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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



Christmas tells of divine love born into a corrupt world

Christmas proclaims a mystery of the Christian faith: into 
this finite and corrupt world, the power of divine love is 
   But have we instead confused affection with 
consumerism? Do we celebrate the birth of the Prince of 
Peace by giving children games and toys to practice 
violent dispositions? Will movies of mayhem be our 
entertainment today?
   The pause this season brings to our routine can show us 
what we truly treasure. Will retelling the ancient story call 
us to compare the values we claim with our actual 
practice? Will we purify and renew our intentions?
   Because Mary was open to God's work, and because 
Joseph refused to follow the expectations of society to put 
her away when he discovered she was pregnant not by 
him, they and the Child became the Holy Family. Do we 
accept our own families so completely that the Divine 
glows within us?
   Have we, like the Magi, sighted a star to guide our own 
arduous pilgrimage to what is supremely valuable?
   Can we, like the shepherds, in the midst of our work, 
perceive the glory around us?
   Do we seek salvation in elegance or in the manger?
   Will we find ways, as Jesus taught, to feed, clothe and 
shelter the poor, to heal the sick, to redeem the 
oppressed, to forgive one another, and to make the music 
of the spirit?
   Christianity has its own special story, but all faiths in all 
seasons proclaim the mystery that the sacred can be 
revealed in the hearts and by the hands of each one of us.

It’s Sacred, but not really accurate
Panati book warning

Religious books seem popular this season, but I'm not 
happy about some of them. Here's an example:
   I talked last week with Charles Panati, in town to 
promote his Sacred Origins of Profound Things (Penguin). 
He was trained as a physicist and readily admitted he 
feared his book contained errors.
   His book says the important Muslim observance of 
Ramadan occurs in "roughly February." He did not know 
that it rotates throughout the year. "I must have copied that 
from a source for a particular year in which Ramadan 
occurred in February," he apologized.
   I talked with several Christian theologians who were 
amazed at his claim that Christians believe in three 
"Godheads." He explains the Trinity as "Three Gods in 
One," but the creeds teach three /{persons/} in one God.
   His account of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths is, well, 
unique. He could not tell me where he got it. His 
explanation of Hinduism as a form of "pantheism" 
indicates his knowledge of this faith is slight.
   After we discussed when the Hebrew Scriptures were 
written (he gives the unlikely dates of 1400-1200 B.C.E. 
for the first five books), he decided that he should have 
included the dates the scholars use.
   Panati's bibliography looks good, but has he understood 
his sources?
   Much of his book is helpful and accurate, but it is a chore 
separating the errors, misconceptions and disputed 
issues from the truth. This makes the book unreliable.
   When you buy a book for facts about religions, be sure 
the writer is an authority or at least footnotes the text 

This month marks many observances 
Dec Holidays

Many religions besides Christianity have observances that 
fall this year in December.
   On Dec. 6, the minor Jewish festival of Hanukkah began. 
Its eight nights of candles recall the miracle 2200 years 
ago of one day's lamp oil lasting eight, when the Temple in 
Jerusalem was rededicated after Hellenistic desecration.
   On Dec. 7, Muslims commemorated the ascension of 
the Prophet Muhammad to heaven following his night 
journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, where the famous 
Dome of the Rock, commissioned in 688, marks this 
   Dec. 15 recalls the martyrdom of the ninth Sikh guru, 
Tegh Bahadur, who in 1675, in solidarity with Hindus, 
refused to abandon his faith. His name means "brave 
sword," but he gave himself the nickname Degh Bahadur, 
"brave cooking pot," because he wanted to feed the 
hungry. His spirit shines in his pardon of an earlier 
assassination attempt: "There is no virtue equal to 
   Dec. 20 is Maunijiyaras, a day Jains use to honor holy 
   Dec. 21, the solstice, is hallowed by Wiccans. In the 
Julian calendar, the solstice fell on Dec. 25, and was 
celebrated as the birth of the sun-god since from this date 
daylight increases. (The early Christians adapted this 
festival for the birthday of the Christ.) In Japan, Dec. 22 is 
a Shinto festival of the sun's growing power, its yang 
period.   Dec. 26 is the anniversary of the death of the 
Prophet Zarathustra, founder of the Zoroastrian faith.
   Dec. 31 ends our secular calendar. Dear Readers: Do 
we all share something deeper than this final date?

Unity School co-founder gets her due
M Fillmore/N Vahle

Is Kansas City the home of a great woman religious 
leader? Would she rank with other American women like 
the Antinomian Anne Hutchinson (1600-1643), Shaker 
Ann Lee (1736-1784), Christian Scientist Mary Baker 
Eddy (1821-1910), and Adventist Ellen White 
   Historian Neal Vahle answers these questions "Yes," 
and supplies the name: Myrtle Fillmore (1845-1931), who 
with her husband Charles founded the Unity School of 
Christianity, with world headquarters in Lee's Summit.
   Unity School is the largest publisher in the midwest (one 
magazine, Daily Word, has a circulation of 1.2 million and 
reaches 153 countries). Unity receives 2 million prayer 
requests and handles over 34 million of pieces of 
outgoing mail a year.
   Myrtle started it all when she healed herself of 
tuberculosis from childhood when she was 42. She spent 
the next 44 years sharing her discovery.
   Vahle, a Californian, was in town Sunday to conduct a 
workshop on his new book, Torch-bearer to Light the Way: 
The Life of Myrtle Fillmore.
   Vahle had been writing a book about Charles Fillmore 
when he came upon 1,500 letters written by Myrtle in the 
last four years of her life. "I discovered an important untold 
story and set the work on Charles aside," he said.
   "The letters speak more clearly and directly than her 
husband's seven books. She responded with warmth to 
requests for advice on health, occupation, and marriage.
   "Charles received great recognition, but the letters and 
Myrtle's life reveal that this midwestern wife and mother 
was the inspiration for the Unity movement."

Theologian predicts end of secularism
Thanks/ H Smith

One week before Thanksgiving, the religious scholar 
Huston Smith gave a Kansas City audience of over five 
hundred a glimpse of "light at the end of the tunnel" as he 
spoke about "the condition of the human spirit."
   Smith's book, The World's Religions, has sold over 
1,500,000 copies. A Public Broadcasting System series 
earlier this year with Bill Moyers featured Smith discussing 
the wisdom within the world's faiths.
   The "tunnel" is Smith's image for the secularism which 
narrows our vision. "Ours is the most secular society the 
world has ever known," he said.
   But he has "never been more hopeful" than he is now 
because he believes we are about to emerge from this 
   Many now see that our focus on science has brought us 
many benefits, but it has not advanced our knowledge of 
the spiritual realm. We can also see that the world's 
religions are sometimes defective in perpetuating unjust 
social patterns and violence
against the environment.
   Nonetheless, Smith claims that the light from all 
traditions at their best converge to teach the same thing. 
The basic minimum ethical rules (don't kill, don't steal, 
don't lie, and don't be sexually abusive) are found in all 
traditions. The three chief virtues are humility, charity, and 
veracity. The vision common to all faiths is of a unified 
Reality, in which we are better than we think, and which 
grasps us as an awesome mystery.
   Is Smith right to see a light at the end of the tunnel and to 
characterize it as he does? I don't know, but I am glad to 
add his proclamation of hope to the list of things for which I 
am thankful.
The tunnel Smith described has a floor of "scientism." 
While science is a "nearly perfect way of knowing the 
material world," it is not very effective in improving our 
understanding of the spiritual realm.
   One wall is higher education which Smith claims erodes 
"all beliefs" except in material things. The other wall is the 
media, worsened by the public's addiction to violence.
   The ceiling is a "legal system" that has removed spiritual 
values from much of our public life.

Intolerance troubles religious leaders
C J M Dialogue

Since 1987 a group of Kansas City Christian, Jewish and 
Muslim leaders have met monthly to learn from each other. 
Even when the discussion has focused on political 
problems like Israeli-Palestinian issues, the frank dialogue 
has always been based on the spiritual traditions the 
participants bring to the table.
   In addition to religious professionals, a professor, a 
publisher, a chemist, a lawyer, a computer analyst, and a 
physician attended a recent meeting. The topic was the 
now obvious differences of opinion about what it means to 
be Jewish within Israel and how that affects Jews in the 
United States.
   A rabbi said that the Jewish tradition was build on 
tolerance, even of fundamental disagreements. He said 
that while the majority rules, minority opinions are also 
affirmed; the Talmud, the compilation of commentary on 
the law, deliberately includes divergent interpretations.
   But the peace process has now made visible a change 
from disagreement to attempts to suppress and 
delegitimize opposition, the rabbi said, painfully 
demonstrated by the 1995 assassination of Prime 
Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a fellow Jew, previously 
   Others said that in Israel non-Jews are freer than Jews 
to practice their faith. Several mentioned that Jews cannot 
pray as a family at the "Wailing Wall" because the state 
enforces the view of one group that women must pray 
separately from men.
   Christians and Muslims noted similar worrisome efforts 
within their religions to gain governmental support for 
particular religious views.

‘Interfaith’ relations increasing
Interfaith in KC

The phrase "interfaith" used to refer to relations among 
Baptists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics and maybe 
Jews. Now in Kansas City, "interfaith" means much more.
   In 1985 representatives of different faiths met to share a 
Thanksgiving Sunday ritual meal, a tradition that continues 
this year Nov. 24 at Temple B'nai Jehudah. From 
friendships thus made, the Kansas City Interfaith Council 
was organized in 1989 with American Indian, Baha'i, 
Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Sufi, 
Unitarian Universalist, Wiccan and Zoroastrian 
   The National Conference of Christians and Jews, now 
called The National Conference, has added Muslim 
representation to its regional board.
   Churches increasingly offer programs with guests from 
various faiths.
   And an interfaith musical event, now in its seventh year, 
displays Kansas City's diversity:
   Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Restoration, and African 
American choirs join in the Harmony Choral Celebration 
this Sunday at 3 pm, at Trinity United Methodist Church, 
5010 Parallel. The choirs demonstrate music from their 
own traditions, and then mass together to sing each 
other's music.
   In addition, Hindu, Cherokee and Eckankar sounds will 
be heard. "Hindu music is not choral, so our choir doing it 
is a first," according to Ellen Miles, chairperson of the 
   "The music uplifts regardless of your background. It is a 
spiritual experience," she said.
   Such interfaith experiences reveal to us that we are all 

Gathering encourages Muslim participation in 
American culture
Crescent Peace Soc

Saturday night 200 area Muslims and friends attended a 
forum on "American Traditions of Religious Freedom" at a 
local hotel.
   Muslims in Kansas City come from many backgrounds, 
including both black and white American converts, and 
American citizens born in India, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, 
Turkey, Lebanon, Ethiopia and many other countries.
   The new Crescent Peace Society organized the event to 
encourage Muslims to participate fully in the mosaic of 
American culture.
   A Christian leader, Carol L. Anway spoke about her 
struggle to reconcile with her daughter's choice to convert 
to Islam, described in her book, Daughters of Another 
   I talked about the West's unacknowledged indebtedness 
to Islam, and about the contributions Islam has made and 
can make to interfaith understanding in Kansas City.
   Jeffrey Lang, professor of Mathematics at the University 
of Kansas, and the only Muslim on the panel, used his 
experiences in Saudi Arabia and the United States to 
speak about the tension between "liberal" and 
"conservative" Muslims and encouraged wider dialogue 
among Muslims as well as non-Muslims.
   Kansas House Rep. David Adkins of Leawood noted 
that some studies indicate that there are more Muslims in 
America than Presbyterians. A questioner said that Jack 
Kemp, the Republican Vice-presidential nominee, 
characterized America's faith as "Judeo-Christian." 
Adkins responded that the American tradition embraces 
all faiths, and that all citizens should exercise their rights to 
their places at the table of democracy.

Practice of mantra stresses daily happiness
Soka Gakkai

Soka Gakkai began in Japan in 1937 and was 
incorporated in 1952. One of many forms of Buddhism 
now in Kansas City,  it came here in the 1960s.
   Its history reaches back to the great Buddhist reformer, 
Nichiren, in 13th Century Japan.
   "Soka Gakkai" means "Value-Creation Society." 
According to Royceann Mather, a member of the local 
group, this name "indicates the limitless potential to 
enhance one's own existence and to contribute to the 
well-being of others, under any circumstance."
   Many Buddhist schools seek to reduce suffering. Soka 
Gakkai expresses this intent positively, by putting attention 
not so much on alleviating pain as on achieving 
   The chief practice in this form of Buddhism is the daily 
recitation of the mantra (sacred saying), /{Nam 
myo-ho-renge-kyo,/} which expresses the ultimate truth 
found the Lotus Sutra. As interpreted by Soka Gakkai, this 
scripture promises that "Any person can achieve 
happiness now."
   The mantra is chanted "not on a mountain top but rather 
in the midst of our everyday lives. Through reciting this 
mantra, we can fuse our lives with the vast universal law of 
life and thus activate joy, wisdom and compassion from 
within," Mather explained.
   "Individuals practice to achieve benefit to meet their 
particular needs, whether it be to overcome health or 
relationship problems. Tapping into a higher life condition, 
we are better able to achieve goals while at the same time 
help others, and to achieve peace in ourselves, in our 
families, our communities, our nation and our world." she 

Come out of the shadows and contemplate the light
Invisible College

Imagine prisoners chained in a cave with fire at their 
backs looking at their own shadows projected on the wall 
in front of them. They have been in the cave so long that 
they think the shadows are real.
   One of the prisoners frees himself and gropes to the 
mouth of the cave. There he sees a world bathed in 
sunlight. He understands that the shadows are only the 
dimmest of realities, but when he returns to his 
companions, they are hard to convince. In fact, he is so 
dazed he cannot discern the shadows as well as before, 
and his companions think he is stupid.
   This famous story of "Plato's cave" suggests that there 
are realities we cannot apprehend from within the cave of 
our limited experience.
  How can we free ourselves from the shadows and 
contemplate the Truth?
   The contemplative tradition says that what is most 
precious is hidden within that which is most obvious, 
according to Bruce Nelson, a member of the faculty of the 
Invisible College."
   This group of six teachers in the Kansas City area are 
learned in the spiritual teachings of classical Greece and 
Rome, India and Tibet, Sufism, Hermeticism, and 
comparative studies. They offer customized individual and 
small group explorations of the world of sunlight.
   The traditions they have specialized in cultivate and 
focus our ability to see beyond the shadows, to discern 
the ultimate patterns without the distortions of consuming 
   Rather than a set of doctrines, "contemplative spirituality 
is a way of perceiving the world moment to moment," the 
school's catalog states.
   For a copy of the catalog, call Ed Matheny, 454-0209.

112.  961016 THE STAR'S HEADLINE
Ballet explores darkness, redemption
"Arena" Ballet

Experiences of the holy may be the focus of faith, but 
much of the vast panorama in which we move is hidden in 
darkness. Hinduism calls this darkness illusion, Buddhism 
understands it as ignorance, primal traditions think of it as 
disease, and Christianity names it sin.
   How can we recognize the darkness and move into the 
   In Kansas City this question was investigated eloquently 
but non-verbally last week in Todd Bolender's new ballet, 
   James Mobberley, who composed the music, says that 
the ballet is "dark," but that redemption, also suggested in 
the work, is meaningless without recognizing the 
   The darkness is personal and social.
   "Arena," like history, may provide hope for only episodic 
redemption. Some may wish for a final and cosmic 
affirmation which the ballet does not proclaim. Instead of a 
single script for a final triumph of light, "Arena" implies an 
ancient Greek theme of cycle and repetition. The work 
also draws upon what medieval Christian theologian 
Nicholas of Cusa called the "union of opposites." The 
ballet is rich enough to support an interpretation even with 
an Asian vision of reincarnation.
  Despite these ambiguities, few would disagree with the 
central place the ballet gives to recognizing the darkness 
within and about, to exploration, and to the manifestation 
of love.
  We expect our religious institutions to inspire and guide 
us to move from darkness to light. But who can refuse to 
applaud when the secular artists of the State Ballet of 
Missouri so powerfully search the arena of the spirit?

Monuments remind and refresh
Washington, DC

WASHINGTON -- It is now fashionable to speak of this city 
with scorn, as a place of waste and corruption. Yet to me, 
some of the holiest places on earth are here.
   For example, in my lifetime the Lincoln Monument has 
seen Marian Anderson's concert transcending prejudice, 
and Martin Luther King Jr sharing his dream for America. 
These events were pivots in our nation's movement 
toward fulfilling the sacred promise of liberty for all of us.
   An inscription above the statue of Lincoln calls the 
building "this temple," recognizing that this is not a secular 
site. Lincoln words, "with malice toward none, with charity 
toward all," enshrined on the walls, purified and sanctified 
our nation's most bitter quarrel with itself. Lincoln spoke 
within a 3000-year tradition of understanding history as 
the realm in which God reveals himself.
   The Jefferson Memorial declares that our freedoms are 
not granted by the government but by the very order of 
nature, by God. Religion is so important government must 
not interfere with its free exercise nor may the state 
compel or support religious opinions.
   The Vietnam Memorial evokes the tragedies of the war, 
and the Holocaust Museum warns how even a free society 
can permit the most horrible evils once it denies rights to 
some of its citizens. The Nazis demonized Jews, gypsies, 
homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses and political 
   The memorials warn and inspire. They can refresh the 
citizen with the spiritual ideals which have guided us as a 
people. When act upon these ideals, we fulfill the promise 
of our nation's founders, who pledged their "sacred 

Buddhism in many shapes and sizes

More readers ask me for information about Buddhism 
than any other religion.
   The first point I try to make is that there is a greater 
variety within Buddhism than within Christianity, which 
itself ranges from the high liturgy of the Orthodox Church to 
the simplicity of Quakerism.
   One may be attracted to one branch of Buddhism and 
find another of little interest. Some forms of Buddhism are 
largely Americanized, while others use the organizational 
structure, language, and methods developed in the 
countries from which they are imported.
   Ten years ago, for a church here, I convened 
representatives of Sokka Gakkai, Korean Zen, and 
Tibetan traditions. The representatives not only had never 
met before, they did not even know the other Buddhist 
groups existed in the Kansas City area.
   Since then new groups have formed, and most of the 
Buddhist groups here are now regularly cooperating with 
each other.
   The American Buddhist Center at Unity Temple on the 
Plaza is working with the Shambhala Center, the Kansas 
Zen Center, the Mid-America Dharma Group, the 
Mindfulness Meditation Foundation, and a Vietnamese 
Buddhist group to provide mutual support and joint 
programs, according to Ben Worth, the director of the 
American Buddhist Center. Worth also hopes to promote 
greater understanding between Christians and Buddhists.
   Inaugurating a series of guest speakers, Shechen 
Rabam Rinpoche, a Tibetan teacher, spoke through an 
interpreter to an appreciative crowd of 400 people at Unity 
Temple last week.
   A schedule of fall events is available by calling 
561-4466, ext. 143.

The suffering of others can heal us

Wrapped in Jewish and Mormon material with the 
religious intensity of the ancient Greek plays of Aeschylus, 
Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" asks a universal 
question: What is the meaning of our suffering?
   One of several answers suggested in "Perestroika," the 
second half of Kushner's two-play set, is a theme found in 
many faiths: we ourselves can be healed by those afflicted 
with undeserved suffering. In fact, we may not even know 
how weakened our souls are until we discover how we 
respond to those in agony.
   Vimalakirti, the hero of an eponymous Buddhist sutra, 
falls sick. This shocks the entire community. But as others 
explore the nature of his disease and how it has purified 
his spirit, they are healed from an ignorance of which they 
were unaware.
   In scripture claimed by Jews, Christians and Muslims, a 
servant "is despised and rejected." We think him "smitten" 
by God. Yet "with his stripes we are healed" (Isaiah 
.  For many Jews the suffering servant is a people whose 
example in adversity brings the world to justice.
   Many Christians believe the passage foretells the work 
of Jesus, whose unjust death brings redemption to 
   How can vicarious suffering bring healing? Kushner's 
play presents several maladies, including AIDS. The virus 
brings condemnation or compassion. When we choose 
the later, our prejudice and the body politic may be healed 
as if by angels.

A prayer for broken vows with God

Sunday at sundown Jews in Kansas City and throughout 
the world will observe the holiest day of the year, Yom 
Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  The ancient prayer 
opening the service is a somber and beautiful chant called 
"Kol Nidre."
   The prayer asks for forgiveness for vows not kept, 
according to Cantor Earl G. Berris of Kehilath Israel 
Synagogue in Overland Park. "If we make a vow to God 
we are unable to keep, we settle this with God, and this is 
what the 'Kol Nidre' deals with. But if we cannot keep vows 
made with our fellows, we must make arrangements with 
them; God cannot release us from those obligations."
   This is an important distinction because in the Middle 
Ages Christians, distorting the intent of the prayer, used 
the "Kol Nidre" to accuse Jews of duplicity in human 
agreements even though Jewish law strictly limits the 
prayer to vows made to God, and can never be used to 
escape obligations with others.
   The "Kol Nidre" is also associated with the persecution 
of Jews during the Spanish inquisition and became a way 
of affirming one's Jewish identity with other Jews at Yom 
Kippur, if necessary, in secret.
   The exact history of the prayer is obscure. Berris says 
the text derives from the Talmud, completed before the 6th 
Century C.E., and the tune is at least 500 years old, 
perhaps much older.
   Berris, now in his 20th year as a cantor, or worship 
leader, says "As I grow older and understand human 
frailties better and learn how easily people can make 
mistakes, I increasingly see the significance of this 
opportunity for honest and sincere atonement."

Values should include global family

EL ARISH, Egypt -- Jesus said, "If any man come to me, 
and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, 
and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he 
cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26.)
   Other Biblical passages command us to honor our 
parents and love our neighbor, but in isolation the verse 
quoted above may not at first seem to support "family 
values," a phrase heard often this political season in 
   Perhaps the phrase has become urgent because so 
many families in America are torn, and different age 
groups often pursue separate activities.
   Here on the shore of the Mediterranean, I am a guest 
and speak briefly at an extraordinary family reunion, 
gathered from many nations. I observe not only the respect 
children offer their parents and other adults, but the 
pleasure those of all ages take in visiting and playing 
together, including teen-agers.
   One evening, after prayer in the mosque, several 
hundred members of this family gather to hear prominent 
religious, business, governmental and academic leaders 
address the family's 1400-year heritage.
   The speakers do not brag. Instead they speak of the 
responsibility each person has, not just to other members 
of the family, but to enlarge peace and justice throughout 
the world.
   This family reunion transcends mere sentiment and 
good times. It becomes a rededication to the paths 
leading us to see that all of us on this planet are kin.
   Somehow seeing "family values" in a foreign land 
illumines the inner meaning of the difficult words of Jesus.

Pyramids’ lure reaches across ages

CAIRO, Egypt -- Gazing at the Pyramids just outside of 
town is like looking at the beginning of civilization 5000 
years ago. These Stone Age monuments still cause even 
the most modern observer to gasp.
   It is not just their antiquity, size, simplicity, stability, 
perfection or intimation of immutability that stirs the soul. It 
is a resonance we feel across time with a strange and 
puzzling people and their joyous absorption within 
universal patterns.
   Although local forms of religion were respected, a royal 
cult also developed in the Pyramid Age, after Upper and 
Lower Egypt were united.
   Perhaps the earliest object of official devotion was an 
erect stone signifying human and cosmic vitality. The 
stone was later understood as the primordial mound, the 
earth rising from the waters at the creation of the universe, 
with the sun revealed at the top.
   The Pyramids are human celebrations of this creation, 
and their sides suggest the rays of the sun pouring life into 
a culture united with nature.
   From the daily death and resurrection of the sun, from 
the yearly inundation of the Nile causing new life to grow 
from its fertile waters, developed stories of a divine father 
whose son's struggle with evil modeled redemption.
   From such stories, Egyptians came to believe in life 
after death. Eventually these stories were reshaped into 
Christian ideas and images. Isis holding her son Horus on 
her lap, for example, later became the Madonna and 
   From the technology of the Pyramids -- and the 
spirituality -- our world emerged.

Mosques, sacred places call us to awe

AMMAN, Jordan -- The King Abdullah Mosque here is 
glorious without being opulent, clean of line without being 
severe. Built under the administration of an official whose 
nephew, now an American, lives in the Kansas City area, 
the mosque is named for the first king of Jordan.
   Though drawn to the huge dome and the twin minarets, 
my interest is not primarily historical or architectural. My 
focus is instead religious because as I arrive, the muezzin 
is calling the faithful to salat, prayer. It is noon, so this is 
the second of the five daily periods of prayer.
   I remove my shoes and peer into the mosque. Here is a 
place which declares the unity of God and the kinship of all 
peoples. While one can pray anywhere, the mosque 
perfects the Muslim ideals of cleanliness, community and 
freedom from distraction.
   The spheric roof symbolizes the believer's submission to 
the will of God in all aspects of life, personal and 
   Later I am shown other facilities in the building which 
also declare kinship. One large conference chamber is 
equipped with microphones and headsets at every seat
so those of different tongues can speak and hear 
translations of the proceedings.
   I think of churches, synagogues, temples, gurdwaras, 
meeting houses, groves, shrines and other sacred places. 
All of them, through their particular forms and histories, call 
us to awe, to gratitude, to service, to centeredness in what 
is most important in our lives.
   I feel right at home.

Religions Superior, Same

I'd guess about ten per cent of those who respond to this 
column believe that I am doing the devil's work. I lead 
readers astray when I "fail to teach the one true religion," 
namely theirs. Another ten per cent want me just to show 
how all religions are basically the same.
   Both groups of readers may be unhappy today.
   In our fast-paced lives, we are subject to what some 
theologians have called the "pizza effect" -- defining an 
entire culture on the basis of one taste. Ironically, it may be 
easier to find pizza here than in Italy, and Italians can live 
happily without eating pizza.
   With superficial distinctions, we sometimes summarize 
and judge another faith without understanding it from 
   The "Hilton effect" is the opposite problem -- assuming 
basic identity from incidental similarities. Just because 
you find a Hilton Hotel both in New York and in New Delhi 
does not mean the US and India are alike.
   Extracting the "Golden Rule" from several religions, 
which many readers find in The People's Almanac, does 
not prove all religions are the same. One cannot 
understand the heart of India by remaining in the hotel, or 
the essence of Hinduism by taking a scripture out of its 
   An apple and pork chops and a bagel are all food, but I 
am not concerned with how they are alike when I bite into 
an apple. I cannot really savor the apple if my focus is on 
what all food has in common.
   This column is neither one style of cooking nor does it 
blend everything together into pabulum. It is a grocery with 
every kind of food. It is your job, dear reader, to determine 
your own spiritual diet.

Discovery on Mars is a challenge

The recently discovered evidence that life may have 
existed on Mars raises questions for Buddhists, 
Christians and others.
   A Buddhist tradition says each Buddha's domain 
consists of a trillion solar systems, but there are universes 
in which Buddhas do not appear, and some worlds in 
which many Buddhas appear. Each universe depends 
upon the collective virtue of its inhabitants. The Buddha is 
revealed to human beings in a variety of ways, 
appropriate to the individual's ability to understand.
   Christians may wonder what the Bible's lack of mention 
of other worlds means. The Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior 
pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection 
in Leawood, says, "The Bible is not a textbook for the 
study of the cosmos.
   "If there is intelligent life on other planets (a quantum 
leap from the chemical traces of organic compounds 
found in the meteorite from Mars), it would be consistent 
with the Bible that God would wish to be known by, and in 
relationship with, these beings. They, too, would be his 
   "God's methods of revealing himself to us and God's 
work in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, 
however, seems to be specific to the nature, context and 
history of humanity. We can hope that extra-terrestrial 
beings could have avoided the brokenness we see in 
humanity. If so, they may have by-passed the need for 
God's redemptive work here through Jesus' death for the 
sin of the world."
   Whatever our faith, or none, such questions may suggest 
how little we are in the unimaginably vast reaches of the 

Man’s power over the land is just an illusion

An extraordinarily popular but apocryphal letter is 
attributed to Chief Seattle. Sometimes given the date 
1852, it seems to respond to a presidential offer to buy his 
tribe's land.
   Even teachers like Joseph Campbell have wrongly 
assumed the letter was authentic because it so poignantly 
and characteristically displays the reverence American 
Indians have for land, not as properties to be deeded and 
possessed, but as habitations of spiritual beings like 
eagles, streams and trees.
   The letter warns that our pollution of land, wind, water 
and relationships may end with our own destruction. 
Humans cannot ultimately claim control over the earth 
because we are dependent on it.
   Less sentimental, the Lewis deSoto installation 
"Tahquitz," now at the Nelson Gallery, presents a similar 
warning. The room is spooky. Ice blocks melt. The water 
drips into huge vessels. On either side are video images 
of a landscape in which we are participants, willingly or 
   Contrast "Tahquitz" with the exuberance and confidence 
of Nichols Memorial Fountain (near the Country Club 
Plaza) whose adult figures embody a spirituality of human 
domination over nature. Which is more genuine, more 
redemptive, the simple drip or the contrived spray? Or can 
we learn from both?
   The single process of nature is both wondrous and 
defective. The beautiful sunset skies and the raging 
tornado are from the same atmospheric engine.
   It is fashionable now to romanticize the American Indian 
view of nature. DeSoto invites us to a deeper 
understanding of his tradition, of the earth and of 

Meditation can increase awareness

"Meditation is not an exotic discipline to remove life's 
troubles," says Buddhist author and teacher Joseph 
Goldstein. "Rather it is a way to become more aware, 
more peaceful, more open and more compassionate all 
the time."
   Goldstein, in Kansas City recently to lecture and lead a 
10-day retreat, teaches "insight meditation," which 
consists in observing one's thoughts without judgment as 
they arise.
   Learning to attend to our thoughts can help us identify 
the "mental movies" we produce, and thus avoid being so 
absorbed in them we mistake them for reality. When we 
are caught up in a greed or fear movie, we create 
suffering, from showing disrespect to the horrors of 
   "Meditation is not about not thinking, but rather being 
aware of thinking," he said. Though practice we can 
discover what thoughts and emotions are most useful.
   One thought we often cling to is the idea of the self.
   Goldstein compared the self to the Big Dipper, a name 
we give to a constellation of stars unrelated astronomically 
except as they appear to us. It is useful to name the 
pattern, but if we become attached to the pattern which 
separates one group of stars from the others, we forget 
the unity of the whole sky. The self is a concept, a pattern, 
but not ultimately distinct from the rest of the world.
   He said that Buddhists teach that there is "no abiding 
being. A seed is not carried into the tree it becomes; there 
is no core entity that persists." Instead the pattern shifts in 
a continuous process.
   Observing the flow of thoughts can smooth our own 
continuing transformation.

Baptist women visit Hindu Temple

What happened when a women's group from the Second 
(Southern) Baptist Church of Liberty recently visited the 
Hindu Temple in Shawnee?
  They were graciously greeted by Anand Bhattacharyya, 
formerly president of the Temple, and by the priest, 
Mayuram M. C. Bhattar, and his children. The women 
removed their shoes, learned about the Hindu scriptures, 
and considered the different yogas, or paths to God.
  They also studied the statues of various deities colorfully 
and joyfully dressed in the front of the temple. "God is 
formless," Bhattacharyya said, "but the human mind 
sometimes needs images to direct us to God. The women 
remarked how refreshing it was so see images of happy 
   Despite the apparent differences with her own faith, 
Jean Hedges found important "similarities between 
Hinduism and Christianity."
   The trip increased June Martin's appetite to understand 
"the inner core" of different faiths. Leta Cummins believes 
it is important to "build bridges" among the religions. 
Dorothy Jackson said she had known little about 
Hinduism, but this trip gave her an appreciation for the 
   The expectations of the visit were clear. The Baptists did 
not want to convert the Hindus, and the Hindus did not 
want to convert the Baptists. "God loves all people. Surely 
he understands those of different faiths," one of the 
women said.
   "I was awed," said another. "The Hindu Temple is a 
sacred place."
   Bhattacharyya and Bhattar were delighted with their 
guests. Citing an Upanishad, Bhattacharyya said that all 
rivers, despite their different origins, lead to the ocean. 
"And our different faiths all lead to God."
   When was the last time you, dear reader, visited another 
faith's place of worship?

Olympics revive emphasis on honor

All things we care about are religious in origin. How we 
relate to one another, hunting or growing food, astronomy, 
mathematics, art, music, dance, poetry, right livelihood, 
politics -- and sports. Our secular society has forgotten its 
roots. Yet occasions arise when the religious fervor of 
antiquity reappears today.
   Take the Olympics, developed in honor of the gods who 
dwelt on Mt. Olympus. Just as many of us will set aside our 
ordinary concerns to view athletic excellence in Atlanta, 
"the ancient Greeks considered sport more important than 
everyday life," says Rockhurst College professor and 
author Curtis Hancock.
   Our word "athlete" derives from athlon which meant 
"prize." Although Athenian champions were given free 
meals the rest of their lives, the real prize was honor.
   To honor his dead friend Patroclus, Achilles organized 
an athletic contest at his funeral, said Hancock, citing 
Homer's Iliad
   Play was more important than work. Leisure and 
contemplation, which made possible the development of 
one's capacities, was also the arena from which politics 
   Play was more important than war. During the Olympic 
games, hostilities between city-states ceased and the 
athletes were protected.
   St. Thomas Aquinas said that emphasizing a narrow 
corner of the world in one's work obstructs one's ability to 
get close to God, an opinion common in the ancient and 
medieval worlds. Work was not made sacramental until 
the Reformation, Hancock said.
   The Olympic thrill, enduring though the ages, springs 
from our spiritual natures.

Spiritual warriors: Martial artists

Asian martial arts have become popular in the past few 
decades. "The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" derives 
from the now-classic TV series "Kung Fu." Today Kansas 
City has many martial arts schools, from aikido to larate, 
from judo to jujitsu.
   Chris Kurth's interest in Buddhism grew out of his martial 
arts training here. Now, as leader of a private dojo in 
Colorado, he seeks to place the warrior in a spiritual 
   During a visit here last week, I asked him about the 
spiritual dimension of martial arts.
   "Slamming people to the ground or knocking them out is 
not spiritual," he said. He laments acquiring skill without 
developing character and judgment to use the skill wisely. 
The martial arts should be used to "decrease violence in 
the world," not to threaten or abuse others, he said.
   Being able to defend oneself reduces "fixation on fear 
and phobias. One can handle pain and disappointment in 
life without feeling victimized," he said. This freedom from 
fear makes it more possible to give attention to spirituality.
   The camaraderie and teamwork in the training, the 
development of a healthy, vital body, the discipline of the 
mind, and the ethical basis for action are spiritual 
components not only in martial arts but many other 
practices, he said.
   In addition, the high level of coordination and fitness 
sometimes achieved makes possible a "beautiful mode of 
expression," often described as "going with the flow," a 
Taoist and Buddhist way of describing our oneness with 
all others and the unfolding process of life.

Americans cherish religious freedom

As we approach Independence Day, many of us recall the 
protections from government that make us a free people. 
Religious liberty is one of our most cherished American 
   While the American Civil Liberties Union is sometimes 
portrayed as a liberal organization, Dick Kurtenbach, 
Executive Director of the ACLU affiliate here, calls its 
work "conservative" because it seeks to protect citizens 
against government control of our lives.
   First Amendment liberties, including freedom of religion, 
are primary concerns of the ACLU.
   Kurtenbach cited a case when he directed the Nebraska 
affiliate before coming to Kansas City. A Pentecostal 
woman interpreted the Bible's second commandment 
against graven images literally. She felt it was wrong for 
her to participate in any procedure which would reproduce 
an image that God had created.
   The State of Nebraska required a photo of her as part of 
her driver's license. She was willing to substitute a written 
description of her appearance. Nebraska would not 
accommodate her conscience, so the ACLU sued on her 
behalf and won in the District Court. The state still would 
not respect her faith and appealed. Finally the Supreme 
Court ruled that her sincerely held religious beliefs were 
protected by the Constitution, and ordered the state to 
issue her a license without a photo, substituting a written 
description to replace the picture.
   Perhaps the highest duty we have is to act according to 
our conscience. If the government can restrict the religious 
liberty of any of us, it endangers that freedom for all of us.

World Faiths Center provides inter-religious learning 

Readers' questions range from "Should I tithe on my 
Social Security check?" to "Why do religions so often lead 
to violence?" If I can understand the phone number or 
address readers leave with their messages, I do my best 
to respond to each question.
   By far the most frequent query is "What is the World 
Faiths Center for Religious Experience and Study?"
   "CRES," founded in 1982, is an inter-religious network 
of people who want to learn about each other's faiths. In 
1989 CRES organized and now continues to host the 
Kansas City Interfaith Council, and coordinated the 
Christian Jewish Muslim Dialogue Group in its first few 
   CRES provides speakers and consultation for religious 
groups and educational institutions. It offers services (such 
as weddings) with an interfaith perspective to individuals, 
couples and families.
   CRES does not compete with other religious 
organizations; its work is to support them. But 
occasionally distinctive discussion groups, retreats, and 
other programs are arranged. An interfaith matins is held 
most Mondays, and each year on the Sunday
before Thanksgiving CRES brings representatives of 
different faiths together for a shared Thanksgiving ritual 
   A monthly newsletter announces activities around town 
of interfaith interest.
   CRES is completely independent. It receives no funding 
from, and has no ties with, any particular faith.
   For more information, send a stamped, self-addressed 
envelope to CRES, Box 4165, Overland Park, KS 66204.

Diverse religions oppose gambling

Gambling is now promoted commercially and by 
governments and even some charities. But why have 
many faiths historically opposed gambling?
   "Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best 
interests of moral, social, economic and spiritual life, and 
destructive of good government," says the United 
Methodist Church in a 1992 statement.
   Keith Berry, Missouri West Conference Council 
Director, adds that "Gambling is an irresponsible way of 
raising money because it takes money from people 
vulnerable to gaming emotions."
   Adnan Bayazid, imam in the Kansas City Islamic Center, 
says that "Islam is practical religion. Allah, the Almighty 
God, wants people to gain their sustenance in productive 
ways. While inheritance and gifts further love and 
compassion among people, gambling only encourages 
fantasies of wealth with no effort. Dreams of a jackpot 
lead to addiction, and the gambler will lose what he has, 
destroying himself and others."
   The Qur'an calls gambling an abomination (Sura 5:90). 
Instead of seeking illicit means to enlarge our wealth, we 
should give what we can spare to the unfortunate (Sura 
   Dr. Daryoush Jahanian, leader of the Kansas City 
Zoroastrian community, says that his faith prohibits 
gambling. "Our earnings should come through hard work."
   He explains that the Persian word for gambler means 
"gamble-loser" because one who wins wants to gamble 
again and will lose his winnings, and one who loses will 
lose again trying to win. Gambling can ruin families and 
lead to tragedy when gamblers steal to pay their debts, he 
   Are these traditional moral concerns valid today?

This house of prayer is truly ‘for all’
Glide in SF

SAN FRANCISCO -- In 1930 "Lizzie" Glide endowed 
Glide Memorial United Methodist Church here in her 
husband's memory. It was to be "a house of prayer for all 
   As I look around Sunday morning, it seems just that: 
Asians, Hispanics, Blacks, Whites and others gather to 
worship together.
   Before I entered, I walked past a line of homeless 
people here in the worst part of the city. With a tiny 
kitchen, this church serves over a million meals to them 
each year.
   Cecil Williams, the church's "minister of liberation," 
came here 32 years ago from Kansas City's St James 
United Methodist, now St James Paseo United Methodist.
   Then Glide had 332 members. Today membership tops 
5000. The church's programs range from substance 
abuse recovery work to creative arts.
   The 1500 seats were filled well before this early service 
began. It begins with clapping and singing, then everyone 
joining hands.
   Williams speaks. "You may be holding hands with a 
homeless person, or a homosexual, or a young person, or 
a PhD, or a Muslim." He lists other human conditions.
   Now he says, "We are here to accept each other." The 
power of this simple message further energies the 
congregation. While many churches still struggle with 
diversity, this church demonstrates it. Instead of excluding 
or condemning, Williams quotes Thomas Moore: 
"Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of spirituality."
   For this openness, Glide has been accused of having no 
theology. "If Jesus is here, you don't need theology," 
Williams responds.

A pilgrimage is more than a vacation

SAN FRANCISCO -- As a "flower child" nearly three 
decades ago, I came here making the "summer of love" 
   Now I bring my son here to celebrate his 16th birthday.
   Religions have developed the practice of pilgrimage to 
re-awaken, deepen and confirm the central insights of 
faith, as a way of discovering who one really is. Ordinary 
travel has a business or social purpose or is an escape. A 
pilgrimage is different.
   If they are able, Muslims once in a lifetime visit Mecca. 
Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is perhaps the best-known 
English story of Christian pilgrimage. I've gone to 
Canterbury myself, and Rome, and Guadalupe.
   I've also gone to Benares, the Hindu holy city, and to 
Sarnath, where the Buddha first preached.
   But I learned most about how intense a pilgrimage can 
be at Mt Hiei, near Kyoto. There monks spend seven 
years walking up and down the mountain, including nine 
consecutive days without food, water or sleep, a 
dangerous discipline that empties them of ego.
   Now at Grace Cathedral here, my son has completed 
walking through the labyrinth copied from Chartres.
   You can get lost in a maze, but a labyrinth has only one 
way in and out, a path with unexpected turns but no tricks. 
One arrives where one started, somehow changed. 
Although there is a center, there is no destination, making 
it clear that what counts is the process.
   My son refuses to let me photograph him here. "It 
wouldn't be right." Perhaps he sees that the holiness of his 
pilgrimage through the labyrinth cannot be reduced to a 
vacation picture.

Rumi: Poet, mystic, dervish

"Who was Rumi?" a reader asks.
   Although Jalal al-Din Rumi lived in 13th Century 
Anatolia, now Turkey, he has become one of the most 
popular poets in America today, largely through 
translations by Robert Bly and Coleman Barks.
   But Rumi's influence is primarily spiritual.
   Rumi had been a highly regarded Muslim professor, but 
when he met the wandering mystic Shams al-Din Tabrizi, 
his focus turned from scholarship to love.
   His students, jealous of the time their master was 
spending with Shams, forced Shams departure. Rumi's 
loss became a metaphor for our yearning for God and 
God's yearning for us. Rumi sang of his longing while 
spinning around to music and founded the order of 
mystics called "Whirling Dervishes."
   He was loved by Christians, Jews and Muslims in his 
city, and by the authorities as well as common folk.
   Allaudin Ottinger is a Kansas City musician who often 
leads Sufi dancing. He calls Rumi "one of those rare 
human beings who totally change the way people 
experience the world around them. His poetry echoes the 
depth of his intense love for creation, the love that turns 
grass green, puts the fresh look in babies' faces, and 
makes the sun come up.
   "Over 700 years after his death, Rumi continues to 
inspire souls, awaken hearts, and shatter our concepts of 
who we think we are," Ottinger said.
   "Rumi" is the name of a new massive but graceful 
sculpture by Mark di Suvero in the East Garden at the 
Nelson Gallery. To curator Deborah Emont Scott, "the 
twisting shapes" of the orange interlocking diagonal steel 
beams suggest the "ritualized dance movements" of the 

It’s OK to disagree on religion

"Our country needs to respect religious dissent," was the 
message of author Paul Kurtz, in town Sunday to dedicate 
the new Center for Inquiry - Midwest. He wants it known 
that "Americans can be moral and virtuous without 
believing in God or the Bible."
   In fact, sometimes some forms of religion are harmful, 
he said, citing a new study that shows that the most violent 
places in the nation are also where "authoritarian and 
dogmatic" religious beliefs are the strongest.
   Kurtz, a professor at the State University of New York - 
Buffalo, criticized the media for "squeezing out dissenting 
religious views. 'Free Thought' flourished between 1880 
and 1920, with people like Mark Twain, Clarence Darrow 
and Sinclair Lewis," he said.
   But today the media discount or ignore skeptics of 
traditional religious claims and favor entertainment over 
inquiry "in popular presentations of alien abductions, the 
paranormal, and faith healings," he said.
   Kurtz is also chair of the Council for Secular Humanism. 
"Humanism is a set of values" he believes can serve as 
well as, or better than, those of organized religion.
   The Center for Inquiry - Midwest is located with the 
Kansas City Eupraxophy Center, 6301 Rockhill Road, 
Suite 412. "Eupraxophy" derives from Greek terms for 
"good," "conduct" and "wisdom," and has been defined 
as "a commitment to the good life, a cosmic perspective 
for humans guided by reason, nurtured by the arts and 
   Kurtz has helped form groups like this throughout the 
country. About 2000 people in this area subscribe to 
Kurtz's publications. Eupraxophy activities here include 
Sunday mornings with guest speakers.

Questions about God, sons of God

When Jesus is called the "Lamb of God," we do not 
picture him with four feet. Even those who read the Bible 
literally understand this is poetic.
   But when Genesis 6:2 refers to the "sons of God," is this 
literal or metaphorical? When John 1:12 says that we may 
become "sons of God" not born of the flesh, what does 
this mean?
   When John 3:16 discloses that Jesus is God's "only 
begotten son," how should we understand this phrase?
   Judaism and Islam classically affirm that no person is 
God. On the other hand, Hinduism reports many "avatars" 
or incarnations of God, some female. In between these 
two views, most Christians say that one person, Jesus, is 
   Can the Infinite become finite? Can the Eternal enter 
history? Can the Whole be recognized in a part of a 
pattern? Language sometimes seems to fail when we 
pursue such difficult questions.
   The Rev. Thomas F. Thorpe of the Association of Unity 
Churches quotes a paradox written by medieval German 
mystic Meister Eckhart: "God never begot but one Son, 
but the Eternal is forever begetting the only begotten."
   Thorpe says this means that the Christ, the 
"image-likeness of God," is forever becoming possible in 
every human being (Genesis 1:26). For the Christian, 
Jesus is the Wayshower. "His life and work offers the 
clearest, most complete expression the world has yet 
seen of the image-likeness of God," but every person has 
this potential.
   Whatever terms, images or stories we use to point to 
that which is beyond thought, all religions place the 
individual in a larger pattern.

Consider art, religion with equal care

First impressions are sometimes misleading. Hinduism 
calls the world maya, illusion, and some Westerners at 
first thought this was negative and life-denying.
   A hundred years later, we know that such a view is as 
incomplete as calling Christian life other-worldly because 
of talk about heaven.
   Included in the current "Made in America" exhibit at the 
Nelson Gallery is a plate (c. 1950) by Maria Martinez. The 
plate draws on ancient American Indian forms and 
techniques, but at first seems more sophisticated, almost 
machine-like, compared with
the two much older bowls in the same display case. I 
asked curator Margaret Conrads for her opinion.
   We both marveled at the 40 black-on-black 
identically-styled feathers arranged like a pinwheel around 
a center which must represent the sun in such a way as to 
evoke a spirituality of movement. But Conrads insisted 
that the Anasazi (c. 1400-1625) and Mimbres (c. 
1000-1200) bowls were also quite sophisticated.
   I've returned to the exhibit several times and perhaps 
see some of what she means. These older bowls also use 
animal forms to convey power, awe and reverence.
   Just as discounting medieval or modern art because 
"things don't really look that way" is to miss the point, so 
judging other religions by what first strikes us may not only 
be unfair, but may also deprive us of profound 
comparisons which can enrich our own faiths.
   Still, Martinez found ways to be true to her tradition while 
delivering that ancient spirituality in a compelling way to 
our own age.
   All of us face a similar task.

It’s all in how you look at it
 (Responses to Apr 10)

Several weeks ago I outlined how understandings of 
marriage and same-sex unions have changed through 
history. Responses, about equally divided, ranged from 
congratulations to disapproval, a few with abusive, 
unprintable remarks framed with Biblical citations.
   Some thought the column was well-researched, accurate 
and fair. Some requested a reading list.
   Others said my history must be wrong. The church could 
never have blessed same-sex unions because the Bible 
prohibits it, they believe.
   History and the fact that Christendom has split into many 
denominations show that the Bible has been variously 
   Some have believed the Bible prohibits interest on loans 
(Ex. 22:25) and requires wages to be paid daily (Deut. 
24:15). Few now keep women silent in church (I Cor. 
14:34), and we no longer require fathers to stone their 
stubborn sons to death (Deut. 21:18-21).
   Many sincere and loving readers find it hard to believe 
that other sincere and loving readers use and interpret the 
Bible in ways different from them.
   I also heard from same-sex couples, at least one of 
whom had been together over thirty years. I heard their 
anguish at how others have treated them.
   Regardless of the viewpoint, I appreciate your calls and 
   One man left a message: "Your column is disgusting." 
But when I returned his call the next day, he told me that he 
had prayed about the matter. He was now not so ready to 
condemn. "After all, I am an alcoholic. Who am I to judge 
others? That is for God to do."

In search of the Buddhist Nirvana

Perhaps no term in Buddhism has varied in meaning 
more than nirvana.
   According to Stanley Lombardo, guiding teacher of the 
Kansas Zen Center in Lawrence, nirvana is commonly 
understood as "a kind of ultimate peace and quiet.
   "The word means 'extinction,' as in the extinguishing of a 
fire. This metaphor is used to point toward the extinction of 
suffering and the extinction of the idea of a self.
   "And it suggests an escape, an escape from all the 
cares of the world and from the cycle of life and death.
   "It's actually a pretty chilly notion, and it's hard to 
reconcile this idea of nirvana with the central Buddhist 
virtues of wisdom and compassion."
   But as Buddhism evolved, schools like Zen appeared 
which practiced living fully now, whatever the 
circumstances. Sayings like "The Buddha does not dwell 
in nirvana" appeared to emphasize that a Buddha does 
not evade the mess of the world.
   "A fully realized and perfectly aware being continues to 
exercise compassion by living completely in the world of 
suffering and change, and guiding others to understand 
one's true nature and one's identity with all beings," 
Lombardo said.
   "A Buddha does not 'merge with the Absolute' or 
anything like that.
   "If you want to find the dwelling place of all Buddhas, 
take a walk through the suburbs and the slums of any big 
city. That's where they tend to congregate these days."

God, the mathematician

Is God a number?
   Philosopher Bertrand Russell claimed that "theology (is 
derived) from mathematics." Scientist Sir James Jeans 
said that God is "addicted to arithmetic." These Twentieth 
Century thinkers continue a long tradition of relating math 
and religion.
   The Pythagorians of ancient Greece practiced a 
spirituality rooted in the belief that the universe can be 
explained with whole numbers or their ratios. Their faith 
was shaken by the discovery that the side and the 
diagonal of a square have no common measure.
   Buddhists sometimes speak of Ultimate Reality as 
   The Christian theologian Augustine developed a 
practice of finding sacred meanings in the numbers in 
   In Jewish and Islamic mysticism, letters of the alphabet 
were exchanged for numbers to interpret the deep 
meaning of a text. A Muslim tradition that "God is an odd 
number" shows up in Shakespeare who wrote that "there 
is divinity in odd numbers."
   Now math-professor-turned-minister Sarah Voss has 
written What Number is God? She'll be in town, at the 
Plaza Barnes and Noble, Saturday 5-6, to autograph her 
book and answer questions.
   She says that God is like the "definite integral of 
calculus." She hopes that using rational metaphors 
instead of emotional language will help people think more 
clearly about their faith. She also believes that new 
branches of mathematics, like chaos theory, can help us 
understand how God works.

Heterosexism clouds cultural memories

Same-sex unions have been honored in many cultures. 
But what about the Christian tradition?
   The meaning of marriage has continued to evolve since 
the Western Church declared marriage a sacrament in 
   Unions between men and women had been a civil 
matter, concerned primarily with property, and were held 
out-of-doors. A feudal lord might have selected the 
partners and exercised his right to deflower the bride.
   But inside the church, unions of men in love were 
sanctified. The couples pledged fidelity for life, joined right 
hands before the altar, shared a cup of wine, heard 
biblical passages (such as Psalm 133), and received the 
priest's blessing.
   Marriage did not originate in love between partners but 
as a compact between families or groups. What did 
marriage mean to Solomon, with 700 wives and 300 
concubines? Are we talking political alliances, property 
rights, honored servants or sexual opportunities?
   When romantic love came to the West, partners began 
to cho
ose each other, as the same-sex pairs blessed by the 
church had done. Many ministers in Kansas City are now 
renewing the earlier church practice.
   Our cultural memories have been washed away by a 
century of heterosexism.
   Has the Kansas legislature's ban last week on same-sex 
marriages helped to promote genuine love? Is the 
legislature, like society, preoccupied instead with sex? 
Should the divine gift of love should be honored wherever 
it manifests?

How do non-Christians view Jesus?

For Christians Jesus is the son of God. How do those of 
other faiths regard Jesus?
   Answers vary. While Rabbi Danny Horwitz of 
Congregation Ohev Sholom says there is "no special 
place for Jesus" in his Jewish tradition, Ahmed El-Sherif 
says that Muslims regard Jesus as one of the five 
mightiest prophets, along with Adam, Abraham, Moses, 
and Muhammad.
   "Jesus has left a great mark on the world," El-Sherif 
says, and notes that the Qur'an calls Jesus a "prophet of 
mercy." El-Sherif, president of the Kansas City chapter of 
the American Muslim Council, also believes in the 
miraculous birth of Jesus.
   Bambi Shen has a background in Confucian and Taoist 
thought. Many Asians find the account of "salvation 
through Christ's bloody sacrifice" to be 
"incomprehensible," she said. "Orientals take 
responsibility for our actions. If we do something wrong, it 
is we ourselves who must pay the consequences."
   However, she regards Jesus as a great teacher, like 
Confucius. "More important than his death are the 
teachings of Jesus through his words and his actions." 
she said.
   Mangesh Gaitonde, MD, says many of his fellow Hindus 
hold Jesus, Mary, and other Christian figures in great 
esteem, and some regard Jesus as an incarnation of the 
god Vishnu. He explains the friendliness of Hindus to other 
religions this way: "The whole world is one family and we 
must conduct ourselves accordingly."
   Many non-Christians have thought deeply about Jesus. 
How deeply have Christians thought about Lao-Tzu, the 
Buddha and Zoroaster?

Is a patriot’s tea service holy?

How can our pluralistic culture better develop and express 
a sense of the sacred?
   I put this question to Martin E. Marty, senior editor of 
Christian Century.  Time has called him "the most 
influential interpreter of religion in the U.S."
   Marty, aslo a professor at the University of Chicago, was 
in town last week to address its alumni association.
   While here, Marty also visited the Nelson Gallery's 
exhibition, "Made in America." He saw surprise and 
delight on children's faces as they learned that the beauty 
of a silver tea service had been created by Paul Revere, 
whose name until then had meant only Revolutionary 
   To overcome today's cynicism, the imagination must be 
awakened, Marty said, as the docents did for the children. 
Awe and wonder cannot be confined to the sanctuary. "If 
you look for the sacred only there, you will not find it 
   Moses found holy ground unexpectedly in the wild, Marty 
said. The environment won't be saved by mere 
technology, he said, but by a recovery of the sense of the 
   And by telling stories we can teach the sacredness of 
human life. "The Bible is not a book of philosophy; it is a 
book of stories." Each group--Irish, Jews, blacks, 
gays--has its stories, often about suffering. But do we tell 
the stories to exclude and dominate, or to enrich each 
other's understanding of the sacred?
   The individuality of each person and the specific 
character of each group can lead us to the sacred which 
intersects everywhere and binds us within the blessing of 

Part of faith is simply paying attention

A Zen master was once asked to summarize his faith. 
"Attention!" he responded.
   In the Roman Catholic tradition, sacraments are 
reminders to pay attention to God's grace, according to 
the Rev. Michael Himes, a Jesuit guest at Rockhurst 
College last week.
   Himes spoke not just about the seven sacraments 
designated by the Church, but about ordinary sacraments 
like home, friendship and the self.
   We say God is omnipresent, but too often we ignore him 
acting in and supporting our daily lives. We put God in 
churches and forget he is in our cars, offices and gyms as 
   And if God is everywhere, God is also in hell. What is 
God doing in hell? Citing Thomas Aquinas, Himes 
answered that God is there loving those who refuse to love 
him. They are in "hell" not because God hates them, but 
because they will not accept God's love for them. God 
loves Mary and Satan equally--but Mary is thrilled while 
Satan is annoyed.
   Forgetting to notice how God's love extends everywhere 
is our problem, Himes said. A function of liturgy is to train 
us, to awaken us, to see that just as Christ is present in 
the Eucharist, so God is present in every crumb of bread.
   Meditating on the Christian Eucharist, the Buddhist 
monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that the sacramental formula 
of the bread and wine, "This is my flesh, my blood: eat it, 
drink it, take it," is a drastic way of drawing our attention to 
a reality we often forget. That reality is that every morsel 
and every drop is graced.
   When we are paying attention, we can taste it.

No argument for Jewish-Muslim strife

Some readers insist, as one caller, citing the Bible, put it, 
that "Jews and Muslims have been at war for thousands of 
years, and there will never be peace."
   This hopeless view is questionable history. For example, 
Muslims, Jews and Christians flourished in Moorish Spain 
for considerable periods. Until this century, Jews and 
Muslims often lived together peacefully in the Middle East.
   Some are also hopeless about Christianity. But with 
exceptions like Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Pat 
Buchanan, Christianity has turned away from a belligerent 
past. The atrocities of the Crusades, the horrors of the 
Inquisition, Luther's hatred of Jews, Calvin's use of the 
stake, the genocide of Native Americans, the religious 
conformity required by some of the American colonies, 
and Christianity's failure in Nazi Germany have taught us 
   Thus last week Christians joined with Jewish and Muslim 
friends on the board of the National Conference, Greater 
Kansas City Region, to urge the Kansas House of 
Representatives to end the sectarian prayers of its 
chaplain, as the Kansas City Interfaith Council had urged 
last month.
   Thus the terrors in Israel from those who wish to destroy 
a chance for peace have been condemned there and in 
Kansas City by Muslim leaders, just as Jewish leaders 
condemned the Jewish assassin of Israeli Prime Minister 
Yitzhak Rabin last year.
   "Blessed are the peacemakers," said Jesus. Should we 
heed these words or give in to the terrorists? Is there any 
workable alternative to hope?

A healing could occur…
KC IFC on KS Chaplain

The respect leaders of various religious traditions in the 
Kansas City area show to one another is inspiring. They 
affirm a kinship deeper than particular languages, 
symbols or customs.
   Sometimes they have lovingly reproved me when I have 
spoken from ignorance or in ways that perpetuate a bias I 
did not see. I am grateful for such opportunities to learn.
   Last month the Kansas City Interfaith Council, with 
Baha'i, Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, 
Protestant, Sikh, Sufi, Unitarian Universalist, Wiccan, and 
Zoroastrian representation, reproved the chaplain of the 
Kansas House of Representatives.
   He prays in ways that deliberately exclude those of faiths 
other than his own. Many of his own faith are embarrassed 
by his violating the conscience of others.
   As it is, Kansas taxpayers are supporting the unrelenting 
promotion of a single faith over all others. The Kansas 
Constitution prohibits State preference for any sectarian 
"mode of worship."
   The Council asked "those in authority to prayerfully 
consider the American spirit of religious liberty and 
respect for individual conscience."
   Noting that "political intolerance and suppression 
sometimes begin with religious prescription and 
persecution," the Council cited a famous letter George 
Washington wrote in 1790 on visiting a synagogue in 
which the father of our country restated the principle of 
mutual regard for citizens of differing faiths.
   A great healing could occur if the chaplain discovers the 
faith and joy of American kinship and inclusiveness.

Story of sacrifice elicits replies

Dozens of thoughtful readers have responded to David 
Nelson's stories in this space January 31 about a father 
and son in a crowd into which a terrorist throws a grenade.
   The comparison of the father pushing the son onto the 
grenade to save the crowd challenged a literal 
interpretation of God's sacrificing his son to save the 
world in Biblical passages like John 3:16 and in the 
teachings of theologians like John Calvin.
   Some applauded the stories as a way of encouraging us 
to develop more mature metaphors for God's love and 
justice. Other callers focused on the trinity or rearranged 
elements in the story.
   Several said that the three persons of the trinity met in 
council. The Father explained that he would be angry at 
the sins of the world he was about to create. For 
humankind to be saved, someone divine would have to 
die to satisfy justice.
   The Son responded, in effect, "I'll take care of the 
grenade if you'll take care of the crowd." Thus the Father 
did not force the Son to sacrifice his life, unlike the father 
in Nelson's story, because Jesus volunteered.
   Others addressed the problem by saying that the Father 
and the Son are one. No distinction can be made between 
the one demanding that somebody be punished and the 
one taking the punishment.
   Some readers changed parts of the story. One caller 
said that we are not innocent bystanders in the crowd; we 
are all terrorists.
   The varied views of those called and wrote suggest no 
completely satisfactory language for a mystery as 
profound as atonement.

Racism and prejudice diminish religions, too

Examples of prejudice are plentiful. Racism in business, 
law enforcement, and housing continues. But could there 
be racism in our worship?
   Some groups, like Baha'is and Muslims, are deliberately 
multi-racial in their embrace. On the other hand, in the last 
century Baptist, Presbyterian and Methodist 
denominations split over racial issues, as now some 
groups divide over questions about women and gays. 
Healing is incomplete.
   The absence of Hispanics and Asians in a white church, 
or American Indians in a black church, does not 
necessarily mean racism. Some faiths primarily serve 
ethnic groups; the Hindu Temple welcomes anyone, but 
most members or their parents have come from India. 
Because Jews have not encouraged conversion, few 
Jews here are black.
   Nonetheless, the question remains why those of faith 
have failed to uplift a vision strong enough to end racism 
   Do we recognize the diversity of creation in our prayers? 
Is anyone who wishes welcome to join us? Does our 
congregation's community service include those not like 
us? Do we know about, and put into practice, our faith's 
teachings about racism?
   Whatever our faith, or none, let us free our children's 
world from ignorance, exploitation and prejudice.
   Would you help Mayor Cleaver's Task Force on Race 
Relations religion/spirituality committee? Call StarTouch 
889-7827 and enter 5006 to respond to a survey about 
your experience and thoughts.
   Kansas City is the only city to have such a task force. 
We need it. We are racially divided by Troost and many 
other ways. Are we also spiritually divided--or just asleep?

Unconditional love knows no bounds

Whether love is the greatest power in the world is still 
debated. We exchange Valentines, but many people want 
to carry concealed weapons. We have no love to spare on 
criminals; and talk about an economy based on love 
nowadays sounds preposterous.
   Yet spiritual teachers have proclaimed love supreme, 
even saying God is love (I John 4:16).
   Too often we mistake love for a feeling. Aquinas 
considered love an act of will. Feelings come and go, but 
an intimate relationship cannot be sustained on mere 
thrills; love is a decision beyond desire.
   We are so confused by the incentive system that even 
God appears like an employer or taskmaster, rather than 
a lover: do right and you'll be rewarded.
   The Eighth Century Sufi mystic Rabiah prayed beyond 
rewards and punishments: "O God, if I love you because 
I fear hell, then cast me forever into the fires of damnation. 
Or if I love you because I desire the bliss of paradise, then 
forever shut the door of heaven against me. But if I love 
you for your own sake, then let me ever gaze upon your 
eternal beauty."
  When our souls are bent by fear or desire, we cannot 
behold beauty; our vision of God, of friends, of mates, and 
even of ourselves is clouded by intent.
   But unconditional love has no agenda; it seeks no 
advantage or preference; it beholds and flows, regardless 
of race, gender, age, social status, or comeliness.
   Can hatred, death -- or even justice -- overwhelm such 

God reaches beyond Christianity to people of other 

StarTouch callers often ask questions like, "How can a 
Christian understand God working in persons of other 
faiths?" Professor Al Truesdale at the Nazarene 
Theological Seminary here, offers this guidance:
   "The Wesleyan tradition, Methodism, was one of several 
to emerge from the Protestant Reformation. Its name 
comes from Charles and John Wesley, 18th Century 
Anglican priests.
   "Though not unique, a distinguishing feature of 
Wesleyan theology is its doctrine of prevenient grace, the 
grace of God that precedes and prepares the way for the 
proclamation of the Gospel of Christ.
   "Central to the Wesleyan understanding of God is God's 
graciousness. God is Holy Love. We believe God to be 
primarily persuasive rather than coercive in relating to the 
world. God wins through Holy Love and will not violate the 
integrity of the object of love.
   "In Christ God has provided salvation for all. This 
gracious God reaches out to all persons everywhere to 
redeem and reconcile them. Long before persons 
become conscious of it, God's stream of grace includes 
   "The aim of grace is bring persons to God as revealed 
in Christ. But for Wesleyans, prevenient grace can be 
recognized in persons and religions that are not Christian. 
This does not mean that Wesleyans embrace all religions 
as equal. But because of  prevenient Grace, the Wesleyan 
tradition positively assesses the signature of grace in all 
   "When meeting persons of other world religions, 
Wesleyans will show an awareness that the grace of God 
is already fruitfully active in those persons and religions."

Another view of a life sacrificed

The Rev. David E. Nelson of Gladstone, president of The 
Human Agenda, writes:
   Your column about seeing one's own religion as others 
see it reminds me of a conversation with my bright 
nephew last summer.
   As he had worked through the confirmation process of 
his church, he struggled with some of the doctrines of the 
Christian faith.
   He told a story. A father and son were in a crowd and a 
terrorist threw a grenade into their midst. The father, 
abandoning fear, disregarding his own life, threw himself 
on the grenade, taking its full explosive force. He died, of 
course, but the crowd and the son were saved.
   "What would you think of the father?" my nephew asked. 
I replied that he was a hero.
   My nephew told the story again, but this time the father 
threw his son onto the grenade, saving the crowd by 
sacrificing his son.
   "What would you think of the father now?" my clever 
nephew asked.
   I swallowed hard, knowing where the question was 
leading. "I am not so attracted to the father now. He 
seems cruel and not very loving."
   "But isn't that what the Christian story tells us--that the 
father sacrifices his only son so that others might be 
   Some Christian stories are troubling if taken literally. The 
doctrine of atonement is important to Christianity, but the 
metaphor of primitive justice, of a father sacrificing his 
innocent son, does not suit a more mature understanding 
of either love or justice.
   Seeing our faith as others see it can lead us to develop 
more adequate metaphors for the mysteries of our faith.

Pagans recognize sacredness in links between all 
living things

Are pagans spiritual?
   While "pagan" is often used derisively, the origin of the 
term reveals an earth-centered spirituality, according to 
Rhiannon Bennett, a Kansas City pagan leader.
   Christianity developed first in the cities, and those who 
lived in rural areas and followed the old folk ways were 
"pagans," from the Latin paganus, country dweller. Our 
language parallels this usage: we get "heathen" from the 
Old English term for those dwelling on the "heath."
   "In primal cultures, people were keenly aware of eating, 
procreation and protection. A deep respect developed for 
the sacrifice of plants and animals for food, for the sanctity 
of family, and for honorable ways of relating to all people," 
Bennett says.
   To this day pagans have continued to place priority on 
the earth and the cycles of nature. "The newer religions, 
like Christianity, are sometimes expressed in complicated 
ecclesiastical structures and theologies. We prefer the 
simplicity of recognizing the sacred in all things. Humans 
are not special, but merely a part of a divine whole.
   "For most of us, spirituality lies in celebrating the 
interconnectedness and sacredness of all life. Attuning to 
nature is thus both a privilege and a duty.
   "By honoring the very basic elements of existence, our 
spirituality is expressed not only in specific rituals to mark 
sacred days, but is an integral part of every day life," she 
   Those interested can write Rhiannon, the Heartland 
Spiritual Alliance, P.O. Box 3407, Kansas City, KS 

Christian symbol interests Buddhist

What Christian symbol fascinates a Tibetan Buddhist 
   For the Venerable Champa Lhunpo, visiting friends in 
Kansas City this week, it is the cross which represents the 
story of Jesus who did not want others to suffer, and so he 
took upon himself the sins of the world.
   “Buddhism is different," Lhunpo said, "because the 
Buddha cannot take away your suffering. He only shows 
you the way you must take to free yourself of suffering." 
The Buddha's compassion cannot do your work for you.
   Thousands of Kansas Citians met Lhunpo last April 
when he, with fellow monk Tenzin Choeden, constructed a 
sand mandala at the Nelson Gallery. He teaches Buddhist 
practice, sacred art and the Tibetan language at the 
Namgyal Monastery in Ithaca, NY, the North American 
seat of the personal monastery of the Dalai Lama.
   I asked him why the Dalai Lama is so widely respected. 
"Because he lives a simple life and practices 
non-violence." It is easy, he said, for political and religious 
leaders to develop egos. "People are constantly telling 
them how wonderful they are.
The Dalai Lama describes himself as 'a simple Buddhist 
monk,' and he lives that way.
   "He does not teach a complicated doctrine. He says all 
we need is kindness, compassion."
   How would Christians in our complicated society explain 
to Lhunpo what the simple image of Christ on the cross 
means for them? Does our culture of individual incentives 
perpetuate the illusion of separate existence and foster
selfishness? Does our economic system suggest we 
desire power, pleasure, and possessions more than 
enlightenment or saving others?

Many religions seen in King’s example

As the black preacher Martin Luther King, Jr, inspired all 
races us with a dream of justice, so his spirituality moved 
beyond his own group to model a world-wide tradition.
   King's ideas about non-violent civil disobedience 
derived in part from the Hindu Mohandas K. Gandhi, 
whose "satyagraha," "truth-force" became both a spiritual 
and political energy to liberate India from the British raj. 
King first studied Gandhi in divinity school. Later King 
went to India and talked with Gandhi's followers "not as a 
tourist, but as a pilgrim."
   In tracing this history, we discover the irony that Gandhi 
claimed his Hinduism only after being stirred by the 
writings of a Christian, Leo Tolstoy. As Wilfred Cantwell 
Smith has shown, Tolstoy himself was converted to 
non-violence and social service by the Christian story of 
Barlaam and Josaphat, a retelling of an earlier story from 
a Muslim source, which in turn received it from the 
Manichees, who had recast the story of the Buddha, 
successively called Bodisaf, Yudasaf, and Josaphat. And 
earlier versions suggest Jain or other beginnings.
   Thus our celebration of King's wisdom has ancient and 
universal origins.
   Just as Gandhi matured in his Hinduism by discovering 
Christianity, King was strengthened in Christian love by 
respectful study of the Hindu.
   King remained a Christian. Gandhi remained a Hindu. 
Conversion was unnecessary because they stretched and 
enlarged their own faiths.
   Now in Kansas City, the encounters we ordinary people 
have with those of other religions may lead us to the 
deeper powers of our own heritage, just as King's 
example shows us.

Spiritual issues made ’95 special

No event gave me more pleasure to write about last year 
than the month-long construction and dismantling of the 
"Wheel of Compassion" sand mandala at the Nelson 
Gallery in April. Three thousand people joined the Tibetan 
monks in the concluding ceremony.
   We hunger for such community-wide rituals that unite us 
beyond sectarian boundaries.
   While some who reply to this column insist that only their 
beliefs assure spiritual life, most who call me seem to 
imitate the monks, whose paths lead into the heart of 
   You have told me you enjoy learning about the variety of 
faiths in the Kansas City area. And no column received 
more response than the one inviting readers to "See your 
faith as others see it."
   Two columns were especially troublesome, both of them 
about church-state issues. I wrote that a proposed 
Constitutional amendment, by its language forbidding the 
"physical desecration" of the US flag, would make an idol 
of a piece of cloth, and violate the Second 
   The other column asked why the Kansas House chaplain 
needed to offend religious minorities by ending his 
prayers "in Jesus' name," a formula even Jesus did not 
   I am proud to write each Wednesday for this paper 
because it recognizes the diversity of its readers, with 
Saturday's religion focus, and throughout the week. Star 
projects "Divided We Sprawl" and "Raising Kansas City: 
Values and the Next Generation" (the "Mortal Kombat" 
segments astonished me) serve the community in a 
spiritually responsible way.
   For 1996, dear reader, please continue to inform and 
shape this column with your comments.

link to The Kansas City Star. -- Search for "Vern Barnet"