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Faiths and Beliefs
a column by Vern Barnet every Wednesday in the FYI section of the Kansas City Star,
[printed and Star web versions versions and versions here may vary]
copyright The Kansas City Star.
correspondence with critics

No matter its origins, Christmas means light and hope

The Buddha was born as his mother traveled to her home town, kings paid their respects, and the heavens led wise men to bring him gifts. At the birth of Confucius, music filled the sky. A Jewish story says that when Abraham was born, a great star appeared.
   Krishna had to be hidden to escape a slaughter of infants. A dream led authorities to search for the infant Zoroaster, to kill him. Mithra, the sun god, was born at the winter solstice, Dec. 25 on the ancient calendar.
   The holy writings and traditions of Christianity echo each of these earlier stories. Many religions embrace the theme of the birth of a savior or great leader, or—to use a Buddhist term—tathagata, to redeem the world.
   We get mistletoe from the Druids, laurel from ancient Rome and holly from the Celts. The Christmas tree originates in pagan Germanic celebrations of green life in the dead season of still, white snow.
   In 1660 the Puritans enacted a law calling Christmas customs such as exchanging gifts satanical practices. They forbade observing Christmas because of its sources. Today perhaps we can enjoy Christmas all the more as we see its parallels in other faiths. But deeper than any single element of the story, or any one symbol, is the universal human need to affirm light and hope in times of darkness and despair.

He speaks with modesty, vision

Many Americans are familiar with Protestant evangelist Billy Graham, Roman Catholic Pope John Paul II and Jewish writer Elie Wiesel. A Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama also has become a celebrity.
   Religious teachers with less media attention nonetheless have astonishing impact on the lives of millions. Pandurang Athavale of Bombay, India is one who is honored by hundreds of Kansas City area Hindus.
   He is a modest man who nonetheless speaks with power and vision. With simple stories of God’s love, he unravels selfish desires with a larger perspective.
   He tells about a potter who prayed for sunshine so that his clay pots would dry, and a farmer who on the same day, in the same region, prayed for rain. Instead we need to pray to be cleansed from greed and to cooperate in helping one another.
   Athavale teaches that we develop deep relationships when we listen to one another without an agenda. Often we want something when we listen, and this desire can distort what we hear.
   He has inspired doctors, lawyers and business people to go into the poorest villages without a purpose other than to listen. As the villagers learn to trust their guests, they disclose their needs and develop among themselves cooperative ways to improve their lives.
   Athavale, educated in Western thought as well as his own heritage, is uniting Eastern ways of inward respect and cleansing with Western paths of social relationships.
   I join with his admirers to wish him well on his 75th birthday.

Gratitude can enlarge horizons

"People too easily consider themselves victims," says Kansas City psychotherapist Jim Roberts.
   "Even when we really have been injured, healing does not come from identifying with the victim role but from realizing we are bigger than that. Practicing gratitude enlarges us."
   Roberts notes that there are only 39 books in print with "gratitude" in the title, compared with 279 with "anger" and 973 with "fear."
A Christian view
   The Rev. Harold Johnson, pastor of Meadowbrook United Methodist Church, says Roberts' view is in harmony with the Christian teaching of God's grace, which we can reflect in gratitude. "God continually gives us more than we deserve. His merciful love is always available to us, regardless of our merit."
A Buddhist view
   Chuck Stanford says, "Buddhists are grateful for all experiences, not simply the ones that seem to be positive." All experiences, even painful ones, are opportunities to learn," he says. "Whether pleasant or horrible, experiencing the present fully, with a grateful spirit, undergirds a thoughtful and compassionate life.'
A Muslim view:
   Mervat Ibrahim says difficulties are "opportunities to learn patience," and therefore it is right to be thankful even for the evil we encounter. Some faithful Muslims give praise to Allah 165 times a day, and at least a thousand times on Fridays and other holy days. Ideally, she says, "we give thanks with every breath."
   Thursday is Thanksgiving, but we can practice gratitude anytime.

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Yin couldn't exist without yang

In Tuesday's elections, voters chose from opposing candidates. We often choose Republican or Democrat, incumbent or challenger, liberal or conservative.
   Some say these opposites are contained within a process in which no part can exist without the other. To think that light can exist darkness, that pleasure is possible without pain, has been called a "Western illusion."
   The yin-yang, an ancient Chinese symbol, often is explained as the union of opposites. Yin is dark; yang is light. Yin is feminine, receptive, moist; yang is masculine, expansive, dry.
   But yin and yang are not so much opposites as they are complements. This is why they perfectly align themselves with each other within a circle representing the larger reality. How can you have left without right, east without west, a valley without hills.
   As night and day endlessly yield to each other, so yin and yang mutually arise and retire. This is represented by the dot, the "eye" of each in the other, each containing the seed growing into its complement. Nothing is static; all changes.
   Sometimes yin and yang are said to represent good and evil. This is a misunderstanding. Is dry better than moist? It depends on the circumstance.
   Failures sometimes lead to spiritual growth. Achievement sometimes leads to ruin. We may be too quick to judge an outcome.
   If anything can be called good, it is the balance of yin and yang, placed appropriately, according to Taoism, one of the Chinese religions using this symbol.

Confession helps keep faith pure – God's voice can be distorted by custom and corrupted tradition.

How do we keep our faith pure?
   Jewish-Muslim dialogue: I listened to a Jew and a Muslim speak before a Kansas City audience during the height of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
   The Jewish speaker acknowledged hateful things said and done in the name of Judaism, and the Muslim speaker spoke with shame about those who perverted his own faith into violence.
   Instead of blaming each other's religious groups, each sought to cleanse his own household. Jesus said, "First cast the beam out of thy own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote in thy brother's eye." (Matthew 7:5).
   Racism: If we are to "keep the faith," we must acknowledge the distortions and corruptions that creep into our own traditions. We can be healed by such confession.
   Sometimes it takes years to cast out the mote. Before the Civil War, some Christians used portions of the Bible, such as Paul's letter to Philemon, to justify slavery. A hundred years later, when I was a youth, some Christians argued that God meant the races to be separate. They used stories such as the division of lands to the sons of Noah.
   Sexism: As Carol Lynn Pearson's show "Mother Wove the Morning" painfully reveals, women have been mistreated throughout history in the name of religion. Cultural practices and scriptural citations still are used to justify denying women the protections and opportunities afforded men.
   When we begin to distinguish God's voice from custom, not only do women benefit, but men also are freed from the role of oppressor. But the greatest benefit may be a purified faith.

Some people still cling to their religious prejudices – However, most folks are interested in understanding others.

Until I started writing this column a few months ago, I had few personal encounters with religious prejudice.
Conversion or Understanding
   Once, after agreeing to address a group on "Cultural Backgrounds of Japanese Business Practices," the group's president called to ask whether I "believed in the Bible" and whether I planned to convert the members to Buddhism.
   "No more Buddhists will leave your meeting than come to it," I replied. "I think it is helpful to know about those with whom we trade." I was disinvited.
   This column's purpose is understanding, not conversion.
   However, some readers who call me say it is wrong to even mention religions other than the "true one."
Two calls:
   After a column suggesting that heroes are those who help other people, a caller warned that I was leading readers into the wicked "ecumenical church prophesied in the Book of Revelation" and identified me with the "anti-Christ."
   After my column about a Hindu scripture, a reader called me: "If you think you're going to be reincarnated as a flea, I suggest you go back to India. We exterminate them in America." She continued: "Do not come to our country and murder Christians. You won't get away with this."
   Actually, I was born in Omaha, Neb., am a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant and have not contemplated murdering Christians. I'm proud to have many non-Christian friends who exhibit the spirit of God's love.
   Some callers remind me how much prejudice persists. But most of you, with sincere questions and comments about various faiths, are open to the infinite ways the Sacred unfolds.

Bhagavad Gita teaches through its metaphors

Earlier this month about 700 people gathered in Kansas City for a three-day conference on one of the most revered Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita. The work dates to 150 years before Christ, also known as before the common era in non-Christian cultures.
   Kirit Patel, a Kansas City Hindu, said the Gita answers three questions: Who am I? What is God? How can I reach God?
   The Gita is only 1,400 lines long, but it has influenced leaders including Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., scientists such as J. Robert Oppenheimer and ordinary people throughout the world.
   In the Gita, as the warrior Arjuna positions his chariot for battle, he hesitates. He sees that war will lead to the death of his kinsmen. Even God could not avert this war. The god Krishna counsels Arjuna that he must fight—but fight without hatred, even without obsession with winning.
The Gita was difficult for me when I first read it. Now I understand it as a metaphor for our own inner battlefield, where we must master our most astounding fears and disappointments.
   The direction for this mastery is clear: Do the right thing, without concern for reward or punishment. Love without attachment.
   A temple in India displays the essence of the Gita on a wall: "Thy business is with action only, never with its fruits; nor be thou to inaction attached." One cannot avoid responsibility, but one must not be eaten up by it. Action freed from desire is a path to God.

Heroes have lost sense of service

What is a hero?
   Movies such as "Natural Born Killers" and the "Go OJ" signs that appeared during O.J. Simpson's "Friday Night Bronco Ride" suggest that the meaning of "hero" has degenerated.
   Help or hurt? Arnold Schwarzenegger says a hero never blinks when shooting. "You look weak if the noise makes you blink." The hero is "above emotions" and looks at his "victim" instead of his gun.
   Do heroes have victims? Religions usually present heroes who help, rather than hurt people. Nowadays a hero is anyone who gets press, wealth, position, or wins a contest, regardless of how.
   Service: Scholar Joseph Campbell defined the hero as "someone who has given his life to (serve) something bigger than himself." The Buddha gave up kingship to teach ordinary people the path to end suffering. Moses sacrificed a personal life to serve God and lead a nation to fulfillment. Christ surrendered himself to his Father's will to save all humankind. The divine voice instructed Muhammad to show others a better way of living.
   Modern heroes: At personal sacrifice, Thomas Jefferson helped establish a new nation in freedom. Despite ridicule, Susan B. Anthony advanced women's rights. Martin Luther King Jr. forfeited his life for racial justice. Risking his reputation by disclosing his homosexuality, Olympic champion diver Greg Louganis modeled a still controversial way of loving. Until her death in August, Kansas Citian Dr. Lydia Moore, paying herself $10.50 an hour gave up affluence to provide medical services to poor people.
   Do you, dear reader, find such people more heroic that someone who doesn't blink when shooting his victim?

Why so many religions? Because there are so many kinds of needs

Although I am seldom able to respond personally to calls about this column, I welcome and consider every comment.
   One religion or many? Some callers disliked my recent description of religion as the variety of ways people understand, celebrate and organize around experiences of the holy. They say different organizations and beliefs distract from God's direct revelation. "Why not gather together and praise God in one accord?" one asked.
   In the Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), American psychologist William James similarly asked "…is the existence of so many religious types and sects and creeds regrettable?" His answer was no. "No two of us have identical difficulties, nor should we be expected to work out identical solutions" to the religious situations we face.
   Perhaps the holy manifests according to our needs. For example, God cannot appear" to the hungry, Gandhi said, "except in the form of bread."
   Connection or separation? Janet Moss commented on my lament that our secular age separates "sports, art, the law, education, science, government and family life" from each other and the realm of the holy. (I hinted that this separation may arise because we confuse "religion" with religious organizations.)
   She said that she was raised on a small farm where each day she experienced how all things are interrelated, even though her institutionalized religion "made real attempts to compartmentalize" life. She thinks that segregating values is dishonest, minimizes our accountability, and does help us fulfill St. Paul's recommendation that we "pray without ceasing." She expects to find God everywhere.

Religion means many things to many people

In my last column I explained why "religion" was difficult to define and why some people disliked the word. Despite these problems, I'll try to describe what "religion" can mean. Reader responses may be included in a future column.
   The holy: Religion arises from experiences of the holy. These encounters or realizations shape or direct or give meaning to all of life. Psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote about "peak experiences" in art, love and therapy. The experience of the holy is like this but cannot be reduced to psychology; in many cases, such experiences are shared by an entire culture.
   Three expressions: Scholars recognize three expressions of religion: emotions, beliefs and organizations.
One expression is worship, attention given to the holy. The worshipper may have feeling such as awe and gratitude, a sense of relatedness and a desire to be of service to others.
   A second expression is understanding, elaborated in sacred stories and theology, conceptualizing the content of faith.
   A third expression is social, the way groups organize to honor, preserve, enhance and share their experiences of the holy.
   The secular: The root meaning of "holy" (as well as "health" and "holistic") is "whole." Religion thus is embedded in the connection among all things.
   But our society seems fragmented, broken, sick, not whole, the connections forgotten. Nowadays, religion itself has become a partitioned activity instead of our search for, and response to, the holy in all things. Our secular age separates sports, art, the law, education, science, government and family life from overarching direction and reverence.

Different regions' definitions of religion often vary

What is religion?
   Religion is hard to define, and the word is troublesome.
   In the West: Some Christians adopt the motto that "Christianity is not a religion; it's a way of life." Some Jews describe Judaism as a tradition more than a religion; sometimes the phrase "non-religious Jews" is used to describe them.
   "New agers" typically embrace "spirituality" while rejecting "religion" because to them "religion" implies an institution. Some American Sufis prefer to describe themselves as followers of the "religion of the heart"; Sufism is a "point of view" or a "spiritual path," not a codified organization, although there are many Sufi oraganizations.
   In the East: Historically what now gets labeled as "Hinduism" actually was a variety of practices, grouped together by Arab explorers. Buddhism sometimes is considered a philosophy more than a religion, even by some Buddhists, because the Buddha taught nothing about God. Some Bahai's say there is only the religion of God.
   Primal cultures: Many languages and cultures have no word for "religion" because their ways were so interwoven. What was "religion" for the American Indian? It is difficult to separate their religion from hunting, basket-making, raising children or viewing the seasons. To understand any single aspect of such a culture fully is to understand the entire culture because each part of it implies the whole.
   Some scholars today, even in texts on religion, have abandoned the effort to define religion. They simply describe what has been called "religious" in its many manifestations.
   Despite these difficulties, my next column will offer a way of understanding "religion."

'Om' sound reverberates down through centuries

What does "om" mean?
   Chanting "om" is now common at "new age" gatherings, but it originates in ancient India.
   Professor Robert Minor, a Hinduism expert at the University of Kansas, says "like most religious symbols, om has meant different things to different Hindus through the ages."
   Meanings: Some explain its meaning by identifying its origin as "a-u-m," with its reverent pronunciation and a following moment of silence representing four ascending states of awareness. The "a" refers to ordinary consciousness in which we separate the perceiver and the perceived. The concluding silence represents super consciousness in which all distinctions are obliterated and the Atman, the individual self, realizes union  with Brahman, the Cosmic Self.
   Others say the sound of om is the essence of the four Vedas, the earliest of Hindu scriptures.
   The first three elements have been identified with a Triad of Hindu gods, Brahma (Creator), Vishnu (Sustainer), and Shiva (Destroyer).
   Usage: In Hindu usage, om often begins a prayer.
   Minor says that om "has been considered the most solem of 'seed-syllables,' and has a complete, although brief, Hindu scripture devoted entirely to it, the Mandukya Upanishad (600 B.C.). As a mantra (literally, 'mental device'), its meaning is said to reside in its sound and what it invoke, rather than in any literal meaning."
   Translation: Om can be translated "yes," verily," or even "amen." But for those who find the sound of this sacred syllable meaningful, no translation can convey its richness as the basic "vibration" that calls the universe into being and integrates the many worlds into highest awareness.

U.S. has special responsibility to uphold God's rule of history

   This Independence Day week, Americans of various faiths consider what role the United States has in God's rule of history.
   REPAIR: Rabbi Joshua Taub of Temple B'nai Jehudah doubts that humans are capable of understanding God's plan, but we can find meaning.
   RESPONSIBILITY:  Rushy El-Ghussein, a Kansas City Muslim leader believes that nations as well as individuals are responsible and accountable for their actions, "to worship God freely, to enjoy your environment justly, to celebrate diversity through cooperation, to live in peace, harmony, safety, and tranquility without imposing of exceeding the limits."
   He notes that since the United States is a leader of nations, it has a special responsibility to promote ideals that "dignify humans on earth."
   IMPROVE:  The Rev. John Weston of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church says that if all dimensions of life were penetrated by the sacred, "each of us would be fully alive to the equal reality of everyone else, always."
   How can we move toward such a world? Citing a famous American Indian motto to "think seven generations ahead," he believes we can improve out national life by celebrating and protecting the "inherent worth and dignity" of each person.

Many faiths consider worship to be a community activity

   When do people worship?
   Although many faiths encourage prayer at any time, most traditions have developed special days for services. Jews observe the Sabbath from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday in the home and synagogue, and midday Friday is a special time for Muslims to assemble in the mosque.
  RESTING:  Pastor Nick Jordan of the Full Faith Church of Love West says Sunday worship celebrates the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week and keeps God's commandment to observe a day of rest, as God rested from six days of creation. In today's society, he says, "it is easy to forget God," adding that we are strengthened and encouraged in assembling together as "we learn from God's word and offer praise."
   SHARING: The Rev. Mark Miller of St. Jes Catholic Church understands the Sabbath as a community activity a symbol of Christ sharing a meal with his disciples. Worship involves three actions, he says: breaking bread together, breaking open the Word (the Scripture) and recalling "the death and resurrection of Jesus as a historical event and as a present reality in the suffering and oppression of our brothers and sisters."
   HONORING:  Ike Anyanike, a Kansas City attorney, says no weekly Sabbath is observed as part of the traditional life in his Nigerian homeland. Instead, deities in charge of different aspects of life (such as harvest and fertility) are honored with festivals throughout the year. A person also can visit a shrine for a particular deity at any time of need. One might, for example, visit the shrine of the deity of commerce before embarking on a business trip.

Religions vary on question of immortality of the soul

   Do we survive death?  Is the soul immortal?
   Today we look at answers from several living religions.
   REINCARNATION: Meghnad Desai, a Kansas City Hindu, says many of his faith believe that after death the soul finds a new body for a new life.
   The process repeats until one learns all the lessons one needs to be liberated from illusion: to know one's identity with God.
   DON'T ASK: "How do you preserve a drop of water?" The Buddha answered, "Throw it back into the ocean," suggesting that we arise from and return to the universe but do not retain personal identity after death.
   John van Keppel, a Kansas City Buddhist, says the Buddha taught that "worrying about death is a waste of time. All things are impermanent." As the current film "Little Buddha" shows, some Buddhists believe the life energy flows through successive incarnations.
   ENTERNAL LIFE:  Many Christians believe that the soul is rewarded or punished after death, and they hope for reunion with loved ones in God's presence. Others, such as Kansas City theologian Tex Sample, warn against a preoccupation with life after death unless talking about heaven is a way of improving this life.
   JUDGMENT: Paradise or hell awaits the soul, says Zelfiqar Malik, a Kansas City Muslim, citing several passages from the Qur'an. Each person will be judged according to his or her deeds. Some traditions suggest that those whose deeds are not worthy of eternal damnation will be purified by hellfire and released into God's mercy.

Ancient beliefs about life after death varied

   Do we survive death? Is the soul immortal?
   Scholars think that humans developed ideas about life after death as early as 70,000 years ago. Evidence to support this view includes graves oriented to the east (the direction of renewal), bodies placed in a fetal position (suggesting rebirth) and corpses dusted with red ocher (simulating life-giving blood).
   Live now: One of the oldest texts exploring immortality is the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. Arrogant Gilgamesh sees his best friend die and he worries that he, too, may be mortal. His valiant search for eternal life ultimately fails but he returns from his journey perhaps with enough wisdom to realize that even heroes must accept human limits and live this life to the fullest.
   Immortality: Ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, were obsessed with death. Osiris, the mythis first pharaoh, was murdered and dismembered. Because of the efforts of his wife, Isis, he was resurrected as a grain for. He eventually became the model for even common folk to achieve immortality.
   Group Survival:  Ancient Hebrews seem to have been more concerned with the survival of the group in this life than with personal immortality. Their task was to improve this world.
   The Soul:  Although earlier Greeks found little in their ideas of a shadowy afterlife to cheer them, Plato developed the idea of immortality; he believed the soul existed before birth as well as persisting after death.
   Ancient beliefs were varied, and the questioning continued. What do today's religion's say? Their answers are summarized when this column next appears.

You need to know who you are

   Why learn about other religions? In my first column I suggested that though we are different, we are all kin. To get along, we need to know who we are.
   In addition, learning about other faiths helps us understand our own. Kipling once asked rhetorically, "What knows he of England who only England knows?" Do I really know Kansas City if I have never been anywhere else? Similarly, a pioneer in religious studies, Max Muller wrote, "He who knows one religion knows none." We know our own tradition best when we can see how it looks with others.
   But the most important reason to study other faiths may be that we need all of them to face three great issues today.
   The Environment. Are we polluting and desecrating the world? Primal religions, such as the American Indian ways, may help us recover a sense of the sacred in the world of nature, and find deeper messages in our own scriptures about our relationship to creation.
   Personal Identity. Does the loss of a wholesome sense of self lead to addictions like substance abuse, co-dependent relationships, and compulsive shopping? Oriental religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, focus on the inner life, and can lend us methods like meditation to heal the wounds.
   Social Covenant. Why have crime, power struggles, and moral decadence diminished our sense of community? The monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam can teach us rules and attitudes by which justice and compassion can be realized.
   The eternal questions of faith are lodged in such issues. Let us explore such questions--together.
   Editor's note. Your questions and comments are valued and Vern Barnet and the Religion Editor are planning ways to respond to as many as possible.

Introducing a new column on various faiths

   Today I begin a column that celebrates many answers to religious questions.
   My role is not to persuade others that my own views are correct but rather to awaken and deepen the questions and to encourage the exploration of answers from many religions.
   Are all religions at their core different? Scholars such as Huston Smith and Diana Eck have explored different attitudes about approaching other religions. I admit I do have a bias. First, some other views.
   1. Superiority. Some believe that one religion (namely theirs) is so superior to all others that they need know little about other faiths, or even that such information may be harmful. With this attitude, theologians such as Karl Barth proclaim the one true religion.
    2. Universality.  Others say that religions are fundamentally the same. The languages and images may be different because religions arise from varied cultures, but all faiths point to the same Reality. Something like the Golden Rule can be found in almost all scriptures of the world.
   3. Kinship. My own view is that we are all neighbors and must come to know each other better  without assumptions about either superiority or universality. Only later, after many deep encounters, are we ready to discuss superiorities and universalities.
   Studying yoga does not mean I become a Hindu, any more than eating Chinese food converts me to Confucianism, or standing in awe at Caravaggio's painting,"St. John the Baptist" or the Guanyin statue at the Nelson Gallery, means that I am a Christian or a Buddhist.
   I have something to learn from every tradition that enriches and helps me understand my own. Such acquaintance affirms my kinship with all peoples.  This column is space for making acquaintance.

B. "Q&A" for April 30 -- second column in response to Billy Graham's answer to a question, before Vern's "Faiths and Beliefs" column began

Irish violence, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia, Hindu-Muslim and Sikh issues in India, and other conflicts are sometimes called "religious." Pat Buchanan has called for a holy war in this country against those with whom he disagrees. Fred Phelps proclaims that "God hates fags."
    Religious wars are caused not by God or by Satan, but by people. (Satan is a figure not found in most religions.)
    Yes, some scriptures depict God leading battle. Deuteronomy 20 has God commanding slaughter and the enjoyment of women in some cases, and the destruction of everything that breathes in other cases.
    St Paul musters Christians to metaphorical battle in Ephesians 6:13: "Take unto you the whole armor of God . . . ." A famous hymn uses military imagery: "Onward Christian Soldiers." The Crusades, the enslavement and conversion of native peoples, and other adventures stain Christian history.
     Others teach non-violent methods to change the world. Gandhi, for example, a Hindu who influenced Martin Luther King, Jr, a Christian, taught us never to forget the good in our oppressors or the evil within ourselves. Methods for resolving conflict must be respectful, humane and creative, not destructive.
    Many traditions practice tolerance. Christians and Jews flourished under Muslim rule in Spain for seven centuries. A common question in Tibetan Buddhism in getting acquainted is, "And to what revered tradition do you belong?" The Christian faith says that God is love.
    Religions are human inventions, and can teach hate or love. But I believe that there is a universal Process beyond all religions drawing us to the redemptive power of love.

A.   "Q&A" for 1994 April 2 -- first column in response to Billy Graham's answer to a question, before Vern's "Faiths and Beliefs" column began

As I survey the religions of the world (some teach one God, some many gods, some no God), it seems the primary question of faith is not about God, but "Is life worth living?" Science cannot answer this question.
    Religious urges to respond "Yes" to this question have historically produced science, with many other dimensions of culture, including the arts, sports, and the law. These urges include wonder, thanksgiving, compassion, and action to  make things better.
    Religion does not compete with science to explain the world. Religion is the discovery of how to live in the world.
    Most philosophers and theologians now agree that the classical proofs for God's existence are either faulty or besides the point. In addition, no one has ever been able to develop a consensus explaining how an all-powerful and all-good God can permit such horrors as tornado and flood, Nazi Germany and drive-by shootings, painful cancer, oppression, exploitation, and eternal damnation.
    You say there is no room for God. Some theologians agree. They say it is blasphemous to say God "exists." They regard God not as another being, even a Supreme Being, existing in the universe or somehow above it. Rather God is the "Ground of Being," to use Paul Tillich's phrase, or "Being Itself," to use an expression common among mystics. [Oriental faiths often consider the Infinite to be a process under way, rather than an entity perfect from the beginning of time.
    [Your desire for truth is itself a religious impulse, and may lead you to answer that life is worth living.]

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