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