs might
have thought so. Does a bellicose response decrease or increase the measure
of danger and hate in the world? Are the religious teachers of so many
faiths foolish or wise?
Holland Cotter wrote in the
New York Times last week, “Standard Hindu and Buddhist accounts consider
the present age, with its belief in the virtue of greed and its blind faith
in power through intimidation, a disaster, corrupt beyond redemption.”
Jesus was crucified. Is the
Christian hope “fight or flight or something better?”
568 050720 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Looking at theology by accident
Several readers have suggested
I erred June 1 in writing, “Those few scientists who say that evolution
is undirected, accidental and purposeless are doing theology, not science.
And those who find evidence for intelligent design of the world are also
doing theology, not science. No scientific proof can be produced to support
either interpretation of the evidence.”
I think my critics
are partly justified. My statement was sloppy. I’ll try to clean it up.
Let’s look at the ideas of
“accident” and “chance.” Some people say, “Nothing is an accident; everything
happens for a purpose.” Yet they do not protest news reports of traffic
accidents. Even though we call them accidents, the insurance agencies and
courts must sometimes determine who “caused” the “accident.”
When we say, “I ran into
So-and-so by chance,” we mean we did not plan the meeting, but we
do not deny that there are causes or otherwise irrelevant intentions that
led our paths to cross. Evolution may be unplanned, but that does not mean
that climate and food availability play no role in shaping future species.
Often we use the words “accident”
and “chance” to suggest that we could not have predicted the event.
In this sense, evolution
is accidental. No one is smart enough to factor all the influences that
will cause the next car accident at Westport Road and Broadway, and no
scientist has any way of calculating what dogs will look like 100 million
years from now, much what shape human beings might exhibit, if we are around
But in another sense, those
with the mind-set that says “nothing happens by chance” may say, “We don’t
know the result, but God does, and behind what appears to us to be random
happenstance is a guiding power.”
I think theologians are wrong
to object when scientists, using language in the ordinary sense within
their discipline, say evolution is random; and right to object when scientists
import the ordinary sense of “random” into theological discourse. And Intelligent
Design folks are wrong to inject theological language into the scientific
study of the natural world.
One of my philosophy professors
claimed that most of the problems of traditional philosophy — such as “Do
we have free-will?” — are based on stretching ordinary language describing
discrete situations to apply to the whole of existence. In his view, you
cannot get from cars crashing into each other at Westport and Broadway
to whether the entire universe is an accident or not.
I think that applies as well
to theology, the study of ultimate meaning.
Another error. Last week
I confused some dates. “The Hindu and the Cowboy” play is performance at
Village Presbyterian Church on Oct. 28. The Nov. 5 performance is at the
Community of Christ Temple.
567 050713 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Autumn's visitors will be as varied
as fall colors
Again this fall Kansas City will be blessed
with visits from distinguished religious leaders. This “early warning”
is to assist you, dear reader, to get the dates on your calendar now, with
details forthcoming. I also want to alert others planning great speakers
to avoid the kind of conflict we had last year when Huston Smith and Matthew
Fox were in town at the same time.
To the delight of folks already
talking about it, Huston Smith returns Oct. 9 and 10. Sunday evening he
speaks at Unity Village and Monday evening at the Rime Buddhist Center.
Smith will be touring to promote his new book, The Soul of Christianity,
due out in September. This book is especially significant since Smith,
best known for his The World’s Religions, has spent most of his 85 years
teaching about other faiths.
Now he focuses on his own.
A life-long Methodist, and son of Methodist missionaries to China, Smith
cherishes his own congregation in Berkeley where he now lives after teaching
at M.I.T., Washington University and other schools. Smith’s Christianity
is neither “rigid fundamentalism” nor “non-transcendent liberalism.” Whether
you agree or not, the stories he tells from his remarkable life charm and
inspire. But I begin to sound like his book agent; excuse me, but I revere
John Esposito speaks the
evening of Nov. 4 at the Community of Christ Peace Colloquy on “The Islamic
Threat: Myth or Reality?” He is professor of Religion and International
Affairs and of Islamic Studies, Georgetown University. His book, What Everyone
Needs to Know About Islam, is both simply written, accurate and frank.
Because of the problems many of us have in getting clear information about
the enormously varied expressions of Islam, he is a great choice to speak
on the colloquy’s theme, “From Fears to Friendships.”
Diana Eck, head of the Pluralism
Project at Harvard University, is another favorite. She appears at Village
Presbyterian Church Oct. 21 and 22. Her 1988 speech at the first conference
of the North American Interfaith Network helped galvanize Kansas City attendees
into creating the KC Interfaith Council.
Her 2001 book, A New Religious
America: How A “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously
Diverse Nation, is full of surprises, including the complete text of former
Kansas Gov. Bill Graves’ 1997 Ramadan Proclamation, the first such gubernatorial
recognition in the U.S. Eck is a gracious and eloquent speaker, and her
research is always up-to-the-minute.
The following week, Oct 28,
the Johnson County church will, like other organizations this fall in KCK,
Independence, Midtown and Raytown, present “The Hindu and the Cowboy and
Other Kansas City Stories,” a play created by Donna Ziegenhorn from interviews
with 80 KC area residents from every conceivable faith background.
566 050706 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Commandments are codes to live by
Last week the Supreme Court
focused attention on the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, now revered by
three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, although it had no particular
significance in Christianity until about 600 years ago.
The Decalogue represents
a great moral advance over the Code of Hammurabi, on which the Hebrew law
code was modeled. Does this transmission of law work for us today?
Hammurabi, a Babylonian king,
lived about 3750 years ago. A stela discovered about a hundred years ago,
now in the Louvre, shows the sun god Shamash commissioning Hammurabi’s
law, as Moses received the Decalogue from the god Yahweh. Tradition places
this about 3300 years ago, but some scholars think the Decalogue might
be only 2750 years old.
Both codes insist that society
must be governed by rules, not whims. Perhaps the most famous influence
of the earlier law code in the Bible is the punishment system: “Eye for
eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Ex. 21:24), though
the Hebrew system does not apply the Hammurabi dictation mechanically.
Of the many advances in the
Mosaic code is the treatment of everyone equally under the law, where Hammurabi
prescribes severe penalties for harming someone in a higher class, and
milder penalties for mistreating someone in a lower class.
The Bible actually contains
three sets of “Ten Commandments.” The number “ten” does not appear with
the set identified by tradition in Ex 20 and Deut 5. But "ten" does appear
with a list in Ex. 34, where one of the commandments is not to boil a kid
in its mother’s milk. The two traditional versions consist of at least
twelve, not ten, statements, numbered to make ten in different ways by
Today allegiance to
the “Ten Commandments” may be largely a hortatory or sentimental exercise
because few people follow the commandments as they were intended, with
the prescribed punishments.
For example, the commandment
to honor the sabbath forbids all work and forbids engaging others to work.
This would mean closing the malls including the theaters, shutting the
hospitals and police departments and dispensing with most utilities including
phone service. Our society simply is not structured to apply the Mosaic
Another example: should a
5-year old girl molested by her father be expected to honor him because
the ancient code requires it? And why is there no parallel commandment
for parents to honor their children?
[A third case: the prohibition
against graven and other images might require the end of photography and
TV as well as statues and the way we make coins.
[A fourth example: While
the Decalogue requires giving primacy to one god, Yahweh, and does not
deny the existence of other gods (they were assumed), our government cannot
compel belief in this or any other deity.
Many other examples could
be given of what appears defective in the Decalogue from the perspective
of modern society.]
While all faiths command
respecting life, the truth, property and sexuality, ancient ideas embedded
in the Decalogue, how these ideas might be applied today may require fresh,
earnest and faithful thinking.
565 050629 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Acceptance can make a site sacred
SANLIURFA, Turkey — As I watch
the women at the Mevlid Halil Mosque, I think more of America than I do
of Abraham, who is said to have been born in the cave here into which I
have just peered. (This city is said to be the biblical Ur.)
This is a sacred pilgrimage
site, and while the dress of the men varies unremarkably, the women who
come are also varied in their dress; but that is remarkable.
In some Muslim countries
the women would be uniformly attired, for example, with a veil. But here,
as throughout Turkey, Muslim women choose their own way to express their
understanding of modesty.
Except in the schools and
A Turkish friend tells me,
“No one has the right to tell a Muslim woman how to dress; and uncovered
women, veiled women, women fully covered are all welcome and respected
here as equally devout Muslims. We accept all.”
He is conscious of his own
Ottoman heritage of extraordinary tolerance. Instead of imposing a uniform
legal system or set of customs on the entire empire, the Ottomans generally
respected the practices of different religious and ethic groups, and allowed
a measure of self-regulation. Jews escaped Christian persecution by emigrating
to Ottoman lands.
In my country, Muslims from
all over the world, as well as those Americans born into another faith
who convert to Islam, also have the freedom to dress as they wish — but
But in Turkey, dating back
to its formation as a modern secular state, women were prohibited from
wearing the headscarf if they wished to attend school or work in a state
institution. And men were not allowed to wear the fez.
To some, secularism in Turkey
seems like government hostility to religion. In the US, secularism means
religion is protected from government control.
Of course we Americans have
our problems negotiating “church and state.” In disputes over issues like
government grants to “faith-based” organizations, some people think that
religion and government are too friendly, and others too distant. Sometimes
officials, like Lt. Gen. William Boykin a couple years ago, speak in sectarian
ways with what seems to others the force of government. But usually we
get these problems cleaned up.
And just as some American
Christians are overbearing, not all American Muslims are tolerant. Earlier
this year, a Muslim woman called KCUR’s Walt Bodine show to complain that
his Muslim woman guest did not wear hijab and therefore could not be a
Here, near the Euphrates
River, I think of the Missouri River, and the interfaith observance I’m
supposed to lead as part of the KC Riverfest Independence Day week-end
at Berkley Riverfront Park, and I think — more than relics or attire, it
may be the attitude of acceptance that makes a site sacred.
564. 050622 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Give me oil and a genie in my lamp
BERGAMA, Turkey — The shopkeeper
offers me chai, the customary tea here, as I rest from exploring the ruins
of Pergamon (or Pergamum) high above this modern city.
Actually, my eye is resting
on what looks like an antique oil lamp, exactly the size and shape and
age I fancy that brought adventure to Aladdin. Among the many powers possessed
by its genie was transporting Aladdin as he wished. Should I buy this lamp,
even if it comes with no genie?
Yesterday it was Ephesus.
Similar, both ancient Pergamon and Ephesus flourished with their gods and
gymnasiums and commerce and theaters (10,000 seats at Pergamon, 25,000
at Ephesus). Their libraries were surpassed only by the one in Alexandria.
Both cities are addressed by the last book in the Christian scriptures,
But the two ancient cities
are also different. Ephesus lies on the sea and Pergamon scrapes the clouds,
1300 feet above the Caicus river plain.
Ephesus was the greatest
city of Asia at the time. Ephesus is a huge site, and easy to imagine Paul
spending two years here at the beginning of his work advancing Christianity
from this cosmopolitan center.
It was at the Ephesus theater that Paul,
though not present, caused quite a commotion, according to Acts 19. Paul
wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus (I Cor 16:8).
The city’s patron deity was
Artemis, called by Diana by the Romans, but she was worshiped far beyond
these precincts. Her temple was the largest of all Greek temples, one of
the seven wonders of the ancient world. She was, after all, among other
things, the goddess of wealth. Though nowadays we enter no temple in her
name, worshiping her has continued, I think.
Pergamon was a cultural and
political power for some seven centuries.
One of its citizens, Galen,
born about 130 years after Christ, brought medical science to its apogee,
and was especially known for his ability to treat trauma (think gladiators).
He build upon the work of his predecessor, Hippocrates, who lived six centuries
earlier, after whom the famous medical oath is named, as well as his own
research. Galen’s influence persisted over a thousand years, perhaps in
part because Christians and Muslims liked his monotheism.
When he was 20, Galen studied
about a mile away at a huge medical complex. It was named the Asclepium,
after the Greek god of healing. Its waters for healing still trickle through
These great cities are astonishing
even in waste. Some remains are visible; some persist in our culture. It
is not difficult, even without a genie’s help, to imagine these cities
in their glory.
But I would need a genie
to show me what might remain the in rubble two thousand years hence of
my beloved Kansas City.
Ah, the chai has been refreshing.
Should I buy the lamp?
563. 050615 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Society's soul needs a call to prayer
KONYA, Turkey — I am sitting
on a hill where the huge Alaadin Mosque was begun about 1150, and I hear
the adhan, the call to prayer, from its minarets. I am told it is live,
not recorded, and it reverberates around the city where the amplified version
comes from the many minarets in the area. I time the echo as the muezzin
pauses: 5 seconds.
The muezzin’s voice here
is as pure as any I have heard anywhere, a purity so powerful it compels
attention. “God is the greatest” is a common way of translating his first
phrase; but even without knowing the meaning of the chant, the sound lifts
the hearer beyond the ordinary to the realm of ultimacy.
It is a holy cry. The adhan
is a routine that injects the extraordinary into daily living. Tornado
sirens alert us to danger, and we think of what is really important to
us, what we would save if disaster would strike. The adhan also alerts
us to think of what is important, but the adhan announces opportunity,
not disaster. It is an opportunity to put our concerns in perspective:
nothing can be placed on the same level as God. Wealth, power, fame, pleasure
— all must be subordinated to the single Source of life.
The practice of prayer five
times a day rehearses submission to God’s rule, transcending the petty
by becoming part of God’s plan. In effect, the muezzin announces holy living.
The result is not just personal
integrity but also social harmony. A whole city hears this witness, as
do other cities throughout the Muslim world.
Paul visited this place,
then known as Iconium. The mosque uses Roman pillars from that time. Even
earlier the Hittites, mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures in stories from
Abraham to Ezra, built here. The mosque complex includes a room into which
I peered a few moments ago, a single room entombing the early sultans with
utter simplicity. I am told they eschewed personal aggrandizement to serve
the people in submission to God.
And the city is now famous
for the shrine to Jalaladin Rumi, the Thirteenth Century Sufi whose utter
submission to God as love may be one reason his poetry is popular in America
Also in this city is a dome with
the names of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad inscribed, typical of the
Muslim motif of integrating the teachings of all known faiths into a universal
So I ask myself, with this
history and expanse implied in the ultimacy of the muezzin’s awesome call,
what would such a cry be like in Kansas City? The secularism of Turkey
today allows the call, but does not endorse it. I’m an American honoring
the separation of church and state, and a call beyond partisanship and
special interests to a single unifying vision seems elusive if not impossible.
Yet is it not what the soul in society yearns for?
562. 050608 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Bishop preaches against practice of
Polarization is a “major
disease” of today’s society and even the church, says Bishop Raymond J.
Boland, who retired last month as head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of
Kansas City-St. Joseph. His address to the graduates of Avila College May
14 focused on what he called this “dirty 12-letter word.”
Boland defined polarization
as “the division of our civil society and our religious beliefs into two
elements concentrated about opposing extremes.” Polarization causes people
to see things in black and white terms, and those who disagree with one’s
positions become “implacable enemies.” He said that polarization “is undermining
the integrity of both our society and our church.”
Beginning “with the conviction
that I am right and you are wrong,” polarization escalates
itself to the next level which convinces one that one is always right and
everybody else is always wrong. “It brims over the top when the elimination
of the other seems both desirable and justifiable. It led Christ to the
Boland cited examples from
history and “current headlines.” Polarization “created the gulags and Belsens
and the Katyn Woods of our recent past. It gave birth to the Kamikaze pilot,
the suicide bomber, the assassin and the perpetrators of Sept. 11. It erects
walls, some to keep people in, others to keep people out; we might say
prisons on a grand scale.”
With a special poignancy,
Boland told of his standing “before a 20-foot high wall crowned with spirals
of barbed wire as it snaked its way throughout the inner suburbs of Belfast
in my native Ireland. The sadness is that the people on both sides of that
wall go to church every Sunday and sing exuberantly of the glories of their
Christianity: polarization at its worst.”
He continued, “We have had
Hardrian's Wall, the Great Wall of China, the Iron Curtain, the Berlin
Wall, and what have we learned? Apparently not much. We are now building
one in the Holy Land.”
While recognizing the need
for a “a code of principles by which to conduct one’s life,” Boland said
polarization becomes a critical issue “when it becomes frozen, immovable,
arrogant and frequently irrational,” equating “dialogged with weakness”
and regarding “diversity as an affront.”
He warned against clothing
polarization in “such rallying cries as patriotism, orthodoxy, freedom
and even ‘our God-given rights.’”
Boland has led Kansas City
Catholics in developing relationships with those with whom Catholics might
disagree. In return, folks of other faiths have enormous respect and gratitude
for the Catholic witness in the community. In avoiding polarization and
promoting understanding, Boland has the right to preach what he has practiced
561. 050601 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Religion opens wormholes into sense
Both supporters and opponents of intelligent
design have severely criticized my last two columns. On one hand they’ve
called me “atheist” and, on the other, “Thomist,” after the great medieval
theologian. I’m trying to chart a middle ground that respects everyone’s
religious beliefs and the integrity of science. The middle ground is such
unfamiliar territory for some of readers they think I have to be on one
side or the other.
To summarize those two columns:
Those few scientists who say that evolution is undirected, accidental and
purposeless are doing theology, not science. And those who find evidence
for intelligent design of the world are also doing theology, not science.
No scientific proof can be produced to support either interpretation of
the evidence. God may or may not be guiding the process of “natural selection.”
God may or may not directly intervene in nature with special creation.
Such matters are for religion, not science, though science may inform the
This discussion arises in
a society with little sense of transcendence, of something greater than
our limited selves. Instead of transcendence, special interest groups and
ideologies compete. Even religious groups are sometimes so focused on their
creeds, rules, mission, and governance that they forget the Big Questions
and focus instead on details. Thus religion itself is secularized, reducing
or breaking a sense of transcendence.
At their best, religions
are worm-holes into transcendence. But the worm-holes are not alike. The
Christian worm-hole, for example, generally locates the transcendent beyond
this flower or that business transaction or the erotic arousal. The
Christian worm-hole leads, ultimately to the presence of God.
on the other hand, offers a worm-hole to no god, for no one has created
the universe; it has always been evolving. The Zen worm-hole leads us directly
back to this flower and that business transaction and the erotic arousal
— but freed of the ignorance, the preconceptions and the obsessions that
ordinarily cloud our ways of relating to them.
For many Christians,
transcendence is away from the ordinary; for the Zen Buddhists, it is within
the ordinary. Both are worm-holes of transcendence because they lead us
to something beyond ourselves, to understand ourselves as part of a larger
pattern or process, natural or supernatural, God or the Totality of Relationships
or the Void.
Intelligent design could
be an attempt to find a scientific worm-hole to transcendence, to find
cosmic meaning in the evidence, to say the supernatural affects the natural.
But there are other worm-holes to transcendence, such as Egyptian and Indian
creation stories which say the world arose from divine desire, not intelligence.
Among the best worm-holes
the faiths offer are compassion and understanding. You can’t prove scientifically
that life is worth living. But such worm-holes to transcendence can.
560. 050525 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Answers within us explore faith and
Here’s a theological experiment
you can do in your kitchen. First some science. Bring water to boil and
pour it into a container into which you mix as much salt as will dissolve.
Pour the solution into a clean jar and suspend a thread into the water
from a pencil resting on the rim. Cover the mouth of the jar with paper
and tape it shut. Let sit for 15 minutes, then swish. After 15 minutes
more, repeat. Swish one last time an hour later. Then for several days
watch cubic crystals grow on the string. Complete directions can be found
You can observe that even
inanimate matter like NaCl, sodium chloride (salt), has what appears to
be a self-organizing, self-replicating property. Since it is nearly summer,
it is pleasant to think about the six-sided snowflake, shaped by the physical
properties of the water molecule, another self-organizing crystal. Even
DNA, a basic material and set of instructions for life, is crystal-like,
and organizes itself and directs the processes of growth.
So much for science. Now
the theology. You have to look not at the salt crystal, but within yourself.
Is God directing the salt
to move toward the thread and grow? Did God design H2O so that water crystals
would be so beautiful and varied? When researchers in 1953 threw some watery
chemicals together and passed electric charge through the mix and amino
acids developed, was that accidental or orchestrated by God? Is it chance
that water is liquid in exactly the tiny range (0-100° C), less than
one millionth of the temperature spectrum, that makes life as we know it
We can agree on the data.
But the answers you find within yourself to these questions may not convince
others. The inner answers explore the realm of faith, not facts. They transcend
When those few irresponsible
scientists say evolution is accidental, undirected and purposeless, they
are speaking theologically, not scientifically. And when Intelligent Design
folks look at the same evidence and find it to be intelligently designed,
they are not doing science; they are doing theology. One reader sent me
a theory of Stupid Design to account for errors in human anatomy. Intelligent
or stupid? It’s a theological, not scientific, question.
To cut to the chase, as another
reader wrote, the real question is “whether life has meaning or not.”
I think the ID folks are
saying something with their body language liberals need to hear. They are
saying that what they see as design shows that the universe has purpose,
life has meaning, there is something beyond our ordinary pursuits, and
we have a place in the plan. Our super-secularistic society gives us few
opportunities to discuss such large questions, so they arise in strange
places, perhaps even in kitchens. We’ll explore such questions of transcendence
559. 050518 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Evolution argument can't afford certainty
No. 2 pencil, I filled in the answer sheet for the standardized high school
biology exam some 38 years ago. But I put asterisks by my marks for the
evolution questions and at the bottom of the sheet wrote something like,
“I am answering according to the text book because I want a good grade,
but I do not believe in evolution. I believe the Bible rather than the
godless scientists.” My teacher later said I scored the highest in the
I quit college in my sophomore
year because I wanted to spend a full semester researching how science
and religion affect each other. I learned that many scientists have been
inspired by religious concerns, and theologians have sometimes integrated
developing scientific theories into their work. I also learned that both
science and religion are shaped by the culture in which they grow, and
that claims to objectivity are often overdrawn. While stories and faith
may be the usual way to communicate religious truths, and math and facts
may be better for science, the boundaries between the two are sometimes
In my doctoral studies and
ministerial career ever since, I have continued to examine this topic.
I offer these autobiographical
hints so you will not think my conclusion is sudden or thoughtless. My
conclusion is that absolute certainty about such matters is premature.
That is why I suspect it
is a mistake for some scientists to claim that evolution is undirected,
accidental and purposeless. No scientific experiment can decide whether
this is correct. The claim is theological, not scientific.
Similarly I suspect it is
an error for proponents of intelligent design to claim their theory is
scientific. The complexity of a cell or the specialized function of a bacterium
tail proves nothing that cannot be accounted for by science. Intelligent
design is theology again, not science.
The ancient Greek stories
of the gods in conflict with each other arose from a world of caprice,
not design. The gods’ whims resulted in savage storms, changed the outcome
of battles and explained stupid love situations. In other traditions, the
world is made by a half-witted god; no intelligent being would design a
world with earthquakes and droughts; the creator is a bungler. Other
faiths have no creator at all; the world was not planned so much as it
The human appendix, the fragility
of the spine, the presence of the virus that causes the common cold, our
susceptibility to cancer—these are not obvious evidences for intelligent
design. Some animals survive by eating others ferociously, inflicting pain,
tearing apart the body of the victim. Perhaps it would have been more intelligent
to design a universe with necessary nutrients dissolved in accessible pond
Nonetheless, I think the
intelligent design folks are on to something critically important for faith
that the evolutionists often ignore, and I’ll write about that next week.
558. 050511 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
One view not enough in a diverse society
Several readers of last week’s column
scoffed at the idea that religious verity could be anything but absolute.
Yet the Bible contains passages suggesting that what is right in one situation
or for one person might be wrong otherwise.
A famous example from Ecclesiastes
3 says that “To everything there is a season . . . a time to kill, a time
to heal . . . a time to mourn, a time to dance . . . a time to love, and
a time to hate . . . .” What is right in one circumstance is wrong in another.
Paul in Romans 14:14, expresses
the notion of subjective truth: “I am persuaded, as a Christian, that nothing
is impure in itself; only if a man considers a particular thing impure,
then to him it is impure.”
I’ve previously noted the
example of Jesus violating the law of the sabbath when his disciples were
hungry (Matthew 12:1-6, Mark 2:23-27; Luke 6:1-4).
In the Christian tradition,
many have observed that the Bible can be used to “prove” almost anything.
The hundreds of Christian denominations have in part arisen from folks
who can’t agree on what the Bible means.
While there may be absolute
truths and objective moral principals, the human problem is knowing when
to apply which ones in actual situations. For this reason, in the practical
realm, I personally don’t find the argument over whether truth is absolute
or relative very helpful. And since other faiths also offer varied perspectives,
we might be chastened into modesty about our own views.
However, for many folks,
adhering to the principle of absolute truth is so important that they seek
to bring such truth into public policy. An example is the work of the Rev.
Jerry Johnson, pastor of First Family Church in Overland Park. Johnston
was identified as one of the most important ministers in America today
by Nick Haines, KCPT-TV’s Executive Producer for Public Affairs/News, during
a taping in cooperation with Ingram’s Magazine of a roundtable discussion
about science and religion. The show, with a dozen politicians, ethicists,
clergy and scientists interested in stem-cell research, airs 7:30 pm this
Johnston and I sparred over
whether the Bible declares that abortion is the taking of a human life.
Johnston cited no scripture; I cited Exodus 21:22-23.
Theologians disagree when
life as a person begins—conception, implantation, viability, birth? Even
within a tradition, views seem to change. Guided by Aquinas, Catholics
used to think a fetus did not become a person until 40 days after conception;
but since 1869 Catholics have generally understood human life to begin
But for me the question
before the roundtable and before you, dear reader, is not who is right,
but whether the view of any particular faith about absolute truth should
be enshrined in law governing a pluralistic society.
557. 050504 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Questions of absolute and relative
Is religious truth absolute or relative?
To explore this question,
we must use terms carefully. Absolutism means that truth does not depend
on time, place, or circumstance; relativism says it does.
These terms should not be
confused with another pair, objective and subjective. We can fairly easily
settle an argument about whether the Royals won the World Series in 1985,
but it is harder to decide whether William Whitener’s “Haven,” performed
this week by the KC Ballet, is his best work. The Royals question is about
an objective fact, settled by consulting baseball records; the ballet question
is subjective and to some extent depends “on the eye of the beholder,”
and for that reason may be the more interesting and difficult question.
Almost 2500 years ago, the
Greek philosopher Protagoras advanced a philosophy of relativism when he
said that “man is the measure of all things,” meaning that standards are
created by humans, not by gods. But another Greek of the same era, Xenophanes,
identified a problem with relativism when he noticed that “Ethiopians say
that their gods are snub-nosed and black; Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed
and red-haired.” If horses could draw, their gods would look like horses.
Today’s Christian equivalent
might be found in the disparity between Warner Sallman’s traditional portrait
of Jesus, sometimes criticized as effeminate, and Stephen S. Sawyer’s pugilistic
painting of Jesus “Undefeated.” Which is the truer image of Christ? Absolutists
might say that Christ is beyond any human representation of him.
If there is absolute truth,
can it be expressed without being shaped by the language and culture which
seeks to receive it? The disputes and revisions in the creeds and liturgies
over two thousand years of Christendom display this difficulty.
Muslims who believe that
God spoke in Arabic to deliver the Qur’an recommend learning the language
in order to most clearly hear God’s voice. Buddhists and Taoists, on the
other hand, say it is impossible for any language to articulate the absolute.
The Hebrews were warned against making images of God, and some Jews today
will not even write the word; instead they spell “G-d.” Some Sikhs say
sat, truth, cannot be spoken but can be experienced.
Perhaps there are two kinds
of absolutists, those who believe absolute truth is so great it cannot
be spoken, and those who use their conceptions of absolute truth in exercising
power. Communists, Nazis, terrorists, and leaders of cults like the Branch
Davidians are willing to die and cause others to die for their absolute
Relativists, on the other
hand, can be accused of starting very few wars. They seem less likely to
force their views on others, but they may not sufficiently recognize the
need in the human heart for transcendence.
Perhaps it is better
to ask whether truth is absolute or relative than to answer.
556. 050427 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Compassionate thread runs through Lotus
A great rain of flowers fell. From between
his eyebrows a beam of light shone forth, illuminating every corner of
the entire cosmos. Kings, sages, even gods assembled in wonder in his presence.
One murmured, “What is the meaning of these auspicious signs?” The answer
came. “The Buddha is about to teach the law of the universe.”
So begins the Lotus Sutra,
a landmark in world religious thought. “Sutra” derives from the Sanskrit
for “thread,” related to our word “suture.” Scores of Buddhist scriptures
are called sutras because they “thread” an idea through the writing, like
some email clients.
And what an idea explodes
in the Lotus Sutra! Where Buddhism previously was a practice mainly for
monks and nuns, now the Buddha revealed salvation for everyone. Before,
the Buddha was understood as a historical figure. Now the Buddha became
the essential grace of the universe itself, an all-pervasive energy drawing
us toward enlightenment. Before, the ideal of the faith was an arhat, an
individual who, by his own effort, freed himself from the defilements of
addictive behavior and afflictive emotions, for his own benefit. Now the
ideal was the bodhisattva, whose efforts seek to relieve others of suffering
even at the cost of remaining in the sphere of suffering oneself.
These revolutionary notions
created the newer form of Buddhism, Mahayana, from the older branch, Theravada.
The power of the Lotus Sutra is commemorated by a stele (identified as
37-27) in the early Buddhist sculpture gallery of the Nelson-Atkins Museum
of Art. The entire gallery displays the sudden blossoming of the Buddhist
faith resulting from this scripture.
Like Jesus, the Buddha of
the Lotus Sutra conveys wisdom through parables, one of which is a version
of the Prodigal Son. Most of these Buddhist parables seek to show why this
new teaching was not uttered by the historical Buddha. In The Lotus Sutra
Prodigal Son, for example, the story has an extended psychological account
of the father working for many years along side of the son who does not
recognize him. When the son at last is able to contemplate the truth about
their relationship, it is revealed to him, as finally the Buddha reveals
the truth about his compassionate relationship to all beings.
Perhaps the most famous parable
is of the father returning home to see his children in the window playing
with toys unaware that they are about to be engulfed in flames. The father’s
efforts to explain the danger are futile because the children do not know
what fire is. So he tells them he has better toys for them if they will
only come outside. All forgive the lie because lives are saved thereby.
Similarly, the original Buddhist teachings are enticements to escape the
perils of existence, but now the Buddha explained the true nature of existence:
our salvation is in saving others.
555. 050420 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Inside a large and holy circle with
MARSHALL, Mo.— I first met
Huston Smith in 1969, and every time since that I have been in his presence,
I’ve felt something extraordinary. But never so extraordinary as now, with
Smith, 85, holding on to my arm as he silently, eyes closed, honors his
parents at their graves in the cemetery here behind Smith Chapel Methodist
Though Missourians can make
a special claim, Smith, of course, belongs to the world. He studied with
teachers of the world’s great religious traditions and became a great teacher
himself. His 1958 book, The World’s Religions, has sold millions of copies.
In 1996, Public Television’s Bill Moyers produced a 5-hour series
on Smith’s life and the wisdom Smith finds in the world’s faiths.
Although Smith was born in
China to Methodist missionaries, his Missouri connections are many, including
graduating, like his father, from Central Methodist College near here.
One of his teachers was a protege of one of my teachers, Henry Nelson Wieman,
a naturalistic theist at the University of Chicago. For his doctoral work,
Smith went to Chicago and studied with Wieman, as “an ardent a disciple
as he ever had.
“I thought there was nothing
better than Wieman’s theology. Then I met Wieman’s daughter. She was better
than Wieman’s theology.” She and Smith married, and Smith’s own theology
began to resonate more strongly with the mystics.
In 1969 Smith returned to
Chicago, back from Tibet with documentary proof of what his M.I.T. colleagues
said was impossible: monks singly able to vocalize chants in three tones
at the same time. Today Smith said, “That is my one contribution to empirical
studies,” ignoring the multitude of scholarly and spiritual blessings he
has given the world.
Raytown’s Harold Johnson,
a retired Methodist minister who served Smith Chapel 1963-66 and who arranged
the drive from KCI for Smith and invited me along, asked Smith about his
current religious perspectives. Smith talked about his long friendships
with the Dalai Lama and other religious figures. His children’s involvement
in faiths from Judaism to American Indian spirituality have made religious
diversity a realm he has mastered personally as well as academically.
But Smith remains a Methodist
who does yoga as a Hindu might, who prays five times a day as a Muslim
might and practices other traditions. Why? “These are my spiritual vitamins,”
Smith says. Smith is disturbed by homophobia in his and other churches,
but his 16th book, due in September, is called The Soul of Christianity:
Reclaiming the Great Tradition.
Earlier in the car Smith
talked about the love and the wit that draws circles ever wider to include
everyone. Here at the graves, at this moment in history, at this spot on
the planet, I am in his vibrant presence. It seems he touches the infinite.
He draws a large and holy circle.
554. 050413 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Pope John Paul II moved beyond divisions
The Kansas City Interfaith Council is one
of Pope John Paul II's children. Here is how it happened.
In 1986, in the town where
St. Francis was born, Assisi, the pope gathered leaders of many of the
world’s faiths to pray for peace. To them he said, “Either we learn to
walk together in peace and harmony, or we drift apart and ruin ourselves
The meeting was controversial.
Traditionalists warned of syncretism, the heresy of blending the beliefs
and practices of various faiths together. The pope was criticized for recognizing
But the pope’s leadership
inspired others. A year later, a Buddhist leader organized an interfaith
gathering at Mt. Hiei, Japan, “in the spirit of Assisi.”
The next year, 1988, religious
leaders pursuing interfaith work on this continent planned “A North American
Assisi.” As the pope selected a location other than Rome for his gathering,
so the planning committee, on which I was privileged to serve, decided
on a location less obvious than Washington or New York or San Francisco.
The October conference was held in Wichita, which also has an accessible
American Indian center.
Except for the host city,
the largest delegation came from the Kansas City area. They decided that
the energy, enlightenment and good will from the Wichita conference should
be manifested in Kansas City.
They joined with others whose friendships
had developed from an annual Thanksgiving Sunday interfaith ritual meal
begun here in 1985 to give birth to the Kansas City Interfaith Council
in 1989, at the Overland Park Marriott Hotel.
While all the faiths have
worked well together, the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph was
especially deliberate in its fulfillment of the interfaith directions of
its own Millennium Report, evidence of the impact of John Paul’s vision
The pope’s global outreach,
including friendship with the Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, unprecedented
visits to a Jewish synagogue and a Muslim mosque, his praise of Hinduism
and his efforts to heal relations with other branches of Christianity,
including the 1054 breach with the Orthodox, affirm not agreement but “partnership
for the good of the human family.” Our own local community, perhaps in
adolescence, is now learning such kinship beyond creed.
The biggest interfaith problem
the next pope may face, as we face here, is how religions in pluralistic
societies can avoid imposing their views on those of other faiths when
convictions about issues like stem cell research, war, capital punishment,
contraception, abortion, gambling, economic disparity and homosexuality
have become entwined with public policy. Local and global solutions to
this problem may seem impossible, but John Paul moved us ahead, beyond
centuries-old enmities. His nurturing can help us all grow up.
553. 050406THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Make Breakfast inclusive
Some years ago my respect
for Jewish friends, and my desire to express solidarity with them, led
me to stop attending the annual Overland Park Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast.
But as a former resident of Overland Park, I also developed great admiration
for Mayor Ed Eilert. So I thought this, his last year in office after serving
24 years so well, I would attend the March 24 breakfast. And I was also
curious to see if, in the intervening years, the explicit and exclusive
Christian setting had been modified.
Of course there is nothing
illegal about the Christian Businessmen’s Committee inviting a mayor to
such a prayer breakfast. People have the right to exercise their faith
and to freely assemble. But when an event is held using the title of a
government official whose photo is on the printed program, I get queasy,
as I wrote in this space Feb. 23.
As I entered, I did not see
any signs saying “No Jews, Muslims or Hindus allowed,” but the no-choice
breakfast plate served with bacon to each of the 600 of us left little
doubt that the dietary restrictions of some observing the practices of
those faiths were unimportant to the breakfast planners.
Homeowner association covenants
restricting property purchase by Jews and blacks can no longer be enforced,
but I saw no person of color present. If you were a white Christian, this
may just have been the place for you. But Overland Park encompasses people
of many ethnic backgrounds and religious traditions from A to Z, American
Indian to Zoroastrian.
It is true that the breakfast
program from beginning to end was inspiring. The featured speaker had a
powerful personal story to tell about his Christian faith. His presentation
ended with a strong invitation to all of those present who had not already
given their lives to Christ to do so right then. While not all Christians
are comfortable with an “altar call,” no one would want to question the
speakers’ sincerity and good will.
But our community has equally
gripping stories of a Tibetan monk in great peril who escaped Communist
rule, of Jews who survived the Holocaust, of a black man whose career was
shaped in part by seeing as a child a black man dragged behind a truck
to his death because he asked his boss not to “bother” his wife anymore,
of a Muslim assaulted by prejudice—folks of every faith with remarkable
stories now contributing to our community.
This has been a difficult
column for me to write because so many of the people involved in that breakfast
are my friends. But it is my duty to ask, “What kind of city do you want?
Do you want to model bringing people together or, in a quasi-civic function,
The person elected
mayor overnight, or the Christian Businessmen’s Committee, may want to
rethink the custom of placing the aura of office around an affair that
leaves so many wonderful citizens unable to share an annual breakfast together.
552. 050330 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Respect for others' needs is important
People have different
religious views of the tragic circumstances of the Terri Schiavo story.
Those who say that all faiths are basically the same are rebutted by equally
sincere arguments about life and death by the opposing parties.
Folks often forget religions
can lead to very different behaviors. In Islam, suicide is never justified.
In Buddhism, certain situations require it. In Catholic teaching, abortion
is wrong; in some Jewish thought, it is obligatory in some circumstances.
While same-sex marriage was honored as especially spiritual in some American
Indian tribes, it is condemned today by a number of Christian churches.
While neither of the following
two ancient stories deals with feeding tubes, they illustrate different
kinds of faith experiences. Just as the Shiavo case elicits different opinions,
so how these stories are evaluated depends on the person.
* The first story is told
in Christian scriptures, Mark 5 and Luke 8. Jairus, the president of the
synagogue, begged Jesus to go to his house where his daughter was sick,
dying. Before Jesus could get there, someone from the home appeared with
the news that the girl had died. Jesus said, “Only show faith and she will
be well again.” When Jesus entered the home, people laughed at Jesus for
saying she was not dead but only sleeping. Jesus took her hand and said,
“Get up, my child.” She arose.
* The second story is told
in various Buddhist writings. Kisa Gotami had one child. One day her boy
suddenly appeared to be dead. She could not believe this, and carried him
in her arms wherever she went, seeking medicine to make him well. People
thought she was crazy with her grief. Someone told her about the Buddha.
When she found him, she asked the Buddha to cure her son. The Buddha said,
“Bring me a mustard seed from a home where no one has ever lost a parent,
a spouse, a friend, or a child.”
She went to the first house
she saw and inquired for such a seed. But she was told that death had visited
that family. The same thing happened at the next house, and the next. She
went to the next village, and the next, always with the same result. Finally
she began to understand. “How selfish I am in my grief; death is common
to all humanity.” She buried her son, returned to the Buddha and asked
him to teach her.
The first story uplifts the
possibility of miracle and the hope many Christians have in personal resurrection.
The second story illustrates the Buddhist way of coming to terms with what
is considered the human condition of suffering.
Which story is more comforting
depends on the needs of the person involved. A respect for individual sensibilities
in a tragic situation will prevent us from assuming that what is helpful
for us will be helpful for others.
551. 050323 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Contemplation and action may reinforce
My experience of Lent has been deepened
this year by sharing it with the good people at the Episcopal Church of
the Good Shepherd. The folks there invited me to spend the last five Wednesdays
with them exploring a question which appeared in this column last November
— How do we choose between enjoying the blessings about us and responding
to the suffering also so evident in the world?
It is an ancient dilemma.
Aristotle argued that the contemplative life was superior to the life of
action. And while most of us choose not to withdraw from the world, Lent
has become a season of self-denial and introspection.
The folks were eager to examine
parallels to this question in other faiths as a way of illumining the Christian
For example, we looked at
two different Buddhist ideals, both supremely represented at the Nelson-Atkins
Museum of Art. An early Buddhist “hero,” an arhat, is one who leaves ordinary
pursuits to seek enlightenment by himself, through his own efforts, for
his own benefit. A later Buddhist image, a bodhisattva, chooses rather
to postpone his own satisfaction in order to rescue others from suffering.Comparing
and contrasting this ideal to Jesus, who gave his life for others, suggests
that the tension between savoring one’s blessings and saving others may
be a universal dilemma.
But when we looked at the
Muslim Hajj, the Pilgrimage, we discovered that what seems to be a time
of separation from ordinary routine, travel to Mecca with an introspective
purpose, actually leads to deeper immersion in the community as one returns
home. The pilgrim is renewed as one shares the benefits of the experience
with others. The community is enriched thereby. In the Christian story,
Jesus’ separation from others during his 40 days in the wilderness did
not end the story; it was a preparation for his ministry.
Through such examples, we
began to see that contemplation and action may mutually strengthen each
other. Martin Luther King Jr required his followers to undergo inner purification
before engaging in social confrontation.
Gandhi, the Hindu leader,
saved partitioned India from endless violence by fasting almost to death.
In one version of the story, a Hindu threw a piece of bread on Gandhi’s
cot and said, “Eat! I am going to hell, but not with your death on me.”
He had smashed a Muslim boy’s head against a wall in revenge for Muslims
killing his son. Gandhi, barely able to speak, responded. “I will show
you a way out of hell. Find a Muslim boy whose parents have been killed
in this violence and raise him as your own. But be sure to raise him as
These faiths teach that beauty
and suffering are entwined in one reality. The Christian resurrection is
possible only because of crucifixion. In our final discussion, the folks
at the church convinced me that we all can rise with the joy of service.
550. 050316 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Alliance shows power of praying
Over a career as a clergyman, and
before that, as a laymen, I’ve been to my share of prayer breakfasts. None
surpasses last Thursday’s breakfast held by the Raytown Community Inter-Faith
Alliance. Most prayer breakfasts, frankly, look a bit like posturing for
one another and staging for the Lord. Speeches, awards and pageantry often
overshadow prayer. But in Raytown they pray without pretensions.
Public prayer is not easy
these days. America’s promise of religious liberty has been fulfilled by
making us perhaps the most religiously diverse nation in the world. But
we have not yet learned how to come together from that diversity and pray
Praying together is so important
to Raytown Mayor Sue Frank that she assisted the Alliance to sponsor the
event when the Crossroads Chamber of Commerce could no longer do so.
Alliance president Michael
Stephens, pastor of Southwood United Church of Christ, opened this year’s
breakfast with an invocation that might have been uttered by inhabitants
of this land hundreds of years ago, before Europeans and their descendants
came to this place. Though the idiom was American Indian, its spirit was
Holly McKissick, pastor of
Saint Andrew Christian Church in Olathe, was the featured speaker. Her
theme also was universal, found in every faith: the importance of forgiveness.
Regardless of our political views, religious affiliations, economic status,
race or sexual orientation, she spoke to all of us and for all of us.
Harold Johnson, chairman
of the event, had invited me, but—perhaps deliberately—did not prepare
me for the most interesting form of community prayer I’ve seen at a prayer
Here’s how it worked. Before
the speaker came to the platform, people at their tables were asked to
form teams of six to write their local, national and global prayer requests
on yellow, green and orange cards. Folks from different backgrounds
and viewpoints shared the sacred desires in their hearts with each other.
During the address, the cards
were collected and arranged.
Following the inspiration
McKissick provided, David Cliburn, pastor of Blue Ridge Presbyterian, appeared
with the cards and invited us to pray. Skillfully incorporating the collected
concerns of the heart, Cliburn gave voice to the community’s heart. The
specific longings shared in the small teams were repeated and powerfully
amplified as we heard them become one, united with the other aspirations
of the community. That it itself was an answer to prayer.
It is easy for a person to
pray on one’s own behalf, and others can listen to such a prayer. But it
is difficult for one person truly to pray on behalf of hundreds of people
from different faiths and sundry concerns. The Raytown Alliance has found
a way to do this. It demonstrates, as someone has said, that diversity
is not a problem; it is a gift.
549. 050309 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Relativity by a poet
One hundred years ago this year Albert
Einstein (1879-1955) published what we now call the special theory of relativity.
While Isaac Newton (1642-1727) assumed that space and time were absolute,
Einstein showed that their measurements varied relative to one’s frame
But Einstein was not the
first to challenge Newton. The religious poet William Blake (1757-1827)
ranted against the Newton’s picture of the universe. More about Blake shortly.
Newton’s importance was proclaimed
by an earlier poet, Alexander Pope (1688-1744). Hinting at Newton’s famous
experiment with light passing through a prism to reveal the colors of the
rainbow, Pope made Newton part of God’s plan: “Nature and Nature’s laws
lay hid in night:/ God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.”
Blake mimicked Pope with
irony: “God appears and God is light/ To those poor souls who dwell in
night/ But does a human form display/ To those who dwell in realms of day.”
In other words, Blake insisted
that the universe must be understood in human terms, not in the abstractions
and equations of Newton. This is why Jesus was paradigmatic for Blake:
God took human form.
Newton was not conventionally
religious — his Unitarian views impeded his university preferment — but
he certainly was religious. He studied the Bible carefully and wrote copiously
about the Apocalypse.
But he would not publish his theological
So Blake knew Newton from
the science attributed to him: Newtonian atoms are inert, insensible, solid
and in themselves static. Newton’s laws of motion describe how these particles
interact, predictably, deterministically, independent of the observer.
The world was a giant machine. Newton’s interpreters argued that only those
things accountable by his theories were real; everything else was merely
Instead Blake saw an organic
universe, projected by the observer. For Blake, reality was found not in
Newton’s general laws but in the “minute particulars” of life. The individual
was most real, not Newton’s “abstract non-entities.” Blake wanted “To see
a world in a grain of sand/ And a heaven in a wild flower,/ Hold infinity
in the palm of your hand/ And eternity in an hour.”
Against the Newton’s method,
Blake wrote, “To teach doubt and experiment/ Certainly was not what Christ
meant.” Blake’s method was vision, belief, imagination. At the extreme,
Blake saw the whole universe alive: “If the sun and moon should doubt/
They’d immediately go out.”
Einstein’s imagination —
his “thought experiments” — led him to discard Newton’s absolute space
and time and recognize the centrality of the observer’s frame of reference.
Einstein used tensor mathematics; Blake used rhyme, and called this relational
universe “infinite and holy.”
548. 050302 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Rotary clubs foster community relationships
I’m a week late — Rotary’s 100th anniversary
was last Wednesday — but I’d like to promote the thesis that Rotary and
other service clubs are part of the spiritual life of humanity.
I did not understand this
when Dick Ray, who advertised himself as “the Master Plumber,” told me
shortly after I arrived in Kansas City thirty years ago that I should be
a Rotarian. Thinking I was too busy to join a club, I decided to accept
his invitation to a meeting only as a courtesy to him.
I discovered that the programs
and the members offered a way to learn about, and to contribute to, the
life of the community. Soon I was making Rotary a priority.
As part of my application
for membership, I met with several in the Club. One who knew very well
that I was a minister said, in effect, that Rotary was, in a way, his religion.
I was surprised with his assessment. But Rotary has become part of my spiritual
practice as well.
It is a practice that transcends
any particular faith. Rotary, the world’s first service club, began Feb.
23, 1905, in Chicago with four people. It now extends to 31,000 clubs in
166 countries with 1.2 million members — Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims
and others. What transcends any particular faith? An answer is in the three-word
Rotary phrase, “Service above self.”
Every religion teaches us
to move beyond selfish preoccupation. Rotary has provided many models for
doing this. The first Rotary service project seems amusing to us now, but
“the Master Plumber” would have approved. In 1907, the Rotary Club gave
Chicago its first comfort station.
I’ve been inspired by my
fellow Rotarians as they have built up the community through efforts such
as the Kansas City Club’s Rotary Youth Camp and the Overland Park Club’s
Youth Leadership Institute.
Staying with a Zoroastrian Rotarian in
Agra, India, and receiving Russian Rotarians here helped me see how Rotary
makes the whole world our community.
Internationally, Rotary has
financed the eradication of polio from the planet by inoculating children,
with 500 million dollars raised for this cause alone. Now 99% of
the world is free of this scourge. Since 1947, Rotary has given over 1.1
billion dollars in humanitarian and educational grants. The Rotary scholarships,
designed to promote international understanding, are the most generous
offered by any charitable organization. Rotary assisted in the creation
of the United Nations.
The ethical accent of Rotary
is summarized in the “Four-Way Test”: Is it the truth? Is in fair to all
concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial
to all concerned?
Through acquaintance with
others, Rotary has found a way to embrace folks of all faiths as worthy
participants in the human enterprise. That’s quite a spiritual achievement,
and Dick knew it.
547. 050223 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Prayer breakfasts should be a place
Prayer breakfasts in the name of government
officials have always made me a bit queasy — for two reasons, one specifically
Biblical, and one respecting the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of
First the Biblical reason. Jesus
said, “And when thou prayest, Matt 6:6 be not like hypocrites who love
to stand in houses of worship and street corners, to show off in public.
. . . But when you pray, go into a room by yourself and shut the door behind
you.” (Matt. 6:5-6.) Jesus appears to warn against the public prayer because
it can be for show and prefers the private prayer because it is more likely
to be sincere.
Second, the U.S. Constitution
protects our religious freedom. History and evidence in the world today
suggest that religion flourishes best without government entanglement.
However, I do not think that privately funded organizations sponsoring
prayer breakfasts automatically violate that principle even when government
officials participate. I think our elected leaders have the right to exercise
their religious freedoms, too.
I don’t even object when,
as in Kansas City, the Mayors’ Prayer Breakfast prints a picture of the
legend of George Washington praying at Valley Forge on the cover of the
printed program and displays a large version in front of the head table.
There may be no more historical justification for this scene than for the
fable of Washington chopping down the cherry tree, but I appreciate the
desire to impute spiritual practices and wisdom to those who lead us even
though I know some want to use the image as support for a disputed understanding
of the role religion played in the founding of our nation.
However, a line is crossed
when a prayer breakfast becomes partisan. And that is what many folk feel
happened Feb. 11 this year when the speaker appeared to endorse a particular
religious perspective on last November’s election. Not only were an array
of political positions advanced by the speaker, but folks of Protestant,
Catholic, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and other faiths were offended by what
they perceived to be the speakers’ failure to recognize the religious pluralism
represented among the thousand or more guests.
This is not the first year
that the Mayors’ Breakfast has been marred by partisanship or religious
insensitivity. For example, in 2002, the mayor, in a magnificent and inspiring
gesture, asked members of a particular minority faith to stand and be welcomed,
and warmly welcomed they were. The program was beautiful. But at the very
end, the person about to give the benediction introduced it by saying that
she would use the occasion to proclaim the one true faith.
There is a time and a place
for her, but the Mayors’ Prayer Breakfast is not it. We should reclaim
this event to celebrate our diversity of faiths and our unity as Heartland
546. 050216 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Love, romance can be spiritual, too
Valentine’s Day is over, but our desire
to love and be loved persists. Monday’s festivities were more likely to
be celebrations of romantic love than, say, cosmic or spiritual love, but
they may be joined in some way, even though romantic love sometimes seems
Romantic love is a relatively
new form of affection which the West learned from the Arabs through the
troubadours. While eroticism is a strong element in such love, it also
is a spiritual engine. It powerfully appeared in Christian thought in the
14th century when Dante, following a Muslim model, found in his beloved
Beatrice the path to God.
In 1633, in one of the most
astonishing poems in the English language, John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s
Cathedral in London, pleads with God as a lover betrothed to another: “for
I, / Except You enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except
You ravish me.”
in religious literature display the intimacy of the erotic with the spiritual.
Is it any wonder that lovers in the act of passion exclaim, “O God!”?
So while physicists may say
the universe is composed of vibrating strings, or quarks, or atoms, or
various forms of energy, religions often teach that the universe is made
This love is not exactly
blind, but it is fallible as it quivers, yearning for connection at every
level of existence, from electron and proton, to electorate and leader,
to devotee and divinity. From molecules to cells to organisms to society,
a ladder of lures leads toward transcendence when we know and are known,
but not by name, age, job, wealth, personality or any other description
or social identity. Lovers are intrigued by the infinite mystery that paradoxically
opens beyond what can be known as they come to know each other fully. The
revelation of love is in what cannot be said but the body can arouse.
And so it is with the body
of the world itself. When one falls in love with the cosmos, with its death
camps and tsunamis and loneliness as well as its constellations and symphonies
and flowers, then one moves beyond dread and delight into a spirit with
all the frenzy of orgasm and all the chastity of death.
This is holy love, what the
mystics of many faiths teach, or rather point to, since it evades language
and perplexes our ordinary ways of thinking.
And yet it is accessible.
It is intimated in puppy love and manifested in the lives of Jeremiah,
Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and others, ancient and modern. Even the business
handshake arises from the urge for connection, a faint iteration of love’s
It is written in 1 John 4:7-8,
“Everyone that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God . . . for God is
love.” Perhaps, through trial and error, each of us, and humanity itself,
can learn what this means — if, as the Persian poet Hafiz, suggests, we
see everyone as God’s guests on His “jeweled dance floor” to which we ourselves
have been invited.
545. 050209 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Many interfaith events in offing
Last week I wrote about a remarkable interfaith
dinner. Readers have asked me about other interfaith programs and opportunities.
Here is a partial catalogue. These groups and activities are not only religiously
inclusive but also designed to explore religious pluralism.
1. Kansas City Harmony offers
an annual interfaith concert. Harmony’s “Congregational Partners” program
enables congregations of different faiths to develop an ongoing relationship.
2. NCCJ, the National Conference
for Community and Justice, offers programs for youth and consultation for
businesses that include attention to interfaith understanding. One program
each year, “Journey to Understanding,” involves 50 high school students
from Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, American Indian and Freethinker
traditions in a day-long workshop to heal prejudice and celebrate wisdom
from each faith.
3. “The Hindu and the Cowboy
and Other Kansas City Stories” is a play presented in various venues that
grew out of the 2001 “Gifts of Pluralism” conference.
4. The annual Martin Luther
King observance at Community Christian Church brings folks together from
5. Each Dec. 31 at 6 am,
a “World Peace Celebration” is held at the Rime Buddhist Center. It includes
prayers, music and rituals from diverse traditions.
6. The Season for Non-Violence,
an observance of 64 days between the memorial anniversaries of Gandhi and
King, is hosted in Kansas City by the Center for Spiritual Living, and
is deliberately interfaith in its offerings.
7. Groups like the National
Council of Jewish Women sometimes offer interfaith programs. The next such
NCJW program, lunch with Jewish, Christian and Muslim speakers, is Mar.
2 at the Overland Park Marriott Hotel.
8. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving
my organization, CRES, presents a full meal in liturgical style with speakers
from American Indian, Bahá'í, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu,
Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, Sikh, Sufi, Unitarian Universalist, Zoroastrian
and Freethinker traditions.
9. In cooperation with the
Kansas City Interfaith Council, CRES offers a workshop for clergy and lay-leaders
May 11 at the Nazarene Theological School to introduce the faiths of Kansas
City and several non-Christian leaders.
Nowadays hospitals, schools,
religious organizations and others are helping us all to recognizing the
faiths of our neighbors through a variety of special programs.
How to learn about these
and other activities? — Watch The Kansas City Star Saturday faith page.
In addition, my organization’s web calendar at www.cres.org attempts to
list every interfaith event about which we learn. Let me know if something’s
544. 050202 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Grassroots gathering promotes interfaith
peace - and joy
“Aren’t you surprised that we have
nearly 500 registrations and over a hundred people on the waiting list?”
one of the organizers of last Sunday’s “Salaam Shalom” event asked me a
couple weeks ago.
“No,” I said. “People here are hungry
for opportunities to affirm their kinship with folk of other faiths.” The
Arabic and Hebrew words for “peace” joined together to name the event was
a perfect moniker for such an expansive aspiration.
But I was surprised by the
event itself. I’ve been doing interfaith work here for twenty years and
never seen anything like it.
No organization could have
created it, and the individuals who put it together wisely avoided institutional
sponsorship. This was an event of the people, by the people and for the
people. All people.
Christians, Jews, Muslims, certainly,
and folks from the dozen or so other faiths in our town were also represented.
And Kansas City Mayor Pro
Tem Alvin Brooks and Leawood Mayor Peggy Dunn brought both sides of the
state line together. Here is the scene:
The Alpine Lodge in Leawood’s
Ironwood Park is crowded with folks mingling as they eat arguably the best
hummus in the world and other amazing kosher-style, halal and vegetarian
food prepared by chefs from 7,000 miles away. At one point, the middle
of the floor is cleared and folks begin circle dancing. Then one person,
then another, and another, is lifted in a dancing chair above the others
as the celebration gains almost ecstatic pitch.
When a Jewish person suddenly
takes ill and the Med-Act team is called to treat him, a Muslim leader
calls for prayers in Hebrew and Arabic for his health. The crowd becomes
This may be the most important
interfaith event in the Heartland since the Sept. 11, 2002, observances
of that horrible day the year before, or even since the “Gifts of Pluralism”
conference in October, 2001.
It is no secret there have
been tensions between some people in some religious communities. Several
years ago, a leader in a non-Muslim tradition asked me to lunch. I was
startled when he said, “I would like to meet one Muslim who is not a terrorist.”
That person was at the dinner Sunday night and had ample opportunity for
that wish to be fulfilled.
Not every misunderstanding
was resolved. There remains much work to do. But the conversation of good
will, the hugs, the picture-taking, the fun together, the invitations to
get together later — a spiritual success!
Co-chairs Gayle Krigel, Mahnaz
Shabbir and Nick Awad are determined that such interfaith understanding
must continue. We cannot return to suspicion and isolation from one another,
having a taste of such hummus and kinship and even affection.
543. 050126 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Many faiths expand universal kinship
“Where can I find the holy?” is a question
of the heart. The world’s religions suggest three arenas in which answers
may be found. These answers can guide us in solving the most difficult
problems of our overwhelmingly secularistic age.
Nature is the first arena. The primal religions like the American Indian,
tribal African and the old European pagan traditions find sacred powers
in trees, streams, mountains and the plants and animals which become the
food of humans. Harvesting and hunting are ritual acts, and ceremonies
recognize how all things are mutually dependent, a sacred ecology.
Personhood is the second arena. Asian faiths like Hinduism, Jainism and
Buddhism, and from different angles, Confucianism and Taoism, explore the
mysteries of inner life. The techniques of yoga, meditation and art
forms like the sand mandala, and in the case of Confucianism, social rituals,
are means to awaken nobility or divinity within each person.
The history of covenanted community is the third arena. The monotheistic
religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and others, find ultimate meaning
disclosed in the unfolding story of a Power acting in human community reaching
toward justice. For Jews, the community is Israel, for Christians the church,
for Muslims the umma.
This rough and ready overview
needs many qualifications and elaborations, but it can help us with the
environmental, personal and social crises of our time. The insights so
clear in one tradition can be found, sometimes buried, in other traditions
as well. Today’s encounter of faith with faith can purify and revive our
experience of the holy, clarify our values and bring us together as people
of faith to address even the most perplexing issues.
Learning from each other,
250 folks from the 15 Kansas City faiths represented at the 2001 Gifts
of Pluralism conference unanimously issued a “Concluding Declaration” paralleling
this overview, from which the passages below are quoted.
Environmental problems can be solved not merely by technological fixes
but also require a spiritual reorientation. “Nature is a process that includes
us, not a product external to us . . . .Our proper attitude toward nature
is awe, not utility.”
Personal identity is not confined to “the images of ourselves constrained
by any particular social identities.” Abandoning selfish preoccupation
with who we are enables us to care for others as a spontaneous expression
of our deepest character.
Community is created when persons “govern themselves less by profit and
more by the covenant of service” which advances “the flow of history toward
peace and justice.”
Despite religion’s heightened
visibility in the world today, the faiths too often adopt the secular style
of competition. But here we are learning in modesty to offer to one another
our understandings of the holy, that they may be enlarged and deepened
in our universal kinship.
542. 050119 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
King exemplified change among faiths
I was a theological school student drawn
to Martin Luther King Jr.’s public ministry. He addressed the sins of racism,
economic injustice and war. He had become famous with the March on Washington
in 1963. Changes were underway.
In 1967, with a clergy group,
I went to the nation’s capital to hear him. It was a fearful time in our
nation’s history, and the anxiety among those gathered rose with each minute
his appearance was delayed because we knew there were those who wanted
to kill him—he who taught non-violence.
I was also drawn by the cooperation
King inspired among folks of different faiths. This seemed to be good evidence
of the sacred and universal nature of his cause.
King’s doctoral dissertation
examined the work of one of my own teachers, Henry Nelson Wieman, whose
most noted phrase may be “creative interchange,” a theological conception
of the divine. Because God is present when we truly encounter one another,
we are transformed as we cannot transform ourselves.
This transformation is illustrated
by the legislation and the change in attitudes that resulted from King’s
work. But the transformation process began millennia before King was born.
In the distant past, in Asia,
somehow the notion of ahimsa, non-violence, developed, perhaps with the
Jains. The idea became part of the Buddha’s teaching. As stories about
the Buddha grew, he was called Bodisaf, Yudasaf and Josaphat. The Manichees
retold the story, and the Muslims transmitted it to the Christians in the
tale of Barlaam and Josaphat. Tolstoy was converted to non-violence and
social service by this now-Christian tale. By reading Tolstoy, Gandhi was
stirred to explore his own Hindu tradition.
And King studied the Hindu
Gandhi, first in divinity school. King developed his own technique for
social change in part from Gandhi’s elaboration of ahimsa. Gandhi called
it satyagraha, “truth-force,” a tool of such spiritual energy it helped
to liberate India from the British raj.
Later King wrote, “While
the Montgomery boycott was going on (1955-56), India’s Gandhi was the guiding
light of our technique of non-violent social change.” He regarded Gandhi
as “probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus
above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective
social force on a large scale.”
Gandhi himself had been assassinated
long before King went to India, but when King was a child, Gandhi had said,
“It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence
will be delivered to the world.”
Through history as well as
in King’s life, we can see the power of creative interchange, not mere
interaction, among those of many faiths. Are we brave enough to use this
[Unpublished, alternate text]
[One would hardly call Martin Luther King
Jr a coward. Yet in Washington, DC, when I heard him, he confessed his
hesitation to speak out against the Vietnam War. For two years he had warily
questioned the war, but not until 1967 did he make his most famous public
address on the subject at the Riverside Church in New York. Then he spoke
[As then he said he had to
bring Vietnam “into the field of my moral vision,” there is no doubt in
my mind that he would today condemn the unprovoked war in Iraq. He would
also identify the system that made us once again gullible to officials
who he would say misled the nation, paralleling President Lyndon Johnson’s
lies in persuading Congress to adopt the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, launching
the sorrow we call Vietnam. He would deplore those who “possess power without
compassion, might without morality and strength without sight.”
[But today as then, King’s
remarks would be grounded in theology, not politics. His vision applied
the spiritual to the public domain. Of course peace and war are religious
concerns; human lives are sacred, and our souls are brutalized when we
[King would speak about the
more than thousand Americans dead, and the ten thousand bodies damaged,
when it is now clear that the U.N. sanctions succeeded in eliminating weapons
of mass destruction and containing Saddam Hussein. King would deplore the
waste of American treasure, perhaps 200 billion dollars, which could have
been used to enhance the human spirit. And while vigorously condemning
terrorism and the horror of 9/11, he would note that the three thousand
innocent Americans who perished that day were not revived by the hundred
thousand innocent Iraqis killed from the U.S. decision to end Hussein’s
[King would repeat his warning
that international violence sets the stage for domestic violence. He might
repeat the irony of Americans appearing as “strange liberators” to those
whose property has been destroyed and family members killed. He would say
that the bitterness we have sown has already reaped a harvest of new terrorism.
[Some questioned King about
his commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. Of them he asked, “Have
they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his
enemies so fully that he died for them?” As King then spoke with compassion
for the Vietnam Buddhists, today he would speak with reverence for the
children of Abraham who call themselves Muslims.
[I do not know what King
would say about withdrawing or increasing troops in Iraq now—that may be
a political question—but I believe that King would clarify the moral dimensions
of our dilemma in Iraq. He would address the fearful trance that has captured
our nation. And he would urge clergy and laity to speak out, to break the
silence, as he did in 1967, for religion means facing facts before being
led to higher ground, repentance before redemption.]
541. 050112 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Gospel of Thomas among controversial
At my desk I am looking at an edition of
the New Testament in koine Greek, the original language. I open it with
awe—but not with certainty. Some pages are more than half filled with notes
citing various ancient manuscripts and fragments with variant readings.
For five hundred years scholars have sought to establish a reliable text
from which translations into modern languages can be made. The arguments
Sometimes the variations
are minor. Other times they are striking. Take Mark, from beginning to
end. The phrase “son of God” describing Jesus is not in the early Codex
Sinaiticus manuscript of Mark 1:1.
Some scholars believe the phrase was added
later to support one side in early Trinitarian arguments. And the best,
oldest manuscripts of Mark end with Mark 16:8, before the post-resurrection
appearances of Jesus.
Early Christians disputed
which writings should be regarded as scripture. Churches were independent
and had different collections. It wasn’t until 367 that Athanasius proposed
today’s 27 books from the enormous body of literature then extant. From
the death of Jesus, that is about a hundred years longer than our nation’s
independence, without modern ways of preserving information. But even Sinaiticus,
with all 27 books, also includes the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd
of Hermas, the Acts of Paul and the Apocalypse of Peter, subsequently omitted
though they were regarded as scripture by some churches before a Latin
translation of the 27 began to establish the canon de facto.
While the variations in the
Gospels and the letters of Paul give us clues to the earliest controversies,
the discovery of the 52 Nag Hammadi manuscripts in 1945 give us a much
better picture of how fractious early Christian views were.
Despite some similarities
with canonical Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas presents a very different
picture of Jesus’ teaching. Princeton scholar Elaine Pagels believes that
John’s Gospel was written to counter Thomas. She sees an increasingly centralized
Christianity preoccupied with beliefs replacing Christianity as an ethical
system. When the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, which led
to Christianity becoming the state religion, the church developed obligatory
beliefs, the creeds. Disagreeing with them could lead to torture or death.
The version of Christianity in Thomas, in which Jesus taught that the divine
presence can be found in each person, was extinguished by the belief that
Jesus is the only light of the world.
I met Pagels a few years
ago and she told me about the death of her son and her husband, an account
of which begins her new book, Beyond Belief : The Secret Gospel of Thomas.
The book shows how her scholarship and personal spiritual life complement
She speaks at Village Presbyterian
Church Jan. 22 and 23. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
540. 050105 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
New year a good time to value all religions
The old year ended and the new one begins
with fresh interfaith activity in our town.
At 5:30 a.m. Dec. 31, nearly
300 folks gathered at the Rime Buddhist Center for the 19th annual “World
Peace Meditation.” This year the program included the Muslim call to prayer,
American Indian smudging, a Buddhist chant, a Sikh prayer, sacred Hindu
music, a Christian hymn and a Sufi dance. In the keynote
address, the Rev. David E. Nelson, a Lutheran who now chairs the Kansas
City Interfaith Council, said that our community understands that religious
diversity is not a problem to be solved but a gift to be shared. In accepting
this year’s community service award, Ron Poplau, Shawnee Mission Northwest
High School teacher and author of The Doer of Good Becomes Good: A Primer
on Volunteerism, saluted the interfaith spirit evident in the gathering.
Later that morning, the Rev.
Robert Lee Hill at the Community Christian Church convened Muslim, Hindu,
Jewish, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist and Christian leaders as part
of Kansas City’s efforts to respond with prayers and money to aid victims
of the tsunami disaster. On Jan. 16 the church hosts an interfaith celebration
in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Sunday Muslim leader Ahmed
El-Sherif and Jewish leader Allan Abrams spoke at All Souls Unitarian Universalist
Church on the controversial issues involved in the Israeli-Palestinian
situation. Even when they disagreed, they found ways to compliment and
defend each other, modeling mature interfaith exchange.
This Saturday the Interfaith
Council will meet with interfaith experts Clark Lobenstine of Washington,
DC, Sam Muyskens of Wichita and Bud Heckman of New York to help the Council
find ways to expand its work in the community. This consultation is a benefit
from a grant from Religions for Peace-USA, awarded last year to only three
An interfaith dinner here
Jan. 30 will import a 13-year Jewish-Arab friendship tradition from Israel.
A group of Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Buddhist friends here are inviting
the public to enjoy an evening of delicious halal, kosher-style and vegetarian
food prepared by Samir Dabit, a Christian Arab who will come from Ramla,
Kansas City’s sister city in Israel, to cook for this evening of fellowship
at the lodge at Leawood’s Ironwoods Park. This event, by design, is not
sponsored by any organization, but you can find details on my website,
In the past twenty years,
Kansas City has come to recognizing the value of friendships and perspectives
of people of a dozen faiths across the planet and next door. In discovering
so many ways that others can be unlike us, we also discover that they are
in so many ways like us. A firm basis for hope for the new year lies in
this discovery and with the growing circles of interfaith friendships.