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

correspondence with critics

 1997 January 1 - December 31

175. 971231  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
The fight against racism needs congregations
[I would have preferred: Healing racism needs congregations]

Those of us who worked on the Religion/Spirituality component of the 1996 Mayor's Task Force on Race Relations -- and all citizens of the metropolitan area -- can be cheered by two developments this year.
   Congregational Partners, one of the efforts envisioned by the Task Force, has become a reality. Now with funding and a project planner, experiences across racial and religious lines are being nurtured.
   More difficult was the Cluster's recommendation to create a Council of Congregations.  The Task Force recognized that a response to racism would be far more effective if Kansas City had an area-wide network of religious bodies for communication and joint programs.
   While the Kansas City Interfaith Council represents American Indian, Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian Protestant, Christian Roman Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Sufi, Unitarian Universalist, Wiccan and Zoroastrian faiths, Kansas City, unlike most communities of similar size, does not have an ongoing organization connecting its congregations.
   Thanks to the persistence this year of the regional office of the National Conference (NCCJ), Project Equality and Harmony, partial funding to develop such a network has now been obtained. Early next year, members of Task Force who issued the recommendation, from the suburbs as well as Kansas City proper, will reconvene with additional community participation to form a steering committee to bring the Council into existence.
   Diane Hershberger, director of Harmony, is "enthusiastic" about this "opportunity for lay members of the greater Kansas City faith community to lead the city in breaking racial barriers through relationship building, study, prayer, work projects and dialogue . . . to put faith into action."

174. 971224   THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Art shows 'ritual to retail'

When my pre-school son wanted to observe Hanukkah, I borrowed a menorah and celebrated the Jewish festival of lights with him. We discussed its importance in the history of religious freedom. I explained that Hanukkah is not a "Jewish Christmas."
   I was later criticized for stealing from another religion.
   Christmas itself is formed from many traditions. Even the date was commandeered from a pagan god. All religions borrow and adapt.
   Is this right?
   "Inventing the Southwest," a special show at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, raises a parallel question which may help us think about faith.
   In the first room of the exhibition, we see china (we get "china" from China). It was used on the Santa Fe Railroad dining cars by the Fred Harvey Company. The design by Mary Jane Colter is adapted from prehistoric Mimbres pottery.
   Indian art is sacred art. Even household items participate in the spiritual realm.
   But these 300 objects document a movement from "ritual to retail," to use a phase from an exhibition video. Our understanding of Indian art is enriched, but what can be said about the transformation of the lives of the Native peoples and their art altered in size, design and color according to what tourists would buy?
   When is a borrowing legitimate? Curator David Binkley judges by "the intent of the artist." Colter's well-informed design evokes the spirit of the Southwest with integrity.
   Religious as well as artistic vitality arises from encounters between peoples--when the encounters are respectful.

                                 NEWS page 1

           Poll showing greater belief in God doesn't
            surprise area scholars

            Related story:
            • Growing faith reflected by poll numbers

            By DRU SEFTON Staff Writer
            Date: 12/22/97 21:45

            Americans entered this season of Christmas and
            Hanukkah with a stronger belief in God than they
            had a decade ago, a poll says.

            The poll, which was conducted by Pew Research
            Center for the People and the Press, reported that
            71 percent of respondents said they never doubted
            the existence of God. In a similar poll in 1987, the
            figure was 60 percent.

            The poll also found that 61 percent of Americans
            believed that miracles came from the power of God
            -- an increase of 14 percentage points from a
            decade ago.

            And 53 percent said prayer was important to daily
            life. In 1987 it was 41 percent.

            The poll, which was conducted in November with
            results released Sunday, did not surprise area

            "I think there's a growing recognition that our
            society is fragmented, secular, and that generates
            the response of a return to the sacred," said Vern
            Barnet, minister-in-residence at the Center for
            Religious Experience and Study in Overland Park.

            Although today's computerized information age
            might at first seem contrary to a growing belief in
            the sacred, Barnet said he saw it another way.

            "We now have access -- through the media, through
            travel and through scholarly studies -- to realms of
            spirituality that in previous ages people had not
            been able to access," he said.

            The return to the spiritual can build its own
            momentum, scholars say.

            "This is an era in which people are more ready to
            talk about things spiritual," said Oscar Eggers,
            sociology professor emeritus at the University of
            Missouri-Kansas City.

            "It's a pretty good guess, for instance, that there are
            a lot of people who have had a quite constant belief
            in angels," Eggers said, "and they just never talked
            about it."

            Talk then leads to a "collective behavior
            phenomenon" -- kind of like a crowd at a football

            "When you're at a football game and everybody is
            standing up and shouting, you have a tendency to
            stand up yourself, whether you're excited or not
            about the game," he said.

            Because this appears to be an era of faith, there's a
            push within popular culture in that direction.

            "Writers of fiction, plays, television recognize that
            and say, `Let's go with the angels,' " Eggers said.

            And then most of the rest of society goes with the
            spiritual flow -- whether or not they individually

            "People find it more satisfying in general to be a
            part of whatever move is going on rather than to be
            outside it," he said.

            Indeed, the poll results dovetail with popular
            culture. Books on angels, miracles and spirituality
            line bookstore shelves. "Touched by an Angel" is
            among TV's highest-rated shows.

            Barnet cautioned against reading too much into the
            results of such surveys. More study is needed on
            spirituality and behavior, not just stated beliefs, he

            For example, he said, an increasing number of
            people are attracted by new theological trends and
            are coming to understand God in more "naturalistic"

            "People are much more liberal in interpreting what
            the word `God' means," he said.

            Laura Schlessinger, who has a radio talk show,
            responded to the poll results Sunday on NBC's
            "Meet the Press" by theorizing that the United States
            was in the midst of a morality crisis. Americans
            "don't seem to have much of a moral framework,"
            she said.

            Schlessinger said the clergy bore part of the

            "I think the clergy -- with all due respect -- have
            become more like camp counselors than leaders,"
            she said.

            "What they're doing is saying: `I want the people to
            come back next week. You can't challenge them too
            much, can't ask too much, can't tell them that
            religion demands something of them.' God demands
            something of you."

            But for now the trends are hard to miss --
            especially all these angels fluttering about the
            collective consciousness.

            "Part of that's good, and part I'm not so happy
            about," Barnet said. "It seems to me that there's a lot
            of superstition and unexamined emotional
            attachment to religious ideas, not yet the serious
            intellectual pursuit of religious questions that is
            ultimately necessary if our society is to be saved
            from the curse of secularism."

            The Associated Press contributed to this article.

173. 971217   THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Vivekananda a unifying force


"You might not be writing your column for The Star if it had not been for him," Swami Chetanananda said about the subject of his book, Vivekananda: East Meets West. I agree; the American interest in many faiths can be traced largely to this one man's appearance a century ago.
   Even Saturday's spectacular kathak performance at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art began with the lead dancer citing Vivekananda.
   Chetanananda, minister of the Vedanta Society in St. Louis and Kansas City, said that Vivekananda was one of 31 foreigners selected for the Smithsonian U.S. Bicentennial exhibit because of their contributions to American culture.
   At the 1893 World Parliament of Religion in Chicago, he was the most influential of its speakers. Indeed, he became a celebrity across the nation with his words about unity in diversity, bringing East and West to know and respect each other.
   Born in Calcutta in 1863, he was a doubter until he met the mystic Ramakrishna. After Ramakrishna's death, he served India's needy.
   Invited to represent Hinduism at the Parliament, he taught in here and in England for three years. After a short second visit to the West, he died, [not yet 40,] in India on July 4, 1902, [a date his followers matched with his love for the American spirit of freedom.]
   Chetanananda spent 35 years collecting all available photographs of this remarkable man for his book. Together with contemporary newspaper reports, a preface by Huston Smith, a biography by Christopher Isherwood and Vivekananda's own still-stirring words, these photographs tell a story all the more remarkable because Vivekananda's world-changing mission lasted less than a decade.

172. 971210   THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Author wants to bring love back to Christianity

          New Yorker Bruce Bawer calls himself a Christian. He is active in his church and its work. His essays on religion have appeared in The New York Times Magazine. He has written a dozen books and been characterized as "a literary essayist for the ages" by Kirkus Reviews.
      His latest book, Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, explores why the open, loving Jesus he knows has been replaced with a judgmental approach to faith preached by those who provoke hate and exclusion.
    At the invitation of the Mainstream Coalition, he told a crowd of 600 in Kansas City last week that fundamentalism "is only about a hundred years old, and is a distortion of traditional theology." It is preoccupied with sexual sins, though Jesus was far more "concerned with the accumulation of wealth, violence against others and hypocrisy."
    When he began to study the roots and development of "legalistic Christianity," he learned that mainline Christians have been unaware of the "disastrously influential" 1970 book, The Late Great Planet Earth, by Hal Lindsey. He says the book promotes the authoritarianism that appeals to those who feel they cannot rely on their minds, which could be tainted by Satan.
    Such a Christianity is "more concerned with right doctrine than with the spirit of love," and makes it possible for people to believe in a God who would, at the end time, "out-Hitler Hilter," pouring wrath and punishment on those who don't "accept Jesus."
    Bawer wants to help rescue important discussions of faith and values from the literalists who have brought "legalistic Christianity" into politics as well as the churches.
    "Are you a Christian?" His book gives the question both brilliance and depth.

Muslim leader supports interfaith respect

Within many Kansas City communities of faith are a few believers who find other faiths unworthy, even dangerous. They warn their own not to spend time with “the enemy.” Some believe that those who desire interfaith exchange really are looking for opportunities to convert them.
   On the other hand, genuine affection between those of different faiths is increasingly common. This means when one community celebrates a milestone in its growth, other communities also rejoice.
   Last Friday the Muslims of Masjid Inshirah warmly welcomed Christian and Jewish clergy to hear the distinguished American Muslim leader W.D. Mohammed, in Kansas City for the dedication of the new Islamic center at 3664 Troost.
   Mohammed, who has transformed what some observers considered his father’s separatist Black Muslim movement into mainstream Islam and brought it into mainstream America, spoke not about separation, but about relationships.
   “Everything is connected—we are connected with all human beings,” he said. “We all came from the same parents. God wants us to respect each other.”
   Rabbi Joshua Taub, a guest from Congregation B’nai Jehudah, said he applauded this theme. He compared it with Jewish thinker Martin Buber’s statement that “all life is meeting.”
   Taub also said he valued Mohammed’s emphasis on God as the source and nurturer of relationships, and that our most important relationship is with God.
   If God is the nurturer of relationships, how can we fail to embrace those of different faiths?

Casting off lavish lifestyle might lighten the load, divert spotlight

Once upon a time a beautiful princess was in a terrible car accident.
   As she lay in her hospital room, get-well wishes came from near and far.
   For although she had been raised in lavish comfort, and continued to live glamorously, she had in recent years become loved for her efforts to relieve the suffering of the wretched ones, not only in her realm, but all over the world.
   “Can the world’s best surgeons restore her face?” the public asked.
   As she recovered, she asked instead whether her life was as deep as it could be.
   She read how Muhammad refused to live in splendor.
   She considered the story of the young prince who became the Buddha after renouncing his title, his palaces, his jewels and his royal garments to learn how he could help others.
   She read the advice Jesus gave to the rich man, to sell all that he had, to give to the poor.
   She thought of St. Francis who followed that advice, and about the ascetic Hindu sage Gandhi of her grandfather’s era, and about a nun working in India whom she had met and who cherished those others ignored.
   She told her boyfriend she was selling the extraordinary expensive ring he had given her. She auctioned her designer clothes.
   She disposed of her estates.
   She instructed her brother that she wanted no royal title.
   She thought carefully how to disburse her wealth most meaningfully and how to live more modestly, without consuming so much of the planet’s resources.
   “I don’t want to be a fairy-tale princes,” she said.
   “I want to be a servant of God.”
   She seldom appeared in the tabloids thereafter.

Do we need a prayer amendment?

Religion needs to be voluntary to be strong a key opponent says.
   Barry W. Lynn, an ordained minister and an attorney, fears the proposed Religious Freedom Amendment to the Constitution sponsored by Oklahoma Representative Ernest J. Istook.
   Lynn is executive director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He was in town last week and spoke to an interfaith clergy breakfast at Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park and an evening audience at the Community Christian Church in Kansas City.
   “Without state sponsorship, more people believe in God and pray regularly in America than any other nation,” he said. “Our religious strength and vitality comes from religion being voluntary.”
   He worries that religion will lose its integrity with the kind of government involvement he believes the Istook amendment would require, which he describes as “the most dramatic change ever” to the First Amendment in the history of the nation.
   For example, the Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment prohibits government-sponsored prayers but protects voluntary prayers.
   He says Istook’s amendment would abandon the wise balance established by the founders of our nation and instead lead to unintended and absurd results. Under the proposal, offensive prayers for the eternal damnation of Jews or for the death of public officials or teachers could be broadcast over school loudspeakers, unless the authorities censored or shaped the content of prayers. Do we want our children’s prayer life determined either by such exposure or by censorship?
   Lynn says Congress has enough difficulty deciding the budget. “Do we want them making decisions about prayers?’ he asks.

‘Letters from Oklahoma City’ takes a penetrating look at evil

   Terrorism, the Holocaust, the rape of children, the exploitation of the powerless and even the destructon caused by floods—every evil in the world is a challenge to the Christian claim that God is both all-loving and all-powerful.
   “Does it not seem strange that God can create a universe but can’t rescue a child from a burning house?” asks Al Truesdale in his new book, If God is God, Then Why? Letters from Oklahoma City. Truesdale is a professor at the Nazarene Theological Seminary here and a member of the Kansas City Interfaith Council.
   Though technically impeccable, the book is written not as a technical theology but as an exchange of letters between a friend of a mother whose child perished in the Murrah Building blast and her uncle. In just over a hundred easy pages, the book explores attempts to answer this question with a rigor and honesty that is almost shocking.
   Truesdale shows these and other answers are inadequate:
   For his own purposes, God wants everything to happen as it does.
   Evil is not real: what seems so is good in the long run.
   Satan is an evil source of being independent of God.
   Suffering is punishment for wrongdoing.
   Evil is an opportunity for the soul to grow.
   If we are to have free will, God cannot intervene in our affairs.
   Truesdale says he finds shallow thinking about the problem of evil within most Christian circles. I see it also in “New Age” spirituality.
   Though the issues are framed in the Christian context, non-Christians will also be deepened by this book.

Magazine offers multifaith musings

Of all the wonders happening every day—the emergence of plants from the ground and their use of sunlight to synthesize food, the transformation of the food we eat into energy, even the utter dependability of gravity—perhaps no everyday wonder is more amazing than consciousness itself, and its moral development, the conscience.
   To consider consciousness and the conscience, the fall issue of Parabola magazine uses Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Taoist, American Indian and ancient Egyptian sources. An interview with neurologist Oliver Sacks, an article on former U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold’s application of conscience, and a report on G.I. Gurdjieff’s occult teaching about self-awareness are also included.
   The magazine is a model of multifaith exploration. It draws from classic sources to current conversation. For example, one article begins with a Jewish midrash that tells how a singer gently broke difficult news to Jacob about his son Joseph, using what today we would call subliminal suggestion. The article then asks how we can become conscious of the larger realities we usually cannot bear.
   Parabolai selects a theme for each issue to open the wonders of spirituality gate by gate. Fortunately back copies on topics such as the hero, death, eros, peace, addiction and pilgrimage are still available.
   In the last two years the trade magazine Folio has selected Parabola for its “Editorial Excellence” award in the religious/spirituality category.
   Persistent callers have asked me what they can read about the many paths of spirituality. This is the first of several answers.

Krishna reminds Hindus of divine

On Sunday, Hindus will celebrate the birth of Krishna, in India perhaps the most popular of the gods. Westerners have become familiar with him as Arjuna’s war chariot driver in the Bhagavad Gita, a classic of the world’s scriptures.
   Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu, the god of preservation. Krishna’s name means “dark”—he was born at midnight. His skin was blue, the color of the sky. Many also consider him a historical figure. Nagar Nayak, a Lee’s Summit Hindu, using the Western calendar, dates his birth at 3225 B.C.
   A cowherd as a youth, Krishna was mischievous but irresistibly lovable in his spontaneity. Stories tell how he tricked the women of his village out of their fresh butter, of which he was fond. He inspired the forbidden adventures of his friends. He stole the garments of the gopis, the cowherd maidens, as they bathed in the river.
   One day his mother was told Krishna had been eating dirt. When she looked into his mouth, she saw the entire universe. A similar epiphany occurred when the adult Krishna, explicating the path of dutiful action, manifested his cosmic form to Arjuna. These shocking appearances remind us that every condition can both conceal and reveal the divine.
   The young Krishna enchanted the gopis with his flute. His amorous dance with them, lila, divine sport, suggests that our lives are part of God’s holy playfulness, which we cannot resist, even if we must violate convention.
   From butter to battlefield, from dalliance to duty, Nayak says these stories and many others in the rich traditions about Krishna present us with enduring spiritual values, such as the longing of the devotee for God.

Secular youth program has spiritual side

Designed as a secular program, the Overland Park Rotary Club’s Youth Leadership Institute last week was, for me, a contributor and observer, an intensely spiritual experience.
   From 11 high schools and varied religious, racial and economic backgrounds, 29 students discovered how their personal differences transformed them from strangers into close partners.
   They began with the outdoor physical challenges at Crittenton’s Adventure Woods and ended the week in teams proposing volunteer projects evaluated by a panel composed of Kansas City Star political correspondent Steve Kraske, Johnson County Commissioner Annabeth Surbaugh and Lenexa Chief of Police Ellen Hanson.
   During the week they also tried out the desks in the Senate chamber of the Capitol in Topeka, interviewed community activists like banker Lynn Mitchelson and educator Mary D. Cohen and discerned their own personality profiles with psychologist Allan D. Schmidt.
   They heard Johnson County elder statesman Ben Craig and Sun newspapers publisher Steve Rose discuss their own failures and successes in civic service. These speakers, along with Mary Birch, president of the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce, underscored how much the character of any community depends on leadership.
   State Rep. David Adkins, the week’s facilitator, said, “The greatest investment any community can make in its own future is to instill in its next generation a commitment to service.”
   Why is this spiritual? Because all religions teach the value of learning to live with one another—and to give to one another. These young leaders convinced me they are already practicing what they learned.

154. 9708060 THE STAR'S HEADLINE
Reviving discussion about reincarnation

Reasons to doubt range from logic to mathematical flaw.
   Polls show about one-fifth of Americans believe in some form of reincarnation, the repeated embodiment of personal consciousness from one life to another. Last Wednesday I listed reasons commonly offered in favor of this view. This week we look at issues doubters raise.
1. The 1956 book The Search for Bridey Murphy prompted interest in reincarnation because it suggested that accurate information about the past that a person otherwise could not possibly have had must arise from memories of former lives. The book was later proved a hoax, and skeptics say that, despite numerous claims, no report of this sort has ever been fully investigated and verified.
2. Other critics say the belief in reincarnation perpetuates an unjust social order by focusing on individuals instead of on relationships. Reincarnation places the responsibility for a righteous person’s present miseries on that person’s past lives instead of dealing with social problems like racism, sexism, illiteracy and the concentration of wealth.
3. Still others say that the doctrine is rooted in selfish desires to persist after death. Instead of ridding us of ego, the teaching of reincarnation increases a preoccupation with ourselves and strengthens the ambition for survival.
4. Six thousand years ago, the human population was 3 million. By 1850, it reached a billion. Estimates for 2000 are 6 billion. Doubters ask: if souls are recycled, where did all the souls alive today come from?
   Neither last week’s column nor this one can prove or disprove reincarnation, but we can learn about ourselves and each other as we study why we believe as we do.

Many belief systems include rebirth of soul

Why do some people believe in reincarnation?
   Reincarnation is the process by which a ruler or an ordinary person or a personal influence dies and is reborn into a new body, perhaps animal, perhaps human.
1. One reason offered to support this view is that the idea is so widespread. Varied beliefs in reincarnation can be found in the Asian religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism; in the archaic cultures of Egypt, the Americas, the Celts and central Australia and West Africa, where it is part of ancestor worship; and it the thought of the Greek philosophers Plato and Pythagoras. The Cathars were among the Christian heretics who believed in reincarnation.
   Recalling one’s previous lives as a way of understanding one’s present dilemmas has become an accepted form of therapy in some New Age circles today.
2. Reincarnation supports a hope many have for an existence beyond this life.
3. It can be used, especially with karma—the moral law of cause and effect—to satisfy our desire for justice. A wicked person may prosper in this life but will be punished in the next.
4. We need more than one life to learn all our spiritual lessons.
5. Because we could have been, say, a gnat in a previous life, reincarnation reminds us of our connection with all creatures.
6. If we unconsciously repeat an inappropriate behavior, and then become aware of the pattern and choose other options, some might say we are reincarnated, interpreting the term as a metaphor for psychological renewal.
   Next Wednesday I’ll outline reasons why some doubt the doctrine.

A prayer for all faiths can be very poetic

Readers have asked for help in writing prayers for gatherings of people from many faiths or no faiths. Here are some suggestions.
1. Prayer in a public setting need not advocate personal beliefs. The leader should voice the aspirations of all present. By modeling respect for one another, a leader's non-sectarian religious utterance can place the particular occasion in the largest spiritual context.
2. Some situations may allow an inspirational reading instead of a prayer.
3. Using the word God may exclude Buddhists, atheists and others. Some consider terms like lord patriarchal and too culture-bound to evoke a broad understanding of the sacred.
   Instead a poetic phrase may satisfy many people. For example, "Spirit of Love" can be meaningful both to a Christian as a way of naming God, and to an atheist as a secular personification.
4. If this phrase is followed by a brief description, the group can more easily focus on the special dimension of the sacred being addressed.
   For example, in dedicating a new city hall, I opened with the phrase, "O Spirit of Generations," followed by "who gives us a heritage of freedom and a city of enormous talent..." For a law school commencement, I began with "Sacred vision of Justice," followed by "revealed imperfectly in human law..."
5. Next, a statement of gratitude is always appropriate.
6. Petitions may follow, but remember Emerson said, "Prayer that craves a particular commodity, anything less than all good, is vicious."
7. Some like to close public prayers with "Peace" or "So let it be."

Remember the rivers, not only at floods

The great 20th-century poet T.S. Eliot said he did not know much about gods but that "the river is a strong brown god."
   He warned that this god, once a bridge was put across it, would be almost forgotten by those who dwelled in its cities--until it destroyed.
   Last Sunday, where the Missouri and the Kansas rivers meet, about 40 people gathered for an interfaith ritual to "heal and celebrate our waters."
   Today's Missouri is not the same river seen by the 1804 explorers Lewis and Clark, for whom the bridge near the rivers' confluence is named.
   The speakers recalled the floods of 1993 and 1995, caused in part, they said, by engineering that has changed the Missouri from a slow, wide river to a narrow, fast deep-channeled stream suitable for the few barges that use it, while endangering birds, fish and other wildlife, and discouraging water recreation.
   Ending two hours of drumming, stories, chants, dance and meditation, participants used a scrub brush on a slab of frozen, polluted river water to symbolize their determination to clean up the rivers.
   "The thirst we feel on this hot day illustrates the life-giving importance of water," a leader said, and then poured pure water into chalices for a closing communion.
   Joel Wakham of Kansas City, one of the organizers, said his recent visit to Matthew Fox's University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, Calif., was a "call to action" that led him to join with others here to create events like this ritual for awareness of the rivers.
   Will he and others help us remember Eliot's "strong brown god"?

Spirit emerges from so-called secular places

If you were a lama from a region in Tibet so remote it takes two days by horseback to get to a shower, what two places would you visit on your first full day in Kansas City?
   His Holiness Orgyen Kusum Lingpa, here last month to speak to several Kansas City Buddhis groups, elected the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Kansas City Zoo.
   The museum had been recommended to him because of the quality and worldwide scope of its permanent collection.
   I had the pleasure of leading him through the museum.
   He was especially interested in Caravaggio's "Saint John the Baptist," the Chinese landscape scrolls and the famous "Seated Guanyin."
   At the Tantric art room, he identified and discussed the Tibetan art and artifacts with the surprise and enthusiasm of suddenly discovering a long-lost friend.
   Mary Stanford of Stilwell in Johnson County went with him to the zoo.
   When he was young, he said, he killed animals for sport. But during his life as a monk, his compassion has developed, not just for humans, but for all creatures. He confided in Mary his fantasy of someday finding a yeti, the mythical Tibetan beast, in a zoo. Even it deserves compassion.
   The actual animals in the Kansas City Zoo come from many lands, and the signs in the zoo are in many languages. The displays and the exit marker emphasize our ecological involvement and interconnectedness, a theme central to the Dalai Lama's plan for Tibet.
   The Nelson and the zoo proved to be nonsectarian sites for spiritual renewal--for the lama and those who accompanied him.

Freedom of religion guarantees pluralism

The American independence declared 221 years ago has led to what has been called the most religiously pluralistic nation is all history.
   Some colonized this land to escape religious persecution but then denied freedom to others. In Virginia, death was threatened for three absences from church. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, you could vote only if you belonged to the right church. And almost 50 years after independence, Jews did not enjoy full citizenship in Maryland. By depriving American Indians their rights and lives, the settlers destroyed many of the religious traditions native to this continent.
   The violence against Roman Catholics that has been part of our history was not purged until we elected John F. Kennedy president.
   Still, when the Union was formed, the idea of religious liberty took root.
   None of the colonies could impose an official religion on the others. People came to believe that religion means little unless it is freely chosen, not forced or favored by the state. Freemasonry and deism provided models of morality that appealed not to the God of specific revelation, as in the Bible, but instead, to “Nature’s God,” in Jefferson’s phrase in the Declaration of Independence.
   Since World War II, with military postings in Asia and TV shows like “Kung Fu,” interest in the health benefits of yoga, international crises that require us to learn about Islam, worldwide commerce, studies abroad, pleasure travel, immigration to this country from non-Christian peoples, and now the Internet, our pluralism may be moving beyond tolerance to embracing.

Benevolent witchcraft misunderstood

For followers of Wicca, a spiritual tradition that antedates Christianity, last Saturday’s solstice was also Litha, a holy day.
   High priestess Maenwyn Rati, drawing on other who have celebrated Litha, prepared these poetic words for her Kansas City are coven: “The triumphant power of the sun” is full.
   And now “the earth mother who receives this energy blooms with the beauty that will become the fruit of the harvest.” Rati added that the lengthening days and the increased sunlight cannot continue forever.
   The solstice actually begins the sun’s decline.
   Its “energy goes to the grain, and the sun must die to feed the earth’s children.”
   At Yule, the sun’s rebirth is celebrated.
   The Colonies included those who followed Wicca.
   One of the most scholarly traditions of witchcraft, as it was then called, was brought to Germantown, now part of Philadelphia, at the beginning of the 18th century. In fact, the settlement was inaugurated with a grand ceremony on Litha.
   Less educated, rural people also used Wicca in farming and healing, as they sought harmony with natural powers and expressed a sense of the sacred in all life.
   Others thought witches were satanic, even though Satan is a Christian, not a Wiccan idea.
   More than 60 trials, including those at Salem, made it clear no one was safe from accusation.
   Rati said that many of her religion feel they cannot be open about their faith.
   “The prejudice from the times when witches were persecuted continues.”

Incan knots are a source of hope

SAN FRANCISCO—One of many near-death wounds inflicted by European explorers on the peoples of the New World can be seen in the 3,000-mile stretch of the Andean mountains and the western coast of South America.
   Today’s poverty there can be traced to the decapitation of the rich Inca empire which grew from previous cultures and flourished until Francisco Pizarro’s treachery in 1532.
   An exhibition of art and artifacts here at the De Young Museum displays the Inca vision of a world alive with spiritual potencies everywhere.
   I first saw a quipu in Peru. Now I’ve seen one here, near the entrance to the exhibit.
   The word quipu in Quechua means knot. The Incas organized their immense empire by knots in colored fibers arrayed like cords falling from a necklace. The quipu was portable, like a computer floppy disk. Without the benefit of writing, the Inca quipu specialist recorded and retrieved information about people, animals and plants.
   Without capitalism, the Inca people were extraordinarily productive. They successfully integrated what the exhibit identifies as 20 of the world’s 34 ecological zones, including sea, rain forest and mountain.
   The Inca religious style rigorously examined what was sacred, upon which their lives depended, and set priorities. Thus they developed the quipu.
   Seeing this quipu in my own country renews hope that the wounds of our own society may be healed by openness to alternative ways of exploring the sacred, that which is really important.

It’s logos that are venerated, not Logos

SAN FRANCISCO—The realm of the sacred is entered only by penetrating the depth of being, the ultimate core of meaning. Traditionally, especially in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, icons of Jesus and Mary are like doors through which one passes into the depths of their sacred presences.
   But blue jeans, surfboards, lipstick and corporate logos are among the sacred icons of our age, suggests an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art here. The museum is a cross between “a department store and a cathedral,” according to museum curator Aaron Betsky.
   Unlike those of the past, today’s icons are mass-produced and “enmeshed in a system of selling,” Betsky says in the exhibit catalog. They are emblems of desire, products of desire, products of advertising and public relations, replacing what once was meant by faith.
   Most Nike shoes, for example, are purchased for “implied performance,” rather than actual athletic use, says Betsky. The shoes the designers and promoters have created are not mere shoes. The “Just Do It” slogan and the Michael Jordan ads make them icons of a consumer culture. If we want an image for ourselves as champions, we can buy it.
   Young people have assaulted and even murdered others over these shoes, which some complain are produced by exploiting Asian labor.
   Outside the museum, on the streets, I see people wearing clothes to expose the label.
   Are these the images to fill the emptiness of secular life?
   Today’s icons are potent, dense, thick with meaning, but where is the depth? When we venerate them, into whose presence do we enter?

St. Francis saw God in everything

SAN FRANCISCO—This city bears the name of the saint who may have been the greatest of all Christian mystics.
   Like the Buddha, Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) renounced a life of ease.
   Like the great American mystic Walt Whitman, he embraced all humans—indeed, even birds, the sun and death itself—as his brothers and sisters.
   Naïve and less effective than St. Francis, the hippies 30 years ago appealed to his example to explain their renunciation of a culture based on domination.
   Mystics apprehend the vast, complex interrelatedness of all things in a profoundly simple way. Sometimes this is expressed as “all is God” or “everything is void.” Such puzzling language means that no one thing exists in itself; everything depends on and is part of a process or power involving everything else.
   But mystics are not merely absorbed in ecstatic vision.
   The bliss of knowing God directly makes it possible for them to seek out and experience the suffering of others, to understand and to heal. St. Francis himself received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ.
   Thus most mystics, like St. Francis, are critics of the social order. For St. Francis, the consecrated life was discovered in ordinary concerns and in bringing relief to the oppressed.
   This dimension of mysticism is often ignored in the empty, selfish illusions of pleasure that make spirituality a merely private affair.
   It is easy to find God in the sunny day and sunny disposition, but to find God in the raging tornado and in anger is more difficult.
   This may be why the hippies disappeared and why mystics are so few.

A thank-you to the ‘Aquinas of our age’

The man I called “Professor” in the late ‘60s when I was his student, the man I lived next door to at the Meadville Theological School at the University of Chicago, died May 8. His name was Ralph Wendell Burhoe.
   During his school years, he had been so poor he had to drop out twice. And he never earned a degree; his doctorates were honorary.
   Yet in 1980 he became the first American to win the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. The citation spoke of him as a leader in a “new reformation, a reformation which may be far more profound and revolutionary that the Reformation led by Martin Luther.
   Nobel laureate Roger W. Sperry said that “in the history of efforts to join religion and science, none have achieved more wide and lasting impact than the venture of Burhoe.”
   “He was the Thomas Aquinas of our age,” said Charles Ehret, senior scientist emeritus at Argonne National Laboratory.
   As a teacher he capitalized on friendships made during his early work as the first executive officer of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences and brought a distinguished array of speakers to my seminary’s Institute of Religion in an Age of Science, which he founded.
   His conviction that religion is the crucial element that allows the human race to reach its evolutionary potential led to many arguments in and out of class. Are science and religion separate fields, or if they are related, how are they joined?
Burhoe encouraged the debate, exposed his students to a rich variety of views and insisted that such questions can be addressed best by mastery of scientific methods and theological depth.

Comments on commandments brought some thoughtful responses

Comments about my recent column on the Ten Commandments were unusually thoughtful. That column had been inspired by an Alabama judge who had posted the commandments in his courtroom.
   Jon Gale sent me an item from the spring 1997 Reform Judaism magazine interpreting this ancient law code as a guide for everyday living in our time. For example, a deep reading of the commandment against murder reveals “a warning not to let someone’s spirit be crushed.” The commandment thus becomes a rule to protect the needy and to heal prejudice.
   Several callers discounted Exodus 20:10, which commands keeping the seventh day as the Sabbath. One caller said this did not mean the literal seventh day of the week, just every seventh day. “It could be Tuesday,” he said.
   Another said that the first day is now the Sabbath because “the Lord rose from the dead on Sunday.”
   One caller wondered what our courts have to do with keeping the Sabbath, because it is legal to work on Sunday.
   Several were interested in the different versions of the Ten Commandments. The tablet on the Wyandotte County Courthouse lawn actually seems to list 11 commandments, or 12, counting the verse the Talmud regards as the First Commandment.
   Several high school students responded to this column. Wyatt Boykin and Linda Lindsey of Olathe South said, “It is more important to study the Ten Commandments than to have public displays of them. But we also encourage religious diversity in our democracy. We need to study other forms of religion and religious codes, too.”
   A future column will discuss other faiths’ commandments. Thanks for the hint, Wyatt and Linda.

Life is enriched by otherness

Is it right to focus on our own particular traditions in our increasingly pluralistic community? Or should we try to become like others, no matter how different others are?
   Commitment to one’s own beliefs need be no barrier to cooperation with others, said the Rev. John A. Buehrens, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Buehrens was in town recently to help dedicate the new building of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church and to preach at All Souls Unitarian Church.
   The trick is to accept our particularity so deeply that we see its particularity, and then to recognize that life can be deepened and enriched by otherness,” he said.
   His sermon advocated “being other-wise: wise toward others amid growing religious diversity.”
   Far from suggesting we all become alike, Buehrens said his own noncreedal denomination has become more diverse, from “three dominant flavors”—humanist theist and liberal Christian—20 years ago, to include “wisdom from many sources.”
   But, he says, the “civic circumference” can benefit when faiths put aside doctrinal disputes in favor of “practical religion.”
   For Buehrens, democracy, where our particularities can be gifts to each other, is an exercise in faith.
   More important than creedal questions like “What do we all believe?” are the “more profound, covenantal questions” like “How shall we treat one another?”
   On this point he quoted Thomas Jefferson: “It is in our lives, and not in our words, that our religion is truly read.”

What about the commandments?

An Alabama judge has attracted widespread support for posting the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, but those interested in mutual respect among the faiths are concerned.
   Three major readings of the commandments, or Decalogue exist. A Jewish enumeration based on the Talmud varies from the Roman Catholic and Lutheran version, which in turn differs from the Reformed, Anglican and Orthodox recital.
   Further, the biblical passage in which the phrase “Ten Commandments” appears, Exodus 34:10-28, includes commandments like “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk,” a minor concern for most of us these days.
   And if the Decalogue is displayed, do Muslims have the right to inscribe their Five Pillars, Buddhist to list their Eight-Fold Path, Confucians to proclaim their Five Principles, and so forth?
   Just how genuine is the honor Americans afford the Ten Commandments? Consider:
Most Christians have replaced the seventh day of the week with the first as the day of rest. Many Christians work on Sunday, too.
   Most Americans believe in only one God, but some scholars say that Exodus 20:3 (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me”) implies that other gods exist.
   Regarding the commandment against adultery, attitudes have changed somewhat since Old Testament times. For instance, we no longer stone adulterers to death, as Deuteronomy 22:24 instructs us to do.
   It’s hard not to covet what our neighbors have when advertising encourages us to do just the opposite.
   Is it more important to study the Ten Commandments that to use them as displays? What is your opinion?

Multifaith weddings shouldn’t offend

If the one you are planning to marry has a religious background different from yours, how can you best design your wedding?
   One way to is to include only themes and practices common to both faiths. Offending no one is the goal.
   A second approach instead assumes that different faiths are enriching. The goal becomes embracing the two traditions as living spiritual inheritances, not as dead weights.
   How can you create such a marriage or holy union ceremony?
   1.  Rather than downplaying religious differences, joyfully recognize them with clergy or representatives of both traditions, or with a single officiant familiar with both faiths.
   2.  Respectfully incorporate language, liturgy and music from both traditions.
   For examples, wine is used in both Jewish and Christian practices, and a creative ritual reformulation can powerfully express reverence for both faiths. Or light, a Christian symbol of the Spirit, can be evoked in the Hindu ceremony’s use of fire. An American Indian chant sung in the native tongue and an English hymn can engender a warm sense of heritages joined.
   3.  Choose the locations for ceremony and reception with sensitivity.
   4.  Rethink routines to make the ceremony fresh. Replace the patriarchal “giving the bride away” with a time for both families to present blessings to both partners. In return, the couples may wish to honor their families with flowers or by lighting a “unity candle” from candles lit earlier by each of the families.

Interfaith unions can be problematic for parents

Nowadays it is common for couples celebrating their love in a wedding or holy union commitment to come from different religious heritages.
   Some traditions discourage mixed marriages because such unions are not likely to produce children to perpetuate their faiths.
   They also question whether two people of different backgrounds share enough values to live together successfully.
   Others say that religious labels are not as important as they used to be.
   Religion is more a discovery of what is meaningful in life, and two people who love each other can have a  deeply shared spiritual orientation, regardless of different institutional affiliations, or none.
   Most families want to share the couple’s joy in the ceremony. But not all.
   Parents who refuse to attend an interfaith wedding will almost certainly drive their children away from their faith, rather than cause them to return to it. Parents risk a bitterness that can harden into permanent damage to family relationships.
   A similar risk arises for family members who will not attend ceremonies for racially mixed or same-sex couples because they feel doing so would compromise their principles.
   Parents need to consider whether loving their children unconditionally is a better expression of their family values, or if taking a stand against their children’s choices is a better witness to their faith.
If the couple does come from different faiths, how can they plan their ceremony.
   Next week I’ll offer some suggestions.

Readers’ opinions enlarge understanding

While most readers who call about this column say they appreciate learning about the many faiths in Kansas City, not everyone is happy with what I write.
   Several complained when I devoted a column to Martin Luther King Jr. “He was a Communist,” said one. When I mentioned that the Christian “Madonna and Child” image derived from the ancient Egyptian motif of Isis with her son, Horus, on her lap, one respondent said, “You’ve belittled Jesus Christ. You stupid jerk, you’ll suffer for that.” The person followed up with an anti-Semitic comment unfit to print.
   Some readers think that because this column presents many views, I must personally hold them all. “I know you’re a sincere young man,” one anonymous message said, but you have problems. You think you can be in all camps. You can’t be. Those who reject the Lord Jesus Christ condemn themselves to burn eternally. You are in this category. Have a good day.”
   Of about 20 comments I received about the Kansas House chaplain, none supported his prayer for “theocracy.” Several said the government should not pay for any prayers.
   In the three years this column has appeared, requests have increased markedly for interfaith contacts, especially from schools and churches wanting speakers about various faiths.
   I enjoy different opinions, so I am frustrated when I can’t return a call to hose whose phone numbers are spoken indistinctly.
   Most of those who object to what I write are wonderful to talk to. They enlarge my understanding. And I always like being called a sincere “young” man.

Sunday marks Vaisakhi, a celebration of renewal for Sikhs

On Sunday, Sikhs in Kansas City and around the world celebrate Vaisakhi.
   Gurdid Singh, a young Kansas City Sikh with degrees in religious studies from the University of Kansas and Harvard, explains the holiday as a “festival of commitment, hope and renewal.”
   Vaisakhi (sometimes spelled Baisakhi) implores any seeker (which is what “sikh” means) to commit to a path of discipline.
   “In the Sikh tradition, this commitment takes the form of a dynamic teacher-student (guru-sikh) relationship which reached its culmination during the Vaisakhi of 1699,” Singh says.
   “Then the Sikh prophet-teacher, Guru Gobind Singh, established a new voluntary order of the Sikhs called Khalsa.”
   “The Khalsa consists of seekers who dedicate their lives to the high standards by which Sikh gurus themselves lived. These ideas include: 1) the absorption of the individual soul into the Infinite Soul; 2) an egalitarian and democratic environment for spiritual life; 3) subordinating politics to ethics, and 4) observing the five “K’s” of the faith, such as kesh (unshorn hair) covered by a turban.
   “By reinforcing these ideals, Vaisakhi creates the vision of a new, hopeful, and rejuvenated humanity. Many Sikhs commit themselves to following the Khalsa ideals on this day by undertaking a formal baptism called the amrit ceremony.
   “In Punjab, where Sikhism began, Vaisakhi (which falls around April 13), also marks the beginning of the agricultural year and is accompanied with festive songs and dances.”
   Singh recommends the Sikhism homepage:

Religion and government: Should the two meet?

On March 18, Kansas House chaplain Cecil T. Washington Jr. opened the legislative day with a prayer asking that “more than a democracy, make this a theocracy.”
   In a telephone interview last week, the chaplain said a democracy is “the rule of men, and a theocracy is rule by God, but not by a particular religious group.”
   How should religion and government relate? The chaplain joins theologians like Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Roger Williams, and social theorists like John Locke and Alexis de Tocqueville in a centuries old controversy.
   Thomas Paine, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson rejected earlier doctrines like jure Divino, the divine right of kings, a view that monarchs are anointed by God and are responsible for their actions to God alone.
   Instead the Declaration of Independence says governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” But the chaplain’s prayer said the “scepter of power” comes “not so much from the consent of the voters, but from the pleasure of (God’s) providence.”
   Even Hitler was put in authority by the “permissive will of God,” Washington said. He quoted Daniel 5:21, the citation he used in his prayer: “that the Most-High God rules in the kingdom of men, and appoints over it whomever he chooses.”
   Critics say his prayers, paid for by taxes, are inappropriate for a legislature reflecting citizens of many faiths. Washington says he prays only for himself: “You can’t go to God based on someone else’s approach.”

Zoroastrians mark birthday of their namesake prophet

Today is the birthday of Zarathushtra, the prophet of the faith we call Zoroastrianism, after the Greek form of his name. The Zoroastrian community here celebrates the occasion this Saturday.
   Just when Zarathushtra was born is uncertain. Dates ranging from 6600 B.C. to 100 A.D. have been proposed, according to Daryoush Jahanian, a Kansas City Zoroastrian.
   In his new book, The Zoroastrian Doctrine and Biblical Connections, Jahanian offers evidence favoring 1767 B.C.
   This means that Zarathushtra may have been the first to introduce “the concept of one universal God,” which Jahanian describes as a God who, “does not belong to a race, tribe, or nation,” an invisible God present everywhere, “envisioned only through the mind’s eye.”
   Most scholars agree that developments in Judaism, Christianity and Islam have been greatly influenced by Zoroastrian teachings.
   Among those enumerated by Jahanian is the doctrine of resurrection, especially important to Christians this Holy Week.
   Other influences include the themes of heaven and hell, of ultimate victory of good over evil, and of angels.
   I asked Jahanian what he wanted readers of this column most to know about his faith. He cited Zarathushtra’s three principles of good thoughts, good words and good deeds. God is realized by service to humanity.
   Jahanian also emphasized human liberty. All should be free to choose their own religion. Many historians credit the Zoroastrian king Cyrus with the first declaration of human rights. Cyrus released the Jews from Babylonian captivity and helped rebuild their temple.
   The statement I enjoyed most in Jahanian’s book reads “the only line of communication with God is love.”

KC Jewish, Muslim leaders condemn recent violence

Beings from outer space monitoring the news radiating from this planet might conclude that religion is just another name for violence.
   Most of us know otherwise, but sometimes religion has been used by extreme or unstable Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others to justify slaughter, even of harmless children.
   Last week a Jordanian soldier violated the peace between Israel and Jordan by killing seven Israeli schoolgirls on a field trip.
   Only the fanatical could seek to justify an act like this.
   Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Jordan’s King Hussein were among many Middle East Muslims who condemned the bloodshed.
   Here in Kansas City, Jewish and Muslim community leaders understand that we are all kin, regardless of our faith or ethnic identity.
   Their commitments to their own faiths and to the people they represent lead them not to self-righteousness, but to rue the deeds that befoul the compact for peace and justice found within the heart of every faith.
   The reality of the relationships between many Kansas City Jews and Muslims differs from the images in the media.
   When an Israeli opened fire on Muslims at worship in Hebron in 1994, killing 29 and wounding more than 200, David Goldstein, head of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee conveyed his condolences to the Muslim community here.
   And now Ahmed Sherif, head of the American Muslim Council for the Midwest, has expressed his grief over the murder of the seven Israeli schoolgirls by saying, “These are all our children.”
   In such mutual feeling is the religious seed for peace.

Award-winner teaches listening

I met Pandurang Athavale late one night in March 1986. I had gone to India to hear him at a gathering of 500,000 in a temporary city of tents on the banks of the Ganges River.
   My escort, Meghnad Desai of Lenexa, was showing me the grounds when Athavale greeted us. Though warm, he was not impressive in his person. But when I heard him speak at the conference the next day, I was awestruck.
   He told many stories, one of a potter praying for sunshine so his clay pots would dry, while his neighbor, a farmer, prayed for rain. He challenged us to end such selfish requests for God’s favors and instead to work cooperatively with each other.
   His teaching, like Gandhi’s, derives from the Bhagavad-Gita, a Hindu sacred text. His method, called swadhyaya, or self-knowledge, is personal and social, just as Gandhi’s slogan, swaraj, or self-rule, was personal and political.
   How do we gain knowledge of ourselves and each other? By learning to listen without agendas. When we want something from someone else, our listening is distorted by our desires and limited by selfishness. When we listen with no purpose other than beholding, we come to know ourselves and each other more deeply. This makes cooperation effective.
   The economic and social impact of Athavle’s teaching in India has been recognized with this year’s $1.2 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. The award strengthens the work of his devotees not only in India, but also in Europe and the United States, including here in Kansas City.

Promote peace in Palestine

Bishara Awad is a Christian with dual American and Palestine citizenship who lives in the ancient city of Bethlehem. There he runs the only Bible college on the West Bank, which he established. It is supported in part by a program of the United Methodist Church. He recently spoke at the Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City.
   According to Awad, the percentage of Palestinian Christians has declined from 17 percent of the population in 1948 to 2 percent today. Nevertheless his school is expanding. For example, it is making books available to everyone, because Bethlehem has no public library.
   The need is acute because “the town is suffering under past and current political arrangements,” he says. People who want to go to Jerusalem for church or a movie or bowling or need a hospital, cannot easily go because written permission from the Israeli military governor usually is required. This is like an Overland Park resident being discouraged from going to Kansas City.
   But he says that Bethlehem is far safer than Kansas City and that Christians and Muslims live together harmoniously.

Images aren’t the same as idols

“Are those who use idols to worship superstitious?” a reader asks.
   “Idol worshippers” was once a common accusation by Protestants against Catholics. Many Catholic churches contain statues of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and other saints.
   The distrust of idols can be traced to the commandment of Moses in Exodus 20:4, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”
   Sometimes this verse is strictly interpreted. A woman objected to having her photograph taken for her driver’s license. The U.S. Supreme Court respected her religious objection and ordered the state to issue her a license without violating her conscience.
   In some periods of Islamic history, no images were permitted. Only calligraphy or abstract geometrical designs decorated buildings.
   Most Protestants understand that Catholics do not worship statues. The physical images are helpful because they evoke spiritual meanings, just as a photograph of a loved one arouses our memories and hopes and our claim of relationship. Wedding pictures express the identities the couple gain from each other.
   But do those of other faiths think that a stone idol can hear prayer?
   Pyare Mohan, a Lenexa Hindu, says, God is formless. It is difficult to concentrate on something abstract, without form. So we use murtis (statues) to facilitate concentration.
   Just as the famous statue of a blindfolded woman holding scales represents impartial justice, so idols become images which point beyond the form, like a metaphor to the Infinite.

Here’s a test for faithful readers

Ready for another quiz? This time we’ll review recent columns. The answers are below. Four correct answers is a good score.
   1.  What decision-making process does St. John Francis Regis Parish use? A. The priest decides. B. The congregation votes. C. People talk until there is consensus.
   2.  The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a book by religious scholar Joseph Campbell, inspired the maker of what famous movie? A. “The Ten Commandments.” B. “Star Wars.” C. “Terms of Endearment.”
   3.  On Nov. 17 last year Mayor Cleaver endorsed what idea? A. The Dalai Lama should address the City Council. B. The Kansas City area should have a “Council of Congregations.” C. Methodists and Baptists should unite.
   4.  The Pipe Circle is a Kansas City area group of how many families practicing American Indian spiritual ways? A. 18. B. 185. C. 1850.
   5.  Martin Luther King Jr. implemented the social-protest methods of what Asian leader? A. Gandhi. B. U Thant. C. Sai Baba.
   6.  Whom does Michael Hart rank first in his book about the 100 most influential people in history? A. Muhammad. B. Lincoln. C. The Buddha.
   7.  Ecumenism is best described as: A. A movement within Christianity to reunite various denominations into one worldwide mission. B. An effort to bring all religions together. C. Jewish-Christian cooperation.
   8.  A new biography of Myrtle Fillmore, co-founder of the Unity School of Christianity, was inspired by the discovery of 1,500 of her letters from what period of her life? A. The first 40 years. B. The last 40 years. C. The last 4 years.
   ANSWERS: 1. C; 2. B; 3. B; 4. B; 5. A; 6. A; 7. A; 8. C.

Lent a good time for group reflection

Today is Ash Wednesday, which begins Lent for Western Christendom. Lent is a time for introspection.
   Sometimes it is hard to be introspective in a group charged with making decisions. Relationships are better supported when each person understands self and others, rather than when a contest-style, up-or-down decision is made.
   Father Paul Turner describes decision-making at St. John Francis Regis parish:
   We use consensus. Our councils discuss the issues before them and work on decisions until everyone agrees on the best course of action.
   By avoiding votes, we minimize factions on the councils and eliminate the feeling of “winners” and “losers.” God works through groups, not just through individuals.
   If you listen and discuss as a group long enough, you can start to hear a voice emerging. Sometimes the decision is one that no one could imagine before the meeting, an important way that God speaks to our community.
The process of building consensus stands in contrast with much of our political system. While democracy gives everyone a voice, it tends to split people into opposing camps.
   What we’re doing is harder, building a common voice. It also takes more time. But in the end, we think we’re reaching better decisions and we’re helping everyone hold a common vision.
   The new St. Regis Church under construction reflects our parish’s emphasis on community. People sit facing each other across the altar. This reminds us of our commitment to one another, while we pray together and share communion from a common table.

The stories of Muhammad, Jesus are those of heroes

When George Lucas was thinking of making a film, he “stumbled across” a book by a religion scholar that helped him to “understand” how he could undertake “Star Wars.” Lucas read Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.
   What did Lucas find in this book? Campbell says that all spiritual leaders can be understood as a single hero, inflected by the materials and the maturity of the cultures from which they arise.
   According to Campbell, the common plot has three stages. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
   In “Star Wars” Luke Skywalker senses something is missing in his life and responds to the call of adventure. Aided by a wise mentor, he is tested. In the final ordeal, he faces death itself and the challenge to follow his heart. This personal achievement makes possible a great benefit to others.
   Specific episodes and characters parallel Campbell’s compilation of myths.
   The story of Jesus—who left ordinary ways to begin his ministry, was tested by death, and thus redeems the world—follows the same pattern.
   Similarly, Muhammad responded to a vision of a better life, surmounted hardships and established a new wholesome order. The story of the Buddha has the same outline, although the details differ.
   We respond to these stories because each of us has heroic potential.

A medicine bag is personal

A reader asks, “What is a medicine bag?”
   Karalee M. Boyle, one of the leaders of the Pipe Circle, a group of 185 Kansas City area families practicing American Indian spiritual ways, says that for American Indians, the word medicine refers to personal power.
   Personal power, she says, is acquired by knowing all things are interrelated, including earth, sky, water, wind, plants, animals, one’s family and one’s friends.
   Traditionally a medicine bag is prepared by the person who will wear it, usually around the neck. Often the bag is worn under clothing because it is so personal.
   Its contents represent the individual’s intentions, prayers and understandings. Many medicine bags contain sage and cedar because these plants are thought to purify, cleanse and protect. Whatever is chose—a crystal, a stone, a lock of hair from one’s child, a prayer—it is sacred to one wearing it.

King’s nonviolent way inspires many

Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian. The civil rights movement he led included significant Jewish participation. Many Muslims regard him as a great teacher. His work has inspired American Indian, Hispanic, gay, women and other groups. King’s legacy is for all races and speaks to all faiths.
   King studied the American tradition of civil disobedience, and he adapted the approach of Mohandas Gandhi, a Hindu who gained independence for India from the British raj. In outline here are the principles they shared:
   Cowardice is the worst possible position. Some situations demand that we suffer as individuals to achieve freedom for all.
   We must start at home, with ourselves. We can authentically urge change upon others only to the extent that our own spirits are orderly.
   We must find the humanity in our adversaries and beware of demonic potential within ourselves. While confrontation may be necessary, cherishing the personhood of all involved in the conflict may lead to a creativity larger than we can presently see.
   The methods we use to bring about social change must manifest the goals. Worthy ends cannot justify immoral means. It is more important to establish a nonviolent relationship with one’s adversary than to achieve a specific victory through violence.
   Achieving justice is an unending process. We make mistakes and are disappointed along the way. But in forgiving ourselves and deepening compassion for others, we become more human.
   These principles can guide us in practicing the love all religions teach.

Muhammad hungered for mercy for all

Christians are sometimes troubled by the contrast between the wealth of some religious leaders and the simplicity of the life of Jesus. The growing gap between the rich and the needy in our own country tugs at the conscience.
   Muslims have also criticized what they regarded as the worldly ways of some of the caliphs, such as the Abasids, whose opulent lifestyle was hardly an imitation of the Prophet Muhammad’s concern for the poor.
   Perhaps this is one reason the hunger Muslims have while fasting during the month of Ramadan, which this year is from Jan. 10 to Feb. 9, is so important: It reminds the believers of those who are hungry by choice, and of the example of Muhammad in relieving human distress.
   Muhammad knew misfortune. His father died shortly before he was born. His mother died when he was 6. His grandfather took care of him then, but died when Muhammad was 8. The society into which he was raised was torn apart by alcoholism, gambling, sexual irresponsibility, violence and cynicism.
   Yet he became a brilliant businessman known for his integrity. As he matured, he began to hear the voice of God. Ramadan commemorates the first of these revelations, collected in the Qur’an. His message of righteousness and democracy, that in God’s eyes are equal, was resisted at first by those in power, but in time he established justice with mercy for men, women and children.
   Michael Hart’s book about the 100 most influential people in history ranks Muhammad first. Yet until his death Muhammad lived modestly and continued to milk his own goat.

Interfaith, ecumenism differ in approach

Several readers question interfaith dialogue. They say it is dangerous.
   Interfaith dialogue needs to be distinguished from ecumenism, which is often understood as the movement within Christianity to reunite various denominations into one worldwide mission.
   Confusing interfaith dialogue with ecumenism leads some to fear that interfaith groups are trying to blend all traditions into one superreligion. On the contrary, one aim of the Kansas City Interfaith Council, for example, is “to increase appreciation for religious diversity.”
   Others fear that interfaith encounters are disguised attempts at conversion. In 20 years’ experience with interfaith meetings in Kansas City and around the world, I cannot recall a single instance where anyone even tried to persuade someone else of the superiority of one faith over another, though participants often vigorously explain why their own faiths are compelling to them.
   Some religions teach belief in many gods, some religions in one, some in none. Each has a different perspective on ultimate reality and how humans can best respond to it.
   Nevertheless, people of many faiths can agree and work together to reduce prejudice, to find peace, to build houses for the needy, to feed the hungry and to establish justice.
   Robert Lambright was a Baptist missionary in Indonesia in the 1960s. Now he pursues interfaith dialogue in Kansas City. He says some people are frightened of dialogue because they will be exposed to different ideas. To them he quotes I John 4:18: “Perfect love casts out fear.”

Metro area may need to form a ‘Council of Congregations’

On Nov. 27 Mayor Emanuel Cleaver endorsed the creation of a metropolitan “Council of Congregations,” recommended in the report on Religion and Spirituality from the Mayor’s Task Force on Race Relations. If such a council is actually formed, it may be the most important local achievement by people of faith in this decade.
   Cleaver, a minister, said that, unlike most cities of similar size, Kansas City has no area-wide organizations of religious bodies to facilitate communication and joint efforts.
   The recommendations came from a group with Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Unitarian Universalist participation. The 27 members, all from the Kansas City area, decided that existing agencies were not suited to the task of engaging every local congregation in “articulating an interfaith theology that makes clear that our ultimate commitment includes ending all forms of oppression.”
   The group deliberately focused on local congregations rather than clergy or regional offices to emphasize that the work must be done in ways appropriate to each setting.
   Copies of the report, with 14 specific ways for the council to fulfill its mission, are available from the mayor’s office.
   “Harmony, Project Equality, the National Conference (of Christians & Jews), the Urban League and the KC Interfaith Council have offered support to create the Council of Congregations,” said Maggie Finefrock, who chaired the group and is encouraging funding “so the council can become a reality in 1997.”

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