041227 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Lesson to learn one of repentance, renewal
My son answered the door and politely
greeted the strangers. They asked for me. He explained I was out. They
said they did not like my Mar. 3 column on Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of
the Christ” and then bloodied his face. I returned home a few minutes later,
helped him with his still-bleeding nose and called the police who created
a “hate crimes” report.
The story of the Christ is about vicarious
suffering, but I still would prefer to have been punched myself rather
than my son receive the blows on my behalf.
One of the nastiest comments on the
column came from a professor at a local conservative Christian seminary.
I don’t understand why some people who claim Christ employ disrespectful
and even foul language to lure me to their personal savior. Being cursed
in the name of Jesus doesn’t really deal with the problems I saw in the
The Dec. 1 column about revising the
Pledge of Allegiance also generated a lot of responses, mostly positive.
The heritage we claim understands God as Lord of the Universe, and I would
like the Pledge to recognize that the whole world, not just my nation,
is “under God.” I’m still thinking about some of the suggestions readers
sent, and next year you may find here a refinement of the text I proposed.
But I think the most important column
I wrote this year was for Sept. 8, before the anniversary of 9/11, reprising
what I had written in 2001: “In religious literature we can find at least
three metaphors to describe what happened Sept. 11: crime, war and disease.
Each metaphor has its virtue, and the situation is so complex that no one
metaphor is sufficient.”
But we have employed mainly the war
metaphor. This year the results have become arguably clearer. They may
include increased hatred of our nation, deaths and injuries of our own
soldiers and others in unanticipated numbers, a multiplication of terrorists,
financial damage and instability.
The Buddha said, “Hatred does not
cease by hatred but only by love; this is the eternal rule.” Jesus said,
“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate
you.” It is a teaching found in most faiths, but we make exceptions when
we are threatened. We lack the vision and the leaders to put it into practice.
It seems so unrealistic or inapplicable to the situation, whatever it is,
when we are stirred up.
But that is the point. We cannot see
clearly when we allow fear rather than faith to rule our lives. Thoughtfully
and lovingly diagnosing the cause of trouble and developing an effective
treatment may ultimately prove a more sufficient metaphor than mutual slaughter.
Returning evil in the name of good is a delusion religions warn against,
and a temptation to which we too often yield until, alas, it is too late.
Perhaps this new year is a time for repentance and renewal.
538. 041222 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Best holiday gift lifts us up
Whenever he heard the complaint, “I wish they’d
put Christ back in Christmas,” a colleague of mine used to respond, “Heck,
I’d be happy if they’d just put Christmas back in December.”
Our commercial, secular society drapes
itself in tinsel for a time but only vaguely remembers the teachings of
Jesus. He warned about the accumulation of wealth. He said to care for
the oppressed. We should love our enemies.
The ironies of the way we celebrate
Christmas are almost overwhelming. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is the “cover”
for a culture where violence erupts in sporting events and seems to be
the point of computer games. “Action figures” are toys under the Christmas
tree. The nation pursues combat abroad that many think violates every principle
of Christian “just war” theology. “Blessed are the peace-makers,” he said,
but we are spending nearly half a trillion bucks each year on making war
an instrument of policy while we spend little more than nothing on making
peace. Adding “God” to the Pledge of Allegiance fifty years ago does not
seem to have made us a more righteous nation, but only more self-righteous.
So how is a Christian, or any person
of faith wishing to honor the season, to assess the hypocrisy of our private
and public purchases while we ignore the grief of the battle and the misery
and injustice our over-medicated and escapist entertainments distract us
An answer might begin by recalling
that Jesus was not born into an ideal environment, as was, say, the prince
who became the Buddha. The gospel writers Mark and John have no birth stories
to tell, and Matthew and Luke present very different accounts of the Savior’s
birth, some of which have parallels in the tales of other faiths. Still,
from the very earliest Christian narration to the end of the gospels, we
see a corrupt society contrasted with the spirit of perfect love.
The gospel stories of the crucifixion
and resurrection do not end with the reformation of society; society remained
profane. But some individuals were reformed—spiritually reborn— and they
expected Christ to return before they died to set things aright.
When this expectation was not fulfilled,
a deeper understanding of Christ as an indwelling power developed, always
ready to be born in the hearts of those touched by divine love.
So even in the perversion of our culture’s
observance of the birth of the Christ child is the longing for something
greater than our isolated selves. Paradoxically, through the freshness,
the honest cries and the vulnerability of a babe we can find within ourselves
new life and vision and service to others. The season’s parties and the
merriment can be viewed as attempts to experience what a redeemed society
might be like. In greetings, in spending time with those dear to us, and
in giving gifts, whatever they are, we have the possibility of reaching
beyond the finite—and imitating, however poorly, the gift of transcendent
537. 041215 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Response to Islam provides perspective
Regular readers of this column know I believe that
studying others’ faiths deepens one’s own. Reports from lay people and
my own experience in the ministry assure me this is so.
For the testimony of another clergyman,
I invited the Rev. Jim Eller to write about his response to Islam. He has
served All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church as senior pastor for the
last six years. Perhaps he has a head start in understanding different
perspectives because his wife is a United Methodist minister. Here is what
“Studying Islam has made a positive
change in my religious and family life.
“Prairie Group, a scholarly ministerial
gathering, convenes each fall for shared reading, presenting papers and
discussion on a pre-selected topic. This year our study focused on liberal
Islam. The required reading included Islam Today by Akbar Ahmed, and Islam
and Muhammad, both by Karen Armstrong. I read several other related books.
I particularly enjoyed Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita In Tehran. The result
has been a kind of personal conversion experience.
“We hear so many bad things about
Islam that I wanted more depth than what we get on the evening news or
in other causal references. I wanted to better understand one of the fastest-growing
religions in the world.
“In the study of zakat, almsgiving
and charity, one of the “five pillars” of Islam, I found a thoughtful way
of managing wealth and privilege.
“Another pillar, salat, invites people
to pray five times a day. I admire the frequent reminder that we are called
to spiritual awareness throughout the day, especially in a culture like
ours that has so many distractions.
“Sawm, another pillar, is fasting
during the month of Ramadan.
“The very name of the faith, Islam,
means surrender or submission to the will of God—Allah in Arabic. It also
means the peace that arises from this submission.
“In these pillars I find remarkable
devotion. This level of discipline is more than I want personally, but
I was so inspired by my study I knew I wanted to follow some of these practices,
as a way of increasing my own and my family's spiritual life.
“So I invited my family to begin our
morning with a time for family scripture reading and prayer. It has proven
to be a wonderful way of strengthening our family and teaching our children
about prayer. My younger son looks forward to blessing us, and we are blessed
in the process.
“The path of Islam is followed by
over 1.2 billion people. It now is also an inspiration for me.”
Pastor Eller’s two recent sermons
on Islam are available at www.allsoulskc.org by clicking on “sermons.”
536. 041208 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Events show profusion of perspectives
A Kansas City potpourri for this week’s column.
* Church leaders this week were buzzing
about the refusal of CBS and NBC to show the United Church of Christ ad
promoting its inclusive approach to religion as “too controversial.” You
can see the ad at www.stillspeaking.com.
* W. Grant McMurray resigned recently
as president of the Community of Christ, a world-wide denomination headquartered
here. His achievements for his church have often been celebrated. McMurray
also retains the gratitude of those supporting interfaith work. Two examples.
His behind-the-scenes assistance with the Kansas City Interfaith Council’s
“Gifts of Pluralism” conference held six weeks after the 9/11 attacks helped
make the area’s first such gathering a success for the 250 people who participated,
and the many others who have been affected by it since. A year later, his
ideas helped shape the city’s central day-long anniversary observance of
9/11 into a remarkable opportunity for spiritual renewal.
* Aside from being important Kansas
City area names, what do Henry W. Bloch, Carl DiCapo, Peggy Dunn, Sr. Rosemary
Flanigan, Gary D. Forsee, Michael R. Haverty, Shirley Helzberg, Thomas
M. Hoenig, Carol Marinovich, Mahnaz Shabbir and Cantor Paul Silbersher
have in common? Although they represent different faith traditions, all
were recognized, with about 50 others, at a Speakers’ Alumni Luncheon last
week for the Cathedral Center for Faith and Work.
Alumnus Irv Hockaday noted that the
workplace is a primary source of community, and that people want to make
a contribution. Spirituality “is action undertaken in the belief that there
is a good or purpose higher than one’s own self-interest.” But today moral
guardrails are weakened. Hockaday praised the Center’s work is as point
of intervention, to transmit values to future generations.
One of the things I love about this
town is that leaders are accessible. Through the Center’s breakfast and
lunch programs, in their eighth year, you can converse with them about
the news of the day—and about eternal questions.
* Another organization observing its
eighth year is the Crescent Peace Society, which held its annual Eid dinner
Sunday evening. Its mission is to “enhance the understanding of Muslim
cultures” in our community. Award recipients, speakers and guests came
from several faiths, and had important things to say. But none touched
me quite as deeply as 6-year-old Manahil Khan, who was one of a series
of students presenting brief speeches describing different countries and
explaining why they made their particular selection. In her simple way,
she found words that all Americans, regardless of political persuasion,
might honor: “I chose Iraq because I feel sorry for the war.”
535. 041201 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Revised pledge could help unite nation
The division of our nation, so vividly encoded as
“red states, blue states,” cries for healing. This hurt is felt by both
the right and the left, as well as moderates. Is there a spirit that can
I wrestled with that question on KCPT’s
“Kansas City Week In Review” last Friday. I suggested that one way we might
bridge the divide is to reframe how we look at ourselves, specifically
in the Pledge of Allegiance. My proposal was immediately dismissed by fellow
panelist, Jim Jenkins, former vice president at Focus on the Family, but
other groups to which I’ve presented the idea have applauded. So, dear
reader, here it is for your comment.
First, a little theology and a little
history. Most people believe that God is universal; in the words of the
old hymn, “He has the whole world in his hands.”
But I’ve been troubled by the current
pledge which fails to recognize that universality. Instead it is explicit
about only “one nation under God.” Isaiah called such a vision “too slight
a thing.” Would not most Americans agree that God is Lord of the universe,
not just the God of the United States?
The history of the Pledge begins with
Baptist minister Francis Bellamy, a Christian socialist, who wrote the
original version in 1892. He considered including “equality” in the phrase,
“with liberty and justice for all,” but knew that some in the educational
system for whom he prepared the Pledge, opposed equality for women and
blacks, and so left it out. As the Pledge usage widened, other revisions
were made. In 1954, Congress added “under God.”
This history shows the Pledge is a
living document, not cast in stone. Perhaps it is time to add back “equality”
and to recognize our duty is to all the world and its ecology. So for what
it might be worth, here is my current proposal, ready for additional editing
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of
the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands,
one nation of many nations, whose environments on this fragile planet we
vow to respect, as Providence guides us toward liberty, equality and justice
I did not employ the word “God” because
atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Taoists, and other non-theists are just
as good Americans as Christians, Jews, Muslims and other theists, and deserve
to speak the Pledge without feeling their conscience violated. Because
“God” was omitted from the version I presented on KCPT, Mr. Jenkins objected.
So in the spirit of compromise, in
this version I’ve included “Providence,” a capitalized term found in the
writings of our nation’s founders, so theists can understand it to mean
God and non-theists can interpret it poetically as a power moving in history
toward the good.
Vision is a fundamental religious
energy. How we envision America is a religious project. Reframing who we
are beyond red or blue is the spiritual challenge we face.
534. 041124 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
There are multitudes of aspects to religion
Recently I was the guest preacher at an area church.
I spoke about a Christian fundamentalist who worked through a problem in
his life as he “saw” Jesus in his living room. I said that “even the atheist
in me” admired how he interpreted this vision in a way to move his life
A number of people who heard me, and
some who heard about the sermon, have asked me if I am an atheist, as occasionally
readers of this column do.
I have several responses. This week
here is the first, a word about what religion is. Faith is much larger
than belief; it is how we stand before ultimate questions: Who am I? Why
are we here? What is death? How do I best relate to my neighbor? How can
I love and be loved? How can I be saved from my fear and dread?
Religion can be described as how people
respond when they experience these mysteries. Even atheists ask such questions.
Even atheists experience awe. In my entire career, no one better described
the birth of his child to me with a profound reverence than an atheist
Most people in the West have been
so affected by the dominance of Christianity, even those from non-Western
religions, that the Christian emphasis on belief becomes a primary way
of looking at other faiths. However, for most religions, correct belief
is a secondary matter.
And even if one person says God exists
and another says Not, I want to embrace the perspectives of both. I recall
Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)” The Infinite, which for me is another
way of naming God, cannot exclude anything, though every particularly thing,
including finite beliefs, cannot fully express the Whole.
I heard a bright young graduate student
familiar with Hindu philosophy, and a bit anxious about it, put a question
to a Hindu sage visiting this country. “Which of the three classical positions,
Advaita, Dvaita, or Visista Advaita, is correct?”
(You don’t need to understand these
terms to get the gist of the anecdote, but in case you are wondering, these
are philosophies of Non-dualism, Dualism, and Qualified Non-dualism. A
simplified explanation is that the Non-dualist says that the only reality
is God. The Dualist says that God and the world are two separate realities.
The Qualified Non-dualist says that both God and the world are real and
separate, but the world and the self are dependent on God. In their cultural
context, these three positions have considerable implications.)
The sage responded to the student
this way: Why do I have to decide? Each view helps to explain our rich
and often contradictory experience. Sometimes one view is useful, another
time, another view works better.
This Thanksgiving, I am grateful I
don’t have to be consistent; I contain multitudes.
533. 041117 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Shrine of the muses and spirituality
The human longing for the eternal is often invigorated
when cultures intersect. When the Aryans invaded India, the portable, external
deities of the sky they brought to the Dravidian culture were soon transformed
into servants of consciousness. When a Jewish teacher’s life was interpreted
by those acquainted with Hellenistic religion and Roman philosophy, the
doctrines of Christianity developed that still shape much of that faith.
And when Buddhism migrated from India
to China, this faith, first with a foothold, then with a sudden and astonishing
fluorescence, manifested its inherent capacity to adapt to many regions
of the world.
Born in India, Buddhism as a separate
faith hardly exists there today, though many Buddhist themes have been
reabsorbed into the Indian tradition out of which Buddhism had first emerged.
In twenty years’ time on either side
of the ending of the Fifth Century, a thousand years after the Buddha lived,
the monastics in the northern Wei empire multiplied from less than a hundred
thousand to two million. The Chinese had resisted foreign influences, so
we must ask: What caused such a rapid expansion of this new faith? And
how did a simple and spare faith become so complex and rich?
An answer begins with the disintegration
of the Han empire. Official Confucianism, with its focus on worldly manners,
lost its credibility. Buddhism, on the other hand, recognized the vivid
experience of suffering and impermanence, and offered an eternal pattern,
a consolation, a salvation, which made sense of the chaos.
This new faith was soon embraced by
both rulers and ordinary folk, and the teaching was elaborated in elite
and popular doctrines and scriptures. Buddhism was expressed and promulgated
in personal and public art as the country again prospered.
Many such answers reside in the stories
of the sculpture fortuitously collected at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of
Art, in the newly reinstalled gallery, “The Glory of the Law.”
This past week-end Kung Shih, a Chinese
Buddhist nun living in St. Louis, visited the gallery. She said she
was grateful that this artistic record of her faith has been saved from
destruction, and was accessible here in this country, to benefit people
all over the world.
Coincidentally, the designer of the
gallery, Museum director Marc Wilson, will be recognized Sunday at the
Kansas City Interfaith Council’s twentieth annual family Thanksgiving Sunday
ceremonial meal, this year held, appropriately, at the Rime Buddhist Center.
Wilson and his predecessor, Laurence Sickman, who acquired much of the
Chinese collection, are being celebrated “for advancing the Museum’s treasury
of art through which the world’s great spiritual traditions may be explored.”
532. 041110 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Yogi stil alive in his teachings
Later he would be known as Yogi Bhajan. At the age
of eight he began to study yoga. At sixteen, he was declared a master of
Kundalini Yoga. At eighteen, he led his village of 7,000 people on a 32-mile
trek from what is now Lahore, Pakistan, to New Delhi, India, during the
turmoil of the 1947 partition creating boundaries between these two countries.
In 1968 he came to the United States,
began teaching, and founded 3HO, the Healthy Happy Holy Organization. In
1971, his efforts led to the incorporation of Sikh Dharma in the U.S. His
efforts to bring a Sikh ministry to the West were recognized by Sikh authorities
in Amritsar, India, and he came to know three US presidents and other political
and religious leaders around the world. This Oct 6, at age 75, he died
at his home in New Mexico.
At the memorial service, former UN
ambassador, now New Mexico Governor, Bill Richardson, spoke with humor
and gravity about their 30-year friendship and his advice about Richardson’s
weight, his pronunciation of Spanish, his politics and even about international
security issues. Richardson saluted his work for world peace,
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, the leader
of the Kansas City Sikh Dharma community, knew Yogi Bhajan well, and studied
with him each year. I asked Karta Purkh to comment on Yogi Bhajan’s motto,
“If you can't see God in all, you can’t see God at all.” Karta Purkh said
that Yogi Bhajan “saw within everyone that divinity that he acknowledged
within himself. There was no one undeserving of his love and compassion.”
Beyond yoga and Sikhism, “his wisdom extended into the realms of communication,
the healing arts, business, religion and government.” A founder of the
International Peace Prayer Day, Yogi Bhajan traveled the world promoting
tolerance, peace and equality for everyone.
Karta Purkh is an American whose life
(and name) was changed by encountering Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga, a
highly energetic and integrative physical and spiritual form of meditation.
Karta Purkh, now a member of the Kansas City Interfaith Council, said,
“I found that the experience I was seeking through the alteration of mind
by the use of drugs was available in a healthy” practice, peeling “away
the onion layers of fear, superstition, anxiety, desire, doubt, denial,
confusion, neurosis, regret, intellectual vanity, societal training, guilt,
habit and egoism to see what was really at my core, why I was there and
what I was to do with that knowledge.
“I truly feel that (Yogi Bhajan) is
still alive within his teachings. He never proselytized any of us but his
. . . life inspired us to be like him. His yogic teachings were the methods
we could all use, no matter what religion we adhered to, to live . . .
in truth and faith and full confidence that we are doing the right and
righteous thing.” Sikh Dharma, like all religions is “how an enlightened
person is to live his or her life. He showed us this by his example.”
531. 041103 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Resist the urge to condemn in celebration
“The news of the day is invariably bad,” said world
religions scholar Huston Smith, in Kansas City several weeks ago. “But
the news of Eternity is always good.”
I’ve been puzzling about that statement,
especially as, four days in advance, I try to write this column for the
day after the election.
If the candidates and issues you favored
won, you may find the news of the day good, so how could Smith’s statement
be true? I’m sure that Smith would happily admit his error if these victories
ushered us into a paradisiacal age.
I’m predicting, four days in advance,
that this has not happened. The injustices to be redressed, the oppressions
to be lifted, the healing of divisions, the elusive search for peace and
safety, the greed, the fear, the impurities in our souls—these remain.
But what might be the “always good”
news from Eternity? Smith left his listeners to work out their own answers.
Here is mine. What is yours?
The context for my answer is the pull
on one hand to focus on the discovery of truth, the experience of beauty,
the delight in the good we call love. I could listen to a recording of
Vivaldi’s “Autumn” and enjoy a cup of hot chai in the company of someone
I love while we spend the morning light simply enjoying the colors of the
leaves on the tree outside my window and contemplate the miracles of photosynthesis,
the seasons and the gift of sight. There is so much to enjoy.
On the other hand, the world is full
of suffering, and I am pulled to do something about that. The Power that
moves through history toward justice may be sure, but the cost to the innocent
may be great.
That Power appeals to me to do what I can to reduce
the terrors that happen every day in this city and to confront the evils
that remain embedded in the structure of relationships with people we don’t
even know around the globe, and in our desecration of God’s ecology. There
is so much work to do.
Being pulled in opposite directions,
toward pleasure and toward service, is my dilemma.
But from Eternity comes the paradoxical
news that may resolve my problem. As William Blake put it, “Eternity is
in love with the productions of time.” This may mean that Eternity speaks
through the paradox. The world is filled with horror, but also with generosity
Redemption is not in private pleasure’s
retreat from the world’s agony, nor in the self-destroying drudgery in
obligation to it. Rather enlightenment may come when we heal within ourselves
the split between the desire to celebrate and the urge to condemn. We can
savor the world even as we seek to save it; even as we recognize evil,
we can bless our chance to serve; each day we can find eternal joy in duty
to the world.
530. 041027 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Breaking bread provides and American parable
The first evening of Ramadan, about
40 Muslims, Jews, Christians and Buddhists were guests at a breaking of
the fast at a Muslim home here. Before the meal was presented, the Muslims
shared with us dates and water, the first elements of fast-breaking, and
then performed ritual prayers. Then the host prayed extemporaneously. With
tears in his eyes, he pleaded for those whose hunger would not be broken
with food, and all who suffered from deprivation, oppression and war.
How will God respond?
The normative answer in the scriptures
of the monotheistic faiths is that God responds by requiring humans to
do good to one another. The Hebrew prophets like Amos and Jeremiah criticized
the ruling class—both king and priest—for taking false comfort in their
religiosity while neglecting the poor. The prophets often criticized their
own nation more vigorously than others and called it to repentance.
The prophets did not speak abstractly
about God’s holiness. They addressed the social, political and international
issues of their day in the light of God’s will.
The three faiths understand God as
a power working in history towards justice.
It is exactly this view of Providence
that Abraham Lincoln expresses in his Second Inaugural Address. Lincoln,
facing the devastation beyond what anyone could have imagined before the
Civil War began, spoke as a Hebrew prophet.
Condemning slavery and interpreting
the horrors of the war as the price to be paid for ending it, Lincoln also
noted the ironic religiosity in both North and South—“both read the same
and pray to the same God.” Like the prophets who sometimes moved from damning
speech to hymns of consolation, Lincoln concludes with words of comfort.
I wonder what kind of oracles the
prophets would pronounce today.
Surely they would see that religiosity
is evident in many political campaigns. I can hear them cry, “Hypocrisy!”
Perhaps they would rend their garments and parade through the shopping
malls: “Woe unto you! You were united three years ago after the attacks,
but look what has happened to you since! You are divided, torn and tattered
like my shirt!
“You have become a nation of secular
consumers seeking your own personal benefits, special interests and partisan
advantages. Where are the citizens with sacred concern for the commonweal?
Once you carried the promise of the ages, but now few nations look to you
Still, among the guests in that home
that first night of Ramadan was a delegation from Algeria. The host said
he wanted them to see Christians, Jews and Muslims eating together in the
American heartland as a parable of the way the world can be. I think he
is doing the work God wants us all to do.
529. 041020 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
World is full of messy questions
The world is not black and white but full of color.
Our bodies are not mechanical drawings; they are messy, luscious, vulnerable,
moving societies of protoplasmic cells and such. The path we follow is
seldom straight; there are zigs and zags, unexpected turns, stops and goes
Some deny or denigrate this and want
us to live instead in a world of unforgiving clarity, where truth is absolute
and moral decisions are unquestionable.
The death Oct. 8 of Jacques Derrida,
a founder of what is called “Deconstructionism,” reminds me of the debate
that goes back at least as far as Plato. Is there an Absolute Reality of
which our world is but a shadow, or is the computer acronym, WYSIWYG, “what
you see is what you get,” a better gospel?
I don’t know any religion that excludes
mystery. The western tradition specifically warns against idolatry, concretizing
the Absolute in specific form. In a way, God’s name revealed to Moses,
Yahweh—which can be translated “I am that I am”
—is a theological expression that anticipates the computer term. And Deconstructionism
is a reminder that saying anything more than that is actually saying less
because every finite expression excludes what it does not express. Our
language is contradictory, full of exclusions and exceptions
Take “Situation Ethics.” All morality
is situational. It is wrong to lie, but if I am a Christian hiding a Jew
from interrogating Nazis, is it not better to lie and save a life? A commandment
requires keeping the sabbath by doing no work; but Jesus, seeing his disciples
hunger, defended violating that law so that they might eat. “Thou shalt
not kill” is another commandment, but many people make exceptions according
to situations: self-defense, justifiable war, capital punishment.
One messy question on which faiths
differ is when life becomes human. Some faiths teach a person comes into
existence at conception. Others say “ensoulment” occurs at the time of
“quickening,” the stage in pregnancy when a woman can feel the fetus move.
Others, citing Ex. 21:22, say a fetus does not become a human person until
birth. Many traditions favor saving the person of the mother over the less
certain personhood of the fetus in situations where a choice must be made.
Some Eastern traditions, instead of
eschewing idolatry, multiply images so profusely that they make the same
point as the West: the Infinite cannot be reduced to any single entity
but rather, in a mysterious way, sways within and over all of existence.
Derrida, who in his later years became
especially interested in religion, suggested that doubt as well as belief
are essential to the spiritual life. Knowing we are embedded in messy situations
can paradoxically help us to practice compassion.
528. 041013 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Taking the threefold path of a pilgrim
One of the great paradoxes of faith is that we sometimes
need to go somewhere else to discover where we are. Sometimes religious
leaders try to save us the trouble of a quest for what we already know
or possess, but have forgotten. Po Chang said that searching for enlightenment
was like riding an ox in search of the ox.
But other times, a pilgrimage may
be the best way to find the spiritual insight we need. Scholars identify
three kinds of pilgrimage.
* The first is an interior pilgrimage.
It may be the fussing we do with ourselves as we follow a path from one
job to a new one, or a relationship beginning or deepening or ending, or
even a class reunion. What makes such journeys of the soul a pilgrimage
is that we deliberately search for the meanings of the experience.
The inner pilgrimage is
often portrayed as an actual journey. One of the greatest books in the
English language, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, discusses such inner
pilgrimages in the metaphor of the journey from the slough of despondency
past vanity fair to the celestial city. In other writings, gods, monsters,
beasts, and angels are mere symbols to move and awaken the mind, to call
it past itself, to confront the ineffable mystery on which our lives depend.
* A second kind of pilgrimage is the
literal travel to some sacred space as if it were the intent of religion
itself. Thus when Henry II needed to show penitence for the murder of Thomas
Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, he went on a literal pilgrimage in sack
cloth and ashes to Canterbury in bare feet, and Canterbury became a major
Christina shrine in memory of Becket. And as we know from Chaucer’s Canterbury
Tales, pilgrims learned a great deal about life as they traveled with one
another on the path.
For Hindus, a pilgrimage to the Ganges
River, for Hindus to Mecca, for Buddhists to Sanchi, for Sikhs to Amristar
— the external pilgrimage engenders an internal, spiritual exploration.
But a pilgrimage need not be a visit
to a place already thought to be holy. It may be a first and only time.
The three wise men journeyed under a star, found the babe, and returned
to their own lands. The Mayflower Pilgrims never returned, and sanctified
these shores with their courage and ideals.
* The third kind of pilgrimage, scholars
say, is the trip one makes periodically to one’s local holy place — church,
temple, mosque, synagogue, gurdwara, shrine, or meeting house. At some
level of awareness, even in our routine, we seek holy ground, desire refreshment
and growth, honor the Infinite, and affirm the religious path.
Departure and return, forgetting and
remembering, may be a basic rhythm of the spirit.
527. 041006 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
A week going round in the interfaith circle
The tag at the end of this column says I do interfaith
work, and sometimes people ask me what that means. Here are excerpts from
my schedule for several days last week.
Tuesday evening at the Lyric Theater,
I watched the Whirling Dervishes of Rumi from Turkey gracefully spin in
their white skirts, not like tops but as perfectly centered human beings
held by divine magnetism in the very heart of being. I needed to be there,
not only to witness this event, but to support the interfaith impulse which
generated the evening, introduced by a 20-minute discourse from one of
the organizers to an audience of many of my friends from many traditions.
Wednesday morning I attended a report
meeting on physician-clergy dialogue at the Institute for Spirituality
in Health, on whose interfaith board I sit.
The most stunning scene of the week
for me was when Thursday I walked into Gallery 204 of the Nelson-Atkins
Museum of Art. It had been a dark, uninviting space in the building, but
now it celebrates Chinese Buddhist works in stone, a collection unmatched
anywhere in the world. Then I taught a class on Confucianism and Taoism
at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. That evening I helped a couple
valuing my interfaith background to design their wedding ceremony.
When, Friday morning at the Cathedral Center
for Faith and Work breakfast, Adelle Hall reverently disclosed the spiritual
crisis she experienced following the Hyatt disaster, the room was transformed
with the intimacy of holiness. That evening, I got to chat with world religions
authority Huston Smith before he spoke on “Why religion matters more than
ever today” at Country Club Christian Church. In his lecture, he noted
that Jesus taught us to love our enemies, not kill them. And, he said,
the message in the Qur’an is “exactly the same.” He deplored how politicians
corrupt faith by demonizing the enemy, us imitating those we oppose.
Saturday another religious teacher
of world-wide fame, Matthew Fox, was in town, and he led a group at St.
Paul’s Episcopal Church. He arranged us in a giant circle, and we chanted,
“We are earth, we are fire, we are water, air and spirit,” and danced and
twirled as a reminder of our embodiment. “All indigenous people pray by
dancing,” he said and joked about sneaking into churches Saturday night
with screwdrivers to remove the pews to open up space for such bodily worship.
In between I worked on several writing
projects, handled administrative concerns for my own organization, responded
to calls and correspondence from folks wanting guidance about religious
matters and prepared for a conference Oct 13 at Grace and Holy Trinity
Cathedral for clergy and lay-leaders, “Introduction to world religions
and the faith communities of Kansas City.”
I like what I do because I get so
many opportunities to learn, to share what I’ve learned and to be with
people from many faiths exploring what is sacred.
526. 040929 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
A three-point plan for better spiritual health
Matthew Fox, controversial ex-Catholic priest, thinks
America’s spiritual health is poor. He proposes a three-point plan for
changing “a very dangerous time, a Dark Night of our Species,” to a time
when the environment is protected, people understand themselves and what
they are doing, and we live in wholesome community.
Fox is Founding President of the University
of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, CA, and speaks in Kansas City this
week-end about the latest of his 25 books, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom
Springing from Global Faiths.
In 1989, he was silenced for a year,
after which he renewed his public appearances with the words, “As I was
saying before I was so rudely interrupted . . . .” He was ordained in the
Episcopal tradition in 1994 after he was discharged from the Dominicans.
Some call him a heretic. Others think he charts a way to the recovery of
basic spiritual truths found in all traditions.
In my interview with Fox, he outlined
his three-point plan for change:
* First, we must “reinvent education
using the new cosmology and creativity” as its core. Fox’s “cosmology”
affirms the scientific vision of the universe infused with the mystical
apprehension of its holiness. What he calls “Creation Spirituality” sees
God’s work as an original blessing, which he emphasizes over the doctrine
of original sin. The universe in which we participate with infinite relationships
is the mystical body of Christ.
* Second, Fox says we must “reinvent
work. Work is where we invest our blood, sweat, tears, time and talent
the most.” He defends a traditional understanding of work as a sacred activity,
fulfilling the person and contributing to the community. He says
that “consumerism is in fact just the contemporary word for the ancient
capital sin of gluttony. An economy built on gluttony/consumerism is sick
for the soul as well as for the body.”
* Third, we must “reinvent worship.
There is no community without ritual and we need post-modern rituals in
post-modern language to bring community alive.” Fox is concerned about
the loss of the sense of community today, and listed ecological perils,
wars, divisions between rich and poor, and a “politics of fear” as evidence
of our difficult situation.
His new book identifies “consensus”
from the world’s religions that amplifies related topics—from sacred sexuality
to what happens after death.
Fox wants people to appreciate all
religions. He cites the Dalai Lama’s view that the chief obstacle to interfaith
understanding is a “bad relationship with their own faith without even
knowing it.” What Fox calls “Deep Ecumenism” is a way of discovering the
depth of one’s own tradition by encountering others.
525. 040922 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Does Iraq war qualify as just?
Especially in the past few months, readers have
asked me if the war in Iraq is justified by Christian teachings. Some regard
this question as the most critical intersection of religion and politics
today. Since political appeals are sometimes based on religious principles,
I asked Robert E. Johnson, associate professor of church history at Central
Baptist Theological Seminary and editor of American Baptist Quarterly,
to summarize the development of “just war” theory in Christian thought.
Here is his response:
Earliest Christians believed that
war and Christ’s teachings (especially his Sermon on the Mount) were incompatible.
Consequently, many felt Christians should not be in the military at all.
During the second century a few Christians served as soldiers, although
at least three significant theologians wrote in condemnation of the practice—Hippolytus,
Tertullian, and Lactantius. After Constantine, Christians became much more
open to participation in war. Western Christianity’s subsequent melding
of church and state caused the distinction between Christian ethics of
war and patriotic priorities gradually to become less clear.
Once large numbers of Christians accepted
the possibility that war might be morally defensible, theories emerged
to identify when warfare might be acceptable. Augustine’s “just war” theory
as it developed included six major components, all of which must be satisfied.
War had to (1) be fought to restore peace and secure justice with a reasonable
chance of success, (2) be conducted under the direction of a legitimate
ruler and be motivated by Christian love, (3) be a last resort (after all
else has been tried and failed), (4) have limited objectives (the total
obliteration of an enemy is not sanctioned), (5) safeguard against unnecessary
violence, massacres, and looting, and (6) observe the immunity of noncombatants.
Thomas Aquinas’ views might be summarized
into three conditions: conducted under a legitimate ruler, for a just cause,
and intended to promote good (or at least to avoid evil). In the sixteenth
century Francisco de Vitoria added that the war must be waged by “proper
With the magnified destructive potential
of nuclear and other forms of modern warfare and their “collateral”
damage, a number of noted Christian moralists in the twentieth century
question whether a “just war” is any longer possible.
Some Christians worry that the international
community overwhelmingly feels the Iraq war it does not meet (3) the “last
resort” criteria, (6) that it has not adequately safeguarded noncombatants,
and that it failed to be (5) conducted in an honorable and proportionate
manner. In this case, the outcome of the war is not likely to be peace
but more prolonged and bitter violence, thus violating (1) the proper purpose
of a war. While some Christians justify the war in terms of pre-emptive
self-defense, other Christians observing “just war” theory believe this
war has damaged Christian witness, not advanced it.
524. 040915 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Coin of the realm can be found in Revelation
Can a book over 1900 years old, written to Christians
in the land we now call Turkey, during persecutions of those who refused
to worship the Roman emperor, say anything to us today?
Professor David May at Central Baptist
Theological Seminary thinks so and has written Revelation: Weaving a Tapestry
of Hope about the last book in the New Testament.
But May warns against reading Revelation
with preconceptions about it. “Revelation is misused when it is simply
used as a blueprint for the future and when it is used as a warrant in
order to push particular theological or political agendas. It is abused
when it is popularized in ways that highlight violence instead of redemption
and good news of resurrection.”
In fact, although some read Revelation
as a call to arms, May notes that “while on the surface it appears that
Revelation is filled with blood imagery and is war-like, actually a close
and careful reading illustrates that Christians never fight. It is a book
of pacifism! Never do the Christians shed blood; rather it is the blood
of Christians being shed. Christians do not retaliate with violence against
evil, justice is in God's hand. Christians conquer evil ‘by the blood
of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their
lives even unto death’ Rev. 12:11).”
While the book is complex, its “basic
plot is very simple: persecution, punishment for the persecutors, and salvation
for the persecuted,” May says. “It may appear that the Emperor is all powerful
and in control of the world and individual Christians’ very lives, but
this is a lie” because God is ultimately in control of history and the
Revelation was written to encourage
and inspire Christians, under threat of persecution and martyrdom. Their
neighbors thought Christians were anti-social and even treasonous because
the Christians refused to participate in the cult of the Emperor, the patron
of the cities where they lived.
Among other messages for our time,
May finds Revelation speaking “to being seduced by wealth and power. The
portrayal of Babylon in Revelation, while originally aimed at Rome, seems
most appropriate to America. Revelation is a warning to a country which
has economic wealth and military power. It thrusts the question to Christians
today about where does their trust and allegiance reside.”
While the book is often classified
with apocalyptic literature, May prefers the epic genre, which he says
“is telling history from the big picture. It deals with the present but
uses themes from the past, symbols, prophecy. Just as Virgil wrote the
Aeneid in order to glorify the ascending power of the Augustan Empire,
so John writes Revelation in order to define the true glory of the continuing
reign of God.”
May is currently working on an article
on Revelation which uses the iconography of old Roman coins to interpret
symbols found in this ancient but enduring text.
523. 040908 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Three ways to respond to injustice
Several weeks after 9/11 I wrote, “In religious
literature we can find at least three metaphors to describe what happened
Sept. 11: crime, war and disease. Each metaphor has its virtue, and the
situation is so complex that no one metaphor is sufficient.”
Those three metaphors merit re-examination
as we approach the third anniversary of what still remains shocking to
our sense of security and human decency. More profoundly, it has renewed
the ancient question, “How could an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving
God permit such wickedness to assault the innocent?”
Even Billy Graham admits he has found
no satisfactory answer to this question. As we await the resolution of
this mystery, the three metaphors suggest ways for us to respond to life’s
* Crime. Almost all faiths seek justice.
Whether it is the Jewish Ten Commandments or the Hindu Laws of Manu, religions
have often provided a framework for behavior. Until 9/11, terrorism in
the U.S. was usually considered a crime, like other forms of violence.
This first metaphor has been useful in most societies when individuals
or groups of individuals disobeyed the rules of society.
* War. With 9/11 the United States
shifted from treating terrorism as a crime to characterizing it as war,
with war a proper response to iniquity. The Western religious heritage
supplies many precedents. By divine command, Joshua waged war to conquer
Condemned by early Christians, once
Christianity had become the state religion, force was used against the
Donatist sect, and war was justified as holy in the Crusades of the Middle
Ages. It became a frequent tool in Europe as one Christian group sought
to extinguish the views of others, or at least dominate them. The Thirty
Years War between Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists, and the English
Civil War between the Puritans and the Anglicans are painful examples in
the 17th Century. Today books based on ideas from the Apocalypse suggest
war is divinely ordained.
* Disease. The third metaphor is found
in traditions like Taoism and Buddhism with their emphasis on healing.
Presented in personal images, such as the “Medicine Buddha,” this metaphor
suggests that ailments arise from venoms such as greed, ignorance and hate.
If our outlook is poisoned by selfishness, misunderstanding and enmity,
we cannot possibly perceive why injustice has befallen us and why we remain
Curing begins with replacing greed
with generosity, using intelligence instead of reaction, and purifying
our emotions so that we can hear the Buddha say, “Hatred does not cease
by hatred, but only by love,” or Jesus teach, “Love your enemies, bless
them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.” Such instruction is
a difficult pill to swallow, but it may also be an effective prescription,
the only ultimate cure.
522. 040901 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Kubler-Ross' lessons were for the living, too
“What is your gut reaction?” she asked her students
after she concluded her interviews with dying patients behind the one-way
mirror at the University of Chicago hospitals. Such questions made Elisabeth
Kubler-Ross, M.D., one of the most memorable teachers I’ve ever had. In
1969, while she was teaching those of us in the Divinity School’s clinical
pastoral education program, the best known of her 20 books, On Death and
Dying, was published. Thirty years later, Time magazine listed her as one
of the “100 Most Important Thinkers” of the past century. She lived 78
years and died Aug. 24, working on yet another book.
This petite woman was known as “the
death lady” because she complained that when she came to Billings Hospital
as assistant professor of psychiatry in 1965 and asked the doctors to identifying
dying patients so she could work with them, the doctors told her they had
no dying patients. Perhaps more than anyone else, Dr Ross, as we addressed
her, challenged the culture of denial and enabled America to talk about
the reality of death.
Yet she insisted it was the dying
person, not her, who had the most to teach us. Her incredibly sensitive
and caring interviews amazed us as she succeeded with her invitations to
the patients to discuss their own deaths, especially as we learned that
their own families were too frightened to broach the subject with them,
and they often needed to talk with someone about what it was like to be
From her hundreds of interviews with
dying children and adults and their families, she developed her famous
theory of the five stages of grief: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining,
depression and acceptance. When we students reported on our own work with
dying patients, we found that asking which stage each patient seemed to
be in was a great help in guiding us in thinking through how to be most
helpful at that particular time. Her ground-breaking theory has since been
rightly challenged as inadequate. But it remains a useful starting-point.
Seared into my memory is a private
conversation the two of us had in the chaplain’s office after the day shift
left. Always firey in her defense of the dignity of the dying person, she
revealed to me her firm, almost fanatical, belief in a spiritual world
and personal survival after death, ideas about which she would later write.
The way she spoke frightened the skeptic in me, but I came to cherish her
willingness to challenge me.
Still, that oft-repeated question,
“What is your gut reaction?” is how I best remember her. What she meant
was that until one knows oneself, until one is fearless in acknowledging
one’s own faith and doubt, one cannot leave that aside and enter into the
world of the patient, to truly be present with the patient, in the moment
It was also a great lesson in being
with people as they live.
521. 040825 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Interfaith Council provides a passport to other
In 1989, I had the pleasure of calling together
men and women from 13 faith traditions to organize the Kansas City Interfaith
Council. Its first purpose was to make the metro area aware of the fact
that so many different faiths were practiced here: American Indian, Baha'i,
Buddhist, Christian Protestant, Christian Roman Catholic, Jewish, Hindu,
Muslim, Sikh, Sufi, Unitarian Universalist, Wiccan and Zoroastrian.
The Council grew out of a continuing
tradition begun in 1985. Each year on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, folks
from different faiths gather to share the meaning of gratitude from their
various faiths and a full meal with a text and symbolic foods to reflect
upon the American promise of religious freedom.
Cooperating with the Kansas City Press
Club in a day-long conference on “Religion and the Media” in 1990, the
group supported developing new ways for newspapers, radio and TV to report
on the Heartland’s increasing religious diversity. After 9/11, the Council’s
work became the subject of national media attention, including a half-hour
Still, most of its work has been routine,
such as providing speakers for groups who wish to learn about particular
faiths, whether a Sunday school class or a program for training hospital
Recognition of the area’s faith diversity has led
to expansion of faith representation in community events, such as the annual
Martin Luther King Jr observances.
On Sept. 16, 2001, Kansas Congressman
Dennis Moore invited the Council to bring the community together in an
observance of “Remembering and Renewing” as a way of recognizing the devastation
of 9/11 and affirming our mutual support for one another.
One month later, the Council, which
had been planning a conference for over a year, opened a two-day interfaith
meeting, “The Gifts of Pluralism,” attended by 250 adults and youths from
every faith mentioned plus those from Christian Orthodox and Free-Thinker
From the conference, an auxiliary
group formed, Mosaic, which set about collecting stories from 70 area people
about their lives and faith. Many of these gripping stories were scripted
into a play, “The Hindu and the Cowboy,” performed locally in several venues,
including last spring’s annual Harmony Week Luncheon. Mosaic also started
an interfaith book club and developed an “Interfaith Passport.”
From the unanimous “Declaration” concluding
the conference, the Council itself has established three task forces, on
the environment, on personhood and on society, to bring the wisdom of all
the faiths to respond to the dangers of secularism.
The Council, which has never had its
own funding, has just received a technical assistance grant from a national
For more information about the Council,
520. 040818 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Interfaith groups: Part 2
In my rant last week about Kansas City not having
a metro-wide religious organization open to all congregations, I promised
to discuss the KC Interfaith Council this week. But calls from readers
have convinced me another preliminary is required.
So let me back up. My teacher at the
University of Chicago Divinity School, Mircea Eliade, is sometimes credited
with studying religion sui generis, that is, in its own right. Previously
non-Christian faiths were often viewed in seminaries in terms of Christian
theology, rather than in the ways each faith presents itself. And in secular
schools, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and philosophers
examined religion through their own lenses, rather than allowing religion
to be studied as a separate and distinctive discipline with its unique
For Eliade, the key to understanding
religion is the experience of the sacred. While he utilized the insights
of other disciplines, he insisted religion could not be reduced to any
one of them, nor a compilation or combination of them. Religion deserves
to be studied in its own right.
People often assume that interfaith
work is about cooperation between faiths toward some socially significant
goal, whether it is folks of several traditions joining to build a Habitat
for Humanity house, ending racial discrimination or pursuing world peace.
Such efforts deserve praise and support.
But this parallels the anthropologists and theologians using their own
lenses instead of asking of religions, “What can you teach us?”
I frequently learn of organizations
wanting to employ the Interfaith Council not to receive the wisdom of the
world’s religions but rather to deliver the organizations’ messages or
services or receive the Council’s support. That’s fine, but specific intentions
cannot replace folks of different faiths being open to the sacred. The
sacred cannot have any agenda placed on it; it is what creates the agenda.
The sacred is not a delivery vehicle; it is the driver.
That said, it is important to recognize
interfaith groups that make contributions to civic life like the Kansas
City Interfaith Peace Alliance, Project Equality, Worker Justice, the Independence
Ministerial Alliance, the Kansas City Office of the National Conference
for Community and Justice, the Wyandotte Interfaith Sponsoring Council.
They are interfaith in the sense that they involve people from several
traditions, but not in the sense that their focus is on the sacred as revealed
through different faiths.
Congregational Partners, a program
of Kansas City Harmony, now involves 29 congregations and is growing. It
provides opportunities for committed people of various faiths to meet repeatedly,
develop friendships through various activities and learn about their traditions.
Thank you, dear readers. Now, unless
there are other objections or clarifications, next week I write about the
KC Interfaith Council.
519. 040811 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
More interfaith cooperation needed
Every few years readers of this column must endure
my rant about Kansas City not having a way for all congregations to communicate
with each other, to learn from each other, to support each other, to work
My rant begins with the frustration
of not being able to hear both of two world-renowned teachers who will
be in Kansas City to discuss interfaith issues the same week-end, Oct.
1 and 2. Huston Smith, author of The World’s Religions and interviewed
by Bill Moyers in a PBS series, gives lectures at Country Club Christian
Church. Those same days, famous (or infamous) ex-Catholic priest Matthew
Fox, author of Original Blessing and president of the University of Creation
Spirituality, lectures at Unity Temple on the Plaza and St. Paul’s Episcopal
If Kansas City had even a rudimentary
system of cooperation between religious agencies, this scheduling conflict,
among countless others, need not have occurred.
The rant deepens with the 24 pounds
of letters and other papers Maurice Culver generated in 1990 when he, then
head of Project Equality, took a sabbatical to study metro-wide religious
associations in other cities and to explore whether one might be possible
for Kansas City. Through Project Equality’s current head, Kirk Perucca,
Culver has just entrusted these records to me, and, looking at them, I
weep again because what his bottom line then was remains true: financial
support for such an organization does not exist here.
Since 1990, there’ve been other proposals
and studies with the same result. The 1996 Religion/Spirituality Cluster
of Mayor Cleaver’s Task Force on Race Relations recommended establishing
such a body, but instead of finding new money as specified in the recommendation,
three existing organizations were tasked to carry out the mandate with
insufficient funding, another dead end.
In 2000, an ad hoc group was asked
to plan an interfaith ceremony to conclude the Kansas City sesquicentennial
“peak week.” After months of work, the group had to cancel the event because
such an effort required a network, infrastructure and funding that does
Many of us hoped that Spirit of Service
would develop into such infrastructure, but expected funding never appeared
and the organization effectively folded in 2002.
In the spring of 2003, the Heart of
America United Way concluded another study with the same result. A few
months later, during the debate on the demolition of B’nai Jehudah’s facility
on Holmes, another conversation erupted briefly about a diversity center
there or elsewhere, to serve all religious communities, but money never
materialized for the project.
The one metro-wide association that
has provided slender but significant services is the Kansas City
Interfaith Council, about which I write next week.
518. 040804 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
T.S. Eliot poems are a wellspring of spirituality
The musical “Cats” may be the greatest source of
fame for T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), but he also may have written the greatest
religious poem of the 20th Century. Born in St. Louis, Eliot became a British
subject in 1927. He published the last poem of his “Four Quartets” in 1942,
in the gloom of World War II. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
While rooted in the Christian
tradition, Eliot, who had studied Sanskrit in his youth, makes use of themes
from many texts, including the Bhagavad Gita, the best loved of all Hindu
As unlikely as it seems, these abstruse
poems are part of the romance between Kansas City lawyer Tom Brous and
his graphics designer wife. He says, “On our third date, I arrived at Mary
Lou’s apartment with a copy of FQ . . . . I hoped that she would find value
in them (as I had). Mary Lou said, ‘You are not going to believe this.’
And she showed me a copy of Eliot’s Complete Poems with portions of FQ
highlighted. Tom “was surprised to meet someone who . . . knew FQ as well
as I did . . . and (this) had a lot to do with the immediate attraction
we had for each other. Later, at our wedding, I read the final section”
of the last poem.
Tom recently gave a series of lectures
on FQ at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral (Episcopal), where he also serves
as Chancellor. For Tom, FQ “affirms the continual presence and accessibility
of the divine in the present where suffering occurs. In other words, the
Incarnation can be experienced. God has entered the world.
“FQ is a sacred text and could provide
spiritual support to many people, if they only knew” about the poems, Tom
Yet many people of faith have yet
to discover FQ, though some passages have gained some familiarity, such
as, “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/
Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”
Tom’s interest was stimulated over
20 years ago by hearing a lecture that led him to explore stillness and
silence as ways to deeper spiritual life. In his reading, he found repeated
references to FQ, read the poems, and “felt challenged to master their
meaning—that led to John of the Cross, Dame Julian of Norwich, The
Cloud of Unknowing, George Herbert and others.”
Today I read many lines differently
than when I first encountered the poems 40 years ago—for example: “Do not
let me hear/ Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,/ Their
fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,/ Of belonging to another,
or to others, or to God.”
FQ’s insights and beauties seem endless,
and the ineffable meaning of the poems as a whole finally appears,
an incarnation itself, with unassailable spiritual power.
517. 040728 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Rotary Club helps bring prayer around
“How do I pray in public?” is a question put to
me so often that I’ve placed a detailed answer on my web site, www.cres.org/pray.
But now there is a new resource, a set of examples drawn from members of
the Overland Park Rotary Club.
Greg Musil, a member of the club,
an attorney with Shughart Thomson & Kilroy and a former Overland Park
City Council member, compiled and printed a set of 35 invocations because,
he says, “I was inspired, invigorated, challenged and moved by what my
friends and colleagues drafted or found to share.”
Musil prizes the prayers “because
those who give the invocation put a great deal of time and thought into
it, incorporating not only current events but the Rotary theme of ‘service
above self.’ (The prayers are) directly meaningful to anyone but especially
to charitable souls like we find in our Rotary Club.”
In gathering the prayers, Musil found
they were similar in including “tolerance and respect for others different
from ourselves, whether it be in skin color, religion, culture, etc. We
also seem to have a keen awareness that we are blessed with so many material
goods (not the least of which are food, shelter, clothing and medicine),
and so many intangible but critical assets like education, friendships,
He also noted differences. “Poems,
quotes, personally drafted thoughts, use of humor verses more somber thoughts,
all demonstrate the individuality of the club members.”
I asked him, “What is the value of
prayer in a setting such as a service club meeting?” He said, “Taking 30
to 60 seconds to close one’s eyes and relax in our busy day is, in itself,
a spiritually renewing experience. Hearing good thoughts related to your
work, service, family or business, and being inspired to do or to continue
to do good in your community has an immeasurable value, at least to me.”
Many organizations whose participants
come from different religious background have found it difficult to continue
a practice of prayer or inspirational moments in their meetings because
they fear offending someone. It is a legitimate concern. It is an awesome
and intimidating responsibility to utter words on behalf of others at a
Still, the effort to bring awareness
of the Infinite and the Eternal into a particular place and time is what
the life of the spirit is all about.
As a member of Musil’s Rotary Club
myself, I’ve watched the group over the years wrestle with prayer and ultimately
decide it was too valuable to abandon. Perhaps members of other groups
might be inspired by this example to discover the diverse riches available
when their own members invoke the sacred.
516. 040721 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Shifting attitudes could lead to acceptance
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit
impediments,” begins one of Shakespeare’s many sonnets to his young male
friend in the Age of Elizabeth. Today the question bedeviling people of
faith is not mental marriage but legal union of same-sex couples.
Senator Wayne Allard (Colo.) has proposed
an amendment to the US Constitution which he said “defines marriage as
it has been defined for thousands of years in hundreds of cultures around
the world.” Missouri voters Aug 3 will decide on a similar state amendment.
But even in the West, does the Biblical
heritage justify the notion that “traditional marriage” has maintained
a consistent meaning?
Nowadays we think love is the motivating
factor for marriage. But consider Solomon with his 700 wives and 300 concubines.
Are we talking political alliances, procreation, property rights, honored
servants, companionship, sexual opportunities — or love? Stability was
valued more highly than the emotional variation associated with love.
Marriage did not originate in love
between partners but as a compact between families or groups. This is why
in the Bible, most marriages were arranged by the parents, sometimes when
the children were infants, though Isaac was 40 years old when Rebecca was
chosen for him. Women were like property. But David won King Saul’s daughter
not by the conventional method of buying her but by presenting the foreskins
of 200 Philistines as evidence of his worthiness.
Onan’s father commanded him to have
sex with his dead brother’s wife in order to perpetuate the family line.
This custom, the “levirate” marriage, continued into the time of Jesus.
While in Mark’s gospel Jesus forbids
all divorce, Paul’s epistles have been interpreted to permit divorce and
remarriage when one partner becomes a believer and the other does not and
this situation generates intolerable friction. Paul also says that wives
are to be subject to their husbands who should treat them lovingly, in
the context of the social inferiority of the female.
Marriage was not declared a sacrament
within the Roman Catholic Church until 1215, perhaps influenced by Muslim
writers and musicians who elevated the importance of love, in contradiction
to the medieval dictum that “to love one's wife with one’s heart is adultery.”
Few people now insist that the sole
purpose of marriage is to produce children. Instead we sing, “Love and
marriage go together like a horse and carriage.” Will such sentiments lead
to another stage in the evolution of marriage to include unions based on
love regardless of the sex of the partners? In civil law, we permit divorce
and remarriage, though some faiths prohibit it. Will civil law come to
afford same-sex couples whose partnership has been sanctified by their
faiths the same legal recognition heterosexual couples enjoy in celebrating
515. 040714 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
A liberating message about women
Should women be religious leaders? Gene Flanery
and his wife, Gloria, think so. The Kansas City, Kans. couple will present
their view in a workshop in August in Kerrville, TX to the World Indigenous
Missions meeting of 200 folks from all over globe. Gene, a missionary for
over 20 years, has done mission work in Mexico, the Philippines, India,
Thailand, China, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Spain. Gloria has been with
him in places for extended stays and earned a Masters of Divinity
degree from Central Baptist Theological Seminary last year.
I asked Gene and Gloria how they deal
with scripture attributed to Paul that suggest a women should not have
authority over men and should keep silent in church.
Gene asked me, “When you think of
Jesus, do you think of him as a liberator or an accommodator or culture?”
I responded, “Jesus was a liberator.”
“And what about Paul?” Gene asked.
I said, “Paul’s concern was to found and strengthen the churches in a sometimes
difficult culture, and he wanted Christians to appear respectable, to eliminate
any unnecessary impediments that would take attention away from his
essential message, so I’d say he was more the accommodator, as when he
declined to free a slave.”
Gene interprets Jesus as liberating
women while Paul tried to accommodate culture.
“Yes,“ Gloria said. “Paul wanted to
move things forward, but he had to work with specific situations in the
context of his time.”
Gene noted that in 1 Cor. 11:6, Paul
instructed women who were prophesying to have their heads covered (many
translations use the expression “veiled”). In this, Paul recognizes the
spiritual capacity of women to teach while, at the same time, seeking manners
that minimize criticism from potential Christians who were immersed in
cultural customs about how women should appear.
Gloria said passages of scripture
that seem to place limits on women should be understood in the larger context
of Paul’s declaration in Gal. 3:28, that in Christ there is neither male
nor female. Tabitha, Priscilla, Phoebe, Lunia and other women are called
apostles or given other terms of religious leadership. The apparent inconsistencies
in New Testament writers can be explained by noting the specific circumstances
for which each instruction was fashioned.
Scripture, Gloria said, is not static.
The whole of the Bible must be our guide, not a particular passage lifted
out of context. “We sometime try to make the Bible a rule book, but I don’t
think that is its purpose. Christians today do not follow many of the instructions
found in the Bible because those instructions were culture-bound and the
circumstances have changed. The Bible is about the workings of the Spirit
in various settings, and we need to find the Spirit moving in our own lives
with today’s realities.”
514. 040707 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Moore film has its role to play
Sometimes the Hebrew prophets, who were not very
popular anyhow, had visions and did weird things as they condemned the
political and religious establishments of their times, decried economic
exploitation and abuse of power, and issued warnings about international
relations. They said they spoke for a God who demanded justice.
* Isaiah made a placard with the inscription,
"Spoil-soon-prey-quick" (Isa. 8:1), got it witnessed, and then told a mother
to use it for her child’s name, which became a prediction about Damascus,
Samaria and Assyria. [He also walked about naked and barefoot (Isa. 20:2-3).]
* Jeremiah was told to get a linen
girdle, and after wearing it, to put it in a hole in a rock by the River
Euphrates. When he was later instructed to retrieve it, he found it was
mildewed and useless, as God found the stubborn and prideful nation to
be spoiled. You can imagine he was not welcome in polite society when he
said that God employed Babylon to punish Judah for its forgetfulness.
* God instructed Ezekiel to cut his
hair, weigh it on scales, divide it into three parts, burn one part in
Jerusalem, strike a third with a sword, scatter a third to the winds and
tell the people this represents the punishment due them for their iniquity.
The prophets could be wrong and sometimes
disagreed with each other. Isaiah, for example, said that Jerusalem would
not fall (31:5) but Micah declared the city and the temple would be laid
Unlike the primal faiths which find
the sacred disclosed in the world of nature, and unlike the Asians faiths
which find ultimate meaning by looking within, the Hebrew prophets examined
the history of their covenanted nation and asked, What does this social
or political event mean in the unfolding revelation of God’s plan for peace
Jeremiah, about whom we have the most
biographical information, is described by scholar Robert Davidson this
way: “a prophet who in the eyes of the establishment of his day was both
traitor and heretic.”
When I've tried to explain the role
of prophets to my students, I’ve often compared them to the newspaper columnists
and TV pundits of our time who seek to place current events in a larger
pattern. But unlike many of the Hebrew prophets, such commentators, even
when they disagree with each other, are a respected part of society.
Now, however, I can point to anti-establishment
figure Michael Moore and the antics in his film, “Fahrenheit 9/11” as perhaps
a contemporary equivalent of Hebrew prophecy. The movie, fairly or unfairly,
seeks to discern a pattern in which the events of our day have meaning.
And in his own controversial way, Moore calls us to his particular view
of justice with the passion so evident in the Hebrew prophets.
513. 040630 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Universe draws us to enlightenment
Once upon a time, millions of eons ago, a king heard
the Buddha preach. The king was so stirred that he decided to relinquish
his rule so that he might pursue Buddhist studies as a monk. He took the
name Dharmakara which means “storehouse of Buddhist doctrine.”
In practicing with his teacher, Dharmakara
learned of many Buddhas, and that each Buddha resided in a land of perfection.
He asked his teacher to manifest the myriad of these lands so he could
contemplate the specific perfection of each realm. If one offered a perfection
in musical sounds, another might contain the most delicious food, and so
Dharmakara meditated on what he had
seen for five kalpas. (A kalpa can be considered the length of time it
would take for a hunk of rock 100 miles wide, deep and high to be worn
away to nothing by a garment brushing up against it once every hundred
After being thus absorbed, Dharmakara
determined to found a realm which would combine the various forms of excellence
he had seen in all the other lands. But of course to do this, he himself
had to accumulate sufficient merit to be able to create such a place. Thus
for countless kalpas he performed good deeds on behalf of others.
He took 48 vows to insure, among other
things, that the pure and happy land he was creating would be available
to any sincerely desiring it to escape karma and be reborn there.
(Karma is the law of moral cause and effect which brings a person, in this
life or the next, the consequences of one’s acts.)
Ten kalpas ago, Dharmakara achieved
his goal and now shines in his land, emitting 7,056,000,000 rays
of light in every direction from his body of unimaginable size and glory,
though he can also shrink to a mere eight feet high. His land is sometimes
called the Western Paradise. He became the Buddha Amida. Amida (the Japanese
form of Amitabha, the Chinese name) means “infinite light.” A statue of
Amida is on the stairs to the third floor of the Nelson-Atkins Museum
The story echoes and amplifies the
tale of Siddhartha, a prince who abandoned his royal sway to bring relief
from suffering to others and became the historical Buddha.
Amida is interpreted variously in
different schools of Buddhism, but he is generally regarded as an example
of active compassion, of doing good on behalf of others. Despite the extravagance
of the story, the message is simple. Merely by reciting Amida’s name or
attempting to imagine him, one is saved.
The Amida schools can be compared
with Lutheranism in Christianity, which emphasizes salvation not through
our own merit, but by God’s grace. There is something about the universe
that draws us to Enlightenment. Amida can also inspire us to imitate his
compassionate acts. Perhaps this way we can create the Pure Land now.
512. 040623 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
What's your religion quotient?
Quiz time. How much do you know about the early
developments of various faiths? Of these thirteen statements, which are
true? The answers appear below; nine correct is a good score.
1. Some scholars suggest that after
the Buddha’s death, his followers added to his teachings the Hindu idea
of reincarnation — that after death, one is reborn in a new body,
animal or human, to begin another life.
2. The American Indian Ghost Dance
was developed in prehistoric times.
3. Although the Zoroastrian faith
developed in ancient Iran, more Zoroastrians now live in India where they
are called Parsis.
4. Early Christian church leaders
forbade Christians from being judges who might have to impose capital punishment
because they believed the shedding of blood was always wrong.
5. The church father Tertullian (160-225)
asked women not to wear anklets and necklaces because such worldly adornments
might suggest their unreadiness for martyrdom.
6. Similarly, war was unanimously
condemned by all Christian writers before Constantine (288-337), so far
as existing texts indicate.
7. The doctrine that Jesus and the
Holy Spirit were not equal to God the Father was hotly debated in the Christian
churches until 381, with disagreements persisting for centuries after.
8. Augustine (354-430) developed the
“just war” theory as Christians considered the use of force to settle a
9. In 1054, an argument over the Trinity
led to the split between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches.
10. The two main forms of Islam, the
Sunni and the Shi’a, have radically different views of God.
11. The tenth Sikh guru, Gobind Singh
(1675-1708) announced that the next and final guru would not be a human,
but rather the Guru Granth Sahib, a collection of writings including Hindu
and Muslim texts.
12. All Baha’i scriptures were originally
13. The first Jewish “denomination”
to appear in America was the Orthodox.
Answers. 1, 3-9 and 11 are true. 2
is false; the dance was a reaction to the encroachments and oppression
by white folk in the late 19th century. 10 is false; the Sunni and the
Shi’a theologies are largely indistinguishable; they differ on who should
have succeeded the prophet Muhammad. 12 is false; some are in Arabic, and
Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957), the great grandson of founder Baha'ullah,
wrote in English. 13 is false; the Reform movement was the first to organize,
with a platform declared in 1885 in Pittsburgh.
511. 040616 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
The place of Reagan and Romans in religion
Unlike the ancient Romans who made gods of many
of their emperors, we do not consider former presidents divine. Still,
it may be useful to compare Roman practices with what some observers have
called the apotheosis of President Reagan.
But first, a word about Roman religion.
The Romans recognized the achievements of other cultures, but they saw
their own virtues rooted in a special capacity to be religious. Cicero
wrote, “We excel all people in religiosity and in that unique wisdom that
has brought us to the realization that everything is subordinate to the
rule and direction of the gods.”
The Romans did not conceive of religion
so much a matter of the soul as of the state; religion concerned outward
behavior more than inward spiritual life.
Our very word “religion” derives
from Latin, and its original meaning is often described as “scrupulous
carefulness,” following deliberate custom. We still use the term this way,
as in “I play golf each week religiously.” Our legal system derives in
part from Roman ritual which was a way of sealing contracts and determining
judgments. The lawyers’ expression, “I pray to the court,” echoes the pre-Christian
religious basis of our legal system, still strewn with Latin expressions.
How did an emperor, dead or living,
become a god? The Senate voted. Our legislature doesn’t make gods, but
it does have similar powers to bestow honors and compel recognition.
Emperor worship was important
as a way of uniting disparate cultures under Roman rule. The statue of
the emperor commanded the kind of veneration many of us give to the American
flag. The Romans respected the gods of the peoples they conquered so long
as they made a place for the emperor. The state religion was an integral
part of government. Early Christians refused to confound the state with
the Divine and some were thrown to the lions.
The state and religion were united
in the obsequies for President Reagan in many ways. While the coffins of
ordinary soldiers killed in Iraq are not available for public viewing,
his coffin draped with the flag was prominently displayed and revered in
the rituals. Government offices were closed and taxpayer funds were expended
for the observances. Leaders of government were intimately involved in
the rites. Proposals to place President Reagan’s image on coinage and on
Mount Rushmore are being considered in the Congress.
Perhaps the union of religion and
state during these ceremonies was appropriate. In 1980, Ronald Reagan spoke
to the Religious Roundtable in words that augured the growing influence
of conservative religious groups on government: “I continue to look to
the Scriptures today for fulfillment and for guidance. Indeed, it is an
incontrovertible fact that all the complex and horrendous questions confronting
us at home and world-wide have their answer in that single Book.” Are we
developing a religious sensibility like the pride of the Romans?
The official state obsequies for President Reagan
reminded me of the ancient Roman apotheosis of the emperor. While our legislature
does not do what the Roman senate did — vote to make the nation’s leader
a god — functionally we do much the same. In what some might consider a
violation of the commandment to make no graven images, we place the likeness
of dead presidents on our coins. The religious ceremonies honoring the
deceased are intimately entwined with government sites.
It might be difficult for an ancient
Roman, thrust by a time machine into last week’s observances, to distinguish
our ritual intents from those of his culture. Deification of the emperor,
after all, was a civic recognition in the context of religious practices
which themselves were an expression of government. In practice if not in
theology, worship of the emperor is analogous to our pledge of allegiance
to the flag, so revered that Constitutional amendments have been proposed
to outlaw its “desecration,” implying the piece of cloth is sacred. People
of some faiths conscientiously refuse patriotic exercises because, like
early Christians thrown to the lions, they object to confounding the state
with the Divine.
Cicero recognized that
other peoples were superior in many respects to the Romans, but that the
Romans excelled in religiosity “and that unique wisdom that has brought
us to the realization that everything is subordinate to the rule and direction
of the gods.”
Our very word “religion” derives from
Latin, and its original meaning is often described as “scrupulous carefulness,”
following deliberate custom. We still use the term this way, as in “I play
golf each week religiously.” Our legal system derives in part from Roman
ritual which was a way of sealing contracts and determining judgments.
The lawyers’ expression, “I pray to the court,” echoes the pre-Christian
religious basis of our legal system.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan spoke to the
Religious Roundtable in words that augured the growing influence of conservative
religious groups on government: “I continue to look to the Scriptures today
for fulfillment and for guidance. Indeed, it is an incontrovertible fact
that all the complex and horrendous questions confronting us at home and
world-wide have their answer in that single Book.”
Such pronouncements and support
for particular religious causes made it possible for many Christians professing
to honor the Bible to ignore the fact that Reagan was divorced and remarried,
disresgarding the teaching of Jesus in Mark 10:11-12. Nevertheless, conservative
pastor Jerry Falwell a few days ago called Reagan “a true hero to people
Even if we don’t make them gods, making
political leaders religious heroes tempts us to ignore their human frailties.
While it is right to honor service to others, we should not confuse a comforting
conventional or sentimental religiosity with the demands of genuine faith.
510. 040609 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
'Before the common era' is worth a look
A thoughtful reader responded to last week’s column
which said Confucius was born about 552. BCE. He prefers the calendar designation
He writes, “I am a Christian but have,
for example, worked in Saudi Arabia without being offended by their Islamic
calendar. As a society I think we’ve completely gone overboard on ‘political
correctness,’ trying to avoid offending rather than trying to accept other
cultural differences. I don’t think we should try to be all things to all
people, and loose our own identities.”
First, information about the terms
and then a comment about cultural identity.
B.C. is the abbreviation for “Before
Christ” and A.D. comes from the Latin, Anno Domini, “In the Year of the
Lord.” B.C.E. stands for “Before the Common Era,” and C.E. means “In the
Common Era.” The numbers for the dates are identical.
The former two terms are widespread,
but scholars increasingly use the latter terms when dealing with world
history. That is why B.C.E. seemed appropriate for a column on Confucius.
Now, about identity. I doubt that
I lose my identity by using B.C.E. any more than I become a Confucian because
I eat noodles, which we think were brought to the West from China by Marco
Polo. Nor for that matter do I become Italian!
It is difficult to think of anything
that does not have antecedents in prior civilizations. Take something as
pervasive as television. Without detailing why historian of science James
Burke includes a medieval Jewish translation of Arab texts as part of the
development of TV, one has only to look at the word itself — “vision,”
derived, we now know, from the same linguistic root as “video” and “Vedas,”
the earliest Hindu scriptures — to see that we are indebted to a previously
unacknowledged set of common interrelationships.
Another example. I have never heard
of a Christian taxpayer complain about losing one’s identity because the
government uses Arabic numerals. Dear reader, would you like prepare your
tax forms using the Roman numerals employed throughout most of Christian
I’ve recently been examining college
texts for the study of the New Testament, and they use the “C.E.” system
since it is difficult to fully understand the scriptures without acquaintance
with the world cultures of the times in which they were written.
So I don’t see the scholars as being
“politically correct.” They simply recognize that we now know enough to
acknowledge that we are part of a larger human story.
Just as a person does not lose identity
by gaining friends, so faiths are not compromised by recognizing others.
I do not lose my individuality by submitting to traffic lights, and I don’t
think Christians become less Christian if, when dealing with other cultures,
they use B.C.E.
America has been called the most religiously
diverse nation in history, and among Western nations may be the most religious.
Just as Baptists and Episcopalians did not lose their identity but were
strengthened by the First Amendment, so I don’t have to deny my faith by
recognizing the faith of others. In fact I can honor it appreciate my own
more deeply by seeing its We are now more keenly
aware of the many civilizations on this planet. I don't feel any loss of
my identity by recognizing other people in the world and by claiming
their history as part of my own. Confucius, Moses and Queelcoatl are a
part of a world heritage I claim, just as I enjoy Chinese, Jewish and Mexican
foods, and the art of Mu-Ch’i, Marc Chagall and Diego Rivera. For that
matter, I can be an American without wearing the wigs the Revolutionaries
While you may not agree with
me, I hope you will understand my respect for the faiths in Kansas City,
from A to Z -- American Indian to Zoroastrian -- and an embrace of how
their cultures have enriched ours.
I hope different religions will maintain
their various calendars, A.H. for Muslims, B.E. for Bahais. A.M. for Jews,
S.E. for Hindus, K.E. for Sikhs, Y. for Zoroastrians and A.D. for Christians,
I am glad we can also share a Common Era.
509. 040602 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Learning more about Confucianism
While Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha and other religious
figures are increasingly familiar to many of us as we seek the wisdom of
world traditions, Confucius is often neglected. Born about 552 BCE near
what is modern Shantung, he lived during a time of great social confusion,
when power seemed more important than justice and peace. Here are three
points about the Confucian faith that deserve to be better known.
* Humans are born good. Confucius’
main concern was the nature of humanity, jen in Chinese, sometimes
translated “humane aim.” Like the Hebrew prophets, Confucius proclaimed
society was headed in the wrong direction. Unlike the Hebrew prophets who
delivered messages from God to the rulers and the people, Confucius spoke
from an optimistic regard for the sacred humanity inherent in each person,
with only conventional reference to the gods. A society driven by force
instead of mutual respect corrupted the people, so he asked how society
could be organized around the value of human dignity instead. His answer
looked to the past for lessons but did not slavishly imitate the past.
* Key to social relationships is “the
rectification of names,” by which he meant that a thing should be called
by what it is. This sounds obvious, but it would be interesting if he could
comment on our culture’s misleading advertising and our tendency to rename
things for our own purposes of obfuscation, such as calling tax increases
“revenue enhancements” or prisoners of war “illegal combatants,” now a
term with technical meaning in some legal systems. It is hard to think
clearly when we misuse language to gain some kind of advantage.
* Another key is li, ritual. We recognize
the dignity in others by showing them respect through social ceremony.
Thus in our culture, when we meet, we shake hands; in China, bowing was
the proper rite.
To emphasize this idea, Confucius
compared the individual to a ritual vessel. It may be beautiful; it may
have precious contents. Still its value arises from its function in the
ceremony, just as the recognition of our shared humanity, even if we disagree
about many things, is expressed in the handshake.
As the sacrificial vessel becomes
sacred in the context of the ceremony, so we achieve jen through genuine
relationship with others. Virtue does not exist in isolation, he said.
Regard for others lessens the temptations of power and keeps our language
Confucius’ focus was neither on the
individual nor the group, but rather on the holiness of the ceremony itself.
When a clerk greets me with a sincere “Good morning,” that ritual reveals
the clerk’s humane aim and recognizes my own humanity.
With the increasingly sharp political
divisions appearing in our nation, such ritual recognitions may keep us
from being torn asunder.
508. 040526 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
KC arts save a space for spiritual experience
Some examples and a thought about religion and the
Recently, like everyone around me
at the Lyric Theater, I was on my feet to applaud a strong performance
of Shostakovitch’s “Fifth Symphony,” surely one of the great spiritual
testaments of the 20th Century. Though the communism the Soviet composer
knew may now be dead, his despair, yearning and compassion in the face
of the state’s brutality moves us still because the soul of our age must
also struggle against oppressive forces to reclaim its own humanity. Thank
you, Kansas City Symphony.
Earlier this month, the Kansas City
Ballet performed “Lambarena,” uniting the expressiveness of traditional
African dance with classical pointe work in homage to the theologian, organist,
physician and humanitarian, Albert Schweitzer. The music spliced tribal
sounds with Bach and revealed a seamless essence of praise.
The Lyric Opera’s production of Mozart’s
“Don Giovanni” explored questions of character, morality and damnation.
The Friends of Chamber Music brought
us “Daniel and the Lions” at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, a story
of the triumph of faith when God shut the mouths of the lions in the den
into which Daniel was thrown, and from which he emerged as a signal of
The ancient myths from Ovid were enlivened
with a pool of water as the set in the Missouri Repertory Theater’s production
of “Metamorphoses” and we saw both gods and humans metaphorically in the
sea of desire.
In addition to the religious issues
raised by the George Catlin exhibition this winter at the Nelson-Atkins
Museum of Art, the permanent collection is an amazing assembly of objects,
many of which convey sacred inspiration. As museum director Marc Wilson
writes, “Man has always invested meaning in symbols and images . . . to
define his relationship with the cosmos. . . . It is not surprising, therefore,
that religions generally have spawned much of mankind’s artistic production.”
Indeed, an inscription on the north exterior of the building proclaims,
“True painting is only an image of the perfection of God.”
I could give many other examples.
My point is this: Kansas City is blessed by arts that enrich the spiritual
Faith, unlike a creed, is not a set
of words; it is the way one is pointed toward life. While a season of worship
each week and ongoing study of ancient scripture may give us bearings,
religion is the way we live our lives. We may talk theology, but art is
the “body language” of the soul. While separate, sectarian exercises are
important, public places for the arts, where folk from all faiths congregate
in a shared experience, may also be essential in growing the spirit of
507. 040519 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Can we learn from the gods of war?
Service in war can be ennobling or debasing. Many
of the world's religions recognize this by including gods of war and human
warriors—winners and losers—in their traditions. Scholar of myth
Joseph Campbell has argued that both the soldier and the war-protester
can be considered heroic insofar as they give their lives to a larger cause.
While the gods are not seen in the
new movie, “Troy,” they manipulate the action in Homer's Iliad
which the movie is based. Two Greek war divinities are most important.
Ares, later assimilated into the Roman god Mars, is recalled in the name
we use for the third month of the year. Ares is rash, brutal and blood-thirsty,
his chariot pulled by the horses Terror and Fear.
He ultimately loses to the goddess
Athena, patron of Athens, presented in the Parthenon. Athena is ethical
and disciplined, a fighter with foresight. Over time, she becomes a goddess
Even with all his powers, the god
Krishna cannot prevent war in the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, so
he counsels the warrior Arjuna to fight without passion, without thought
of gain. Krishna says “Victory and defeat are the same.”
At times the Hebrew Yahweh is a warrior
God. In Numbers 31, he commands Moses to instruct his generals to slaughter
the Midianites. Killing men and burning towns are insufficient, so
Moses demands killing all the children and women as well, except the soldiers
were allowed to keep the female virgins. Subsequently, Joshua, with a genocidal
ferocity, destroys over thirty Canaanite cities. Psalm 144:1 praises divine
bellicosity: “Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands
to war, and my fingers to fight.”
While the most famous Christian scripture
of battle may be Revelation, where God presides over cosmic conflict, including
a war in heaven (12:7), later Christian songs maintain the theme. In a
famous Thanksgiving hymn, the original words include, “We all do extol
Thee, Thou leader in battle.” “Onward Christian soldier,” “The Son of God
goes forth to war,” and many other martial hymns are important elements
in Christian worship.
Whether we study the Assyrian god
Asshur, the Chinese Kuan-ti, the Aryan-Vedic Indra, the Shinto Hachiman,
the Polynesian Tu, the Slavic Svantovit, the Tutonic Woden (for whom
Wednesday is named), or other war deities, we find the history of religion
reveals a keen interest in fighting.
Sometimes, as in the Bible, one side
is good, the other bad. Other times, as in Homer, figures may act with
valor in ambiguous circumstances within the terrible destruction of war,
and from them a remnant of hope and healing may emerge.
We want to think of religion as a
path of peace. But the fighter seems more exciting than the healer. Can
we learn from the gods of war? Or should we dethrone them—peacefully?
506. 040512 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Prose and poem show perspectives of Job
The one book in the Hebrew scriptures for which
I am most grateful is Job. Its author has been called “the Shakespeare
of the Old Testament.” Luther considered it “magnificent and sublime as
no other book of Scripture.” Here is what it means to me.
Job asks, “Why do bad things happen
to good people?” We also see how someone afflicted almost beyond measure
relates to God with integrity. Unlike most other books of the Bible, Job
concerns mainly the spiritual life of the individual, rather than the meaning
of events affecting an entire people.
The prose Hollywood beginning and
ending appear to have been written by someone other than the one who composed
the main body of the work, which is a poem. The prose calls God Yahweh
and the poem uses Hebrew terms like Elohim and Shaddai. Scholars
cite other evidence for distinct authorship.
I say “Hollywood” because the opening
and closing of the book make the story, while the poem is a focused theological
The drama presents God testing Job’s
devotion by destroying his family, possessions and health. Job is righteous;
and in the prose, Job is amazingly patient. The story ends with Job restored
several times over.
But in poem, Job is anything but patient.
He is angry and confronts God over his distress. “Comforters” are unsuccessful
in their attempts to explain why misery has befallen their friend. They
accuse him of sin and pride.
In Job 38-39, God finally answers
from a whirlwind and majestically puts Job in his place. This power-play
is so compelling we are almost so distracted that we forget that God fails
to offer any justification for what he has done to Job. Job never questions
God’s might; he disputes God's justice, and on that point, God has nothing
In our culture’s drive for worldly
winning, we have seen scandal in business, sports and politics. ’Twas
ever so. Those who get caught may be a fraction of the wicked. Job complains
not only is his suffering undeserved, but the success of those who cheat
and bully also makes it hard to see how God is just. The book of Job is
an antidote to the poison of assuming those in power are therefore righteous.
In the end, God rebukes Job’s comforters
because they defend God with a false understanding of His nature, and He
commends Job for speaking truthfully. And Job prays for those who insulted
and betrayed him.
505. 040505 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Biblical inquiry goes beyond yes and no
[This version elaborates
The Star’s text.]
Readers sometimes ask me to choose between saying
“the Bible is true” or“it isn’t.”
For me, many religious
questions are not that simple. Language is an imperfect tool to describe
ordinary things. And when we try to speak about the realm of the sacred,
about the best language can do is to point beyond itself. Otherwise we
mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself. We take the
map to be the territory.
Even in the ordinary realm, many matters
cannot be decided by a simple either/or choice. Take this sentence: “This
sentence is false.” Is it either true or false? Either option involves
a contradiction. In order to discuss the sentence, we have to step out
of the either/or framework. I want to escape the “either/or” trap of responding
in the terms in which the question is posed.
If I ask, “Did you see the sun rise
today?” and you say “No, the sun doesn’t rise; the earth rotates; I saw
the sun appear to rise,” you’ve rejected my everyday language in
favor of a precious astronomical view. But although you said “No,” your
answer actually was “Yes” in the way we usually talk. It is hard to reduce
this to a simple either/or statement.
Is a zebra a white animal with black
stripes or a black animal with white stripes? Or perhaps an invisible animal
with black and white stripes? We should not confuse descriptions with the
reality they seek to describe.
Readers tell me “Jesus is the
only way.” Does this have to be an exclusive statement? Gentlemen: Is your
wife the most beautiful woman on earth? I hear many men saying, “Yes!”
But you can’t all be right – unless I take your affirmations as expressions
of commitment rather than a beauty pageant judgment. Interpreting passages
like John 14:6 out of historical context is like taking an expression of
devotion to be a contest award.
Take the famous Rubin figure shown
here.[click to see image]
Is it a goblet or two faces? It depends on the way you view it, and your
view can shift. To be forced to say it is either a goblet or two faces
fails to respect its capacity to convey both goblet and faces. If a simple
black-and-white image can be multivalent, why cannot a profound spiritual
truth have many possible seemingly contradictory meanings?
Sometimes a frame of reference makes
us say things we don’t believe in other contexts. For example, if you ask
me what troubled Hamlet in the first act of Shakespeare’s play, I’ll say
“the ghost of Hamlet’s father.” But if you ask me if I believe ghosts exist,
I’ll say, “No.” If I ask, “How many step-sisters did Cinderella have?”
and you say, “Two,” I'll respond, “Correct” even though the question and
answer make sense only in terms of the fairy tale. If you ask me a Biblical
question like, “Did a whale swallow Jonah?” I’ll say, “Yes—or a `big fish’”
in terms of the story, even though I doubt the story is actual history.
I don’t have to believe that a whale swallowed Jonah in order to find the
Biblical story inspired.
Although my personal
background is Protestant, I prefer the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation
– the wine and the bread of the Eucharist become the very blood and body
of Christ. Yet no one thinks a chemical analysis of the consecrated elements
would reveal whether Jesus had type-A blood. We use inadequate language
in an elevated way to propel us into a mystery of salvation.
Take the subject of physics. For centuries
the debate was whether light is a wave or a particle because it could not
be both. Now physicists say light is both. Further, Robert Oppenheimer
said of the atom, “if we ask if the electron is at rest, we must say ‘no’;
if we ask whether it is in motion, we must say ‘no.’”
Surely some theological questions
are even more inscrutable. God must be either transcendent (beyond experience)
or immanent (within experience). Yet most theologians want to say God is
The impulse to define the Divine is
as useful as striving to trap sunlight in a canning jar. In the cellar
the brilliance is gone. Yet in a sense sunlight is captured in photosynthesis
carried on in trees and other plants, just as I believe the Bible, like
other scriptures, contains awesome records of human encounters with the
So, dear readers, I am suspicious
of either/or questions. The Bible is worthy of consideration far beyond
a simple either/or answer. Religion is about the Infinite intimated in
multitudinous finite contexts. Word formulas often fail. Yes or No answers
may not be adequate to honor that which above all should be honored.
504. 040428 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Spiritual dream a call to wake from secular
On Apr. 27, 1994, this column began. In these ten
years, I’ve seen my readers increasingly identify this paradox: religion
is both a cause of conflict and a path of peace.
This paradox arises from our overwhelmingly
desacralized society. Our culture treats religion as a tiny corner of life
to which we must bow from time to time. There is little vision of how all
things involve each other, of what things are most important, of what really
counts. We pursue separate, private agenda, selfishly; special interests
govern our politics, rather than the common good; our entertainment glories
in the verisimilitude of violence, not in conflict healed with compassion;
our environment is a collection of objects for us to trash rather than
a holy arena for us to revere.
Yet the very meaning of spirituality
is seeing things whole; spirituality is pervasive and persuasive; it cannot
be crammed into a corner. Religion offers us the big picture; faith enables
us to know who we are in the cosmos, how to treat others, and where we
find meaning in the patterns of life that include suffering and death as
well as affirmations and thrills.
Our culture gives little support for
such faith. The sacred is ignored or demeaned. In reaction to the culture,
some folks have fashioned answers to the problems facing us that admit
little doubt. Often using texts of their traditions – Christian, Jewish,
Muslim, Hindu and so forth – they read back into their scriptures the secular
divisions of the present. Rather than healing the wound of secularism,
such certainty further fractures society. The forms of fracture include
economic exploitation, totalitarianism, terrorism and war.
This fracture causes some to ask,
for example, “Will the ‘prophecy’ of Armageddon (Revelation 16:16) be fulfilled
not because it is God’s will but because those who believe in it will gain
sufficient power to bring the disaster upon us?”
On the other hand, other folks seem
to dismiss religious questions because they reject certain answers to those
questions. Familiar with only one idea of the Absolute (a religious term
for ultimate Reality), they assume there are no other moorings for the
spirit, and that secular options are better than religious judgments.
Yet these ten years also suggest a
deepening yearning for a spirituality whose sacred fruit is love. In the
urgency of our time, within every tradition, increasing numbers see the
paradox of religion - both causing conflict and affirming peace - as a
call to awaken from secular slumber, to purify, energize, and magnify the
life of faith.
503. 040421 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
For all his flaws, Don Giovanni knows himself
The figure for whom the opera is named goes to hell
in the end. According to the tally his servant Leporello keeps, he has
seduced 640 Italian, 231 German, 100 French, 91 Turkish and 1003 Spanish
women. Yet it seems he loves not a single one. It is the adventure, the
conquest that thrills Don Giovanni. Sure, it’s kinda funny. Lots of jokes.
But also dreadful.
I’ve been puzzling over this ominous
opera for years. How could Mozart and his librettist, da Ponte, shift from
their previous opera, the shining Marriage of Figaro, to this dark
and troubling excursion into selfishness and sexuality?
It is not just Don Giovanni who bothers
me. Donna Elvira is really messed up. Don Giovanni’s “bride,” she vacillates
between fury and forgiveness. She pursues him through he scorns her, yet
she easily accepts the advances of Leporello disguised as his master -
if she is so easily deceived, does she really know her man?
And how could anyone be as insensitive
as Don Ottavio?! He offers himself as a substitute father to Donna Anna
a moment after ordering her father’s corpse removed from her presence so
he can continue with his wooing.
All the characters are flawed in their
knowledge of themselves and therefore exploit others. None of them are
completely admirable - Mozart and da Ponte reveal their characters almost
as carefully as if they were charting personality types. Only the identified
exploiter, Don Giovanni, knows himself completely. He will not renounce
the unholy zest he has in charming others. Even when offered a last chance
to repent, he refuses redemption and is pulled into demonic smoke and flames.
Yes, the Don’s use of his wealth and
position was a way for Mozart to display the rape of the lower classes
by the upper society of 1787, two years before the French Revolution. Yes,
Act I ends with everyone singing “Viva la liberta!” Still, from Don Giovanni,
it sounds more like a sexual than a political slogan. Liberty is to be
praised, indeed, but can it flourish without responsibility?
Regardless of Mozart’s intent and
the expectations of his audience 200 years ago for a tidy, moralistic ending,
today I am uncomfortable with the characters delighting in the eternal
punishment Don Giovanni receives. In a sense, they are worse than he. He
knew he misused others; they can’t see how they do it.
Watching others caught up in their
selfishness evokes both hell and heaven for us to contemplate. And the
music miraculously converts our horror to compassion for everyone who seeks
the miracle of love.
The Lyric Opera presents Don Giovanni
beginning Apr. 24. Not to miss.
502. 040414 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Learning from George Catlin
When I was a youngster in Omaha, I liked to visit
the Joslyn Art Museum there. I liked "grown-up" art, not the childish displays
about the uncivilized, primitive Indians. They were heathens. My attitude
was similar to many Americans in 1800 who regarded Indians as subhuman.
Often Indians were nuisances or threats.
But George Catlin, a Philadelphia
lawyer, thought Indians were people. In the 1830s he made five trips west
to encounter, to record and "to rescue from oblivion" the Indians of the
Plains in words and in painting. He eventually produced some 500 images,
over 120 of which you can see here at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art these
final days before the show, "George Catlin and His Indian Gallery" closes
Catlin began his explorations of Indians
in their cultural contexts just as the Congress enacted the Indian Removal
Act, which forced Indian resettlement. Such encroachments transformed and,
in many cases, eliminated tribal life. Some have used modern terms like
"genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" to awaken us to the history. At a minimum,
a culture observed, even for purposes of honoring it, is by the very act
of being observed, changed.
But when we look at the paintings-portraits,
landscapes, dances, sporting events, village panoramas, rituals, hunts,
horsemanship, food preparation and feasting, healing and even what might
remind us of the Christian "Madonna and Child" motif-when we look at these
images, we are also changed. Catlin's paintings proved what he wrote: "They
are human beings with features, thoughts, reason and sympathies like our
Of course I knew that. Long ago I
outgrew my childish view that Indian stuff was for children only and religiously
unworthy. I've since visited reservations, participated in Indian ceremonies
and have Indian friends. Still, the power of this exhibition was a surprise
I keep wondering how the white culture,
instead of conveying to the Indians its "contaminating vices and dissipations,"
to use Catlin's words, might have instead been uplifted by more appreciative
acquaintance with cultures with a sacred sensibility about all things.
I keep asking whether our fragmented, secularist, special-interest-driven
civilization continues to ignore opportunities to understand ourselves
better and regain a shared sense of the holy by approaching those of other
faiths who protest against our commercialism, our profanation of power,
our preoccupation with celebrities, our worship of violence.
Catlin then may have romanticized
the Indian as we today may sentimentalize the exotic. Still, to raise such
questions, the imperfect mirror of these thrilling paintings is much better
501. 040407 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Spring yields its own witness to resurrection
It was cold weeks ago, but in my front yard the
purple crocus bloomed with the promise of spring. Now green is everywhere,
and my daffodils prove the season’s glory is arriving. The flowering trees
around the city, though expected, are so fresh and beautiful, it is like
a surprise. It is not hard for me to understand why ancient folk attributed
the miracle of resurgent life to the gods.
For many years scholars tried to find
parallels to Christ with dying and rising deities associated with the seasons
of nature--Adonis, Attis, Baal, Tammuz--but similarities are fragmentary
and strained. The Osiris cult, for example, was widespread when Jesus lived.
Osiris’ rejuvenation following his murder was an expression of the reanimated
earth each year. This differs from the Christian story with its claims
on this life and the purpose of history. Osiris chose to rule the dead
who live in a different sense when they righteously identify with him in
the nether realm, not in this world. Osiris remained a god of nature, not
a figure with a role in what we understand as historical progression.
The Greek “mystery religions,” whose
rituals involved grain or eating flesh and drinking wine to share the savior’s
life, seem also to be fertility cults, rather than faiths with historical
The Christian notion of resurrection
also differs from reincarnation in Hinduism, though some Hindus consider
Jesus to be an avatar of Vishnu, who also appeared as Rama and Krishna.
Reincarnation is rebirth into this realm repeatedly and does not require
the death and resurrection of a savior. Christ’s resurrection is taken
as a promise that Christians will also be given life after death in a new
and eternal existence.
Puritan America refused to observe
Easter. The holy day grew in importance after the Civil War as a comfort
to the bereaved.
“Easter” is derived from the same
root as “east” and suggests the importance of the spring sun. St. Bede
(c. 673-735) says the Christian holy day’s name has its origin with Eastre,
a goddess of springtime. The traditions of Easter bunnies and eggs recall
the persistent themes of fertility and revivified nature. Easter’s date
depends on an astronomical, not a historical, calculation: the Sunday following
the full moon after the vernal equinox.
But the Christian story says something
more than a fact of nature, that new life appears after the earth seems
dead in winter. It says more than after severe disappointment, new and
redeeming meanings may develop. When with the ears of the spirit I can
hear the tomb of the earth yield up its flowers in my front yard, I can
also hear the Christian witness of the soul reassured that the accidents
of personal and historical travail and tragedy are embraced with love in
a larger and sacred pattern.
500. 040331 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Teach all nations, but learn from them
How should Christians understand the "Great Commission"
(Matthew 28:19-20) to take their faith to all the world? Two distinguished
theologians visited Kansas City recently with their answers.
M. Thomas Thangaraj, a Christian from
India, lectured at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Now a professor
at Emery University, he wrote The Crucified Guru: An Experiement is Cross-Cultural
Christology. John Buchanan, editor of The Christian Century and past moderator
of the Presbyterian Church, spoke at Saint Andrew Christian Church.
Thangaraj noted that Christianity
itself, from its very beginning, has been "plural," as the different emphases
of the four Gospels demonstrate. Within Christianity differences have sometimes
led to violent conflict. Conflict between religions has also appeared.
He said pluralism moves beyond recognizing
diversity within and among faiths, but also appreciating the other as worthy
of engagement. This does not mean submerging differences but respecting
them within commitment to one's own faith. He said people must "come to
realize that no one religious group can tackle the challenges" the world
faces, that inter-religious cooperation and collective action is required.
Buchanan reported that one of every
seven persons in Chicago, where he is pastor, is non-Christian, with 500,000
Muslims, 220,000 Buddhists, 80,000 Hindus, 20,000 Native Americans, and
5,000 each of Sikh, Jain, Zoroastrian, and Unitarian Universalist faiths.
He said America has become the most pluralistic nation in the history of
Is my understanding of God the best?
-- Buchanan said that such questions do not have yes or no answers. Whenever
we try to define God, we destort and limit the reality of God. He praised
the Jewish tradition of never uttering God's name as a way of honoring
the divine mystery.
Placing the "Great Commission" in
historical context of the early Christian controversy whether the emerging
faith should be confined to Jews, Buchanan sees Matthew's response as inclusive.
"Our task is not to shout louder than anybody else, argue harder and convince
more throroughly. It is to tell the story of God's love, . . . to live
out the liberating, joyful truth we have discovered" within a context of
fully accepting the truth found in other traditions. He cited the parable
of the Good Samaritian as an example of Jesus' embrace of one of another
faith through service, not conversion.
499. 040324 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Spiritual preoccupation a good cultural sign
On the last Sunday before I left my home church
for seminary, my pastor brought me into the pulpit with him to share a
dialogue sermon. One question he asked seems particularly curious after
these 39 years. I am certain he asked it not because he believed the assumption
embedded within it, but to test me and the congregation.
“Why would a young man like you, with
many options before him, choose to go into a dying field, religion, which
is increasingly irrelevant to society?"
The question was in the tradition
of the 18th Century French philosophes, who thought that religion was superstition,
and with increasingly wide-spread education and particularly the rise science,
religion would fade away.
Forty years ago you might find a shelf
of religious volumes in a bookstore; today there are thousands in specialized
sections. Far from disappearing in the seat of learning, universities have
found religious groups multiplying and flourishing. In popular entertainment,
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is an overwhelming commercial
success. The number of political issues debated from religious viewpoints
is staggering: abortion, gay marriage, the Iraq War, to name a few.
And the one arena the philosophes
especially saw freed from faith, science, is now intimately intertwined
with religion. Two events this week here illustrate this point in a way
the philosophes could not have anticipated.
The Kansas City Religion and
Science Dialogue Project brings Ronald L. Numbers, University of Wisconsin
professor of the history of science and medicine, to Second Presbyterian
Church tomorrow at 7:15 pm to speak on “Intelligent Design: Revolutionary
Science or Creation Science?” Evolution is a topic where religion, science
and politics intersect. For information, visit www.kcrsdp.org.
The Cornell Club brings one of the
pioneers of stem cell research, Robert H. Foote, professor emeritus, to
speak Sunday 4 pm at the Barstow School on “An Update on Cloning.” Religious,
ethical, political and strictly scientific concerns are so intertwined
that we can use expert help in sorting them out. For information, visit
I was not smart enough to answer my
pastor by predicting today’s cultural preoccupation with religion, but
I said then, and remain convinced, that humans are inherently spiritual
498. 040317 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Through sacrifice, lives are transformed
“With his stripes we are healed” expresses the profound
idea of vicarious suffering in the Jewish tradition, an amazing development
in dealing with what seems wrong with the world. The sentence is from the
“Songs of the Suffering Servant,” (Isa. 53:5).
Christians have applied this text
to Jesus, as anyone seeing Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” probably
Metaphors are important because the
Infinite cannot be contained in finite language, and metaphors point beyond
themselves. When Christ is called “the Lamb of God,” no one thinks he is
covered with wool; yet the image had great power in some pre-industrial
cultures. It makes sense in the context of the Israelite sacrifice tradition
of substituting animals to expiate sin.
While the bread and wine of the Eucharist
are deeply meaningful to me as the body and blood of the Savior, they are
ineffective communication to someone from a vegetarian culture who might
even find the idea cannibalistic.
Muslims cannot imagine a prophet dying
by crucifixion, and Buddhists would find such a death unthinkable for an
“Christ died for our sins,” (I Cor.
15:3), but the Greek text does not insist that he died “instead of”
us but rather suggests “on behalf of” us. This particular text fails to
support the idea that Christ was our substitute for punishment humans are
said to deserve.
But how does atonement work? The church
has never required any of the many explanations devised over the ages.
Paul himself employs at least 10 different metaphors to describe how Christ
Aquinas (Summa Theologica, III, Q22:3)
unified several previous theories with the idea of our participation in
the work of Christ. While I cannot present and update the richness of his
thought, here is a hint, using human experience to point to what is ultimately
Socrates, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi,
Martin Luther King and others all practiced lives of such integrity that
they were killed for their principles. From their considerable sacrifice,
we hope for benefit.
Because they changed the world, and
because we can be inspired by their powerful examples when we accept their
wisdom, we also can be transformed.
In the diminutive realm of human experience,
unmerited suffering can produce higher human life and aspirations. So for
Christians, in the divine realm, the gift of Jesus, who taught many things
of great beauty and died bringing them to the world, He offers eternal
salvation. By identifying with him, as Paul says (Gal. 2:20), we live by
497. 040310 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
In response to 'Passion' column
Dear Readers: A personal message from your “Faiths
and Beliefs” columnist.
A primary purpose for this space is
to celebrate the many different ways we in the Heartland approach the sacred,
to explore what gives meaning and direction to our lives as spiritual beings.
What I choose to write about arises from a sense of duty to inform and
illumine as best I can, given the changing agendas that affect us. My personal
disposition is to appreciate rather than condemn, to include rather than
isolate, to understand whether or not I agree.
In contrasting classic roles, the
priest accepts people where they are while the prophet criticizes the power
structure and events that endanger the community. I am more comfortable
with the priestly role.
But there are times to raise questions,
as last week I reluctantly wrote about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the
Christ. Within hours of the column appearing, dozens of readers called
and emailed me, about half with praise and the others finding fault. I
have always viewed this column as interactive, so I welcome each comment
because I can learn from them.
While I prefer transmitting the opinions
of others, when I offer my own, I do so in the context of the same democratic
faith that undergirds the free press in our country: the best decisions
are likely to emerge through an honest exchange of views in the marketplace
of ideas. One of the things I appreciate about this paper is its commitment
to display the diversity of sentiment in our community.
Several readers have the impression
that I am a member of The Star staff; one writer disparages me as a “cub
reporter.” Others claim I have never read the Bible. Both these accusations
make me smile. I am a 61-year old minister ordained 34 years ago after
earning my doctorate. I currently teach a course on the New Testament to
ministerial students. I prepare this column as a free-lance writer, not
as a Star employee.
Fifteen years ago I organized the
Kansas City Interfaith Council, and from that I have friends of many faiths
who have enlarged and deepened my personal spiritual perspective. In that
context, I see the Gibson movie as evidence of secularism, not as a revelation
of salvation. While I respect those who celebrate the movie and am glad
they are personally able to find inspiration in it, I grieve over the overwhelming
violence to which our culture is addicted and the religious illiteracy
which justifies it.
496. 040303 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Ghoulish 'Passion' secular, not sacred
(this version varies slightly from the published
In my opinion, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the
Christ” is not just a bad movie. It is evil. Those applauding it have a
lot of explaining to do, far beyond its historical, biblical and linguistic
First, concerns about anti-Semitism,
about which I wrote last August, seem justified. The Gospel of John was
written to make Christianity more acceptable to non-Jews in the Roman Empire
and downplays Pilate's cruelty. The movie exaggerates this theme with gratuitous
stereotyping of the Jews. While it is unlikely that the movie will rouse
many Americans to blame living Jews for actions of Jewish leaders in Jesus'
time, Europeans may be more vulnerable. Jews world-wide are right to be
Second, the overwhelming violence
we see is Gibson’s, not the historic Christian interpretation. One wonders
if he is explaining the torture, depravity and sadomasochist preoccupations
of his other movies by commandeering a sacred subject. His fascination
with brutality does not uplift me or commend the Gospel; it cheapens it
with slick cinematic technique.
But my greatest concern is that the
movie seems to celebrate the crude penal or substitutionary theory of atonement.
This coarse teaching says that God's justice demands satisfaction for the
sin of Adam inherited by all humanity, and that only through the suffering
of Christ can we be redeemed from God's wrath.
Stated simply, Christ is punished
horribly instead of you and me and newborn babies.
If I am condemned to death for murdering
my neighbor, will any judge accept my son’s willing offer to die in my
stead? Civilized folk don’t punish the innocent.
Why doesn’t God forgive humanity without
this barbaric sacrifice? Would that not be a more convincing evidence of
divine love than punishing His Son?
In honoring a vengeful and unjust
God, Gibson assaults the senses and dismisses more mature ideas of God.
He has reduced the glorious mystery of salvation to the ghoulish
payment of a debt.
More thoughtful Christians have developed
other understandings of Christ’s atoning power, and in a future column
I will discuss them.
The popularity of this irresponsible
movie marks how dangerous the secular religious spectacle has become.
495. 040225 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Hometown Catholic paper covers many faiths
Example one. In 1986 I decided I was terribly ignorant
about Islam. I decided to spend a week with a Harvard professor who was
leading a workshop on that faith in Madison, WI. I was surprised to learn
that in her opinion the best single current overview of that religion had
just been published . . . in Kansas City. My subsequent travel in Muslim
countries confirmed her judgment.
Example two. Over the course of my
career I've made several trips to Asia. I've learned first-hand about Buddhism,
Shinto, Hinduism and other traditions. But I didn't know much about the
way Roman Catholic bishops in Asia are developing a new approach to church
government. Where can I find an expert on the subject? Kansas City.
In these and other instances, Kansas
City's National Catholic Reporter and its staff provide the highest quality
coverage of global religious news.
Rockhurst University's Visiting Scholars
Series brings internationally known speakers to campus. Most recently,
their choice was Kansas City's Tom Fox, publisher of NCR, whose latest
book is Pentecost in Asia.
Example three. What about Mel Gibson's
The Passion of the Christ? NCR's Feb. 20 issue desk includes a study guide
prepared by the paper's Rome correspondent, John Allen, who actually saw
the movie weeks ago. Allen's inside-the-Vatican reporting has put him on
NPR, PBS and CNN as well.
In its 40 years of publication, NCR
has attracted subscribers in 81 countries. Its first place awards from
the Catholic Press Association includes both recognition for "General Excellence"
and "Best Investigative Reporting" for "hard-hitting investigative journalism
that is only possible at an independent Catholic paper."
While the paper's mission to cover
the Catholic Church is unmistakable, its attention to other faiths and
to moral issues that transcend parochial concerns, along with exceptional
book and movie reviews, makes every issue momentous.
Are you curious? Check out the on-line
edition of the paper, www.NCRonline.org.
Sometimes people ask me what papers
I read. In college I became addicted to The New York Times. Since I moved
here in 1975, The Kansas City Star has been essential. The third paper
I find indispensable, even though I am not Catholic, is the NCR. It should
not be a home-town secret.
494. 040218 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Controversy follows episcopal bishop wherever
"Yes, I believe Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus,"
said John Shelby Spong, the controversial retired Episcopal bishop, responding
at a private dinner last Thursday in Kansas City to a question about The
Da Vinci Code. For twenty minutes, he cited historical, linguistic and
Biblical evidence to support his opinion.
I had first met Spong some years ago
in California, so I asked him what his reception was like in this part
of the country. He had just come from Warrensburg, MO. He says he always
gets "packed houses." People seek a way of understanding Christianity so
they can stay in the church, he said.
"Some think they are the only ones
to question the traditional way of looking at faith, and then, when they
come to hear Jack, they find there are many of us," said Christine Spong,
Later that night he spoke at Community
Christian Church to a packed house.
Spong, a student of Paul Tillich,
challenged the accepted formulas about God as a Supreme Being with supernatural
power, and proposed instead to focus on the experience we have with God
as the Source of existence, especially manifest in love.
In story after story from the Bible,
Spong said the traditional way of understanding God is "immoral and unbelievable."
For example, in the Noah story," God decides to murder every human being
except one family.'' In the Exodus story, "God murders every first-born
Egyptian male, with the angel of death passing over the houses of the Hebrews
who have painted their posts with blood from a lamb because the Angel is
too stupid to distinguish them from the Egyptians otherwise."
He considers such stories childish.
"We don't need to be born again; we need to grow up."
"If God has the power to intervene
in human affairs, why did he not prevent the Holocaust or the plague of
AIDS in Africa?" Spong asked.
"When any religion pretends to have
the ultimate truth (in its creeds), it turns demonic," he said. Noting
how political church affairs can be, he said "Creeds were devised at church
conventions - have you ever been to a church convention?" The audience
responded with a laughter of recognition.
Spong says he has won every controversy
he has entered - civil rights for blacks, confronting anti-Semitism, and
women and homosexuals in his church's clergy. His books have sold over
a million copies.
I don't agree with all of Spong's
positions, but his fresh look at old material is itself a worthy exercise
that keeps faith from atrophy.
493. 040211 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Love is divine, within my Valentine
Perhaps unaware, you have placed my
feet on the mystic path. I am just beginning this walk, but I know the
path leads to the throne of God.
As the Muslim Ibn Arabi on the Pilgrimage
is led by his vision of Nizam, and as the Christian Dante is propelled
by desire for Beatrice to journey from hell to heaven, so you, my Valentine,
incite me to the progress of the soul. In my unworthiness, I seek the blessing
the mystics have found.
Some people think the mystic is irrational
or reclusive. Albert Einstein, who was neither, said, "There are only two
ways to live your life--one is as if everything is a miracle, the other
is as though nothing is a miracle." Your love awakens me to miracles abounding
everywhere. In you the wonder of existence is each day made fresh.
But we cannot honor the holy by ignoring
the vile. Love is a miracle because it proves the Infinite in this realm
of limitation. Because the world is fragile and fallible and full of suffering,
the mystic's love seeks to repair, to heal, to redeem all sorrow, as you
and I embrace each other with our flaws; and by this embrace, we reflect
one another in the light of the spirit.
The mystics in many traditions write
about light and darkness, about the mirroring of God and the world, about
the lover and beloved beholding themselves in the other when they become
so pure they can really see the other apart from one's own partial desires
and defective agendas. Then we may also glimpse the divine.
Yet even the most impure yearning
can be sanctified by that center within each of us which contains nothing
but makes all things possible, when it spins unpredictably but gracefully,
and we find ourselves exploring the sacred landscape of everyday life.
That spin is in the gravity which
pulls stars into galaxies, in the electron's whirl around the nucleus of
the atom, in the lust which winds nucleotides into helical DNA, in the
circuits of justice on which civilization depends. It is in you.
Love--knowing and being known in one's
fullness--is knowledge deeper than language. Dante ends his poem with a
beatific vision of the Eternal Light, the love that moves the stars. Dante
stops when words fail, and we yield to that seductive Light.
492. 040204 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Work and play present sacred possibilities
Which do you prefer, really, work or play? Some
characterize the Europeans as folks who work in order to enjoy their long
vacations, and see Americans as using vacations as time to recuperate in
order to return to the grind. Does work or play give more meaning to your
After considering vocation and incentives,
we conclude this three-part series on work by comparing it to play.
The ancient Greeks valued leisure
because it enabled them (except for slaves and women) to participate in
civic life. Their love of spectacle was religious, and produced feasts,
theater contests, the Olympics, and the scenes carved on the Parthenon.
From their word for such spectacle we derive "theory," but for them it
meant seeing the divine.
While work is activity constrained
by an external reward, play is done freely for its own sake. The Greeks
thought it was easier to discover the divine at a party than when attention
was directed by a work agenda. The god-like creativity in conversation,
the arts, and sports enables us also to behold our own genuine character
than when it is shaped by a dehumanizing work role.
Other religious traditions find the
divine revealed in work. There may be no religion more business-friendly
than Islam, with its high ethical standards and prohibition against interest.
Muhammad himself was a businessman whose boss asked him to marry her in
part because of his reputation for integrity. Working is a way to remember
The Qur'an instructs believers to
resume their quest for God's bounty when Friday prayers are ended. But
wealth is a social duty; support of the community through taxation is a
way to purify one's own material success by uplifting others. In God's
eyes, our worth depends not on assets but on how we treat one another.
For Buddhists, "right livelihood"
is one element of the Eight-Fold Path to spiritual liberation. Practicing
non-violence, simplicity and environmental reverence, the Buddhist may
enjoy, but remain spiritually unattached to, the things the materialist
wants to control and possess.
In Christianity, the Benedictine monks'
motto, "To work is to pray," expresses this sacred experience of work.
Shaker furniture is a stunning testimony of the makers' meditative power
to simplify by yielding to the grain of the wood.
Since both work and play are parts
of our lives, we best approach them both as sacred possibilities.
491. 040128 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Do the right work for the right reason
Is work its own reward? Many of us do our jobs because
there is a paycheck.
Last week we considered ``vocation''
as work performed for the benefit of the community. With a widespread loss
of this sense of vocation, our secularistic society depends heavily on
material incentives to get things done. But should it?
The incentive system is expressed
by the Christian apostle Paul ("If any would not work, neither should he
eat") and by the Zen Buddhist master Hyakujo ("No work, no food"). Incentive
thinking in some forms of religion encourage moral behavior because rewards
such as heaven await those who choose to live ethically. And wrong belief
and behavior are discouraged with threats with hellfire.
But other spiritual paths suggest
that there is little virtue in doing the right thing simply for a reward.
A classic example is the prayer of the Sufi Rabi'a who prayed for God to
send her to hell if her motive was not pure love for God but rather to
escape damnation. Similarly, in the Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, the
god Krishna counsels Arjuna to perform his duty simply because it is the
right thing to do, without expectation of reward.
The ancient Canaanites thought labor
was inflicted upon them by the gods who required human assistance. The
ancient Hebrews saw work as imitating the creative activity of God, though
the story of Adam has been interpreted to suggest that work is a curse
because he disobeyed. Where the Canaanites saw work as serving the gods,
the Hebrews saw work as providing for themselves. Still, one day of the
week, the Sabbath, was devoted to God, recalling God’s rest after six days
of creation. Work was prohibited on penalty of death.
Within many faiths, work has been
considered a blessing, even a religious activity, not because of material
rewards but because the very process of exertion enables us paradoxically
to yield to God's will or--in other language--to the way the universe unfolds.
Shaker furniture is a stunning testimony of the makers' meditative power
to simplify by yielding to the grain of the wood. The Benedictine monks'
motto, "To work is to pray," expresses this sacred experience of work.
For Buddhists, "right livelihood"
is one element of the Eight-Fold Path to spiritual liberation. Practicing
non-violence, simplicity and environmental reverence, the Buddhist may
enjoy, but remain spiritually unattached to, the things the materialist
wants to control and possess.
While we may think that the paycheck
is our incentive, perhaps our deepest thirst is satisfied more by meaning
than by money, by performing worthy work mindfully in service to others.
490. 040121 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Give us this day our daily vocation
Since 1996, the Center for Faith and Work at the
Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception has explored how we earn
our bread. While morality in the workplace is a basic concern for all faiths,
how work is valorized may be even more fundamental. Recently the Center
asked me to lecture on "The Idea of Work in World Religions", and for the
next few weeks this column will revisit several themes from that talk.
We begin with the idea of vocation.
The ancient Greek philosophers preferred
a life of contemplation over labor. In Christianity, St Augustine (354-430)
found dignity in both work and contemplation, but his view that contemplation
was the higher calling led to the medieval notion of monasticism as the
Martin Luther (1483-1546) said everyone,
not just the ordained, had a vocation. This renewed sense of vocation was
part of his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Vocation was whatever
duties one performed that was useful to the home and the community. The
point of work was to benefit others, not to generate a profit.
On the other hand, John Calvin (1509-1564)
saw vocation less as community service and more as an opportunity for each
person to fulfill the individual talents given by God. Today this doctrine
is echoed in the Army’s "Be all you can be" slogan and Joseph Campbell’s
"Follow your bliss" advice.
Calvin's theology said that while
only God knows who is elect (predestined for Heaven), earthly prosperity
may be a sign of God’s favor. Some have argued that this paradoxically
led folk to prove to themselves and others that they were elect by working
hard to achieve material success the "Protestant work ethic."
This theology has been credited as
a factor in rise of capitalism. Ironically, the success of a company has
sometimes been measured by dividends rather than community service, and
workers are seen merely as means to the company's profit. Thus today "personnel"
departments have been replaced by "human resources," paralleling natural
resources as a cost of doing business.
Whether it is corporate scandals,
the endless assault of spam email or movie stars accepting roles in needlessly
violent movies for enormous compensation, work has become secularized,
separated from a sense of benefiting the community or even one's own spiritual
life. How can we reverse this materialism and restore the notion of vocation
489. 040114 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Voice that spoke through King echoes nonviolence
Advice from a successful preacher to a seminarian:
"To achieve acclaim in the pulpit, you can address any subject you like
so long as it is neither politics nor religion." This counsel may be good
for a career in the clergy free of controversy, but it fails to recognize
perplexing issues that need spiritual guidance. Human cloning, teaching
evolution, gay marriage, the Iraq war, abortion, the display of the Ten
Commandments on public property, capital punishment, the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, euthanasia and many other topics show how intertwined religion
and politics can be.
"Those who say that religion has nothing
to do with politics do not know what religion means," said Gandhi, the
great Hindu leader who inspired India to free itself from colonial Britain.
And controversial clergyman Martin Luther King Jr, influenced by Gandhi's
non-violent methods, required spiritual discipline from his followers in
his work for social and political change.
While religion should eschew partisanship,
it cannot be separated easily from politics when issues of freedom, equity,
peace and justice are involved.
But religion is not just about worthy
political ends; it is as much concerned with the way freedom, equity, peace
and justice are pursued. Unholy means cannot ultimately establish worthy
goals. In his famous "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," King wrote that
the "means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek."
Change-agents like King developed
spiritual insights about how to deal with, and if necessary, confront evil
in a political situation where power is used against the human spirit.
King required his followers to engage in self-purification before participating
in "non-violent direct action." King wanted those who joined him to be
able to receive even physical abuse without retaliating. Only a strong
and clear spirit can withstand such pressures.
Winning is not defeating one's opponent
but transforming the opponent into a companion on the path of righteousness.
Before King, a white power structure, wasting great energy, segregated
and oppressed blacks and deprived itself of the contributions blacks could
make. Now many powerful organizations are better because they welcome gifts
and talents from all races. Our sense of community is enlarged.
King's achievement in part lies in
his ability to convey the spiritual truth in the political realm that none
of us are truly free until all of us are.
If we listen carefully, perhaps we
can hear a way to resolve today's issues from the Voice that spoke through
488. 040107 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Showing love is the best response to suffering
How can a good and all-powerful God permit terrible
things to happen to those who do not merit such suffering?
In his "Up to Date" program on 9/11
last year, KCUR host and Star writer Steve Kraske asked me this persistent
question in the context of that particular horror. I tried explaining how
various faiths deal with the problem of evil; but Steve, courteously and
persistently, kept after me, not for others' answers, but for my own. Readers
of this column are sometimes put out with me because I seem to give everyone
else's perspective but hide what I think.
I don't like to question someone else's
faith when it provides comfort to those who endure inexpressible agony
and loss. I would not want my own response to be seen discounting the struggles
of others to deal with what has been called the greatest theological problem
for monotheistic religions. That's why I hesitate. Nevertheless,
respectfully, here it is.
"God" for me is a term evoking the
mystery of existence and the majesty of love. God is not a Supreme Being
but rather the Power and Process working through space and time by which
we live and move and have our being. God is not apart from nature; God
how things work, the way electrons spin, DNA replicates, scriptures are
revealed and people govern themselves.
But this process is fallible and often
tragic. The sunny day and the tornado are from the same Source. Instead
of a world where the beautiful wild beasts get their nutrients from ground
water, they devour their prey in excruciating pain. Even good people can
become so injured or muddled that they project their rage against others.
I cannot find any justification for
an all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful God permitting a three-year
old to be raped, allowing Hitler to gain power, choosing not to prevent
9/11 and countenancing the countless injustices that happen each day. I've
studied all the explanations; none work for me. If they work for you, bless
Love is so amazing, especially in
a defective universe, that to me it is sacred. I see it evolving by trial
and error through the bondings of the carbon atom to the glory of sexuality
and the sacrificial leadership of people like Martin Luther King Jr.
Strengthening and enlarging the realm
of love in whatever ways I can is my spiritual duty and joy. It is the
best response I know to the suffering that lies within us and all around