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KC STAR COLUMN

503.DonG   518.Eliot 496.Gibson

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

correspondence with critics

2004 January 1 - December 31
539. 041227 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Lesson to learn one of repentance, renewal

   My son answered the door and politely greeted the strangers. They asked for me. He explained I was out. They said they did not like my Mar. 3 column on Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and then bloodied his face. I returned home a few minutes later, helped him with his still-bleeding nose and called the police who created a “hate crimes” report.
   The story of the Christ is about vicarious suffering, but I still would prefer to have been punched myself rather than my son receive the blows on my behalf.
   One of the nastiest comments on the column came from a professor at a local conservative Christian seminary. I don’t understand why some people who claim Christ employ disrespectful and even foul language to lure me to their personal savior. Being cursed in the name of Jesus doesn’t really deal with the problems I saw in the movie.
   The Dec. 1 column about revising the Pledge of Allegiance also generated a lot of responses, mostly positive. The heritage we claim understands God as Lord of the Universe, and I would like the Pledge to recognize that the whole world, not just my nation, is “under God.” I’m still thinking about some of the suggestions readers sent, and next year you may find here a refinement of the text I proposed.
   But I think the most important column I wrote this year was for Sept. 8, before the anniversary of 9/11, reprising what I had written in 2001: “In religious literature we can find at least three metaphors to describe what happened Sept. 11: crime, war and disease. Each metaphor has its virtue, and the situation is so complex that no one metaphor is sufficient.”
   But we have employed mainly the war metaphor. This year the results have become arguably clearer. They may include increased hatred of our nation, deaths and injuries of our own soldiers and others in unanticipated numbers, a multiplication of terrorists, financial damage and instability.
   The Buddha said, “Hatred does not cease by hatred but only by love; this is the eternal rule.” Jesus said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.” It is a teaching found in most faiths, but we make exceptions when we are threatened. We lack the vision and the leaders to put it into practice. It seems so unrealistic or inapplicable to the situation, whatever it is, when we are stirred up.
   But that is the point. We cannot see clearly when we allow fear rather than faith to rule our lives. Thoughtfully and lovingly diagnosing the cause of trouble and developing an effective treatment may ultimately prove a more sufficient metaphor than mutual slaughter. Returning evil in the name of good is a delusion religions warn against, and a temptation to which we too often yield until, alas, it is too late. Perhaps this new year is a time for repentance and renewal.


538. 041222 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Best holiday gift lifts us up

Whenever he heard the complaint, “I wish they’d put Christ back in Christmas,” a colleague of mine used to respond, “Heck, I’d be happy if they’d just put Christmas back in December.”
   Our commercial, secular society drapes itself in tinsel for a time but only vaguely remembers the teachings of Jesus. He warned about the accumulation of wealth. He said to care for the oppressed. We should love our enemies.
   The ironies of the way we celebrate Christmas are almost overwhelming. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is the “cover” for a culture where violence erupts in sporting events and seems to be the point of computer games. “Action figures” are toys under the Christmas tree. The nation pursues combat abroad that many think violates every principle of Christian “just war” theology. “Blessed are the peace-makers,” he said, but we are spending nearly half a trillion bucks each year on making war an instrument of policy while we spend little more than nothing on making peace. Adding “God” to the Pledge of Allegiance fifty years ago does not seem to have made us a more righteous nation, but only more self-righteous.
   So how is a Christian, or any person of faith wishing to honor the season, to assess the hypocrisy of our private and public purchases while we ignore the grief of the battle and the misery and injustice our over-medicated and escapist entertainments distract us 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 love.
   The gospel stories of the crucifixion and resurrection do not end with the reformation of society; society remained profane. But some individuals were reformed—spiritually reborn— and they expected Christ to return before they died to set things aright.
   When this expectation was not fulfilled, a deeper understanding of Christ as an indwelling power developed, always ready to be born in the hearts of those touched by divine love.
   So even in the perversion of our culture’s observance of the birth of the Christ child is the longing for something greater than our isolated selves. Paradoxically, through the freshness, the honest cries and the vulnerability of a babe we can find within ourselves new life and vision and service to others. The season’s parties and the merriment can be viewed as attempts to experience what a redeemed society might be like. In greetings, in spending time with those dear to us, and in giving gifts, whatever they are, we have the possibility of reaching beyond the finite—and imitating, however poorly, the gift of transcendent love.


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 column.
   * Church leaders this week were buzzing about the refusal of CBS and NBC to show the United Church of Christ ad promoting its inclusive approach to religion as “too controversial.” You can see the ad at www.stillspeaking.com.
   * W. Grant McMurray resigned recently as president of the Community of Christ, a world-wide denomination headquartered here. His achievements for his church have often been celebrated. McMurray also retains the gratitude of those supporting interfaith work. Two examples. His behind-the-scenes assistance with the Kansas City Interfaith Council’s “Gifts of Pluralism” conference held six weeks after the 9/11 attacks helped make the area’s first such gathering a success for the 250 people who participated, and the many others who have been affected by it since. A year later, his ideas helped shape the city’s central day-long anniversary observance of 9/11 into a remarkable opportunity for spiritual renewal.
   * Aside from being important Kansas City area names, what do Henry W. Bloch, Carl DiCapo, Peggy Dunn, Sr. Rosemary Flanigan, Gary D. Forsee, Michael R. Haverty, Shirley Helzberg, Thomas M. Hoenig, Carol Marinovich, Mahnaz Shabbir and Cantor Paul Silbersher have in common? Although they represent different faith traditions, all were recognized, with about 50 others, at a Speakers’ Alumni Luncheon last week for the Cathedral Center for Faith and Work.
   Alumnus Irv Hockaday noted that the workplace is a primary source of community, and that people want to make a contribution. Spirituality “is action undertaken in the belief that there is a good or purpose higher than one’s own self-interest.” But today moral  guardrails are weakened. Hockaday praised the Center’s work is as point of intervention, to transmit values to future generations.
   One of the things I love about this town is that leaders are accessible. Through the Center’s breakfast and lunch programs, in their eighth year, you can converse with them about the news of the day—and about eternal questions.
   * Another organization observing its eighth year is the Crescent Peace Society, which held its annual Eid dinner Sunday evening. Its mission is to “enhance the understanding of Muslim cultures” in our community. Award recipients, speakers and guests came from several faiths, and had important things to say. But none touched me quite as deeply as 6-year-old Manahil Khan, who was one of a series of students presenting brief speeches describing different countries and explaining why they made their particular selection. In her simple way, she found words that all Americans, regardless of political persuasion, might honor: “I chose Iraq because I feel sorry for the war.”


535. 041201 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Revised pledge could help unite nation

The division of our nation, so vividly encoded as “red states, blue states,” cries for healing. This hurt is felt by both the right and the left, as well as moderates. Is there a spirit that can 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 objected.
   So in the spirit of compromise, in this version I’ve included “Providence,” a capitalized term found in the writings of our nation’s founders, so theists can understand it to mean God and non-theists can interpret it poetically as a power moving in history toward the good.
   Vision is a fundamental religious energy. How we envision America is a religious project. Reframing who we are beyond red or blue is the spiritual challenge we face.


534. 041124 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
There are multitudes of aspects to religion

Recently I was the guest preacher at an area church. I spoke about a Christian fundamentalist who worked through a problem in his life as he “saw” Jesus in his living room. I said that “even the atheist in me” admired how he interpreted this vision in a way to move his life 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 Whole.
   I heard a bright young graduate student familiar with Hindu philosophy, and a bit anxious about it, put a question to a Hindu sage visiting this country. “Which of the three classical positions, Advaita, Dvaita, or Visista Advaita, is correct?”
   (You don’t need to understand these terms to get the gist of the anecdote, but in case you are wondering, these are philosophies of Non-dualism, Dualism, and Qualified Non-dualism. A simplified explanation is that the Non-dualist says that the only reality is God. The Dualist says that God and the world are two separate realities. The Qualified Non-dualist says that both God and the world are real and separate, but the world and the self are dependent on God. In their cultural context, these three positions have considerable implications.)
   The sage responded to the student this way: Why do I have to decide? Each view helps to explain our rich and often contradictory experience. Sometimes one view is useful, another time, another view works better.
   This Thanksgiving, I am grateful I don’t have to be consistent; I contain multitudes.


533. 041117 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Shrine of the muses and spirituality

The human longing for the eternal is often invigorated when cultures intersect. When the Aryans invaded India, the portable, external deities of the sky they brought to the Dravidian culture were soon transformed into servants of consciousness. When a Jewish teacher’s life was interpreted by those acquainted with Hellenistic religion and Roman philosophy, the doctrines of Christianity developed that still shape much of that faith.
   And when Buddhism migrated from India to China, this faith, first with a foothold, then with a sudden and astonishing fluorescence, manifested its inherent capacity to adapt to many regions of the world.
   Born in India, Buddhism as a separate faith hardly exists there today, though many Buddhist themes have been reabsorbed into the Indian tradition out of which Buddhism had first emerged.
   In twenty years’ time on either side of the ending of the Fifth Century, a thousand years after the Buddha lived, the monastics in the northern Wei empire multiplied from less than a hundred thousand to two million. The Chinese had resisted foreign influences, so we must ask: What caused such a rapid expansion of this new faith? And how did a simple and spare faith become so complex and rich?
   An answer begins with the disintegration of the Han empire. Official Confucianism, with its focus on worldly manners, lost its credibility. Buddhism, on the other hand, recognized the vivid experience of suffering and impermanence, and offered an eternal pattern, a consolation, a salvation, which made sense of the chaos.
   This new faith was soon embraced by both rulers and ordinary folk, and the teaching was elaborated in elite and popular doctrines and scriptures. Buddhism was expressed and promulgated in personal and public art as the country again prospered.
   Many such answers reside in the stories of the sculpture fortuitously collected at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, in the newly reinstalled gallery, “The Glory of the Law.”
   This past week-end Kung Shih, a Chinese Buddhist nun living in St. Louis, visited the gallery.  She said she was grateful that this artistic record of her faith has been saved from destruction, and was accessible here in this country, to benefit people all over the world.
   Coincidentally, the designer of the gallery, Museum director Marc Wilson, will be recognized Sunday at the Kansas City Interfaith Council’s twentieth annual family Thanksgiving Sunday ceremonial meal, this year held, appropriately, at the Rime Buddhist Center. Wilson and his predecessor, Laurence Sickman, who acquired much of the Chinese collection, are being celebrated “for advancing the Museum’s treasury of art through which the world’s great spiritual traditions may be explored.”


532. 041110 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Yogi stil alive in his teachings

Later he would be known as Yogi Bhajan. At the age of eight he began to study yoga. At sixteen, he was declared a master of Kundalini Yoga. At eighteen, he led his village of 7,000 people on a 32-mile trek from what is now Lahore, Pakistan, to New Delhi, India, during the turmoil of the 1947 partition creating boundaries between these two countries.
   In 1968 he came to the United States, began teaching, and founded 3HO, the Healthy Happy Holy Organization. In 1971, his efforts led to the incorporation of Sikh Dharma in the U.S. His efforts to bring a Sikh ministry to the West were recognized by Sikh authorities in Amritsar, India, and he came to know three US presidents and other political and religious leaders around the world. This Oct 6, at age 75, he died at his home in New Mexico.
   At the memorial service, former UN ambassador, now New Mexico Governor, Bill Richardson, spoke with humor and gravity about their 30-year friendship and his advice about Richardson’s weight, his pronunciation of Spanish, his politics and even about international security issues. Richardson saluted his work for world peace,
   Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, the leader of the Kansas City Sikh Dharma community, knew Yogi Bhajan well, and studied with him each year. I asked Karta Purkh to comment on Yogi Bhajan’s motto, “If you can't see God in all, you can’t see God at all.” Karta Purkh said that Yogi Bhajan “saw within everyone that divinity that he acknowledged within himself. There was no one undeserving of his love and compassion.” Beyond yoga and Sikhism, “his wisdom extended into the realms of communication, the healing arts, business, religion and government.” A founder of the International Peace Prayer Day, Yogi Bhajan traveled the world promoting tolerance, peace and equality for everyone.
   Karta Purkh is an American whose life (and name) was changed by encountering Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga, a highly energetic and integrative physical and spiritual form of meditation. Karta Purkh, now a member of the Kansas City Interfaith Council, said, “I found that the experience I was seeking through the alteration of mind by the use of drugs was available in a healthy” practice, peeling “away the onion layers of fear, superstition, anxiety, desire, doubt, denial, confusion, neurosis, regret, intellectual vanity, societal training, guilt, habit and egoism to see what was really at my core, why I was there and what I was to do with that knowledge.
   “I truly feel that (Yogi Bhajan) is still alive within his teachings. He never proselytized any of us but his . . . life inspired us to be like him. His yogic teachings were the methods we could all use, no matter what religion we adhered to, to live . . . in truth and faith and full confidence that we are doing the right and righteous thing.” Sikh Dharma, like all religions is “how an enlightened person is to live his or her life. He showed us this by his example.”
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531. 041103 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Resist the urge to condemn in celebration

“The news of the day is invariably bad,” said world religions scholar Huston Smith, in Kansas City several weeks ago. “But the news of Eternity is always good.”
   I’ve been puzzling about that statement, especially as, four days in advance, I try to write this column for the day after the election.
   If the candidates and issues you favored won, you may find the news of the day good, so how could Smith’s statement be true? I’m sure that Smith would happily admit his error if these victories ushered us into a paradisiacal age.
   I’m predicting, four days in advance, that this has not happened. The injustices to be redressed, the oppressions to be lifted, the healing of divisions, the elusive search for peace and safety, the greed, the fear, the impurities in our souls—these remain.
   But what might be the “always good” news from Eternity? Smith left his listeners to work out their own answers. Here is mine. What is yours?
   The context for my answer is the pull on one hand to focus on the discovery of truth, the experience of beauty, the delight in the good we call love. I could listen to a recording of Vivaldi’s “Autumn” and enjoy a cup of hot chai in the company of someone I love while we spend the morning light simply enjoying the colors of the leaves on the tree outside my window and contemplate the miracles of photosynthesis, the seasons and the gift of sight. There is so much to enjoy.
   On the other hand, the world is full of suffering, and I am pulled to do something about that. The Power that moves through history toward justice may be sure, but the cost to the innocent may be great.
That Power appeals to me to do what I can to reduce the terrors that happen every day in this city and to confront the evils that remain embedded in the structure of relationships with people we don’t even know around the globe, and in our desecration of God’s ecology. There is so much work to do.
   Being pulled in opposite directions, toward pleasure and toward service, is my dilemma.
   But from Eternity comes the paradoxical news that may resolve my problem. As William Blake put it, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” This may mean that Eternity speaks through the paradox. The world is filled with horror, but also with generosity 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 parable

   The first evening of Ramadan, about 40 Muslims, Jews, Christians and Buddhists were guests at a breaking of the fast at a Muslim home here. Before the meal was presented, the Muslims shared with us dates and water, the first elements of fast-breaking, and then performed ritual prayers. Then the host prayed extemporaneously. With tears in his eyes, he pleaded for those whose hunger would not be broken with food, and all who suffered from deprivation, oppression and war.
   How will God respond?
   The normative answer in the scriptures of the monotheistic faiths is that God responds by requiring humans to do good to one another. The Hebrew prophets like Amos and Jeremiah criticized the ruling class—both king and priest—for taking false comfort in their religiosity while neglecting the poor. The prophets often criticized their own nation more vigorously than others and called it to repentance.
   The prophets did not speak abstractly about God’s holiness. They addressed the social, political and international issues of their day in the light of God’s will.
   The three faiths understand God as a power working in history towards justice.
   It is exactly this view of Providence that Abraham Lincoln expresses in his Second Inaugural Address. Lincoln, facing the devastation beyond what anyone could have imagined before the Civil War began, spoke as a Hebrew prophet.
   Condemning slavery and interpreting the horrors of the war as the price to be paid for ending it, Lincoln also noted the ironic religiosity in both North and South—“both read the same Bible and pray to the same God.” Like the prophets who sometimes moved from damning speech to hymns of consolation, Lincoln concludes with words of comfort.
   I wonder what kind of oracles the prophets would pronounce today.
   Surely they would see that religiosity is evident in many political campaigns. I can hear them cry, “Hypocrisy!” Perhaps they would rend their garments and parade through the shopping malls: “Woe unto you! You were united three years ago after the attacks, but look what has happened to you since! You are divided, torn and tattered like my shirt!
   “You have become a nation of secular consumers seeking your own personal benefits, special interests and partisan advantages. Where are the citizens with sacred concern for the commonweal? Once you carried the promise of the ages, but now few nations look to you 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 exceptions
   Take “Situation Ethics.” All morality is situational. It is wrong to lie, but if I am a Christian hiding a Jew from interrogating Nazis, is it not better to lie and save a life? A commandment requires keeping the sabbath by doing no work; but Jesus, seeing his disciples hunger, defended violating that law so that they might eat. “Thou shalt not kill” is another commandment, but many people make exceptions according to situations: self-defense, justifiable war, capital punishment.
   One messy question on which faiths differ is when life becomes human. Some faiths teach a person comes into existence at conception. Others say “ensoulment” occurs at the time of “quickening,” the stage in pregnancy when a woman can feel the fetus move. Others, citing Ex. 21:22, say a fetus does not become a human person until birth. Many traditions favor saving the person of the mother over the less certain personhood of the fetus in situations where a choice must be made.
   Some Eastern traditions, instead of eschewing idolatry, multiply images so profusely that they make the same point as the West: the Infinite cannot be reduced to any single entity but rather, in a mysterious way, sways within and over all of existence.
   Derrida, who in his later years became especially interested in religion, suggested that doubt as well as belief are essential to the spiritual life. Knowing we are embedded in messy situations can paradoxically help us to practice compassion.


528. 041013 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Taking the threefold path of a pilgrim

One of the great paradoxes of faith is that we sometimes need to go somewhere else to discover where we are. Sometimes religious leaders try to save us the trouble of a quest for what we already know or possess, but have forgotten. Po Chang said that searching for enlightenment was like riding an ox in search of the ox.
   But other times, a pilgrimage may be the best way to find the spiritual insight we need. Scholars identify three kinds of pilgrimage.
   * The first is an interior pilgrimage. It may be the fussing we do with ourselves as we follow a path from one job to a new one, or a relationship beginning or deepening or ending, or even a class reunion. What makes such journeys of the soul a pilgrimage is that we deliberately search for the meanings of the experience.
     The inner pilgrimage is often portrayed as an actual journey. One of the greatest books in the English language, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, discusses such inner pilgrimages in the metaphor of the journey from the slough of despondency past vanity fair to the celestial city. In other writings, gods, monsters, beasts, and angels are mere symbols to move and awaken the mind, to call it past itself, to confront the ineffable mystery on which our lives depend.
   * A second kind of pilgrimage is the literal travel to some sacred space as if it were the intent of religion itself. Thus when Henry II needed to show penitence for the murder of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, he went on a literal pilgrimage in sack cloth and ashes to Canterbury in bare feet, and Canterbury became a major Christina shrine in memory of Becket. And as we know from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, pilgrims learned a great deal about life as they traveled with one another on the path.
   For Hindus, a pilgrimage to the Ganges River, for Hindus to Mecca, for Buddhists to Sanchi, for Sikhs to Amristar — the external pilgrimage engenders an internal, spiritual exploration.
   But a pilgrimage need not be a visit to a place already thought to be holy. It may be a first and only time. The three wise men journeyed under a star, found the babe, and returned to their own lands. The Mayflower Pilgrims never returned, and sanctified these shores with their courage and ideals.
   * The third kind of pilgrimage, scholars say, is the trip one makes periodically to one’s local holy place — church, temple, mosque, synagogue, gurdwara, shrine, or meeting house. At some level of awareness, even in our routine, we seek holy ground, desire refreshment and growth, honor the Infinite, and affirm the religious path.
   Departure and return, forgetting and remembering, may be a basic rhythm of the spirit.


527. 041006 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
A week going round in the interfaith circle

The tag at the end of this column says I do interfaith work, and sometimes people ask me what that means. Here are excerpts from my schedule for several days last week.
   Tuesday evening at the Lyric Theater, I watched the Whirling Dervishes of Rumi from Turkey gracefully spin in their white skirts, not like tops but as perfectly centered human beings held by divine magnetism in the very heart of being. I needed to be there, not only to witness this event, but to support the interfaith impulse which generated the evening, introduced by a 20-minute discourse from one of the organizers to an audience of many of my friends from many traditions.
   Wednesday morning I attended a report meeting on physician-clergy dialogue at the Institute for Spirituality in Health, on whose interfaith board I sit.
   The most stunning scene of the week for me was when Thursday I walked into Gallery 204 of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It had been a dark, uninviting space in the building, but now it celebrates Chinese Buddhist works in stone, a collection unmatched anywhere in the world. Then I taught a class on Confucianism and Taoism at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. That evening I helped a couple valuing my interfaith background to design their wedding ceremony.
  When, Friday morning at the Cathedral Center for Faith and Work breakfast, Adelle Hall reverently disclosed the spiritual crisis she experienced following the Hyatt disaster, the room was transformed with the intimacy of holiness. That evening, I got to chat with world religions authority Huston Smith before he spoke on “Why religion matters more than ever today” at Country Club Christian Church. In his lecture, he noted that Jesus taught us to love our enemies, not kill them. And, he said, the message in the Qur’an is “exactly the same.” He deplored how politicians corrupt faith by demonizing the enemy, us imitating those we oppose.
   Saturday another religious teacher of world-wide fame, Matthew Fox, was in town, and he led a group at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. He arranged us in a giant circle, and we chanted, “We are earth, we are fire, we are water, air and spirit,” and danced and twirled as a reminder of our embodiment. “All indigenous people pray by dancing,” he said and joked about sneaking into churches Saturday night with screwdrivers to remove the pews to open up space for such bodily worship.
   In between I worked on several writing projects, handled administrative concerns for my own organization, responded to calls and correspondence from folks wanting guidance about religious matters and prepared for a conference Oct 13 at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral for clergy and lay-leaders, “Introduction to world religions and the faith communities of Kansas City.”
   I like what I do because I get so many opportunities to learn, to share what I’ve learned and to be with people from many faiths exploring what is sacred.


526. 040929 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
A three-point plan for better spiritual health

Matthew Fox, controversial ex-Catholic priest, thinks America’s spiritual health is poor. He proposes a three-point plan for changing “a very dangerous time, a Dark Night of our Species,” to a time when the environment is protected, people understand themselves and what they are doing, and we live in wholesome community.
   Fox is Founding President of the University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, CA, and speaks in Kansas City this week-end about the latest of his 25 books, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths.
   In 1989, he was silenced for a year, after which he renewed his public appearances with the words, “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted . . . .” He was ordained in the Episcopal tradition in 1994 after he was discharged from the Dominicans. Some call him a heretic. Others think he charts a way to the recovery of basic spiritual truths found in all traditions.
   In my interview with Fox, he outlined his three-point plan for change:
   * First, we must “reinvent education using the new cosmology and creativity” as its core. Fox’s “cosmology” affirms the scientific vision of the universe infused with the mystical apprehension of its holiness. What he calls “Creation Spirituality” sees God’s work as an original blessing, which he emphasizes over the doctrine of original sin. The universe in which we participate with infinite relationships is the mystical body of Christ.
   * Second, Fox says we must “reinvent work. Work is where we invest our blood, sweat, tears, time and talent the most.” He defends a traditional understanding of work as a sacred activity, fulfilling the person and contributing to the community.  He says that “consumerism is in fact just the contemporary word for the ancient capital sin of gluttony. An economy built on gluttony/consumerism is sick for the soul as well as for the body.”
   * Third, we must “reinvent worship. There is no community without ritual and we need post-modern rituals in post-modern language to bring community alive.” Fox is concerned about the loss of the sense of community today, and listed ecological perils, wars, divisions between rich and poor, and a “politics of fear” as evidence of our difficult situation.
   His new book identifies “consensus” from the world’s religions that amplifies related topics—from sacred sexuality to what happens after death.
   Fox wants people to appreciate all religions. He cites the Dalai Lama’s view that the chief obstacle to interfaith understanding is a “bad relationship with their own faith without even knowing it.” What Fox calls “Deep Ecumenism” is a way of discovering the depth of one’s own tradition by encountering others.


525. 040922 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Does Iraq war qualify as just?

Especially in the past few months, readers have asked me if the war in Iraq is justified by Christian teachings. Some regard this question as the most critical intersection of religion and politics today. Since political appeals are sometimes based on religious principles, I asked Robert E. Johnson, associate professor of church history at Central Baptist Theological Seminary and editor of American Baptist Quarterly, to summarize the development of “just war” theory in Christian thought. Here is his response:
   Earliest Christians believed that war and Christ’s teachings (especially his Sermon on the Mount) were incompatible. Consequently, many felt Christians should not be in the military at all. During the second century a few Christians served as soldiers, although at least three significant theologians wrote in condemnation of the practice—Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Lactantius. After Constantine, Christians became much more open to participation in war. Western Christianity’s subsequent melding of church and state caused the distinction between Christian ethics of war and patriotic priorities gradually to become less clear.
   Once large numbers of Christians accepted the possibility that war might be morally defensible, theories emerged to identify when warfare might be acceptable. Augustine’s “just war” theory as it developed included six major components, all of which must be satisfied. War had to (1) be fought to restore peace and secure justice with a reasonable chance of success, (2) be conducted under the direction of a legitimate ruler and be motivated by Christian love, (3) be a last resort (after all else has been tried and failed), (4) have limited objectives (the total obliteration of an enemy is not sanctioned), (5) safeguard against unnecessary violence, massacres, and looting, and (6) observe the immunity of noncombatants.
   Thomas Aquinas’ views might be summarized into three conditions: conducted under a legitimate ruler, for a just cause, and intended to promote good (or at least to avoid evil). In the sixteenth century Francisco de Vitoria added that the war must be waged by “proper 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 life’s injustices.
   * 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 pagan Canaan.
   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, too

“What is your gut reaction?” she asked her students after she concluded her interviews with dying patients behind the one-way mirror at the University of Chicago hospitals. Such questions made Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., one of the most memorable teachers I’ve ever had. In 1969, while she was teaching those of us in the Divinity School’s clinical pastoral education program, the best known of her 20 books, On Death and Dying, was published. Thirty years later, Time magazine listed her as one of the “100 Most Important Thinkers” of the past century. She lived 78 years and died Aug. 24, working on yet another book.
   This petite woman was known as “the death lady” because she complained that when she came to Billings Hospital as assistant professor of psychiatry in 1965 and asked the doctors to identifying dying patients so she could work with them, the doctors told her they had no dying patients. Perhaps more than anyone else, Dr Ross, as we addressed her, challenged the culture of denial and enabled America to talk about the reality of death.
   Yet she insisted it was the dying person, not her, who had the most to teach us. Her incredibly sensitive and caring interviews amazed us as she succeeded with her invitations to the patients to discuss their own deaths, especially as we learned that their own families were too frightened to broach the subject with them, and they often needed to talk with someone about what it was like to be dying.
   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 of death.
   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 hospital chaplains.
Recognition of the area’s faith diversity has led to expansion of faith representation in community events, such as the annual Martin Luther King Jr observances.
   On Sept. 16, 2001, Kansas Congressman Dennis Moore invited the Council to bring the community together in an observance of “Remembering and Renewing” as a way of recognizing the devastation of 9/11 and affirming our mutual support for one another.
   One month later, the Council, which had been planning a conference for over a year, opened a two-day interfaith meeting, “The Gifts of Pluralism,” attended by 250 adults and youths from every faith mentioned plus those from Christian Orthodox and Free-Thinker traditions.
   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 unique methods.
   For Eliade, the key to understanding religion is the experience of the sacred. While he utilized the insights of other disciplines, he insisted religion could not be reduced to any one of them, nor a compilation or combination of them. Religion deserves to be studied in its own right.
   People often assume that interfaith work is about cooperation between faiths toward some socially significant goal, whether it is folks of several traditions joining to build a Habitat for Humanity house, ending racial discrimination or pursuing world peace.
   Such efforts deserve praise and support. But this parallels the anthropologists and theologians using their own lenses instead of asking of religions, “What can you teach us?”
   I frequently learn of organizations wanting to employ the Interfaith Council not to receive the wisdom of the world’s religions but rather to deliver the organizations’ messages or services or receive the Council’s support. That’s fine, but specific intentions cannot replace folks of different faiths being open to the sacred. The sacred cannot have any agenda placed on it; it is what creates the agenda. The sacred is not a delivery vehicle; it is the driver.
   That said, it is important to recognize interfaith groups that make contributions to civic life like the Kansas City Interfaith Peace Alliance, Project Equality, Worker Justice, the Independence Ministerial Alliance, the Kansas City Office of the National Conference for Community and Justice, the Wyandotte Interfaith Sponsoring Council. They are interfaith in the sense that they involve people from several traditions, but not in the sense that their focus is on the sacred as revealed through different faiths.
   Congregational Partners, a program of Kansas City Harmony, now involves 29 congregations and is growing. It provides opportunities for committed people of various faiths to meet repeatedly, develop friendships through various activities and learn about their traditions.
   Thank you, dear readers. Now, unless there are other objections or clarifications, next week I write about the KC Interfaith Council.


519. 040811 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
More interfaith cooperation needed

Every few years readers of this column must endure my rant about Kansas City not having a way for all congregations to communicate with each other, to learn from each other, to support each other, to work 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 Church.
   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 not exist.
   Many of us hoped that Spirit of Service would develop into such infrastructure, but expected funding never appeared and the organization effectively folded in 2002.
   In the spring of 2003, the Heart of America United Way concluded another study with the same result. A few months later, during the debate on the demolition of B’nai Jehudah’s facility on Holmes, another conversation erupted briefly about a diversity center there or elsewhere, to serve all religious communities, but money never materialized for the project.
   The one metro-wide association that has provided slender but significant services is the  Kansas City Interfaith Council, about which I write next week.




518. 040804 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
T.S. Eliot poems are a wellspring of spirituality

The musical “Cats” may be the greatest source of fame for T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), but he also may have written the greatest religious poem of the 20th Century. Born in St. Louis, Eliot became a British subject in 1927. He published the last poem of his “Four Quartets” in 1942, in the gloom of World War II. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
    While rooted in the Christian tradition, Eliot, who had studied Sanskrit in his youth, makes use of themes from many texts, including the Bhagavad Gita, the best loved of all Hindu 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 world.
   “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 amendment.
   But even in the West, does the Biblical heritage justify the notion that “traditional marriage” has maintained a consistent meaning?
   Nowadays we think love is the motivating factor for marriage. But consider Solomon with his 700 wives and 300 concubines. Are we talking political alliances, procreation, property rights, honored servants, companionship, sexual opportunities — or love? Stability was valued more highly than the emotional variation associated with love.
   Marriage did not originate in love between partners but as a compact between families or groups. This is why in the Bible, most marriages were arranged by the parents, sometimes when the children were infants, though Isaac was 40 years old when Rebecca was chosen for him. Women were like property. But David won King Saul’s daughter not by the conventional method of buying her but by presenting the foreskins of 200 Philistines as evidence of his worthiness.
   Onan’s father commanded him to have sex with his dead brother’s wife in order to perpetuate the family line. This custom, the “levirate” marriage, continued into the time of Jesus.
   While in Mark’s gospel Jesus forbids all divorce, Paul’s epistles have been interpreted to permit divorce and remarriage when one partner becomes a believer and the other does not and this situation generates intolerable friction. Paul also says that wives are to be subject to their husbands who should treat them lovingly, in the context of the social inferiority of the female.
   Marriage was not declared a sacrament within the Roman Catholic Church until 1215, perhaps influenced by Muslim writers and musicians who elevated the importance of love, in contradiction to the medieval dictum that “to love one's wife with one’s heart is adultery.”
   Few people now insist that the sole purpose of marriage is to produce children. Instead we sing, “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage.” Will such sentiments lead to another stage in the evolution of marriage to include unions based on love regardless of the sex of the partners? In civil law, we permit divorce and remarriage, though some faiths prohibit it. Will civil law come to afford same-sex couples whose partnership has been sanctified by their faiths the same legal recognition heterosexual couples enjoy in celebrating their love?


515. 040714 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
A liberating message about women

Should women be religious leaders? Gene Flanery and his wife, Gloria, think so. The Kansas City, Kans. couple will present their view in a workshop in August in Kerrville, TX to the World Indigenous Missions meeting of 200 folks from all over globe. Gene, a missionary for over 20 years, has done mission work in Mexico, the Philippines, India, Thailand, China, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Spain. Gloria has been with him in places for extended stays and earned a Masters of  Divinity degree from Central Baptist Theological Seminary last year.
   I asked Gene and Gloria how they deal with scripture attributed to Paul that suggest a women should not have authority over men and should keep silent in church.
   Gene asked me, “When you think of Jesus, do you think of him as a liberator or an accommodator or culture?” I responded, “Jesus was a liberator.”
   “And what about Paul?” Gene asked. I said, “Paul’s concern was to found and strengthen the churches in a sometimes difficult culture, and he wanted Christians to appear respectable, to eliminate any unnecessary impediments that would take attention away from  his essential message, so I’d say he was more the accommodator, as when he declined to free a slave.”
   Gene interprets Jesus as liberating women while Paul tried to accommodate culture.
   “Yes,“ Gloria said. “Paul wanted to move things forward, but he had to work with specific situations in the context of his time.”
   Gene noted that in 1 Cor. 11:6, Paul instructed women who were prophesying to have their heads covered (many translations use the expression “veiled”). In this, Paul recognizes the spiritual capacity of women to teach while, at the same time, seeking manners that minimize criticism from potential Christians who were immersed in cultural customs about how women should appear.
   Gloria said passages of scripture that seem to place limits on women should be understood in the larger context of Paul’s declaration in Gal. 3:28, that in Christ there is neither male nor female. Tabitha, Priscilla, Phoebe, Lunia and other women are called apostles or given other terms of religious leadership. The apparent inconsistencies in New Testament writers can be explained by noting the specific circumstances for which each instruction was fashioned.
   Scripture, Gloria said, is not static. The whole of the Bible must be our guide, not a particular passage lifted out of context. “We sometime try to make the Bible a rule book, but I don’t think that is its purpose. Christians today do not follow many of the instructions found in the Bible because those instructions were culture-bound and the circumstances have changed. The Bible is about the workings of the Spirit in various settings, and we need to find the Spirit moving in our own lives with today’s realities.”


514. 040707 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Moore film has its role to play

Sometimes the Hebrew prophets, who were not very popular anyhow, had visions and did weird things as they condemned the political and religious establishments of their times, decried economic exploitation and abuse of power, and issued warnings about international relations. They said they spoke for a God who demanded justice.
   * Isaiah made a placard with the inscription, "Spoil-soon-prey-quick" (Isa. 8:1), got it witnessed, and then told a mother to use it for her child’s name, which became a prediction about Damascus, Samaria and Assyria. [He also walked about naked and barefoot (Isa. 20:2-3).]
   * Jeremiah was told to get a linen girdle, and after wearing it, to put it in a hole in a rock by the River Euphrates. When he was later instructed to retrieve it, he found it was mildewed and useless, as God found the stubborn and prideful nation to be spoiled. You can imagine he was not welcome in polite society when he said that God employed Babylon to punish Judah for its forgetfulness.
   * God instructed Ezekiel to cut his hair, weigh it on scales, divide it into three parts, burn one part in Jerusalem, strike a third with a sword, scatter a third to the winds and tell the people this represents the punishment due them for their iniquity. (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 years.)
   After being thus absorbed, Dharmakara determined to found a realm which would combine the various forms of excellence he had seen in all the other lands. But of course to do this, he himself had to accumulate sufficient merit to be able to create such a place. Thus for countless kalpas he performed good deeds on behalf of others.
   He took 48 vows to insure, among other things, that the pure and happy land he was creating would be available to any sincerely desiring it to escape karma and be reborn there.  (Karma is the law of moral cause and effect which brings a person, in this life or the next, the consequences of one’s acts.)
   Ten kalpas ago, Dharmakara achieved his goal and now shines in his land, emitting  7,056,000,000 rays of light in every direction from his body of unimaginable size and glory, though he can also shrink to a mere eight feet high. His land is sometimes called the Western Paradise. He became the Buddha Amida. Amida (the Japanese form of Amitabha, the Chinese name) means “infinite light.” A statue of Amida is on the stairs to the third floor of  the Nelson-Atkins Museum 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 centuries after.
   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 churches.
   10. The two main forms of Islam, the Sunni and the Shi’a, have radically different views of God.
   11. The tenth Sikh guru, Gobind Singh (1675-1708) announced that the next and final guru would not be a human, but rather the Guru Granth Sahib, a collection of writings including Hindu and Muslim texts.
   12. All Baha’i scriptures were originally 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
[second draft]

Unlike the ancient Romans who made gods of many of their emperors, we do not consider former presidents divine. Still, it may be useful to compare Roman practices with what some observers have called the apotheosis of President Reagan.
   But first, a word about Roman religion. The Romans recognized the achievements of other cultures, but they saw their own virtues rooted in a special capacity to be religious. Cicero wrote, “We excel all people in religiosity and in that unique wisdom that has brought us to the realization that everything is subordinate to the rule and direction of the gods.”
   The Romans did not conceive of religion so much a matter of the soul as of the state; religion concerned outward behavior more than inward spiritual life.
    Our very word “religion” derives from Latin, and its original meaning is often described as “scrupulous carefulness,” following deliberate custom. We still use the term this way, as in “I play golf each week religiously.” Our legal system derives in part from Roman ritual which was a way of sealing contracts and determining judgments. The lawyers’ expression, “I pray to the court,” echoes the pre-Christian religious basis of our legal system, still strewn with Latin expressions.
   How did an emperor, dead or living, become a god? The Senate voted. Our legislature doesn’t make gods, but it does have similar powers to bestow honors and compel recognition.
     Emperor worship was important as a way of uniting disparate cultures under Roman rule. The statue of the emperor commanded the kind of veneration many of us give to the American flag. The Romans respected the gods of the peoples they conquered so long as they made a place for the emperor. The state religion was an integral part of government. Early Christians refused to confound the state with the Divine and some were thrown to the lions.
   The state and religion were united in the obsequies for President Reagan in many ways. While the coffins of ordinary soldiers killed in Iraq are not available for public viewing, his coffin draped with the flag was prominently displayed and revered in the rituals. Government offices were closed and taxpayer funds were expended for the observances. Leaders of government were intimately involved in the rites. Proposals to place President Reagan’s image on coinage and on Mount Rushmore are being considered in the Congress.
   Perhaps the union of religion and state during these ceremonies was appropriate. In 1980, Ronald Reagan spoke to the Religious Roundtable in words that augured the growing influence of conservative religious groups on government: “I continue to look to the Scriptures today for fulfillment and for guidance. Indeed, it is an incontrovertible fact that all the complex and horrendous questions confronting us at home and world-wide have their answer in that single Book.” Are we developing a religious sensibility like the pride of the Romans?

[first draft]

The official state obsequies for President Reagan reminded me of the ancient Roman apotheosis of the emperor. While our legislature does not do what the Roman senate did — vote to make the nation’s leader a god — functionally we do much the same. In what some might consider a violation of the commandment to make no graven images, we place the likeness of dead presidents on our coins. The religious ceremonies honoring the deceased are intimately entwined with government sites.
   It might be difficult for an ancient Roman, thrust by a time machine into last week’s observances, to distinguish our ritual intents from those of his culture. Deification of the emperor, after all, was a civic recognition in the context of religious practices which themselves were an expression of government. In practice if not in theology, worship of the emperor is analogous to our pledge of allegiance to the flag, so revered that Constitutional amendments have been proposed to outlaw its “desecration,” implying the piece of cloth is sacred. People of some faiths conscientiously refuse patriotic exercises because, like early Christians thrown to the lions, they object to confounding the state with the Divine.
     Cicero recognized that other peoples were superior in many respects to the Romans, but that the Romans excelled in religiosity “and that unique wisdom that has brought us to the realization that everything is subordinate to the rule and direction of the gods.”
   Our very word “religion” derives from Latin, and its original meaning is often described as “scrupulous carefulness,” following deliberate custom. We still use the term this way, as in “I play golf each week religiously.” Our legal system derives in part from Roman ritual which was a way of sealing contracts and determining judgments. The lawyers’ expression, “I pray to the court,” echoes the pre-Christian religious basis of our legal system.
   In 1980, Ronald Reagan spoke to the Religious Roundtable in words that augured the growing influence of conservative religious groups on government: “I continue to look to the Scriptures today for fulfillment and for guidance. Indeed, it is an incontrovertible fact that all the complex and horrendous questions confronting us at home and world-wide have their answer in that single Book.”
    Such pronouncements and support for particular religious causes made it possible for many Christians professing to honor the Bible to ignore the fact that Reagan was divorced and remarried, disresgarding the teaching of Jesus in Mark 10:11-12. Nevertheless, conservative pastor Jerry Falwell a few days ago called Reagan “a true hero to people 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 look

A thoughtful reader responded to last week’s column which said Confucius was born about 552. BCE. He prefers the calendar designation “B.C.”
   He writes, “I am a Christian but have, for example, worked in Saudi Arabia without being offended by their Islamic calendar. As a society I think we’ve completely gone overboard on ‘political correctness,’ trying to avoid offending rather than trying to accept other cultural differences. I don’t think we should try to be all things to all people, and loose our own identities.”
   First, information about the terms and then a comment about cultural identity.
   B.C. is the abbreviation for “Before Christ” and A.D. comes from the Latin, Anno Domini, “In the Year of the Lord.” B.C.E. stands for “Before the Common Era,” and C.E. means “In the Common Era.” The numbers for the dates are identical.
   The former two terms are widespread, but scholars increasingly use the latter terms when dealing with world history. That is why B.C.E. seemed appropriate for a column on Confucius.
   Now, about identity. I doubt that I lose my identity by using B.C.E. any more than I become a Confucian because I eat noodles, which we think were brought to the West from China by Marco Polo. Nor for that matter do I become Italian!
   It is difficult to think of anything that does not have antecedents in prior civilizations. Take something as pervasive as television. Without detailing why historian of science James Burke includes a medieval Jewish translation of Arab texts as part of the development of TV, one has only to look at the word itself — “vision,” derived, we now know, from the same linguistic root as “video” and “Vedas,” the earliest Hindu scriptures — to see that we are indebted to a previously unacknowledged set of common interrelationships.
   Another example. I have never heard of a Christian taxpayer complain about losing one’s identity because the government uses Arabic numerals. Dear reader, would you like prepare your tax forms using the Roman numerals employed throughout most of Christian history?
   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 known.
   * Humans are born good. Confucius’ main concern was the nature of humanity, jen in Chinese, sometimes translated “humane aim.” Like the Hebrew prophets, Confucius proclaimed society was headed in the wrong direction. Unlike the Hebrew prophets who delivered messages from God to the rulers and the people, Confucius spoke from an optimistic regard for the sacred humanity inherent in each person, with only conventional reference to the gods. A society driven by force instead of mutual respect corrupted the people, so he asked how society could be organized around the value of human dignity instead. His answer looked to the past for lessons but did not slavishly imitate the past.
   * Key to social relationships is “the rectification of names,” by which he meant that a thing should be called by what it is. This sounds obvious, but it would be interesting if he could comment on our culture’s misleading advertising and our tendency to rename things for our own purposes of obfuscation, such as calling tax increases “revenue enhancements” or prisoners of war “illegal combatants,” now a term with technical meaning in some legal systems. It is hard to think clearly when we misuse language to gain some kind of advantage.
   * Another key is li, ritual. We recognize the dignity in others by showing them respect through social ceremony. Thus in our culture, when we meet, we shake hands; in China, bowing was the proper rite.
   To emphasize this idea, Confucius compared the individual to a ritual vessel. It may be beautiful; it may have precious contents. Still its value arises from its function in the ceremony, just as the recognition of our shared humanity, even if we disagree about many things, is expressed in the handshake.
   As the sacrificial vessel becomes sacred in the context of the ceremony, so we achieve jen through genuine relationship with others. Virtue does not exist in isolation, he said. Regard for others lessens the temptations of power and keeps our language honest.
   Confucius’ focus was neither on the individual nor the group, but rather on the holiness of the ceremony itself. When a clerk greets me with a sincere “Good morning,” that ritual reveals the clerk’s humane aim and recognizes my own humanity.
   With the increasingly sharp political divisions appearing in our nation, such ritual recognitions may keep us from being torn asunder.


508. 040526 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
KC arts save a space for spiritual experience

Some examples and a thought about religion and the 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 damnation.
   The Friends of Chamber Music brought us “Daniel and the Lions” at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, a story of the triumph of faith when God shut the mouths of the lions in the den into which Daniel was thrown, and from which he emerged as a signal of justice.
   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 adventure.
   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 our community.


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 on 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 Job

The one book in the Hebrew scriptures for which I am most grateful is Job. Its author has been called “the Shakespeare of the Old Testament.” Luther considered it “magnificent and sublime as no other book of Scripture.” Here is what it means to me.
   Job asks, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” We also see how someone afflicted almost beyond measure relates to God with integrity. Unlike most other books of the Bible, Job concerns mainly the spiritual life of the individual, rather than the meaning of events affecting an entire people.
   The prose Hollywood beginning and ending appear to have been written by someone other than the one who composed the main body of the work, which is a poem. The prose calls God Yahweh and the poem uses Hebrew terms like Elohim and Shaddai. Scholars cite other evidence for distinct authorship.
   I say “Hollywood” because the opening and closing of the book make the story, while the poem is a focused theological 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 to say.
   In our culture’s drive for worldly winning, we have seen scandal in business, sports and politics.  ’Twas ever so. Those who get caught may be a fraction of the wicked. Job complains not only is his suffering undeserved, but the success of those who cheat and bully also makes it hard to see how God is just. The book of Job is an antidote to the poison of assuming those in power are therefore righteous.
   In the end, God rebukes Job’s comforters because they defend God with a false understanding of His nature, and He commends Job for speaking truthfully. And Job prays for those who insulted and betrayed him.


505. 040505 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Biblical inquiry goes beyond yes  and no
[This version elaborates The Star’s text.]

Readers sometimes ask me to choose between saying either “the Bible is true” or“it isn’t.”
      For me, many religious questions are not that simple. Language is an imperfect tool to describe ordinary things. And when we try to speak about the realm of the sacred, about the best language can do is to point beyond itself. Otherwise we mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself. We take the map to be the territory.
   Even in the ordinary realm, many matters cannot be decided by a simple either/or choice. Take this sentence: “This sentence is false.” Is it either true or false? Either option involves a contradiction. In order to discuss the sentence, we have to step out of the either/or framework. I want to escape the “either/or” trap of responding in the terms in which the question is posed.
   If I ask, “Did you see the sun rise today?” and you say “No, the sun doesn’t rise; the earth rotates; I saw the sun appear to rise,” you’ve rejected my everyday language in favor of a precious astronomical view. But although you said “No,” your answer actually was “Yes” in the way we usually talk. It is hard to reduce this to a simple either/or statement.
   Is a zebra a white animal with black stripes or a black animal with white stripes? Or perhaps an invisible animal with black and white stripes? We should not confuse descriptions with the reality they seek to describe.
    Readers tell me “Jesus is the only way.” Does this have to be an exclusive statement? Gentlemen: Is your wife the most beautiful woman on earth? I hear many men saying, “Yes!” But you can’t all be right – unless I take your affirmations as expressions of commitment rather than a beauty pageant judgment. Interpreting passages like John 14:6 out of historical context is like taking an expression of devotion to be a contest award.
   Take the famous Rubin figure shown here.[click to see image] Is it a goblet or two faces? It depends on the way you view it, and your view can shift. To be forced to say it is either a goblet or two faces fails to respect its capacity to convey both goblet and faces. If a simple black-and-white image can be multivalent, why cannot a profound spiritual truth have many possible seemingly contradictory meanings?
   Sometimes a frame of reference makes us say things we don’t believe in other contexts. For example, if you ask me what troubled Hamlet in the first act of Shakespeare’s play, I’ll say “the ghost of Hamlet’s father.” But if you ask me if I believe ghosts exist, I’ll say, “No.” If I ask, “How many step-sisters did Cinderella have?” and you say, “Two,” I'll respond, “Correct” even though the question and answer make sense only in terms of the fairy tale. If you ask me a Biblical question like, “Did a whale swallow Jonah?” I’ll say, “Yes—or a `big fish’” in terms of the story, even though I doubt the story is actual history.  I don’t have to believe that a whale swallowed Jonah in order to find the Biblical story inspired.
      Although my personal background is Protestant, I prefer the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation – the wine and the bread of the Eucharist become the very blood and body of Christ. Yet no one thinks a chemical analysis of the consecrated elements would reveal whether Jesus had type-A blood. We use inadequate language in an elevated way to propel us into a mystery of salvation.
   Take the subject of physics. For centuries the debate was whether light is a wave or a particle because it could not be both. Now physicists say light is both. Further, Robert Oppenheimer said of the atom, “if we ask if the electron is at rest, we must say ‘no’; if we ask whether it is in motion, we must say ‘no.’”
   Surely some theological questions are even more inscrutable. God must be either transcendent (beyond experience) or immanent (within experience). Yet most theologians want to say God is both.
   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 Ultimate.
   So, dear readers, I am suspicious of either/or questions. The Bible is worthy of consideration far beyond a simple either/or answer. Religion is about the Infinite intimated in multitudinous finite contexts. Word formulas often fail. Yes or No answers may not be adequate to honor that which above all should be honored.


504. 040428 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Spiritual dream a call to wake from secular slumber

On Apr. 27, 1994, this column began. In these ten years, I’ve seen my readers increasingly identify this paradox: religion is both a cause of conflict and a path of peace.
   This paradox arises from our overwhelmingly desacralized society. Our culture treats religion as a tiny corner of life to which we must bow from time to time. There is little vision of how all things involve each other, of what things are most important, of what really counts. We pursue separate, private agenda, selfishly; special interests govern our politics, rather than the common good; our entertainment glories in the verisimilitude of violence, not in conflict healed with compassion; our environment is a collection of objects for us to trash rather than a holy arena for us to revere.
   Yet the very meaning of spirituality is seeing things whole; spirituality is pervasive and persuasive; it cannot be crammed into a corner. Religion offers us the big picture; faith enables us to know who we are in the cosmos, how to treat others, and where we find meaning in the patterns of life that include suffering and death as well as affirmations and thrills.
   Our culture gives little support for such faith. The sacred is ignored or demeaned. In reaction to the culture, some folks have fashioned answers to the problems facing us that admit little doubt. Often using texts of their traditions – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and so forth – they read back into their scriptures the secular divisions of the present. Rather than healing the wound of secularism, such certainty further fractures society. The forms of fracture include  economic exploitation, totalitarianism, terrorism and war.
   This fracture causes some to ask, for example, “Will the ‘prophecy’ of Armageddon (Revelation 16:16) be fulfilled not because it is God’s will but because those who believe in it will gain sufficient power to bring the disaster upon us?”
   On the other hand, other folks seem to dismiss religious questions because they reject certain answers to those questions. Familiar with only one idea of the Absolute (a religious term for ultimate Reality), they assume there are no other moorings for the spirit, and that secular options are better than religious judgments.
   Yet these ten years also suggest a deepening yearning for a spirituality whose sacred fruit is love. In the urgency of our time, within every tradition, increasing numbers see the paradox of religion - both causing conflict and affirming peace - as a call to awaken from secular slumber, to purify, energize, and magnify the life of faith.




503. 040421 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
For all his flaws, Don Giovanni knows himself

The figure for whom the opera is named goes to hell in the end. According to the tally his servant Leporello keeps, he has seduced 640 Italian, 231 German, 100 French, 91 Turkish and 1003 Spanish women. Yet it seems he loves not a single one. It is the adventure, the conquest that thrills Don Giovanni. Sure, it’s kinda funny. Lots of jokes. But also dreadful.
   I’ve been puzzling over this ominous opera for years. How could Mozart and his librettist, da Ponte, shift from their previous opera, the shining Marriage of Figaro, to this dark and troubling excursion into selfishness and sexuality?
   It is not just Don Giovanni who bothers me. Donna Elvira is really messed up. Don Giovanni’s “bride,” she vacillates between fury and forgiveness. She pursues him through he scorns her, yet she easily accepts the advances of Leporello disguised as his master - if she is so easily deceived, does she really know her man?
   And how could anyone be as insensitive as Don Ottavio?! He offers himself as a substitute father to Donna Anna a moment after ordering her father’s corpse removed from her presence so he can continue with his wooing.
   All the characters are flawed in their knowledge of themselves and therefore exploit others. None of them are completely admirable - Mozart and da Ponte reveal their characters almost as carefully as if they were charting personality types. Only the identified exploiter, Don Giovanni, knows himself completely. He will not renounce the unholy zest he has in charming others. Even when offered a last chance to repent, he refuses redemption and is pulled into demonic smoke and flames.
   Yes, the Don’s use of his wealth and position was a way for Mozart to display the rape of the lower classes by the upper society of 1787, two years before the French Revolution. Yes, Act I ends with everyone singing “Viva la liberta!” Still, from Don Giovanni, it sounds more like a sexual than a political slogan. Liberty is to be praised, indeed, but can it flourish without responsibility?
   Regardless of Mozart’s intent and the expectations of his audience 200 years ago for a tidy, moralistic ending, today I am uncomfortable with the characters delighting in the eternal punishment Don Giovanni receives. In a sense, they are worse than he. He knew he misused others; they can’t see how they do it.
   Watching others caught up in their selfishness evokes both hell and heaven for us to contemplate. And the music miraculously converts our horror to compassion for everyone who seeks the miracle of love.
   The Lyric Opera presents Don Giovanni beginning Apr. 24. Not to miss.


502. 040414 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Learning from George Catlin

When I was a youngster in Omaha, I liked to visit the Joslyn Art Museum there. I liked "grown-up" art, not the childish displays about the uncivilized, primitive Indians. They were heathens. My attitude was similar to many Americans in 1800 who regarded Indians as subhuman. Often Indians were nuisances or threats.
   But George Catlin, a Philadelphia lawyer, thought Indians were people. In the 1830s he made five trips west to encounter, to record and "to rescue from oblivion" the Indians of the Plains in words and in painting. He eventually produced some 500 images, over 120 of which you can see here at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art these final days before the show, "George Catlin and His Indian Gallery" closes Sunday.
   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 own."
   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 than none.


501. 040407 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Spring yields its own witness to resurrection

It was cold weeks ago, but in my front yard the purple crocus bloomed with the promise of spring. Now green is everywhere, and my daffodils prove the season’s glory is arriving. The flowering trees around the city, though expected, are so fresh and beautiful, it is like a surprise. It is not hard for me to understand why ancient folk attributed the miracle of resurgent life to the gods.
   For many years scholars tried to find parallels to Christ with dying and rising deities associated with the seasons of nature--Adonis, Attis, Baal, Tammuz--but similarities are fragmentary and strained. The Osiris cult, for example, was widespread when Jesus lived. Osiris’ rejuvenation following his murder was an expression of the reanimated earth each year. This differs from the Christian story with its claims on this life and the purpose of history. Osiris chose to rule the dead who live in a different sense when they righteously identify with him in the nether realm, not in this world. Osiris remained a god of nature, not a figure with a role in what we understand as historical progression.
   The Greek “mystery religions,” whose rituals involved grain or eating flesh and drinking wine to share the savior’s life, seem also to be fertility cults, rather than faiths with historical 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 of the four Gospels demonstrate. Within Christianity differences have sometimes led to violent conflict. Conflict between religions has also appeared.
   He said pluralism moves beyond recognizing diversity within and among faiths, but also appreciating the other as worthy of engagement. This does not mean submerging differences but respecting them within commitment to one's own faith. He said people must "come to realize that no one religious group can tackle the challenges" the world faces, that inter-religious cooperation and collective action is required.
   Buchanan reported that one of every seven persons in Chicago, where he is pastor, is non-Christian, with 500,000 Muslims, 220,000 Buddhists, 80,000 Hindus, 20,000 Native Americans, and 5,000 each of Sikh, Jain, Zoroastrian, and Unitarian Universalist faiths. He said America has become the most pluralistic nation in the history of the world.
   Is my understanding of God the best? -- Buchanan said that such questions do not have yes or no answers. Whenever we try to define God, we destort and limit the reality of God. He praised the Jewish tradition of never uttering God's name as a way of honoring the divine mystery.
   Placing the "Great Commission" in historical context of the early Christian controversy whether the emerging faith should be confined to Jews, Buchanan sees Matthew's response as inclusive. "Our task is not to shout louder than anybody else, argue harder and convince more throroughly. It is to tell the story of God's love, . . . to live out the liberating, joyful truth we have discovered" within a context of fully accepting the truth found in other traditions. He cited the parable of the Good Samaritian as an example of Jesus' embrace of one of another faith through service, not conversion.


499. 040324 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Spiritual preoccupation a good cultural sign

On the last Sunday before I left my home church for seminary, my pastor brought me into the pulpit with him to share a dialogue sermon. One question he asked seems particularly curious after these 39 years. I am certain he asked it not because he believed the assumption embedded within it, but to test me and the congregation.
   “Why would a young man like you, with many options before him, choose to go into a dying field, religion, which is increasingly irrelevant to society?"
   The question was in the tradition of the 18th Century French philosophes, who thought that religion was superstition, and with increasingly wide-spread education and particularly the rise science, religion would fade away.
   Forty years ago you might find a shelf of religious volumes in a bookstore; today there are thousands in specialized sections. Far from disappearing in the seat of learning, universities have found religious groups multiplying and flourishing. In popular entertainment, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ  is an overwhelming commercial success. The number of political issues debated from religious viewpoints is staggering: abortion, gay marriage, the Iraq War, to name a few.
   And the one arena the philosophes especially saw freed from faith, science, is now intimately intertwined with religion. Two events this week here illustrate this point in a way the philosophes could not have anticipated.
   The  Kansas City Religion and Science Dialogue Project brings Ronald L. Numbers, University of Wisconsin professor of the history of science and medicine, to Second Presbyterian Church tomorrow at 7:15 pm to speak on “Intelligent Design: Revolutionary Science or Creation Science?” Evolution is a topic where religion, science and politics intersect. For information, visit www.kcrsdp.org.
   The Cornell Club brings one of the pioneers of stem cell research, Robert H. Foote, professor emeritus, to speak Sunday 4 pm at the Barstow School on “An Update on Cloning.” Religious, ethical, political and strictly scientific concerns are so intertwined that we can use expert help in sorting them out. For information, visit http://kcplazarotary.home.att.net/ccma04.html.
   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 beings.


498. 040317 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Through sacrifice, lives are transformed

“With his stripes we are healed” expresses the profound idea of vicarious suffering in the Jewish tradition, an amazing development in dealing with what seems wrong with the world. The sentence is from the “Songs of the Suffering Servant,”  (Isa. 53:5).
   Christians have applied this text to Jesus, as anyone seeing Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” probably knows.
   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 ultimately ineffable:
   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 published one)

In my opinion, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is not just a bad movie. It is evil. Those applauding it have a lot of explaining to do, far beyond its historical, biblical and linguistic treachery.
   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 alert.
   Second, the overwhelming violence we see is Gibson’s, not the historic Christian interpretation. One wonders if he is explaining the torture, depravity and sadomasochist preoccupations of his other movies by commandeering a sacred subject. His fascination with brutality does not uplift me or commend the Gospel; it cheapens it with slick cinematic technique.
   But my greatest concern is that the movie seems to celebrate the crude penal or substitutionary theory of atonement. This coarse teaching says that God's justice demands satisfaction for the sin of Adam inherited by all humanity, and that only through the suffering of Christ can we be redeemed from God's wrath.
   Stated simply, Christ is punished horribly instead of you and me and newborn babies.
   If I am condemned to death for murdering my neighbor, will any judge accept my son’s willing offer to die in my stead? Civilized folk don’t punish the innocent.
   Why doesn’t God forgive humanity without this barbaric sacrifice? Would that not be a more convincing evidence of divine love than punishing His Son?
   In honoring a vengeful and unjust God, Gibson assaults the senses and dismisses more mature ideas of God. He has reduced the glorious mystery of salvation to the ghoulish  payment of a debt.
   More thoughtful Christians have developed other understandings of Christ’s atoning power, and in a future column I will discuss them.
   The popularity of this irresponsible movie marks how dangerous the secular religious spectacle has become.


495. 040225 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Hometown Catholic paper covers many faiths

Example one. In 1986 I decided I was terribly ignorant about Islam. I decided to spend a week with a Harvard professor who was leading a workshop on that faith in Madison, WI. I was surprised to learn that in her opinion the best single current overview of that religion had just been published . . . in Kansas City. My subsequent travel in Muslim countries confirmed her judgment.
   Example two. Over the course of my career I've made several trips to Asia. I've learned first-hand about Buddhism, Shinto, Hinduism and other traditions. But I didn't know much about the way Roman Catholic bishops in Asia are developing a new approach to church government. Where can I find an expert on the subject? Kansas City.
   In these and other instances, Kansas City's National Catholic Reporter and its staff provide the highest quality coverage of global religious news.
   Rockhurst University's Visiting Scholars Series brings internationally known speakers to campus. Most recently, their choice was Kansas City's Tom Fox, publisher of NCR, whose latest book is Pentecost in Asia.
   Example three. What about Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ? NCR's Feb. 20 issue desk includes a study guide prepared by the paper's Rome correspondent, John Allen, who actually saw the movie weeks ago. Allen's inside-the-Vatican reporting has put him on NPR, PBS and CNN as well.
   In its 40 years of publication, NCR has attracted subscribers in 81 countries. Its first place awards from the Catholic Press Association includes both recognition for "General Excellence" and "Best Investigative Reporting" for "hard-hitting investigative journalism that is only possible at an independent Catholic paper."
   While the paper's mission to cover the Catholic Church is unmistakable, its attention to other faiths and to moral issues that transcend parochial concerns, along with exceptional book and movie reviews, makes every issue momentous.
   Are you curious? Check out the on-line edition of the paper, www.NCRonline.org.
   Sometimes people ask me what papers I read. In college I became addicted to The New York Times. Since I moved here in 1975, The Kansas City Star has been essential. The third paper I find indispensable, even though I am not Catholic, is the NCR. It should not be a home-town secret.


494. 040218 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Controversy follows episcopal bishop wherever 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 otherwise."
   He considers such stories childish. "We don't need to be born again; we need to grow up."
   "If God has the power to intervene in human affairs, why did he not prevent the Holocaust or the plague of AIDS in Africa?" Spong asked.
   "When any religion pretends to have the ultimate truth (in its creeds), it turns demonic," he said. Noting how political church affairs can be, he said "Creeds were devised at church conventions - have you ever been to a church convention?" The audience responded with a laughter of recognition.
   Spong says he has won every controversy he has entered - civil rights for blacks, confronting anti-Semitism, and women and homosexuals in his church's clergy. His books have sold over a million copies.
   I don't agree with all of Spong's positions, but his fresh look at old material is itself a worthy exercise that keeps faith from atrophy.




493. 040211 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Love is divine, within my Valentine

Dear Valentine,
   Perhaps unaware, you have placed my feet on the mystic path. I am just beginning this walk, but I know the path leads to the throne of God.
   As the Muslim Ibn Arabi on the Pilgrimage is led by his vision of Nizam, and as the Christian Dante is propelled by desire for Beatrice to journey from hell to heaven, so you, my Valentine, incite me to the progress of the soul. In my unworthiness, I seek the blessing the mystics have found.
   Some people think the mystic is irrational or reclusive. Albert Einstein, who was neither, said, "There are only two ways to live your life--one is as if everything is a miracle, the other is as though nothing is a miracle." Your love awakens me to miracles abounding everywhere. In you the wonder of existence is each day made fresh.
   But we cannot honor the holy by ignoring the vile. Love is a miracle because it proves the Infinite in this realm of limitation. Because the world is fragile and fallible and full of suffering, the mystic's love seeks to repair, to heal, to redeem all sorrow, as you and I embrace each other with our flaws; and by this embrace, we reflect one another in the light of the spirit.
   The mystics in many traditions write about light and darkness, about the mirroring of God and the world, about the lover and beloved beholding themselves in the other when they become so pure they can really see the other apart from one's own partial desires and defective agendas. Then we may also glimpse the divine.
   Yet even the most impure yearning can be sanctified by that center within each of us which contains nothing but makes all things possible, when it spins unpredictably but gracefully, and we find ourselves exploring the sacred landscape of everyday life.
   That spin is in the gravity which pulls stars into galaxies, in the electron's whirl around the nucleus of the atom, in the lust which winds nucleotides into helical DNA, in the circuits of justice on which civilization depends. It is in you.
   Love--knowing and being known in one's fullness--is knowledge deeper than language. Dante ends his poem with a beatific vision of the Eternal Light, the love that moves the stars. Dante stops when words fail, and we yield to that seductive Light.




492. 040204 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Work and play present sacred possibilities

Which do you prefer, really, work or play? Some characterize the Europeans as folks who work in order to enjoy their long vacations, and see Americans as using vacations as time to recuperate in order to return to the grind. Does work or play give more meaning to your life?
   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 God.
   The Qur'an instructs believers to resume their quest for God's bounty when Friday prayers are ended. But wealth is a social duty; support of the community through taxation is a way to purify one's own material success by uplifting others. In God's eyes, our worth depends not on assets but on how we treat one another.
   For Buddhists, "right livelihood" is one element of the Eight-Fold Path to spiritual liberation. Practicing non-violence, simplicity and environmental reverence, the Buddhist may enjoy, but remain spiritually unattached to, the things the materialist wants to control and possess.
   In Christianity, the Benedictine monks' motto, "To work is to pray," expresses this sacred experience of work. Shaker furniture is a stunning testimony of the makers' meditative power to simplify by yielding to the grain of the wood.
   Since both work and play are parts of our lives, we best approach them both as sacred possibilities.




491. 040128 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Do the right work for the right reason

Is work its own reward? Many of us do our jobs because there is a paycheck.
   Last week we considered ``vocation'' as work performed for the benefit of the community. With a widespread loss of this sense of vocation, our secularistic society depends heavily on material incentives to get things done. But should it?
   The incentive system is expressed by the Christian apostle Paul ("If any would not work, neither should he eat") and by the Zen Buddhist master Hyakujo ("No work, no food"). Incentive thinking in some forms of religion encourage moral behavior because rewards such as heaven await those who choose to live ethically. And wrong belief and behavior are discouraged with threats with hellfire.
   But other spiritual paths suggest that there is little virtue in doing the right thing simply for a reward. A classic example is the prayer of the Sufi Rabi'a who prayed for God to send her to hell if her motive was not pure love for God but rather to escape damnation. Similarly, in the Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, the god Krishna counsels Arjuna to perform his duty simply because it is the right thing to do, without expectation of reward.
   The ancient Canaanites thought labor was inflicted upon them by the gods who required human assistance. The ancient Hebrews saw work as imitating the creative activity of God, though the story of Adam has been interpreted to suggest that work is a curse because he disobeyed. Where the Canaanites saw work as serving the gods, the Hebrews saw work as providing for themselves. Still, one day of the week, the Sabbath, was devoted to God, recalling God’s rest after six days of creation. Work was prohibited on penalty of death.
   Within many faiths, work has been considered a blessing, even a religious activity, not because of material rewards but because the very process of exertion enables us paradoxically to yield to God's will or--in other language--to the way the universe unfolds. Shaker furniture is a stunning testimony of the makers' meditative power to simplify by yielding to the grain of the wood. The Benedictine monks' motto, "To work is to pray," expresses this sacred experience of work.
   For Buddhists, "right livelihood" is one element of the Eight-Fold Path to spiritual liberation. Practicing non-violence, simplicity and environmental reverence, the Buddhist may enjoy, but remain spiritually unattached to, the things the materialist wants to control and possess.
   While we may think that the paycheck is our incentive, perhaps our deepest thirst is satisfied more by meaning than by money, by performing worthy work mindfully in service to others.




490. 040121 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Give us this day our daily vocation

Since 1996, the Center for Faith and Work at the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception has explored how we earn our bread. While morality in the workplace is a basic concern for all faiths, how work is valorized may be even more fundamental. Recently the Center asked me to lecture on "The Idea of Work in World Religions", and for the next few weeks this column will revisit several themes from that talk.
   We begin with the idea of vocation.
   The ancient Greek philosophers preferred a life of contemplation over labor. In Christianity, St Augustine (354-430) found dignity in both work and contemplation, but his view that contemplation was the higher calling led to the medieval notion of monasticism as the 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 a profit.
   On the other hand, John Calvin (1509-1564) saw vocation less as community service and more as an opportunity for each person to fulfill the individual talents given by God. Today this doctrine is echoed in the Army’s "Be all you can be" slogan and Joseph Campbell’s "Follow your bliss" advice.
   Calvin's theology said that while only God knows who is elect (predestined for Heaven), earthly prosperity may be a sign of God’s favor. Some have argued that this paradoxically led folk to prove to themselves and others that they were elect by working hard to achieve material success the "Protestant work ethic."
   This theology has been credited as a factor in rise of capitalism. Ironically, the success of a company has sometimes been measured by dividends rather than community service, and workers are seen merely as means to the company's profit. Thus today "personnel" departments have been replaced by "human resources," paralleling natural resources as a cost of doing business.
   Whether it is corporate scandals, the endless assault of spam email or movie stars accepting roles in needlessly violent movies for enormous compensation, work has become secularized, separated from a sense of benefiting the community or even one's own spiritual life. How can we reverse this materialism and restore the notion of vocation as service?


489. 040114 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Voice that spoke through King echoes nonviolence

Advice from a successful preacher to a seminarian: "To achieve acclaim in the pulpit, you can address any subject you like so long as it is neither politics nor religion." This counsel may be good for a career in the clergy free of controversy, but it fails to recognize perplexing issues that need spiritual guidance. Human cloning, teaching evolution, gay marriage, the Iraq war, abortion, the display of the Ten Commandments on public property, capital punishment, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, euthanasia and many other topics show how intertwined religion and politics can be.
  "Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means," said Gandhi, the great Hindu leader who inspired India to free itself from colonial Britain. And controversial clergyman Martin Luther King Jr, influenced by Gandhi's non-violent methods, required spiritual discipline from his followers in his work for social and political change.
   While religion should eschew partisanship, it cannot be separated easily from politics when issues of freedom, equity, peace and justice are involved.
   But religion is not just about worthy political ends; it is as much concerned with the way freedom, equity, peace and justice are pursued. Unholy means cannot ultimately establish worthy goals. In his famous "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," King wrote that the "means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek."
   Change-agents like King developed spiritual insights about how to deal with, and if necessary, confront evil in a political situation where power is used against the human spirit. King required his followers to engage in self-purification before participating in "non-violent direct action." King wanted those who joined him to be able to receive even physical abuse without retaliating. Only a strong and clear spirit can withstand such pressures.
   Winning is not defeating one's opponent but transforming the opponent into a companion on the path of righteousness. Before King, a white power structure, wasting great energy, segregated and oppressed blacks and deprived itself of the contributions blacks could make. Now many powerful organizations are better because they welcome gifts and talents from all races. Our sense of community is enlarged.
   King's achievement in part lies in his ability to convey the spiritual truth in the political realm that none of us are truly free until all of us are.
   If we listen carefully, perhaps we can hear a way to resolve today's issues from the Voice that spoke through King.


488. 040107 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Showing love is the best response to suffering

How can a good and all-powerful God permit terrible things to happen to those who do not merit such suffering?
   In his "Up to Date" program on 9/11 last year, KCUR host and Star writer Steve Kraske asked me this persistent question in the context of that particular horror. I tried explaining how various faiths deal with the problem of evil; but Steve, courteously and persistently, kept after me, not for others' answers, but for my own. Readers of this column are sometimes put out with me because I seem to give everyone else's perspective but hide what I think.
   I don't like to question someone else's faith when it provides comfort to those who endure inexpressible agony and loss. I would not want my own response to be seen discounting the struggles of others to deal with what has been called the greatest theological problem for monotheistic religions. That's why I hesitate.  Nevertheless, respectfully, here it is.
   "God" for me is a term evoking the mystery of existence and the majesty of love. God is not a Supreme Being but rather the Power and Process working through space and time by which we live and move and have our being. God is not apart from nature; God how things work, the way electrons spin, DNA replicates, scriptures are revealed and people govern themselves.
   But this process is fallible and often tragic. The sunny day and the tornado are from the same Source. Instead of a world where the beautiful wild beasts get their nutrients from ground water, they devour their prey in excruciating pain. Even good people can become so injured or muddled that they project their rage against others.
   I cannot find any justification for an all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful God permitting a three-year old to be raped, allowing Hitler to gain power, choosing not to prevent 9/11 and countenancing the countless injustices that happen each day. I've studied all the explanations; none work for me. If they work for you, bless you.
   Love is so amazing, especially in a defective universe, that to me it is sacred. I see it evolving by trial and error through the bondings of the carbon atom to the glory of sexuality and the sacrificial leadership of people like Martin Luther King Jr.
   Strengthening and enlarging the realm of love in whatever ways I can is my spiritual duty and joy. It is the best response I know to the suffering that lies within us and all around us.


 
 


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