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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



227. 981230 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Kwanzaa's origins are inclusive

A caller complained that I ruined Christmas for him because a recent column mentioned that Christmas was recast from an earlier pagan holiday. Others find Christmas more meaningful by placing it in the history of all humankind.
   Religions call us to the transcendent. But they are embodied in particular circumstances and historical settings.
   The combination of transcendent reality and the historical and personal situation is sometimes revealed in the origins of holidays. Kwanzaa, for example, was first celebrated in 1966 in Los Angeles after the Watts race riot.
   Kwanzaa celebrates seven transcendent principles, including unity, creativity and faith.
   Kwanzaa has ancient Egyptian sources, as well as more recent African themes. It might never have developed except for the experience of slaves in America and the need for their descendants to affirm a healing identity.
   Usually observed between Christmas and New Year's Day, Kwanzaa utilizes a set of candles, as does the Jewish Hanukkah festival.
   Do I ruin Kwanzaa by disclosing these origins?
   Or this? -- The correct Swahili spelling is "Kwanza," with six letters. At the first program for this new holiday, there were seven children. Each wanted to represent and explain a letter. An additional "a" was added to accommodate all of them.
   The charm of bending to the seventh child's desire for inclusion perhaps matches the deep philosophy of Kwanzaa. The respect given to that child embodies its transcendent principles.

226. 981223 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Ramadan is a time to reflect

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, begun Sunday, is observed by fasting from dawn to dusk. This spiritual discipline trains the believer to control oneself. The hunger endured voluntarily also reminds the believer of the those whose hunger does not end at sunset, and the responsibility to follow the example of Muhammad in relieving human distress.
   The month also commemorates the beginning of the revelations comprising the Qur'an, the holy book of the faith. "Qur'an" means "recitation."
   While the Hebrew texts collected into the Jewish Bible may span a thousand years in composition, and the Christian New Testament took three centuries before its shape was final, the revelations of the Qur'an are said to have taken place between 610 and 632, a mere 22 years. By about 650, the oral tradition had taken authoritative written form.
   The Jewish and Christian texts were produced by many hands. Muslims believe the Qur'an is the very voice of God singly revealed through the angel Gabriel to Muhammad.
   The Book, about as long as the New Testament, is divided into 114 chapters, mostly arranged by length, from long to short. The chapters are classified by whether they were revealed in Mecca or Medina.
   The Qur'an, a literary masterpiece, is the only miracle ascribed to Muhammad, who was illiterate. It is extraordinarily difficult to translate.
   With guidelines for all aspects of life, from health to commercial law, some passages are addressed to Muhammad, some to Muslims and some to all humankind. The Book's scope ranges from the beginning of time to the Judgment.

225. 981216 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Faiths enrich each other

Religions often influence each other, as we can see in their histories of holy days.
   For example, Mithra, the son god, was born on the winter solstice which, in the ancient calendar, was December 25. As Christianity developed, it recast the old festival to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
   Because of its pagan origins, some early Americans refused to observe Christmas and called it "Papist." Christmas was not made a legal holiday until the 1800s. The Puritan objection to the holiday was overtaken by the impact of Roman Catholic practice.
   Hanukkah has been a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, but today its occurrence near Christmas pulls it into the commercialism and other Christmas customs that overwhelm children -- and all of us.
   Yet the influence Judaism and Christianity have on each other need not be confusing. It can be purifying.
   Temple B'nai Jehudah and Grace and Holy Trinity (Episcopal) Cathedral have developed a Hanukkah-Advent program. "Learning about each other's festivals" becomes an opportunity to focus jointly on "the spiritual in our different traditions, rather than on the material environment in which we are immersed," said Rabbi Joshua Taub.
   For the Very Rev. Dennis J. J. Schmidt, Hanukkah is in part "a reminder that God blesses with freedom those who are faithful to him."
   He and Taub recognize the different histories and natures of the holidays. But they also find a purifying power of preparation and renewal in the light from the Christmas and Hanukkah candles, symbols of spiritual vitality far deeper than overgorging affluence.

224. 981209 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
U.S. blessed with diversity

How does one respond to the claim, "Our nation was founded on Christian principles"? Comment requires a little sophistication, just as if one were asked to evaluate the belief that "All saints have eaten vegetables."
   A recent writer to The Star argued that the nation was founded on the Ten Commandments. But the commandment not to murder, for example, is not a uniquely Christian idea. The Ten Commandments are, first of all, Jewish; and all religions prohibit murder.
   The fundamental law of the United States is the Constitution, which neither incorporates nor refers to the Ten Commandments. U.S. citizens are free to violate the commandments, for example, against making graven images and working on the sabbath.
   The writer said the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address "make several references to the Christian God."
   The 1776 Declaration of Independence refers to a God of history and to "Nature's God," a concept popular with the Deists of the time. It never appeals to a specifically Christian God.
   The word "God" cannot be found in the Constitution. It is a completely secular document. It prohibits religious tests for public office.
   In fact, the word "God" does not appear even in the inaugural addresses of the Presidents until 1821, and "Christ" is found in none of them.
   In the Gettysburg Address God is mentioned once, but there is nothing to indicate Lincoln's God is Christian. Although Lincoln was a deeply spiritual man, he objected to Christian creeds and never joined a church.
   In my opinion, one reason our nation is blessed with a rich religious heritage is that we prohibit government from favoring any one faith.

223. 981202 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Let Christmas be about the Spirit

The Christmas season is full of contradictions. Preparing for the Holy Child becomes making a list of things Santa should bring. In some homes the birth of the Prince of Peace will be celebrated with toy or real weapons of assault, and with video games in which a goal is to lop off the heads of the characters.
   Even benign concerns may interfere with observing the holiness of Advent. Participants in a forum I led recently at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral (Episcopal) identified commercialism -- specifically "Martha Stewart-ism" -- as an impediment.
   Expectations, parties, gifts and oversaturation with advertising too often lead not only to stress and exhaustion, but, they said, to the trivialization and secularization of the holiday. It is not surprising those born in other cultures are confused by the way Americans observe Christmas.<
   Yet stories of sacred time found in all religions point not so much to a spiritual bliss detached from the inconsequential and the violent as to the apprehension of ultimate vitality within our very finitude.
   Indeed, the specific word of the Christian story is incarnation, the divine taking human flesh by which a corrupt world may be redeemed.
   Though Christ's humble birth is a powerful warning against convention, the full meaning of incarnation is not a cute baby in the manger.
   For Christians, the body of Christ which must be discerned today is the Church--not the institution as such, but the spirit in hands that heal, hearts that forgive and eyes that see ways to transform even the profane excesses of this season.

222. 981125 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Give thanks, seek justice

"I don't feel thankful this year," a friend going through a rough spot told me recently.
   Since he is a deeply religious man, I did not respond by agreeing, even though he has reason to be angry about his situation. I said, "It is always right to be thankful. Your faith, all faiths, teach this."
   "That is true," he replied, perhaps acknowledging that he was not at that moment as centered in his faith as he is called to be.
   But faith also calls him to unrest.
   A shallow reading of the first Thanksgiving ignores the horrors those who came to this land inflicted on the natives. A sentimental version of the holiday fails to own the twisted and vicious behavior that persists in America even as we celebrate our ideals.
   We need a balanced perspective on the civil holy day we call Thanksgiving. Similarly, our personal integrity is cheated by a simple, selfish gratitude that feasts without recognizing the many who starve or finds contentment without working for justice.
   Giving thanks in the midst of pain and sorrow is a purifying and prioritizing exercise of faith. Religious maturity is not a bliss which denies the defects of the world. It is rather a savoring of duty to serve in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.
   Giving thanks for sunshine is easy. But when we recognize the ravaging storm is from the same atmospheric source, can we give praise?
   Is it wrong to be angry that the blessings we seek for ourselves and others are not yet fully shared? Can such dissatisfaction as my friend's become an engine of redemption?

Spirituality growing in Americans' lives
Sacred insight goes beyond the religious norms

             By: STEVE PAUL The Kansas City Star
             Date: 11/23/98

``Religion has rules,'' a character says approvingly in playwright David Hare's drama ``Skylight. '' ``But 'spiritual' - it's all so wishy-washy. ''
Traditionalists and cynics have long looked upon the idea of ``spirituality'' as something apart from real religious faith. But in the last few decades, the idea has gained both ground and respect as something very real in itself: A positive and flexible term that can describe virtually anyone's relationship with sacred experience.
People talk about having spiritual experiences relating to everything from gardening to sex. And more and more the spirit of infinite mystery, however it is defined, has entered Americans' faith lives.
The word ``spirit'' comes from the Latin for ``breath,'' Vern Barnet, minister-in-residence at the World Faiths Center for Religious Experience and Study, has noted. And, he added, ``its underlying sense is what energizes us with significance. Cooking, business, sex, taking a walk, and even church activities can be spiritual when we let the Infinite breathe into them. ''
Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist at Princeton University and director of the Center for the Study of American Religion, traces the evolution of spirituality since the 1950s in his new book After Heaven (University of California Press).
In the 1950s, the idea of faith merely meant attending services. Since the mid-1960s or so, spirituality has been associated with the looser idea of seeking beyond traditional religious paths. Wuthnow argues there's a more significant trend emerging, a  ``spirituality of practice,'' which is marked by deep and daily prayer, intense worship and, often, participation in community activities that reflect a deep commitment to one's faith.
Wuthnow concedes that the number of people who define their life that way remains small. ``Salt and light,'' he said, ``come in small doses. ''

221. 981118 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Give thanks for many faiths

Thanksgiving is a civil holiday. But it is also an expression of faith, begun as a festival celebrating a successful harvest by the Pilgrims who had come to the New World to escape religious persecution.
   They were Christians, but they were not persecuted by Jews or Muslims or Hindus. Their oppressors were themselves Christians.
   And when the Pilgrims feasted, they invited a non-Christian, the Indian chief Massasoit, to join them. Kansas Citians honor him with the statue at Main and Brush Creek, just east of the Country Plaza.
   Religious freedom is now a fundamental feature of the American constitution.
   But our ideals are a direction for the spirit, not an achievement. We must work at understanding those unlike us who have enriched this land in ways we seldom acknowledge, from the the corn to which the Indians introduced the Pilgrims, to the Muslim science from which our space program has developed, to jazz music which developed in part from African sources.
   Each year on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the Kansas City Interfaith Council celebrates religious liberty in a ritual meal which recounts the story of the Pilgrims and our failures and achievements as a nation since.
   Those who attend are blessed by the particular expressions of the universal theme of thanksgiving by leaders from Kansas City's many faith communities.
   If you want to join with American Indian, Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Sufi, Wiccan, Unitarian Universalist and Zoroastrian participants at Sunday's 6 p.m. dinner, give me a call at 649 5114.

220. 981111 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Witchcraft respects multiple ways of faith

Over a month has passed since Wiccan priestess Margot Adler spoke in Kansas City. But according to the Rev. Vicky Combs, minister of the Gaia Community, which hosted her Oct. 3, "people are still buzzing about her visit."
   Adler is the bureau chief for National Public Radio in New York and author the 1979 Drawing Down the Moon, perhaps the most important book yet to appear on witchcraft in America.
   Adler does not approach Wicca as simply a personal belief, but rather as passion for environmental and social justice. Adler said that "earth spirituality" is based "not on belief" but rather "on doing." The question, she said, is "What shall we do about the problems we have?"
   She challenged the interpretation of Biblical texts that calculate that human history began some 6,000 years ago. "We need to develop a sense of the whole story," she said, beginning millions of years ago with our emergence as humans who lived successfully without damaging the planet.
   "We can't deal with the greenhouse effect when our attention span is so short," she said.
   Religions claiming a single divine authority paradoxically produce cultures with severe splits, she said, such as the division often made between body and spirit. She advocates a community rooted not in belief enforced by power but in respect for multiple paths.
   After the talk, Adler led the crowd through several rituals in which strangers experienced a "magical, transformative connection," Combs said.
   Audio tapes of the lecture and question period are available for $10 by calling the Gaia Community information line, 292 2846.

219. 981104 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Dance bounds across spiritual borders

Increasingly significant among Kansas City's spiritual resources is the State Ballet of Missouri. "Dance by its nature is a portrayal of the spirit," says William Whitener, the company's artistic director.
   Last month's program included "Prodigal Son." The story appears in Christian scripture (Luke 15) and a Buddhist version (Lotus Sutra 4).
   Christopher Barksdale, who danced the title role, thinks of the story's Jewish context. The son's feeding with swine indicates his reduced condition, but when we recall the contempt with which swine have been held in Judaism, we see the depravity even more clearly.
   The father did not persuade the son to return home. "It had to be the son's own decision, as it was his to leave," Barksdale says.
   As choreographed by George Balanchine, the tale ends with the father enfolding his son after patiently awaiting his son's readiness for his encompassing love. The dance is a metaphor for our own struggles in reuniting with the Sacred.
   The program began with Whitener's new ballet, "Holberg Suite." When I told Whitener that I could discern no trace of possessiveness in any of the groupings of dancers, he said he imagined an era when "people had more time to relate honestly, to care about each other, with a code of ethics."
   The winter program (Feb. 18-21) includes Francis Poulenc's "Gloria," choreographed by Lila York. Whitener says its modern dance movements acknowledge the earth, but the forms from classical ballet suggest "an angelic presence who hovers and oversees" a community of people in a landscape of shifting emotions. Theologians call this transcendence.

The Kansas City Star, Saturday, October, 1998, A-12

Pact draws local praised, but questions are raised
By Diane Carroll, staff writer

 The Middle East accord reached Friday is a step in the right direction, area religious leaders and others said.
     “This is a happy day, knowing that some breakthrough apparently has been made,” said Vern Barnet, minister-in-residence at the Center for Religious Experience and Study, in Overland Park. “I think it is essential that the peace process continue beyond this.”
     The real work in achieving peace lies ahead, Barnet and others said. The accord may move the Palestinians closer to statehood, but figuring out how such a state should be created (and whether Jerusalem should be its capital, which Palestinians want) remains to be decided, they said.
 A May 4 deadline has been set for the resolution of the statehood issue, as well as for issues regarding Jerusalem’s future, borders and refugees
    “We have until May of next year to come up with something,” said Samir Abu-Ali, a Palestinian-American who owns the Sahara Café in Overland Park. “The sooner the better, because the situation is very, very tense, especially on the Palestinian side.”
    Unemployment among Palestinians is over 50 percent, said Abu-Ali, who grew up in Bethlehem. Israelis remain in control, he said, and many Palestinians are almost giving up. Unless their quality of life improves soon, he said, more bloodshed is possible.
    The Palestinians want peace, Abu-Ali said, and see the accord Friday as positive. Jews want the same thing and view it in the same light, Jewish leaders said.
Unfortunately, extremists on both sides do not want peace, said Rabbi Mark Levin of Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park. Because of them, he said, he does not expect to see real peace in his lifetime.
     The challenge is for leaders on both sides to create a common ground that will allow the concept of peace to grow, Levin said. A whole generation needs to feel comfortable with the idea of peace before peace can last, he said.
     The United States and President Clinton, in particular, deserve praise for bringing the sides together, Levin and Barnet said.

218. 981028 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Sexuality still controversial in Christianity

Last week I wrote about how same-sex behavior has been regarded in religions of the world. Most callers applauded.
   But one caller challenged my report that most religions, at least at some periods in their history, have tolerated and even endorsed same-sex relationships.
   He denied that King James, who authorized the translation of the Bible that bears his name, was a "true Christian" since he had a male lover. He believes I made up what I wrote. I refer him to standard reference sources which any library can provide.
   One woman complained that my examples were all male and concerned with power. She makes a good point. Some religions have understood sexuality as expressions of power. In ancient Greece, older men were expected to partner with younger men, especially in the military. Relationships of equal age and social standing were disapproved.
   Men could also have sex with women because women were of lower status than men. Thus Zeus, king of the gods, modeled power as he abducted either sex.
   Other religious traditions structure sexuality in other ways. In the last 150 years, with the rise of women's rights, Western Christianity has come to understand sexuality not so much as power as "orientation."
   Religious scholarship is just beginning to deal with female same-sex relationships and women's spirituality in general.
   "What about Sodom?" another caller asked. A careful reading of the story in Genesis 19 may not support the view that homosexuality was the sin. In fact, Ezekiel 16:49 says that the iniquity of Sodom was "pride, fulness of bread" and failure to "strengthen the hand of the poor and needy."

217. 981021 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Same-sex Interests Explored

Do all religions condemn homosexual behavior?
   No. Most religions have tolerated or advocated same-sex relationships at least in some periods of their history.
   Among many recent religious studies of same-sex interests is Cassell's Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirituality. It begins with 17 essays on major and less known faith traditions.
   The 2500 entries, which comprise the body of the book, are cross-referenced. For example, Ganymede was the youth Zeus selected for his pleasure. (Jupiter is the Roman name for Zeus, and one of the moons of the planet Jupiter is Ganymede.)
   The Ganymede entry refers us to Pope Julius III (1487-1555), who was satirized as Zeus while his male lover, Innocente, was called "the new Ganymede." Julius engaged Michaelangelo to build St. Peter's Cathedral. Michaelangeo wrote sonnets to his male beloved, Tommasso de Cavalieri.
   If St. Peter's is an image of Catholicism, then the King James Version of the Bible might be an emblem of Protestantism. The entry on James I (1566-1625) discusses both his beloved George Volliers and the king's devotion to Christianity which led his authorizing the translation of Scripture.
   How exceptional such examples are in Christian history is still debated. However, in ancient Greece, in certain Buddhist settings and in many American Indian tribes, same-sex or transgendered relationships clearly were regarded as spiritually excellent.
   Scholars are still studying the forces which led to the suppression of information such as this book gathers together.

216. 981014 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Remember Hungry on Food Day

Of human needs regularly satisfied for most of us, food is among the most basic. Religion pays attention to such needs.
   In some faiths, a prayer before meals places the food in the context of God's providence. For the Sikhs, the guru's kitchen, langar, is where people eat together as an expression of their equality.
   Some faiths have dietary restrictions as expressions of commitment. Judaism and Islam forbid pork and prescribe how animals are to be slaughtered. Many Hindus and Jains and some Buddhists are vegetarian.
   Ancient peoples sometimes sacrificed grain or meat, either in edible form or as burnt offerings, with the smoke ascending to the gods above. Ancient Greeks made libations to the god Hermes before sleeping.
   Christians use bread and wine in worship as a sign of the bodily sacrifice of Jesus. Prasad is a food treat that is a sign of divine grace at the conclusion of Hindu worship.
   Yet our biological need for food is prior to the deepest meanings the faiths have developed. Thus Gandhi said, "There are so many hungry people in the world that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread." Providing sustenance is a moral obligation recognized by all faiths.
   Friday is World Food Day. Former Kansas City mayor Charles Wheeler has led a committee in planning events here. The public is invited to the US Department of Agriculture office, 8930 Ward Parkway, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
   The program includes a teleconference moderated by NPR's Ray Suarez with White House, UN, business and academic and local participation. For more information call Doris Stout at Harvesters, 231 3173 ex. 142.

981008 PITCH WEEKLY "Mail"
Context important

Your story on gays in the universities ("Out of the Closet - Into the Classroom," Aug 20-26) merits praise. However, the statement that ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages had no words for homosexuality because "the assumption was that everyone was heterosexual" is misleading.
     Most cultures and their religions have approved of, or at least tolerated, same-sex behavior. Some have valued it highly. But the notion of sexual orientation is only about 150 years old. In my view, "orientation" is a perverted way of construing human sexuality and misleads us in approaching the texts and the enormous variety of sexual expression throughout history. It also encourages people to put themselves into labeled boxes.
     From the Hebrew tradition, examine the story of David and Jonathan. The Bible says they stripped, exchanged clothes, kissed, lived together, and made a "covenant" between them. The Hebrew word for "covenant"  is the same term used for the marriage covenant. When Jonathan was killed, David wailed that he had loved Jonathan more than women. He took Jonathan's surviving heir into his household, as if he had become his child.
     We did not have a Ken Star in those days to investigate the exact nature of their relationship, but the love is clear. David also loved Bathsheba to the point of having her husband killed so he could enjoy her.
     There is no notion of "orientation" here.
     Further, same-sex behavior is prohibited in some texts and traditions, as is masturbation, while sex, including unmarried sex, which can lead to population growth is encouraged. Same-sex behavior has also been prohibited, along with certain dietary restrictions and clothing requirements, as items of ritual observance to distinguish one people from other peoples. But behavior is very different than the construct of "orientation." If, as your article declares, ancient peoples assumed everyone was heterosexual, why would some groups need to prohibit same-sex activity?
     From the Greek tradition, consider the practice in which young men were shamed if they had not been ritually abducted by an older man as part of their education. In fact, when a youth had been captured, the community acknowledged the relationship with feasting and gift-giving. In Sparta particularly, the military was designed with obligatory same-sex relationships between junior and senior men.
     One of the speakers in Plato's "Symposium" does argue that some by nature prefer those of their own gender, and that such unions are part of  the highest morality. Still, the widespread same-sex unions in ancient Greece indicate a cultural expectation rather than the biological disposition many people presume when they use today's language of "orientation."
     Even the king of the Greek gods, Zeus, the model of womanizing, captured young Ganymede for his pleasure.
     In sum, it is wrong to say that ancient folk assumed everyone was heterosexual. They simply assumed that people are sexual, and that love and sex can be expressed in many different ways. This is why I believe the statement I've cited from your article is misleading.

The Reverend Vern Barnet, DMn

215. 981007 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Multifaith marriages walk in agreement

MINNEAPOLIS -- The last time I wrote about interfaith weddings, several colleagues in the ministry called. While some thanked me for supporting their practice of uniting couples of different faiths, others complained.
   One called my approach "eclectic tripe."
   I am remembering this because I have just conducted another interfaith wedding, and the guests -- from Muslim, Jewish and Christian backgrounds -- expressed deep appreciation for the ways in which their faiths were acknowledged in the ceremony.
   In the months we worked together in designing the rite, the bride and groom were extraordinarily thoughtful in planning every word and gesture.
   Although their religious backgrounds are different, the respect they gave each other and their families is, to me, a powerful answer to the colleague who asked, "How can two walk together except they be agreed?"
   Last summer another couple used Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan and American Indian sources for their ceremony. With guests from around the world, they wanted to express reverence for many ways the sacred is manifested.
   In my experience, two can walk together with mutual respect and shared values. They do not need to agree on identical faith labels.
   The wedding here was a holy moment, enriched by several traditions and larger than any label.
   While I respect my colleagues who decline to perform interfaith marriages, I hope they will also respect those of us who honor couples whose love and commitment embraces different faiths.

214. 980930 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Music runs the continuum of spirit and history

Would you expect to hear an Irish jig or reel at the Hindu temple?
   Both were performed Sept. 20 at the temple in Shawnee, with a Missouri jig and melodies from Iran, Turkey and medieval Christendom as well.
   The occasion was the beginning of the Durga Puja season which celebrates Universal Power manifested in Durga, the Divine Mother. She defeated a threat to cosmic order in the form of a buffalo demon.
   Anand Bhattacharyya led the service of scripture reading. He compared the Durga Puja to Christmas in Christianity because both holidays bring families together and gifts may be exchanged.
   Bhattacaryya had heard Gerald Trimble perform music from around the world at an interfaith event last year, and engaged him to play for Durga Puja.
   Trimble was delighted because he is fascinated with the spiritual and musical connections in history. For the Hindu Temple, he arranged three pieces, each one honoring a different Hindu god, Krishna, Shiva, and Rama. Each piece began with a Hindu bhajan, a devotional song, and then explored similarities with tunes from the other cultures.
   Trimble also showed how his instruments -- viola da gamba, lute, and hurdy gurdy (a string instrument not to be confused with the barrel organ with the monkey) -- display ways in which cultures draw upon and influence each other.
   "The music was seamless, from the bhajans to the Missouri jig," Probir Roy, a UMKC professor, told me afterwards.
   Some historians of religion also discern a seamless human response to manifestations of the sacred.

213. 980923 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Religious persecutiion, abuse is ot a simple problem

"Christians are subjected to terrible abuse in many countries around the world," says the Rev. William F. Schulz, Exective Director of Amnesty International USA.
   But Schulz, along with the National Council of Churches, questions whether legislation introduced in Congress to impose sanctions on countries like Sudan and China, where Christians are regularly harassed, imprisoned and tortured, will work. Singling out abuses against Christians while other human rights violations are not given equal attention may be counterproductive, he worries.
   "Those of other religious faiths, such as Buddhists in Tibet or Muslims in parts of China and India, have also been the targets of terror.  Indeed, in per capita terms, Baha'is are probably the most highly persecuted.
   "And sometimes the faithful are themselves the instruments of mistreatment. Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, for example, are regularly harassed by their orthodox cousins; and the conflict in Chiapas has elements of an intra-Christian dispute in addition to its economic dimension.
   "All of which is to say that the world of religious conflict is far more complicated than most politicians can ever imagine. Is the dispute between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland even about religion at all?"
   Schulz believes that "a sectarian approach to stopping religious persecution is bound to fail."
   Schulz will speak in Kansas City at the Mayor's United Nations Day Dinner Oct. 22. His topic will be "The 50th Anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
   Call 894 4840 for more information.

212. 980916 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Prolific professor an influential scholar

As a student at the University of Chicago Divinity School in the 1960s, I first read the theology of Franz Bibfeld. It was more than unprecedented. It was incredible. "This has got to be a hoax," I said to a laughing classmate. He wised me up. "Of course. It's a spoof by Professor Marty."
   Martin E. Marty has written 50 books, 4,300 articles, for years editedthe influential weekly, The Christian Century, and gives about 100 speeches annually. Yet he has missed only 12 classes in his 34-year teaching career.
   Time magazine calls him the country's "most influentual interpreter of religion."
   In his own student days, he invented Bibfeld and cited him in his papers. His professors were not amused, and brought the prankster back from a London assignment. Soon Chicago recognized his talents with a teaching appointment. Marty says that "Bibfelt, who didn't exist, has influenced (my life) more than any theologian who did."
   Another campus joke. You call Marty. His secretary says she doesn't want to interrupt him because he's just started writing a book. "Could you call back in 23 minutes when he's finished?"
   And journalist Bill Moyers, a Southern Baptist, brags that he's read all of Marty's books "in the original Lutheran."
   Seriously, Marty is the most distinguished and widely respected scholar of American religion. This is why UMKC sought him to inauguarate its PhD Interdisciplinary Program in Religious Studies tonight. Dr. Joseph Schulz, program director, says that Marty "represents the pluralistic approach to religion while recognizing a common core of shared values."
   For free tickets, call 235 2700.

211. 980909 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Reunion celebrates differences

The thought of people from many races and religions meeting on campus to get to know one another and learn how to love one another better" excites Tom Clifton, president of the Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Sept. 16, the school hosts a "Human Family Reunion" potluck dinner at 6 pm.
   Ed Chasteen began the "Reunions" in Kansas City in 1976 when he was professor of cultural anthropology at William Jewell College. The recipient of many awards for his work promoting ethnic and religious amity, Chasteen now has an office for his HateBusters organization at the seminary.
   Members of the Kansas City Interfaith Council will offer prayers and aspirations from their different traditions at the dinner. The purpose is not to convert people. Nor is it to merge all faiths together, any more than all the ethnic foods will be put through a blender. It is to enjoy differences and celebrate kinship.
   "We are all affected by what happens to every group and each individual, no matter how different in worship or doctrine," Clifton said.
   He cited the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr., for a "beloved community" where every human life is precious and valuable. "Somehow we must all learn that witnessing to the truth that God has given us -- regardless of our religion -- is never compromised when we choose to love those whose views and doctrines contradict our own," Clifton said.
   The free evening features awards, an open mike and entertainment from many cultures, including Celtic world musician Gerald Trimble.
   For information, phone the school, 371 5313. It is located at 741 N. 31, Kansas City, KS.

210. 980902 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
The magician works for the wider good

Doug Boyd says that our culture lacks the spiritual supports found in other times. "While we need to know how to live and work together more than ever before, we have lost the skills which were highly developed in traditional societies."
   Founding director of the Cross Cultural Studies Program and son of Elmer and Alyce Green, formerly researchers at the Menninger Foundation, Boyd is known for his books, Rolling Thunder, Mad Bear, Swami and Mystics, Magicians and Medicine People. His thought has been enriched by frequently living abroad and in many regions of this country since the 50's.
   "Recent spirituality has sometimes been focused too much on individual enlightenment," he says, and fails to recognize that "we are servants" of a larger good. The prayer Boyd often offers betrays no sense of selfishness: "May that which is best for all of life come to pass."
   Boyd has developed a process to recover traditional wisdom, the purpose of which is to use power for the wider good. He uses a traditional term, "magician," to talk about someone who is able to transform good intentions into wholesome realities.
   His "magician's cookbook" includes three sections:
   * the setting, creating a sacred space in which to work,
   * ingredients, the implements of power and
   * directions, the steps to carry out good will.
   Sept. 18, Friday night at 7:30 Boyd speaks on "The Restoration and Renewal of Culture" at Unity Temple on the Plaza. Sept. 19 and 20, Saturday and Sunday, he presents a seminar on "The Benevolent Magician." For information, call Fowler Jones, (913) 831-2074.

209. 980826 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Zen is the art of spontaneous inner game

SAUSALITO -- Out of town, off Shoreline Highway, is the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center. Its buildings and gardens are called Soryu-ji or Green Dragon Temple. The ashes of the great "spiritual entertainer," Alan Watts, who wrote dozens of books on Asian themes, are here, scattered with those of the Temple's founder, Shunryu Suzuki, whose short book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, has become a classic.
   [It has been nearly 20 years since I last visited. Then there was talk of bringing Japanese carpenters here to build a tea house. Now I photograph the fresh structure, though its garden, a key element in the tea experience, is not yet complete. Some things, like the tea ceremony itself, cannot be rushed.]
   At the dinner table, with food from the garden, I talk with Jeff Goldfien, a former lawyer contemplating a new career. He writes. I ask to see his poems. One contrasts courtroom legalize and argumentation with the quiet of the Zen housekeeping he has been doing since he arrived several months ago.
   He also teaches tennis.
   The ego impedes one's playing, he says. Focusing on winning, criticizing one's last stoke, seeking to control one's actions -- all these defeat the spontaneity and flow of a good game.
   It is a metaphor for religious life.
   The ego wants to know who it is. But can our inner identities be found in control, achievements, power, job descriptions, social roles, possessions?
   Or, as Goldfien suggests, is the ego a nuisance? Is our spiritual nature disclosed only when we cease looking for it? Can we truly succeed only when we abandon the thought of winning?

208. 980819 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
New cars have one, now so do humans

SAUSALITO.-- "If I have a talent, it is being able to learn almost any subject and present it clearly, without over-simplifying it or distorting it," James Sloman tells me at a breakfast interview. I had complimented Sloman on his skill in integrating ideas from many spiritual sources, ancient and contemporary, in his 550-page book, Handbook for Humans.
   Sloman is known in some financial circles for his work on the Delta Phenomenon and the Adam Theory, which apply to trading systems. He was a stockbroker in Miami, a futures trader in Chicago and a market theorist in San Diego.
   Sloman is currently completing another book on markets, one he started over eight years ago but put aside when he felt directed to prepare the Handbook. "I didn't know writing the Handbook would take so long," he said, but readers will not be surprised because his book is so well-researched, from Taoism to diets, from evolution to empathy.
   Sloman observed that we get handbooks when we buy cars and instructions when we purchase appliances. Scouts begin their training with a manual. Why shouldn't humans benefit from a book of basic information for living?
   The book's four parts--spirit, mind, heart and body--are each presented in "inner" and "outer" dimensions, resulting in eight key principles: awareness, surrender, creation, production, equanimity, appreciation, simplicity and compassion.
   I ask him about the multitude of spiritual paths available today. "All of them are potentially fruitful. The real test of one's own path is whether it leads to more open-heartedness in one's daily life," Sloman says.
   Sloman's book is available through Rave Productions, 1-800-852-4890.

207. 980812 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Hindu holiday celebrates child Krishna

Westerners may know Krishna from the Bhagavad Gita as the god who drove Arjuna's war chariot, the occasion for profound spiritual teachings.
   But Hindus also celebrate Krishna as a child, just as Christians observe not only the Christ of the cross, but also the Jesus born in a manger. The Krishna birth holiday is Janmashtami. Kansas City area Hindus plan a festival this Saturday with exhibition, dance, drama and costume, especially for the children.
   Dr. Mangesh Gaitonde, a retired psychiatrist in Lee's Summit, says that "it is difficult for Westerners to appreciate Krishna as a playful god" because Westerners "don't think of God as someone you can play with, praise, scold and disagree with."
   As a youngster, Krishna loved butter and curd, and tricked the village women out of their stores. In one festival game, children form a human pyramid to reach an earthen pot suspended high above the ground. When they succeed, they break the pot and retrieve its treasures.
   Krishna loved pranks. He flirted with the gopis, the cowherd maidens, and stole their clothes as they bathed in the river. When he grew older, he enchanted the gopis with songs on his flute, and danced amorously with them.
   Still, one sober story of Krishna's youth must be recalled. When his exasperated mother challenged him, he told her he was God. Prove it, she said. He opened his mouth, and in it she saw the entire universe.
   Gaitonde called it a "staggering experience, to see the cosmic force is both beautiful and blinding, and that we are a part of infinite, pure love. We must bring that sense of oneness to the people around us."

206. 980805 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Spiritual orientation givesife meaning

It was a brilliant lecture. In less than an hour last month, Professor John G. Horton, D.O., outlined the research of the past 50 years that shows the how spirituality affects health.
   The course is "Spirituality and Patient Care" at the University of Health Sciences in Kansas City. The course for medical students is designed to increase "awareness of religion and spirituality in patient care," according to the syllabus.
   The course takes an interfaith approach. Guest presentations include Roman Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, American Indian, and Mormon and Scientology  perspectives. The course also covers near death experiences and recognizing how personal physician spirituality affects patient care.
   I've been curious about how religion affects health since I was a child. My church taught healing by the "laying on of hands," based on New Testament practices. I witnessed both apparent successes and failures.
   Later, as part of my theological training at the University of Chicago Hospitals, I studied with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., whose book On Death and Dying has since become a classic.
   What I learned from her, from my own work with patients as a chaplain, from my years as a pastor, and now seems to be confirmed by the literature Dr. Horton reviewed, is this:
   One's particular religious affiliation--Christian, Jewish, Buddhist--makes little difference in basic health and in recovery from illness. What counts is a spiritual orientation which gives meaning to life.
   Is this a sign for us to support each other's faiths, rather than to weaken them or seek to convert others to our own?

It's time to awaken from secular trance

Since this column began in 1994, I've often been asked to disclose my own beliefs. Today I respond. While I personally use terms like "sin" and "salvation," here I search for fresh ways to express such concerns.
   I believe that when we encounter the Holy, we naturally feel awe; that awe matures into gratitude; and that gratitude is complete only in service to others.
   I believe that we are born to love unconditionally, but rewards and punishments place conditions on the Holy and distort us, dividing us within ourselves, from each other and from the world of nature.
   I believe such conditioning puts us in a secular trance, deepened by perverted desires for pleasure, status, power and wealth; and that as this fragmented trance obscures the Holy, we are numbed to the suffering of others, to our own inborn natures and to the environment.
   I believe that religions, through story, ritual and compassion, can restore us to the embrace of the Infinite, but that often religions have justified the trance with fear, greed and violence.
   I believe we may be emerging from this trance as the process of spiritual evolution unfolds in atom, cell, person and society; and that the universe, making many mistakes, may yet come to behold itself though us.
   I believe this process includes today's concourse of the world's religions and offers their mutual purification; that this free nation, where most of us are children of immigrants, is the best place for authenticity; and that honoring differences can extinguish the selfish, addictive trance, awaken us to the Holy and call us to service together.
   I believe there's a lot of work and loving to do.

Faith is a personal thing -- even for this columnist

This column has now appeared more than 200 times. You, dear readers, have shaped it in ways I did not anticipate.
   Judging by your calls and the comments I hear as I work around the community, the vast majority of you are Christians interested in understanding your faith and the faiths of others more deeply.
   Since 1994 many of you have asked, "What do you, Vern Barnet, believe?" I have hesitated to respond for four reasons:
   1. The purpose of this column is not to further my own views but to explore spiritual issues as they appear on the many paths of faith.
   2. A good teacher respects the independence of students' views and does not want his or her own opinions to short-circuit the maturation process. Similarly, I'd prefer to model such respect rather than suggest that I have answers that will work for others. As exposure to many ideas in the classroom helps us develop our own, so encounter with the diversity of traditions can stimulate the deepening of our own faith.
   3. I seldom agree with myself two days in a row. Well, perhaps that's a bit exaggerated, but the Truth is so large I see only tiny parts, and every day brings a fresh evaluation.
   4. Words may be fine, but the real test is how they are lived. Since we learn more by example than by catechism, my own failures become painful evident when I compare what I say with what I do. It is embarrassing.
   Nevertheless, next Wednesday I will honor the requests. You, dear readers, have a right to such disclosure.
   I know I'm bound to disappoint. But I hope my failure will move you to compose a statement of your own faith and share it with others.

203. 980715 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Monk says idea of rebirth provides hope

An American born in Chicago, Santikaro Bhikkhu was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1985 in Thailand after an earlier tour there with the Peace Corps. He became the English translator for the extraordinary monk Ajahn Buddhadasa (1906-1993), perhaps the most important Thai Buddhist teacher in 2,000 years.
   He is currently abbot of a Thai Buddhist community of scholars using consensus rather than hierarchy to make decisions. He travels widely to teach, and works closely with Roman Catholics as well as Buddhists. The Mid America Dharma Group brought him to Kansas City last month to lead a retreat.
   I asked him about reincarnation, the repeated embodiment of personal consciousness from one life to another.
   "Many wonderful people believe in rebirth. It encourages their morality, to feel a part of the larger scheme of things," he said.
   But the monk is skeptical. "The Buddha never taught rebirth. His focus was on this life."
   Still, he refused to call the idea harmful or false. "When many people face death, this teaching holds them together, as the idea of heaven does for some Christians. It would be cruel to take away their hope."
   And he thinks the idea of rebirth serves those who "don't have the spiritual guts to face liberation right here, right now. They are not ready to let go of their egos."
   Santikaro did warn that "religious bureaucrats" become wealthy and powerful by using ideas like rebirth to gain support for their organizations from those wishing to earn merit for the future.

202. 980708.  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Thank God for freedom of religion

Neal McGregor of Blue Springs is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination for the Missouri House 55th District. Last month he attended the Jackson County Farm Bureau Picnic.
   He and his wife moved from table to table to meet the people.
   At one table he was told, "You know they are going to pass a law that the husband is the head of the household."
   McGregor thought they were joking, making an internal church matter into a political issue. He said, "You must be thinking of the recent Southern Baptist convention's statement on the role of spouses in marriage."
   "No, we are taking this to Washington and making it a law."
   McGregor sensed hostility when they began talking about foreigners. His wife is a Hispanic naturalized US citizen.
   One added, "The Buddhists should be killed, all those with foreign religions."
   "I was shocked. I did not know what to say. I tried, 'In my Bible, God is a God of love.'"
   "Ours is a God of war. The Bible says to kill the foreigners. If they are not Christian, they deserve to hurt. They deserve to die."
   McGregor says all six at the table agreed.
   McGregor worries that "even if the law made us a Christian nation, it wouldn't be enough. Some would insist on allegiance to a particular form of Christianity or view of scripture. With this kind of thinking, where does it stop?"
   Isolated biblical passages notwithstanding, most of us are profoundly grateful for the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, and not just on July 4.

201. 980701.  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Stardust is much more than just a pretty melody

When as a child I first learned that the Fourth of July meant far more than fireworks, the events of 1776 seemed unimaginably remote in time.
   Now that I have lived for one quarter of the history of the Republic, I have a different sense of scale. Only four of my lifetimes ago, this nation was founded.
   Still, if one compares the five billion years of the earth's existence to one mile, the entire story of the United States would be about the width of a hair.
   And the sojourn of human beings since homo erectus, in this scale, is a single step.
   Putting ourselves in perspective is an exercise of the spirit.
   Tomorrow from 2 pm until sunset on Independence Day, Kansas Citians have a chance to gain such a perspective from a free 90-panel display, "A Walk Through Time . . . From Stardust to Us" at Barney Allis Plaza.
   But it isn't just perspective that commends this experience to the spirit. Learning about how the materials of stardust were transformed into living creatures inspires religious awe. For example, the early cyanobacteria split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, a development without which later forms of life, including us humans, would not have been possible.
   The exhibition was created by Hewlett-Packard Labs in part to place the computer equipment corporation's work in cosmic context and to emphasize its global environmental responsibility.
   The Institute of Noetic Sciences holds its annual conference here July 2-5, and arranged to share the exhibit with Kansas City.

200. 980624.  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Bible uses imperfect people to teach

A reader responding to last Wednesday's column about disturbing family life in the Bible was unhappy. Instead of the stories of Adam and Eve raising a son who killed his brother, of Lot impregnating his daughters, of Abraham planning to kill his son, she felt I should have cited a model family.
   But another reader noted that the two main figures of the New Testament, Jesus and Paul, never married.
   I called the Rev. Jerry Johnston of First Family Church in Overland Park. "First Family" refers not to a model family in the Bible, but is an expression like "First Baptist" Church.
   As a guide to wholesome family life, Johnston referred me not to any particular biblical examples but rather to the wisdom in the book of Proverbs.
   Johnston said Paul may have been married at one time but lost his wife, as John Wesley did.
   Johnston said his church welcomes single people as well as families. He tells those without a family that the church will be their family.
   "Before God created churches, he made families," Johnston said.
   I erred, as one caller noted, when I wrote, "Noah cursed a son who saw him drunk and naked." Noah actually cursed his grandson, Canaan, though it was Noah's son, Ham, who discovered Noah's condition.
   When I asked one caller what family in the Bible he would hold up to those of other faiths as an example of what Christians think families should be like, he said, "There isn't one. The Bible is not about ideal people. It is a story of how God uses corrupt and sinful people for his purposes."

199. 980617.  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Context is all when comparing religions

Those who grew up in other cultures sometimes have difficulty in appreciating images of the family in Jewish and Christian scriptures.
   Adam and Eve raised a son who killed his brother. Noah cursed a son who saw him drunk and naked. Lot impregnated his two daughters. Abraham denied that Sarah was his wife, had sex with another woman and thought that God commanded him to kill his son. David's love for Jonathan was greater than his love for women, but his lust for Bathsheba led to the death of Bathsheba's husband. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.
   Jesus never married and his mother was unwed when she was discovered to be pregnant. God himself is unmarried but has a son, whom he gave to suffer and die to satisfy the penalty God imposed on others.
   Most Christians find such a list unfair and this wording misleading because the context necessary to interpret these situations is missing.
   This is how many Hindus feel when their veneration of the cow is judged superstitious. This is how many pagans feel when they are accused of worshipping Satan. This is how many Muslims feel when they are said to enslave the women they love because their wives wear hijab, Islamic dress. This is how many Sikhs feel when the dagger they carry is viewed as evidence of a blood-thirsty disposition.
   Many of the calls I receive condemning other faiths arise from an inability to conceive that there may be a context in which what at first seems nonsense or perverted is actually reasonable or even elevated.
   Trying to explain our own faith to others can help us understand how difficult it can be for us to hear accurately what others believe.

198. 980610.  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
KC enlightened by Buddhists' presence

"Buddhism is the most rapidly growing religion in America today," reported Susan McBeth, executive director of the Greater Kansas City NCCJ, formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews, now the National Conference for Community and Justice, at its annual awards dinner last month.
   The growth of Buddhism here supports this assessment. Kansas City Buddhist groups, several of them new, less than five years old, joined May 31 for "Compassion Day." Tibetan prayer flags fluttered in the breeze from tents shading a statue of the Buddha in Mill Creek Park.
   Chuck Stanford, who organized the festival, patterned it on "Change Your Mind Day" sponsored each year by Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine, in New York's Central Park on the Sunday after Memorial Day. Stanford hopes the observance here becomes an annual reminder "to devote compassion to the earth and one another."
   Stanford said Kansas City now has about a dozen different Buddhist groups. Those with information tables at the event included the Shambhala Center, the Gandhara Tantric Institute, the American Buddhist Center, Kwan Um School of Zen in Lawrence, Jamste Tsokpa (a Tibetan Relief organization) and Stanford's Mindfulness Meditation Foundation. One group did not participate because its members were away on retreat.
   The afternoon speakers from various Buddhist traditions talked about a Buddhist sutra, basic human goodness, how to meditate and living a life of compassion.
   Stanford hopes that non-Buddhist groups will join with additional Buddhist organizations in next year's event. "All faiths teach compassion," he said.

197. 980603.  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Award a sign of increasing faith diversity

Award recipients often recognize that the honor bestowed on them really signifies the work of many people and the values of a community.
   This is why I cherish the "Distinguished Community Service Award" given me last month by the American Muslim Council, Midwest Region, "for promoting positive awareness of religious diversity."
   * The growth of this group shows that the American heritage of freedom of religion is being vigorously and sincerely exercized and enlarged as founders of this nation envisioned.
   * The award also reveals the faithfulness of Muslims to their own tradition of honoring all religions, by selecting someone with a Christian background who has ties to the Kansas City Jewish community (I received a similar award from a Jewish group in 1979) and who maintains friendships with those of many other faiths.
   * It is a sign that inter-religious encounter has become more important than ever.
   In the past few years, annual events like the Martin Luther King Jr and United Nations Day observances here have increasingly represented the religious diversity of our community. Many schools and congregations now offer ways of learning about minority faiths. The attention given to varied spiritual paths in this paper has increased.
   These are mere hints of the larger dimensions of hope for our secular age.
   And that a group would conceive of such an award--not for advancing a narrow interest, but for the better understanding of all faiths--is surely more significant than any person who might receive it.

196. 980527
Minister is a matchmaker

Whether he was organizing to heal racism, homophobia or other ills, the Rev. John Weston at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church brought together people of many faiths. The very name of an organization he started, Congregational Partners, says as much.
   "Weston's leadership and devotion to make Kansas City more humane was unmatched," said David Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau//American Jewish Committee.
   "He opened his arms and his heart to all of us," said Bilal Muhammad, imam of Masjid Inshirah. "I loved him because he got to know people from all backgrounds and called us to work together. His sermon, 'Two Prophets: Jesus and Muhammad,' made this commitment clear."
   "Well educated but not an elitist, Weston made Humanism more than an abstract literary or intellectual venture. He demanded social justice and proactively brought people together to secure it. Our city has lost a major resource," said the Rev Al Truesdale, professor at the Nazarene Theological Seminary.
   "He was an ecumenical person, involved with the totality of the community. He brought us a new perspective, with a vision for the children and great love for justice. We miss him," said the Rev. Raymond Handy Sr, pastor of St John AME Church.
   Weston's too-brief ministry here began in 1992. He now assumes what some of his colleagues believe is in practice the most important position in his denomination: director of ministerial settlement, helping to match congregations with ministers. His Kansas City tenure shows him to be a master matchmaker.

195. 980520 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Is evolution consistent with Christianity?

The rise of science has challenged Christianity at some points in history. Despite scriptural texts and the authority of the church, most people now believe the earth is round and moves about the sun.
   But evolution remains an issue. While some Christians argue against teaching it in public schools, others find profound spiritual significance in evolution.
   The Jesuit paleontologist, Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1883-1955), developed a theology that attempts far more than reconciling science and faith. For him, love is manifested--and Christ is realized--through evolution. Yet he never received permission to publish these ideas.
   Kansas City playwright Wendy MacLaughlin wrote about Teilhard's life in her play, Crown of Thorn, produced in 1982 by the Missouri Repertory Theater. Divine Discord, a staged reading version of the play, is presented at Unity Temple on the Plaza May 21-30. (Call 960-4636 for the schedule.)
   May 26, instead of the play, a panel considers the spiritual significance of evolution. Panelists are Rockhurst College professor Father Wilfred LaCroix, SJ, Jungian psychotherapist Mary Dian Molton, Unity minister Lois Webb, and myself. The audience is encouraged to participate in the discussion. The evening is free.
   MacLaughlin hopes her audience will find in her play intimations of "the energy of love in all its fullness, in all its manifestations--love of persons for each other, love for creation, love of God. Only when we understand the essence of love can we connect to each other, to the universe and to God."

194. 980513 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Buddha's advice is for taking or leaving

In some Buddhist calendars, last Sunday was Wesak, a triple observance of the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death.
   In the 2500 years since he lived, one theme in his teaching has been especially perplexing--or intriguing--to Westerners. Where the religions of most of us offer beliefs to guide our lives, the Buddha warned against beliefs when they become a substitute for looking afresh at each situation.
   The Buddha refused to answer questions about the existence of God, life after death and other common religious concerns. He considered them distracting.
   In a famous parable, the Buddha told of a man wounded by a poisoned arrow who refused medical care until he learned the occupation, name, height, skin color, residence and other facts about the one who shot the arrow. What is urgent is not the species of the bird whose feathers were used for the arrow, or the kind of tree from which it was made, or the design of the bow, but the removal of the poison.
   Rather than a creed, the Buddha offered practical advice on treating our wounds.
   A man needing to cross water where no boat or bridge could help might build a raft. But once across, he would not strap the raft to his back as he proceeded up a mountain. He would leave the raft to advance his journey. The Buddha likened his teachings to the raft and said that even wholesome teachings must be abandoned when they are out of place.
   Whether or not we are Buddhists, a "spring cleaning" of the soul may help. Is it wise to ask if beliefs we have accumulated advance or impede our journey?

193. 980506 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Thanks, readers, for your soul concern

Because I write about learning from all faiths, I am regularly consigned to hell--or at least warned about it. A Raytown reader's letter does this more gently than some callers. Here are excerpts:
   "One Monday night in 1992 I followed a beautiful born-again Christian to a 10-week study of the Bible. God used that experience to open my eyes to the truth, to heal my heart and give me a life-long partner.
   "I learned that the Bible (the King James Version of 1611) is God's chosen way to communicate with us. I also learned that almost all Bible translations used today are counterfeits.
   "The Bible makes God's will for us perfectly clear, and none of us will have an excuse when we eventually stand before him. I am imagining how that meeting will go for you."
   My reply:
   Thank you for your concern for my soul, and for describing your own experiences. In this secular age, folks need to talk about their spiritual journeys with each other.
   I am happy you have found such a rewarding path these six years.
   My 40-year path has included study, parish ministry, teaching, travel and prayer.
   I've been blessed with friends from many faiths and friends who doubt. They all help me behold many intimations of the sacred which I might otherwise ignore. For this I offer thanks, not excuse.
   While I do not share your fears and do not presume to know God's mind, I am convinced, even in my failures, that love redeems, and that Infinite Love embraces both you and me in ways we can never fully fathom.

192. 980429 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Interfaith programs offer guidance

Last Wednesday's column listed some tips for groups planning interfaith programs. The Kansas City Interfaith Council web site,, also offers guidance and speakers.
   Here are some examples of different ways our community of many faiths is being explored:
   * "Houses of the Holy" was a series led this winter by the Rev. Troy Sybrant at Community Christian Church. A group visited Temple B'nai Jehudah, Masjid Inshirah and the Hindu Temple to learn about three non-Christian faiths "on site."
   * Since 1993, an interfaith group at the University of Kansas Medical Center has met each week, once a month with a guest speaker. Detective Barb McAtee, an organizer, says those not connected with the hospital are also welcome to join them at noon Wednesdays in Room 5003 for brown bag lunch and discussion.
   * Rolling Hills Presbyterian Church is focusing its May "Inside Out: Experiencing Spirituality" series with a professor familiar with several traditions including Buddhism, a Sufi and a representative of the Orthodox branch of Christianity.
   * The Young Leaders Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau is currently running "Interfaith Viewpoints on Life," a series focusing on birth, rites of adulthood, marriage, death and such. They have engaged speakers representing Jewish, Wiccan, Hindu, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist and American Indian speakers.
   Most people at such programs seem to learn not only about other faiths but ways to deepen their own.

191. 980422 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Speakers spread the word about tradition
[This version is formatted differently than the printed form.]

Since The Star began to feature a rotating panel of columnists from various religions on the Saturday faith page and this column began in 1994, many groups have asked for assistance in planning programs with speakers representing the traditions practiced in Kansas City.
   Here are some tips, with more next week.
   1. In your publicity, emphasize that your group brings a respectful attitude to the faiths you will encounter.
   2. Your speakers should
   * be comfortable in speaking publically and in English
   * know their own faiths broadly, beyond their particular denominations, divisions or schools
   * understand the history, scripture, beliefs, practices, organizations, artistic expressions and cultural impacts of their faiths
   * understand your faith well enough to make comparisons with theirs
   * honor your own faith.
   3. If you have acquaintances who are qualified to speak about religions you'd like to hear about, invite them. Personal relationships build bridges between faiths.
   But if you need help in obtaining speakers, visit the Kansas City Interfaith Council web site, or send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Box 45055, Kansas City, MO 64171, for a copy of its Speakers Bureau list.
   4. Some groups like an overview to begin or end a series. Teachers of comparative religion are among those who can do this effectively.
   Most people find learning about other faiths deepens their own. How can we truly love our neighbors if we do not know them?

190. 980415 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Lutheran series is a forum for other voices

   The First Lutheran Church ELCA in Mission Hills focused its annual Lenten series this year on world religions. For five Wednesdays, members of the congregation heard guests talk about different faiths practiced here in Kansas City.
   Pyare Mohan spoke about his Hindu tradition and answered questions about reincarnation and karma. He and his wife, Priti, were impressed that the congregation prepared a "delicious" vegetarian meal for them.
   Dr. A. Rauf Mir was the Muslim speaker. He and his wife, Naseema, appreciated the opportunity to clear up misunderstandings about Islam and applauded the "excellent questions" the group asked.
   Kara Boyle brought ritual objects to illustrate her American Indian path. She believes that it is not our spirituality that separates the faiths but "mostly the politics," and that we can learn from each other's spiritual practices.
   Ben Worth of the American Buddhist Center discussed Buddhism and pleased the group with "his gift of humor."
   My job was to summarize and conclude the series.
   I asked long-time church member Emily Ballentine about her interest in different faiths. "God has created all life. How can I not be interested?"
   Diane K. Doran, who arranged the series, said she found that the speakers helped to provide a "world-wide context for faith" that we often forget.
   Donna Powers of Hillcrest Christian Church in Overland Park was in the audience. The Lutherans have inspired her to arrange a similar series for her congregation.
   [Next week I'll offer some hints about planning such a series.]

189. 980408  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Faith in things unseen: Keep eyes open

For Christians, Lent is a season of deepening faith. But what is "faith"?
   In the context of Holy Week, I put this question to Kathleen Norris, author of  Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, in town recently to speak at Village Presbyterian Church.
   She said the Christian message is that even grim things like death can lead to good. "Religions endure because they take suffering seriously. Suffering and compassion are two key elements in any faith with staying power."
   Her book is organized by words like "salvation," "dogma" and "heaven." We may think we know what these terms mean -- or think them meaningless. But she finds fresh significance in them for us by continuing her life story and reflections, begun in her previous best-selling books, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and The Cloister Walk.
   One chapter presents faith not as certainty or a set of beliefs but more a "decision to keep your eyes open," as she quotes Doris Betts. In Abba Poeman's language, "Faith is to live humbly and to give alms." Faith, Norris says, is a "verb."
   Commitment to her Christian faith makes it easy for her to embrace those of other faiths. She cited Jesus' respect for the Samaritan.
   Norris glowed as she discussed the excitement she had working on her book with her Jewish editor, whose questions brought greater clarity to her writing. Neither converted. Both she and her editor were enlarged by the process. "God touches people in ways we can't understand," she said.
   Faith is deciding to be open to such an ineffable touch.

188. 980401  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
'Frontline' explores Christian history

 Certain expressions in the Bible are never read literally. For example, John 1:29 refers to Jesus as the "Lamb of God." No one thinks of Jesus as Ovis aries.
   How can a Hindu or Buddhist vegetarian understand this metaphor? How can anyone unfamiliar with Jewish temple sacrifice appreciate its original intent? Ironically, an entirely different association the Romans had with sheep may be one reason Christianity grew in the Empire.
   When Albert Schweitzer pushed biblical studies to the limit in his 1906 The Quest of the Historical Jesus, he could not have envisioned the Dead Sea Scrolls, the discoveries of Sepphoris only four miles from Nazareth or the advanced scholarship that is exposed Apr 6 and 7, 8-10 both nights, on the PBS Frontline 4-hour program "From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians."
   Still, what we know about Jesus is slight. But we now know a great deal about how the early Christians separated from Judaism and rose to power.
   Paul's letters reveal disputes over dietary laws, circumcision and other questions amongst the early Christians. The Gospels seem to have been written with markedly different views of who Jesus was. Other evidence shows the range of beliefs within Christendom was extraordinary.
   When Constantine made Christianity the official religion in the Fourth Century, he began the persecutions of Christians who would not conform to his desire for a unified church.
  Frontline does not debate whether Paul or Constantine had more influence than Jesus in shaping the history of Christianity, but the viewer must wonder.

187. 980325  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Ankh stands for life, health and happiness

A reader asks about a symbol sometimes worn as earrings, the ankh. Is it Satanic?
   No. It originates in ancient Egypt. It was later adopted by early Christians and was known as the /{crux ansata,/} or "cross with a handle."
   In Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, it formed words for "life," "health" and "happiness," and may have originally represented a sandal with its strap, hence "walking," and then "walking through life."
   In Egyptian art, it is sometimes carried by the gods as the key to awaken the dead to new life. It is also shown at the end of the rays of the sun. Sometimes it becomes a scepter.
   Microcosmically, the symbol represents the human form. The top oval outlines the head, the horizontal bar is outstretched arms, and the vertical slash is the body and legs.
   Macrocosmically, it is the sun, the horizon, and the path we travel (or the Nile River).
   The ankh unites the straight male form with the rounded female form into a whole which preserves the integrity of its parts.
   People sometimes wear jewelry with symbols from religions other than their own as without knowing much about their meanings. Perhaps the appeal is simply esthetic or exotic, but maybe it is deeper. Is it possible that intuitively we can connect with spiritual significance even when we are not conscious of a symbol's history?

186. 980318  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Are fashion and faith a search for identity?

NEW YORK -- In 1970 the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima demonstrated his traditional values by seppuku, ritual disembowlment. Here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a video portrays his suicide with fashion pumps cascading from the actor's abdomen. It mocks Mishima's ultimate sincerity.
   The video is part of a show of the work of Gianni Versace, the famed designer, murdered last year.
   Versace said, "I think beauty will save the world." But these extravagant dresses seem more the "insulting splendor of the rich," a phrase Georges Bataille uses in his essay on expenditures, rather than the path to redemption.
   In his Theory of Religion, Bataille says faith is "the search for lost intimacy." The excess of the video and the rest of the exhibition suggests that fashion is used to create a personal identity by drawing attention to oneself. To some extent we all do this.
   But does the fashion which draws attention [to ourselves] ultimately [reveal us or conceal us,] recover or defeat faith and intimacy?
   Now on Canal Street, I meet Sean Vasquez at his Sacred Body Arts Emporium. Vasquez, whose tattoo work is documented [even in a Russian magazine], shows me his arm which displays both the Christian Virgin of Guadalupe and the Buddhist figure Manjusri.
   As I talk with him and his staff, and mentally review what I know of tribal cultures, I think that perhaps tattooing, like fashion, is a search for personal identity.
   Will fashion and tattoos save us? Do they help us to discover sincerity and lost intimacy? or do they distract us?

185. 980311  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Celebrating the spiritual part of "Hair"

NEW YORK -- The ads here beckon me to the "30th Anniversary" of the "Hippie Tribal Love Rock Musical" Hair.
   But Hair actually dates to 1967, 31 years ago.
   Who remembers, and so what?
   I remember, and it's a big deal to me. I wrote about the two "original cast" recordings of Hair for the Chicago Literary Review in 1968. I explored the meaning of Hair in my 1970 doctoral dissertation. For me, Hair raises the question of whether spiritual revelation can be both uncorrupted and popular.
   I first saw Hair off-off-Broadway, at the Cheetah, when it was fresh, authentic, pure and gracious. Later I saw the Broadway version which added gimmickry, cuteness and the irrelevant nude scene for which it became famous.
   The 1967 production was high liturgy, a transcendent response to the horrors of Vietnam -- both in that country and in ours, with the brutal contest of values tearing us apart as a nation. The play also presented civil rights, environmental concerns and sexuality as spiritual issues. The message inspired community.
   The 1968 production debased and commercialized the play. In one city, even the playbill reeked with a five-page article explaining how the male of the species can be well-dressed for only $30,000 a year. The message provoked self-centeredness.
   This was a lesson to me. Before my eyes, I saw spirituality perverted as it was mass-marketed. Jesus, the Buddha, Muhammad are well known now. But have their messages survived without taint?

184. 980304  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Diferent religions show different images

Most callers responding to this column seem to appreciate this space as an opportunity to learn about our neighbors of different faiths.
   But not all.
   One recent caller complained, "I feel very sorry for you. . . . Your commission is to win souls to Christ and not turn people away from him, thinking that any road to God is the right way. . . . Your ideas are so perverse, it's pathetic. How dare you put these things in print for people to see, people who have no discernment of the truth. . . . You cannot blend all these (religions) together. You either are a Christian or you are not."
   Dear Caller: I am not trying to blend all religions together, any more than I advocate mixing Chinese, Mexican, and French food into one bowl. I like the variety. I want to preserve and rejoice in the differences, even if I have my favorites.
   Different religions provide different images of the Infinite, and give fresh ways of thinking about what is ultimately beyond our understanding.
   Yet, Dear Caller, you are right to be suspicious of me. In a way, I do think of myself as simultaneously a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jew--precisely because of their differences--as I may be a father, a citizen, a swimmer, a writer. Being one does not exclude being another, even if one is most important to me.
   [As a person, I am enlarged by many activities.] Our spirituality can also be deepened when our sympathies and understandings are broadened.
   Thank you for your call. But please consider whether we are more likely to hear the divine melody when we are listening to, rather than berating, each other.


183. 980225  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Pluralism Project plots religious diversity

Perhaps no one knows more about religious diversity in America than Diana Eck. She told an audience at the Saint Paul School of Theology here recently how she came to create the Pluralism Project at Harvard where she is a professor, and what she has learned from her work so far.
   The Pluralism Project emerged from Eck's almost sudden discovery of how many Americans, including her students, follow non-Christian paths. The Harvard commencement in 1993, for example, included readings not just from the Bible, but also from Hindu and Muslim scriptures. The old classification of Americans as Protestants, Catholics or Jews was no longer adequate.
   The Pluralism Project ( is mapping our nation's increasing diversity, documented in a multi-media CD-ROM which covers, so far, 18 U.S. cities and regions. While Kansas City is not on the CD-ROM, the project's on-line listing does include many local groups.
   Her own Christian inclusiveness is disclosed in her best known book, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey From Bozeman to Benares.
   Here she told the story of the Christian educator who said "Screw the Buddhists and kill the Muslims," the denominational leader who said that "God does not hear the prayers of Jews," and the "dot-busters" who attack Hindu women who wear the red mark of devotion on their foreheads.
   But she also told stories of genuine understanding and sympathy. When a Jewish home displaying a Hanukkah menorah was threatened in a Montana town, ten thousand Christian homes responded by placing candles in their windows.
  Eck said that all religions have an ethic of hospitality and neighborliness that needs such cultivation.


182. 980218  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
There's a time to speak, a time to listen

Some Christians are troubled by Biblical passages which have been interpreted to discount other faiths. I asked the Rev. Lewis E. Hinshaw III how he and his congregation, the Church of the Pilgrimage, United Church of Christ, in Overland Park, read the scripture. He responded:
   "In this religiously pluralistic culture and world, how are we Christians to understand Acts 4:12 which says of Jesus that "there is no other name under heaven . . . by which we must be saved"?
   "This statement raises questions of value. It asks us to consider how we value our own religion and how we value the other religions. Is there no religious truth outside Christianity?
   "What may happen if we Christians discover that there is no contradiction in valuing our own religion and the religion of others? We may find using Jesus' name more comfortable and sharing the new life he gives more urgent. We may find that "the true light which enlightens everyone" (John 1:9) is shining in synagogue, mosque, and temple as well as in church. We may find that Jesus was saying not "I am the way", but rather "I am the way" (John 14:6) and that we have many kinds of companions on the way to God.
   "Let's start in our churches where we can listen to our sisters and brothers and share faith journey with them. If Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the "true light" in human form, we Christians have the least reason of all to fear dialogue with friends and neighbors of other world religions.
   "A prime directive of the New Testament, James 1:19, is: "Be quick to listen, slow to speak." Perhaps we Christians have talked enough. Perhaps it is time to listen. We can be responsible partners locally in the larger dialogue among world religions."


181. 980211  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Feelings wane but love is sustained

Last week I wrote about various ways religions have understood the power of sex, but love is really a more important topic.
   I John 4:16 says God is love. The Jewish theologian Martin Buber said that one who loves "brings God and the world together."
   Such spiritual perspectives might seem naive in our culture. We exchange Valentines, but many people feel a need for concealed weapons. We have no love to spare on criminals; and talk about an economy based on love nowadays sounds preposterous.
   Our incentive system shapes God into an employer: do right and you'll be rewarded, in this life or the next.
   When we desire or fear, our vision of God, of mates, of family and friends and even of ourselves is clouded by intent. But unconditional love has no agenda; it seeks no advantage; it beholds and flows, regardless of race, gender, age, preference, social status or comeliness.
   Part of our confusion is that we mistake love for a feeling. Aquinas calls love an act of will. Feelings come and go, but love cannot be sustained by mere thrills. Love is a decision beyond desire.
   Yet medieval Sufis like Ibn Arabi and Rumi taught that love is a yearning to know and be known in our fullness. These Muslim mystics believed that yearning imitates God's reason for creating the world, to know and be known in his fullness. Our yearning for intimacy can be a spiritual path which brings us to know God.
   [The Sufis influenced the Christian poet Dante who wrote that love moves the sun and the other stars, a theme echoed in the rock musical "Hair." Even in our secular culture, there persists some awareness that what makes the world go 'round is such love.]

180. 980204  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
All religions recognize power of sex

What do religions of the world teach about sexuality? From sacred prostitution to celibacy, from masturbation to polygamy, from blessing to condemnation of same-sex unions -- is there any wisdom that underlies the bewildering variety of acts approved or prohibited according to the particular faith?
   We often forget even within American forms of Christianity, views have ranged from the Shakers who eschewed all sexual relations (and consequently have nearly become extinct) to the Latter-day Saints who until 1890 accepted plural marriage.
   The 19th Century Oneida community practiced complex marriage: every man was the husband of every woman, and every woman was the wife of every man. Exclusive relationships were expressly forbidden because members of the "body of Christ" should love each and all.
   But for much of Christian history, theologians considered the sexual impulse evil, justified only for procreation. Oral sex was condemned in the 7th Century. Aquinas considered masturbation worse than rape because rape made reproduction possible.
   The Jewish and Muslim traditions have generally assessed sexuality more positively. Sexual appetite is regarded as a divine gift.
   The explicit images of almost every conceivable form of love-making on some Hindu temples are metaphorical celebrations of the ecstasy of union with God. Buddhist tantra uses sexual activity as a path toward enlightenment. For Taoists, orgasm itself helps the partners to balance the cosmic forces of yin and yang.
   Religions differ on how sex manifests or defiles what is sacred, but they all recognize its power.

179. 980128  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Do you know your quotations well?

It's quiz time again. Match the quotation to the source. If you get four right, you are exceptionally well informed--or good at guessing!
   1. "You will be nearer to God through football than through the Bhagavad Gita."
   2. "I consider myself a Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist and Confucian."
   3. "Unto you, your religion; unto me, my religion."
   4. "He who reveals to us the meaning of our mysterious inward pilgrimage must himself be a stranger, of another belief and another race."
   5. "He who knows one religion knows none."
   6. "Love your friends like your own soul; protect them like the pupil of your eye."
   7. "Things derive their being and nature by mutual dependence and are nothing in themselves."
   8. "The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all."
   9. "All real life is meeting."
   a. Hindu Swami Vivekananda advising sickly young men to exercize.
   b. Jesus, according to the Gospel of Thomas, discovered in 1945.
   c. Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi.
   d. World religions scholar Mircea Eliade.
   e. Comparative philologist Max Muller.
   f. Taoist/Buddhist American composer John Cage.
   g. What Muslims are to say respectfully to non-Muslims, according to the Qur'an.
   h. Buddhist logician Nagarjuna.
   i. Jewish theologian Martin Buber.
   ANSWERS: 1a, 2c, 3g, 4d, 5e, 6b, 7h, 8f, 9i.

178. 980121  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Pulitzer King's 'lofty' dream has not been fully tried

The message of Martin Luther King Jr. is for all of us, according to the Rev. Troy Sybrant, associate minister at the Community Christian Church. Sybrant used insights from King in his 1996 masters thesis for the Divinity School at Vanderbuilt University.
   I asked him for his thoughts on this month's King observance.
   "The bullet stopped the dreamer, not the dream," Sybrant said.
   "Some might say his dream that America could not only be great, but good, was too lofty. Some might say his dream that one day children would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, was too ambitious. Some might say his dream of a world settling disputes non-violently was too unrealistic.
   "But America is a place of lofty, ambitious and unrealistic dreams, a place where all are created equal--'with liberty and justice for all.'
   "King showed us what we could be in our better moments. It is not that his dream was tried and found wanting, but that it never has been fully tried.
   "He was a prophet whose vision encompassed the world. He named racism, war and poverty as 'the evil triumvirate.' Like any good prophet, he not only named our problems, but showed us a way out.
   "That way out was the 'beloved community'--an ideal realized in the gathering of believers and non-believers, black and white, rich and poor, Jews, Christians and others--who believed that love is stronger than any force, and that men and women struggling together could make the world a better place.
   "We caught a glimpse of what the 'beloved community' could be; King's dream calls us forward to the horizon of hope and healing."

177. 980114   THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Ramadan is a call to faith for Muslims

Ramadan, the month in which Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, began Dec 31 and ends with the sighting of the new moon Jan. 29. The observance, which rotates through the calendar, is one of the five chief requirements of Islam.
   As Muslims hunger, they are reminded to serve those hungry not by choice, to learn discipline through self-denial and to strengthen commitment to God. The month also commemorates the first revelations of the Qur'an to the Prophet Mohammed.
   For Muslims from other parts of the world who now make Kansas City home, Ramadan is also a time to recall their heritage as they deepen their faith.
   The Center for Cultural Exchange, 5908 E. Bannister Road, near Bannister Mall, is an Islamic shop that helps. Bassam Helwani, who runs the shop, does so as a community service. It is not a commercial venture, and he did not want my mention of it to appear as advertising. Helwani makes his living as a computer consultant.
   The shop includes Islamic books and software, scarves for women, kufis (hats) for men, gift items and greeting cards for Ramadan and Id, the festival ending the fast. Many of the cards are made by UNESCO and feature the work of Muslim artists, scenes from Muslim countries or Arabic calligraphy.
   Coffee was introduced to the West by Muslims, so it is not surprising that coffee mugs are popular. On one, the Qur'anic inscription changes from "And [we] have appointed the day for livelihood" to "the night as a cloak" when the mug is filled, and the scene changes from day to night.
   Helwani is happy to answer questions about Islam and help newcomers learn about the other Muslim resources Kansas City offers.

Pulitzer winner's tome is a favorite

"Your favorite book?" a reader asks.
   In 1979 a book appeared which expressed a religious vision using examples from mathematics, art, music, psychology, biology, physics and other fields so amazingly that I placed it with my collection of world scriptures. It remains there today.
   Written by artificial intelligence researcher Douglas R. Hofstadter, the book, Godel, Escher, Bach/ won a Pulitzer Prize. It was called the "best non-fiction book of the 20th Century." No theologian of any age -- not Aquinas, not Tillich, not Samkara -- has written more ingeniously about God and the mystery of consciousness.
   Its 800 pages are difficult but fun.
   Even if you don't do math or Zen koans, you can follow the book's development because before each chapter is a story which illustrates the chapter's theme. These stories are themselves written as pieces of contrapuntal music. "Crab Canon," for example, reads the same whether you begin at the first or the last sentence. 
   One theme of the book is recursion, which can be described as a procedure which contains a smaller version of itself, like a story within a story. This theme prepares the reader to see how DNA, for example, is information which copies itself through generations -- DNA as both "software" and "hardware."
   In this light, the book itself becomes a recursive revelation, a self-extracting document which the universe has brought forth. This suggests that the universe, too, is recursive. This book illustrates how can we decode its sacred meaning from every and any situation.


We need more talk about spirituality, not less

Special to The Star

Kansas City is lucky to have a number of truly great religious leaders.
   Rabbi Morris B. Margolies is one.
   In a recent "Viewpoint" in this paper, he criticized The Kansas City Star for editorials and columns dealing with religion. He singled out Jason Whitlock's column about Kansas City Chief player David Szott's expression faith.
   I, too, worry when someone connects his faith, as Szott, and perhaps Whitlock, seemed to do, with achievement or success on the field, in career, or one's personal life. To me, spirituality is not about such selfish matters. Spirituality is the delight which moves us beyond a narrow scope to work for the greater good.
   Margolies reminds us that "God is not an offensive coordinator" and questions whether God's help should be invoked as players embark in a violent game. Indeed, it is only a few steps from pregame prayer to the violence committed by fanatics carrying out their mistaken vision of faith.
   And Rabbi Margolies has every right to be offended by ignorant statements which demean Judaism. Our community standards are lowered by such prejudice.
   Yet Rabbi Margolies goes too far, in my view, in suggesting editorialists and columnists of a secular paper be barred from writing about religious matters. The Star should serve the entire community.
Most people have some interest in spiritual concerns which deserve to be addressed, in both news and opinion spaces. Rabbi Margolies' own writing has often blessed this community through these pages.
   And religion is not the property of professionals in either religious or journalistic fields. It belongs even to football players. What we need is not less talk about faith, but more. From everyone.

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