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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

642. 061227  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
New Year frames the sacred

Each new year is a frame for events in our personal lives and public histories. Sometimes it is messy and arbitrary, but the framing persists, as revelers in a few days will prove.
   Through annual rhythm and repetition, such framing also proves the human hunger for meaning in the chronology of actions. This search for a larger pattern to make sense of our time with one another is spiritual. What do we include? What do we exclude?
   Here are three examples.
   * In my first parish in snowy Illinois 35 years ago, I asked an artist to design a program cover for a church service. She sketched snowy hills, a barren tree and tracks in the snow. The image was framed with the words of the Japanese poet Yayu: “In my New Year heart I feel no fury even at these tramplers of snow.”
   I’ve thought about that picture many times. We love the purity of new-fallen snow, and may  resent those who, trodding through its calm, smutch it with their violation of its simplicity and peace.
   And the New Year may begin with blotches against our bright intentions. Can we accept those who, uninvited, enter the landscape of the soul?
   * The altar of fire sacrifice in ancient India was constructed of 720 bricks, 360 for the days of the year and 360 for the nights, laid in courses to represent the seasons. The Vedic texts says building “this altar is the year.”
   The altar is not only a sacred place, but also sacralizes time. The word “sacrifice” etymologically means “to make sacred.” What we do with our time expresses what we value. We may not ignite food with its smoke ascending to the gods above, but our activities consume the year. Framing our choices with awareness can make them divine offerings.
   * The common calendar is solar. It lasts roughly 365 1/4 days, which leads to adding a “leap” day to almost every fourth year. The Jewish calendar is solar-lunar, with months corresponding to the moon's cycle. But since 12 cycles of the moon is shorter than the solar year, some years are given 13 months to keep the seasons roughly in place.
   However, the Islamic calendar is strictly lunar, with its year about 11 days shorter than the solar year. This means Muslim holidays slowly rotate throughout the seasons. This can be interpreted to mean that a spiritual frame informs or transcends seasonal shifts.
   All religions grapple with the framework of time. And even a secular philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, had a religious sense when he wrote, “He lives eternally who lives in the present.”

641. 061220  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Peace arrives in a manger

“Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” When we open our hearts to those suffering in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Darfur genocide, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other turmoil around the world, this Christmas sentiment seems an unrealizable wish.
   Many of my readers insist this is a Christian nation, but we were easily led from peace into a pre-emptive war of choice. And at this very season, to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace we give violent toys, games and entertainment, including the famously Christian movie-maker Mel Gibson, whose fascination for violence is newly displayed in Apocalypto.
   Islam, another religion of peace, is bloodied with sectarian violence.
   The sacred texts of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sikhism and other faiths all proclaim peace. Yet as history unfolds, we wonder if the dream of peace can be realized.
   George Rupp, formerly Dean of the Harvard Divinity School and president of Columbia University, now president of the International Rescue Committee, spoke here last week for the International Relations Council. He noted that the extended religious wars of Europe concluded with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War. For the next 300 years, wars were relatively brief and the usual casualties were soldiers. The Holocaust’s  Jewish, Gypsy, and homosexual victims were horrible civilian exceptions.
   But since Vietnam, a country torn for roughly thirty years, wars have again lengthened into “double-digits,” and non-combatants have suffered most, as is true in Iraq, where some suggest the conflict will last for decades.
   What a different approach to violence we saw this year with the Amish! When eleven school girls in the Nickel Mines community were lined up and shot, the Christian power of forgiveness interrupted the common pattern of retaliation and revenge.
   Why, when Jesus taught “Love your enemies,” when the Buddha observed, “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love,” when the wisdom of every faith urges us toward peace and justice, why does the Christmas message for the world seem so remote?
   Perhaps a perspective on this question, if not an answer, can be found in recalling the Christmas story itself. Jesus was not born into a perfect world, but a world of savage power.
   If Christmas is larger than a season of personal, selfish preoccupation, then its yearly reminder of the power of love in response to savagery may yet turn us toward recognizing our error and repentance for our folly. We may embrace our enemies and turn our hands from war to building peace. Victory comes not by the mighty sword but by the star and the manger.

640. 061213  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Efforts to know one another are sacred

Can you get inside of someone else’s head?
   This question came to mind last week when I heard my brilliant young colleague in the ministry, Thom Belote, discuss Postmodernist doubts about the possibility of understanding one another.
   Here is a ancient Taoist story that presents the issue.
   Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu strolled to the bridge over the Hao River. Chuang Tzu  remarked, :See how the minnows are darting about! That is the pleasure of fishes.”
   “You not being a fish yourself, “ responded Hui Tzu, “how can you possibly know in what consists the pleasure of fishes?”
   “And you not being I,” retorted Chuang Tzu, “how can you know that I do not know?”
   “If I, not being you, cannot know what you know,” urged Hui Tzu, “it follows that you, not being a fish, cannot know in what consists the pleasure of fishes.”
   Chuang Tzu replied, “You asked me how I knew in what consists the pleasure of fishes. I knew it from my own feelings on this bridge.”
   Wendy Doniger, University of Chicago scholar, suggests that the bridge is a metaphor for those feelings that connect us to others as well as those that separate us from others.
   I have had many people confide in me their stories where somehow they “became” the bird in flight, or “understood” what their pets were “thinking.”
   If such almost-mystical cross-species experiences, like Chuang Tzu’s, seem self-validating, is it not possible that we can understand, at least in those rare moments, what it is like to see the world the way a Hindu or a Muslim or a Jew might see it?
   Some lovers know each other well enough to complete each other’s sentences. Should not religion beckon us to the pleasure of loving one another so deeply that we behold one another in that paradox which acknowledges both our otherness and our unity?
   Art is about such paradoxes. I’ve been looking at the Henry Moore “Sheep Piece” at the Nelson-Atkins for decades, and each time I see it afresh. It is constantly other than me but also an organic part of me. I feel a bit inside of Moore’s head.
   Last Thursday, at the Kansas City Ballet’s tribute to the company’s former director, Todd Bolender, in his eloquent remembrance, ballet master James Jordan mentioned Hope DeYoung-Daniels, a 12-year old dancer in the Ballet School who, preparing to dance in Bolender’s “The Nutcracker,” told him, “I would like to get inside of Mr. Bolender’s head.”
   Whether parallel aspirations can be realized by us, surely our lives depend on the effort to understand one another. I call such efforts sacred.

639. 061206  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Talk is cheap, but respect enriches

Recognizing our common humanity ought to be easy, but the world is a mess with fear, deceit, oppression, theft and assault. Religions should be teaching love, but the news suggests they create turmoil. Faiths ought to bring people together, but religions themselves are divided.
   These may not be balanced or accurate statements, but you can sympathize with those who make them.
   One of the engines of interfaith activity is the urge to discover agreements so people can stop fighting. But such agreements are often achieved cheaply, with assumptions made by each party about the other that fail. For example, when people speak of our common humanity, what does that mean? Normative Christian doctrine teaches that humans are born with a sinful nature; Confucians assume each child is born good.
   A group once asked me for advice about a public statement they were preparing. It asserted that humans are created in the “image and likeness of God.” They wanted to be sure the statement would appeal to those of all faiths.
   I told them that it is troublesome to many Muslims to associate the human likeness with God who is without form. But other Muslims who understood the intent of the statement might raise no objection.
   A rabbi once explained to me why the Christian idea of love bothered him. “We Jews have been literally loved to death by Christians,” he said. He cited the Inquisitors who, motivated by love, tortured Jews in hopes they would convert to Christianity so they would be saved from hell. Failing that, love of others compelled the Inquisitors to eliminate Jews in order to protect society from heresy.
   Like “love,” many words have different meanings, and we may not even be aware of what they mean to others.
   To many highly educated Hindus, the word “idol” is merely describes an image of a deity, but most Americans, hearing this term, associate it with superstition.
   Many folks may think all religions teach belief in a Creator, in a hereafter, in a set of moral commandments and in a soul. Such assumptions about commonalities are false.
   The purpose of today’s column, dear reader, is not to discourage exploring other faiths, but rather to urge deep pursuit, to uncover our misperceptions so we may become truer, not cheap, friends. The real riches are beneath the surface, in others’ faiths as in our own.
   The world does not need superficial agreement as much as respect for differences.

638. 061129  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Four sages' idea of unity persists

Religious leaders can inspire us as we follow the twists and turns of our own lives, so when folks at Village Presbyterian Church invited me to teach there, I planned a series on four figures. And in the last session, we compared them.
   The figures were Muhammad, the Buddha, Confucius and Guru Nanak. I used the term “figure” rather than “founder” because Muslims do not regard Muhammad as the founder of Islam, but rather the last of the prophets beginning with Adam.
   Here are some ways the four are alike and different.
   * All the figures are male. A series with four comparable women is inconceivable. Religion historically has been usually led by men, even though Muhammad and Guru Nanak elevated the place of women in their faiths.
   Religion involves seeing cosmic connections, and the correspondence between menstrual and lunar cycles may have given prehistoric humans a sense that women were more spiritual than men. But historic times seems to focus on male power rather than female harmonies.
   * The series illustrates a often-ignored fact: No religion is completely new. Muhammad’s Islam drew upon Jesus and Abraham before him. The Buddha’s message is often regarded as a reformation in early Hinduism. Confucius deliberately selected materials from earlier traditions from which to build his own. Nanak’s revelation — “There is no Hindu; there is no Muslim” —  pointed to the essential kinship and equality of humanity beyond sects, and developed into Sikhism only because of the mix between the two earlier faiths.
   * None of the four men’s situations made them obvious candidates for religious vocations. Muhammad was a caravan trader. The Buddha was a prince and his father tried to shield him from religious interests. Confucius was conceived out of wedlock when his father was 70 and was raised a pauper. Nanak’s father was a village accountant. None of them were ordained or had a theological degree.
   * Two, Muhammad and Nanak, were men of God. The other two, the Buddha and Confucius, were not. Neither the Buddha nor Confucius taught belief in a Creator. Many people think that all religions require belief in a Supreme Being, but this is not so.
   What all spiritual teachers have in common is a way of making sense out of the confusing pieces of life, a pattern or story that gives larger meaning to our days and direction for the decisions we must make.
   That is why the influence of figures such as these persists.

637. 061122  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Behold Grace and be Blessed

A pretty good remedy for disappointment is to count one’s blessings. As Johnson Oatman Jr. counseled in his 1897 song: “name them one by one . . . see what God hath done.”
   One need not believe in God to find power in noticing the grace around us. A Zen Buddhist master who had no belief in a Creator was asked to summarize his faith. He responded simply, “Attention!”
   But with cell phones and commercials and spam email, we are tempted to distraction. We cannot focus on the ever-present gift of life itself. Our over-secularistic culture pulls our attention toward countless tiny things that excite for a moment until we are captured by the next tiny thing.
   This is why some form of religious discipline can be useful. A truly spiritual ritual is not a deadly routine but rather a gate open to the wonders of the universe. Whether it is meditation, prayer, a walk in the woods, a glorious hour with music, contemplating a painting, a dance, writing a note to a loved one or the afterglow of passionate embrace, we are restored to that larger perspective which reveals what truly matters, the sacred.
   This need not end in passivity. Noticing the air we breathe — on which our life depends — may lead us to work for clean air in an endangered environment, not only for our descendents’ survival but also as a tribute to the Creator or to the processes through which came this gift.
   Jesuit Father Michael J. Himes says, “That which is always and everywhere true must be noticed, accepted, and celebrated somewhere, sometime.”
   What is always and everywhere true is that we are given the miracle of participating in the life of the universe. Even in a tortuous or suicidal situation, even when pain or injustice is so great we might wish to be dead, we are given a place in the cosmic story.
   Most of my readers are given opportunities to help those whose circumstances are dreadful, but we are all subject to uncertainty, to dread and to joy. The way I look at it, the cosmic story is not “us” and “them” but rather all of us grasped by an unfathomable mystery from which we emerge, which sustains our being for a time, and to which we return.
   Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is one holiday whose meaning includes every religious tradition and the sensibilities of non-believers as well. For all of us, a fundamental question is, Is life worth living?
   The holiday is a ritual opportunity to be reminded of how to answer this question Yes.
Naming the tiny blessings is not a sufficient accounting. But to behold grace everywhere present, even in despair, is an ultimate blessing.

636. 061115  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
There's Harmony in Raising Voices

Plato worried about the power of music to affect public behavior, and subsequent philosophers and politicians have sought to control what reaches the ear, but Sunday’s Harmony Choral Celebration Concert was a powerful example of music creating healthy community.
   What we hear can shape how we live, and South-Broadland Church brought together musicians and an audience in measures of harmony among faiths, races, traditions and dress.
   Since 1992, the annual event has begun with the adhaan, the Islamic call to prayer, a musical invitation into God’s presence. It sounded completely in place in the Christian church because the fervor of its bidding is universal when we enter into its spirit.
   Sunday’s Jewish, Christian Gospel, Christian contemporary, Baha’i, tribal African and Gaelic sounds are now archived in memory with Catholic, Protestant, American Indian, Hindu and other music from the 17 years of offerings from this concert series.
   Plato would have noticed not just the musicians but also the enthusiastic audience, rejoicing in the blessing of a community in which differences become the notes creating the harmony. And he would have observed Kansas City Mayor Pro Tem Al Brooks offering a non-sectarian prayer embracing every faith without watering down their distinctions.
   Kansas City should be proud. The organizers know of no other interfaith concert in the US featuring both a mixed community choir and choirs from different faiths.
   This is the season for interfaith celebration. Nov. 5 the Crescent Peace Society, a Muslim organization, welcomed Christians, Jews and others to a dinner and program for the tenth year. Yesterday the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council held its second annual “Table of Faiths” luncheon with display booths for some dozen faiths. And this Sunday, my organization, CRES, offers its 22nd annual Thanksgiving Sunday Family Interfaith Ritual Meal.
   These and other developing traditions in our area strengthen the network of mutual understanding necessary to withstand the assault when those claiming to act in the name of religion — any religion — seek to harm us, or plant suspicion, or divide us from one another.
   Exposure to others’ sacred music and art and traditions inoculates the community from prejudice and builds the muscles of faith.
   The coincidence of major interfaith events in November seems a synergy that in another year may lead to a new level of visibility and involvement. If your faith community, arts group or civic organization might have a program to propose, an idea to contribute or simply wants to be informed about such a prospect, tentatively called a “Festival of Faiths,” contact HarmonyNCCJ’s Josef Walker at or (816) 333-5059.

635. 061108  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Photos tell the story of Ethiopian Jews

I was early for my appointment with Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff. While I waited, my eye fell on a slim volume in his office at The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah. Its cover was a haunting photo of an Ethiopian girl. Was she worried? Was she frightened? Was she hopeful? Was she, just behind the doorway, inviting me to learn about her situation?
   I picked up the book, Of Eyes and Hearts, with photos and text by Nemitoff,. I thumbed through it. Page after page offered one or more children, beautiful and poignant.
   I gathered the book was about that intriguing story of African Jews, in what was once known as Abyssinia, who lost connection with Israel. Some think they are part of the “lost tribes.” Others theories have been advanced, but it is almost certain that they were separated from others of their faith before the rise of rabbinic Judaism in the late First Century.
   When Nemitoff returned to his desk, I asked him about the book. In the spring he had gone to Ethiopia to pursue an interest dating back some 20 years when he learned about a secret airlift into Israel of 8,000 of some 22,000 Ethiopian Jews. Several programs since then have continued the exodus under changing political situations. In one 36-hour period in 1991, 14,324 were transferred to Israel.
   Now a process for family reunification makes immigration routine.
   But other Ethiopians with unclear claims to Jewish heritage also want to emigrate to Israel. The book tells their story as well.
   Modern Judaism is sometimes divided ethnically into the Ashkenazi (Jews with an Eastern European heritage) and the Sephardi (Jews associated with Moorish Spain, Arab counties and Persia). But the Ethiopian Jews, constructing a faith without the Talmud, with a holiday unknown to other Jews and with a liturgical language not Hebrew, add a new element to the diversity that is Judaism.
   Nemitoff sees this diversity as an opportunity to learn from the “Ethiopian branch of our Jewish roots,” just as the Sephari and Ashkenazi have mutually enriched the larger tradition.
   The book contains 110 of the 900 photos Nemitof took with a digital camera. Others may rate their technical excellence, but their compelling spiritual impact is certain.
   I’d like to buy a copy, I told Nemitoff. The price is $18, a number associated with the Hebrew word chaim, meaning “life,” appropriate since the proceeds from the book are a gift to further settlement efforts for the Ethiopians,
   Regardless of your faith, if you love children and a story of religious freedom, you’ll cherish this book. It’s available through the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City and in gift shops at B’nai Jehudah, 12320 Nall, and Kehilath Israel Synagogue, 10501 Conser, Overland Park.

634. 061101  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Issue would honor rights

Missouri Amendment 2 on stem cell research has created religious fervor. One view is that the amendment will maintain the right Missourians have currently to early stem cell research and the cures that may result within federal law. Another view is that the research creates life to destroy it, and this is immoral.
   The scientific and religious issues are complex. Here is a sketch of various views and a suggestion of how to honor them. You can find more on my web site at
   The Missouri Catholic Conference believes that the research involves “cloned human beings” and says that “no human life, at any stage of its development, may ever be taken for the sake of someone else’s gain.”
   But when does a cell become a person — or, to phrase the question theologically, when does “ensoulment” occur? St. Thomas Aquinas thought it was at quickening, about 40 days after conception. This view was a common Catholic position until Pope Pius IX decreed that life begins at conception in 1859.
   Others think that ensoulment cannot happen until after the possibility for twinning has passed. Otherwise, the soul would be split in two, or one baby would have a soul, and the other would not. Others say ensoulment occurs when the cells implant in the womb. English and U.S. common law recognize personhood at birth.
   Many traditions focus on the cures possible from research.
   The Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City unanimous endorsement of the amendment was based in part on Jewish law.
   Episcopal priest and former U.S. Missouri Senator Jack Danforth, an abortion opponent, supports the amendment’s promise for healing of Parkinsons’, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, MS, spinal chord injuries and other conditions.
   Methodist minister and US Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, along with other local Christian,  Buddhist and Muslim leaders, feel pursuing cures and therapies is not only moral but a religious obligation. Some cite the healing work of Jesus.
   How can this religious conflict be resolved?
   The Catholic Church prohibits contraception, Orthodox Jews do not eat pork, Muslims do not drink wine, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not accept blood transfusions. Others are free to follow their conscience. One theological position is not forced on others.
       The measure’s effect would assure each person may act according to one’s faith. Those whose conscience requires them to seek cures through such research will be able to do so, and those who object may refrain. No theology would be imposed by the state; all faiths would be respected.

633. 061025  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Is it time for humanity to change paths?

I hesitated to interview Neale Donald Walsch, author of the Conversations with God books,  now the subject of a movie by the same title. Although a number of friends have found paths to spiritual healing through his books, I shy away from “New Age” theologies.
   But I as the interview was ending, a shiver of recognition coursed up and down my spine. What had been a discussion about Walsch became much larger.
   I had previewed the movie. Walsch loses his job and becomes a beggar. In his depression and agony, he cries to God for help. On yellow legal pads, though Walsch’s hand, God appears to respond. When those scribblings find their way into print, Walsch is given unexpected prosperity.
    Henry Czerny, who plays Walsch with vivid understatement, creates an authentic human being from the man who, for a time, looked in garbage bins for his food, as well as the man who became a success on book-signing tours.
   In a closing bookstore scene a distraught mother asks Walsch how he could explain God’s love in allowing her son to be killed on his 18th birthday. Walsch comforts her in words he could not have planned but we know are grounded in Walsch’s own acquaintance with both abandonment and love. I disagree with his response theologically, but it brought relief and meaning to the mother’s shattering pain.
   One of my problems with “New Age” spirituality is that it is often selfish, narcissistic. But the compassion Walsch demonstrates is larger than mere individual salvation.
   Near the end of the interview I asked, “Is the story really about you or is the movie a metaphor for humanity’s healing? If we as a society could get to the point where we listen, reaching out for enlarged understandings of God, will we find answers to our deepest questions?” Embracing the question, he said, “It is time for humanity to have a new story of itself.”
   The possibility gave me shivers.
   The despondency and profound alienation from God that he experienced may parallel the desperation and brokenness throughout the world. If today’s civilizations are in crises, as he as a person was, can recognizing and reaching beyond our condition similarly lead us to redemption? Can paying attention to what God or the universe or reality is telling us, move us from the ditch onto the sacred path?
   If so, the movie is not just a personal story but an allegory for world transformation.
   The movie is scheduled to open here Friday.

632. 061018  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Sexuality has its place in spirituality

How sex and spirituality are intertwined is fascinating. In fact, the word “fascinate” derives from ancient Roman images of an erect penis thought to have spiritual power.
   Different religions have assessed sexuality differently. Let’s contrast the influence of St. Augustine (354-430) in Christianity with the tradition represented by Kukai (774–835) in Japanese Shingon and other forms of Buddhism.
   Before Augustine became a Christian in 386, he had an intense friendship with a man his age, described in his Confessions, and also fathered a son by his concubine, whom he abandoned when his son was about 16, in order to marry a society woman, as arranged by his Christian mother. But he soon decided instead to be a monk.
   Augustine’s mature theology of sex is found in The City of God, Book 14. Since we are sinners, he argues, we cannot experience sex except sinfully. Self-control and the faculty of reason, the marks of virtue, evaporate at the moment of orgasm.
   Nonetheless, while celibacy is better than marriage, vaginal sex in marriage is licit because children may result. All other forms of sexual pleasure are prohibited. Pleasure itself is suspect. It would be better if we took our food not for enjoyment but as medicine.
   His influence has been enormous. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), for example, said that masturbation is worse than fornication because masturbation has no potential for procreation.  And today contraception is condemned by the Catholic Church for the same reason.
   Where Augustine found orgasm troubling because the body’s spasm is not subject to control, the Shingon Buddhists valued orgasm precisely because its receptivity to ecstasy is the essence of the religious experience.
   Thus no forms of responsible sexual pleasure were in themselves condemned. Stories developed of the Buddha himself appearing as a handsome youth to give pleasure to the monks and thereby guide them toward Enlightenment. The samurai customs paralleled the religious ones.
   The Zen Buddhist abbot Ikkyu (1394-1481) wrote poems about women in the brothel as part of his spiritual practice.
   A basic notion of Buddhism is the transitory nature of all existence. For this, sexual pleasure can be a metaphor, teaching that even the most exquisite experience cannot last.
   Sex is biological, but sexuality is cultural. Especially in the different ways pleasure and the will can be viewed, Augustine and Kukai represent polar opposites. Other faiths have understood sexuality in markedly varied ways. To assume our own tradition is the only one ignores spiritual possibilities others have discovered.

631. 061011  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Transform the World Around You

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the area’s “Gifts of Pluralism” interfaith conference. Last week I listed three benefits of that ebullient gathering of 250 people from 15 religions practiced here. Even as interfaith conflict is the news elsewhere, healthy energy from the conference continues to ripple throughout our community.
    The conference panels, workshops, small-group discussions, plenary sessions and informal discussions led to a “Concluding Conference Declaration,” unanimously and joyously approved and signed at the end of the meeting.
   Five years later, I fear a promise in this document is forgotten. The Declaration pledged the faith communities “to successfully address the environmental, personal and social crises of our often fragmented world.”
   To begin this process, three paragraphs in the middle of the Declaration summarized the wisdom of the religions that can be offered to the secular world:
   “The gifts of pluralism have taught us that nature is to be respected, not just controlled. Nature is a process that includes us, not a product external to us that can just be used or disposed of.  Our proper attitude toward nature is awe, not utility. . . .
   “We have also learned that our true personhood may not be in the images of ourselves constrained by any particular social identities. When we realize this, our acts can proceed spontaneously from duty and compassion, and we need not be unduly attached to results beyond our control.
   “Finally, when persons in community govern themselves less by profit and more by the covenant of service, the flow of history towards peace and justice is honored and advanced.”
   To me, these three paragraphs point us, first, toward harmony with nature. Second, they declare that we as persons are more porous than the labels we place on ourselves. Third, they proclaim that when we withdraw license for special interests, we can recover reverence for the commonweal.
   But wedge issues continue divide us. The wisdom proclaimed in the Declaration has not been detailed and applied. The powers of our faiths have not been united to answer our over-secularistic culture. A theological practice to restore ecological, personal and social integrity is yet to be nurtured.
   From the conference, we are blessed with a burgeoning interfaith network which may yet lead us beyond fine words. If our civilization is not to collapse, but rather enjoy the gifts of pluralism, we must remember that the goal, beyond just hugs all around, is transformation of the world.

630. 061004  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Dialogue can defuse a threat

Five years ago this month the metro-area’s first and only major interfaith conference, “The Gifts of Pluralism,” was convened for two days and a third for youth. From the shadow of 9/11, the light of faith shone for 250 folks from 15 faith groups, each worthy of naming— American Indian, Bahá'í, Buddhist, Christian (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox), Free Thinkers, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, Sikh, Sufi, Unitarian Universalist and Zoroastrian.
   They came from business, scientific, educational, governmental, medical, artistic and other sectors of the community.
   Preparation for the conference took over a year; and beginning a decade earlier, members of a dozen faiths nurtured trust with each other which grew into the conference.
   Now five years after the gathering’s ebullience, we can ask, “What did the conference achieve?” My three-point answer is shaped by having been the conference president and the limits of knowing exactly how one thing affects another.
   1. Skill in practicing interfaith dialogue.— The participants learned, as Ed Chasteen says, “Asking who’s right is the wrong question.” David Nelson’s modeling of “appreciative inquiry” trained the conferees to ask each other questions like, “How have you felt the presence of the sacred in your life?” Such questions lead not to arguments but to understanding. I think this new appreciative style now characterizes interfaith conversations among us over the old pattern of theological dispute.
   2. Interfaith now a priority.— The conference was more interaction than lecture. This created new interfaith friendships that continue to ripple through the community, turning mere visibility into respectability. The national CBS-TV half-hour special, “Open Hearts, Open Minds,” show-cased Kansas City’s interfaith work, reinforcing the new priority business, government and diversity groups give to understanding our neighbors of many faiths.
   3. Expansion.— In turn, interfaith programs and organizations have proliferated. The Interfaith Council itself has become an independent organization, now planning its second Table of Faiths luncheon, honoring Chasteen and Don and Adele Hall Nov. 14.
   To coordinate and promote the many interfaith activities that have developed since the conference, folks from many groups are planning a “Festival of Faiths” to last several weeks in late 2007.
   In sum, the conference seems to have transformed the perception of religious diversity from a threat into the riches of relationships and the gifts of understanding.
   Next week I’ll discuss my biggest disappointment from the conference.

629. 060927  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Pope can choose to open diaglogue

Responding to disturbances following his Sep. 12 lecture at the University of Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI said that he intended “an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect.”
   But was the Pope’s remarks sensitive to the requirements for genuinely respectful interfaith relations? Here are three suggestions corresponding to problems within his speech.
   1. Avoid opening and closing your remarks with unfavorable references to the religion with which you seek dialogue.
     Instead of placing Islam on the defensive by starting and ending his remarks with an unexplained accusation against Islam to make the point that dialogue is better than violence, the Pope could have used Christian history — the violence of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the  religious wars of Europe, the murder and enslavement of native peoples as Christianity expanded into the Americas, and the economic colonialism Muslims experience in their own lands today — to argue that reason is better than violence.
   Such an approach might have encouraged this kind of Muslim response: “Thanks for understanding how the history looks to us. We, too, have violence in our tradition. And today some of those claiming our faith are in fact terrorists bent on fermenting horrors against innocent people. Let us join together in repentance and seek the purification of our faiths.”
   This might have opened up mutual confession and dialogue, not started a fruitless argument.
   2. Ask questions about, rather than interpret, the other faith’s scripture.
   The Pope quoted Manuel II Paleologus (in about 1391) attributing to Muhammad the command to spread Islam by the sword, a view the Pope fails to correct. To support this, the Pope incorrectly describes and dismisses Sura 2 of the Qur’an which forbids forced conversion.
   3. Expand dialogue beyond academic issues.
   The Pope advocates dialogue based on a Greek conception of God as reason, but, using a third-hand source about Ibn Hazm, says that Islam’s God is so transcendent He is beyond “rationality.”
   Two problems. First, the Pope ignored major Muslims thinkers like Ibn Sina, known as Avicenna (980-1037) and Ibn Rushd, known as Averroes (1126-1198) — to whom St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was indebted. They transmitted and demonstrated the Greek sensibility the Pope praises.
   Second, interfaith understanding is achieved more by sharing stories than by rational arguments. Those who more easily experience God as love than as intellect, and have stories of God in their lives, also deserve a seat at the conference.

628. 060920  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Thoughts on the end times

Here’s a quiz about the end of the world: What 19th Century Kansas legislator has a Bible named after him?
   If you said Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921) and pointed to the Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909, you’d go to the head of the class.
   But what does Scofield have to do with to the end of the world?
   Answer: Scofield’s interpretation of the Bible undergirds the popular Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and the earlier The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey. Some argue that the doctrine of dispensationalism, developed (perhaps plagiarized) by Scofield from J.N. Darby, affects preachers such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and others for whom ideas about the Rapture, Tribulation, Antichrist and the Battle of Armageddon are important. Some believe American foreign policy, affected by strong support among many Christian Evangelicals for Israel, can be traced to Scofield’s influence.
   What is dispensationalism?
   Answer: The teaching that all of human history can be divided into distinct eras, from before Adam’s fall to the end of the world. There may be four, six or seven such administrations, depending on the interpretation. Most versions include a period of chaos and cosmic violence about to come upon us, supported by a reading of ancient Biblical texts as prophesies for our own time.
   Who was Scofield?
   Answer: Retired Kansas City psychiatrist Richard Childs has made a study of the man. He says, “Scofield was a lawyer who in 1873 he was appointed United States Attorney for Kansas by President Grant. He served only six months before resigning in an embezzlement scandal and absconding to Canada. Later he surfaced to practice law in St. Louis. In 1879, while serving a six-month jail sentence for forgery, he underwent a ‘born again’ religious conversion.”
   Childs found an 1881 editorial in Topeka’s The Daily Capital that called Scofield a “lawyer, politician and shyster generally” whose career was characterized by “many malicious acts.” The paper said he was a “peer among scalawags” who had “a halo of notoriety.” Childs was unable to find any institution granting him the D.D. degree Scofield claimed.
   In American religious history, Scofield is regarded as a forerunner of 20th Century Fundamentalism, with its emphasis on Biblical literalism and inerrancy.
   While mainstream scholars view Biblical texts such as Revelation as the writers’ efforts to encourage the people of their own day in the face of trials, the influence of interpreters like Scofield demonstrates a human hunger for a place in a universal drama.

627. 060913  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Dialogue brightens glass we look through

For twelve years I’ve been writing this column to increase appreciation for religious diversity.  By now, from the comments I receive, I have some sense of the various reactions this column evokes.
   Still, occasionally I’m surprised. I few weeks ago I wrote about going to an interfaith dinner where an 18-year old student, a daughter of a Sikh mother and a Hindu father, told me a touching story about a man who aided wounded soldiers regardless of their faiths as Sikhs and Mughals battled each other.
   One reader wrote, “I am troubled that you had a perfect opportunity to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost young woman but instead you appeared to be in awe of her god. You are Reverend are you not?? . . . I will pray that next time you will be God’s witness.”
   It never crossed my mind in going to an interfaith dinner that I should seek to convert others to my religion. I am happy to exchange ideas and stories as a full partner in dialogue, but I have more to learn by listening than preaching.
   True, I am ordained, but I have never thought my job was to convert others but rather to support folks in deepening and widening their understanding of whatever traditions mean most to them. I’ve been fortunate to have many intense experiences and studies, but even so, I see through a glass, darkly. I could not presume to tell others what paths they should  follow.
   Still, implicit in the reader’s comment may be a valuable sense of the differences between religions. As James R. Edwards says, “To assert all religions are basically the same . . . is like saying that all sports are basically the same. Bullfighters and bowlers are unlikely to agree.”
   A balanced interfaith approach recognizes both shared human kinship on one hand and on the other, differences which may be irreconcilable. Too often premature, superficial agreement replaces serious witnessing. Differences need not be threatening; they can be enriching. Kansas City is more interesting with many different restaurants than if they all had the same menu.
   The challenge before us is not converting one another; some say that is God’s work, anyhow. A profound experience of any faith illumines the way one sees everything so we can peer, however poorly, through the dark glass. When we tell and hear stories — how we have been hurt and healed — the glass brightens a little.
   The challenge, then, is to bring our own powerful but finite understandings as gifts to each other as we receive others’ gifts in the humility that brings us not into conflict but into the peace that passes understanding. Then we are right to be in awe of each other.

626. 060906  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Some 9/11 Metaphors point to a cure

A few weeks after the horror of 9/11 five years ago, I wrote, “In religious literature we can find at least three metaphors to describe what happened Sept. 11: crime, war and disease. Each metaphor has its virtue, and the situation is so complex that no one metaphor is sufficient.” To summarize:
   * Crime. Almost all faiths seek justice. Whether it is the Jewish Ten Commandments or the Hindu Laws of Manu, religions have offered a framework for behavior. This first metaphor has been useful in most societies when individuals or groups disobeyed the rules of society.
   * War. With 9/11 the United States shifted from treating terrorism as a crime to characterizing it as war. The Western religious heritage supplies many precedents. By divine command, Joshua waged war to conquer pagan Canaan. Christianity, at first pacifist, developed the theory of “just war.” In Islam, war is permitted in certain circumstances.
   * Disease. The third metaphor is found in traditions like Taoism and Buddhism with their emphasis on healing. Presented in personal images, such as the “Medicine Buddha,” this metaphor suggests that ailments arise from venoms such as greed, ignorance and hate. If our outlook is poisoned by selfishness, misunderstanding and enmity, we cannot possibly perceive why we are afflicted.
   In these past five years,  as various goals articulated for war seem more and more difficult and elusive, I’ve lamented the exclusive use of the war metaphor.
   Two years ago I asked Prof. Robert E. Johnson at Central Baptist Theological Seminary and editor of American Baptist Quarterly, to review the theory of just war in this space. He concluded, “While some Christians justify the war in terms of pre-emptive self-defense, other Christians observing ‘just war’ theory believe this war has damaged Christian witness, not advanced it.”
   So a word more about the disease metaphor, which asks for self-examination. Gandhi, who initiated the modern non-violent movement on Sept. 11 exactly one hundred years ago, taught that the process of peace involves seeing the evil within ourselves and the good within our enemies. Jesus warned about beholding the mote in another’s eye without removing the beam in our own. The Buddha said, “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love.” Jesus taught, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.” How often do we pray for our enemies?
   Such instruction is a difficult pill to swallow, but it may also be an effective prescription, at least part of the ultimate cure.

625. 060830  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Celebrate Diversity this Fall

Bill Tammeus wrote about it in his brilliant column last Saturday, and I also want to be sure you have it on your fall interfaith schedule. Rabbi Michael Zedek comments as the Vermeer String Quartet performs Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ,” Sept. 17 at 2 pm at the Folly, an unusual contribution to Jewish-Christian understanding arranged by the Friends of Chamber Music.
   Here are some other interfaith events this fall open to the public. You may want to paperclip this column to your calendar.
   SEPTEMBER. As we approach the fifth anniversary of 9/11, HarmonyNCCJ’s congregational partnership among Al Inshirah Islamic Center, Congregation Beth Torah and St. Monica Catholic Church offers an interfaith prayer service Sept. 10 at 4 pm.
   On Sept 11, the Interfaith Council uplifts spiritual insights for 9/11 with a water ceremony at 5 pm at J.C. Nichols Fountain near Main and West 47th. At 7 the Tivoli Theater screens “The Saint of 9/11,” about Father Mychal Judge, the Catholic chaplain of the multi-faith New York City Fire Department.
   Sept. 26-Oct. 22 the Coterie Theatre presents “With Their Eyes: The View of 9/11 from a High School at Ground Zero,” written by students with multi-faith perspectives.
   OCTOBER. “The Hindu and the Cowboy and Other Kansas City Stories,” a play based on interviews with some 80 area residents of all faiths, is performed at Unity Village Oct. 15 at 2 pm. I’ve seen it at least half a dozen times and am always amazed and moved by the life adventures of our diverse neighbors. The play is part of a conference, “Celebrating Five Great Religions,” that I moderate for Unity Oct. 14-20 at its new retreat center.
   One section of the Oct 19–22 international “Listening Conference” at Rockhurst University focuses on spirituality. Interfaith Council convener David Nelson, an expert on “Appreciative Inquiry,” is participating. Area clergy and laity are eligible for subsidized registration.
   NOVEMBER. On Nov. 1, an interfaith panel, including Christian, Jewish, and Muslim participants from the community, discusses “Difficult Dialogues” at Park University at 11.
   The Crescent Peace Society annual interfaith dinner is Nov. 5. The annual Harmony Choral Concert is Nov 12.
   The second annual Table of Faiths Luncheon Nov. 14 honors Hallmark’s Don and Adele Hall and William Jewell professor Ed Chasteen. The 22nd annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Sunday Family Ritual Meal, held this Nov. 19 at Temple B’nai Jehudah, honors Gayle Krigel, an extraordinary lay interfaith leader.
   For details of these and other events, I suggest the Faith Calendar in the Saturday Star or click on the calendar button on my organization’s website,, for all interfaith events about which we are informed.
   Vern Barnet does interfaith work in Kansas City. Reach him at

624. 060823  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
All are Human Beings on the Battlefield

For several years now, a group of friends and guests of many faiths around the area have gathered about once a month for dinner at various homes and restaurants, and I’ve been lucky enough to be included. If you enjoy the inspiration that can come from interreligious dialogue, you, dear reader, may want to start your own group. Let me tell you about a conversation I had at the last dinner, at the Peach Tree near 18th and Vine.
   I sat across from Reva Narula, an 18-year old who left her parent’s home in Leawood last week-end to become a freshman at Hamilton College. Her mother is Sikh and her father is Hindu.
   In the course of conversation, she mention an incident in the life of Shree Man Sant Bhai Kanhaiya Ji (1648-1718), about whom I had never heard. I thought you’d find the story interesting.
   Kanhaiya as born in what is now Pakistan. His father was a successful merchant and raised Kanhaiya in an aristocratic environment.
   But Kanhaiya was not interested in material things and enjoyed the company of saintly folks and serving others. When poor people were forced to labor for the wealthy, he volunteered to take their places.
   His spiritual quest led him to meet Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, who perfected Kanhauya in the faith.
   In 1704 he found himself at Anandpur where Sikhs and Mughal soldiers were in war. He took water to any soldier thirsting, regardless of their faith, friend or foe, while the battle raged.
   Some Sikh soldiers lodged a complaint against him for aiding the enemy. Summoned by Gobind Singh, the successor Guru, he said, “I saw no Mughal or Sikh on the battlefield, just human beings, all with God’s spirit. Have you not taught us to treat all of God’s people the same?”
   Guru Gobind Singh embraced and blessed him and said, “You are right; you have understood the true message. Take water -- and these bandages and ointment for the wounds of all who suffer.”
   With this story in mind and the differences in religion between her mother and father, later I asked Reva about her view of interfaith exchange. While treasuring the contributions of each tradition, she said that identifying oneself solely by one’s religious label can be dangerous. Rather, as she has learned from her parents, the core of genuine faith teaches us to care about each other because ultimately that core is the same in all of us.

623. 060809 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Add Dialogue to 3 Approaches

The MAINstream Voices of Faith organization is concerned with the interface between religion and public life. How does it look at the diversity of religious traditions practiced here and around the world?
   I asked its leader, John Tamilio III, senior minister at the Colonial United Church of Christ in Prairie Village. He was trained at Andover Newton Theological School and is a Fellow at the Boston University School of Theology, where one area of  his research is systematic theology.
   He says, “There are basically three ways of looking at the relationship between Christians and people of other faiths: exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism.
   “Exclusivists believe that only Christians are saved.  Everyone else — the majority of humanity — will be consigned to perdition.
   “Inclusivists believe that other religions are legitimate means to salvation, but somehow Christ is at work in those faiths. The late Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner developed this concept at length in coining the term ‘anonymous Christians’ to refer to adherents of other religions.
   “Pluralism is the third option. Pluralists believe that other religions are legitimate means to God in and of themselves. Pluralists often use the image of different paths ascending to the summit of the same mountain to illustrate this theory.
   “The exclusivist claim has been bellowing from pulpits and campaign headquarters ad nauseam over the past few years. The proposed Missouri House Resolution 13, for example, would in effect make Christianity the official religion of the Show Me State, a resolution applauded by exclusivists. Not only is this a breach of the First Amendment, but it does nothing to advance the true objective of Christianity: to serve God humbly in the service of others.
   “If we who are Christians want to show our true colors, then we need to spend less time legislating our beliefs and more time working with our sisters and brothers of other faiths to respond to the cries of the world.
   “Another Catholic theologian, Hans Küng, put it best.  In his book, Global Responsibility, Küng argues that ‘humankind can less and less afford religions stirring up wars on this earth instead of making peace; making people fanatical instead of seeking reconciliation; practicing superiority instead of engaging in dialogue.’
   “Christians should participate in interfaith dialogues with Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists so that we can address the real problems that we face, rather than trying to ‘win them for Christ.’  It’s time to start practicing the full Gospel that Jesus preached.”

622. 060802 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Of Many Metaphors, Family works

   Metaphors are helpful in explaining viewpoints, but they don’t prove which viewpoints are work best. That requires your judgment. Here are several sets of metaphors people have used to understand diverse faiths.
   Some say only a straight and narrow road leads to salvation, indicating only one faith is worthy; others say there are many roads up to the mountain top, implying that, regardless where you begin, the destination of all religions is the same.
   Some compare the many religions to the various colors of light cast on the floor from a stained-glass window, which refracts the truth in many beautiful ways; others say only in the  direct light of the sun can the reality of the spirit be clear.
   Some say that one’s search for water is more likely to succeed by digging one 100-foot well than by digging ten 10-foot wells, meaning that immersing oneself in one’s own tradition is better than dabbling in many others. Travelers might shift the metaphor from the depth of the well to the location, to say that thirst can be quenched not just from this well, but also from that one, and the other one over there, too.
   Folks exploring different religions are sometimes accused of having a cafeteria approach to faith as they pick and chose what they like on the spur of the moment, instead of enjoying a well-planned, balanced meal. Others point out appreciating different foods increases the likelihood of nutritional adequacy.
   The food metaphor can be extended several ways. I don’t become a Confucian by enjoying won-ton soup, or Muslim by tasting baba ganoush, any more than doing yoga makes me a Hindu or practicing zazen meditation makes me a Buddhist.
   If you tell me you have a severe cholesterol condition when I invite you for dinner but then I serve you beef liver, and counter your objection by saying all food is nutritious, thus basically the same, it’s like saying it doesn’t matter if you’re Taoist or Sikh for your spiritual health.
   Those who say all religions are basically alike may think in terms of the melting pot; those who urge preservation of differences within society may prefer the image of a mosaic, or continuing the food metaphor, a salad or a stew.
   The family metaphor works both ways. As families have been divided by issues like the Civil War, some say one must reject those of faiths with which one disagrees. Others say a  that as a true family embraces its members without condition such as voting Republican or Democratic, so a healthy society treasures kinship among all persons whatever their faiths.

621. 060726 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Exploring the Myth of the Superhero

Myths, as commercials seek to do, frame how we see the world.
   The spiritual path, which the mythologist Joseph Campbell called the “hero’s journey,” has three parts, departure, initiation and return. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949 and now a classic, he illustrates each of these three segments with stories from around the world.
   But Robert Jewett and John Lawrence were more concerned about American tales in their 1977 book, The American Monomyth. In analyzing comic book heroes like Superman before the movies spiked the stories with romantic involvement, they applied Campebell’s three-part scheme and found something missing.
   First they quoted Campbell: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
   Then they observed that comic book heroes, and early TV ones like the Lone Ranger, who appear from nowhere or who live in disguise, assist a community in danger and then ride off into the sunset or resume living in concealment.
   What is missing, they say, is Campbell’s third stage where the deed or illumination of initiation is shared with the community. They worry about this pattern because it suggests that the community is powerless to save itself from disaster and must depend upon superhuman intervention. These superheroes sometimes break the laws of nature and violate legal standards. They are too good to be restrained by rules and too superior to be part of the community. There is no spiritual growth in the character since he his born with super-powers, rather than gaining insight and wisdom as a result of his initiation.
   Jewett and Lawrence think this characteristic pattern or “monomyth” derives from the Christian story of redemption, where super-hero Jesus is born into the world, saves it and then leaves it instead of integrating into the community. The current Superman movie has inspired theological comparison between Jesus and Superman.
   Christians can respond in at least three ways. First, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to be with us in his stead. Second, he created a community called the church. Third, he will come again.
   But Jewett and Lawrence’s 2002 book, The Myth of the American Superhero, is not reassuring. They suggest that the American pattern of focusing on a charismatic individual rather than a democratic community makes vigilantes and terrorists think they are saviors.

620. 060719 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
New Job a Harmonious One for All

The fact that Josef Walker is still grieving leaving his previous job, despite his enthusiasm for his new position, suggests he is well fitted to his assignment since June at HarmonyNCCJ.
   For eight years, Walker was director of adult education and evangelization at St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Independence. There he prepared couples for marriage, worked with families from pregnancy to baptism, knew folks in their health and illness and deaths, much like a pastor.
   Walker’s remarkable ability to develop and treasure relationships led one high school member of the parish to say to him, “You must have the greatest job in the world because every week your friends come to visit you.”
   And relationships become the focus of Walker’s work as Faith Communities Program Coordinator at HarmonyNCCJ, where he wants to be a resource for clergy and laity, and to help promote efforts fostering interfaith understanding, such as the upcoming Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition at Union Station.
   “For the past several years, I’ve been paying attention to two trends in spiritual life in America. On one hand, there is a growing recognition of the tensions and opportunities that arise from our diversity of faiths, few of which are well understood. On the other hand, many religious institutions suffer from decreasing commitment to them.
   “Despite all their flaws, gathered religious communities help us to resist the excessive individualism and materialism of our culture by reminding us of the sacred all around us if we would but open our eyes.”
   Bringing groups together in partnership across racial, ethnic and religious lines “awakens us from our complacency in our own faith practices and helps us understand the sacredness of life from a completely different perspective and sheds new light on our own spiritual paths,” he says.
   Congregational Partners, a program developed by Janet Moss, and the annual HarmonyNCCJ Choral Celebration Concert are two of many ways people can “become acquainted, grow in friendship and mature in commitment.”
   Walker mentioned a white man who said, “I like having black friends” but did nothing to help resolve the societal problems remaining from the legacy of racism. “Without commitment, his faith was still immature,” Walker said.
   Not only is Walker new to his position; his position is new at HarmonyNCCJ. Its executive director Diane Hershberger, says, “We are committed to supporting faith communities as they bridge racial and interfaith boundaries.”

619. 060712 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Respect For Differences Sings To Heart

   For her Independence Day sermon, one member of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council interpreted the American motto, E Pluribus Unum — From Many, One — in light of the many faiths now practiced in our nation and our community.
   The Rev. Kathy Riegelman was stunned in 1999 when she attended her first meeting of the Council. “I was in seminary, and I thought this would be a helpful academic exercise. It was close to Valentine’s Day, so someone brought heart-shaped cookies. I remember sitting there, overwhelmed by the company, looking at my cookie and trying to get a grasp on what it meant to be part of this gathering of faiths from A to Z, American Indian to Zoroastrian.
   “Our nation is built on the twin principles of religious freedom and the guarantee that no religion would ever be established as a ‘state religion.’”
   This is often understood as the principle of tolerance, the acknowledgment of diversity.
   But Riegelman said the Many cannot become One if we merely tolerate each other. Disengagement from each other is “a passive form of hostility.”
   On the other hand, becoming one does not mean all religions collapse into sameness. She has learned in her seven years on the Council this does not, cannot and should not happen. The differences and disagreements persist.
   But when these differences are respectfully engaged, a oneness in the “covenants of citizenship” develops. Such active relationships are beyond tolerance and can be called “pluralism,” a term Riegelman borrowed from Harvard scholar Diana Eck. Another term   for this, used by Martin Luther King, Jr., is “the beloved community,”
   Riegelman gave two examples of pluralism, one public, one private, where relationships, more than ideas, heal.
   On Sept 11, 2001, the Council gathered as it had planned to do, to announce its upcoming “Gifts of Pluralism” conference scheduled for October. “As the terror of that morning befell us, I realized there was no place I would have rather been than in the company of my friends of many faiths. We faced the horror together, knowing we would help and support each other. Our message of interfaith dialogue and understanding took on new urgency.”
   Riegelman, a Unitarian Universalist, works as a chaplain in a Catholic hospital with patients of many faiths. Her second example was the enormous comfort the beloved interfaith community offered at the sudden death in a Muslim family.
   “I have not lost that sense of awe from my first Council meeting. Yes, I enjoy the intellectual engagement. But it is my heart that sings when we come together.”

618. 060705 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Children Learn, Teach Through Meditation

   How to get the kids to take their naps? This was the problem Matt Barr faced. “In 2001 I was teaching a class of Montessori preschool children, ages three to five. Everything was terrific; work time was going well, recess was fun, the children loved my singing songs and the stories. But one time of day did not go smoothly at all.
   “I lost control of the children at nap time, or rather they lost control of themselves and I was unable to help them find control.”
   Matt tried all sorts of tricks. None worked. He knew he had at least to calm himself down. That’s when he thought of meditation.
   He went to a meditation workshop at the Rime Buddhist Center. After two weeks, he was in much better shape, but the children were still “as restless as ever.”
   So he decided to try a “de-religioned” version of meditation with the children. It worked.  Matt studied more and has made meditation a part of the daily routine. If for any reason he could not lead a meditation, the children were “always disappointed.”
   Now the children are able to do meditation without him. From a small wooden box they select a picture (Matt is an artist) representing a type of meditation, strike a bell and meditate. A drawing of an ear, for example, is an icon for listening meditation.
   In preparing for conducting a workshop in San Diego, he compiled a 40-page book, Teaching Meditation to Children. It outlines his studies and techniques, including use of a raisin, breath, thankfulness, creativity, walking, stabilizing and “tonglen” meditation. (For information, write him at
   Meditation is useful not only in groups but also when a single child is distressed. He asks, “Would you like to do a stabilizing meditation now?” The answer is usually yes. The meditation helps the child to stop crying and then to recount the incident calmly or simply forget about it.
   After a vacation in India where he met the Dalai Lama, he showed the children photographs from his trip, some of which were of Buddhas in meditation. When he took the children to visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and they rounded a corner, they screamed, “Mr Matt! It’s the Buddha!” as they discovered the large Amida Buddha on the stairway to the third floor.
   They asked if they could sit with the Buddha and meditate. Matt said yes. “The hundreds of people walking through them did not break their concentration at all. Eventually people stopped walking through them and stood on side to observe the children. It was one of my proudest moments in my teaching career, but the students were doing the teaching.”

   How to get the kids to take their naps? This was the problem Matt Barr, teacher at Lavonna Peterson Montessori School in Kansas City, faced. “In 2001 I was teaching a class of preschool children, ages three to five. Everything was terrific; work time was going well, recess was fun, the children loved my singing songs and the stories. But one time of day did not go smoothly at all.
   “I lost control of the children at nap time, or rather they lost control of themselves and I was unable to help them find control.”
   Matt tried all sorts of tricks. None worked. He knew he had at least to calm himself down. That’s when he thought of meditation.
   He went to a meditation workshop at the Rime Buddhist Center. After two weeks, he was in much better shape, but the children were still “as restless as ever.”
   So he decided to try a “de-religioned” version of meditation with the children. It worked.  Matt studied more and has made meditation a part of the daily routine. If for any reason he could not lead a meditation, the children were “always disappointed.”
   Now the children are able to do meditation without him. Matt is a ’97 graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute and likes to illustrate children’s books, so it was easy for him to prepare drawings to store in a small wooden box from which the children select a picture  representing a type of meditation, strike a bell and meditate. A drawing of an ear, for example, is an icon for listening meditation.
   In preparing for conducting a Montessori workshop in San Diego, he compiled a 40-page book, Teaching Meditation to Children. It outlines his studies and techniques, including use of a raisin, breath, thankfulness, creativity, walking, stabilizing and “tonglen” meditation. (For information, write him at
   He’s already done several such workshops. The next is scheduled for New York. He has a knack for transforming adult information into ways children can understand. (While others have written for very young children, Matt’s work is for 3 and older.)
   Meditation is useful not only in groups but also when a child is distressed. He asks, “Would you like to do a stabilizing meditation now?” The answer is usually Yes. The meditation helps the child to stop crying and then to recount the incident calmly or simply forget about it. This happens at least twice a day.
   The cover on his book pictures some of his class, including his daughter, now 7, was taken at the Amida Buddha at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
   After a vacation in India where he met the Dalai Lama, he showed the children photographs from his trip, some of which were of Buddhas in meditation. When he took the children to visit the Nelson and they rounded a corner from a gallery of contemporary art, they screamed, “Mr Matt! It’s the Buddha!” as they discovered the giant golden statue on the stairway to the third floor.
   They asked if they could sit with him and meditate. Matt said yes. “The hundreds of people walking through them did not break their concentration at all. Eventually people stopped walking through them and stood on side to observe the children. It was one of my proudest moments in my teaching career, but the students were doing the teaching.”

617. 060628 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Magdalene Theory Decades Old in KC

   A Kansas City religious leader, long before Dan Brown wrote The Da Vinci Code,  suggested that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married.
   In 1916, Charles Fillmore, who with his wife, Myrtle, founded the Unity School of Christianity, now a world-wide ministry headquartered here, wrote, “[Jesus] loved Mary [Magdalene]. Mary anointed his feet with oil. She wept over him. She loved him. Mary was the first at the sepulcher; she was there before daylight looking for her Lord’s body. . . . Now, if there has not been something a little closer than the love of friends between these two, why should she have taken such a vital, loving interest in Jesus? Why should she have claimed his body? What right had she? He had relatives; it was their right to take charge of that body. So, we [could] discern that Mary was the wife of Jesus.”
   This passage is quoted in Embracing the Feminine Nature of the Divine by the Rev. Toni G. Boehm, recently dean of the Unity seminary. Fillmore’s point, and Boehm’s, is that the divine integrates both masculine and feminine.
   I mention this bit of local history because so many readers had things to say about this space two weeks ago when it summarized Pastor Paul Smith’s thoughts about The Da Vinci Code. One of his points was that Christianity has marginalized women.
   Coincidentally, last week’s column mentioned Catholic interest in the ordination of women.  A reader wrote to invite me to eighth annual celebration of “St. Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles,” on her feast day, July 23. The sponsoring groups, Call to Action and FutureChurch, promote women in ministry, and have found churches to host their annual observances, this year Community Christian Church.
   While in Christianity the idea of Magdalene as the wife of Jesus is controversial, as is the ordination of women, other traditions present the divine itself in female form. Take Hinduism, for example. Sarasvati, a river goddess, represents wisdom and cultural excellence. Merchants love Vishnu’s consort, the goddess Lakhsmi, because she brings wealth. The goddess Parvati seduces Shiva into marriage with its blessings.
   But the stereotypical roles assigned to male and female by our culture do not limit Hindu conceptions. The goddess Durga, for example, with her many arms, is both beautiful and potent, and wields many weapons to battle demons. Kali is another battlefield goddess.
   Why do most Christians think of God as male and unmarried? Is this because of a profound understanding of divine nature, or because of  history, politics or grammatical convention?

616. 060621 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Getting On Topic But Off Site

   I thought it was unusual for a new Catholic group, Topics To Go, to schedule Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, pastor of St. Leo’s Church in Detroit, to speak here not at a Catholic facility, but rather at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church this Saturday morning at 9:30. His topic is “All Our Children, A Pastoral Response to Homosexuals.” (“Always Our Children” is a document published in 1997 by the United States Catholic Conference.”)
   The announcement flier says that the “group invites speakers from the local and national Catholic community to address issues some might consider too sensitive for discussion in traditional Catholic institutions.” The Gumbleton lecture follows a series on church structure and the role of women in the Church.
   Nancy Bone, one of the organizers of Topics To Go, is a “cradle Catholic.” She attended St. Louis University, a Jesuit school. She and her husband lived in Washington, D.C. where she worked for the CIA 30 years before they retired and moved to Kansas City six years ago. Wherever she has lived, she has practiced her faith.
   When Vatican II made clear that the Church is not just the clergy but also the laity, she, like many others, grew to appreciate more deeply the role of the people in sharing responsibility for faith development.
   “Some of our group, which comprises Catholics from the two local dioceses, both sides of the state line, have heard too often that we must not discuss the ‘O’ word — ordination, when we consider the role of women in the church,” Nancy said. “Rather than embarrass the priests we love by pressuring them to host discussions that could get them into trouble, we decided to take our conversations to neutral places. After all, parish property is not the only place for us to practice our faith.
   “Our desire is to understand the Church’s position and to learn other views as the Church finds itself in the modern world. Our discussions are not about theological fundamentals of the faith but rather about social and ethical issues that we as adult Catholics need to explore responsibly.
   “We are not an action organization. We do not take positions on any of these issues. We simply need to talk about topics such as authority, sexuality, accountability, the role and responsibilities of the laity. Having complete freedom to have conversations about things that matter to us, even if they are topics some might forbid, is essential for adults who take their faith seriously.”

Fiction uncovers four truths

   Pastor Paul Smith of the Broadway Church is preaching a four-part series on The Da Vinci Code. While the story is fiction, Smith says it reveals four important truths, and “attacking the bad facts in the story is like accusing Jesus of making up the story of the Prodigal Son and therefore saying there is no truth to it.”
   Each of the four truths have been “covered up,” Smith says. Here is his list of  topics:
   *Original diversity.— “We have been taught that our orthodox faith of today is like a single tree rooted and grounded in the apostles from the very beginning. But now we discover it was originally more like a grove of diverse trees, with one tree finally crowding out the rest into a single Fourth Century version. The winners then rewrote history, as they always do, to cover-up the original diversity and evolutionary progression.”
   *Lost gospels.— “The winners banned the other gospels they didn’t agree with. Dysfunctional families always have secrets! Some of these lost gospels have recently come to light in the Nag Hammmadi discoveries. Just as the Spirit may have guided the rise of a single Orthodoxy to prevail so that Christianity could survive, so Spirit is now surely guiding our further evolution by restoring these lost gospels, especially the amazing Gospel of Thomas.”
   *Marginalizing women.— “The sacred feminine, both of God and humankind, embodied in the legend of Mary’s marriage and child with Jesus, was neglected. Worship in many churches today — with all the divine Him's, He’s, Father’s, King’s and Lord’s — would convince an observer that God is male, not to mention the absence of women among the priests and pastors.”
   *Distorting the humanity of Jesus.— “Most in the early church believed that Jesus was divine, but they debated how this is true. Over the first few centuries, people came to see that that Jesus was both human and divine. Unfortunately this orthodoxy prevented any further evolution by making sure that Jesus was the only human being who could claim divinity. An  earlier understanding that Jesus was human and divine like all of us and taught us to rediscover our own divinity by going within, was covered up.”
   Smith believes divine revelation continues to us today. “Jesus said, ‘I have many more things to tell you but you can’t bear them now (John 16:12).’ Authentic Christianity is and has always been an evolving spiritual path that leads to more and more truth.”
    The series will be available at and CDs from Broadway Church,  3931 Washington, Kansas City, MO 64111.

West meets East in Sunday school class

Mani M. Mani, M.D., is a Christian. He was born in Kerala in southwest India, where Christian traditions go back to the First Century. His family has been Christian since 1760. As he grew up, he thought nothing about his neighbors being Hindu or Muslim. “They invited us to their festivals, and we invited them to ours,” he says.
   He came to the University of Kansas Medical Center in 1969 to pursue a medical career  which is now honored not only here but around the world where he has helped to establish burn clinics. Last month, the Asian American Chamber of Commerce of Kansas City presented him its Civic Leader of the Year award.
   Mani contrasts India with the US: “I grew up as part of a small minority. My friends belonged to different religions. This was a fact of life. Pluralism — the new buzz word here — was our way of life. I grew up learning to respect different faiths. I am puzzled by the hostility and misconceptions I sometimes hear expressed about non-Christians in this city. Even the otherwise educated are ignorant about other faiths.”
   So Mani this spring decided to present a series on world religions to his own Sunday School class.
   He began the session on Islam by asking, “How many of you have a friend or an acquaintance who is a Muslim?” He said maybe three out of perhaps 60 people raised their hands. “At the end of the class, I had a surprise. Everyone knows and likes the custodian at my church. I had him come to the front of the class and I introduced him as a wonderful practicing Muslim from Palestine. It blew most of my classmates away to realize that they had worked with a such fine person of a different faith.”
   Paul W Brand, M.D., a professor of surgery, was a great influence on Mani. “Brand developed a system for managing the deformities caused by leprosy. He taught us to look at the ‘leper’ as a whole human being.”
   Mani cites an account of Brand in Philip Yancy’s Soul Survivor. To Yancy’s astonishment, a leper gives thanks for his disease. The leper explains, “Apart from leprosy, I would have been a normal man with a normal family, chasing wealth and a higher position in society. I would never have known such wonderful people as Dr Paul and Dr Margaret [Brand], and I would never have known the god who lives who lives in them.”
   Mani asks, “Are we ready to see the whole person in such a way that our souls and our community will be transformed, or will hostility and misunderstanding keep us from knowing our neighbors?”

Test your RQ (Religion Quotient)

   Quiz time again. Answers below. Total possible points: 100. Less than 20 points, better study up to be an informed citizen. Between 20 and 40, average and above. Between 41 and 70, really good. Above 70, wanna write a guest column for this space?
   You can name the major religions of the world, but can you name their divisions?
   1. What are the three main branches of Christianity? (2 point for each)
   2. What are the two main divisions of Islam? (3 points each)
   3. What are the three main forms of American Judaism? (3 points each)
   4. What are the two main branches of Buddhism? (5 points each)
   5. What are the two main expressions of Jainism? (7 points each)
   6. Using English, identify Muslim two sects named for numbers (7 points each)
   Whew! That was hard. Now answer questions about groups of religions.
   7. What are the three “Abrahamic” faiths? (2 points each)
   8. Name three faiths originating in Asia with members on the Kansas City Interfaith Council. (3 points each)
   9. Name three religions formed after the 14th Century with members on the Council. (6 points each)
   10. Name the two “primal” faiths on the Council. (4 points each)
   1. Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism. Roman and Eastern churches split in 1054, and Protestantism developed out of Catholicism in the 16th Century.
   2. Sunni and Shi’a.
   3. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox.
   4. Mahayana, Theravada. Some consider Tibetan Buddhism a third branch and call it Vajrayana.
   5. Digambara (sky-clad), Svetambara (white-robed).
   6. Among the sects in Shi’a Islam are the Seveners (a development of the Ismailis) and the Twelvers (Imamis or Ithna Asharis).
   7. Judaism, Christianity, Islam.
   8. Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism.
   9. Sikhism, Baha’i, Unitarian Universalism.
   10. American Indian and pagan.

How tall is our understanding?

   NEW YORK.— I wander up Fifth Avenue to 34th Street, to the Empire State Building, celebrating its 75th anniversary this month. For most of this time, it was the world’s tallest building.
   I try to understand things in terms of my own life scale. The building is about 1.2 times my age and roughly 270 times my height.
   It would take over 850,000 buildings on top of each other to reach the moon, over 3 billion to reach the sun, over 90 trillion to the next nearest star, and roughly 130x1019 to the edge of the universe, which is a lot larger than when we thought we could build a tower to the heavens, even if we do call such buildings “sky-scrapers.”
   The age of the building is about one fifth that of the city, less than one-fiftieth of historical time (since the development of writing) and .003 per cent of the time since humans first appeared. My calculator fails, so I’ll estimate the universe is about 1.8x108  times he age of the building.
   These enormous scales put religious estimates in perspective. Using Bishop James Ussher’s calculations, which placed the creation of the world a mere 6010 years ago, the universe is only about 80 times older than the building, and a lot more cramped.
   This contrasts with the ancient Hindu thinkers who measured the universe with the life of the god Brahma, or 155,520,000,000,000 years, which is a thousand times longer than the current astronomers’ estimate of the age of the universe. For the Hindus, after this universe expires, another will begin.
   The time scale of Bishop Ussher is a human scale, and harmonizes with the monotheistic emphasis on the revelation of the divine in history. God enters history, and works through it, to achieve his purpose. There is a beginning and an end to the story, a creation and judgment, and a pivot in history — the Exodus, the Resurrection, the Hijrah — which shapes and gives meaning to human life.
   The Hindu conception is cosmic. Many of the gods are transhistorical, revealed in inner life, rather than in the vicissitudes of time. Ultimate meaning is not found in the records of events but rather in transcendent awareness.
   As impressive and beautiful as the Empire State Building is, this meditation on scale has quickly moved beyond my comprehension, and probably also my math skills.
   Still, this sight, like any that opens our eyes, can remind us of our own infinitesimally tiny understandings, even as we sometimes glory in human achievements.

Lincoln achieved immortality

   HARTFORD, CT.— At the Community Leadership Association conference here, Doris Kearns Goodwin, baseball and presidential historian, spoke about Abraham Lincoln’s leadership qualities and signed her new book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, from which Steven Spielberg is creating a movie.
   Lincoln suffered many personal disappointments, including deaths in his family. His mother died when he was 9 and his beloved Ann Rutledge when he was 26. He did not seem to find comfort in the Christian idea that he would be reunited with his loved ones in a future existence. Goodwin said that he seemed to be motivated rather by the ancient Greek concept of immortality, that if one helped to make the world better, one would live on in the lives of others.
   Almost immediately after Lincoln’s assassination on Good Friday in 1865, he was compared with Jesus. For example, in this very town, the Rev. C. B. Crane, Pastor of South Baptist Church then said, “Jesus Christ died for the world. Abraham Lincoln died for his country.”
   So I asked Goodwin about Lincoln’s regard for Jesus. She said Lincoln did not show much interest in him; but that “as Lincoln aged, he became increasingly thoughtful about a divine presence.” Even though he never joined a church and seldom attended, he thought God had a purpose to be realized through the Civil War, she said.
   Lincoln was determined to align himself with what he could perceive of that purpose. He preserved the Union and ended slavery. His leadership subordinated personal dislikes to these ends. Thus he embraced his rivals and enemies, appointed them to his cabinet and won them over, giving the nation the most skilled persons in critical roles during great peril for the Republic.
   Goodwin cited the Second Inaugural Address, delivered six week’s before his death, because it does not gloat over the Union’s victory, nor does he call the South evil. Lincoln noted that both sides “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.”
   Goodwin summarized Lincoln’s style in the word “empathy” and mentioned the famous end of the address to illustrate it, where instead of condemning, he reached out in compassion:  “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have born the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
   Can Lincoln’s immortality be found, as he hoped, in our nation today?

Remembering Father Thom, an interfaith pioneer

  Seven years ago today, a full week of years, Father Thomas J. Savage, S.J., died at age 51. His work in Kansas City reached far beyond what was then Rockhurst College, where he was president from 1988 to 1996, into many areas of civic life. Transplanted from New England, in a short time he seemed to know or know about almost everybody in town.
   He served on business and philanthropic boards. With degrees in urban planning, in public policy and in education, he co-chaired the FOCUS process which led to a comprehensive master plan for Kansas City. He was indeed a “mover and a shaker,” admired and loved. I think of him as a spiritual magician, able to get things done quickly with utmost respect for all involved.
   I remember him especially for his interfaith commitments, for without his contributions and the prestige he lent, interfaith work here might still be considered peripheral rather than an essential component of building community.
   Shortly after he came to Kansas City, I invited him to join the Christian Jewish Muslim Dialogue Group. Its monthly luncheon meetings were closed in order to encourage the frankest possible exchange among the members who grew to trust each other. At those meetings he united an authentic expression of his own views with evident empathy for all sides, an ability he attributed to the extensive Jesuit acquaintance with many faiths in many countries around the globe. He became a model for us.
   In 1989, just a few months after the formation of the Kansas City Interfaith Council, his hosting of the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Sunday Family Ritual Meal at Rockhurst boosted the visibility of the Council in the community and led to its growth.
   The Rev. Robert Hill, Community Christian Church pastor, and with Thom, a founder of radio KCMO’s interfaith “Religion on the Line” Sunday talk show, says of Thom, “I know of no one who publicly or privately challenged my Protestantism as fervently as Thom, and I know of no one who respected it more deeply.” Thom’s remarkable presence conveyed comfort and ease  both with his own views and the views of others. In Hill’s words, “he was a bridge builder to all people.” The acceptance he offered regardless of disagreement is a key to mature interfaith encounter.
   His quick organizational insights were legendary. He once advised me to clarify whether interfaith work here was a movement, a network or an institute, a suggestion that eventually led to the 2001 “Gifts of Pluralism” interfaith conference.
   Even when riding his bicycle, Thom vibrated with the joy of living. But he chose not to disclose his homosexuality and his affliction with AIDS. Perhaps his empathy for others was deepened by secret suffering. Is this posthumous revelation somehow a gift to us and our faiths?

Sikhs emphasize importance of equality

   With about 23 million adherents, the fifth largest faith on the planet is Sikhism, after Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. We are fortunate here to be a regional center for Sikhs with the Midwest Sikh Association in Shawnee and, for American converts, with the Sat Tirath Ashram in Kansas City. Both are listed on the Harvard University Pluralism Project web site,, and the Shawnee gurdwara (temple) is profiled.
   Originating in the Punjab region of India, Sikhism developed in a context of encounter between Islam and Hinduism. Although considered a separate revelation, Sikhism shares characteristics with both other faiths. In fact, the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, contains material from both Muslim and Hindu writers as well as unique messages. The Christian New Testament appeared after the death of Jesus, but the Sikh scripture was composed and compiled directly by the religion’s founders.
   From Guru Nanak’s early insight that, in God, the differences of religion mean no difference in our shared humanity, Sikhism has emphasized and defended the dignity of all spiritual paths. Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded for saving Hindus from a Mughal persecution.
   Opposing the caste system of the time, the Sikhs expressed their egalitarian style in many ways. The Golden Temple at Amritsar, for example, has four doors so that anyone may enter from any direction. The langar, the free kitchen instituted by Guru Amar Das, is open to the public. Food served there is eaten with everyone, dignitary or ordinary person, seated on the floor, on the same level. In order to include those with religious dietary restrictions, only vegetarian food is prepared. Sikh hospitality is famous.
   The commitment to equality is suggested even in the Punjabi language in which “God” has no gender, where in English “God” has historically generated masculine pronouns. Sikhism has no formal priesthood, and the reader of the scripture, the granthi, may be male or female.
   In common with Hinduism, Sikhism has a well-developed sense of devotional life and the revelation of the divine within each person.
   In common with Islam, Sikhism is monotheistic and emphasizes the obligation to work for justice. Those who are initiated into the order of the Khalsa follow in the tradition of the Gurus who promoted justice at all costs.
   A person’s social status or caste had been indicated by the name one bore. So when the Khalsa was begun, the men, regardless of their backgrounds, received the new name Singh which means lion, and the women, Kaur, which means princess, so that all would be equal.
    Members of the Khalsa may also observe “the five K’s”— kesh (uncut hair), kanga (comb), kara (steel wrist band), kirpan (sword) and kaccha (a kind of trousers). Each has a meaning. For example, the kara, a circle, is a statement that God is one without beginning or end.
   The Sikh faith has no internationally celebrated weekly holy day but rather follows local customs, so in Shawnee, visitors are welcome most Sundays.

Let all sit down to dinner together

   Thirty years ago Ed Chasteen, professor at William Jewell College, invited folks to a pot-luck dinner he called a “Human Family Reunion.” For thirty years his passion to bring folks of all races, ethnic backgrounds, social status and faiths has continued with such dinners across the country as well as around Kansas City.
   These dinners, open to anyone and everyone invited to speak, have as their “sole (soul) agenda” simply getting to know one another. “Asking who’s right is the wrong question,” Chasteen says.
   Last week thirty students in his pluralism class — and thirty members of the community whose identities were assumed by the students — were featured at the latest of these upbeat gatherings. Instead of using textbooks for the course, the students met, studied and “became” members of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council and associates. For example, student Roxi Davit became Doug Alpert, the Jewish member of the Council.
   In addition to students visiting  in Council members’ homes and their places of worship during the term, they kept in touch by email and phone. Each student wrote his or her assumed person’s “autobiography.” And each of the Council members visited the entire class.
   Student Drew Korschot, who became Northern Cherokee Gary Langston, praised the class. “It was like having 30 teachers,” he said. A Christian himself, Korschot felt that encountering those from other faiths both enriched his horizon and confirmed his own faith.
   Student Brittany Goldschmidt, alias Baha’i Fran Otto, said the class helped her realize she had filters that kept her from seeing beyond her own background, but now she has discovered faiths she had never even heard of before.
   Caroline Baughman, pagan faith Council member, announced that the Council was so inspired by the contact with the students that it has decided to develop a student Interfaith Council. The Council’s web site is
   The evening ended with Chasteen noting former students who returned to campus for this latest “edition” of the Human Family Reunion. But one of those former students was already on campus: Andy Pratt, now dean of the chapel and vice-president of religious ministries.
   Chasteen’s fictional hero is Don Quixote who says, “Too much sanity may be madness. And the greatest madness of all may be to see the world as it is. And not as it should be.”
   Chasteen comments: “I see the world as it should be. It should be a place where all people are friends. A place where all people feel safe. If the fact the world is not this way causes me to abandon my vision of a better world, then the bad guys have won already.
   “We all endorse one another. We all share a spiritual quest. By becoming friends, we all become our best selves and most surely find our individual and common purpose.”

Islam a religion that works toward justice

   Muslim students at UMKC have designated this “Islamic Awareness Week,” with programs continuing today and tomorrow in front of Royall Hall. The interactive sessions encourage people to ask questions, said Muhammed Banday, one of the organizers.
   Opportunities for people learn about Islam are important, Banday said, because so many think of Islam as “foreign” and “negative.”
   Actually, Islam has been a part of America since at least 1790, according to South Carolina  records. Perhaps a third of U.S. Muslims are African-American. It is the fastest growing faith in the U.S and the second largest religion in the world. Only 18 per cent of the world’s Muslims are Arab.
   When Banday spoke about Islam having a negative image, I thought about readers who send me quotations from the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, and other material to prove Islam is a moon-goddess religion, or that it is inherently violent or that Muhammad mistreated women. These charges are antique and should be retired to the age they came from, when Christians thought the world was flat.
   What does Banday want people to know about Islam? “Islam is the worship of the Creator, it consists of doing good, to purify oneself, a wholistic way of living.”
   Muhammad, a singularly righteous man, was not god or the son of God, but rather the “seal” of the prophets who include Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Muhammad is beloved for his wisdom and compassion. Believing that God commanded that all people be respected, the needy cared for and safety insured, he was able to bring peace and justice to a fractious land.
   While primal faiths often focus on nature, and Asian faiths often look within the individual, Islam, like the other monotheistic traditions of Judaism and Christianity, finds a power working in history toward justice.
   Alas, not long after Muhammad’s death, the community he established broke apart. Just as disputes arose among the followers of Jesus who formed churches shortly after his death (except Muslims do not believe Jesus died), so after Muhammad’s death, the ummah, the community of Muslims, was eventually torn by civil war.
   As the history of Christendom is full of both corrupt and enlightened eras, so Islam has been used in many ways. It can be argued that Islam historically has been more tolerant than Christianity, but what some Muslims call the recent “hijacking” of their faith by extremists makes that hard to remember.
   Just as Christians strive to honor the integrity of their faith, so these students commit themselves to the purity of Islam’s ideals. Surely we all need to understand each other better if we are to yield to the power working in history toward justice.

Violent death reflects a human condition

   The Bible contains some 600 instances of lethal violence, according to a report cited by Martin E. Marty, perhaps the most prolific scholar of religion in United States today, speaking at the Saint Paul School of Theology last week.
   The violence that most concerns Christians is the crucifixion of Jesus, remembered with special emphasis this Good Friday.
   What is the role of violence in faith? We abhor terrorism, but most people feel self-defense is permissible or even required, and some advocate pre-emptive strikes against a presumed enemy. Many faiths condemn violence against oneself.
   The recently discovered Gospel of Judas, excluded from the collection of texts that eventually became the New Testament, suggests that Jesus asked Judas, in effect, to betray him. Was this assisted suicide? Should Judas be praised for helping to complete God’s plan through which salvation is available to all?
   Religious stories have power because they can stimulate so many questions and insights. Sometimes comparing stories can help us see them in a new light.
   For example, other religious founders lived full lives and died without assault. The Buddha died of dysentery at age 80. A sick Muhammad died in his wife’s arms at 62. Mahavira died naturally at 72.
   But Jesus was put to death when he was about 33. Why is the violence so important to the story? Could not God have found the beauty of the work and teachings of Jesus sufficient to redeem humankind even if Jesus had died from, say, cancer?
   A story of violence in the Shia tradition of Islam may suggest one of many possible answers. In 680 at Karbala (alas, still in the news today), Husayn, a grandson of Muhammad, and his family and companions and children were brutally massacred. The anniversary, Ashurah (Feb 9 this year), is observed by some Shii with a flagellation ritual, some by beating their chests (compare Luke 23:48) and some by abstaining from all entertainment for 40 or more days as a sign of mourning. Passion plays reenacting this massacre of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic year) are performed.
   Husayn’s witness to pristine Islamic values like charity was met by the ruthless power of the Umayyad Dynasty. His sister, Zaynab, who witnessed her sons’ deaths and other horrors, inspires women today with her courageous response to tyranny.
   Karen Armstrong, another scholar, writes, “the Karbala tragedy became a symbol for Shii Muslims of the chronic injustice that seems to pervade human life.”
   For many serious Christians, the violent death of an innocent man similarly places the human condition at the center of attention and requires a similar life of integrity, regardless of the cost.

Reason and religion can co-exist

   I prefer to praise rather than pan, but so many people have asked my opinion of The End of  Faith by Sam Harris that I’ll give it. The book is a brilliant but wrong-headed rant against religion and deserves a fuller response than I can make here.
   Harris identifies religion with a literally-read sacred text. Never mind that Christianity, for example, arose from a community, not a text, and that the Bible did not approach is present form until 400 years after Jesus. The church produced the Bible; the text did not create the faith.
   Must a text be read literally? Harris thinks so. This makes it easier for him to dismiss it. But Jews are proud of their tradition of arguments about scripture. Origen, an early church father, read the Bible allegorically. The Roman Catholic Church honors other sources (not sola scriptura) in matters of faith. Martin Luther scorned the Epistle of James. John Wesley placed scripture in the context of church history, rational thinking and one’s personal experience with Christ. Christians in hundreds of denominations disagree with each other about how ancient words should be interpreted in today’s world.
   Defining religion by text leads Harris to absurdities. Citing passages like Deut. 13:7-11 which requires the Israelites to kill those of other faiths, he attacks moderates, who don’t go around killing people, as “in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world” because they can’t adequately criticize literalism or terrorism. This is because liberals believe that “religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse.”
   I made an off-hand list of a dozen familiar liberals who don’t take the Bible literally and checked his bibliography of 600 books to see if he had read any. Not one was listed. Glaringly absent was Martin E. Marty’s 5-volume The Fundamentalism Project.
   Harris subtitled his book Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. Harris decries “religious tolerance . . . driving us toward the abyss” in favor of reason. Harris fails to account for the fact that at least as many evil things have been done in the name of reason as religion. And religion and reason need not be opposites.
   Religion can be more about community than literal beliefs. I once had a student who asked every member of his church to find out why they joined. Neighborliness, the youth program, the music, the church suppers. Not one person said they joined because of belief. Visiting churches as I do, I find a wide range of beliefs in most.
   Religion begins as an encounter with the sacred — a person, event or revelation. Only later do people in community try to formulate an understanding of it, with subsequent revisions. A faith continues as a sacred story which gives people a sense of who they are, how to behave and what destiny lies ahead.
   Religion is not the villain Harris claims, nor is reason the savior. I still think respectful encounter is a better hope.

Second City is first when it comes to divinity school

   “You go to bed with someone you think you know, and when you wake up you discover that it was someone else—another man or another woman, or a man instead of a woman, or a woman instead of a man, or a god, or a snake, or a foreigner or alien, or a complete stranger, or your own wife or husband, or your mother or father.”
   So writes distinguished scholar Wendy Doniger, Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, in one of her provocative books, The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade.
   In Gen. 4:1, we read, “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived . . . .” Knowing someone through the intimacy of the embrace is sometimes imagined to be the most truthful revelation, but Doniger documents an astounding number of stories of both deception and discovery that challenge our assumptions. They range from Hindu myths to Guys and Dolls, where a bachelor complains, “You marry a girl, and you wake up with somebody else.” Of course there is Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” and the Bible’s Rachel and Leah.
   Then there is the report that appeared in the New Yorker’s constabulary notes: “A Hudson Road resident reported a strange man in her bed, but then realized it was her husband.”
   Stories of people pretending to be someone else are widespread if improbable. Doniger asks why sexual deception or fantasy is so intriguing. People lie about love and sex, but Doniger concludes that sex is really more about truth than, as others have argued, about power.
   Doniger gives five lectures in Lawrence and Topeka Apr 1-4, including the keynote address at KU’s Religious Studies Banquet Apr. 3, 7:30 pm at the Student Union, when her subject is “You Can’t Get Here From There: The Logical Paradox of Ancient Indian Creation Myths.”
   She is not the only Chicago religious scholar in our area this season. Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus, one of the nation’s most perceptive and prolific writers about  politics and religion, gives the Cleaver Lecture in Religion and Public Life at the Saint Paul School of Theology Apr. 6 at 11 am. His title is “The Future of Civility in Church and Politics.”
   The dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School, Richard A. Rosengarten, was in Kansas City recently and a future column will summarize his lecture. But for now, I only mention his off-the-cuff remark that the “Div” school there is the best in the world.
   People sometimes ask me about theological education, and I note the excellence of Kansas City schools and the superb faculties they have attracted. The KU Department of Religion has a unique  heritage with special gifts. I also mention Harvard, Yale, the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley and other schools. But as these visiting profs show, for range, depth and freshness, it’s Chicago. Forgive me. I’m an alum.

Be a spoke in the wheel of the holy

   Many religious leaders, regardless of their tradition, see enormous problems in our culture. Those attending the 2001 “Gifts of Pluralism” interfaith conference here said their intent was “to explore sacred directions for troubled times” and specifically addressed environmental, personal and social crises.
   Some say the root cause of the crises, insults, deprivations and violence reported every day in this paper is the overwhelmingly secularistic approach which dominates our lives.
   To remedy the brokenness and misery of humanity, some seek help from governmental declarations of religious values (like Missouri House Resolution 13) and official displays of icons of faith (like the Ten Commandments). Last week’s column maintained that such actions betray the American heritage of religious liberty, but that freedom itself “does not cure our spiritual ills.”
   What does cure? Each religious path may offer a specific answer worthy of respect. And among them, it may be possible to find common themes.
   * The first theme is wonder. Our age (of Fosomax?) is marked by so many competing demands for our attention and loyalty that we are torn like spokes from a wheel whose hub is demolished. We are scattered to the roadside, disempowered, disconnected from the source of life. We grasp for the correct antiperspirant, the right sleeping aid and the latest hot DVD as if they are the answers to life’s questions.
   But when we recognize our priorities are partial and disjointed, and surrender them to the center, when the spokes connect to the hub of the holy, the road opens and the horizon is limitless. We are humbled and shaken in awe at the privilege of beholding the infinite.
   This awareness is always available, but distractions keep us from noticing. As Robert Thurman says, “This is nirvana. But we are very bad at enjoying it.”
   * Wonder engenders gratitude. Saying grace before meals, observing holy days and other rituals are faint but important echoes of awe because their intent is to reconnect us with sources beyond ourselves.
   * Gratitude matures into service. Service is love in action. Jobs become vocations. In business, making a fair return from providing a useful product becomes more important than exploiting workers and the environment to maximize profit. In politics, the corruption and urgency of special interests fade as decisions are made for the commonweal.
   Awe, thanksgiving and the passion to serve cannot be legislated. But people of faith, including atheists with faith in reason, can find the hub anywhere. We just need to pay attention.
   Secularistic priorities divide us within ourselves, from each other and from the environment  in a demonic war against knowing that we are all in this together.

'Government cannot be trusted with religion'

   Readers of this column have noted from time to time my deep concern about what I have called the “the brutality of our secularistic age.” This column promotes faith as a remedy. Why, then, readers ask, do I question a recognition of the Christian foundation for this nation?
   An initial answer is simple. Look at history.
   Although many founders of the United States were Christian, they created a secular government separate from the religious establishment.
   At the time of Independence, only about 10 per cent of the population were church members. The U.S. Constitution does not mention God or Christianity. There is no trace of the Ten Commandments in it.
   In the entire twenty volumes collecting our first president’s public and private correspondence and his official papers, Washington never mentions Jesus Christ. He wrote letters appreciating Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists. His famous letter to Jews in Newport, R.I., like letters to Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics, defends government neutrality in religion.
   Our second president, John Adams, signed a treaty ratified by the Senate in 1797 which says that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion . . . .”
   In a letter after becoming our third president, Thomas Jefferson created the metaphor of a “wall” separating church and state. He did not believe in the Trinity nor in  the miracles ascribed to Jesus. In his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” he wrote. “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. . . . It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”
   In what some might judge to be a self-righteous act by the North during the Civil War in 1864, “In God we trust” was added to our currency. During the Cold War, “Under God” was added in 1954 to the 1892 Pledge of Allegiance. Neither of these declarations seem to have been effective in preventing the corruption and disasters that have afflicted our nation.
   While a historical answer — the United States was not founded as a Christian nation — may be helpful to answer the readers’ question, the basic reason for opposing government entanglement with religion is this: Government cannot be trusted with religion. Our founders saw in Europe, and we see in Iraq today, the violence that comes from mingling politics and religion.
   On the other hand, Americans are free to exercise their faiths in their private lives, by associating in religious congregations and by bringing their faith values into civil   conversation.
   America was religiously diverse from its beginnings, and it is even more so today. The wisdom of the First Amendment protects religious liberty, but it does not cure our spiritual ills.  More about that next week.

Stories of sacrifice have right ring

   Christianity may be unique in the emphasis it has placed on creedal statements, but like most other religions, it has stories which present a sacred picture of the world and our place within it. With Jews and Muslims, Christians find in the story of Abraham a key picture of how God intervenes in human affairs, and how humans may respond.
   All three traditions deal with God’s direction to Abraham to sacrifice his own son. And this story was the pivot last week at the annual Interfaith Luncheon of the National Council of Jewish Women Greater Kansas City Section.
   Amelia Chilcoat, president of the Missouri Chapter of the International League of Muslim Women, presented a Muslim perspective in which Ishmael is the son selected for sacrifice. In Judaism, Isaac is the son selected. The Rev. Molly Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, noted the interpretations given to the story of Abraham in the Christian scriptures.
   Cantor Sharon Kohn of Congregation B’nai Jehudah called the episode of the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22:1-19) one of “the most problematic passages in all of the Holy Scriptures.” It asks “primal questions and leaves us to discover the answers for ourselves.” These questions include --
   * If a man such as Abraham could be put through such a trial, is it not reasonable that each of us might also have trials? How are we tested in our lives?
   * Did Abraham pass the test? Was he supposed to blindly follow God or was he supposed to argue with God as he did about Sodom and Gemorrah?
   * When are we to blindly follow the orders of those we trust? When should we ask more questions or even say “No”?
    The discussion was conducted with the grace and mutual regard that makes deep interfaith disagreements enlightening and helpful rather than threatening. The common story of Abraham was the platform for building community with respect for differences.
    But is there a story that speaks to the perfection of each version of revelation? Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz of Congregation Beth Shalom told of a man who possessed a beautiful ring with the power, if worn in faith, to make its owner loved by God and by people.
   Passed from generation to generation, it came to a man with three sons, all equally worthy. So he secretly had a jeweler create two replicas so skillfully that even he could not tell the original.
   Separately he gave each son a ring and died. In court each claimed primacy, but the judge advised them of the equality of their father’s love. Each is the true ring if worn to produce “affection untouched by prejudice.” For its wearer, each religion thus becomes the true faith. Each story reveals the divine.

Civic leaders are setting good examples

   For a dozen years this column has offered examples of how we in the Heartland have come to embrace religious diversity. Kansas City has been recognized nationally as a model for our interfaith efforts here.
   This achievement (not that we’re done) arises not from one or two organizations but from a pervasive and intensifying recognition of our pluralism. All areas of our lives are affected — business, government, schools, media, civic and religious organizations, friendships and even marriage.
   What are the factors that, despite lingering prejudice, create this especially hospitable environment here? Among many, here are three.
   * Diverse faith groups with respected leadership. One obvious requirement for an interfaith environment is a community of different traditions. With its Christian majority,  the metropolitan area now includes significant Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist populations. And smaller traditions, including the Zoroastrian, have also become integral to our social fabric, though we many not always be aware of the faiths of those around us.
   * A business and cultural infrastructure for multi-faith awareness. Institutions like the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the International Relations Council, Hallmark. Sprint and this newspaper, through their services and hiring, generate opportunities for understanding the diversity of the planet found now on our own soil.
   * Political leadership that models American respect for all faiths. With care for the separation of government and religion, those in office can deepen the meaning of mutual respect.  Former Kansas Governor Bill Graves, for example, was apparently the first such official in the nation to issue a Ramadan Proclamation recognizing the importance of the Muslim communities in the state; and his successor, Kathleen Sebelius, began her tenure with an interfaith service.
   In Missouri, Jackson County Executive Kathryn Shields formed an interfaith task force after 9/11 to insure all citizens’ religious rights were protected.
   But the most unusual example of leadership comes from Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes. You may recall that, to understate it, last year’s Mayors’ Prayer Breakfast was not widely hailed as an interfaith love-in. When its planning committee was unable to issue a statement that its intent was to be inclusive, Mayor Barnes said she would not attend this year’s breakfast. I wondered, would this be a “teaching moment” for the community?
   Her powerful message was received. The defect was repaired. This year, the welcome, the invocation, the benediction, the MC’s remarks and the featured speaker all declared the value of religious diversity more clearly, deliberately and forcefully than at any civic prayer breakfast I’ve ever attended.

Cooler heads prevail in Kansas City

Sometimes it seems the world is in flames and religion is providing the kindling. Even in our own community, sparks of ignorance and intolerance sometimes fly in an insistence that one’s  religious view not only is correct but must govern society.
   Fortunately these sparks find little tinder here because so many organizations and individuals are dedicated to recognizing our kinship and celebrating our diversity. In the heartland, we have become increasingly deliberate in multi-faith approaches.
   Here are a couple examples and an email.
   * The Center for Spirit at Work, founded eight years ago as the Cathedral Center for Faith and Work, then based at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, offers programs by people of all faiths. Recent speakers have included Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim leaders in their fields. The names are Kansas City imprints, such as Henry Bloch, Irv Hockaday, Gary Forsee, Tom McDonnell, Mike Haverty, Bill, Terry and Peggy Dunn, Dick Miller, Carol Marinovich, Kay Barnes, Jim Stowers, Shirley and Barnett Helzberg, Joan Israelite, Buck O’Neal, Alvin Brooks, Clyde Wendel, Adel Hall, Tom Hoenig and on an on.
   These sessions are open to the public. Those who attend get thinking of the highest quality from folks of different faiths about how the spirit informs, or can inform, the workplace. For information, call (816) 268-1077.
   * The Greater Kansas City Section of the National Council of Jewish Women again this year presents a luncheon program on the three Abrahamic faiths Feb. 28 with Amelia Chilcoat (Muslim),  Cantor Sharon Kohn (Jewish) and the Rev. Molly T. Marshall (Christian). For information, call (913) 648-0747.
   Both groups based in a particular faith promote understanding other faiths. This is the Kansas City way.
   * Simon Gatsby, formerly my administrative assistant, is a UMKC student now studying in Denmark. He sent this email a couple weeks ago: “Our local newspaper, a short bike ride from my kolligiet, printed drawings of Mohammed. They were drawn . . . out of an obvious ignorance of, or insensitivity to, Islam.
   “Some Muslims reacted by burning Danish flags and photos of Anders Fogh Rassmussen, and by threatening to bomb Aarhus (the city I live in). More recently embassies have been bombed and people have been killed.  What can be done?  . . . .It is my opinion that if an interfaith council like ours in Kansas City were here, and like us had a good working relationship with the press, then this recent outbreak of interfaith misunderstanding could have been prevented.  I hope this reconfirms [the Council's] commitment to, and belief in, interfaith work.”
   If you follow the news, perhaps no further comment from me is necessary.

Prayer breakfast a time to look past divisions

   Last year’s Mayors’ Prayer Breakfast led many folks to feel their faiths were not respected. Since then Professor Diana Eck, head of the Pluralism Project at Harvard, was in town. She asked about our experience here. She said that communities across the nation are addressing such occasions with varying success as Americans becomes aware of our many faiths.
   How do such gatherings best recognize our ethnic, political and religious diversity? Can we use these once-a-year opportunities to rise above our particular agendas and unite together in prayer, to celebrate and deepen our sense of community?  Can the prayer, the speakers and even the menu say, “We embrace all spiritual paths”?
   Not far from the site of this year’s Feb. 22 breakfast is Ilus Davis Park with its inscription of  the First Amendment to the Constitution. It can guide us. It guarantees freedom of religion, of speech, of the press and the right to assemble. Some have served in the armed forces to protect these liberties, some have provided other forms of leadership to exercise and guarantee them, and some have died in their defense.
   These freedoms do not mean it is appropriate to offer political speeches at a wedding, and a funeral is not the time for protesters to parade their interpretation of Leviticus.
   Instead, a civic prayer breakfast should inspire us to see our differences as pieces in a beautiful mosaic of freedom. We are a nation of many peoples and faiths, and that is our strength. And we have found ways of protecting our freedoms from government usurpation.
   Thus, while some may follow a particular tradition that teaches divorce is sinful, we    recognize that our nation contains people who apply the New Testament variously, and therefore civil law permits the freedom to divorce. We honor the right of those who, in practicing their faith, refuse blood transfusions; but we also allow those who disagree with this stance to accept transfusions.
   At least once a year, on this sacred occasion of civic prayer, it is appropriate to forgo arguing about abortion, stem-cell research, the teaching of evolution in science class, gay marriage, the war and other controversial issues. What is appropriate instead is to unite in the consecration of democracy which protects our faiths.
   And as we, whatever our belief, pray for America, let us also pray for the whole world, expressed in the Gospel tradition’s song, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” As we pledge allegiance to the United States of America, let our allegiance now also include the universal vision of Isaiah and other seers who proclaim that the divine is given not to a single nation or one religion but to all peoples.
   The prayer breakfast belongs not just to those on the right or the left or those only of a particular faith, but to every citizen, to every soul, as we cherish our community. Let us pray that it may be so.

Love lives beyond the words for it

   Love is the subject Pope Benedict XVI selected for his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, “God is love.” The Latin word caritas, from which our English word charity derives, is a translation of the Greek term agape.
   This column anticipating Valentines Day is not a lesson in Latin or Greek, but writers like C. S. Lewis have used Greek terms like agape (impersonal love), philia (friendship) and eros (erotic attraction) to identify different kinds of love. However, these distinctions may be more useful in theory and rhetoric than in experience. Plato, for example, recognized eros as the love of life itself.
   Other traditions also use different terms for different kinds of love. In some Hindu thought, kama (as in the Kama Sutra) is desire for pleasure, prema is self-giving love and bhakti is reverential devotion offered to the divine.
   Whether one looks to Mo-tzu in China, the Bodhisattva ideal in Buddhism, the Sufi mystics or Dante in the Christian tradition, love is the power which propels the cosmos. For most of us, love is a trail toward transcendence. In our finitude, we recognize the infinite. Whether we love music, our partner, our vocation, our community, our nation, walks on the beach, our religion, the Constitution or doing good for those in distress from a tsunami, we are enlarged; we touch something beyond ourselves.
   In such moments, we find ourselves participants in a pattern of meaning of which we had previously been hardly aware but which shapes and directs us, which makes sense out of our lives or fulfills them.
   A column like this should have a story to illustrate this point, but what better story is there than your own, dear reader? So please pause and insert your favorite love story here. Thank you.
   Now another term. Concupiscence is a perverted form of love which, instead of enlarging the self, constricts the self. Love welcomes the unlimited to the limited, but concupiscence wants the limited to be the ultimate.
   Concupiscence in politics is corruption of power, at least partly explained by I Tim 6:10: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” When money is sought to elevate the self rather than to serve others, it becomes concupiscence. As Tillich summarizes Augustine, “sin is the love which desires finite goods for their own sake and not for the sake of ultimate good.”
   This is why love begins in beholding, not in possessing. We are instead possessed by love, rather than in control of it. We yield to it or we destroy it. From it grows the beauty of duty and faithfulness.
   But even pure love is no guarantee of constant happiness. Sorrow overwhelms us with the death of a loved one. Yet does not love survive the grave?
   Vern Barnet does interfaith work in Kansas City. Reach him at

One's irritation is another's interfaith event

  This year’s first column mentioned plans for several interfaith events. One was the second annual Salaam Shalom (Peace) Celebration, a gathering planned for Jan 22, organized by a committee with Jewish, Christian and Muslim co-chairs. The event featured halal, kosher and vegetarian food prepared by famous Palestinian and Israeli cooks who came here expressly for the event and to support interfaith understanding.
   One irritated reader wrote me repeatedly. The $25 a meal fee was an ethical issue for him. He objects to charity balls to raise money for the needy and complained about this event. He contrasted the distressed family he is trying to help in the Middle East with the sumptuous “banquet” planned in Leawood.  He doubted that the family members he is helping would understand how we could celebrate when the problems they face are so great. He doubted that his adopted family could “graciously receive money [raised] from a feast in the midst of their suffering.” He asked me to address this issue in this space.
   I wrote him that “Jesus went to feasts, Gandhi moved with the rich and powerful, Martin Luther King got all dressed up to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in a la-de-da ceremony.” I suggested making friends of all faith is required wherever we are. If we can’t be friends here, how can we expect those under less favorable circumstances to find peace and succor?
   An announcement to the 500 guests at the buffet dinner poignantly revealed to me the power of the friendships that have been formed and deepened by creating this dinner. Dr Farrukh Shabbir, the husband of Mahnaz Shabbir, the Muslim co-chair, died earlier that day. The announcement was made by a close Jewish friend.
   Dr Shabbir had just returned in good health, with great joy, from fulfilling the Hajj, the pilgrimage Muslims are obliged to take to Mecca if they are able.
   When stricken, he was taken to the Catholic hospital for excellent medical care where Mahnaz had been vice-president and much loved. The family was served by a Unitarian Universalist chaplain who knew them  through interfaith work.
   At the funeral the next day, Muslim leaders officiated with Jewish and Christian speakers, and American Indian, Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu, Freethinker mourners as well made a huge crowd overflowing far beyond the chapel.
   Then to the cemetery. The two older sons climbed down on ladder into the grave and placed their father, wrapped in the garment he wore on the Hajj, into the ground, according to Muslim practice. We helped with the burial by placing clods of earth into the grave and waited in the cold until the bulldozer completed the task and closed the grave.
   Dear irritated reader: Folks of many faiths who were feasting together one evening were given the sacred gift of sharing grief the next day. This is how we become a community.

   Last year’s Mayors’ Prayer Breakfast was the most divisive such event in my memory, with folks of many faiths offended by the speaker’s apparent presumption that only his religious view was worthy. The event’s planners refused subsequent opportunities to state that its purpose was to respect all traditions in a non-partisan program.
   This Feb. 22, Kansas City native and recently retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, is scheduled to speak. Here is my fantasy of what he might say:
   Good people of Kansas City: this occasion’s purpose is, through prayer, to celebrate and deepen our sense of community, embracing the full political spectrum and all spiritual paths.
   I say this at the outset because I’m sure many of you were astonished when you heard I was chosen to be the speaker. As a public figure identified with a war that some have called  unnecessary and incompetent and others patriotically defend, I appear about as non-controversial as Cindy Sheehan would be on the other side.
   Your speaker last year has every right to his views and to promote them publicly. I have spent my career defending his freedom — and yours as well. The question is not his right to speak. The question is whether a civic prayer breakfast should be subverted for narrow ends.
   I think not, just as a wedding is not the time for political speeches, and a funeral is not the time for protesters to parade their interpretation of Leviticus.
   We are a nation of many peoples, and that is our strength. We have found ways of separating our private convictions from those that must govern public life. Thus, while I may personally agree with Catholics that divorce is sinful, I recognize that my nation contains people who apply the New Testament differently than I do, and therefore civil law rightly permits divorce.
   I have fought for the right of the Jehovah’s Witness to refuse blood transfusions, but I also have fought for the right of society to allow those who disagree with this stance to accept transfusions as a religious obligation to save life.
   To force on all of us a particular a religious view about a woman’s right to choose, stem-cell research, the teaching of evolution in science class, gay marriage, and other such matters would be theocracy, not the democracy which I have pledged to defend.
   And when we pray for America, let us also pray for the whole world, expressed in my tradition by the Gospel song, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” Yes, I pledge allegiance to the United States of America, but our allegiance must now also include the universal vision of Isaiah and those of other faiths who saw that the divine is given not to a single nation, but to all peoples.
   This prayer breakfast should belong not just to those on the right or the left or those only of one faith, but to every citizen. I pray that it may be so.

Walking the path that Alan Watts trod

   Among the many birthdays I’ve been celebrating this month is that of Alan Watts (1915-1973) who called himself a “spiritual entertainer.” I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about him, especially as the Kansas City Symphony’s celebration of Mozart, also born this month 250 years ago, includes the “Jupiter” Symphony, which Watts in Playboy magazine mentioned characteristically. He discounted the search for ultimate purpose in saying something like, “What’s the meaning of spiral nebulae or Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony? Nothing — it’s just an immense rejoicing.”
   I first encountered Watts in his now-classic The Way of Zen in my first year of college.
   Last week I met Michael C. Brannigan of the Center for Practical Bioethics and learned he wrote Everywhere and Nowhere: The Path of Alan Watts. Brannigan is the son of a Japanese mother and Irish father and an expert on how different cultures approach ethical and other issues.
   But I puzzled what to ask Brannigan to say for this column. Asking about Watts is sort of like asking, “Please explain the sky.” Nonetheless, Brannigan responded:
   “Explain the sky”! Watts’ eyes would no doubt twinkle, and he might answer “You can’t explain the sky, only breathe it in, like life with all its possibility and unpredictability.” Playfully curious about life, Watts taught us that life is meant to be lived to the hilt, not in our minds.
He personifies a fundamental paradox — with all of our thinking, we are still in our bodies —  and, in his inimitable way, linked together the life of the senses and the life of the mind.
   He did so while paving, in straightforward fashion, a path that initiated Westerners to “mysteries” of the East. Watts wrote and spoke with both clarity and depth. His style led to renown as an interpreter of Asian thought, and his prolific writings are a rich stew of Taoism, Zen, Hinduism, psychotherapy, theology, history, and, of course, “Alan Watts.”
   Indeed, they carry a timely message for today: religion is not a somber affair driven by engines of sin and guilt, nor does it concern clinging to absolute positions. Religion in its essence celebrates our shared life with all its joy and pain.
   Branded a rogue philosopher by academics, he was nonetheless a scholar, and, even better, one who reached ordinary people. He knew his languages well enough to study the original sources. More importantly, he was a bridge between East and West, and between heart and intellect. We need more scholars like him.
   In response to Vern, no one can say it better than Watts himself: “Underneath the superficial self… there is another self more really us than I. And the more you become aware of the unknown self – if you become aware of it – the more you realize that it is inseparably connected with everything else that is.”

Secular and sacred meet law and faith

   Whether Samuel Alito should be elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court or not, the question has evoked many legal theories and positions. What do the world’s religions say about law and justice? Even if the U.S. Constitution is religiously neutral, have religions in former times constructed or justified the law?
   Yes. The vision of justice, toward which human law aims, has been both a secular and a sacred value nurtured across the ages by religious law-givers — and law-breakers who, like Martin Luther King Jr, declared some laws unjust.
     Hammurabi received his law code from the sun god Shamesh, a theme echoed in the story of Moses receiving the Decalogue on Mt. Sinai. Both systems say that the whim of the powerful cannot be law, that law is rooted in something that transcends any particular case.
     In Jewish and Muslim life, the observance of law is in itself an act of faith. These religions make the welfare of the society and disposition of disputes so important that the question of how humans relate to each other becomes an ultimate religious practice, for to damage the community is to break the covenant with the divine.
     The ancient Greeks thought of Judgment, Custom and even Apportionment of Loss as gods on Olympus. In ancient Roman law, the pontiffs developed elaborate formal rituals which became the legal procedures of proof.
     In pre-modern Hindu India, it was impossible to distinguish law from religion – one word was used for both. Dharma is a complex notion measuring one’s duty uniquely for each person within a set of social expectations. Just as we demand more of a 25-year old person than a 5-year old, the many distinctions of dharma brought spiritual sensibility to all arenas of life. From such spiritual sensibility, an Indian lawyer, Mohandas K. Gandhi, broke British law. Not many lawyers have been such potent religious leaders. Gandhi inspired King.
     In Confucian and Taoist China, a violation of li, social convention, upset the basic spiritual balance of the cosmos. The penal system’s purpose was to restore natural equilibrium.
     The Christian West has evolved largely from Roman law, as the Latin terms we still use, like stare decisis, suggest. By late medieval times, the law was imbued with a specifically Christian mission. The concept of Natural Law also grew. The Reformers developed new conceptions of law and political theory. English common law, for example, was justified not by theological consistency with Rome but by the idea of historical ecclesiastical continuity, expressed in the doctrine of precedent.
     The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the notion of secular government are consequences of religious thought that protects the soul from the state while enhancing the spiritual expectations of justice in the land.

Letter from jail an epistle to the world

Every year I re-read the letter Martin Luther King Jr wrote from jail in Birmingham. It is a check on my own claim to spiritual commitment and service. His approach to the complaints of the white ministers to whom he writes is a model of frank disagreement presented in love.
   In the darkness of his cell, writing on scraps of paper, he cites the light of Socrates, Tillich, Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, T.S. Eliot and Biblical material in making his case.
   This year I got to the third paragraph before being so stirred I had to set the letter down for a time.
   King begins by saying he recognizes the criticism his colleagues have directed against him. Because of their good will, he will respond to their complaints.
   His critics question why King has come into their state. King explains that his organization has an affiliate in Birmingham, and the affiliate requested help.
   But in paragraph three, King says, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth century prophets left their little villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond . . . their home towns; and just as the Apostle Paul left . . . Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to . . . the Graeco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”
   And then, before the internet, economic integration and the media made plain how we are affected by things that happen on the other side of the planet, he writes, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
   The letter deals with just and unjust laws, moral and immoral means and the responsibility people of faith have to work for justice.
   At a regional meeting a few months ago, I asked the group of mainstream clergy if their preaching sought to help their parishioners consider the claims of Intelligent Design, assess the morality of the war in Iraq, shed light on the Biblical passages about same-sex behavior, speculate about growing economic inequalities or ponder global warming.
   With few exceptions, I was told that pastors who speak about them endanger the unity of their congregations. And their jobs.
   A month or so later, I asked a distinguished business leader why clergy in Kansas City are so hesitant to speak on behalf of certain types of stem-cell research, while clergy opposed are vocal. His response was “They are afraid.”
   Whence the fear? Compared to the jail — and ultimately, death — that found King, why should any comfortable person of faith hide whatever light wants to shine?

A new year to find new patterns

   Sometimes I like to think of religion as the discovery of patterns. Imagine what it was like for the first person, almost certainly a woman, to link the menstrual cycle with the phases of the moon. From the resonance between her body and the sky she must have felt she had a place in the cosmic process previously obscured.
   Perhaps it was a guy who discerned yearly progression of the seasons and the stars and originated New Year festivals as times to renew the cosmos and one’s social and personal life.
   Why else would hundreds of people gather on the last day of the year to begin a meditation for world and personal peace at 5:30 in the morning in the company of others with similar intent, folks one has come to love in the 20 years this event has been observed in Kansas City?
   Al Brooks, Charlie Wheeler, host Lama Chuck Stanford and other members of the Interfaith Council and others have almost become figures in the firmament. Moving many to tears this year were Jewish and Muslim friends Allan Abrams and Ahmed El-Sherif who, antiphonally and then in unison, prayed for peace as they embraced each other.
    The Rev. Bob Hill, whose words about the prophetic heart proclaimed a pattern for peace-makers, will himself preside next Sunday at the annual Martin Luther King Jr Holiday Interfaith Celebration at Community Christian Church.
   There is no doubt that the pattern of interfaith embrace has become a part of Kansas City culture. Here is another example this first month of the year:
   The annual Salaam Shalom dinner, named for the Arabic and Hebrew words for peace, is set for Sunday, Jan. 22, again at the Alpine Lodge in Leawood’s Ironwoods Park. Last year 500 people enjoyed kosher-style, halal and vegetarian food prepared by chefs from 7,000 miles away, uniting the aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians with Kansas City’s interfaith orientation in a pattern of joy. Last year folks had to be turned away because of the crowd. To make a reservation now, call Kim Curran at Leawood City Hall, (913) 339-6700 x159.
   One ancient pattern now becoming “hip,” to use the language of Jeff Kirby, minister of adult discipleship at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, is spiritual formation, a process of deepening the life of the spirit in everyday experience, sometimes thought to be the work of monks and nuns, but actually available to anyone. The church, in cooperation with the Saint [folo] Paul School of Theology, the Nazarene Theological Seminary, Central Baptist Theological Seminary and other groups, presents a conference Friday and Saturday with expert Dallas Willard of the University of Southern California.
   What other patterns will become evident this year? Will we rediscover old ones? Will we find new ones in the sky, in our DNA, in Mozart, born 250 years ago this year? As they say, watch this space — but mainly, look within your own heart.