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


Same-sex story has its sacred role to play

   Perhaps with greater religious significance than “The Passion of the Christ,” “Brokeback Mountain” opens here Friday.
   Bear with me. From Mircea Eliade, the towering 20th Century scholar in his field, these words are difficult but important: “The History of Religions is not merely an historical discipline, as for example, are archeology and numismatics. It is equally a total hermeneutics being called to decipher and explicate every kind of encounter with the sacred, from prehistory to our own day.”
   I was his student, and I think I know what he meant, and the scope of his claim.
   Let’s begin with the term “sacred,” a term he hesitated to define but seems to point to that on which our life depends, the source of ultimate meaning, purpose and direction for us, a pattern for making sense out of apparently disconnected events. The sacred is the bottom line of all bottom lines. The sacred is contrasted with the profane, the trivial, that which really doesn’t count in the final analysis.
   Eliade thus argued that the sacred is the key to recognizing and interpreting how persons and cultures identify what is important to them, in our own time as well as the past.
   Sexuality is often so powerful that its eruption can disturb the social order. This is why religions have often placed limits on its expression. Groups needing population growth, for example, have prohibited masturbation, coitus interruptus and same-sex behavior. Cultures with different needs have honored these very same ways of being sexual.
   Our civilization has moved from defining marriage as primarily concerned with property rights and arrangements between families to focus instead on the affection between the partners. Reproduction was once the main justification for sex in marriage, but now many people see marriage as a means to personal fulfillment.
   Can anyone reading Annie Proulx’s story, from which the movie has been adapted, fail to perceive the fulfillment, the intensity of the feeling cowboys Ennis and Jack have in each other? Each is to the other what ultimately makes their life meaningful, sacred.
   Their lives fall apart because they have tried to deny the sacred energy between them, twisted by the homophobia preserved by religious limits from another era which justifies perhaps even murder.
    “The Passion of the Christ” told us little new about the nature of the sacred; and I, like many, thought it trivialized, profaned, the holy with its violence.
   On the other hand, “Brokeback Mountain” is a parable not just for gays but for our entire society about false and genuine relationships. It asks specifically whether our culture will support the sacred in genuine love or whether it will make demons out of men who find the sacred with other men.

Call a Truce at Christmastime

   A reader asks my opinion about the “War against Christmas.” In brief, I see no attack on Christmas. Instead I see an uninformed attack on the religious pluralism at the root of America’s greatness. Incipient anti-Semitism is troubling, especially as Hanukkah approaches.
   Some Christmas history. Mark, the oldest Gospel, includes no story of the birth of Jesus, and neither does the best loved Gospel, John. The stories in Matthew and Luke are strikingly different, though each contains elements found in stories of other faiths.
   Many modern scholars guess that Jesus was born in the lambing season, perhaps February in Palestine, when shepherds would be watching their sheep by night. But a Roman festival at the winter solstice, Dec. 25 on the old calendar marking the birth of the sun, was adopted by Christians as the religion spread through the empire. Lists of holy days in early churches do not include Christmas, which was first recorded as the Third Century began.
    The Puritans who came to America eschewed Christmas; the Pilgrims worked on Dec. 25, 1620. For a time, until 1681, celebrating Christmas was a crime in Massachusetts.
   As late as the mid-19th Century, Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians in New York refused to recognize Christmas with church services.
   The U.S. Constitution does not mention God or Christianity. The First Amendment guarantees religious freedom. A treaty ratified by the Senate June 10, 1797, states that, “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”
   Not until 1836 was Christmas made a holiday in the U.S., and that was just in Alabama. It became a federal holiday in 1870.
   Some Orthodox Christians do not observe Christmas until Jan. 6 or 7, and some Christians still refuse to observe it at all.
   The modern popular observance of Christmas was influenced, ironically, by a Unitarian, Charles Dickens, whose “Christmas Carol” focuses not on theology but rather on the needs of the poor and the obligation of the well-to-do to help. Most of today’s customs, such as the Christmas tree, derive from pagan sources, and Thomas Nast’s and Clement Moore’s Santa figures are more secular than sacred.
   Holy days in any tradition deserve the respect from the rest of us. Those who insist on “Merry Christmas” from store clerks instead of “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” when the faiths of the partners in the exchange may be unknown, display forgetfulness of the diversity our nation embraces. To my mind, they would do better to complain about the games and toys of violence given to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.
   There is no plot to deprive Christians of Christmas. But surely we can join together in the sentiment, “Peace, good will to all.”

Roots of unity grow out of respect

To show that interfaith activity is not a centralized effort but rather widely disbursed, last week’s column began to name some of the folks and organizations that bring into their work an awareness of the many religions in our community. I’d like to list a few more today.
   In government, Jackson County executive Katheryn Shields, Raytown Mayor Sue Frank, Congressmen Dennis Moore (KS) and Emanuel Cleaver II (MO), former Kansas Attorney General Bob Stephan, and Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius have all found ways to celebrate our religious pluralism.
   Two Johnson County churches are especially noteworthy. The Church of the Resurrection’s  series on world religions, with local Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Jewish leaders, led to Pastor Adam Hamilton’s new book on the subject. Village Presbyterian Church’s many forums have contributed to our broadening horizon.
   Downtown, Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral has hosted city-wide interfaith events. In Independence, Andrew Bolton and others have brought resources of the Community of Christ into interfaith dialogue.
   Harold Johnson, Michael Stephens, Bob Hill, Ed Chasteen and others have assisted various ministerial and other religious associations and activities to embrace non-Christian faiths.    Bob Meneilly, an early proponent of interfaith bridge-building, created the  MAINstream Coalition whose clergy group works with issues transcending any particular faith.
   Harmony-NCCJ’s interfaith programs include an annual choral concert, congregational partnerships and Anytown for young people. It also makes available Donna Ziegenhorn’s “The Hindu and the Cowboy and Other Kansas City Stories,” a play drawn from actual lives of people in our community.
   Bill Neaves, a “born-again” Christian, head of the Stowers Institute, unfailingly models respect for religious perspectives with which he might personally disagree, an especially important ability in areas where religion and politics overlap.
   Myra Christopher of the Center for Practical Bioethics, Steve Jeffers of the Shawnee Mission Medical Center and Joan Collison at KU Medical Center are three among many bringing interfaith insights into their fields.
   Other organizations — the Greater Kansas City Coalition for Worker Justice is an example — develop their membership and plan their programming to be religiously inclusive.
   Again, I’m out of space. So many more to be named. What a great problem!
   The American vision of religious pluralism expands as we recognize that our differences can be blessings. Respect, not uniformity, makes unity possible. Neighborliness, not conversion, may be the better path to the divine.

Names show diversity is wide spread

Kansas City is blessed with folks who advance interfaith understanding. This may not be part of their job description, but they understand our sense of community benefits from  strengthening the American tradition of welcoming those of all religions.
   In local government, Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes and Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Brooks, in their personal lives as well as public leadership, have repeatedly demonstrated the value of inclusion.
   An early hero of mine is David Goldstein, now retired from the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee. His ability to build bridges with other minority groups as well as with  the larger community prepared the way for later successes. Alan Edelman, with the Jewish Federation, is an extraordinary speaker whose devotion to his own faith conveys a deep respect for others. Gayle Krigel’s skill in promoting interfaith relationships through programs like Salaam Shalom, is legendary.
   Here are some distinguished Muslim leaders contributing to interfaith activities. Rauf Mir has served the Interfaith Council since its beginning. Ahmed El-Sharif organized the American Muslim Council chapter. Shaheen and Iftekhar Ahmed created the Crescent Peace Society. Bilal Muhammed leads Al-Inshirah Islamic Center.
   If you want an inspiring program about a nationally-known Muslim-Jewish friendship here, call on Mahnaz Shabbir and Sheila Sonnenschein.
   Buddhist Chuck Stanford, Catholic George Noonan and Protestant David Nelson are among members of the Interfaith Council whose leadership has moved Kansas City forward.
   [Harold Johnson, Michael Stevens, Bob Hill and others have assisted various ministerial and other religious associations and activities to embrace non-Christian faiths. Andrew Bolton and others have brought resources of the Community of Christ into interfaith dialog.
   [Bob Meneilly, an early proponent of interfaith understanding, has more recently created the  MAINstream Coalition whose clergy group works with issues transcending any particular faith. Harmony-NCCJ’s interfaith programs include an annual choral concert, congregational partnerships and Anytown for young people.
   [Bill Neaves, a born-again Christian, head of the Stowers Institute, unfailingly models respect for religious perspectives with which he might personally disagree, an especially important ability in areas where religion and politics overlap.
   Myra Christopher of the Center for Practical Bioethics and Steve Jeffers of the Shawnee Mission Medical Center are two among many bringing interfaith insights into their fields.]
   I see I am out of space, and I have just begin to name people and organizations to make the point that “interfaith” in Kansas City is not centralized, but fortunately widely disbursed.

Heartland has it's interfaith in the right place

   Here’s a question I’m frequently asked. “How is interfaith activity in Kansas City different than elsewhere?” Here’s my four-part answer.
   * Relationships, not social service.— Unlike some cities (Wichita is a good example), Kansas City has no powerful interfaith agency providing social services. Instead, many groups, some secular, some religious, offer various kinds of assistance, from food pantries to housing, from legal services to job counseling. While different theologies are seldom impediments to cooperation in serving the needy, no area-wide interfaith institution has emerged to replace existing organizations already working hard to relieve the suffering of others. “Interfaith” here means not so much social service as relationships across faith lines.
   * Dispersion, not centralization.— What has emerged in Kansas City, especially since 9/11, is an understanding that many religions are practiced here, and that our community is tempered by affirming our kinship with one another. Civic leaders,  groups of friends and many programs in numerous organizations have leavened the Heartland. We understand that business, government, education, medicine and social life need to be informed by respect for religious diversity.  Most of us still don’t know much about faiths other than our own, and many of us are fairly ignorant of our own faith, but we are learning from many sources. “Interfaith” is not a one-stop operation.
   * Lay leadership.— Kansas City interfaith activity is energized largely by lay people, some of whom I’ll name next week. This is true of the Interfaith Council, as well as other groups. Many interfaith organizations elsewhere are run by clergy and funded by the groups they represent. While such a system has financial advantages, it also leads to the kind of religious politicking rarely found here.
   * Research program. — Kansas City may be unique in advancing a specific path for studying how the various faiths relate to each other theologically, notably at the 2001 “Gifts of Pluralism” conference. Then 250 people from 15 religions signed a Declaration “to explore sacred directions for troubled times.”
   The Declaration identified three directions: environmental, personal and social. From the primal religions, respect for nature was uplifted. From Asian faiths, insights into personhood were identified. From monotheistic traditions came wisdom about how society is best governed.
   Following the conference, the Interfaith Council established three task forces working for several years to research how to strengthen these directions in every religious practice. If the Council, reorganized this year, continues this study, its fruition may benefit not only the Heartland but prove a model for interfaith efforts far and wide.

Give thanks for the grasp of the holy

 Is it all in our genes? At William Jewell College Nov. 9 Harvard sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, seemed to suggest that we will discover a biological basis for everything. Perhaps even religion and ethics can ultimately be reduced to the laws of physics. His passion to unify the sciences and humanities led him to write his 1998 book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, which all of Jewell’s first year students read.
   One of several panelists who had the joy of engaging him on various questions, I found myself saying something I’d never quite thought out before. Though our respectful disagreement was obvious, he complimented me on it. I wonder what you, dear readers, who range from born-again Christians to atheists, might think. Let me know.
   Here’s the gist of my argument:
   The study of religion may be informed by sociology, anthropology, psychology and other disciplines, but it cannot be reduced to them because the holy transcends or bursts out of the confines of any particular subject area.
   We may encounter the holy in a walk through the woods, at a family reunion, in making love, in reading scripture, in hearing music, in viewing a painting, in playing golf.
   Wilson can say that bio-psychology can explain such experiences of the holy by describing  electro-chemical activity in the brain. I reply that an explanation of an experience is not the experience, and an experience of the holy is not the holy itself, which one can never fully grasp.
   Because the holy is ungraspable. We can’t grasp it; it grasps us. We can name it but we can’t explain it, though it may move us and even change the direction of our lives.
   Why is this so? Consider the fact that the words “holy” and “whole” are derived from a common root. This suggests that the “holy” is the intimation of the whole, the way things fit and don’t fit.
   We are embedded in the whole. We can never wholly see that of which we are a part, any more than we can see our own eyes without an external aid like a mirror. This is why we need the mirrors of other religions to better understand our own. But there is no mirror to see the whole of everything since it would have to be a part of the whole, too.
  In any way we speak of the holy, words don’t join together easily. I cannot think of any faith that does not at some point invoke mystery. And even atheists cherish encounters with the awesome, that which cannot be fully explained.
   We can’t control the holy. We can’t buy it or sell it prove it. We can only open ourselves to it. When we recognize the fragility of our hopes, the uncertainties of our powers and the limits of our understanding, we can welcome the holy by giving thanks.

Kansas City keeps the interfaith

 “It was a magical afternoon, a Kansas City moment,” said Mahnaz Shabbir, one of the organizers of last Thursday’s Table of Faiths luncheon.
   I certainly felt that way, too, not because I was the honoree enjoying the companionship of so many friends in one huge ballroom, and not even because Mayor Kay Barnes spoke with power and eloquence and balance about the horrors and hope of religion, but because the day was evidence of what I have always said about Kansas City: there is no better place for interfaith work to flourish.
   When I founded the Interfaith Council here in 1989, people asked, “Why didn’t you go to California or the East coast where religious diversity is more evident and more accepted?”
   I responded that we have a great diversity here that few people know about, but all should. And that the Heartland is not as easily jostled by fads and coast craziness, so a surer, if slower, process can lead to a more secure interfaith community here.
   Kansas City actually had examples of interfaith work for decades before the Council was formed, but the emphasis was usually on providing social service, rather than on understanding each faith, and no organization was as radically inclusive as the Council.
   In the mid 80s, folks from many faiths joined on the Sunday before Thanksgiving to share a meal, as they and others will again this year, to celebrate the American promise of religious liberty. From the friendships these dinners developed, it was a short step to the creation of the Council.
   But even before the Council’s 2001 “Gifts of Pluralism” conference, spread over parts of three days and attended by 250 people from every tradition, I urged the Council to consider independence from my own organization, CRES. This was arranged January 1 this year.
   Again, a slow process resulted in last week’s secure result.
   But the process itself contained the fortunate outcome.
   As Mayor Barnes noted, when CBS in 2002 was searching for the best response in America to the terrorist attacks the year before for its half-hour religion special, it focused on Kansas City. Although the Jackson County Diversity Task Force, which I chaired, found persistent prejudice in the five-county area, we also found remarkable stories of interfaith relationships.
   While the theological character of the Council has never been neglected, the energy of understanding comes from renouncing fear and embracing friendship. In business, government,  the arts, the media, and educational, medical, religious and other civic institutions, these Kansas City interfaith friendships have grown exponentially. I don’t yet see a limit to this growth.
    As I said Thursday, “Once upon a time interfaith was an idea, then it became a Council, and now it is a community.” Is it any surprise that I love this town?

Spreading St. Teresa's word is its own reward

   St. Paul wrote, “Let your women keep silence in the churches” (I Cor. 4:34), but few churches enforce this injunction. Some scholars understand it as Paul’s attempt to appear respectable in the eyes of his culture which devalued women. While a few religious groups still restrict women from sacerdotal functions, a trend toward equality may continue.
   But how could a woman with spiritual power express leadership in former days?
   Sr. Ruth Stuckel, C.S.J., associate professor at Avila University, delivered an address at Oxford University this summer that gives one answer to the question. She wrote about St. Teresa of Avila as a “16th Century Feminist.”
    Sr. Ruth, who taught at Avila for 35 years and recently observed her 50th Golden Jubilee with the Sisters of St. Joseph, began her address borrowing a four-part interpretation of the famous sculpture, “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa” by Bernini, in Rome. Teresa’s beauty represents her sainthood. Her posture suggests her writings. Her swirling nun’s robes connote her work founding monasteries. And her bare foot portrays her as a reformer, as the “discalced” Carmelite order did not wear shoes as a way of living independently of benefactors.
   Sr. Ruth wrote, “Women struggle to be recognized as human beings, and to receive the respect due to them . . . . Equality of nature (worth not sameness) and equal treatment in society are ideals that women strive to make realities.
   “Teresa of Avila . . . broke the mold for women then, and has something to say to women (today). In her Autobiography, Teresa demonstrates her independence from the male-dominated culture by entering the Carmelite Order against her father’s wishes and trusting her experiences of God against the advice of her ecclesial superiors.
   “In The Interior Castle, Teresa articulates her teachings on (mental, distinguished from prescribed) prayer. Fear of the Spanish Inquisition could not deter her from expressing the truth.
   “Finally, in The Foundations, Teresa shatters the images of a contemplative nun through her courageous efforts in developing foundations of the order throughout Spain.
   “Unlike the women of her day, Teresa traveled extensively without a male companion, managed money and negotiated property rights.
   “Truly, Teresa was ahead of her time. Teresa of Avila is a 16th century Feminist who can inspire, encourage, and teach women of the 21st century how to stay in the struggle for equality in a patriarchal society and church.”
   It took a while, but in 1970 Pope Paul VI declared St. Teresa a “doctor” of the church.
   Since Oxford, Sr. Ruth has presented her paper at Avila and St. Teresa’s Academy. Studying and sharing St. Teresa was especially rewarding, Sr. Ruth says, because she enjoys helping others with their faith development and St Teresa is such an engaging example.
"Avila University is named in honor of St. Teresa of Avila. Sister Ruth’s research raises awareness of the importance of Teresa as a woman leader who can serve as a model for today’s world."
Marie Joan Harris, CSJ, Ph.D.
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

Some live moral lives without God

   Over time, this column may do a fair job in promoting understanding of various religions. But it has done a poor job — I’ll try to do better — in explaining the spirituality of atheists, agnostics, and others who identify with no faith but are thoughtful about their place in the universe and their responsibilities as moral creatures.
   I call them Freethinkers, a term that echoes with the enormous contributions such folk have made to America, from the Deists like Tom Paine who called the colonies to independence, to Carl Sagan, whose PBS tours of the heavens were inspiring even without a God.
   A Freethinker rejects religious authority and tradition and insists life is better shaped by evidence and reason. A recent study of the US and 17 other prosperous democracies argued that by many measures the more “religious” the society, the more dysfunctional it is. This seems to be true when evidence within the US is used to compare states on items such as murders, divorce and teen pregnancy with certain measures of religiosity.
   Most freethinkers in my experience do not make a public fuss about their views. But film director and playwright Brian Flemming passionately questions Christianity in his new movie, “The God Who Wasn’t There.”
   Using legitimate scholarly material, Flemming constructs a case that the gap of several decades between the death of Jesus and the first records about him undermines the accuracy of the stories.
   Paul, who wrote the oldest texts included in the New Testament, never met Jesus. Paul seems unaware of the gospel stories or the teachings of Jesus. Paul’s epistles are energized by a conviction about the death and resurrection of the Christ. Flemming argues that the Christ is simply another version of Mithra, Adonis, Osiris, Tammuz and other gods whose resurrections were celebrated by their own cults.
   One of the early church fathers, Justin Martyr, is quoted saying that stories about Jesus are no different than what others believe about “the sons of Jupiter.” A scholar interviewed on the film says that of 22 characteristics of the typical hero story of the time, the story of Jesus contains 19, compared to 22 for Oedipus, 20 for Theseus, 17 for Hercules, 16 for Perseus and so forth.
   Modern urban legends and fables throughout history provide examples where fiction became regarded as fact, a process the movie suggests occurred with Jesus.
    Flemming will be at the Tivoli Tuesday at 7:30 pm for a screening. I’ll be on the panel following, along with the Rev. Marcia Fleischman, co-pastor of the Broadway Church, Robert N. Minor, KU Religion Professor, and a Freethinker yet to be named.
   I’ll share my complaints about the movie, but I do think it raises good questions.

Pluralism a good approach to diversity

  How should we regard religions other than our own? Evidence of religious diversity is all around us. How do we respond to this reality?
   Harvard’s Diana Eck, head of the Pluralism Project there, offered three options at Village Presbyterian Church last week-end.
   She asked us to imagine seeing a sincere person praying at a Shinto shrine. Do we suppose our God is listening? If not, why not? Does the maker of all things (John 1:3) accept prayers of adoration only if the devotee belongs to one particular denomination or religion?
   * The “exclusivists” say only one faith can be the path to salvation; all other ways lead to perdition. An example. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod suspended minister David Benke because he prayed “in the precious name of Jesus” 12 days after 9/11 with Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu leaders in Yankee Stadium. Authorities in his church said Benke should not have dignified other faiths by sharing the “Prayer for America” with them.
   * The “inclusivists” say that their faith is large enough to include all others. The Christian God, for example, saves well-intentioned Buddhists even if they have never heard about Jesus because such a Buddhist would certainly become Christian if given the opportunity.
   Eck said the “melting pot” idea is a civil expression of this perspective. People from everywhere are welcome to become Americans so long as they shed the peculiarities of their appearance and customs and adopt American ways. The “come and be just like us” invitation requires assimilation and conformity. In religion, it erases differences in favor of uniformity.
   Eck called the melting pot “anti-democratic” in expecting people to give up what they cherish in order to be accepted.
   * The “pluralists” want neither to reject nor to assimilate others; they want to encounter those of other faiths. The metaphor Eck used works well in Kansas City: jazz. In order to improvise jazz well, one plays one’s own distinctive part as one listens closely to the other players. We can embellish the tune of religious liberty noted in the Constitution.
   Eck, whose book A New Religious America argues that our nation is the most religiously diverse place on the planet, recognized the many issues that arise in a nation of many faiths, from the Air Force chaplaincy scandals to the arguments over the posting of the Ten Commandments.
   But she seemed optimistic about America’s future when she cited progress in the relatively recent acceptance of Jews in the life of Kansas City, in the once-prejudiced Ford Motor Company now having its own interfaith council, and in the outpouring of support for Muslims who had been attacked following 9/11.
   In Eck’s view, the pluralist approach is the healthiest way to respond to the fact of diversity.

581 051019  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
'Its turtles all the way down'

 We know the chicken comes from the egg, and an egg from a chicken, but where does it all start? And how will it end?
   More broadly, did the universe have a beginning, and what happens at the end of time?
   Some Buddhists decline such questions and speak instead about the “very no-beginning” and “the very no-ending” of the world. In some ways their view may parallel the “Steady-State” cosmological theory, popular with scientists in the 50s and 60s.
   A much earlier story, perhaps inspired by a Hindu conception of the incarnation of the god Vishnu as a cosmic tortoise, goes like this. A scientist lectures on the design of the universe, and an old lady objects: “The crust of earth we see really rests on the back of an enormous turtle.” The scientist responds, “But what does the turtle rest on?” The lady answers, “That turtle sits on an even larger turtle.” The scientist sees an opening in the argument, and asks, “But what supports that turtle?” The lady replies, “You think you have found a flaw in what I’m saying, don’t you? But the answer is very clear. It’s turtles all the way down.”
   Variations on this story, told by scientists, philosophers and others, make it a fascinating urban legend, about which you can read at
   An urban legend of another sort appears this Saturday in Kansas City: John Dobson, 90 years old, an amateur astronomer, inventor of a low-cost telescope mount named after him, and an advocate of the Steady-State theory. Dobson spent 23 years studying in a Vedanta monastery until he was ejected for sneaking out at night to view the stars and gained street fame in founding the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers. His ardent followers admire him for teaching others how to make telescopes from scrap and for democratizing astronomy.
   Most cosmologists have abandoned the Steady-State theory in favor of the Big Bang.
   The Big Bang theory says that about 14 billion years ago suddenly the universe exploded into being from a tiny, unimaginably dense point. Some religious thinkers have seen this as scientific support for the Bible. But other scientists  theorize that before the Big Bang, there was a Big Crunch, when the universe collapsed into that point. Perhaps, they speculate, that the universe continues to oscillate between expansion and contraction.
   More recently, however, the discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating has led to modified Steady-State theories with multiple small big bangs. And string theory offers  weird possibilities of other universes along side our own.
   Dobson presents his remarks, based on observation and in faith, Saturday morning at Unity Temple on the Plaza, and Saturday evening to the Astronomical Society of Kansas City at UMKC. For information, call the Vedanta Society, (816) 444-8045.

580 051012  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Communities give us keys to the sacred

   It's an affair of the heart. You meet these wonderful people, full of compassion and doing good things. You want to know them and know what energizes them, to understand the religious perspectives which give their lives meaning.
   That's how I fell in love with interfaith work. It’s by knowing people and enjoying their company that our sense of community is strengthened.
   The wisdom of many traditions in our neighbors also provides us with keys to open doors to the sacred, keys from others that may work for us.
   Here’s a superficial example. My own heritage is Christian, and I thought I knew what church bells meant. Bells routinely say, “The service is about to begin.” I had heard them at home; I heard the cathedral bells in Europe. In fact, I had even rung the bell when I was a student.
   It wasn’t until I saw a child swinging a rope with a striker at the high end at a Shinto shine gong that the church bell took on deeper meaning. I learned that the intent at the shine was to awaken kami, the god, to attend to the devotee, and that paradoxically the act awakens the devotee to the presence of the god. This key experience helped me understand that the church bell does not merely call people to church, but also can awaken the presence of the sacred in us; the bell is not just an external ringing but also an internal resonance. It is not a Pavlovian bell compelling us to go somewhere; it is rather an alarm clock awakening us from secular slumber.
   You may not have needed that particular key, but I did. Behind the doors of our own faiths are obvious and sometimes profound truths we forget or have yet to discover. Someone from another faith may hand us a key.
   Here are a few keys, A to Z. From the American Indian, the key to solving our environmental problems— and energy issues in particular—may be more in revering nature than in any technological fix. A Baha’i key may be their architecture which models human kinship. Buddhist techniques can free us from mistaking transitory things for the permanent.
   Christianity reveals the redemptive power of vicarious suffering. Hinduism’s myriad images of the divine may caution us about worshipping anything finite. Islam’s weighing of individual and group interests may restore us to better balance. The Jewish impulse, tikkun olam, repairing of the world, reminds us the world is not the way God wants it to be and offers transcendence through service.
   Pagan practices show the power of natural ritual. The Sikh is literally a “learner”; so should we all be. The Sufis remind us that faith can be ecstatic. The Unitarian Universalist openness to new ideas is a yeast for our culture. In Zoroastrianism we find ethical commitment characterizes the cosmic drama in which we participate.
   You know you are really neighbors when you exchange keys to each other's homes.

579 051005  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Huston Smith still belongs to the world

   His life has been the study of the world’s faiths. He practiced many of them intensively for years at a time. He wrote the classic text on world religions and a dozen other books. He is revered as “the dean of world religions.” Beloved teacher Huston Smith, age 86, has every right to declare his love for the tradition in which he lives and moves and has his being.
   His latest book, The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition, does that.
   Readers of this column may remember that last April I accompanied Smith to the graveyard in Marshall, MO, where his parents, missionaries to China, are buried. Smith was born and lived in China for 17 years, taught at Washington University in St. Louis before he went to M.I.T, and now belongs to the world, even if the major section of the new book concludes with a story of his flying to Kansas City.
   I first encountered his The World’s Religions when I was a student in 1965 and met Smith in 1969. Each time our paths have crossed, my awe of him has grown. No one I ever have met deserves the label “gentleman” more than Smith, and no one could better be called a Christian. My comments about his new book, therefore, can hardly be presumed detached or objective.
   His solution to the existence of evil in a world created by a perfect God does not satisfy me, and I dislike his dependence on spiritual hierarchy, but these are quibbles to show you my independent judgment.
   The Introduction brings Smith’s warning about modernity, detailed in his Why Religion Matters, into new power. Without mentioning post-modernist thinkers, he agrees with them that “the myth of progress (is) a cruel joke.” He names science, technology, business, government, the media, education, art and even religion as “disastrous” enterprises.
   But unlike post-modernists, Smith proclaims a transcendent reality “drenched with meaning,” available in every tradition, though his personal story is Christian.
   Part 1 is a brilliant 15-point “grammar” for the spirit that he says can be found in all faiths.
   Parts 2 and 3 are rewritten from his chapter on Christianity in The World’s Religions, but with fresh material and insights. For example, in his elucidation of the atonement, Smith now invokes Abelard’s alternative to the view that a vengeful God demanded a ransom in order to pardon sinners. Smith also shows ways to resolve difficulties Christians have with scriptural passages like Jesus’ command to hate one’s family.
    And he shows how to appreciate texts suggesting salvation is limited to Christians. Here is a hint: “though for Christians God is defined by Jesus, he is not confined to Jesus.”
   This is a chatty book, not academic. You could read it in a single sitting, or several short ones, though you would want to pause often as your soul is restored through the love in which this book is drenched.

578 050928  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Look at it this way (or four ways)

   Today, a miscellany.
   * The free “Sacred Space” exhibition in the lobby of the Community of Christ Temple in Independence is remarkable for at least three reasons.
   First, it is a multifaith display.
   Second, the eight works include three monotheistic traditions, two from Asia, and three from indigenous peoples. Indigenous spirituality is still often regarded as “primitive” in the pejorative sense of that word. But the show here captures the sophistication our own culturally limited eyes often fail to recognize.
   Third, the “portals” — such as the mihrab from a mosque and the ark of the covenant in a synagogue — open to depictions of the endangered natural environment. While interfaith conferences on ecological issues are important, art such as this with the accompanying explanations may ultimately be more effective in exploring our understandings of the holiness of nature.
   * Visiting Minneapolis several months ago, I saw “Shortcut to Nirvana,” a documentary about the Hindu Kumbh Mela, a mass religious gathering in India every 12 years. Following the screening, I urged one of the producers to bring it to Kansas City. The film is now at the Tivoli. (See Robert Butler’s review in last Friday’s Star.)
   Not only will you find an authentic curry of Indian religion — a mixture of hoax and enlightenment, frustration and satisfaction — but you’ll be given a mirror in which, if you use it, you can view the mess that is American religion, from the televangelist who apparently has lost his power or his will to steer hurricanes, to the New Age fakirs promising shortcuts to world peace.
   * Several years ago I spoke to a high school class and mentioned the Exodus. Only one student had any idea what I was talking about — one of countless cases of ignorance about the Bible particularly and of religious illiteracy in general.
   Part of the problem is that public schools have been poorly equipped to teach about religion. Fear of teaching the bible as faith has made teaching the bible as cultural artifact difficult. Now the Bible Literacy Project has published a textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, which superbly demonstrates the importance of knowing scripture in understanding our culture.
   The book is not a sufficient aid in understanding the bible, however. Better are textbooks like The New Testament: A Student’s Introduction by Stephen L. Harris and The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible by Harris and Robert L. Platzner.
   * But there are more religions in the USA than those based on the Bible, as Diana Eck’s A New Religious America documents. Here the play, “The Hindu and the Cowboy and Other Kansas City Stories,” displays them in a schedule you can now find at

577 050921  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Godly compassion can thrive in our secularist age

   The age-old question, “Are people naturally good or evil?” freshly appears when, following Hurricane Katrina, we see on the one hand rape and other violence, and on the other, extraordinary generosity and compassion.
   At the beginning of the 20th Century, liberal theologians argued that humans were born naturally good and that humanity was progressing “onward and upward forever.” But as the century unfolded, the horrors of two world wars, the Great Depression and economic exploitation were evidence used by the “neo-orthodox” to emphasize the sinful nature of humanity.
   Are people born to hurt one another? Is sin an innate and inescapable fact or tendency? Here are some snapshots of the controversy.
   The debate was famously framed when Pelagius (d. 418), disgusted with the immorality he saw among conventional Christians of his time, called on them, as we would say to day, “to clean up their act.” His followers did not believe people were necessarily born sinful and therefore had the capacity to reform, even to be perfect.
   But Augustine (354-430) taught that people can do no good except by the grace of God. Humans cannot redeem themselves.
   Pelagius and his teachings were condemned as heretical in 431 at the Council of Ephesus, establishing a conservative position.
   Then in 1486 Pico della Mirandola’s “Oration on the Human Dignity,” sometimes called the “Manifesto of the Renaissance,” elevated the way people thought about their potentials and advanced a liberal viewpoint in that remarkably empowered period in history.
   Today these two theological perspectives underlie some social opinions. For example, liberals tend to view prisons as an opportunity for rehabilitation while conservatives often hope for little more than punishment and gloomily cite recidivism statistics.
   And now the theological debate is complicated by new understandings of the role of the social environment. For example, some argue that when Mayor Rudy Giuliani focused on presumably small things like reducing broken windows, litter and graffiti in New York, a new attitude of respect was created that caused the city’s dramatic drop in crime.
   While the West has understood evil as disobedience to God’s law, the East has usually found evil results from ignorance of the way the universe works.
   My own hunch runs like this. Our social, economic and political order is generally wicked. And folks are often so discouraged or self-centered that they will not work to improve it. Yet most people, on a personal level, find ways to love and help others. Outpourings after the tsunami and Katrina suggest that people must be basically good for such strong compassion to survive and occasionally flourish even under the brutality of our secularistic age.

The Hebrew tradition and particularly the Christian versions of "original sin,"  focus on willfully disobeying God's commands. In Asia, generally, the problem is not that people willfully disobey a divine Ruler, but that they are ignorant of what will be most beneficial.
    This is not a unique insight of my own, but a pretty standard comparison general between the Biblical tradition and the "Oriental" perspectives, although it certainly applies to some ancient cultures like Ancient Egypt where morality was undersood as cosmic prudence.
     Disobedience implies knowing what the law is. Ignorance is not knowing what the law is. The former may presuppose inherent sinfulness; the latter may presuppose inherent goodness, as in the Buddha-nature. Consequences follow both, but the assessment for the cure is different. In the former, forgiveness; in the latter, enlightenment.

576 050914  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Theologian's thought embraces all of creation

   I wanted to walk in his footsteps, and so ten years ago I went to Kansas City’s Sister City, Seville, Spain, where he lived from age 8 into his 30s, some 800 years ago. Especially I wanted to walk up the old minaret once part of the mosque there. Almost every day I walk to the County Club Plaza where I see a small copy of the minaret across from Nichols Fountain.
   Walking where Ibn Arabi walked was easy enough, but trying to understand him is like wading through an entire ocean: his thought is so deep, so treacherous, so life-giving. Unlike theologians who chart lines between truth and error, his approach is all-embracing. Thus peace is reached not by subduing one’s enemy but by drawing a larger circle including both sides.
   Grounded in the Qur’an, his love is without limits: “My heart has become capable of every form: it is a pasture for gazelles, an abbey for Christian monks, a temple for idols, the pilgrim’s Ka’ba, the tables of the Torah and the book of the Qur’an. I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s camels take, that is my religion and my faith.”
   He wrote some 700 books, one of which in a new edition runs 17,000 pages. Another book, written after he saw a beautiful woman in Mecca where he had gone on pilgrimage, described the spiritual path in erotic terms. For this he was threatened by authorities. Although his writings have been banned in Saudi Arabia, many Muslims have regarded him as “the greatest shiekh.” Western scholars are now discovering him.
   Like the Christian mystic and the Buddhist about which I’ve written recently, Arabi discloses a universe through intimacy, then union, then identity, with every creature, enriched by the experience of separation.
   This is implicit in a hadith (tradition) Arabi favored: God said, “I was a hidden treasure, and I yearned to be known. So I created creatures in order to be known by them.” The Creator and the creatures need each other separate to fully realize themselves together. On the spiritual path, the process of discovering God is discovering oneself.
   Paradoxically one discovers oneself by abandoning the illusion of the self so that one becomes empty as a mirror, reflecting only God. Then God is able to behold himself—and become God—in such a degree as the mirror is polished and free of dust.
   Then there is no distance or difference between the perceiver and the perceived, the subject and the object, the lover and the beloved, God and the devotee. We become the eyes, ears, hands and feet of God.
   When we are free of the dust of mistaking our temporary, relative and separate forms as ultimate, then in love we can see each person is also a mirror reflecting everyone else. Then we  behold God. Love, the yearning to know and be known in our fullness, unveils the hidden treasure. Everywhere we walk, even in tragedy, we are in the heart of God.

575 050907  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Comfort the bereaved with listening, asking

The gulf disaster raises many religious questions. How can an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God permit such devastation? Why are clear religious teachings against theft violated when opportunity permits? How effective are our prayers for loved ones? If God cares for each person, is it selfish to mourn the tragedy in our own nation more than those killed on the Baghdad bridge, or the Iraq War, or the other horrors and miseries of the world?
   It is better to honor such questions, rather than to feel guilty for thinking them. After all, theologians and religious teachers have wrestled them throughout the ages.
   I have no answers to Katrina, but I do have a story.
   Once, before the sacred scriptures of the Buddhist faith appeared in the Japanese language, a devotee named Tetsugen decided he would get them translated from the Chinese and have them published in Japan. He knew that the process would involve considerable labor since the texts would have to be carved on wood blocks, and he envisioned an edition of several thousand copies for those who could read.
   He went from town to town to collect money for his project. A decade passed, and finally he had the funds to proceed.
   But just then the river overflowed and created panic and famine. So Tetsugen used the money to buy food for the people. In time he began again to raise money for the publication of the holy sutras.
   After many years, enough donations had again accumulated to begin the project. But then an epidemic broke out. Medicines were expensive, and death left many families destitute. So Tetsugen gave away all that he had collected to help those in need. And when people recovered, he pursued the project.
   Finally his goal was realized, and the scriptures were published in Japanese. But it is said that the first two editions, which were never published, far surpass the third.
   May I draw a moral from this tale?
   Tetsugen placed immediate human needs over sacred texts. And because he saw the needs and heard the cries, he brought more comfort than an inspirational message for which the people were not yet ready.
   When the corpse of one’s loved one was rotting, it was not the time to talk about a grand tomorrow. When we prematurely responded to those in extreme distress by saying things like “New Orleans will be rebuilt better than ever, and America will be stronger through this ordeal,” we distanced ourselves from the reality of the moment and from those engulfed in it.
   Better at such times than fancying an answer to “Why could God let this happen?” is the comfort of letting the bereaved know you are really listening and asking the same question.

574 050831  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
The Infinite has many aspects

So many readers commented on the column a couple weeks ago about the Catholic mystic Nicholas of Cusa that I’d like to sketch two other writers for you, a Buddhist today and a Muslim next month, whose thought parallels Cusa.
   We usually assume that the universe is a collection of things separate and distinct from each other. For example, Jackson and Johnson are separate counties. This is a useful legal fiction; yet it is easily argued that they influence, and to an extent, create what each other has become.
   Similarly, we may think of ourselves as independent beings, but who would we be without the genetic inheritance from our parents, without nurturing we received or did not receive, without the society which provides water and credit cards and cell phones? Would we be as we are without Columbus and Martin Luther King Jr? Do we exist independent of the oxygen we breath? Would we survive the extinction of the sun?
   These mystics say we are embedded in the world to such an extent that to think of anything as separate and distinct is illusory. Even a pen implies the anatomy of the hand that writes with it, the Phoenicians sometimes credited with inventing the alphabet, the geologic transformations that turned living things into oil from which the pen’s plastic was derived, and an economic system sophisticated enough to create, manufacture and distribute the pen, not to mention the lawyers who find ways of being involved in transactions all along the way!
   The mystical sensibility is sometimes characterized as “one-ness,” but that is just as misleading as the everyday notion of separateness. The vision of these mystics is rather of mutual interrelatedness within what Cusa called God or the Infinite, and what the Chinese Hua Yen Buddhist master Fa Tsang (643-712) called the Void.
   The Empress Wu Tse-T’ien asked Fa Tsang to explain the doctrine of interpenetration and mutual containment of all things in the Void. He built her a room with mirrors on all walls, the floor and the ceiling. In it he placed a torch and an image of the Buddha.
   Taking her inside, he called her attention to the countless reflections, each image imparting the others. Producing from his robe a crystal ball, Fa Tsang showed the Empress how the large mirrors and the small ball mutually generate and contain images of each other. The infinite number of images possible, simultaneously arising, was a metaphor for the mutual creation and interdependence of all things in space and time.
   Thus when we look at any other human being, we can imagine that he or she has struggled, as we have, with finitude, knowing little, desiring deeply, infinitely connected in ways we cannot imagine. We are kin. And recognizing how limited he or she is, and ourselves, embedded in a complicated network of circumstances, paradoxically opens the door to the Infinite, one name for which is compassion.

573 050824  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Conquering genocide with community

The record of humanity’s violation of our own kind in the name of religion or advancing civilization is not a happy theme. Especially difficult for us to consider is the often-deliberate acts against American Indians that some now call genocide. Many Indians were exterminated. Others, denied use of their mother tongue, were converted into Christianity, as those familiar with Johnson County, KS, history may recall.
   Some estimate the Belgian genocide of the Congolese, continuing into the 20th Century, involved upwards of 30 million victims. More recently, we recoil at the killing fields of Cambodia, the massacres in Rwanda, the “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia, the ongoing assault on Tibetans and their culture by China and the present Darfur horrors.
   But the term “genocide” was developed by a Jewish legal scholar and we most often associate it with the Nazis. Estimates of their crimes go as high as 11 million, including six million Jews. One third of the Catholic priests in Poland were slaughtered, along with gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others.
   What can be done to prevent such calamities in the future, and to insure that our nation never succumbs to the temptation to marginalize, then dehumanize and finally eliminate people of certain faiths or extractions? Or more positively, how can we strengthen our own community by fostering understanding among people of various faiths?
   Country Club Christian Church is beginning a two-step program. First, it aims to deepen the connection members have with one another. Then it plans to reach out to the larger community.
   The tool is reading books together and thereby “weave people together with a common thread.” member Linda Nixon says. The congregation begins with Mary Doria Russell’s new novel,  A Thread of Grace, which portrays interaction between people of different faiths during the Holocaust. “By reading a book together and then discussing it in small groups, people get to know each other and a synergy builds in the congregation.” says senior minister Glen Miles. The study culminates with the author’s visit to the church Sep. 15. “Not only do we look forward to building the community within the church but we hope to reach out to the greater community,” says event chair Melanie Thompson.
   Then on Sep. 18, an interfaith panel explores “Resistance and Religion.” And on Sep. 25,  Fran Sternberg, daughter of Holocaust survivors, presents “Interesting Times:  A Family Trapped in History.” Guests are welcome at all events.
   Nixon says the church is also providing a learning program for children using books with related materials.
   For information, click on “Book by Book” on the church’s web site,

572 050817  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Mystic's vision unifies opposites

Religion, science and mathematics were unified in the vision of the pre-Reformation mystic Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464). He may be remembered more in the history of science than in theology because of his unusual views, though he served the Roman Catholic Church in many ways and in 1448 was made a cardinal.
   Cusanus, as he is also called, envisioned a parliament of the world’s religions, was sent by the pope to Constantinople to bring the Western and Eastern churches together and was entrusted with correcting church and monastic abuses in the Netherlands and Germany.
   He developed calendar reform, discovered that a concave lens could compensate for myopia, proposed a system of proportional balloting and, before Copernicus was born, declared that the earth is not the center of the universe, that it revolves around the sun and that stars are objects like the sun.
   I’d rank his De Docta Ignoratia, Of Learned Ignorance, as one of the most profound works in the library of Christendom. In it he says that our greatest wisdom is to recognize how little we know. Books might contain information, but they are not the source of wisdom. Human knowledge is really conjecture. More important than the abstractions of theology are the experiences of the merchant.
   But by love we can know the divine.
   What is the divine? In one place in De Visione Dei, The Vision of God, he describes God as neither Creator nor creation (and another place, as both), but rather the “Nature of all natures.” Against his contemporaries, Cusanus saw change and motion as the nature of perfection. Does this suggest that God is a natural unfolding Process, as in the theology of Charles Hartshorne today? Does he anticipate Paul Tillich’s understanding of God not as a Supreme Being but as the “Ground of Being”?
   Even more intriguing is his understanding of God as the coincidence of opposites, which, in mathematical metaphor, he calls the “Infinite,” where all things are reconciled. For example, a circle and a straight line are opposites. But if the circle is expanded to infinity, the circumference becomes just as flat as the line. God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere.
   While classical theology places God, ultimate reality, at the top of the chart with creatures underneath, Cusanus rejects both hierarchy and the idea that there is a center to the universe organizing the rest. Rather the universe is organized in every individual which implicates every other individual as they participate in God.
   In the language of psychology, the paradox is that one can love others best when one loves oneself. And loving self and others coincides with loving God.

571 050810  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
How many gods? Take a breath, think

How many gods are there? Islam is unambiguous in its response: one. Judaism’s shema, a confession of faith, proclaims there is one God for Israel. Christianity’s trinity proclaims three persons in one God. Buddhists have no need of a creator God, and the joke about Unitarians is that they “believe in one God — at most.”
   But what Westerners call Hinduism probably embraces more ways of answering this question than any other tradition. It is said that Hindus believe in 330 million gods, but there are many ways of counting. The trimurti, sometimes misleadingly compared with the Christian trinity, consists of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the Creator, Sustainer and Destroyer.
   Some gods take many forms. For example, the gods Krishna and Rama—and some Hindus would add Buddha and Jesus—are some of the avatars of Vishnu. It gets complicated pretty quickly because the Bhagavad Gita appears to present Krishna as more than a manifestation of Vishnu.
   Another Hindu way of looking at God is with the pair of terms, Atman and Brahman. The former is usually understood as the divine character within each person, and the latter is the cosmic Self. Spiritual life moves toward realizing they are identical.
   The Chandogya Upanishad, on one hand, presents God everywhere present  (Tat tvam asi— “That thou art”), but the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad denies that God can be identified with anything (Neti, neti—“not this, not that”).
   Confusing? Contradictory? Don’t worry about it. A famous passage in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad may put you at ease. The sage Yajnavalkya is asked, “How many gods are there?” He answers by calculating the gods mentioned in the “Hymn to All the Gods,” 3306. His questioner responds, “Yes, but just how many gods are there?” This time the answer is 33. The repeated question results in the following responses; 6, then 3, then 2, then 1 1/2.
   This latest answer is sort of like saying that, on average, there are 1.36 persons per car passing through the Grandview Triangle. Hopefully no car contains exactly 1.36 persons. So what does this sacred text mean, “1 1/2 gods”?
   Perhaps it is saying that any attempt to name or define or quantify the Infinite is, in a sense, silly, even if in some contexts it might be useful, as knowing the average number of persons per car can be helpful in traffic management.
   But the text continues. The question is asked one more time, “Just how many gods are there?’ This time the answer is, “One. . . . Breath. . . . They call him Brahman, the Undefined.” So just when we think the answer is one God, we are reminded that attempts to constrain the Absolute in human language may be misleading, though carried forward by respiration itself.

570 050803  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Confront evil actively and creatively

   When Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil person,” what did he mean?
   Warren Carter raises the question in response to last week’s column reporting on an essay by Jim Mathis of the Kansas City Christian Businessmen’s Community. Carter is professor of New Testament at the Saint Paul School of Theology here. He discusses this passage, Matt. 5:39, his book Matthew and the Margins, pages 150-154.
   In his email to me, Carter suggests the translation is misleading. “To instruct people to not resist an evil doer – if that is what Jesus is saying – makes little sense!  And it would be quite contrary to the biblical tradition. The tradition expects people in relation to God to resist evil.  What frequently differs in the biblical writings are the means of resisting.”
   He lists several options: violence, changing one’s ways, “pronouncing judgment and consigning a person or situation to God’s judgment,” retreat and “trusting God to intervene (e.g. Psalm 37).”
   Carter continues, “Jesus is not teaching against this tradition of resisting evil.  Rather he is instructing on how to do so in a context where its power is overwhelming and there are no legitimate democratic means of protest.  The verb translated “do not resist” is commonly used in ancient literature to denote warfare and violent actions.” Carter says Jesus is condemning the use of violence in resisting evil, but not condemning resisting evil. “Hence Jesus’ negative command ought to be translated, ‘Do not violently resist an evildoer.’”
   When Carter looks at the next verses, he sees Jesus outlining “active, non-violent, creative means” to resist evil: “turning the other check, giving all one’s clothes, going two miles with the soldier’s pack. These strange actions make sense in a context where oppressed people have little power.” Walter Wink presents a similar perspective, detailed at
   Carter says the actions Jesus advises “are self-dignifying means of protest that refuse intimidation, momentarily seize the initiative from the oppressor and expose their excessive power.” Carter recommends Weapons of the Weak and Domination and the Arts of Resistance by James C. Scott for information about nonviolent protests among powerless groups.
   Carter agrees with Mathis that Jesus endorses neither “fight nor flight,” but rather a third way of engaging evil. Carter concludes that this method “is not passive but comprises creative actions that express dignity and refuse to escalate or normalize violence. Gandhi and King were practitioners. Will it work in foreign policy? The question is difficult. Vietnam and Iraq demonstrate graphically the ineffectiveness and unsustainability of military violence.  If there can be no peace without justice, a commitment to engage evil creatively, actively, and nonviolently would be worth the effort.”

569 050727  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Meet violence with nonviolence

Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, religions originating in India, are among those with strong teachings against violence. The Jain faith is rigorous in its application of ahimsa, doing no harm. The Buddha observed that “a person finds no justice by carrying a dispute to violence.” The Hindu scriptures counsel, “If you want to see the brave, look at those who can forgive. If you want to see the heroic, look at those who can love in return for hatred.”
   Gandhi condemned war not only because of those who perish but also because it brutalizes the fighter. As his work proved, social and political transformations can be led by ennobling  non-violent responses to oppression and injustice.
   The great Chinese Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching, warns that “even ornamental weapons are not a source of happiness, but of dread.”
   The abhorrence of violence also characterized the early Christian church which found the teachings of Jesus incompatible with war and capital punishment.
   A great many newsletters cross my desk, but none has surprised me more than the July issue of “Common Grounds” from Homer’s Coffee House in Overland Park, a ministry of the Kansas City Christian Businessmen’s Community, Even more surprising is that Jim Mathis, who wrote its “Fight or Flight or Something Better?” essay, told me that he has received no flack from readers of the article.
   After discussing the business practices of Neiman-Marcus, a passage in Proverbs and the teachings of Jesus, Mathis wrote, “I often wonder what would happen if a presidential candidate said that from now on the United States would respond to the arrogant dictators of the world with love and understanding. Or what if our military leaders would admit that retaliation always leads to escalation. . . .
   “But I really think Jesus was serious. He wasn’t just joking when he said, ‘You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you, do not resist an evil person . . . . Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’
   “You might say, ‘Do that and people will walk all over you,’ Maybe. You might also be perceived as a man or woman of God . . . .”
   Does Mathis’ citation of Jesus apply to the age of terrorism? One can argue the early martyrs might have thought so. Does a bellicose response decrease or increase the measure of danger and hate in the world? Are the religious teachers of so many faiths foolish or wise?
   Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times last week, “Standard Hindu and Buddhist accounts consider the present age, with its belief in the virtue of greed and its blind faith in power through intimidation, a disaster, corrupt beyond redemption.”
   Jesus was crucified. Is the Christian hope “fight or flight or something better?”

568 050720  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Looking at theology by accident

   Several readers have suggested I erred June 1 in writing, “Those few scientists who say that evolution is undirected, accidental and purposeless are doing theology, not science. And those who find evidence for intelligent design of the world are also doing theology, not science. No scientific proof can be produced to support either interpretation of the evidence.”
    I think my critics are partly justified. My statement was sloppy. I’ll try to clean it up.
   Let’s look at the ideas of “accident” and “chance.” Some people say, “Nothing is an accident; everything happens for a purpose.” Yet they do not protest news reports of traffic accidents. Even though we call them accidents, the insurance agencies and courts must sometimes determine who “caused” the “accident.”
   When we say, “I ran into So-and-so by chance,” we mean we did not plan the meeting, but  we do not deny that there are causes or otherwise irrelevant intentions that led our paths to cross. Evolution may be unplanned, but that does not mean that climate and food availability play no role in shaping future species.
   Often we use the words “accident” and “chance” to suggest that we could not have predicted the event.
   In this sense, evolution is accidental. No one is smart enough to factor all the influences that will cause the next car accident at Westport Road and Broadway, and no scientist has any way of calculating what dogs will look like 100 million years from now, much what shape human beings might exhibit, if we are around at all.
   But in another sense, those with the mind-set that says “nothing happens by chance” may say, “We don’t know the result, but God does, and behind what appears to us to be random happenstance is a guiding power.”
   I think theologians are wrong to object when scientists, using language in the ordinary sense within their discipline, say evolution is random; and right to object when scientists import the ordinary sense of “random” into theological discourse. And Intelligent Design folks are wrong to inject theological language into the scientific study of the natural world.
   One of my philosophy professors claimed that most of the problems of traditional philosophy — such as “Do we have free-will?” — are based on stretching ordinary language describing discrete situations to apply to the whole of existence. In his view, you cannot get from cars crashing into each other at Westport and Broadway to whether the entire universe is an accident or not.
   I think that applies as well to theology, the study of ultimate meaning.
   Another error. Last week I confused some dates. “The Hindu and the Cowboy” play is performance at Village Presbyterian Church on Oct. 28. The Nov. 5 performance is at the Community of Christ Temple.

567 050713  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Autumn's visitors will be as varied as fall colors

Again this fall Kansas City will be blessed with visits from distinguished religious leaders. This “early warning” is to assist you, dear reader, to get the dates on your calendar now, with details forthcoming. I also want to alert others planning great speakers to avoid the kind of conflict we had last year when Huston Smith and Matthew Fox were in town at the same time.
   To the delight of folks already talking about it, Huston Smith returns Oct. 9 and 10. Sunday evening he speaks at Unity Village and Monday evening at the Rime Buddhist Center. Smith will be touring to promote his new book, The Soul of Christianity, due out in September. This book is especially significant since Smith, best known for his The World’s Religions, has spent most of his 85 years teaching about other faiths.
   Now he focuses on his own. A life-long Methodist, and son of Methodist missionaries to China, Smith cherishes his own congregation in Berkeley where he now lives after teaching at M.I.T., Washington University and other schools. Smith’s Christianity is neither “rigid fundamentalism” nor “non-transcendent liberalism.” Whether you agree or not, the stories he tells from his remarkable life charm and inspire. But I begin to sound like his book agent; excuse me, but I revere the man.
   John Esposito speaks the evening of Nov. 4 at the Community of Christ Peace Colloquy on “The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?” He is professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies, Georgetown University. His book, What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam, is both simply written, accurate and frank. Because of the problems many of us have in getting clear information about the enormously varied expressions of Islam, he is a great choice to speak on the colloquy’s theme, “From Fears to Friendships.”
   Diana Eck, head of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, is another favorite. She appears at Village Presbyterian Church Oct. 21 and 22. Her 1988 speech at the first conference of the North American Interfaith Network helped galvanize Kansas City attendees into creating the KC Interfaith Council.
   Her 2001 book, A New Religious America: How A “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation, is full of surprises, including the complete text of former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves’ 1997 Ramadan Proclamation, the first such gubernatorial recognition in the U.S. Eck is a gracious and eloquent speaker, and her research is always up-to-the-minute.
   The following week, Oct 28, the Johnson County church will, like other organizations this fall in KCK, Independence, Midtown and Raytown, present “The Hindu and the Cowboy and Other Kansas City Stories,” a play created by Donna Ziegenhorn from interviews with 80 KC area residents from every conceivable faith background.

566 050706  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Commandments are codes to live by

   Last week the Supreme Court focused attention on the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, now revered by three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, although it had no particular significance in Christianity until about 600 years ago.
   The Decalogue represents a great moral advance over the Code of Hammurabi, on which the Hebrew law code was modeled. Does this transmission of law work for us today?
   Hammurabi, a Babylonian king, lived about 3750 years ago. A stela discovered about a hundred years ago, now in the Louvre, shows the sun god Shamash commissioning Hammurabi’s law, as Moses received the Decalogue from the god Yahweh. Tradition places this about 3300 years ago, but some scholars think the Decalogue might be only 2750 years old.
   Both codes insist that society must be governed by rules, not whims. Perhaps the most famous influence of the earlier law code in the Bible is the punishment system: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Ex. 21:24), though the Hebrew system does not apply the Hammurabi dictation mechanically.
   Of the many advances in the Mosaic code is the treatment of everyone equally under the law, where Hammurabi prescribes severe penalties for harming someone in a higher class, and milder penalties for mistreating someone in a lower class.
   The Bible actually contains three sets of “Ten Commandments.” The number “ten” does not appear with the set identified by tradition in Ex 20 and Deut 5. But "ten" does appear with a list in Ex. 34, where one of the commandments is not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk. The two traditional versions consist of at least twelve, not ten, statements, numbered to make ten in different ways by various authorities.
    Today allegiance to the “Ten Commandments” may be largely a hortatory or sentimental exercise because few people follow the commandments as they were intended, with the prescribed punishments.
   For example, the commandment to honor the sabbath forbids all work and forbids engaging others to work. This would mean closing the malls including the theaters, shutting the hospitals and police departments and dispensing with most utilities including phone service. Our society simply is not structured to apply the Mosaic law.
   Another example: should a 5-year old girl molested by her father be expected to honor him because the ancient code requires it? And why is there no parallel commandment for parents to honor their children?
   [A third case: the prohibition against graven and other images might require the end of photography and TV as well as statues and the way we make coins.
   [A fourth example: While the Decalogue requires giving primacy to one god, Yahweh, and does not deny the existence of other gods (they were assumed), our government cannot compel belief in this or any other deity.
   Many other examples could be given of what appears defective in the Decalogue from the perspective of modern society.]
   While all faiths command respecting life, the truth, property and sexuality, ancient ideas embedded in the Decalogue, how these ideas might be applied today may require fresh, earnest and faithful thinking.

Acceptance can make a site sacred

   SANLIURFA, Turkey — As I watch the women at the Mevlid Halil Mosque, I think more of America than I do of Abraham, who is said to have been born in the cave here into which I have just peered. (This city is said to be the biblical Ur.)
   This is a sacred pilgrimage site, and while the dress of the men varies unremarkably, the women who come are also varied in their dress; but that is remarkable.
   In some Muslim countries the women would be uniformly attired, for example, with a veil. But here, as throughout Turkey, Muslim women choose their own way to express their understanding of modesty.
   Except in the schools and government positions.
   A Turkish friend tells me, “No one has the right to tell a Muslim woman how to dress; and uncovered women, veiled women, women fully covered are all welcome and respected here as equally devout Muslims. We accept all.”
   He is conscious of his own Ottoman heritage of extraordinary tolerance. Instead of imposing a uniform legal system or set of customs on the entire empire, the Ottomans generally respected the practices of different religious and ethic groups, and allowed a measure of self-regulation. Jews escaped Christian persecution by emigrating to Ottoman lands.
   In my country, Muslims from all over the world, as well as those Americans born into another faith who convert to Islam, also have the freedom to dress as they wish — but more so.
   But in Turkey, dating back to its formation as a modern secular state, women were prohibited from wearing the headscarf if they wished to attend school or work in a state institution. And men were not allowed to wear the fez.
   To some, secularism in Turkey seems like government hostility to religion. In the US, secularism means religion is protected from government control.
   Of course we Americans have our problems negotiating “church and state.” In disputes over issues like government grants to “faith-based” organizations, some people think that religion and government are too friendly, and others too distant. Sometimes officials, like Lt. Gen. William Boykin a couple years ago, speak in sectarian ways with what seems to others the force of government. But usually we get these problems cleaned up.
   And just as some American Christians are overbearing, not all American Muslims are tolerant. Earlier this year, a Muslim woman called KCUR’s Walt Bodine show to complain that his Muslim woman guest did not wear hijab and therefore could not be a real Muslim.
   Here, near the Euphrates River, I think of the Missouri River, and the interfaith observance I’m supposed to lead as part of the KC Riverfest Independence Day week-end at Berkley Riverfront Park, and I think — more than relics or attire, it may be the attitude of acceptance that makes a site sacred.

564. 050622 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Give me oil and a genie in my lamp

   BERGAMA, Turkey — The shopkeeper offers me chai, the customary tea here, as I rest from exploring the ruins of Pergamon (or Pergamum) high above this modern city.
   Actually, my eye is resting on what looks like an antique oil lamp, exactly the size and shape and age I fancy that brought adventure to Aladdin. Among the many powers possessed by its genie was transporting Aladdin as he wished. Should I buy this lamp, even if it comes with no genie?
    Yesterday it was Ephesus. Similar, both ancient Pergamon and Ephesus flourished with their gods and gymnasiums and commerce and theaters (10,000 seats at Pergamon, 25,000 at Ephesus). Their libraries were surpassed only by the one in Alexandria. Both cities are addressed by the last book in the Christian scriptures, Revelation.
   But the two ancient cities are also different. Ephesus lies on the sea and Pergamon scrapes the clouds, 1300 feet above the Caicus river plain.
   Ephesus was the greatest city of Asia at the time. Ephesus is a huge site, and easy to imagine Paul spending two years here at the beginning of his work advancing Christianity from this cosmopolitan center.
It was at the Ephesus theater that Paul, though not present, caused quite a commotion, according to Acts 19. Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus (I Cor 16:8).
   The city’s patron deity was Artemis, called by Diana by the Romans, but she was worshiped far beyond these precincts. Her temple was the largest of all Greek temples, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. She was, after all, among other things, the goddess of wealth. Though nowadays we enter no temple in her name, worshiping her has continued, I think.
   Pergamon was a cultural and political power for some seven centuries.
   One of its citizens, Galen, born about 130 years after Christ, brought medical science to its apogee, and was especially known for his ability to treat trauma (think gladiators). He build upon the work of his predecessor, Hippocrates, who lived six centuries earlier, after whom the famous medical oath is named, as well as his own research. Galen’s influence persisted over a thousand years, perhaps in part because Christians and Muslims liked his monotheism.
   When he was 20, Galen studied about a mile away at a huge medical complex. It was named the Asclepium, after the Greek god of healing. Its waters for healing still trickle through the site.
   These great cities are astonishing even in waste. Some remains are visible; some persist in our culture. It is not difficult, even without a genie’s help, to imagine these cities in their glory.
   But I would need a genie to show me what might remain the in rubble two thousand years hence of my beloved Kansas City.
   Ah, the chai has been refreshing. Should I buy the lamp?

563. 050615 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Society's soul needs a call to prayer

   KONYA, Turkey — I am sitting on a hill where the huge Alaadin Mosque was begun about 1150, and I hear the adhan, the call to prayer, from its minarets. I am told it is live, not recorded, and it reverberates around the city where the amplified version comes from the many minarets in the area. I time the echo as the muezzin pauses: 5 seconds.
   The muezzin’s voice here is as pure as any I have heard anywhere, a purity so powerful it compels attention. “God is the greatest” is a common way of translating his first phrase; but even without knowing the meaning of the chant, the sound lifts the hearer beyond the ordinary to the realm of ultimacy.
   It is a holy cry. The adhan is a routine that injects the extraordinary into daily living. Tornado sirens alert us to danger, and we think of what is really important to us, what we would save if disaster would strike. The adhan also alerts us to think of what is important, but the adhan announces opportunity, not disaster. It is an opportunity to put our concerns in perspective: nothing can be placed on the same level as God. Wealth, power, fame, pleasure — all must be subordinated to the single Source of life.
   The practice of prayer five times a day rehearses submission to God’s rule, transcending the petty by becoming part of God’s plan. In effect, the muezzin announces holy living.
   The result is not just personal integrity but also social harmony. A whole city hears this witness, as do other cities throughout the Muslim world.
   Paul visited this place, then known as Iconium. The mosque uses Roman pillars from that time. Even earlier the Hittites, mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures in stories from Abraham to Ezra, built here. The mosque complex includes a room into which I peered a few moments ago, a single room entombing the early sultans with utter simplicity. I am told they eschewed personal aggrandizement to serve the people in submission to God.
   And the city is now famous for the shrine to Jalaladin Rumi, the Thirteenth Century Sufi whose utter submission to God as love may be one reason his poetry is popular in America today.
  Also in this city is a dome with the names of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad inscribed, typical of the Muslim motif of integrating the teachings of all known faiths into a universal sphere.
   So I ask myself, with this history and expanse implied in the ultimacy of the muezzin’s awesome call, what would such a cry be like in Kansas City? The secularism of Turkey today allows the call, but does not endorse it. I’m an American honoring the separation of church and state, and a call beyond partisanship and special interests to a single unifying vision seems elusive if not impossible. Yet is it not what the soul in society yearns for?

562. 050608 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Bishop preaches against practice of polarization

    Polarization is a “major disease” of today’s society and even the church, says Bishop Raymond J. Boland, who retired last month as head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. His address to the graduates of Avila College May 14 focused on what he called this “dirty 12-letter word.”
   Boland defined polarization as “the division of our civil society and our religious beliefs into two elements concentrated about opposing extremes.” Polarization causes people to see things in black and white terms, and those who disagree with one’s positions become “implacable enemies.” He said that polarization “is undermining the integrity of both our society and our church.”
   Beginning “with the conviction that I am right and you are wrong,” polarization   escalates itself to the next level which convinces one that one is always right and everybody else is always wrong. “It brims over the top when the elimination of the other seems both desirable and justifiable. It led Christ to the cross.”
   Boland cited examples from history and “current headlines.” Polarization “created the gulags and Belsens and the Katyn Woods of our recent past. It gave birth to the Kamikaze pilot, the suicide bomber, the assassin and the perpetrators of Sept. 11. It erects walls, some to keep people in, others to keep people out; we might say prisons on a grand scale.”
   With a special poignancy, Boland told of his standing “before a 20-foot high wall crowned with spirals of barbed wire as it snaked its way throughout the inner suburbs of Belfast in my native Ireland. The sadness is that the people on both sides of that wall go to church every Sunday and sing exuberantly of the glories of their Christianity: polarization at its worst.”
   He continued, “We have had Hardrian's Wall, the Great Wall of China, the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall, and what have we learned? Apparently not much. We are now building one in the Holy Land.”
   While recognizing the need for a “a code of principles by which to conduct one’s life,” Boland said polarization becomes a critical issue “when it becomes frozen, immovable, arrogant and frequently irrational,” equating “dialogged with weakness” and regarding “diversity as an affront.”
   He warned against clothing polarization in “such rallying cries as patriotism, orthodoxy, freedom and even ‘our God-given rights.’”
   Boland has led Kansas City Catholics in developing relationships with those with whom Catholics might disagree. In return, folks of other faiths have enormous respect and gratitude for the Catholic witness in the community. In avoiding polarization and promoting understanding, Boland has the right to preach what he has practiced so well.

561. 050601 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Religion opens wormholes into sense of transcendence

Both supporters and opponents of intelligent design have severely criticized my last two columns. On one hand they’ve called me “atheist” and, on the other, “Thomist,” after the great medieval theologian. I’m trying to chart a middle ground that respects everyone’s religious beliefs and the integrity of science. The middle ground is such unfamiliar territory for some of readers they think I have to be on one side or the other.
   To summarize those two columns: Those few scientists who say that evolution is undirected, accidental and purposeless are doing theology, not science. And those who find evidence for intelligent design of the world are also doing theology, not science. No scientific proof can be produced to support either interpretation of the evidence. God may or may not be guiding the process of “natural selection.” God may or may not directly intervene in nature with special creation. Such matters are for religion, not science, though science may inform the discussion.
   This discussion arises in a society with little sense of transcendence, of something greater than our limited selves. Instead of transcendence, special interest groups and ideologies compete. Even religious groups are sometimes so focused on their creeds, rules, mission, and governance that they forget the Big Questions and focus instead on details. Thus religion itself is secularized, reducing or breaking a sense of transcendence.
   At their best, religions are worm-holes into transcendence. But the worm-holes are not alike. The Christian worm-hole, for example, generally locates the transcendent beyond this flower or that  business transaction or the erotic arousal. The Christian worm-hole leads, ultimately to the presence of God.
     Zen Buddhism, on the other hand, offers a worm-hole to no god, for no one has created the universe; it has always been evolving. The Zen worm-hole leads us directly back to this flower and that business transaction and the erotic arousal — but freed of the ignorance, the preconceptions and the obsessions that ordinarily cloud our ways of relating to them.
     For many Christians, transcendence is away from the ordinary; for the Zen Buddhists, it is within the ordinary. Both are worm-holes of transcendence because they lead us to something beyond ourselves, to understand ourselves as part of a larger pattern or process, natural or supernatural, God or the Totality of Relationships or the Void.
   Intelligent design could be an attempt to find a scientific worm-hole to transcendence, to find cosmic meaning in the evidence, to say the supernatural affects the natural. But there are other worm-holes to transcendence, such as Egyptian and Indian creation stories which say the world arose from divine desire, not intelligence.
   Among the best worm-holes the faiths offer are compassion and understanding. You can’t prove scientifically that life is worth living. But such worm-holes to transcendence can.

560. 050525 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Answers within us explore faith and transcend science

   Here’s a theological experiment you can do in your kitchen. First some science. Bring water to boil and pour it into a container into which you mix as much salt as will dissolve. Pour the solution into a clean jar and suspend a thread into the water from a pencil resting on the rim. Cover the mouth of the jar with paper and tape it shut. Let sit for 15 minutes, then swish. After 15 minutes more, repeat. Swish one last time an hour later. Then for several days watch cubic crystals grow on the string. Complete directions can be found at
   You can observe that even inanimate matter like NaCl, sodium chloride (salt), has what appears to be a self-organizing, self-replicating property. Since it is nearly summer, it is pleasant to think about the six-sided snowflake, shaped by the physical properties of the water molecule, another self-organizing crystal. Even DNA, a basic material and set of instructions for life, is crystal-like, and organizes itself and directs the processes of growth.
   So much for science. Now the theology. You have to look not at the salt crystal, but within yourself.
   Is God directing the salt to move toward the thread and grow? Did God design H2O so that water crystals would be so beautiful and varied? When researchers in 1953 threw some watery chemicals together and passed electric charge through the mix and amino acids developed, was that accidental or orchestrated by God? Is it chance that water is liquid in exactly the tiny range (0-100° C), less than one millionth of the temperature spectrum, that makes life as we know it possible?
   We can agree on the data. But the answers you find within yourself to these questions may not convince others. The inner answers explore the realm of faith, not facts. They transcend science.
   When those few irresponsible scientists say evolution is accidental, undirected and purposeless, they are speaking theologically, not scientifically. And when Intelligent Design folks look at the same evidence and find it to be intelligently designed, they are not doing science; they are doing theology. One reader sent me a theory of Stupid Design to account for errors in human anatomy. Intelligent or stupid? It’s a theological, not scientific, question.
   To cut to the chase, as another reader wrote, the real question is “whether life has meaning or not.”
   I think the ID folks are saying something with their body language liberals need to hear. They are saying that what they see as design shows that the universe has purpose, life has meaning, there is something beyond our ordinary pursuits, and we have a place in the plan. Our super-secularistic society gives us few opportunities to discuss such large questions, so they arise in strange places, perhaps even in kitchens. We’ll explore such questions of transcendence next week.

559. 050518 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Evolution argument can't afford certainty

      Using a No. 2 pencil, I filled in the answer sheet for the standardized high school biology exam some 38 years ago. But I put asterisks by my marks for the evolution questions and at the bottom of the sheet wrote something like, “I am answering according to the text book because I want a good grade, but I do not believe in evolution. I believe the Bible rather than the godless scientists.” My teacher later said I scored the highest in the city (Omaha).
   I quit college in my sophomore year because I wanted to spend a full semester researching how science and religion affect each other. I learned that many scientists have been inspired by religious concerns, and theologians have sometimes integrated developing scientific theories into their work. I also learned that both science and religion are shaped by the culture in which they grow, and that claims to objectivity are often overdrawn. While stories and faith may be the usual way to communicate religious truths, and math and facts may be better for science, the boundaries between the two are sometimes fuzzy.
   In my doctoral studies and ministerial career ever since, I have continued to examine this topic.
   I offer these autobiographical hints so you will not think my conclusion is sudden or thoughtless. My conclusion is that absolute certainty about such matters is premature.
   That is why I suspect it is a mistake for some scientists to claim that evolution is undirected, accidental and purposeless. No scientific experiment can decide whether this is correct. The claim is theological, not scientific.
   Similarly I suspect it is an error for proponents of intelligent design to claim their theory is scientific. The complexity of a cell or the specialized function of a bacterium tail proves nothing that cannot be accounted for by science. Intelligent design is theology again, not science.
   The ancient Greek stories of the gods in conflict with each other arose from a world of caprice, not design. The gods’ whims resulted in savage storms, changed the outcome of battles and explained stupid love situations. In other traditions, the world is made by a half-witted god; no intelligent being would design a world with earthquakes and droughts; the creator is a  bungler. Other faiths have no creator at all; the world was not planned so much as it evolved.
   The human appendix, the fragility of the spine, the presence of the virus that causes the common cold, our susceptibility to cancer—these are not obvious evidences for intelligent design. Some animals survive by eating others ferociously, inflicting pain, tearing apart the body of the victim. Perhaps it would have been more intelligent to design a universe with necessary nutrients dissolved in accessible pond water.
   Nonetheless, I think the intelligent design folks are on to something critically important for faith that the evolutionists often ignore, and I’ll write about that next week.

558. 050511 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
One view not enough in a diverse society

 Several readers of last week’s column scoffed at the idea that religious verity could be anything but absolute. Yet the Bible contains passages suggesting that what is right in one situation or for one person might be wrong otherwise.
   A famous example from Ecclesiastes 3 says that “To everything there is a season . . . a time to kill, a time to heal . . . a time to mourn, a time to dance . . . a time to love, and a time to hate . . . .” What is right in one circumstance is wrong in another.
   Paul in Romans 14:14, expresses the notion of subjective truth: “I am persuaded, as a Christian, that nothing is impure in itself; only if a man considers a particular thing impure, then to him it is impure.”
   I’ve previously noted the example of Jesus violating the law of the sabbath when his disciples were hungry (Matthew 12:1-6, Mark 2:23-27; Luke 6:1-4).
   In the Christian tradition, many have observed that the Bible can be used to “prove” almost anything. The hundreds of Christian denominations have in part arisen from folks who can’t agree on what the Bible means.
   While there may be absolute truths and objective moral principals, the human problem is knowing when to apply which ones in actual situations. For this reason, in the practical realm, I personally don’t find the argument over whether truth is absolute or relative very helpful. And since other faiths also offer varied perspectives, we might be chastened into modesty about our own views.
   However, for many folks, adhering to the principle of absolute truth is so important that they seek to bring such truth into public policy. An example is the work of the Rev. Jerry Johnson, pastor of First Family Church in Overland Park. Johnston was identified as one of the most important ministers in America today by Nick Haines, KCPT-TV’s Executive Producer for Public Affairs/News, during a taping in cooperation with Ingram’s Magazine of a roundtable discussion about science and religion. The show, with a dozen politicians, ethicists, clergy and scientists interested in stem-cell research, airs 7:30 pm this Friday.
   Johnston and I sparred over whether the Bible declares that abortion is the taking of a human life. Johnston cited no scripture; I cited Exodus 21:22-23.
   Theologians disagree when life as a person begins—conception, implantation, viability, birth? Even within a tradition, views seem to change. Guided by Aquinas, Catholics used to think a fetus did not become a person until 40 days after conception; but since 1869 Catholics have generally understood human life to begin at conception.
    But for me the question before the roundtable and before you, dear reader, is not who is right, but whether the view of any particular faith about absolute truth should be enshrined in law governing a pluralistic society.

557. 050504 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Questions of absolute and relative truth abound

Is religious truth absolute or relative?
   To explore this question, we must use terms carefully. Absolutism means that truth does not depend on time, place, or circumstance; relativism says it does.
   These terms should not be confused with another pair, objective and subjective. We can fairly easily settle an argument about whether the Royals won the World Series in 1985, but it is harder to decide whether William Whitener’s “Haven,” performed this week by the KC Ballet, is his best work. The Royals question is about an objective fact, settled by consulting baseball records; the ballet question is subjective and to some extent depends “on the eye of the beholder,” and for that reason may be the more interesting and difficult question.
   Almost 2500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Protagoras advanced a philosophy of relativism when he said that “man is the measure of all things,” meaning that standards are created by humans, not by gods. But another Greek of the same era, Xenophanes, identified a problem with relativism when he noticed that “Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black; Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired.” If horses could draw, their gods would look like horses.
   Today’s Christian equivalent might be found in the disparity between Warner Sallman’s traditional portrait of Jesus, sometimes criticized as effeminate, and Stephen S. Sawyer’s pugilistic painting of Jesus “Undefeated.” Which is the truer image of Christ? Absolutists might say that Christ is beyond any human representation of him.
   If there is absolute truth, can it be expressed without being shaped by the language and culture which seeks to receive it? The disputes and revisions in the creeds and liturgies over two thousand years of Christendom display this difficulty.
   Muslims who believe that God spoke in Arabic to deliver the Qur’an recommend learning the language in order to most clearly hear God’s voice. Buddhists and Taoists, on the other hand, say it is impossible for any language to articulate the absolute. The Hebrews were warned against making images of God, and some Jews today will not even write the word; instead they spell “G-d.” Some Sikhs say sat, truth, cannot be spoken but can be experienced.
   Perhaps there are two kinds of absolutists, those who believe absolute truth is so great it cannot be spoken, and those who use their conceptions of absolute truth in exercising power. Communists, Nazis, terrorists, and leaders of cults like the Branch Davidians are willing to die and cause others to die for their absolute truth.
   Relativists, on the other hand, can be accused of starting very few wars. They seem less likely to force their views on others, but they may not sufficiently recognize the need in the human heart for transcendence.
    Perhaps it is better to ask whether truth is absolute or relative than to answer.

556. 050427 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Compassionate thread runs through Lotus Sutra

A great rain of flowers fell. From between his eyebrows a beam of light shone forth, illuminating every corner of the entire cosmos. Kings, sages, even gods assembled in wonder in his presence. One murmured, “What is the meaning of these auspicious signs?” The answer came. “The Buddha is about to teach the law of the universe.”
   So begins the Lotus Sutra, a landmark in world religious thought. “Sutra” derives from the Sanskrit for “thread,” related to our word “suture.” Scores of Buddhist scriptures are called sutras because they “thread” an idea through the writing, like some email clients.
   And what an idea explodes in the Lotus Sutra! Where Buddhism previously was a practice mainly for monks and nuns, now the Buddha revealed salvation for everyone. Before, the Buddha was understood as a historical figure. Now the Buddha became the essential grace of the universe itself, an all-pervasive energy drawing us toward enlightenment. Before, the ideal of the faith was an arhat, an individual who, by his own effort, freed himself from the defilements of addictive behavior and afflictive emotions, for his own benefit. Now the ideal was the bodhisattva, whose efforts seek to relieve others of suffering even at the cost of remaining in the sphere of suffering oneself.
   These revolutionary notions created the newer form of Buddhism, Mahayana, from the older branch, Theravada. The power of the Lotus Sutra is commemorated by a stele (identified as 37-27) in the early Buddhist sculpture gallery of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The entire gallery displays the sudden blossoming of the Buddhist faith resulting from this scripture.
   Like Jesus, the Buddha of the Lotus Sutra conveys wisdom through parables, one of which is a version of the Prodigal Son. Most of these Buddhist parables seek to show why this new teaching was not uttered by the historical Buddha. In The Lotus Sutra Prodigal Son, for example, the story has an extended psychological account of the father working for many years along side of the son who does not recognize him. When the son at last is able to contemplate the truth about their relationship, it is revealed to him, as finally the Buddha reveals the truth about his compassionate relationship to all beings.
   Perhaps the most famous parable is of the father returning home to see his children in the window playing with toys unaware that they are about to be engulfed in flames. The father’s efforts to explain the danger are futile because the children do not know what fire is. So he tells them he has better toys for them if they will only come outside. All forgive the lie because lives are saved thereby. Similarly, the original Buddhist teachings are enticements to escape the perils of existence, but now the Buddha explained the true nature of existence: our salvation is in saving others.

555. 050420 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Inside a large and holy circle with Huston Smith

   MARSHALL, Mo.— I first met Huston Smith in 1969, and every time since that I have been in his presence, I’ve felt something extraordinary. But never so extraordinary as now, with Smith, 85, holding on to my arm as he silently, eyes closed, honors his parents at their graves in the cemetery here behind Smith Chapel Methodist Church.
   Though Missourians can make a special claim, Smith, of course, belongs to the world. He studied with teachers of the world’s great religious traditions and became a great teacher himself. His 1958 book, The World’s Religions, has sold millions of copies. In 1996, Public Television’s Bill Moyers produced a  5-hour series on Smith’s life and the wisdom Smith finds in the world’s faiths.
   Although Smith was born in China to Methodist missionaries, his Missouri connections are many, including graduating, like his father, from Central Methodist College near here. One of his teachers was a protege of one of my teachers, Henry Nelson Wieman, a naturalistic theist at the University of Chicago. For his doctoral work, Smith went to Chicago and studied with Wieman, as “an ardent a disciple as he ever had.
   “I thought there was nothing better than Wieman’s theology. Then I met Wieman’s daughter. She was better than Wieman’s theology.” She and Smith married, and Smith’s own theology began to resonate more strongly with the mystics.
   In 1969 Smith returned to Chicago, back from Tibet with documentary proof of what his M.I.T. colleagues said was impossible: monks singly able to vocalize chants in three tones at the same time. Today Smith said, “That is my one contribution to empirical studies,” ignoring the multitude of scholarly and spiritual blessings he has given the world.
   Raytown’s Harold Johnson, a retired Methodist minister who served Smith Chapel 1963-66 and who arranged the drive from KCI for Smith and invited me along, asked Smith about his current religious perspectives. Smith talked about his long friendships with the Dalai Lama and other religious figures. His children’s involvement in faiths from Judaism to American Indian spirituality have made religious diversity a realm he has mastered personally as well as academically.
   But Smith remains a Methodist who does yoga as a Hindu might, who prays five times a day as a Muslim might and practices other traditions. Why? “These are my spiritual vitamins,” Smith says. Smith is disturbed by homophobia in his and other churches, but his 16th book, due in September, is called The Soul of Christianity: Reclaiming the Great Tradition.
   Earlier in the car Smith talked about the love and the wit that draws circles ever wider to include everyone. Here at the graves, at this moment in history, at this spot on the planet, I am in his vibrant presence. It seems he touches the infinite. He draws a large and holy circle.

554. 050413 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Pope John Paul II moved beyond divisions

The Kansas City Interfaith Council is one of Pope John Paul II's children. Here is how it happened.
   In 1986, in the town where St. Francis was born, Assisi, the pope gathered leaders of many of the world’s faiths to pray for peace. To them he said, “Either we learn to walk together in peace and harmony, or we drift apart and ruin ourselves and others.”
   The meeting was controversial. Traditionalists warned of syncretism, the heresy of blending the beliefs and practices of various faiths together. The pope was criticized for recognizing pagans.
   But the pope’s leadership inspired others. A year later, a Buddhist leader organized an interfaith gathering at Mt. Hiei, Japan, “in the spirit of Assisi.”
   The next year, 1988, religious leaders pursuing interfaith work on this continent planned “A North American Assisi.” As the pope selected a location other than Rome for his gathering, so the planning committee, on which I was privileged to serve, decided on a location less obvious than Washington or New York or San Francisco. The October conference was held in Wichita, which also has an accessible American Indian center.
   Except for the host city, the largest delegation came from the Kansas City area. They decided that the energy, enlightenment and good will from the Wichita conference should be manifested in Kansas City.
They joined with others whose friendships had developed from an annual Thanksgiving Sunday interfaith ritual meal begun here in 1985 to give birth to the Kansas City Interfaith Council in 1989, at the Overland Park Marriott Hotel.
   While all the faiths have worked well together, the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph was especially deliberate in its fulfillment of the interfaith directions of its own Millennium Report, evidence of the impact of John Paul’s vision here.
   The pope’s global outreach, including friendship with the Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, unprecedented visits to a Jewish synagogue and a Muslim mosque, his praise of Hinduism and his efforts to heal relations with other branches of Christianity, including the 1054 breach with the Orthodox, affirm not agreement but “partnership for the good of the human family.” Our own local community, perhaps in adolescence, is now learning such kinship beyond creed.
   The biggest interfaith problem the next pope may face, as we face here, is how religions in  pluralistic societies can avoid imposing their views on those of other faiths when convictions about issues like stem cell research, war, capital punishment, contraception, abortion, gambling, economic disparity and homosexuality have become entwined with public policy. Local and global solutions to this problem may seem impossible, but John Paul moved us ahead, beyond centuries-old enmities. His nurturing can help us all grow up.

Make Breakfast inclusive

    Some years ago my respect for Jewish friends, and my desire to express solidarity with them, led me to stop attending the annual Overland Park Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast. But as a former resident of Overland Park, I also developed great admiration for Mayor Ed Eilert. So I thought this, his last year in office after serving 24 years so well, I would attend the March 24 breakfast. And I was also curious to see if, in the intervening years, the explicit and exclusive Christian setting had been modified.
   Of course there is nothing illegal about the Christian Businessmen’s Committee inviting a mayor to such a prayer breakfast. People have the right to exercise their faith and to freely assemble. But when an event is held using the title of a government official whose photo is on the printed program, I get queasy, as I wrote in this space Feb. 23.
   As I entered, I did not see any signs saying “No Jews, Muslims or Hindus allowed,” but the  no-choice breakfast plate served with bacon to each of the 600 of us left little doubt that the dietary restrictions of some observing the practices of those faiths were unimportant to the breakfast planners.
   Homeowner association covenants restricting property purchase by Jews and blacks can no longer be enforced, but I saw no person of color present. If you were a white Christian, this may just have been the place for you. But Overland Park encompasses people of many ethnic backgrounds and religious traditions from A to Z, American Indian to Zoroastrian.
   It is true that the breakfast program from beginning to end was inspiring. The featured speaker had a powerful personal story to tell about his Christian faith. His presentation ended with a strong invitation to all of those present who had not already given their lives to Christ to do so right then. While not all Christians are comfortable with an “altar call,” no one would want to question the speakers’ sincerity and good will.
   But our community has equally gripping stories of a Tibetan monk in great peril who escaped Communist rule, of Jews who survived the Holocaust, of a black man whose career was shaped in part by seeing as a child a black man dragged behind a truck to his death because he asked his boss not to “bother” his wife anymore, of a Muslim assaulted by prejudice—folks of every faith with remarkable stories now contributing to our community.
   This has been a difficult column for me to write because so many of the people involved in that breakfast are my friends. But it is my duty to ask, “What kind of city do you want? Do you want to model bringing people together or, in a quasi-civic function, convey exclusivity?”
    The person elected mayor overnight, or the Christian Businessmen’s Committee, may want to rethink the custom of placing the aura of office around an affair that leaves so many wonderful citizens unable to share an annual breakfast together.

552. 050330 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Respect for others' needs is important

    People have different religious views of the tragic circumstances of the Terri Schiavo story. Those who say that all faiths are basically the same are rebutted by equally sincere arguments about life and death by the opposing parties.
   Folks often forget religions can lead to very different behaviors. In Islam, suicide is never justified. In Buddhism, certain situations require it. In Catholic teaching, abortion is wrong; in some Jewish thought, it is obligatory in some circumstances. While same-sex marriage was honored as especially spiritual in some American Indian tribes, it is condemned today by a number of Christian churches.
   While neither of the following two ancient stories deals with feeding tubes, they illustrate different kinds of faith experiences. Just as the Shiavo case elicits different opinions, so how these stories are evaluated depends on the person.
   * The first story is told in Christian scriptures, Mark 5 and Luke 8. Jairus, the president of the synagogue, begged Jesus to go to his house where his daughter was sick, dying. Before Jesus could get there, someone from the home appeared with the news that the girl had died. Jesus said, “Only show faith and she will be well again.” When Jesus entered the home, people laughed at Jesus for saying she was not dead but only sleeping. Jesus took her hand and said, “Get up, my child.” She arose.
   * The second story is told in various Buddhist writings. Kisa Gotami had one child. One day her boy suddenly appeared to be dead. She could not believe this, and carried him in her arms wherever she went, seeking medicine to make him well. People thought she was crazy with her grief. Someone told her about the Buddha. When she found him, she asked the Buddha to cure her son. The Buddha said, “Bring me a mustard seed from a home where no one has ever lost a parent, a spouse, a friend, or a child.”
   She went to the first house she saw and inquired for such a seed. But she was told that death had visited that family. The same thing happened at the next house, and the next. She went to the next village, and the next, always with the same result. Finally she began to understand. “How selfish I am in my grief; death is common to all humanity.” She buried her son, returned to the Buddha and asked him to teach her.
   The first story uplifts the possibility of miracle and the hope many Christians have in personal resurrection. The second story illustrates the Buddhist way of coming to terms with what is considered the human condition of suffering.
   Which story is more comforting depends on the needs of the person involved. A respect for individual sensibilities in a tragic situation will prevent us from assuming that what is helpful for us will be helpful for others.

551. 050323 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Contemplation and action may reinforce each other

My experience of Lent has been deepened this year by sharing it with the good people at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd. The folks there invited me to spend the last five Wednesdays with them exploring a question which appeared in this column last November — How do we choose between enjoying the blessings about us and responding to the suffering also so evident in the world?
   It is an ancient dilemma. Aristotle argued that the contemplative life was superior to the life of action. And while most of us choose not to withdraw from the world, Lent has become a season of self-denial and introspection.
   The folks were eager to examine parallels to this question in other faiths as a way of illumining the Christian story.
   For example, we looked at two different Buddhist ideals, both supremely represented at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. An early Buddhist “hero,” an arhat, is one who leaves ordinary pursuits to seek enlightenment by himself, through his own efforts, for his own benefit. A later Buddhist image, a bodhisattva, chooses rather to postpone his own satisfaction in order to rescue others from suffering.Comparing and contrasting this ideal to Jesus, who gave his life for others, suggests that the tension between savoring one’s blessings and saving others may be a universal dilemma.
   But when we looked at the Muslim Hajj, the Pilgrimage, we discovered that what seems to be a time of separation from ordinary routine, travel to Mecca with an introspective purpose, actually leads to deeper immersion in the community as one returns home. The pilgrim is renewed as one shares the benefits of the experience with others. The community is enriched thereby. In the Christian story, Jesus’ separation from others during his 40 days in the wilderness did not end the story; it was a preparation for his ministry.
   Through such examples, we began to see that contemplation and action may mutually strengthen each other. Martin Luther King Jr required his followers to undergo inner purification before engaging in social confrontation.
   Gandhi, the Hindu leader, saved partitioned India from endless violence by fasting almost to death. In one version of the story, a Hindu threw a piece of bread on Gandhi’s cot and said, “Eat! I am going to hell, but not with your death on me.” He had smashed a Muslim boy’s head against a wall in revenge for Muslims killing his son. Gandhi, barely able to speak, responded. “I will show you a way out of hell. Find a Muslim boy whose parents have been killed in this violence and raise him as your own. But be sure to raise him as a Muslim.”
   These faiths teach that beauty and suffering are entwined in one reality. The Christian resurrection is possible only because of crucifixion. In our final discussion, the folks at the church convinced me that we all can rise with the joy of service.

550. 050316 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Alliance shows power of praying

Over  a career as a clergyman, and before that, as a laymen, I’ve been to my share of prayer breakfasts. None surpasses last Thursday’s breakfast held by the Raytown Community Inter-Faith Alliance. Most prayer breakfasts, frankly, look a bit like posturing for one another and staging for the Lord. Speeches, awards and pageantry often overshadow prayer. But in Raytown they pray without pretensions.
   Public prayer is not easy these days. America’s promise of religious liberty has been fulfilled by making us perhaps the most religiously diverse nation in the world. But we have not yet learned how to come together from that diversity and pray together.
   Praying together is so important to Raytown Mayor Sue Frank that she assisted the Alliance to sponsor the event when the Crossroads Chamber of Commerce could no longer do so.
   Alliance president Michael Stephens, pastor of Southwood United Church of Christ, opened this year’s breakfast with an invocation that might have been uttered by inhabitants of this land hundreds of years ago, before Europeans and their descendants came to this place. Though the idiom was American Indian, its spirit was universal.
   Holly McKissick, pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church in Olathe, was the featured speaker. Her theme also was universal, found in every faith: the importance of forgiveness. Regardless of our political views, religious affiliations, economic status, race or sexual orientation, she spoke to all of us and for all of us.
   Harold Johnson, chairman of the event, had invited me, but—perhaps deliberately—did not prepare me for the most interesting form of community prayer I’ve seen at a prayer breakfast.
   Here’s how it worked. Before the speaker came to the platform, people at their tables were asked to form teams of six to write their local, national and global prayer requests on yellow, green and orange cards.  Folks from different backgrounds and viewpoints shared the sacred desires in their hearts with each other.
   During the address, the cards were collected and arranged.
   Following the inspiration McKissick provided, David Cliburn, pastor of Blue Ridge Presbyterian, appeared with the cards and invited us to pray. Skillfully incorporating the collected concerns of the heart, Cliburn gave voice to the community’s heart. The specific longings shared in the small teams were repeated and powerfully amplified as we heard them become one, united with the other aspirations of the community. That it itself was an answer to prayer.
   It is easy for a person to pray on one’s own behalf, and others can listen to such a prayer. But it is difficult for one person truly to pray on behalf of hundreds of people from different faiths and sundry concerns. The Raytown Alliance has found a way to do this. It demonstrates, as someone has said, that diversity is not a problem; it is a gift.

549. 050309 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Relativity by a poet

One hundred years ago this year Albert Einstein (1879-1955) published what we now call the special theory of relativity. While Isaac Newton (1642-1727) assumed that space and time were absolute, Einstein showed that their measurements varied relative to one’s frame of reference.
   But Einstein was not the first to challenge Newton. The religious poet William Blake (1757-1827) ranted against the Newton’s picture of the universe. More about Blake shortly.
   Newton’s importance was proclaimed by an earlier poet, Alexander Pope (1688-1744). Hinting at Newton’s famous experiment with light passing through a prism to reveal the colors of the rainbow, Pope made Newton part of God’s plan: “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:/ God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.”
   Blake mimicked Pope with irony: “God appears and God is light/ To those poor souls who dwell in night/ But does a human form display/ To those who dwell in realms of day.”
   In other words, Blake insisted that the universe must be understood in human terms, not in the abstractions and equations of Newton. This is why Jesus was paradigmatic for Blake: God took human form.
   Newton was not conventionally religious — his Unitarian views impeded his university preferment — but he certainly was religious. He studied the Bible carefully and wrote copiously about the Apocalypse.
But he would not publish his theological writings.
   So Blake knew Newton from the science attributed to him: Newtonian atoms are inert, insensible, solid and in themselves static. Newton’s laws of motion describe how these particles interact, predictably, deterministically, independent of the observer. The world was a giant machine. Newton’s interpreters argued that only those things accountable by his theories were real; everything else was merely subjective.
   Instead Blake saw an organic universe, projected by the observer. For Blake, reality was found not in Newton’s general laws but in the “minute particulars” of life. The individual was most real, not Newton’s “abstract non-entities.” Blake wanted “To see a world in a grain of sand/ And a heaven in a wild flower,/ Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ And eternity in an hour.”
   Against the Newton’s method, Blake wrote, “To teach doubt and experiment/ Certainly was not what Christ meant.” Blake’s method was vision, belief, imagination. At the extreme, Blake saw the whole universe alive: “If the sun and moon should doubt/ They’d immediately go out.”
   Einstein’s imagination — his “thought experiments” — led him to discard Newton’s absolute space and time and recognize the centrality of the observer’s frame of reference. Einstein used tensor mathematics; Blake used rhyme, and called this relational universe “infinite and holy.”

548. 050302 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Rotary clubs foster community relationships

I’m a week late — Rotary’s 100th anniversary was last Wednesday — but I’d like to promote the thesis that Rotary and other service clubs are part of the spiritual life of humanity.
   I did not understand this when Dick Ray, who advertised himself as “the Master Plumber,” told me shortly after I arrived in Kansas City thirty years ago that I should be a Rotarian. Thinking I was too busy to join a club, I decided to accept his invitation to a meeting only as a courtesy to him.
   I discovered that the programs and the members offered a way to learn about, and to contribute to, the life of the community. Soon I was making Rotary a priority.
   As part of my application for membership, I met with several in the Club. One who knew very well that I was a minister said, in effect, that Rotary was, in a way, his religion. I was surprised with his assessment. But Rotary has become part of my spiritual practice as well.
   It is a practice that transcends any particular faith. Rotary, the world’s first service club, began Feb. 23, 1905, in Chicago with four people. It now extends to 31,000 clubs in 166 countries with 1.2 million members — Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and others. What transcends any particular faith? An answer is in the three-word Rotary phrase, “Service above self.”
   Every religion teaches us to move beyond selfish preoccupation. Rotary has provided many models for doing this. The first Rotary service project seems amusing to us now, but “the Master Plumber” would have approved. In 1907, the Rotary Club gave Chicago its first comfort station.
   I’ve been inspired by my fellow Rotarians as they have built up the community through efforts such as the Kansas City Club’s Rotary Youth Camp and the Overland Park Club’s Youth Leadership Institute.
Staying with a Zoroastrian Rotarian in Agra, India, and receiving Russian Rotarians here helped me see how Rotary makes the whole world our community.
   Internationally, Rotary has financed the eradication of polio from the planet by inoculating children, with 500 million dollars raised for this cause alone. Now  99% of the world is free of this scourge. Since 1947, Rotary has given over 1.1 billion dollars in humanitarian and educational grants. The Rotary scholarships, designed to promote international understanding, are the most generous offered by any charitable organization. Rotary assisted in the creation of the United Nations.
   The ethical accent of Rotary is summarized in the “Four-Way Test”: Is it the truth? Is in fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
   Through acquaintance with others, Rotary has found a way to embrace folks of all faiths as worthy participants in the human enterprise. That’s quite a spiritual achievement, and Dick knew it.

547. 050223 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Prayer breakfasts should be a place for all

Prayer breakfasts in the name of government officials have always made me a bit queasy — for two reasons, one specifically Biblical, and one respecting the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.
  First the Biblical reason. Jesus said, “And when thou prayest, Matt 6:6 be not like hypocrites who love to stand in houses of worship and street corners, to show off in public. . . . But when you pray, go into a room by yourself and shut the door behind you.” (Matt. 6:5-6.) Jesus appears to warn against the public prayer because it can be for show and prefers the private prayer because it is more likely to be sincere.
   Second, the U.S. Constitution protects our religious freedom. History and evidence in the world today suggest that religion flourishes best without government entanglement. However, I do not think that privately funded organizations sponsoring prayer breakfasts automatically violate that principle even when government officials participate. I think our elected leaders have the right to exercise their religious freedoms, too.
   I don’t even object when, as in Kansas City, the Mayors’ Prayer Breakfast prints a picture of the legend of George Washington praying at Valley Forge on the cover of the printed program and displays a large version in front of the head table. There may be no more historical justification for this scene than for the fable of Washington chopping down the cherry tree, but I appreciate the desire to impute spiritual practices and wisdom to those who lead us even though I know some want to use the image as support for a disputed understanding of the role religion played in the founding of our nation.
   However, a line is crossed when a prayer breakfast becomes partisan. And that is what many folk feel happened Feb. 11 this year when the speaker appeared to endorse a particular religious perspective on last November’s election. Not only were an array of political positions advanced by the speaker, but folks of Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and other faiths were offended by what they perceived to be the speakers’ failure to recognize the religious pluralism represented among the thousand or more guests.
   This is not the first year that the Mayors’ Breakfast has been marred by partisanship or religious insensitivity. For example, in 2002, the mayor, in a magnificent and inspiring gesture, asked members of a particular minority faith to stand and be welcomed, and warmly welcomed they were. The program was beautiful. But at the very end, the person about to give the benediction introduced it by saying that she would use the occasion to proclaim the one true faith.
   There is a time and a place for her, but the Mayors’ Prayer Breakfast is not it. We should reclaim this event to celebrate our diversity of faiths and our unity as Heartland Americans.

546. 050216 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Love, romance can be spiritual, too

Valentine’s Day is over, but our desire to love and be loved persists. Monday’s festivities were more likely to be celebrations of romantic love than, say, cosmic or spiritual love, but they may be joined in some way, even though romantic love sometimes seems fickle.
   Romantic love is a relatively new form of affection which the West learned from the Arabs through the troubadours. While eroticism is a strong element in such love, it also is a spiritual engine. It powerfully appeared in Christian thought in the 14th century when Dante, following a Muslim model, found in his beloved Beatrice the path to God.
   In 1633, in one of the most astonishing poems in the English language, John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, pleads with God as a lover betrothed to another: “for I, / Except You enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.”
    Countless examples in religious literature display the intimacy of the erotic with the spiritual. Is it any wonder that lovers in the act of passion exclaim, “O God!”?
   So while physicists may say the universe is composed of vibrating strings, or quarks, or atoms, or various forms of energy, religions often teach that the universe is made of love.
   This love is not exactly blind, but it is fallible as it quivers, yearning for connection at every level of existence, from electron and proton, to electorate and leader, to devotee and divinity. From molecules to cells to organisms to society, a ladder of lures leads toward transcendence when we know and are known, but not by name, age, job, wealth, personality or any other description or social identity. Lovers are intrigued by the infinite mystery that paradoxically opens beyond what can be known as they come to know each other fully. The revelation of love is in what cannot be said but the body can arouse.
   And so it is with the body of the world itself. When one falls in love with the cosmos, with its death camps and tsunamis and loneliness as well as its constellations and symphonies and flowers, then one moves beyond dread and delight into a spirit with all the frenzy of orgasm and all the chastity of death.
   This is holy love, what the mystics of many faiths teach, or rather point to, since it evades language and perplexes our ordinary ways of thinking.
   And yet it is accessible. It is intimated in puppy love and manifested in the lives of Jeremiah, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and others, ancient and modern. Even the business handshake arises from the urge for connection, a faint iteration of love’s cosmic claim.
   It is written in 1 John 4:7-8, “Everyone that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God . . . for God is love.” Perhaps, through trial and error, each of us, and humanity itself, can learn what this means — if, as the Persian poet Hafiz, suggests, we see everyone as God’s guests on His “jeweled dance floor” to which we ourselves have been invited.

545. 050209 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Many interfaith events in offing

Last week I wrote about a remarkable interfaith dinner. Readers have asked me about other interfaith programs and opportunities. Here is a partial catalogue. These groups and activities are not only religiously inclusive but also designed to explore religious pluralism.
   1. Kansas City Harmony offers an annual interfaith concert. Harmony’s “Congregational Partners” program enables congregations of different faiths to develop an ongoing relationship.
   2. NCCJ, the National Conference for Community and Justice, offers programs for youth and consultation for businesses that include attention to interfaith understanding. One program each year, “Journey to Understanding,” involves 50 high school students from Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, American Indian and Freethinker traditions in a day-long workshop to heal prejudice and celebrate wisdom from each faith.
   3. “The Hindu and the Cowboy and Other Kansas City Stories” is a play presented in various venues that grew out of the 2001 “Gifts of Pluralism” conference.
   4. The annual Martin Luther King observance at Community Christian Church brings folks together from many faiths.
   5. Each Dec. 31 at 6 am, a “World Peace Celebration” is held at the Rime Buddhist Center. It includes prayers, music and rituals from diverse traditions.
   6. The Season for Non-Violence, an observance of 64 days between the memorial anniversaries of Gandhi and King, is hosted in Kansas City by the Center for Spiritual Living, and is deliberately interfaith in its offerings.
   7. Groups like the National Council of Jewish Women sometimes offer interfaith programs. The next such NCJW program, lunch with Jewish, Christian and Muslim speakers, is Mar. 2 at the Overland Park Marriott Hotel.
   8. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving my organization, CRES, presents a full meal in liturgical style with speakers from American Indian, Bahá'í, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, Sikh, Sufi, Unitarian Universalist, Zoroastrian and Freethinker traditions.
   9. In cooperation with the Kansas City Interfaith Council, CRES offers a workshop for clergy and lay-leaders May 11 at the Nazarene Theological School to introduce the faiths of Kansas City and several non-Christian leaders.
   Nowadays hospitals, schools, religious organizations and others are helping us all to recognizing the faiths of our neighbors through a variety of special programs.
   How to learn about these and other activities? — Watch The Kansas City Star Saturday faith page. In addition, my organization’s web calendar at attempts to list every interfaith event about which we learn. Let me know if something’s missing!

544. 050202 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Grassroots gathering promotes interfaith peace - and joy

 “Aren’t you surprised that we have nearly 500 registrations and over a hundred people on the waiting list?” one of the organizers of last Sunday’s “Salaam Shalom” event asked me a couple weeks ago.
“No,” I said. “People here are hungry for opportunities to affirm their kinship with folk of other faiths.” The Arabic and Hebrew words for “peace” joined together to name the event was a perfect moniker for such an expansive aspiration.
   But I was surprised by the event itself. I’ve been doing interfaith work here for twenty years and never seen anything like it.
   No organization could have created it, and the individuals who put it together wisely avoided institutional sponsorship. This was an event of the people, by the people and for the people. All people.
Christians, Jews, Muslims, certainly, and folks from the dozen or so other faiths in our town were also represented.
   And Kansas City Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Brooks and Leawood Mayor Peggy Dunn brought both sides of the state line together. Here is the scene:
   The Alpine Lodge in Leawood’s Ironwood Park is crowded with folks mingling as they eat arguably the best hummus in the world and other amazing kosher-style, halal and vegetarian food prepared by chefs from 7,000 miles away. At one point, the middle of the floor is cleared and folks begin circle dancing. Then one person, then another, and another, is lifted in a dancing chair above the others as the celebration gains almost ecstatic pitch.
   When a Jewish person suddenly takes ill and the Med-Act team is called to treat him, a Muslim leader calls for prayers in Hebrew and Arabic for his health. The crowd becomes one family.
  This may be the most important interfaith event in the Heartland since the Sept. 11, 2002, observances of that horrible day the year before, or even since the “Gifts of Pluralism” conference in October, 2001.
   It is no secret there have been tensions between some people in some religious communities. Several years ago, a leader in a non-Muslim tradition asked me to lunch. I was startled when he said, “I would like to meet one Muslim who is not a terrorist.” That person was at the dinner Sunday night and had ample opportunity for that wish to be fulfilled.
   Not every misunderstanding was resolved. There remains much work to do. But the conversation of good will, the hugs, the picture-taking, the fun together, the invitations to get together later — a spiritual success!
   Co-chairs Gayle Krigel, Mahnaz Shabbir and Nick Awad are determined that such interfaith understanding must continue. We cannot return to suspicion and isolation from one another, having a taste of such hummus and kinship and even affection.

543. 050126 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Many faiths expand universal kinship

“Where can I find the holy?” is a question of the heart. The world’s religions suggest three arenas in which answers may be found. These answers can guide us in solving the most difficult problems of our overwhelmingly secularistic age.
        Nature is the first arena. The primal religions like the American Indian, tribal African and the old European pagan traditions find sacred powers in trees, streams, mountains and the plants and animals which become the food of humans. Harvesting and hunting are ritual acts, and ceremonies recognize how all things are mutually dependent, a sacred ecology.
        Personhood is the second arena. Asian faiths like Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, and from different angles, Confucianism and Taoism, explore the mysteries of inner life. The techniques of yoga,  meditation and art forms like the sand mandala, and in the case of Confucianism, social rituals, are means to awaken nobility or divinity within each person.
        The history of covenanted community is the third arena. The monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and others, find ultimate meaning disclosed in the unfolding story of a Power acting in human community reaching toward justice. For Jews, the community is Israel, for Christians the church, for Muslims the umma.
   This rough and ready overview needs many qualifications and elaborations, but it can help us with the environmental, personal and social crises of our time. The insights so clear in one tradition can be found, sometimes buried, in other traditions as well. Today’s encounter of faith with faith can purify and revive our experience of the holy, clarify our values and bring us together as people of faith to address even the most perplexing issues.
   Learning from each other, 250 folks from the 15 Kansas City faiths represented at the 2001 Gifts of Pluralism conference unanimously issued a “Concluding Declaration” paralleling this overview, from which the passages below are quoted.
        Environmental problems can be solved not merely by technological fixes but also require a spiritual reorientation. “Nature is a process that includes us, not a product external to us . . . .Our proper attitude toward nature is awe, not utility.”
        Personal identity is not confined to “the images of ourselves constrained by any particular social identities.” Abandoning selfish preoccupation with who we are enables us to care for others as a spontaneous expression of our deepest character.
        Community is created when persons “govern themselves less by profit and more by the covenant of service” which advances “the flow of history toward peace and justice.”
   Despite religion’s heightened visibility in the world today, the faiths too often adopt the secular style of competition. But here we are learning in modesty to offer to one another our  understandings of the holy, that they may be enlarged and deepened in our universal kinship.

542. 050119 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
King exemplified change among faiths

I was a theological school student drawn to Martin Luther King Jr.’s public ministry. He addressed the sins of racism, economic injustice and war. He had become famous with the March on Washington in 1963. Changes were underway.
   In 1967, with a clergy group, I went to the nation’s capital to hear him. It was a fearful time in our nation’s history, and the anxiety among those gathered rose with each minute his appearance was delayed because we knew there were those who wanted to kill him—he who taught non-violence.
   I was also drawn by the cooperation King inspired among folks of different faiths. This seemed to be good evidence of the sacred and universal nature of his cause.
   King’s doctoral dissertation examined the work of one of my own teachers, Henry Nelson Wieman, whose most noted phrase may be “creative interchange,” a theological conception of the divine. Because God is present when we truly encounter one another, we are transformed as we cannot transform ourselves.
   This transformation is illustrated by the legislation and the change in attitudes that resulted from King’s work. But the transformation process began millennia before King was born.
   In the distant past, in Asia, somehow the notion of ahimsa, non-violence, developed, perhaps with the Jains. The idea became part of the Buddha’s teaching. As stories about the Buddha grew, he was called Bodisaf, Yudasaf and Josaphat. The Manichees retold the story, and the Muslims transmitted it to the Christians in the tale of Barlaam and Josaphat. Tolstoy was converted to non-violence and social service by this now-Christian tale. By reading Tolstoy, Gandhi was stirred to explore his own Hindu tradition.
   And King studied the Hindu Gandhi, first in divinity school. King developed his own technique for social change in part from Gandhi’s elaboration of ahimsa. Gandhi called it satyagraha, “truth-force,” a tool of such spiritual energy it helped to liberate India from the British raj.
   Later King wrote, “While the Montgomery boycott was going on (1955-56), India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of non-violent social change.” He regarded Gandhi as “probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.”
   Gandhi himself had been assassinated long before King went to India, but when King was a child, Gandhi had said, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.”
   Through history as well as in King’s life, we can see the power of creative interchange, not mere interaction, among those of many faiths. Are we brave enough to use this power today?

[Unpublished, alternate text]

[One would hardly call Martin Luther King Jr a coward. Yet in Washington, DC, when I heard him, he confessed his hesitation to speak out against the Vietnam War. For two years he had warily questioned the war, but not until 1967 did he make his most famous public address on the subject at the Riverside Church in New York. Then he spoke boldly.
   [As then he said he had to bring Vietnam “into the field of my moral vision,” there is no doubt in my mind that he would today condemn the unprovoked war in Iraq. He would also identify the system that made us once again gullible to officials who he would say misled the nation, paralleling President Lyndon Johnson’s lies in persuading Congress to adopt the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, launching the sorrow we call Vietnam. He would deplore those who “possess power without compassion, might without morality and strength without sight.”
   [But today as then, King’s remarks would be grounded in theology, not politics. His vision applied the spiritual to the public domain. Of course peace and war are religious concerns; human lives are sacred, and our souls are brutalized when we brutalize others.
   [King would speak about the more than thousand Americans dead, and the ten thousand bodies damaged, when it is now clear that the U.N. sanctions succeeded in eliminating weapons of mass destruction and containing Saddam Hussein. King would deplore the waste of American treasure, perhaps 200 billion dollars, which could have been used to enhance the human spirit. And while vigorously condemning terrorism and the horror of 9/11, he would note that the three thousand innocent Americans who perished that day were not revived by the hundred thousand innocent Iraqis killed from the U.S. decision to end Hussein’s power.
   [King would repeat his warning that international violence sets the stage for domestic violence. He might repeat the irony of Americans appearing as “strange liberators” to those whose property has been destroyed and family members killed. He would say that the bitterness we have sown has already reaped a harvest of new terrorism.
   [Some questioned King about his commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. Of them he asked, “Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?” As King then spoke with compassion for the Vietnam Buddhists, today he would speak with reverence for the children of Abraham who call themselves Muslims.
   [I do not know what King would say about withdrawing or increasing troops in Iraq now—that may be a political question—but I believe that King would clarify the moral dimensions of our dilemma in Iraq. He would address the fearful trance that has captured our nation. And he would urge clergy and laity to speak out, to break the silence, as he did in 1967, for religion means facing facts before being led to higher ground, repentance before redemption.]

541. 050112 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Gospel of Thomas among controversial manuscripts

At my desk I am looking at an edition of the New Testament in koine Greek, the original language. I open it with awe—but not with certainty. Some pages are more than half filled with notes citing various ancient manuscripts and fragments with variant readings. For five hundred years scholars have sought to establish a reliable text from which translations into modern languages can be made. The arguments continue.
   Sometimes the variations are minor. Other times they are striking. Take Mark, from beginning to end. The phrase “son of God” describing Jesus is not in the early Codex Sinaiticus manuscript of Mark 1:1.
Some scholars believe the phrase was added later to support one side in early Trinitarian arguments. And the best, oldest manuscripts of Mark end with Mark 16:8, before the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.
   Early Christians disputed which writings should be regarded as scripture. Churches were independent and had different collections. It wasn’t until 367 that Athanasius proposed today’s 27 books from the enormous body of literature then extant. From the death of Jesus, that is about a hundred years longer than our nation’s independence, without modern ways of preserving information. But even Sinaiticus, with all 27 books, also includes the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Acts of Paul and the Apocalypse of Peter, subsequently omitted though they were regarded as scripture by some churches before a Latin translation of the 27 began to establish the canon de facto.
   While the variations in the Gospels and the letters of Paul give us clues to the earliest controversies, the discovery of the 52 Nag Hammadi manuscripts in 1945 give us a much better picture of how fractious early Christian views were.
   Despite some similarities with canonical Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas presents a very different picture of Jesus’ teaching. Princeton scholar Elaine Pagels believes that John’s Gospel was written to counter Thomas. She sees an increasingly centralized Christianity preoccupied with beliefs replacing Christianity as an ethical system. When the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, which led to Christianity becoming the state religion, the church developed obligatory beliefs, the creeds. Disagreeing with them could lead to torture or death. The version of Christianity in Thomas, in which Jesus taught that the divine presence can be found in each person, was extinguished by the belief that Jesus is the only light of the world.
   I met Pagels a few years ago and she told me about the death of her son and her husband, an account of which begins her new book, Beyond Belief : The Secret Gospel of Thomas. The book shows how her scholarship and personal spiritual life complement each other.
   She speaks at Village Presbyterian Church Jan. 22 and 23. For information, email

540. 050105 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
New year a good time to value all religions

The old year ended and the new one begins with fresh interfaith activity in our town.
   At 5:30 a.m. Dec. 31, nearly 300 folks gathered at the Rime Buddhist Center for the 19th annual “World Peace Meditation.” This year the program included the Muslim call to prayer, American Indian smudging, a Buddhist chant, a Sikh prayer, sacred Hindu music, a Christian hymn and a Sufi dance.    In the keynote address, the Rev. David E. Nelson, a Lutheran who now chairs the Kansas City Interfaith Council, said that our community understands that religious diversity is not a problem to be solved but a gift to be shared. In accepting this year’s community service award, Ron Poplau, Shawnee Mission Northwest High School teacher and author of The Doer of Good Becomes Good: A Primer on Volunteerism, saluted the interfaith spirit evident in the gathering.
   Later that morning, the Rev. Robert Lee Hill at the Community Christian Church convened Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist and Christian leaders as part of Kansas City’s efforts to respond with prayers and money to aid victims of the tsunami disaster. On Jan. 16 the church hosts an interfaith celebration in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.
   Sunday Muslim leader Ahmed El-Sherif and Jewish leader Allan Abrams spoke at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church on the controversial issues involved in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Even when they disagreed, they found ways to compliment and defend each other, modeling mature interfaith exchange.
   This Saturday the Interfaith Council will meet with interfaith experts Clark Lobenstine of Washington, DC, Sam Muyskens of Wichita and Bud Heckman of New York to help the Council find ways to expand its work in the community. This consultation is a benefit from a grant from Religions for Peace-USA, awarded last year to only three cities.
   An interfaith dinner here Jan. 30 will import a 13-year Jewish-Arab friendship tradition from Israel. A group of Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Buddhist friends here are inviting the public to enjoy an evening of delicious halal, kosher-style and vegetarian food prepared by Samir Dabit, a Christian Arab who will come from Ramla, Kansas City’s sister city in Israel, to cook for this evening of fellowship at the lodge at Leawood’s Ironwoods Park. This event, by design, is not sponsored by any organization, but you can find details on my website,
   In the past twenty years, Kansas City has come to recognizing the value of friendships and perspectives of people of a dozen faiths across the planet and next door. In discovering so many ways that others can be unlike us, we also discover that they are in so many ways like us. A firm basis for hope for the new year lies in this discovery and with the growing circles of interfaith friendships.

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