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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


279. 991229 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Weighing gains and losses as the year 2000 nears

A thousand years ago Islam was the dominant religion on the planet, and remained so through half of the millennium.
   When Christians discovered ancient learning enhanced by the Muslims, Christianity was renewed. The Renaissance gave people a new way of thinking about themselves. The printing press, the rise of science and the development of democratic ideals of government, inspired in various ways by faith, in turn reshaped Christianity and other religions, and the idea of individual religious liberty developed.
   Of the largest four religions with over 70% of the world's population, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, all began before the current millennium. Sikhism, Unitarian Universalism, Baha'i and the Asian "New Religions" have all emerged since 1000, but they total less than 5%.
   While Jews are less than half a per cent of the world's population, Jews and Muslims number about 6 million each in America today.
   From Marco Polo's travels to the East to today's electronic communication and images of the earth from space, a new global awareness raises questions about whether faiths are independent of the cultures in which they arose.
   From the Crusades to the Holocaust, and even more recently, persons of faith have perpetrated and suffered from violence. As the millennium nears an end, perhaps we are learning to appreciate, rather than be threatened by, diversity. This lesson is a gain.
   But perhaps the greatest loss of the millennium for most religions has been the fading of a pervasive sense of the holy into the vapors of secularism.

278. 991222 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Celebrate Christmas without the Santa Conspiracy

My teen-age son warns me not to write about Santa Claus: "You'll really get slammed." How welcome are words against the overwhelmingly secular distortions of Christmas all around us?
   The first problem with Santa is the conspiracy--I will not call it harmless--that causes trusting children to believe a fantasy is a reality. While many favor the Ten Commandments in the school and courthouse, somehow lying to children at Christmas is excused.
   Some parents tell me they feel the culture forces them into the Santa conspiracy. But there is another way. From his first Christmas, my son's mother and I told him that we were playing Santa, so he came to understand Santa as a cultural role, not a person. We never lied to him. What kind of model for children are parents who lie?
   Secondly, Santa distracts us from the core Christian message of God's incarnation as hope for a corrupt world. Santa sometimes becomes part of the corruption. We think messages like this are cute: "Dear Santa, Please give me a tank, a jet fighter, 20 green soldiers, and a bazooka gun. I'm planning a surprise attack on my brother. So don't tell anyone. Thanks, Danny."
   Such gifts encourage greed and violence at the celebration of the birth of one called the "Prince of Peace."
   Many of non-Christian faiths are quite aware of these blemishes within the standard observance of Christmas. My son also knows this is why, in my interfaith work, I sometimes blush to be identified with such a heritage.
   If you celebrate Christmas, may it be holy.

277. 991215 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Kansas City influences institute's global outreach

Growing out of the World Council of Churches in the 1950s, the Chicago-based Ecumenical Institute in turn developed into the Institute of Cultural Affairs. Its mission was to bring spiritual values to global development.
   From Brussels, Richard H.T. Alton, its secretary general, came to Kansas City last week, he said, "to meet with people at the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, the Kauffman Foundation and others to learn about innovative approaches to social change developed here, especially with a focus on youth."
   Alton serves on a team planning the Institute's next global conference, July 30 - Aug. 5, 2000, in Denver. Donna Ziegenhorn, Kansas City marketing consultant and writer, says this is the first time the Institute's quadrennial meeting will bring participants from around the world to North America since the series began in 1984 in India.
   Ziegenhorn, who persuaded Alton to visit Kansas City, has been a volunteer with the Institute for 25 years. She is eager to bring the Institute's global experience to America. "The Institute began with an American Christian perspective. As we have worked in other countries, we have incorporated the spiritual wisdom of other faiths. We find ourselves enriched and expanded. The meeting next summer brings back to our own country some of what we have gained elsewhere."
   "Using a millennium theme," Alton said, "the conference is an opportunity for those involved in changing the world to share with each other what they have learned is successful" in community youth development, environmental sustainability, lifelong learning, philanthropy, the arts, decision-making processes and spirituality in organizations.

Mixed views of proselytizing accompany faiths

By HELEN T. GRAY - The Kansas City Star
Date: 12/10/99 22:15

- "Pope calls for missionaries to spread Catholicism throughout Asia."
- "Buddhist and Hindu priests unite against missionaries."
- "Southern Baptists pray for Jewish conversions."

Recent headlines have compelled the public to talk about religious tolerance and proselytizing. The question of whether religious tolerance negates the right to make converts is a tricky one.
    Some feel bound by their religion's mandates to spread their faith while others say proselytizing implies a presumption by one religion that it is superior to another.
    A Southern Baptist prayer guide recently was aimed at Hindus as they celebrated Diwali, stating that "more than 900 million people are lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism."
    Southern Baptist pastor Robert Collins of Plaza Heights Baptist Church in Blue Springs said the Bible commands Christians to proselytize. "We would be disobeying (God) not to convert people."

But Marvin Szneler, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee, has a problem with the practice. "Proselytizing assumes that someone is right and someone has a wrong religion."

"Many Christians feel that salvation is impossible except through explicit acceptance of Christ," said the Rev. Vern Barnet, an expert in world religions. "In various periods of the faith, though often mixed with political and social intent, this led to forced conversions.
    "Historically Muslims have been required to make others aware of God's will, but the Qur'an specifically prohibits forced conversions. Hindus have no need to convert anyone. This is because many Hindus believe that there are many paths to God.
    "Buddhism, like most Asian faiths, is based more on inner experience and social relationships rather than on explicit creeds. With the exception of some Nichiren schools, Buddhism is more likely to assimilate and accommodate than seek conversion."

Belief reflected

Interviews with Kansas City area Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Hindus revealed a wide range of attitudes toward proselytizing. Their views often reflected their faiths' approach to conversion.
    Mariann McCormally, pastoral associate at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, agrees with the pope's call to spread Catholicism throughout Asia.
    "I believe with St. Francis of Assisi that we should spread the Good News of Jesus Christ everywhere and always, but use words only when necessary," she said. "That means we should bring a Catholic Christian presence to all corners of the world, including Asia, in ways that build up the human family, not fill our pews. I believe we need to spread mercy and love and forgiveness and justice."
    McCormally said she believes in the God of her faith, "but I'm not worried or concerned that someone who believes differently from me is going to hell."

Collins said Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. "God's desire is that we all come to know him. And it comes back to the central issue, how many ways are there to know God, and I go back to John 14:6 -- `No one comes to the Father but by me.' So for me, it is laid out in Scripture.
    "Some would say I'm not respecting other faiths. But I am respecting their right to disagree without being disagreeable."

Muslims also believe it is important to tell people about their faith, said Syed Hasan, a University of Missouri-Kansas City professor.
    "I think it is wrong to ask others to become a part of my faith without having first given them the opportunity learn about it," he said. "The best way to do so is to set the example from one's personal code of conduct that Islam requires all Muslims to follow in every walk of their lives."

Frank Loeffler, an employee benefits specialist, said he has no problem explaining his Jewish faith to non-Jews. "Historically Christianity has made a life peril of Jews talking about their religion to others so the rabbis made it difficult for non-Jews to convert."
    But he believes that proselytizing is a function of freedom as long as it doesn't infringe on the rights of others.

"All religions in their own ways point to the spiritual goal of bringing their followers closer to God," said Anand Bhattacharyya, retired engineer and former president of the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of Kansas City. "There may not be anything wrong with telling other people how good my religion is, but it is wrong to try to convert other people to my religion.
    "It is wrong because it implies that my religion is superior to yours. Let us not forget that `my religion is superior' mentality has caused a lot of conflicts and bloodshed throughout human history. It is time to learn from history."

Defining tolerance

In addition to differences on proselytizing, many people of various faiths define religious tolerance and freedom of religion differently.
    "Religious tolerance isn't being wishy-washy about what I believe, but it's about respecting the other and his/her search for a belief and value system that works for them," McCormally said.
    Some people, like Szneler, preferred to focus on diversity. "Tolerance can mean to endure something that is painful or disgusting, so to tolerate someone who is different means that there is a prejudice there.
    "So religious tolerance sometimes means almost something bad. `I think the other person is bad; I'm prejudiced against him, but I'm willing to tolerate that person.' But diversity is enriching: `It's great to be with someone who is different.' "

Thomas Roberts, managing editor of The National Catholic Reporter, was pleased that his youngest son's best friends in New Jersey were a Hindu boy from India and a Muslim boy from Pakistan.
    "If our kids gained anything, it was a sense of what faith gave to people and the deep meaning that faith has for others," he said. "They knew Catholics who took their faith seriously, and it was good to see people of other faiths who took their faith seriously. Did that make for some interesting discussions? Certainly."
    To Charlotte Hill, a Methodist and retired teacher, the concept of freedom of religion "means having the right to worship my God as I want to without pressure from anyone or anything."
    Religious tolerance, she said, "means my religion is right for me, and I want it, and if you have a belief that satisfies you, we are all happy."
    To S. Gregory Parr, director of a homeless ministry, religious tolerance is "three or four individuals from different denominations not flattening either of the other's car tires after a group Bible study."

More than one way

Opinions varied as to whether religious prejudice is a problem in the Kansas City area. More agreed it's a problem in the country at large. Some pointed as examples to the burning of churches in the South and the shooting at the Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles.
    Yousef A. Ghosheh, a Muslim who runs a home-based business, criticized the way some in the news media rushed to conclude that Muslims were responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing. Such statements "resulted in burning mosques in Oklahoma City and in many other American cities," he said.
    Collins was critical of the entertainment media's bias against Christians, with the current film Dogma as an example.
    "This is Hollywood's attempt to make God seem like a silly creature who has human flaws." A bias also exists against conservative Christians among some segments of society, he said.
    "Religious intolerance and prejudice are also tied to racial prejudice and intolerance," said Elaine Solheim, a Methodist and data entry clerk.
    Mike Supple, a handyman, recalled being picked on as a boy and getting into fights because he is Catholic. Religious prejudice seemed to fade by the mid-'60s, but it appears to have made a comeback in the last 15 years, he said.
    "Whether directed at myself or others, I still feel the same response to it as I did in my youth," he said. "Only now I'd be arrested for mayhem."

Following are suggestions on how to foster more understanding between faiths:
    * Engage people of other faiths in open discussions, said Gouri Chaudhuri, a Hindu and loan processor.
    * Offer diversity training, promoting awareness and integration rather than assimilation, said Dilip K. Das, a Hindu and chemical engineer.
    * Introduce a religion course in schools that incorporates the salient features of all faiths, Das said.
    * Increase opportunities for people of all faiths to come together to learn about each other, Hasan said. The Center for Religious Experience and Study is an example of a group that proides some opportunities, he said.
    * Educate people, Szneler said. His mother and father were the only survivors in their respective families of Nazi concentration camps. Jews were killed only because they were Jews and certain people hated Jews, he said.
    "And unfortunately, this type of thing is going on around the world; there's terrible religious intolerance," he said. One solution is to sensitize people through education.
    * Keep talking and keep learning the skills and tools for dialogue, McCormally said.
    "We need to learn that there is more than one right way to do just about everything, whether it's raising a family or running a school system or leading a life of faith."

To reach Helen T. Gray, religion editor at The Star, call (816) 234-4446 or send e-mail to

 © 1999 The Kansas City Star

276. 991208 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Be thankful for the faiths of the world

Jews are now celebrating Hanukkah, tonight Muslims look for the new moon that begins the month of Ramadan and for over a week Christians have been observing Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. Dec. 18 Jains commemorate the five kinds of holy beings: monks, teachers, religious leaders, enlightened masters and liberated souls.
   Zoroastrians mark the death of the prophet Zarathustra Dec 26. Wiccans celebrate Yule at the solstice. And Kwanzaa, originated in 1966 as an African-American cultural festival, is now included on some calendars as a religious holiday, Dec. 26-Jan. 1.
   What holidays will be on the calendar in the year 2999?
   Zoroastrians are heirs of a tradition that originates in Iran before recorded history. Their faith has influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam profoundly, though seldom is the debt acknowledged. But those who cherish religious diversity worry that in the next 1000 years Zoroastrians, now not much more than 100,000 world-wide, with a few families in Kansas City, will disappear.
   Will Jews fade from intermarriage or face new genocidal threat? Our own nation only recently protected practices of American Indian tribal religions, decimated by conquest. Will Tibetan Buddhists, exiled from their own country, succeed in maintaining their identity in the future?
   As this century began, Buddhism seemed about to disappear. It now enjoys new vigor. As the millennium began, Islam seemed the dominant world faith. Is the rise of Christianity only temporary?
   Let us not take the precious holidays of our own -- or others' -- faiths for granted.

275. 991201 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Imam inspired by interfaith edict

We must move beyond dialogue to living with each other without labels," says Imam Bilal Muhammed, returning from an interfaith conference at the Vatican. Muhammed, leader of Kansas City's Inshirah Mosque, is inspired both by the joint declaration concluding the meeting and the relationships growing between Islam, the Catholic Church and other faith traditions.
   This does not mean we all become alike, says Muhammed, as he points to a passage in the declaration: "We are all aware that interreligious collaboration does not imply giving up our own religious identity but is rather a journey of discovery. We learn to respect one another as members of the one human family. We learn to appreciate both our differences and the common values that bind us to one another."
   Muhammed also emphasizes the declaration's refusal to allow religion to justify hatred, violence, discrimination and poverty.
   The 230 delegates from 20 faiths met under the auspices of Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue Oct. 24-28 with the participation of the Pope.
   Imam W. Deen Muhammad of Chicago, who since 1975 has led Black Muslims into greater inclusivity, and helped to dedicate Inshirah Mosque in 1997, also spoke at the Rome event and embraced not only other Muslims but those of all faiths.
   Bilal Muhammed is especially grateful for the hospitality of a world-wide Catholic group, the Focolare, which practices establishing the bonds of unity in acts of love with everyone one meets, regardless of religious background.

274. 991124 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Giving praise best way to give thanks

The impulse to give thanks is universal among the world's religions. Even in suffering, when one feels least like singing, faith offers a wider perspective from which to view and balance the immediate distress. "Count your blessings" is an old prescription; no drug can improve upon it.
   The Pilgrims lost half of their company their first winter in this land. Of the original hundred and so, at one point only about half a dozen were well. For the sick they did the cooking, the washing and -- in the words of William Bradford's History of the Plymouth Plantation -- [[ FOLO ]] "all the homly and necessarie offices . . . which dainty and quesie stomacks cannot endure to hear named."
   Bradford adds that they did not complain but served "cheerfully."
   What is the vision which enables cheer and service to others?
   The world's religions use different words to point to the Ultimate, but they all remind us that life is an awesome gift. Experiences of awe, for which worship readies us, are the very fires of faith. Without being consumed, we burn with the holy.
   But when such experiences pass, we can honor them even in the most desperate circumstances by igniting the flame of gratitude and passing it on through service to others. Even in accepting the flare from others, we help to expel the darkness.
   The Thanksgiving feast of 1621 is enlarged by our remembrance of the Pilgrims. To their light we must add the holiness of repentance for the violence brought to this land and its native peoples, for importing slaves and denying their freedom and for the prejudices which still mar America.
   More than by turkey or pumpkin pie, we are nourished by rendering praise.

273. 991117 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Interfaith talk starts with own faith

Opinions differed about last Wednesday's column reporting the friendship developing between members of the Hindu Temple and the Full Faith Church of Love West in Shawnee.
   A gentlemen who has been phoning me for years and never identified himself commanded me to speak with the pastor of the church because he was sure I was misrepresenting it.
   I talked with Pastor Hal Linhardt. He had read the column and said that what I quoted from the missionary and the young people in his congregation "expressed the Lord's attitude."
   Another caller said that Christians did not commit atrocities against Hindus nowadays. He did not offer any disapproval of the practices some Hindus, especially in rural areas in India, claim are forced conversions to Christianity.
   The column quoted a Southern Baptist statement, "Hindus have no concept of sin or personal responsibility." I can understand why a caller questioned whether this was taken out of context. It is hard to believe those acquainted with Hindus could write such a statement, or this, also in the Baptist document: "Mumbai is a city of spiritual darkness. Eight out of every 10 people are Hindu, slaves bound by fear and tradition to false gods."
   The denomination, which selected the Jewish High Holy Days to pray for the conversion of the Jews, chose Divali, a Hindu festival, for converting Hindus.
   A Jewish caller, like most readers, liked the column because it offered hope that here in Kansas City people of various faiths can be more accepting of others.
   Most religions do not encourage conversion. The Dalai Lama, for example, rather than asking people to become Buddhists, suggests that Christians become better Christians, Muslims become better Muslims and so forth. It is a bold suggestion.

272. 991110  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Christians, Hindus in harmony

Radical Hindus in India, some of whom have committed atrocities against Christians, used the visit of Pope Paul II earlier this week to protest attempts to convert them to Christianity. In this country, Southern Baptists have added Hindus to Jews on their list of those to proselytize, especially during last week-end's celebrations of Divali, the Hindu festival of light.
   But here in the Kansas City area last Saturday, Hindus welcomed Christians to their Divali festival as the fourth event in a developing relationship between the Full Faith Church of Love West and the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center a quarter mile north on Lackman Road.
   Mindy Peterson, one of a dozen young people from the church, said she made the visit to the Hindu site because she "wants to learn" about her neighbors. Jean Haley thinks it is important "to develop friendships with people from other cultures." Susan Blake said "We need to see that not everyone is the same. We need to get out of our own bubbles."
   Pratibha Trivedi, president of the Hindu group, had visited the church some months ago with other Hindus. "The Christians were very friendly. I enjoyed myself," she said.
   Previous exchanges have included a lecture, a play and two meals shared together. Both Hindus and Christians said no one was trying to convert anyone else.
   Gene Flanery, a missionary with the church, disagrees with the Baptist statement that "Hindus have no concept of sin or personal responsibility." "Hindus are very responsible, very conscientious," he said.
   Replacing fear with friendship, transforming suspicion into mutual enjoyment and trading condemnation for knowledge may be a holier path than insisting others must practice our own faith.

271. 991103  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Creation stories combine in Genesis

According to most scholars, embedded in the two creation stories in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, are materials far older than the Hebrew text.
   The first story parallels a creation myth of the earlier Babylonians. In the Enuma Elish, darkness envelops the primordial deep, personified by Tiamat. Tehom, the Hebrew word for what the darkness envelops, is a linguistic relative.
   The subsequent events in the Enuma Elish are light emanating from the gods, the creation of the firmament, then dry land, then luminaries, then humans. The gods rested. This order of creation is echoed in Gen. 1:1 to Gen. 2:3.
   Some later theologians decided that God created the world from nothing, but the Genesis story tells of a God who creates the heaven and the earth out of watery chaos.
    The second creation story, in Gen. 2 and 3, varies from the first and appears to have been written as much as 500 years earlier. Animals are created before humans in Gen. 1, but animals are created after Adam in Gen. 2. The word for God in Gen. 2 is Yahweh, while in Gen. 1 it is Elohim. While Elohim seems to be a spirit, Yahweh, like the talking serpent, is more human-like.
   Blaming a woman for trouble, the serpent and improvising a way to cover nakedness are three details that can be traced to another ancient writing, the Epic of Gilgamesh. The great theme they share is the loss of immortality and the wisdom gained by the loss.
   The Gospel of John contains a third way of talking about creation, transforming language similar to the much older Egyptian Book of the Dead.
   Differences between earlier and later texts reveal developing understandings of the divine.

270. 991027  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
  -- Reader, please note: a headline writer, not author, is responsible for titles.
Reverend upholds U.N. mission

For the Rev. Robert H. Meneilly, supporting the United Nations is a religious duty. As he accepted the 1999 World Citizen of the Year award at the Mayor's United Nations Day Dinner last Wednesday at UMKC, he pledged to explain the UN to those who do not understand its mission and who fail to support its funding.
   Meneilly is pastor emeritus of Village Presbyterian Church which he founded in 1947 in Prairie Village.
   He said the church "in which I was nurtured from my earliest childhood taught me that God loves the world very much, that every person in the world bears the image of God and is to be respected as a child of God. I was taught that the only way one has of loving God is by loving our neighbor, and that every person in the world is my neighbor."
   Meneilly completed his theological training as the United Nations was being created. "I was proud that my own country was promoting a new world organization based on the sovereign equality of all peace loving states. I reveled in the birth of the United Nations."
   Modern transportation and communication suddenly made us "world neighbors before we knew how to live together as neighbors," he said. But in the UN he saw a way "to carry out the very social tenets of my faith as well as those of the other historic religions. I saw the possibility of a secular organization carrying out the will of a Sovereign God that our exclusive ecclesiastical bodies were not doing very well."
   Those presenting the award to Meneilly noted his many local efforts, such as work with Partnership for Children and Harvesters, as well as his international concerns, which included participation in the Paris Peace Talks on Viet Nam.

269. 991020  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Interfaith leader leaves liberation legacy

A leader in interfaith cooperation, Nikkyo Niwano died Oct 4, at age 92. Long before I first met him in 1984 in Tokyo, his work inspired my own interest in opportunities for dialogue among the world's religions.
   Niwano and Myoko Naganuma founded Rissho Koseikai, now a major branch of Japanese Buddhism, in 1938. He taught that true liberation is to be rid of greed, aggression and self-delusion, and that all things are interrelated.
    Discovering this in one's own life is possible through the hoza, a lay-led counseling circle. Using the Lotus Sutra as a guide, the group members come to understand their own difficulties by hearing and helping with others' problems. The hoza is sometimes compared with self-help groups in the U.S. and with the early Buddhist community, the sangha.
   Niwano believed that only when we realize that we are not separate from others can we discover our own true identities.
   Pope John Paul II and other religious leaders honored him. In 1979 he was awarded the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion. He had enormous impact on post-war religion in Japan. He established the World Conference on Religion and Peace and served as president of the International Association for Religious Freedom.
   I cherish a gift from Niwano, a hanging with his calligraphy representing "the spirit of a new community." Though Buddhist in idiom, it moves beyond particularity to recall his world-wide labors and his message of global kinship. It points to the service we must offer one another to be free.

268. 991013  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Community that prays together lives longer

"Research shows that people who participate in religious communities live 7 to 14 years longer than those who do not," says Harold G. Koenig, MD, director of Duke University's Program on Religion, Aging and Health.
   In a telephone interview I asked him if it makes any difference what you believe. "Yes," he responded. While most of the research has been within the Christian setting and studies comparing different religions are just beginning, he says that people are "more likely to do better with illness if they believe in a loving, caring, compassionate God, one who is for you, rather than a punishing God, watching you to catch you making mistakes."
   His findings include reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, stronger immune systems, lower stress and quicker recoveries from surgeries for people of faith.
   The author of over 100 articles, 22 book chapters and 7 books, Koenig says that interest in the relationship between medicine and spirituality "goes back thousands of years." Nevertheless, connecting religion with physical and mental health is "a rapidly developing area of medicine with increasingly credible research."
      Koenig is interested in both outright healing and in better results for those with chronic problems like Alzheimer's. He also studies how those who care for the sick benefit from religious support.
   Koenig will be in Kansas City Oct. 23 to discuss "The Effects of Religion on Physical and Mental Health" in a morning seminar sponsored by the South Central Region of the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education. For information about attending, call the Pastoral Care Department at Health Midwest, 276 4120.

267. 991006  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Emptiness becomes positive in 'Heart Sutra'

The "Heart Sutra" is perhaps the most commonly chanted of all Buddhist scriptures. One sense of "heart" is gist or core; "heart" also refers to the compassion the sutra intends to engender.
   Summarizing an earlier sutra of 8000 lines, it is only 262 words in Chinese. Dated variously between 150 and 350 C.E., it sets forth a key Buddhist view of emptiness.
   What is emptiness? The sutra says that everything is empty, and the sutra seems full of denials and contradictions, even as it claims to soothe.
   In fact, Najarjuna, a 2nd Century logician some think wrote the sutra, used the problem of talking about everything to show the limits of language. We cannot speak of the infinite with words that apply to parts, distinguishing one thing from another. He anticipated the analysis of language by 20th Century philosophers like Wittgenstein. Both suggested that nothing whatsoever can be affirmed of ultimate reality.
   "Emptiness" thus becomes a therapeutic method to see that nothing exists as an independent entity. Ultimately everything is related. Everything is in process. Nothing is permanent. No Absolute exists. The Western conception of individual identity or soul is rejected. We are who we are because of our parents, because of air to breathe, because of the domestication of fire. Our origins and shapers are infinite and we are fuzzy.
   Even the Buddha's famous Four Noble Truths are denied in this classic Buddhist scripture because clinging to anything, even the doctrine, leads to suffering.
   This may seem negative, but for Buddhists emptiness makes possible the world of changing appearances and our full and compassionate participation in it.

266. 990929  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Action leads way in Jewish practice

The Jewish tradition, according to Michael Zedek, senior rabbi at B'nai Jehudah Congregation, says that one "acts one's way into right thinking, rather than thinking one's way into right acting." This helps to explain the Jewish use of ritual, which requires people to do things even when they do not feel like it.
   For example, tradition requires that families in grief stay at home for seven days following the funeral. They are excused from ordinary concerns. During this week, they are to wear torn clothing and sit on the floor or on a couch with cushions removed. The externals express the loss. It is the time to grieve.
   But when the time is up, they must resume regular routines. They may not say, "I will go back to work when I'm feeling better." By doing, rather than just thinking, they learn to live again, even with inner grief.
   Zedek says this challenges the American style of "When I get my act together, then I will do the right thing." It is doing the right thing that leads us to "get our act together."
   On this point, the Jewish tradition aligns with Buddhism. While popularizations teach that we must first think correctly before we know how to act, the Buddha made a responsible life a prerequisite for deeper spiritual quest. His Eight-Fold Path does include meditation, but it also requires compassionate action and moral means of livelihood. Waiting until we figure out everything is an impermissible self-indulgence.
   Zedek spoke last week at a 'break-out" session at the Midwest Bioethics Center's "Compassion Sabbath" program to assist clergy dealing with end-of-life issues. [[ The next session is Oct 16 and 17; call 221-1100.]]

265. 990922  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Preserving Sabbath not easy in secular terms

 In the Jewish tradition, "sabbath" originally refered to the seventh day of the week, a day of rest. It became a sign of Israel's consecration to God.
   Emerging from Jewish backgrounds, the early Christian church did not recognize the sabbath. By the 4th Century Sunday was designated for worship, but not as an imitation of the sabbath. The phrase "Christian sabbath" dates from the 12th Century.
   The modern Christian idea of the sabbath arose from Puritanism, but nowadays few Christians observe Sunday with Puritan rigor; our Sunday entertainment and shopping are quite unlike the sabbath intended by the Ten Commandments.
   Today the Midwest Bioethics Center begins "Compassion Sabbath" series to address the needs of dying people. Earlier this month a "United Sabbath" was begun to acquaint congregations about United Way services. Both embrace people of all faiths.
   But trying to create "sabbaths" for other faiths is a problem.
   Hindu worship is likely to be an individual or family event and no day of the week is favored over another -- except that in America, for convenience, Hindus may avail themselves of Sunday's different pace for temple exercises.
   Muslims pray five times each day. Muslims unite for midday prayer on Fridays, but Muslims may work before and after the assembly.
   Despite the best of intentions, "sabbath," like "sabbatical," may become a secular term to mean a time set aside for special focus.
   Just as "Tao" and "Zen" have been trivialized by all the books on the Tao of This and the Zen of That, will "sabbath" also lose its history and power?

264. 990915  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Jewish High Holy Days carry social dimension, rabbi says

The Jewish High Holy Days began Friday evening with Rosh Hashanah. As Yom Harat Olam, the birthday of the World, Rosh Hashanah is a joyous New Year's commemoration of creation. However, it is also a Day of Judgment, a time for personal introspection, reconciliation and solemnity.
   Reform Rabbi Mark Levin of Beth Torah in Overland Park finds a social -- even global -- dimension in the season as well. His Rosh Hashanah sermon focused on what "multinational companies do to real people's lives." For him, the holy days must include concern for others.
   He told the story of a man "living the good life in Johnson County" who was "downsized" by an international firm and like Job, lost it all. Living out of a car and ready to kill himself, he "used one of his last quarters to call the mental health hot line, which told him about the reStart Shelter, offering hot meals, a warm bed and counseling." He eventually found work, became active in his church and now owns his own company.
   But Levin contrasted him with Job's story from riches to ruin to restoration: "It was downsizing that destroyed his life, not Satan; and reStart and the United Way that restored him to humanity, rather than God's supernatural intervention."
   Levin warns against us judging others by their circumstances and says that nowadays we must be "the extensions of God's arms."
   Last weekend began a "United Sabbath," an interfaith effort to build awareness about United Way services.
   In every religion, if we are doing well, sharing wealth is an obligation. Levin puts it this way: "If you are not giving, then you are stealing from the poor."

263. 990908  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 The debate over creation and evolution

Can a person of faith embrace evolution?
   Dr Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Berkeley, Calif., addesses the question at 7:30 tonight at the Plymouth Congregation Church, 925 Vermont St. in Lawrence and tomorrow at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, 5801 W. 115th St.
   In a telephone interview, she said her talk, "Creation? Evolution? Both? Neither?" will sketch the history and the current shape of the dispute. The effects of the recent Kansas Board of Education decision to minimize evolutionary theory in state standards "could have nationwide impact."
    America is home to many religions, and most of them embrace evolution. "Catholic, mainline Protestant, and most Jewish thought says that the way God works is through evolution. They oppose 'creation science.'
   "(Baptist) Baylor, (Mormon) Brigham Young and (Roman Catholic) Notre Dame universities teach evolution, and your Kansas university presidents support teaching it."
   Scott believes the issue arises from religious views, not from scientific questions. "The idea that evolution is losing favor in the scientific community is nonsense. The Religious Right is really more concerned with abortion and gays, but when the occasion for reexamining science curriculum presents itself, as it did recently in Kansas, then evolution becomes a focus."
   The problem then becomes how one presents science to students who may feel their sincerely held religious views may be threatened by evolution. Is it possible to respect the families comfortable only with a literal reading of the Bible and still "teach evolution with integrity"? She promises her talk will explore how to do this from kindergarten to 12th grade.

262. 990901  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Ecumenical events falling your way

Here's a fall roundup on interfaith activity in the metro area and a method of contact for more information.
   The Kansas City Interfaith Council issues its latest revision of its Speakers Bureau this month and is planning a 3-day conference for the year 2000. Email:
   The Council of Congregations now has 29 member groups and hope to reach 100 by the end of the year. Phone Connie Jones, 361-4816.
   Congregational Partners now has four pairs of churches who visit each other and join in programs promoting friendships among racially and religiously diverse groups. Phone Janet Moss, 531-6577.
   The Christian Jewish Muslim Dialogue Group begins the fall with a program on mysticism in the three faiths. For the schedule, email Allan Abrams, ARC Trialogue meets Sept. 26 at the Baha'i Center. Phone Virgil Moccia, 331-5995.
   The Midwest Bioethics Center offers a multifaith approach to issues of death and dying with a Sept. 22 all-day conference at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, with a follow-up workshop Oct. 16 and 17. Materials from Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other faiths will be available. Call Linda Johnson, 221-1100.
   Kansas City Harmony's 10th annual mass choir concert led by Charles Bruffy is set for Nov. 21 at Beth Shalom Synagogue. Singers of all faiths can join before Sept. 28 for the rehearsals. Call Ellen Miles, 444 2459.
   My own organization's annual Thanksgiving Sunday Interfaith Family Ritual Meal follows the concert at Beth Shalom. Email me at

261. 990825  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Osiris was key to life for ancient Egyptians

"Who was Osiris and how does he relate to Christ?" ask viewers of an Egyptian mummy and coffin in a current exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
   In one version of the story, Osiris, the mythical first pharoah of Egypt and its culture-bringer, was tricked into a coffin by his jealous brother Seth who killed him and threw the coffin into the Nile. Because of the queen's devotion, Osiris was eventually resurrected.
   The coffin served as "a resurrection machine," according to curator Robert Cohen. By recalling Osiris in the form of the coffin, the deceased was assimilated into Osiris. In fact, said Cohen, "Osiris" would be appended to the name of the deceased, such as "Robert-Osiris."
   Portrayed inside the coffin is the sky goddess Nut, the mother of Osiris. Egyptians understood her to consume the dead body and then give new birth to it.
   Images on the outside of the coffin assure that the deceased will enter the Field of Reeds and thus be immortal. For the Egyptians, "portraying something means it happens," said Cohen.
   "The solar disk is important because after day is done, it lights the underworld. When the sun's rays shine on the dead, the dead live a lifetime, and the next night, another full life, and so forth," Cohen said.
   Identification with a murdered and resurrected diety was common in the ancient world. St. Paul writes "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live." Osiris was worshipped from at least 5000 years ago to 400 years after Jesus. By then Egyptian, Hellenistic and Jewish experience had shaped Christianity.

260. 990818  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Egyptian universe unvarying

Many readers know the term "anthropomorphic," used in religious studies to refer to a god imagined in human form.  Less familiar is the term "theriomorphic," which refers to divinities with animal features.
   Excellent examples of theriomorphism can be found on the painted coffin at the current Nelson-Atkins Museum exhibition, "Echoes of Eternity: The Egyptian Mummy and the Afterlife."
   On the top register, for example, one finds the jackal-headed mortuary god Anubis who weighs the heart of the deceased. Since it is lighter than a feather, the dead is judged morally upright and granted eternal life. In the same register are the ibis-headed god Thoth and the goddess Hathor with horns. She is often represented as a cow.
   Why did ancient Egyptians represent eternal powers with animal images?
   One reason is easy to understand. Just as we associate certain human qualities with certain animals--courage with the lion, temperance with the camel, peace with the dove, fecundity with the rabbit--so the Egyptians matched certain traits or functions with certain animals.
      But a second reason is more profound. Unlike us, the Egyptians were not much interested in the individual, the unusual, the new. What mattered was the regular rising and setting of the sun, the yearly flooding of the Nile. This static order was sacred.
     Since individuality is less easy to discern in animals than people (frankly, dear readers, I can't tell one ibis from another), animals, rather than human shapes, are better carriers of the sense of stability at the core of Egyptian spirituality.
    Death was the major challenge to their view of an unvarying cosmos. More about that next week.

259. 990811  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Burning question has spiritual answers

Your house is burning and you have time to save just one object. What would you rescue?
   This is the question put to 31 high school juniors one day last week as part of a leadership development institute at Johnson County Community College sponsored by the Overland Park Rotary Club Foundation.
   The students responded the next day by bringing scrapbooks, soccer shoes, the first Beatles record album from dad, a golf ball, a Tae Kwon Do belt, a bowl purchased in Spain, a watch found on a difficult day, a thimble from a grandmother and other symbols of adversity and triumph, of family ties and friendship, of personal values and faith.
    Allan Schmidt, institute chairman and director of outpatient behavioral health services for Crittenton, says that the young people are asked to bring their "treasured objects" as they begin to work in teams to help them become more aware of themselves and learn about each other.
    With tears, laughter, wistfulness, pride, regret and excitement, they unwrapped their treasures, told their stories and placed the objects in the middle of the circle they had formed. Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Christian, they listened to each other with respect.
   "The popular notion that young people are superficial, detached and frivolous is refuted by this exercise," says David Adkins, institute facilitator and special counsel for the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. "They are passionate, caring and character-driven."
   This exercise is a way of discovering what is sacred, what gives deepest meaning to our lives. In this secular age, when we are apt to feel fragmented and untethered to core values, such questions can restore direction for our lives and bring into focus the power of faith.

258. 990804  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Religious discrimination supplies challenge

Religion has sometimes been used as an excuse to persecute or slight persons of other faiths, races or gender. But for the Rev. Kirk Perucca, faith is the source of passion for ending prejudice. He works from a "fundamental spiritual conviction that we are all unique children of God. Whenever we devalue others individually or socially, we go against God's intent."
   Perucca is president/CEO of Project Equality, a national program headquartered in Kansas City, which helps member organizations and employers with their commitments to "persons of color, women, persons who are differently abled, older adults and others who encounter discrimination, regardless of sexual orientation."
   Although the religious groups sponsoring the 34-year old Project Equality are Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist, Perucca says it is committed to working with "absolutely any religious group.
   "We began from the religious community, and there is a lot more the religions can do. In fact, today there is more diversity in most corporations than in many religious organizations," he said.
   While Perucca sees significant progress in the last 30 years, he laments that as the millennium ends, so much remains to be done. "Many white people think the playing field is level. But a chronic pattern of discrimination persists from sometimes unintentional acts, often without malice, but also without awareness." He cited the recent local Dillards case as an example.
   He hears the question, "Why is it taking so long to chip away the boulder blocking the road to full equality?" He answers, "Discrimination is a sin, and we haven't solved the sin problem in thousands of years. But that is the reason we must continue to work."

257. 990728  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Sikhs share belief in the one true God

In the last thousand years, several religions have arisen with the desire to recognize the virtues of existing faiths. Sikhism, for example, grew out of the meeting of Hinduism and Islam in the Punjab about 500 years ago.
   Today Geet Duggal, a 16-year old Sikh who will be a junior this fall at Oak Park High School, proudly speaks about his faith in the context of a culture dominated by Christianity.
   "Both Christians and Sikhs have a holy book. We Sikhs don't celebrate Christmas or think that Jesus is coming back, but we all believe in the one God."
   Geet gets questions often because he covers his uncut hair with a patka, a square piece of cloth tied tightly around his head. When he is older, he will wear a turban.
   "The patka was actually developed by a cricket player in India," he said, "because it is easier to manage than a turban."
   As part of his work to attain the rank of Eagle Scout, he discovered that the Scouts had no Sikh material for him as he prepared for the "God and Country" award. So he wrote an article on his faith. Geet's work is now posed on the internet at
   Geet wants people to know that "Sikhs do not seek converts. We believe in treating everyone equally. We are loyal citizens."
   He welcomes learning about his own and other faiths. He says he has never encountered prejudice.
   Religious bigotry persists, but our opportunities for understanding multiply. In America, even in Kansas City, world faiths are meeting each other, usually with respect.

256. 990721  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 'Tis better to give and receive

While many of us make contributions to organizations or causes because they need our support, area religious leaders recommended a different approach at last week's breakfast meeting of the Greater Kansas City Council on Philanthropy.
   "We have a spiritual need to give," according to the Rev. Harry Foockle, senior pastor of Platte Woods United Methodist Church. "Rather than giving to a need, we should to honor our need to give," agreed Tom Severino, director of stewardship for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
   Too often we focus on a budget, Foockle said, rather than on immersing ourselves in spiritual life, discovering our spiritual gifts as part of the ministry of a religious community.
   Severino criticized advertising which turns our attention away from exercising our spiritual natures on behalf of others. "The $120 pair of sneakers has been transformed from something we want into something we need, something we must have to be cool," he said. Working a 60-hour week for a boat while neglecting time with my family does not represent a wise spiritual choice.
   What we are and what we have is a trust, Severino said, "to be used to make others' lives better." When we turn from "sacrificial giving" to "sacrificial living," our orientation changes from merely helping to pay the bills of charities to finding ways to make our whole lives benefit our brothers and sisters.
   Contributions can be well-intended acts which are nevertheless isolated from decisions about what we hold sacred. Or they can be paths which develop our awareness of ourselves and others as spiritual beings.

255. 990714  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Our universe raises some universal questions

Was the universe created by a supreme being who intelligently designed its beauty and intricacies? Most of us might answer, "Yes, obviously."
   Yet some religions, both ancient and modern, have seen the world as the result of bungling, conflict or undirected evolution, as I wrote in a recent column.
   Some who called me were eager to dismiss such ideas or asked "what possible justification" could there be for such strange views.
   The awesome beauty of the Grand Canyon, the complexity of the human eye, the moral sense each person carries may seem strong arguments for intelligent design.
   But the disasters of tornado and flood, the fragility of the skin and the spine, the pages of history filled with greed, oppression and war are arguments against it.
   The doctrine of original sin says that the turmoil within human relationships arises from disobedience to the Creator's command.
   But it does not explain why, for example, the universe was designed in such a way that many animals eat by eating others, sometimes ferociously, inflicting pain, tearing the body of the victim apart. The amount of suffering in the food chain is so staggering it is difficult to honor.
   Would it not have been more intelligent to design a universe with life given necessary nutrients, say, from deposits in the soil, or dissolved in accessible pond water?
   Such questions are not easy. While we may have our own answers, respecting others' faith responses is surely intelligent as we remember that all faiths contemplate the mysteries of our existence.

254. 990707  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Sometimes a tree's just beautiful

In school I had studied the "cosmic tree" in its many manifestations--the tree of paradise, of crucifixion and resurrection, of mystical genealogy and emanations, Jove's oak and Woden's ash, the tree that became the phallic May pole on the Palatine Hill, the burning of logs at Yule, the pagan evergreen which became the Christmas tree and the language taken to describe Jesus as "a rod out of the stem of Jesse, a branch growing out of his roots."
   But it was climbing Shankaracharya Hill in Kashmir some years ago that instructed me most directly about trees. "I am heat for your hearth, shade from the summer sun. I give fruit to quench your thirst," said one of many  notices posted on a path, all signed simply, "Tree." Another notice read, "I am a gift of God. Do not harm me."
   Ironically it was in New York a short time later that I saw my first tree-worshiper, honoring a tree which had unaccountably pushed its way up through a barren plot of cement. I laughed but understood.
   On a short summer camping trip with no tent, from fallen branches I kept warm with fire and fashioned a lean-to when an unexpected and terrible storm arose, in which others in town died.
   I love the tree on my front yard. Yes, I recall the tree as an emblem of creation, knowledge, fecudity and redemption. I know that the pillars of the temple arise from tree trunks and that the Egyptian journey to immortality, like commerce on the Nile, was made possible with a bark. Growing skyward from the ground below, the tree nourishes our aspirations.
   But when I forget all this, and the poems of Ridgely Torrence and Joyce Kilmer, and look at my tree, I am still left to marvel.

253. 990630  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Tree symbol sprouts in every culture

By 1775 at least three American flags portrayed a tree as part of their design. The Liberty Tree flag was inscribed as "an appeal to God."
   Begun in 1990, the many trees shaped into the symbol of the Heart Forest near Kansas City International Airport is intended by its environmentalist organizers to show that Kansas City has "a global heart."
   The Bible begins with the tree of Eden. It is sometimes contrasted with the tree on which Christ was crucified. In Jewish mysticism, God's emanations are often represented as the "Tree of the Sefiroth."
   Gautama found enlightenment as he sat under a tree.
   The body of the Egyptian god Osiris was enclosed in a coffin and later a tree grew around it, prefiguring his resurrection.
   The Phoenician god Adonis was born of a tree. The first dying-and-rising god in religious history, the Sumerian Dumuzi, called Tammuz in the Bible, was associated with the date palm.
   The Greek god Attis died under a pine tree. His death was observed each spring when his cult became popular in Rome. The date was overtaken by Easter as Christianity supplanted earlier faiths.
   In Scandinavian mythology, Yggdrasil is the name of the "world tree," a giant ash always green, from which a future human race would emerge. The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art has a rare example of the "Tree of Life and Knowledge" in its Indian Temple Room. Both are instances of the cosmic tree, what scholars call the axis mundi, around which everything revolves.
   Why have patriots of the Revolution, promoters of Kansas City and so many faiths used the tree to express spiritual aspiration? I'll try to answer next week.

252. 990623  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Children to play in sand for purpose

What has happened in Kansas City since two Tibetan monks constructed a sand mandala at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art four years ago?
   People still talking about it. Several workshops on making mandalas have been offered for adults. And now Nancy Chambers, who just earned a masters degree in art education, wants to help an interfaith group of children to make their own mandala.
   Nancy says her spiritual life was deepened by watching the monks dribbling colored sand into a meditative diagram of what is sacred.
   But watching the deliberate destruction of what took a month to produce was hard for her. "Seeing the monks scoop up the sand and pour it into Brush Creek caused me to wrestle with the impermanance of life. Coming to understand life more as a process than a product has given me comfort," she says.
   Nancy's efforts here are informed by Barry Bryant's work with ethnically diverse children in Los Angeles. (Bryant brought the mandala project to the Nelson.)
   Because Kansas City's Congregational Partners brings people from different racial and spiritual backgounds together, Nancy is working with this organization and hopes for a rich mix of children who will share their ideas about how to represent sacred things in the embrace of a mandala.
   "We want kids to discuss their own spiritual paths without feeling either inhibited or that they need to convert others," she said. "Connecting at this deep level is a path to compassion and a more wholesome community."
   The mandala will be part of a "Children's Interactive, Interfaith Celebration and Arts Festival" October 17. To be part of the planning, call Janet Moss at Congregational Partners, 531.6577.

251. 990616  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Theology and science can fill in secular gaps

Most biologists embrace the theory of evolution as a way of making sense out of an enormous collection of facts. Why, then, has "creation science" appeared as an alternative?
   Shaped largely by the Protestant Reformation, our culture separates the sacred from the secular. The gap between God's will and human pursuits is profound.
   Most cultures have not made this sharp distinction. American Indian tribes, medieval Catholicism and Islam, for example, have discerned more connection than conflict between the divine and the mundane. For primal peoples, every detail of ordinary life is full of transcendent meaning. The sacraments  of the Roman Church disclosed the holy through material signs. In the age of great Muslim science, all learning was understood as the study of God.
   Most of us may want to claim that religion speaks to all arenas of life, but our culture is so specialized -- fragmented -- that a vision of the whole is difficult. The words "whole" and "holy" derive from the same root.
   The theory of evolution does unite data from fields as diverse as geology and genetics, but in most forms it does not address the question of whether a divine power is at work. Because science in the last two centuries has generally limited itself to the natural world, some feel, fairly or not, that this exclusion amounts to a denial of God.
   This feeling parallels the assessment, fair or not, that the rule against advocating a specific religion in public schools is a denial of faith.
   Some theologians and scientists now suggest that God works through evolution. Is this a way the gaps of secularism can be healed?

250. 990609  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Homosexuality influences many faiths

Whether you applaud or deplore this week's Gay Pride observance in Kansas City, take this quiz. Answers below. More than three right is excellent.
   1. What Roman emperor had Antinous, his partner, declared a god?
   2. What country identified with a specific religion accepts openly gay and lesbian people into its army?
   3. What great modern spiritual leader tried to eradicate homosexuality in India?
   4. What English translation of the Bible is named for a homosexual?
   5. What Jesuit's spiritual sonnets are famous for sensuality, and rhymed "divine" with "chastity in mansex fine"?
   6. What Greek god wore women's clothes, was patron of same-sex lovers and  had at least a dozen male liaisons?
   7. What homosexual writer translated the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, into English?
   8. Saints and soldier-lovers Serge and Bacchus were invoked in same-sex union ceremonies in what faith?
   9. Rumi, whose love for Shams inspired his poetry, was a scholar of what religion?
   10. The relationship between what religious founder and his disciple Ananda is sometimes presented homoerotically?
   ANSWERS. 1. Hadrian. 2. Israel. 3. Gandhi. 4. The King James Version. 5. Gerard Manley Hopkins. 6. Heracles (Roman Hercules). 7. Christopher Isherwood. 8. Medieval Christian Orthodoxy. 9. Islam. 10. The Buddha.

249. 990602  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Meeting shows importance of dialogue

Just a few minutes into the program, guests and--not long thereafter--even the speaker stormed out of last Thursday's meeting of the Kansas City Christian Jewish Muslim Dialogue Group.
   But the group's most dramatic meeting, at least of those I've attended, occurred in 1987. A member of one faith praised an official of his faith in a foreign country. "Nothing good should be said about that man," responded a member of another faith. "He separated my grandmother's head from her body."
   Despite the emotion, these two joined with others in a unanimous statement about next steps for peace for the Israelis and Palestinians. The spirit of unity was all the more awesome because it transcended the intense personal agonies.
   Last week's drama was different. The speaker invited challenge. Those who lived through the events she described questioned her historical account.  Rather than seeking to understand these folk, or finding a larger perspective which could contain both perceived truths, she belittled them and packed up.
   Many of those who remained after the meeting have developed friendships which make frank but respectful exchanges possible. Good will is assumed. They are not so much interested in proving who is right as in seeking ways Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Middle East can redeem the past with a peaceful and just future.
   The group agreed that inviting a self-described extremist with a local following to address the group was a learning experience, that extremism in all faiths must be exposed, and that relationships across faith lines are precious.

248. 990526  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Creativity abounds in creation stories

Is the universe the result of intelligent design? Religions of the world approach this question differently.
   An East African tribe believes that God's good wishes were interfered with by his half-witted brother, which explains the turmoil in the world. In an American Indian version, God oversees the creation of land from water but cannot figure out how to make mountains. He sends a bee to eavesdrop on a trickster who rehearses the instructions to himself as he muses about God's stupidity.
   In many religions, from ancient Greek stories to those of India, creation arises from desire rather than intelligence. One Egyptian myth explains the world as the result of the first deity's masturbation.
   The story in the first chapter of Genesis repeats the order of creation of the much earlier Mesopotamian Enuma Elish myth which concludes with the gods resting and celebrating their work. But in the Mesopotamian account creation is the result of conflict between the gods, rather than singular intelligence. This divine disorder produces flawed human beings.
   Classical Christianity, on the other hand, assigns human defects not to the Creator but to Adam's willful disobedience, told in Genesis 2, parts of which parallel another early Mesopotamian text, the Epic of Gilgamesh. While in Genesis 6 God regrets his creation, many theologians teach that from the beginning God foresaw the Fall and prepared for the world's redemption.
   Buddhists, Taoists and others avoid or minimize creation stories because they understand the world as an ongoing process which has no beginning. The world was not planned so much as it evolved.

247. 990519  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Seminar about Jesus goes on the road

"For people in a democratic society to be religiously illiterate is dangerous," Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, said as he explained why Biblical scholars like him are bringing their work to the laity.
   As part of a "Jesus Seminar On the Road" team, Funk was in Kansas City to lead a workshop last week-end on the differences between the historical Jesus revealed through careful examination of the texts and the Jesus taught by the church.
   A campus minister here from Denton, TX, John William Adams, disagrees with some of the conclusions of the Seminar but appreciates its methods and its fostering of discourse.
   He says the Seminar's work is important for two kinds of young people. "Those who have no religious background can come to faith by learning about Jesus through historical-critical studies. And those raised in Christianity who were never given the right to look at the Bible for themselves, who were told what the Bible says, now have tools to read the texts afresh."
   Funk said that Biblical scholarship "hasn't affected the churches much. We want to recover the original Christian impulse. Jesus would be horrified at what Christianity has become."
   According to the Seminar, the authentic Jesus challenged the authorities of his time, embraced those rejected by society and taught a present rather than a future Kingdom of God.
   The planning committee for the Seminar's Kansas City appearance included Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, and Unitarian Universalist representation.

246. 990512  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Sikhs seek discipline of the faith

"A Sikh seeks to understand and appreciate all paths to God, even unto death," says Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, Sikh representative on the Kansas City Interfaith Council.
   This year Sikhs observe the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Khalsa, a voluntary order for those who agree to rules of pure living including "defense of the defenseless." The Sikh faith itself began 500 years ago in northern India.
   In 1675 a ruler was forcing Hindus to abandon their faith. The Sikh leader Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded for standing with the Hindus. The Sikhs present were so terrorized that none claimed his body for burial.
   In 1699 Bahadur's son, Guru Gobind Rai, decided that the continuing persecutions required that Sikhs "be readily indentifiable."
   He asked his followers if any of them would give his head for the faith. "One at a time, five stepped forward. The Guru took each into his tent and returned for the next with a bloody sword. After escorting the last one, he retured with all five, now transformed and clothed with five marks of the Sikh faith." Khalsa said.
   The marks include unshorn hair covered with a turban and a steel braclet.
   He called the brave disciples Khalsa, or Pure Ones.
   The initiation ceremony included drinking sweetened water from a common bowl, significant because the five came from different castes, and the Khalsa meant equality.
   The Guru himself was then initiated, and took the name Khalsa with the others. Women were named Kaur, which means princess.

245. 990505  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Three themes tout many faiths

From the five years I've been writing this column, here are three things that cheer.
   1. Religious leaders. Most clergy and lay spiritual leaders in the area seek to serve more than to convince. This means that love, understanding and support are more important than gaining agreement on theological doctrine.
   This assessment arises from listening to leaders as they help me prepare these columns and as they comment on them. While ideas about the ultimate mysteries of life are quite important, most bring a humility about their own answers that makes them open to other revelations.
   2. Reader response. When this column began, I could only guess whether readers would appreciate this way of learning about the many faiths practiced in Kansas City. While I have been faithful to you, dear reader, in reporting the criticism I've received, most of you welcome the perspectives found in this space.
   Of 14 calls last Wednesday and Thursday, only one gentleman accused me of leading people down the "path to destruction." An 18-year-old Jewish woman who lives in a small town of Christians said the message of acceptance was life-giving. Most of you are Christians who feel enriched, not threatened, by learning about the heritage of others.
   3. Interfaith programming. Each year more and more interfaith programs occur, in churches, hospitals, schools and in business and civic associations. This has to be a good sign, don't you think?
   Thank you, dear reader, for letting me be a part of your spiritual explorations.

244. 990428  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Column isn't invoking the Fifth

This column first appeared April 27, 1994. A caller said last week's piece was "pitiful, pusillanimous pabulum," and he's hardly the first in these five years to find this space disagreeable. But most of you appreciate these attempts to affirm our spiritual kinship with those of other faiths.
   This column has appeared from many places, from Amman, Jordan, to Washington, D.C. Still, from American Indian spirituality to Zoroastrianism, the focus is most often on how we in the Kansas City area can understand our neighbors' faiths--and our own--more deeply.
   It has never been to convert. This is why a few readers remain quite angry with me. They feel that I, a minister, should "show the true way." In their view, I am failing your soul, dear reader, because I seek to broaden understanding rather than to narrow your commitment.
   Some are confused when I present several sides of an issue. One column listed reasons for believing in reincarnation and another column outlined why others doubt. I should have written only "the truth" on the subject, I was told.
   This column has essayed eternal questions like the meaning of suffering and the nature of God. We have also looked at how faith intersects with political issues, such as gambling, same-sex marriages and the proposed amendment to the Constitution to ban "desecration" of the flag. We've discovered the spirit in sports, ballet, opera, film, theater and the museum as well as in church, mosque, synagogue, temple, gurdwara and shrine.
   I've learned a lot in these five years. Next week I'll specify three things I've learned from you that make me hopeful.

243. 990421  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Buddhist espouses non-creation

"Infinity is not just for one Being. We are all infinite, and thus connnected to one another," Buddhist scholar and Columbia University professor Robert Thurman said to a sell-out crowd of over 400 at the Johnson County Community College theater earlier this month.
   "Finitude is a pretense. Who ever found a beginning or an end?" Thurman asked his audience. What we call a beginning is simply a point in an on-going process.
   Unlike many other religions, Buddhism has no creation or final judgment stories. Instead of ideas about the world coming into existence, Buddhists talk about evolution and transformation, the "very no-beginning" and the "very no-ending."
   Thurman cited a myth in which the Buddha meets the "Creator god" who ultimately confesses he didn't create a thing -- he was simply the first to show up, so those who followed thought he made them. The "Creator god" had no idea what the world was about.
   For Thurman, this evolutionary process is important because it means that "we have all already been each other's mothers many times." Unlike some Buddhists who deny the existence of a soul, Thurman believes that differentiated individuality, though fuzzy, persists for eternity.
   But pursuit of our own happiness ignores how we are endlessly entwined with others. We become happy only when we focus on helping to make others happy, for our involvement with others is infinite.
   Thurman was brought to town by the Mindfulness Meditation Foundation to launch its $1,000,000 capital campaign to built the Rime Buddhist Center and Monastery in the Kansas City area.

242. 990414  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
During grief, tears of God are needed

"Pluralism is our future," scholar Martin E Marty told a crowd of about 650 last week at the Midwest Bioethics Center annual dinner. Marty is professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and author of some 50 books and countless articles.
   His lecture helped to inaugurate "Compassion Sabbath," an interfaith initiative of MBC to help religious leaders and communities address issues of death and dying and to improve end-of-life care in the Kansas City area.
   Those who grieve often ask, "Why?" Marty said answers such as "You'll understand later" are blasphemous, more dismissive than comforting. "We need the tears of God, not words" at such times, he said.
   "Compassion is not a softie thing. Love is action: facing harsh misfortunes and offering the support of the community" with a "theology of presence."
   Marty told stories to show that new medical and financial issues require increasing involvement of faith communities in providing comprehensive health care.
   He applauded MBC's multi-faith approach to creating public space where we are enriched by learning about each other's "stories" and create a stronger community through our diversity.
   At the dinner, the Rev Robert L. Hill, senior minister of Community Christian Church in Kansas City, and the Rev Kelvin T. Calloway, pastor of Trinity AME Church in Kansas City, KS, announced that the program is funded as a pilot project for implementation throughout the nation.
   The Kansas City program begins with a Sept 22 conference for religious leaders and culminates with Compassion Sabbath Weekend Feb 4-6, 2000.

241. 990407  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
The medium has an inspiring message

This Saturday at 11 am and 1 pm, Father Paul Turner leads a "Gallery Walk" at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art to talk about the variety of Marian iconography found in the current exhibition, "Copper as Canvas: Two Centuries of Masterpiece Paintings on Copper, 1575-1775." I asked Turner, pastor of St John Francis Regis Parish, to introduce his talk.
   "Mary, the mother of Jesus, has drawn the devotion of Christians in every generation. As representational art served to honor great secular and religious figures, Mary became a favorite subject for artists who sought to demonstrate their skill in recognition of its divine origins.
   "Consequently, any collection of art covering a spread of two centuries is bound to include religious images, and those of Mary will predominate. "Copper as Canvas" is no exception.  Although the unifying element of the exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins is the medium -- paint on copper -- the viewer whose heart ponders the fundamentals of faith will find inspiration.
   "For example, the show includes a collector's cabinet by an unknown German artist in 1603. As carpentry, the cabinet is a prodigious puzzle of hidden drawers and hinges. The front panels open to reveal a triptych painted on copper. There one finds scenes from the life of Mary as recorded in the opening chapters of Luke's gospel: the angel's annunciation to Mary, the visitation of Mary to her kinswoman Elizabeth, and the adoration of the shepherds in the presence of Mary at the birth of Jesus. These scenes became the first of the fifteen mysteries of the rosary in Catholic piety."
   Museum admission is free Saturdays and there is no charge for the "Gallery Walk."

240. 990331 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Passover is not Jewish Easter

Tonight the Jewish festival of Passover begins. "What is most important for non-Jews to know about this festival?" I asked Rabbi Daniel Horwitz of Congregation Ohev Sholom.
    "Passover is not Easter," he replied. He said that Jews are frequently asked about festivals that relate to the Christian calendar. Hanukkah, for example, is a minor holiday, not mentioned in the Bible, but which receives attention from Christians because it occurs near Christmas.
    "Passover is one of three pilgrimage festivals in Judaism," he said. Passover celebrates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Shavuot marks the giving of the Torah, God's teaching, to Moses on Mount Sinai. Sukkot, the festival of "booths," commemorates the sojurn in the wilderness and their "declaration of dependence" on God.
    Christians who extract Passover from this pilgrimage framework and place it as a precursor to Easter understand Passover imperfectly, Horwitz said.
    Futher, Passover is not just the story of the Exodus but is embellished with the understandings of deliverance that have developed thoughout subsequent Jewish history.
    "I once had a call from someone wanting to know when we 'do the sacrifices,'" Rabbi Horwitz said, "as if Judaism today has remained unchanged from Biblical times." Jews have not offered animal sacrifices since the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 C.E.
    "Non-Christians should know that Jews have an evolving understanding of Torah, and our tradition continues to grow as we discern new meanings in God's interaction with history," he said.

239. 990324 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Is God redeemed by the human condition?

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City could not have chosen a more intriguing meditation for Lent than Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd" which ended March 21. [[ With allusions to Christian theology and Greek mythology, ]] the opera explores the virtue of unmerited suffering.
   In both Herman Melville's story and the opera's libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, Billy is a type of Christ. As the opera concludes, Captain Vere admits he could have saved Billy from hanging, but it was Billy who "has saved me, and blessed me, and the love that passes understanding has come to me."
   Billy, whose purity attracts everyone, is destroyed by the Satan-figure, master-at-arms Claggart. By falsely calling Billy mutinous, Claggart fulfills that "depravity" which "established an order such as reigns in hell."
   Billy cries to Vere, who knows the truth, to save him. When Vere does not, Billy recalls the "story of the good boy hung and gone to glory," and counsels his shipmates to put aside thoughts of rescuing him.
   While Billy has inadvertently rid the ship of Claggart and saved Vere from the wrath of the crew, the redemption suggested is larger than this. The crew itself -- that is, humanity -- is saved from the derangement Claggart would have caused, and Vere's own soul is led to love.
   But what if Vere is not Pilate but God? The crew he fathers repeatedly names him "Starry Vere," identifying a celestial role. As Christ obeys his father's will, Billy embraces Vere's. Except for the situation of the enemy's threat and the rules of war, Vere would be a monster, condemning his innocent son to death. Is God himself redeemed from monstrosity by a parallel human condition?

238. 990317 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 We're a nation of many but members of one body

"One of the greatest threats that sits on the horizon now is the movement toward a civil religion," said Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver at the Mayor's Prayer Breakfast last month.
   The term "civil religion" enjoyed a popularity for about 15 years after Robert Bellah began using it in 1967, but it does not appear in his enormously influential Habits of the Heart, first published in 1985.
   When I showed the Mayor's statement to Bellah, in town to address a conference of sociologists of religion at the Nazarene Theological Seminary last week, he said "That's why I've stopped using the term."
   Bellah, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in the tradition of earlier scholars like Sidney Mead, argued that America's religious shape is unique, that from the beginning of the Republic, religious values, often expressed in non-specific ways, has helped the nation to sense its oneness out of many: E pluribus unum.
   Bellah's career has focused on what he regards as the excesses of individualism and the loss of community. "We still have the Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King's speech," he said, and other utterances which invoke a national commitment of individuals to one another without advancing any particular faith.
   But "civil religion," as used by the Mayor and others, now sometimes suggests the idolatrous worship of the state or the domination of one tradition over others through government, instead of the community observing its unity while embracing diversity in a common life.
   Bellah, unlike other scholars, has abandoned his own term, but he continues to say, "We are members of one body."

237. 990310 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 The cross represents the human and the divine

The cross is probably the most familiar symbol of Christianity. During Lent its significance is heightened as believers contemplate the sacrifice of Jesus, though the cross on which he died may have looked like a "T."
   The earliest Christian cross actually had three lines, two like an "X" over a vertical line, combining the Greek letters chi and rho in the monogram of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor. This form had been used earlier as a symbol of a Chaldean sun-god. After the 4th Century, the cross gradually became an emblem of the new faith.
   The earliest use of the familiar equilateral cross (in which all arms are equal) may have been to designate the four cardinal directions and the four winds, and hence, in ancient Mesopotamia, weather and sky gods like Shamash and Anu.
   St. Andrew's cross is an "X" and the Lorraine or double cross has two horizontal bars, the top shorter than the other. The simple Latin cross extends the lower leg longer than the arms.
   In early times two crossed lines represented two sticks for kindling fire, with subsequent meanings of suffering (as in a martyr's burning at the stake) and transformation.
   As world-axis, around which everything revolves for people of faith, the cross recalls not only the tree of Golgotha but also the tree of Paradise.
   But the basic meaning of the cross in all cultures seems to be conjunction. In Christianity, this means the joining of divine and human natures in the Christ, of his death paradoxically leading to eternal life, of the union of the ordinary with the transcendent.
   For those observing Lent, it suggests that less is more.

236. 990303 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Invocators include everyone

While it is easy to enjoy friends of many religions in our neighborhoods and workplaces, we are just beginning to learn how to honor diversity at moments of reverence together.
   We don't want to offend those of different faiths by offering invocations or blessings that exclude them, but ways of embracing everyone are not always obvious.
   Three methods seem most common. The first is to eliminate prayers altogether. While no one is offended, neither is anyone blessed.
   A second way is being developed by Jim Abbott, executive director of the Minority Supplier Council, for its annual luncheon and trade-fair breakfasts and lunches. Abbott encourages guest invocators to pray in the style of their own faiths, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, American Indian and so forth.
   A pastor himself, Abbott has no difficulty in "celebrating the differences and the passionate expression of various faiths" because building relationships is important to him and his work.
   A third way is followed by the Overland Park Rotary Club, where members take turns offering the invocations at the weekly meetings. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and those unaffiliated with any faith participate.
   The invocator is asked to reach for language large enough to include everyone in the club. Because members want to join in the prayer and not be spectators of someone else's prayer, terms specific to any one faith are avoided.
   "Jesus is my Lord and Savior," says Steve Hoffman, club president. "For me as a Christian, hearing fellow members offer words of aspiration respecting our diversity deepens our appreciation for one another."

235. 990224 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Love isn't just a Christian aspect

A frequent caller who does not leave his name or phone number has identified himself as a minister. He alone found my recent comments about love disagreeable:
   "When you connect Valentine's Day with the Muslim and Hindu faiths, you have a massive non-sequitur. You do a tremendous disservice to our city. The idea of mixing the Christian scriptures with these other, happy pagan ideas is just absolutely anathema and nauseating.
   "You missed a wonderful opportunity to talk about Christian love and the real origin of St Valentine's Day. But of course I don't think your motivation is to exalt Christ or promote the Christian faith or the truth of the Bible, but rather to make people think that there's many roads that lead to God and any one of them is fine."
   It is true I do not believe love is confined to Christians. In Kansas City and elsewhere, I have found that my Muslim and Hindu friends are just as capable of love as those who identify themselves as Christians.
   Learning their traditions helps me understand my own more fully, just as I appreciate the character of Kansas City better by having visited Omaha and New York, Seville and Kurashiki.
   Scholars believe Valentine's Day actually originated from a pre-Christian Roman festival, just as elements of Easter, Christmas and other holidays have earlier sources.
   I wrote of love as the desire to know and be known in one's fullness. To the caller's complaint, I plead: If you are trying to convert me or get me to do something without first beholding me, knowing who I am, you are making a sales pitch rather than offering love.

234. 990217 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Life's a dance of salvation

"Football is the choreography everyone is looking at," William Whitener told me after a rehearsal of "Gloria," which will receive its world premiere tomorrow by the State Ballet of Missouri. Whitener is the ballet's artistic director.
   I had asked Whitener about the place of dance in our society because of the irony of a secular ballet company commissioning religious works like "Carmina Burana," and now "Gloria," while historically churches have sometimes eschewed dance.
   "Gloria," choreographed by Lila York to the music of Francis Poulenc, is intensely spiritual, often stated through colloquial movements, with the agony and triumph one sees not only on the football field but also in the larger landscape of human community and in the interior arena of the individual soul.
   For such scope, "Gloria," like "Carmina," uses orchestra and chorus and will "fill every inch of the theater," Whitener said.
   The solo in the second movement of "Gloria" took me through the gamut of emotions, from angst to zest. We see a tortured soul, lost, moving toward redemption, guided by a hovering presence.
   Christians may see the man as Christ, the woman as an angel or Mary. Perhaps the rest of the company is the Church.
   But the dance is not specifically Christian, even if "Gloria" comes from the Mass. The dance is about all of us as we move from those moments of confusion, isolation and despair toward a center in life's storms. There is something about the universe that draws us together, and toward salvation. And offers ways by which we can help to rescue others.

233. 990210 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Love and spirit go together

Valentine's Day seems to have originated from an ancient Roman festival of accidental pairing. Does chance give birth to love?
   A Muslim hadith, authoritative tradition, reports these words of God: "I was a hidden treasure, and I yearned to be known. Then I created creatures in order to be known by them."
   This hadith can be compared with a Hindu scripture that proclaims that the One conceived the universe from kama, procreative desire.
   Mystics like Ibn Arabi and Rumi cite the hadith in their explanations of love. They argue that humans are created in God's image, and our yearning to know another and be known in our fullness leads us to create loving relationships.
   While Cupid's arrow may seem to pierce us by chance, enduring love is more than a feeling. It is a choice, a continuing decision. It is the creative play of imagination, an act of faith. It is up to us to imagine, and thus to see, the beauty of the soul of the beloved. If we are passive, we will surely be distracted from always and steadily seeing the divine in the beloved.
   The mystical jihad strips away every profane claim on our attention - jealousy, possessiveness, neediness. When the ego is annihilated, then we can behold the one divine presence everywhere.
   Christian scripture (I John 4:16) says that God is love. The Jewish theologian Martin Buber says that one who loves "brings God and the world together."
   The secular portrayal of love separates our deepest personal love from our spiritual yearnings. But religious witnesses say they are united.

232. 990203 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Not all religions creator-centered

"Don't all religions teach belief in God?"
   No. All religions have some way of talking about ultimate reality, but that may not mean a supreme being or even a "higher power."
   Buddhism, for example, is a non-theistic religion. The Buddha did not consider himself a god. "Buddha" simply means "one who has awakened" from the trance of separateness. He taught nothing about God. The religion is based on personal insight and compassion.
   Some popular forms of Buddhism include what are translated as "deities." But the deities in Tibetan art, for example, can be understood as representations of psychological or spiritual activities, just as we understand the "ego" more as a label for ways a person functions rather than as an actual entity.
   Jainism, a faith originating in India, also has no Creator God. And the Chinese religions of Taoism and Confucianism affirm impersonal forces but not a Creator. "Tao" means "the Way" the universe operates, and is not distinct from the cosmos itself. Confucius seems to have honored the gods, but done so to acknowledge order and convention, as we might salute the flag without believing the flag perceives the ritual we perform.
   The Shinto term "kami" is curious, neither male nor female, neither singular nor plural, though kami are thought of as innumerable. The kami are powers or processes inspiring awe, but not a Supreme Being.
   For many primal religions, a sense of sacredness suffuses the world of the senses, suggesting a holiness deeper than we can fathom.
   Each religion asks, "What makes life meaningful?" God may or may not be part of the answer.

231. 990127 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 West owes a debt to Muslim society

This is the gist of remarks I gave last week at a Crescent Peace Society dinner observing the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting:
   Culturally, the West is indebted to Islam for advancing knowledge in many fields, from art to zoology. It preserved and elaborated the texts of ancient Greece during the Dark Ages after Christianity became the religion of the the West. Even the English language, from alcohol to zero, reflects the scientific advances by Muslim scholars.
   The West is beginning to remember this indebtedness.
   Personally, I am affected whenever I have the privilege of lining up, shoulder to shoulder, with Muslims of all ages and colors and accents, to pray. The bowing and prostrations, the raising of the single finger as witness to one God, and the greetings, left and right, which end the prayer, bring my very body into submission to the Infinite and into the support of human community.
   I admire the disciple of Ramadan. Your fasting during daylight trains you in self-control. Your use of the month as a special focus on the needy is an antidote to the self-centeredness of our society.
   Many of us not of your faith are taking inspiration from it.
   When I grew up, I was filled with prejudices about your faith.
   I remember this because recently I heard from a minister who claimed to have studied many religions--it seemed for the purpose of dismissing them.
   Textbooks cannot adequately convey the practice of a faith. But if he could make friends of the heart outside his own tradition, as I have been fortunate to do, perhaps his understanding of God's providence would be enlarged.

230. 990120 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Don't be blind to diversity

Jesus advised plucking of the beam from one's own eye before casting out the mote from another's.
   Andrew Bolton, born in England, learned that the British empire was a glorious thing. But when he was 17, he read the history of how Britian had invaded China to enforce the sale of opium. He began to see his own heritage was not pure.
   "Muslims frequently see Christianity through the savagery of the Crusades and 'Christian' colonialism. Jews often see Christianity through 1700 years of persecution that culminated in the Holocaust in the 20th Century. Hindus and Sikhs suffered oppression by the British at the same time these 'heathen' were urged to convert."
   Bolton, now coordinator for Peace and Justice Ministries at the International Headquarters for the RLDS Church in Independence, asks "Can we Christians face the dark side of our faith and repent of it?"
   Bolton has lived in Germany and Japan, and chose to spend the last 13 years in Leicester, the most pluralistic city of its size in the United Kingdom. Not only do Scots, Irish and East Europeans populate the city, but within a two mile radius one finds ten Muslim mosques, five Sikh gurdwaras, several Hindu temples, one Jain temple, and Christian churches from Serbian Orthodox to Quaker.
   When riots tore other cities, Leicester's deliberate embrace of diversity enabled it to florish.
   Bolton, who also taught at Oxford, and wrote the Christian response in Testing the Global Ethic, wants to equip young people to deal with personal values and understand the faiths of others. Removing the beam from one's own eye, as Jesus advised, may be a good start for all of us.

Religious diversity grows
Yet many aren't aware of holidays celebrated by others

             By: SHAWNA A. HAMEL The Kansas City Star
             Date: 01/18/99

             Diversity in matters of faith is widespread in the
             Kansas City area. But those whose faiths fall outside
             the Judeo-Christian tradition still face subtle
             One problem is that their beliefs aren't quite
             understood by mainstream society, and another is that
             their traditions aren't quite honored.
             "I think in past years there has been an increase in
             understanding of other religions, and that's very
             healthy,'' said the Rev. Vern Barnet, an expert in
             world religions.
             "However, a case we still have is that dominant
             religions don't necessarily recognize the importance
             of other religions and their holidays that are
             observed,'' he said.
             One example, Barnet said, was the case of a Muslim
             student at a local school who was all but forced to
             eat lunch even though he was observing his religion's
             fasting period.
             The five-county Kansas City area is home to more
             than 2,000 congregations and more than a dozen
             religious faiths. In addition to the more familiar
             Christian and Jewish faiths, there also are Hindu,
             Buddhist, Sufi, Baha'i, pagan and Islamic groups.
             "Although it is hard to pinpoint in numbers, the
             largest faiths in Kansas City outside (Christianity)
             are Jewish, Muslim and Hindu, and they're easily
             recognized because they have a strong sense of
             identity,'' Barnet said.
             There are substantial Sikh and Buddhist communities
             in the area, too, said Barnet, who is the founder and
             minister-in-residence of the World Faiths Center for
             Religious Experience and Study in Overland Park.
             He is also active with the Kansas City Interfaith
             Council, which works with about 11 different faiths.
             "There's a Muslim population between 10,000 and
             15,000 people in the Kansas City area, but most
             people do not know about our religion and it is
             sometimes a problem for us, taking off our holidays
             from school or work,'' said Amjad Dalaq, manager
             of the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City.
             The Muslim religion centers on the word "Islam,''
             which means both "submission to the will of God in
             all aspects of life'' and "peace. '' Muslims believe
             that God, whom they call Allah, created human
             beings and the world for the purpose of worshiping
             him, Dalaq said.
             "Our children who go to public schools, kids in their
             classes sometimes don't understand what they
             believe and make fun of them, and some teachers
             don't like our children taking off school days for our
             holidays,'' Dalaq said. "Some parents just take our
             kids out of school for the day anyway. ''
             Steve Klick, a spokesman for Buddhist Information
             of America, said mainstream society knows little
             about Buddhism, despite the growth of the faith in
             America. Thousands of Buddhists live in Kansas
             City, he said.
             Buddhists celebrate mainstream holidays, such as
             Hanukkah and Christmas, but the group's belief
             system differs sharply from most Western religions,
             Klick said.
             "It's not that we don't have faith, it's just a different
             kind of faith,'' Klick said.
             "We're about proof and evidence, and we believe
             you should doubt and question everything until it is
             proven to you, which eventually it will be. We
             believe in striving to help and benefit as many
             people as possible. There is no heaven and hell in
             our belief system, and we don't dwell on sins a lot.
             We believe people are inherently good and pure.''
             Mark Johnson, with the Spiritual Assembly of
             Baha'is of Overland Park, said local Baha'is haven't
             encountered much discrimination. There are between
             200 and 300 members of the faith in the area, he
             The Baha'i faith was founded more than 150 years
             ago in Persia, now known as Iran.
             "Unfortunately, our religion was seen in Persia as a
             very big threat, and our people were persecuted very
             severely and exiled numerous times because of it,''
             he said.
             Barnet said society is becoming much more
             For instance, an increasing number of churches have
             begun offering world religions series, he said. And
             he has seen more awareness in civic organizations of
             the need to be more inclusive of all faiths.
             "I think, for the most part, people are pretty eager to
             learn about other faiths without having to change
             their own,'' Barnet said. "What I would like to see is
             people visiting each other's places of worship, and
             that doesn't happen very often. Also, I hope someday
             people can start talking more openly about religious
             and spiritual activities, like they talk about the
             weather. ''

229. 990113 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Kwanzaa has grown beyond culture

A caller wants to know why I wrote about Kwanzaa. "The holiday is cultural, not religious." Indeed, this is the way Maulana Karenga, its creator, conceived of it in 1966. Even today it appears in few books on religion.
   However, when I researched Kwanzaa in 1995 in Los Angeles where it originated, I learned that it had become an important religious observance. The Rev. Cecil Murray of the Los Angeles First AME Church justified this "because (Kwanzaa) deals with the totality of human experience, and religion is what ties human experience together." He called the seven principles of Kwanzaa, one of which is faith, "a supplement to the Ten Commandments."
   This year, according to Janet Moss, executive director of Congregational Partners, members of the Leawood Cure of Ars Roman Catholic Church explained how they observed the Christmas-Epiphany holiday cycle with members of the Kansas City Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, who in turn explained Kwanzaa.
   The caller may be correct in thinking the holiday does not belong to any particular religion, but it helps to "tie human experience together" with religious power.
   Another example. Martin Luther King Jr was Christian, but his study, his work and his outreach was not confined to one faith. Thus American Indian, Baha'i, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh representatives help to lead a celebration of his witness this Sunday at 4 pm at Community Christian Church, 4601 Main.
   Is the King holiday cultural or also religious? Kwanzaa may be disputed, but the answer on King is increasingly clear.

228. 990106 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
 Nothing but a burning light

Far more serious than the Y2K problem as we prepare for the new millennium is the question asked by Job: "What is man . . . ?"
   From the domestication of fire and the use of tools a million years ago, technology and science have changed spiritual outlooks. The development of agriculture twelve thousand years ago and the beginning of history a mere six thousand years ago radically reshaped conceptions of the gods and spirits and how humans related to them.
   In the last four hundred years, Western religion has had to deal with
* Galileo's discovery that humans are not at the center of the universe,
* Darwin's arguments that humans evolved from earlier species rather than being specially created by God,
* Freud's demonstration that much of human behavior originates from unconscious processes, and
* Einstein's and quantum mechanics' showing that "objects" and "events" are influenced by our very perceiving them.
   Now we learn that humans can be cloned. How will those who believe "ensoulment" occurs at the moment of conception deal with humans who have never been conceived? Will clones be owned by those who paid for them?
   Telomerase, the "immortality enzyme," and medical advances of biological and silicon replacement parts, offer immortality, surely in the next millennium if not the next century, for those who can afford and desire it. How will religions deal with deathlessness?
   The completion of the Human Genome Project in 2005 may make it possible to custom-design new humans and even new human species.
   How many answers to Job's question can there be?

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