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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
* 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
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
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
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
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 Josef@kcharmony.org
or (816) 333-5059.
635. 061108 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Photos tell the story of Ethiopian
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
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 www.cres.org/2.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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, www.cres.org, for
all interfaith events about which we are informed.
Vern Barnet does interfaith
work in Kansas City. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
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
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
“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
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
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
“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.
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,
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
“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 email@example.com.)
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.”
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
lost control of the children at nap time, or rather they lost control of
themselves and I was unable to help them find control.”
tried all sorts of tricks. None worked. He knew he had at least to calm
himself down. That’s when he thought of meditation.
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
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.”
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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.)
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.”
615 060614 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
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
The series will be
available at www.revpaulsmith.com and CDs from Broadway Church, 3931
Washington, Kansas City, MO 64111.
614 060607 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
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?”
613 060531 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
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,
4. Mahayana, Theravada. Some
consider Tibetan Buddhism a third branch and call it Vajrayana.
5. Digambara (sky-clad),
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,
8. Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism.
9. Sikhism, Baha’i, Unitarian
10. American Indian and pagan.
612 060524 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
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
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
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
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.
611 060517 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
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
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
Can Lincoln’s immortality
be found, as he hoped, in our nation today?
610 060510 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Remembering Father Thom, an interfaith
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
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?
609 060503 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
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, www.pluralism.org, 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.
608 060426 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
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
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,”
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
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
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 www.kcinterfaith.org.
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
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
“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.”
607 060419 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Islam a religion that works toward
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
606 060412 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
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.
605 060405 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
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
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.
604 060329 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
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
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.
603 060322 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
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.
602 060315 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
'Government cannot be trusted with
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
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
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.
601 060308 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
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
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.
600 060301 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
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.
599 060222 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
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.
598 060215 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Prayer breakfast a time to look past
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
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
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
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
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.
597 060208 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
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 email@example.com.
596 060201 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
One's irritation is another's interfaith
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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