071226 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Kwanzaa strives for unity
I ask, “Habari gani?” You respond, “Umoja.”
This is first day of Kwanzaa.
Translated, the greeting
is “What news?” and the response today is “Unity,” the first of the seven
principles of Kwanzaa, one for each day of the festival. Tomorrow you say
“Kujichagulia,” self-determination. Try pronouncing the Swahili term—it’s
Kwanzaa may be an unprecedented
eruption in religious history. Unlike any other widespread holiday I can
think of, its creator is known and its creation is dated and heavily documented.
Before he had become White
House press secretary, Tony Snow wrote, “There is no part of
Kwanzaa that is not fraudulent,” and columnist
Ann Coulter has identified the Kwanzaa seven principles with those of the
violent Symbionese Liberation Army of the 1960s.
Yes, to use Coulter’s phrase,
Kwanzaa is a “made-up holiday,” and Snow is right insofar is it does not
import a previous authentic cultural tradition from Africa but rather draws
on many sources.
For example, one of the symbols
of the holiday is corn, but corn is not native to Africa.
Karenga might also be accused
of stealing the idea of the 7-candle kinara from the Hanukkah menorah symbolizing
the eight days of the Jewish festival.
And the correct Swahili term
is Kwanza—with six letters, one final “a,” not two.
But seven children at the
first Kwanzaa program all wanted a part representing and explaining a letter.
So an extra “a” was added to accommodate all of them.
The charm of bending to the
seventh child’s desire for inclusion perhaps matches the spiritual intent
of Kwanzaa. The respect given to that child embodies its transcendent principles.
So I’m not upset that a new
holiday has been patched together because it has become intensely meaningful
to many people. It has moved far beyond the originator’s circle in the
Los Angeles of 1966.
Many calendars nowadays,
including the Boy Scouts 2007 calendar, identify Kwanzaa as an “interfaith”
Karenga first wanted to include
Christians, Muslims, Jews and others in a unifying observance for African
Americans, so he claimed it was not “religious,” just “cultural.”
So is it religious? No, not
in the sense of being identified with just one faith, but even Karenga
has written about Kwanzaa ideals and values as “spiritual.”
The shattering events of
our time have called forth a creative response, developing and celebrating
a new holiday ritual for deep contemplation and community.
693. 071219 THE STAR’S
Keep it real at Christmas
I’ve heard it said that I write a “spiritual
advice” column. I don’t think of myself so much advising as informing.
Nonetheless, in these last
few days before Christmas, I offer three exhortations to Christians. Others
are welcome to eavesdrop.
*First, be honest with your
kids about Santa Claus. You can encourage them to leave cookies by the
fireplace for his Christmas Eve visit, but be sure you tell them that “Mommy
and Daddy play Santa in this house.”
When my wife and I took our
young son to a department store Santa, we said, “A wonderful person has
dressed up as Santa over there. Let’s go say Hello.”
Make it clear by the language
you use that Santa is a role, not a person, and that many people can play
that role. While a very young child may not get the distinction, repeated
and consistent use of the language not only avoids lying, it also embraces
the world of play-acting which is natural for children.
*Second, consider giving
home-made gifts. If you can’t carve a sportscar from wood or knit a scarf
or write a song or make a candle, then pick out a meaningful passage from
a book and present it as a live reading. Maybe the store-bought gifts will
wait for another occasion—Boxing Day will do.
I know this is a hard exhortation,
but think how much more personal the holy day becomes if you avoid its
If you can’t think of anything
else, make a contribution to a charity or cause in honor of the person
to whom you wish to give a present. A note informing the honoree of your
contribution is worthy under the tree.
If you must give something
you bought, please exalt the Prince of Peace and avoid violent video games,
movies and guns. If you are tempted to buy a rifle for sport as a gift,
consider Saint Francis talking with the birds and his love of animals.
But in receiving any gift,
think of the good intent of the giver.
*Third, accept holiday salutations
from non-Christian friends with good cheer. Some may exchange work shifts
so Christians can be with their families Christmas eve.
You may feel embarrassed
about much of what Christmas has become in our day, but this is probably
not the time to engage in cultural analysis. Your friends simply mean to
recognize you and what is sacred to you.
You might worry about how
to return their greetings and wonder if you are neglecting holidays important
One possible response is,
“Thank you for your warm greeting. Please know my wish is to grow in appreciation
for your own tradition, which you so generously represent.”
692. 071212 THE STAR'S
Scriptures a landscape all scholars can
From a thoughtful reader, this inquiry:
“I am all for interfaith communication, sharing ideas, etc. However, in
(your recent column mentioning upcoming holidays, you state that) December
brings . . . the Muslim’s Eid al-Adha commemorating Abraham’s offering
of Ishmael to God.
“I have read our Old Testament
several times thoroughly and have never found that Abraham offered Ishmael.
Abraham was asked by God to offer his son Isaac. Where is this offering
of Ishmael coming from?”
It comes from the Qur’an,
Sura 37, and the Muslim tradition identifies the son as Ishmael.
Different religions sometimes
have different versions of the same stories. For example, both Christian
and Buddhist scripture tell the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
A seasonal example is the
verse in Hebrew scripture (Isaiah 7:14), “a virgin shall conceive, and
bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The literary form and context
suggest that the son is to be a sign to Ahaz.
However, a Christian reading
of Matthew 1:23 radically reinterprets the Isaiah passage as a prophesy
of Jesus, who could have been no sign to Ahaz seven centuries earlier.
Scholars also point out that
Matthew, written in Greek, uses the Septuagint Greek rendering of
the Hebrew scriptures. The Septuagint mistranslates a Hebrew word into
parthenos, virgin, which does not appear in the original text.
So Jews and Christians have
different interpretations of a verse that appears in both of their scriptures.
And Mary’s virginity is accepted
by Muslims who cite the Qur’an, Sura 3.
Furthermore, usage provides
an additional overlay to stories, as for example, the tradition that three
kings brought gifts to the baby Jesus, as in the Christmas carol, “We Three
Since the Muslim story of
Abraham’s sacrifice involves Ishmael, it makes sense to use their version
of the story in describing their holiday. To apply the Christian version
of the story to a Muslim holiday would be misleading.
Just as Christians are fortunate
to have several gospels with differences as well as similarities, so the
faiths of the world now in our own community offer several roads to travel
through the mystery of existence.
The tradition, the time and the
culture into which we were born, usually determines our path.
But isn’t it wonderful when
our path, even for a moment, joins another, and we can learn how other
travelers navigate the mystery? In the scriptures we can find stories of
such journeys in a holy landscape all explore.
691. 071205 THE STAR'S
We scale the arts for stories
Preachers fresh out of school quickly learn
that congregations do not want term papers for sermons; effective sermons
grow out of stories.
That’s because stories, even
non-religious stories, can show us what is important. They can point us
toward the sacred, the source of life’s deepest meaning.
With classroom instruction
and “field trips,” I’m currently teaching ten ministerial students about
art and spirituality. It’s easy to find spirituality in figural painting,
in ballet, in opera and drama because they tell or imply stories.
But what about music with
no story, what about abstract painting or sculpture or architecture? Without
a person, how can there be a story?
Independent scholar Ellen
Dissanayake speculates that art originates in the visual, gestural, and
vocal cues between parent and infant, with repetitions, variations and
These patterns of connection
and reassurance are awesome — think this sacred season of the love of parents
for their children, and of the Christian image of the mother Mary and the
A parent’s cooing may not
be a complete narrative, but it implies a story about a sacred relationship
between an utterly committed parent and the completely dependent infant.
The parent-child exchange
of vocalizations precedes real words. Our need for such wordless patterns
is rooted in our biology. Without such patterns, we perish.
A transparent example in
art is the Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 13, to be performed Friday in a Friends
of Chamber music program, our next “field trip.”
The work begins with three child-like notes, two B-flats and a G, and a
soothing response. Then that pattern is elaborated.
Musically, we journey as
a child ventures from the parent; and after an exploration, the pattern
is fulfilled by returning home to that familiar sound, but we are enlarged
by having seen more of the cosmos.
The delight we have in discovering
and penetrating sophisticated patterns, whether in the movement of the
stars or in twists and turns and fenestration of a strange building, may
resonate in the soul’s need to affirm that the universe has a structure
on which we can depend, even when we are surprised.
The Friends program also
presents two pieces of extraordinary difficulty, one written to outdo the
other in technical challenge.
This leads to a different
kind of esthetic thrill, the marvel of execution. The pianist, Yefim Bronfman,
may not be a mythic hero, but our gratitude for skillful guidance in the
musical journey, as the pattern is articulated and revealed, becomes awe.
690. 071128 THE STAR'S
Interfaith spirit brightens holidays
Kansas City’s first “Festival of Faiths,”
a 12-day series of events celebrating religious diversity, concluded Nov.
The festival opened with
a multi-faith luncheon and concluded with a dinner with many faiths speaking
In between were a live play
based on the lives of folks of many faiths here, two provocative films,
a choral concert with excepts from the Lyric Opera’s forthcoming production
of “John Brown.”
Teens spent two days and
an overnight discussing issues in understanding their own and each other’s
faiths. Two scholars, one Jewish, one Muslim, modeled interfaith dialogue
in an adult evening program. Folks used a Festival brochure for a self-guided
tour of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Janet Burton, Festival co-chair,
said, “We wanted to widen the circle of dialogue and to reassure those
who feared that learning about other faiths would weaken their own or lead
to some composite faith.”
Some of the programs would
have occurred without the Festival, but by weaving them together, “the
Festival showed that through dialogue, people do not feel threatened but
rather enlightened, engaged and grateful.”
Burton noted that new partnerships
among area faith organizations were created and new friendships formed.
But Burton is critical of
the lack of media attention, particularly to guest Akbar Ahmed, former
Pakistani ambassador to the UK, called “the world’s leading authority on
contemporary Islam” by the BBC, who spoke here the day after martial law
was declared in Pakistan. “The media lost a great opportunity to
help the community to understand why events there affect our own lives”
“Our goal was dialogue.
We didn’t expect such timeliness in relation to world events. I’m sobered
by the size and potential impact of conflicts occurring between people
of different faiths, but encouraged that our mission is valid: to listen,
learn, understand and practice the exercise of acceptance.”
The Festival is over, but
awaiting us are holidays through which the Festival spirit can continue.
December brings the minor
Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the beginning of Advent for Christians with
Christmas especially important in Western churches, the Muslim’s Eid al-Adha
commemorating Abraham’s offering of Ishmael to God, the pagan Yule at the
solstice, the Zoroastrian’s commemoration of the death of their founder
and Kwanzaa, a new holiday of spiritual values with African roots.
Answering the season’s cold
is the warmth of interfaith friendship.
689. 071121 THE STAR'S
Lowering the ‘temperature’ of conflict
Last Wednesday a thousand people listened
intently at Village Presbyterian Church to a Jew and a Muslim talk with
each other, part of this year’s metro 12-day Festival of Faiths.
One member of the audience,
Dallas Ziegenhorn, said afterwards, “The evening gave me a new way of talking
with friends about ‘radical’ Islam and the increasing animosity of many
countries toward the West.
“It is imperative that we
have a deeper understanding of Islam in order to lower the ‘temperature’
of conflict. Since there are 1.4 billion Muslims today and two billion
Christians, we must find a way to prevent a global confrontation.”
(World Jewish population
is about 25 million.)
Hussain Haideri, president
of the Crescent Peace Society here, called the evening “nothing less than
The speakers were two grandfathers
who spoke with the wisdom and compassion of experience. Judea Pearl is
the father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and a professor
of computer science at UCLA. Akbar Ahmed is professor of Islamic studies
at the American University in Washington, D.C.
In Haideri’s personal opinion,
the evening “was an honest attempt to do some soul searching and scratching
beneath the surface of complicated, aggravating and sensitive issues that
transcend religious, political and social borders.”
Haideri said the dialogue
“explored the root causes of hatred that fans extremist actions on both
sides and perpetuates the mistrust between Judaism and Islam, two of the
Ibrahimic (Abrahamic) faiths with more in common than often realized.
“Repercussions directly affect
the world’s largest religion, Christianity.
“Therefore, what could be
more appropriate than sitting face to face in God’s house, as Professor
Ahmed pointed out, and sifting through the causes of this dilemma?”
While other areas of the
world were discussed, “Professor Pearl laid out a utopian view of Jewish
and Palestinian states, adjacent, in harmony. Ahmed agreed, but pointed
out that mistrust on both sides is high, and work needs to be done to bring
“They each reflected on the
positives within each other’s faiths. Pearl called Islam ‘a universal religion’
and Ahmed appreciated the ‘value of learning’ in Judaism.
Haideri concluded, “I am
eager for the (evening’s) excitement to spill over to the masses locally,
and then snowball into an effort that spreads across the nation and hopefully,
someday, across the globe, restoring the true image of America as a leader
688. 071114 THE STAR'S
Pakistan is attracting attention
Pakistan is in the news. And a TV sitcom
this fall, “Aliens in America,” features a high school exchange student,
a Muslim from Pakistan.
A few weeks ago the Crescent
Peace Society’s annual Eid dinner featured Pakistan Daily Times columnist,
Prof. Saleem H. Ali, an environmental expert and dean of graduate education
at the University of Vermont. He has an astounding list of international
In his remarks here he said
that the US would do better to allocate money to improve inferior
Pakistani public schools rather than for so much military aid because parents
who want their children well trained sometimes resort to radicalized madrassahs
despite their poisonous interpretations of Islam.
But since he knows both American
and Pakistani education systems well, I complained to him that American
schools also often fail to develop an informed and participatory citizenry.
Concerning Islam specifically,
I expressed dismay at how few Americans have any inkling of the debt the
West owes Islam in art, science, medicine, navigation, and countless other
fields. Say artichoke, banana, coffee . . .all the way to zero. Imagine
doing income tax with Roman, rather than Arabic numerals.
Without understanding this
heritage, we are not equipped to deal with our own colonial sins, I said.
“The main problem we face
in schools in Muslim and non-Muslim countries is a lack of ‘peace education’
or conflict resolution skills at the earliest level. This could include
resolving disagreements within peers as well as understanding how to deal
with cross-cultural and religious differences.
“We also need to have greater
global studies education to familiarize students about other traditions
and historical narratives.
“However, Western schools
have the advantage in many cases of at least encouraging critical reasoning
among their students, which is frequently lacking in Islamic schools.
“Hence even if the content
is not up-to-date in the Western schools and lacks nuance, the students
can still question assumptions in class and challenge the teacher if needed
about these assumptions.
“Unfortunately, in most madrassahs,
the lack of critical reasoning prevents such introspection.
“Therefore, I would say that
it would be far easier to reform some of the content-related issues here
than it would be for madrassahs.
“Nevertheless, there are
now some scholars who are willing to undertake critical reasoning reforms
in Islamic education as well such as the new Zaytuna Academy in California.”
Last Sunday, I spent time
with high school students drawn from all over the metro in Harmony’s “Interfaith
Our Town” program. Admittedly they selected themselves to learn about faiths
other than their own. Still, I was impressed with their “critical introspection”
skills applied to themselves and their new friends. No threats here. Lots
687. 071107 THE STAR'S
3 Views of Stem Cell Research
Missouri voters may have amended the state
constitution regarding stem cell research, but religious communities in
the area are still trying to understand the science, the ethical questions
and the religious dimensions of the debate.
So Steve Jeffers, Director
of the Institute for Spirituality in Health at the Shawnee Mission Medical
Center, worked with a committee of physicians, clergy and community representatives
to arrange a three-hour program on the controversy last week.
The room was packed, some
folks standing, to hear the presentations.
From Jeffers, readers of
this column can obtain a free copy of the 45-page book each member of the
audience received. It compiles background material from the scientific,
ethics and religious presentations and includes statements about stem cell
research from 19 world faiths.
Moderated by KCPT’s Nick
Haines, the religion panel offered three distinct positions.
Fr. Steven Beseau, director
of the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center in Lawrence, said that the Roman
Catholic position opposes the destruction of embryos from which stem cells
can be derived but supports research on stem cells from other sources.
A fertilized egg deserves the same respect as other individuals.
Rabbi Alan Cohen, senior
rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom, said there is near unanimity in Judaism
to support stem cell research. Until the “crowning of the head” appears
at birth, Jewish authorities consider a fetus as the potential, not actual,
life of a person.
The Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior
pastor at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, focused on how
embryonic stem cells are obtained. He distinguished between an egg fertilized
by sperm, each with half the complete set of genetic instructions, and
an egg whose nucleus is replaced by a donor nucleus containing a complete
genetic set from, say, a skin cell. The latter case is known as SCNT, somatic
cell nuclear transfer.
Fr Beseau said the question
is when life is created. “It is a scientific fact that life begins at conception.”
Destroying innocent life is immoral.
Still he said the destruction
of a living skin cell, with the potential to form an embryo through SCNT,
was of no concern.
After their presentations,
neurologist Gordon Kelley, M.D., said, “All life is a continuum; human
life is not ‘created’ by the union of a sperm and an egg. The sperm is
already alive; the egg is already alive. Life (as we know it) does not
have a beginning; it is transmitted. But it has an ending when the individual
686. 071031 THE STAR'S
La Raza's Leaving Raises questions
Can religion shed any light on what it
means for the National Council of La Raza, an Hispanic advocacy group,
to decide not to hold its 2009 convention here because Kansas City’s mayor
had appointed to the parks board a
supporter of armed civilian patrols of
the U.S.-Mexico border?
Various faiths have explored
human and divine rewards and punishments to groups and individuals, as
just or as capricious.
Religious traditions also
counsel human efforts to mitigate disasters and share one another’s burdens.
Let’s explore the Biblical concept
of collective punishment.
One could see La Raza’s withdrawal
as an attempt to make the metro area pay for one individual’s views.
This is complicated because
La Raza is holding its convention next year in San Diego where a state
lawmaker supporting the objectionable Minutemen organization was elected
by the people, while La Raza has withdrawn its 2009 convention here because
of a mayoral appointment, not an election.
Some might wonder why a population
that directly voted for someone La Raza finds distasteful should be rewarded
with its convention while a population with no direct control over an appointment
should be punished.
But collective punishment
has its precedents, as the “Ten Commandments” passage of Exodus 20 illustrates.
God threatens to punish the children of the wicked “unto the third and
But in Ezekiel 18, God details
his renunciation of the proverb, “the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and
the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
For many Christians, the
first Biblical example of collective punishment is the sin of Adam whose
guilt is transmitted to the human race. As the New England Primer put it,
“In Adam’s fall/ We sinned all.”
But the chief example of
injustice is murder of the innocent Jesus for the sins of others, by which
they might be saved.
Yet some have held that God
elects only some, and even the worthy deeds of others cannot change
God’s sovereign decision.
The Bible also observes that
justice is not assured for “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle
to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of
understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happens
to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
Such observations led to
doctrines of virtue rewarded and evil punished in a future life. And commercial
insurance and social programs developed with the theology of sharing one
another’s burdens in this life.
Is Kansas City guilty? Should
we understand La Raza’s decision as just or as caprice unanswered in this
world? And are we sharing one another’s burdens?
685. 071024 THE
Spiritual Art Sizes Us Up
The Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council
“Table of Faiths” luncheon this year, Nov 7, has chosen “Sacredness in
the Arts” as its theme, and I was asked to comment for its video presentation.
The luncheon is part of a “Festival of Faiths” embracing many multi-faith
programs through Nov. 18, including a brochure for a self-tour of the Nelson-Atkins
Museum of Art, which I was asked to write.
And co-incidentally, I’m
currently teaching a course to ministerial candidates called “Religion
and the Arts.”
My approach is rather different
from Johann Bernoulli, who once described paintings by the Old Masters
simply by noting their physical dimensions.
I want to know the spiritual
size of works of art.
Great art, whether tragic
or comic, seems to originate in a movement of the spirit. Religion begins
with ineffable experiences of awe and wonder; and art imitates, creates,
recalls, participates in, or directs us to such experiences employing words,
sounds, actions, light, rhythm, shapes, colors, and textures, structuring
space and time within a frame which points beyond itself.
The label at the beginning
of the current “Rising Dragon: Ancient Treasures from China” exhibition
at the Nelson indicates that specific religious concerns may underlie entire
The show’s “objects echo,
each in their own way, common concerns fundamental to humankind past and
present: 1. the mystery of existence, 2. fear of oblivion at death, and
3. the nature of a society beneficial to its members.
“We have evolved mythologies,
religions, philosophies, governments, customs and practices and all manner
of technologies to address these fundamental issues. They have motivated
the creation of much of what we today call art.”
Whether it is an image of
the mother and child developed by ancient Egyptians and borrowed by Christians
in paintings of the Madonna and the baby Jesus, or the frenzied dance of
flamenco with shouts of Olé — an inflection of the Arabic
word for God, Allah, or the transcendent third movement of Beethoven’s
“Hammerklavier” sonata, or the dialogue with nature of Frank Lloyd Wright’s
“Fallingwater” home, or the elegance of Euclid’s proofs, or the perfect
form and humanity of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, or . . .
As nuclear physicist J. Robert
Oppenheimer wrote, “Today, in a secular world, it is almost wholly through
the arts that we have a living reminder of the terror and nobility of what
By its spiritual
size, art exercises our abilities to feel awe and wonder and find our place
in the cosmos.
684. 071017 THE STAR"S
True Change is Born of Fire
“WaterFire,” the installation on Brush
Creek Sept. 9, was described by its creator, Barnaby Evans, as “a meditative
celebration of community.”
That was at least part of
my experience. I greeted and visited with friends who also showed up at
the Brush Creek event.
I also remembered when I
was about 5, a house a block away from mine went up in a blaze. The neighbors
gathered together to watch as the firemen sought to salvage something.
I felt guilty for enjoying
the spectacle — fire is fascinating — because I understood something of
the destruction. And I appreciated anew my parents’ warnings about my playing
Of course civilization depends
on controlled fires, whether it is cooking our food, warming our houses,
or the explosions inside the engines that provide transport.
Civilization, one might say,
began with the “domestication” of fire, perhaps about a million years ago.
Fire warded off wild creatures. It made raw meats more edible and safe.
With it one could see at night and in caves. It provided warmth. Later
it was the magic by which ores in earth could be worked into metallic tools
and objects of beauty.
Fire was a god, a sign of
the gods or a gift of the gods. In some traditions, including the American
Indian, fire was stolen from the gods. In a Greek myth, the thief Prometheus
gave fire to the human race and was punished endlessly for it because fire
gave humans unprecedented power.
Because fire changes things,
the Greek philosopher Heraclitus spoke of fire as a way of saying the world
is flux. The title of a famous poem by Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins begins
“That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire.” And the Buddha spoke of unending change
in his “Fire Sermon.”
The Hindu god of fire is
Agni, a word with the same Indo-European root as the English word “ignite.”
In Vedic times, Agni was the chaplain to the sky gods, communicating food
offerings to them by ascending smoke.
For Zoroastrians, fire represents
the energy of the Creator.
Last week I presided at a
wedding and spoke these words:
“From earliest times, the
lighting of torches, lamps, and candles has been auspicious, a signal of
the divine, a sign of sacred festivity. Now in celebration of their distinct
and wondrous traditions, (bride and groom) join together two flames, lit
by their two families, to ignite a third flame, blessing us all with their
The mystery and power of
fire is part of the religious story of humankind as it continues to unfold.
683. 071010 THE STAR'S
Interfaith Dialogue Growing Stronger
About 40 groups in metro Kansas City are
involved in interfaith relations. One is the Kansas City Chapter of the
Houston-based Institute of Interfaith Dialogue, which last week held its
fourth annual iftar, dinner after sunset during Ramadan, with about 200
guests at the hotel.
The group is inspired by
the work of Turkish writer Fethullah Gulen, and has arranged for about
60 folks from the Kansas City area to spend two weeks in Turkey learning
At the dinner, Leawood Mayor
Peggy Dunn noted that she had already attended an iftar this Ramadan, sponsored
by the Crescent Peace Society, founded here over a decade ago by Muslims
to promote interfaith understanding. She also mentioned other Kansas City
interfaith activities, including the Salaam Shalom Dinners and the Interfaith
Another speaker, the Rev.
Jarrett McLaughlin, pastor of mission and young adult ministry at Village
Presbyterian Church, recalled his disappointment in college when “a Jew,
a Muslim, an evangelical Protestant and a Catholic . . . each gave a brief
explanation of their understandings of God as unique to each one of them,”
with follow-up questions revealing that they were less interested in understanding
each other than in justifying their own faiths.
“The Protestant on the panel
adamantly declared there is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ. Somebody
in the crowd asked the Muslim to speculate why Islam was so violent.” And
“When such well-intentioned
forums (degenerate) into ripping holes in the faith traditions of one another,
we have wandered far from . . . dialogue.
“None of these questions
are bad questions, and there’s nothing wrong with asking tough questions.
Christianity does need to be challenged on its often exclusive claims to
salvation, and Islam and Christianity both ought to address the ways that
their teachings are . . . bent towards violence.”
But in Turkey, McLaughlin
found genuine dialogue. “We talked about the tough questions . . . . You
come face to face with the vast differences between your faith and another
faith, but you do so with an eye towards finding strength in the faith
“Tough questions are great.
We wrestle with them and we grow from that struggle.
“And after the struggle is
over, you clasp one another around the neck with the word kardesche, brothers!”
Finding kinship abroad is
essential to world peace, and the genuine interfaith dialogue in our own
town, growing for more than two decades, is building a stronger community.
682. 071003 THE STAR'S
Words may be inadequate to capture spiritual
experiences. Reduced to fit within the confines of language, such experiences
may sound absurd.
T. S. Eliot, the 20th Century
poet, born in St. Louis, whose Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats was
adapted for the musical “Cats,” struggled in writing about religious themes.
In his “Four Quartets,” he reports that “Words strain,/ Crack and sometimes
break, under the burden,/ Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,/ Decay
with imprecision, will not stay in place,/ Will not stay still. . . .”
But we should not be surprised.
Words often point to fragments of reality; finding words to talk about
what its ultimately spiritual is no easy task.
Sometimes what comes out
is paradox. For example, Jesus said, “He who finds his life shall lose
it: and he who loses his life for my sake shall find it.” This Christian
insight is genuine, but the words are pointing to something beyond their
A parallel exists in Buddhist
thought. Since the cause of suffering is craving, one’s desire for enlightenment,
itself a craving, only perpetuates one’s suffering. But when one abandons
one’s selfish attachments, even attachment to one’s own spiritual advancement,
then one’s self-centeredness ends and one can offer compassion to others,
which paradoxically enables enlightenment.
And in the Islamic tradition,
consider al-Bistami’s claim about the mystical experience:
“This thing that we tell of can never
be found by seeking, yet only seekers find it.”
Of the ultimate, the Taoist
sage Laotzu says, “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not
Kitaro Nishida, a 20th Century
Buddhist philosopher influenced by both Eastern and Western traditions,
avoided facile synthesis by writing, “the world is one, namely many.” This
statement has a logical form similar to the quip, “You are unique, like
Several early 20th Century
scientists were intensely interested in religious questions. Physicist
Niels Bohr, for example, wrote, “The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but
the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”
And an American insurance
company executive and poet Wallace Stevens writes of faith this way: “The
final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction,
there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction,
and that you believe it willingly.”
Perhaps paradox can invite
us past tidy spiritual thoughts to the ineffable spiritual experience itself.
681. 070926 THE STAR'S
Kansas City museum
You’ve seen images of the Pope blessing
a crowd in St Peter’s Square. Perhaps you’ve brought your pet to one of
Kansas City’s annual St Francis of Assisi animal blessing ceremonies. Maybe
even you yourself have received a blessing.
But have you ever seen a
museum blessed? On Sept 30 at 2 pm, you’ll have that chance at the Kansas
City Museum’s Corinthian Hall, 3218 Gladstone Blvd, originally the home
of lumber baron Robert A. Long.
The Rev Bruce Rahtjen, pastor
of Melrose Methodist Church and a member of the KC Landmarks Commission,
is the honorary chair for the interfaith ceremony with, he hopes, “priests,
rabbis, imams” and other religious leaders and the public, offering affirmations,
walking around the property and enjoying a free reception in the Grand
The Longs, a Southern Baptist
husband and Quaker wife, built the Beaux-Art mansion in 1910 employing
a Scandinavian Lutheran household staff.
But why bless the place,
especially as the neighborhood has undergone many changes in the 67 years
since it was bequeathed to the city?
Rahtjen says it is auspicious
for the community “to honor our legacy and to forgive missteps of the past,
to join together in compassionate solidarity and to stimulate courage to
meet the challenges of the future.”
Rahtjen calls the location
“the most historic quarter of the city” and cites evidence for the Hopewellian
culture from a thousand years ago. And “the later Osage and Kansaa Indians
lived and practiced ceremonies here even after the appearance of Europeans.
“The area diversified quickly
with the influx of more immigrants. Kansas City’s first synagogue, Temple
B’nai Jehudah, was consecrated on St. John Ave. just after the Civil War,
and KC’s oldest Jewish burial ground was later incorporated into Historic
Elmwood Cemetery at Truman and Van Brunt.
“The Roman Catholic presence
has anchored many cultural groups. Italian workers in the early-20th century
settled in enclaves around churches and schools of their faith here.
“Over the course of the century
the Church then resettled refugees from many countries in areas traditionally
Italian, so that there are now Polish and Eastern European, Cambodian,
Lao, Vietnamese, Guatemalan, Honduran and Mexican Catholics who call the
“The past ten years have
seen introductions of vibrant communities of East African (Somali, Sudanese,
Ethiopian) Muslims and Christians, Southeast Asian Buddhists and Central
American Protestants and Catholics into the Northeast, and they are thriving,”
While the blessing ceremony
may focus on the museum, it is really the metro area that is blessed by
the added spiritual diversity centered around the museum.
680. 070919 THE STAR'S
Questions of church and state
Meeting with area clergy for lunch today
is one of the nation’s leading liberal preachers, Forrest Church, and tonight
at 7 he gives a free public lecture about his latest book, So Help Me
God, at Community Christian Church, 4601 Main.
The son of the late Idaho
Senator Frank Church, Forrest received his doctorate in early church history
from Harvard in 1978. Almost immediately he became senior minister at All
Souls Church in New York. He now is minister of public theology there.
Appointed by then-Mayor Rudolph
Giuliani to chair New York’s Council on the Environment, Church has thought
deeply about public issues. His 2004 book Freedom from Fear may
be the best book produced by a cleric in response to the events of 9/11
which still shape our public and private concerns.
That book remains remarkable
for its counsel about how to live with the five species of fear he analyses:
fright (a bodily fear), worry (a mental fear), guilt (the fearing conscience),
insecurity (emotional fear) and dread (the fear that afflicts the soul).
Our fears are often out of
proportion to any reality that might justify them, and his sane words on
9/11, for example, provide a perspective that has yet to be absorbed by
the body politic.
In his 2002 book, The
American Creed: A Spiritual and Patriotic Primer, he considers the
term “creed,” not as a sectarian statement but as the pluralistic spirit
of the nation with a vision of freedom and justice:
“Though the American Creed
as fashioned by Thomas Jefferson and perfected by the Continental Congress
rests upon a clear separation between church and state, the body politic
does have a soul,” he writes.
Of his 23 books, the one
I most frequently pull from my shelves is The Separation of Church and
State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by America’s Founders.
In it, Church has gathered
and introduced documents that provide historical context for understanding
the intent of our nation’s founders as they thought about how the threads
of religion and government can be woven with liberty.
The writers include Patrick
Henry, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and James Madison. The book
also includes a treaty which states “the government of the United States
of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,” ratified
by the Senate in 1797.
But is God the source of
liberty or is the Constitution’s invocation of “We the people” sufficient?
I expect Church’s new book
and his talk will illumine such questions.
679. 070912 THE STAR'S
Zen and the art of peace
Jesuit Father Robert Kennedy was sent to
Japan some 40 years ago. “I was told to learn all I could. And I was told
not to come back singing the same song: they expected me to learn something
Indeed, Father Kennedy’s
keen study of Zen Buddhism there led to his becoming, without his intention,
a Zen teacher, or roshi. So he can be addressed not only as Father Kennedy
but also as Kennedy Roshi.
He says it was an act of
“tremendous generosity of the Zen community” to entrust a non-Buddhist,
a Roman Catholic, with the transmission of Zen. He compares it to Catholics
making a rabbi a bishop of the Church. Unheard of.
So what did Father Kennedy
“We Jesuits try to bring
gifts of what we learn to the Church, and I thought bringing Zen was a
Zen meditation, “which stays
away from theories and philosophies and theologies, grounds a person in
present reality. This can help a person in everything.”
While Kennedy recognizes
that some people are not disposed to meditation, from the overwhelming
response he sees when meditation is introduced, he thinks that many can
“I’m not trying to sell it
or convince anyone, just make it available.
“I believe that Zen Buddhists
and Catholic communities can come together. The two faiths are quite different,
but the other is not an enemy. We can appreciate each other. The other
is a God-given gift to us in all its particularities.”
Kennedy now practices psychotherapy
in New York. He was ordained a priest in 1965, installed as a Zen
teacher in 1991 and designated roshi in 1997.
He is also a professor of
theology at St. Peter’s College in New Jersey. His two books are Zen Spirit,
Christian Spirit and Zen Gifts to Christians.
He speaks here Sept. 29 from
9:30 to noon at St Francis Xavier Catholic Church. Admission is free.
His talk is part of a series
at the church on peace and non-violence.
An additional role for Kennedy
is as a representative of the Institute for Spiritual Consciousness in
Politics at the United Nations, where he “stresses the need for dialogue
among religious people. This is a necessity today. We must understand one
another and become friends. It sounds so simple, but we have a terrible
Kennedy says that meditation
can improve both personal affairs and social action. His talk here will
address how Christians practicing Zen can promote peace in everyday living.
678. 070905 THE STAR'S
Sufis' dancing leads to oneness
Thursday night a group of Sufis gathered
for sacred dance, as they have for over 25 years here in Kansas City.
After exchanging greetings,
they recited an invocation which expressed their intention: “Toward the
One, the perfection of love, harmony and beauty, the only being, united
with all the illuminated souls who form the embodiment of the Master, the
spirit of guidance.”
Sufi dancing as practiced
here is indebted in spirit to the “whirling dervishes” of Turkey, but is
more like an America circle dance, through far more meditative, with bowing
and other gestures of respect. And if, like me, you have two left feet,
the instructions and your forgiving partners erase all embarrassment and
welcome you into a soulful energy.
Throughout the evening, Fattah
Kriner led the group in dances based on sacred phrases chanted in English,
Arabic, Tibetan, Sanskrit and Hebrew.
The chant for the last
dance of the evening, for example, in Arabic, can be translated as “The
love of God brought us here to the earth to be lovers, and now we wish
to return to the Beloved.”
Sometimes called Universal
Sufism, this approach to spiritual practice can be traced to Hazrat Inayat
Khan (1882-1927) who brought wisdom from India to the West. It is indebted
to Islamic mysticism but is not a part of mainstream Islam. Some scholars
consider it syncretistic because it embraces materials from many faiths.
But the practice is aimed
to lead one to the realization that there is only one Source, one Reality,
according to Connie “Rahimah” Sweeney, a past president of the group.
In Portland 30 years ago,
Sweeney discovered Sufi dancing to be “heart-expanding,” something she
had missed in her earlier religious background.
Sweeney says that as American
Sufism matures, traditional Sufi teachings gain more attention. A psychologist,
she cited the teaching of fana, “effacement,” the emptying of the personality,
with the practice of remembering there is only One. Not needing to defend
oneself or to react to every little thing leads to a sense of divine “union,
pure joy. The loss of self, which is so scary for Westerners, is what we’re
Emptying oneself to see God
in one’s dance partner becomes a key practice.
Kevin Wehner, a newer member,
says that never before has he had such spiritual experiences, “hard to
describe in words — the music and the movement — it’s a sacred feeling.”
The group’s web site, which
lists its activities and locations, is www.shiningheartcommunity.org.
677. 070829 THE STAR'S
Lay people give strength to interfaith
effort in KC
Saying that the discussions at Central
United Methodist Church’s God Talk group often involves this column, a
member asked me to visit some Thursday. I was interested in what questions
they might ask, so last week I went.
They were keenly interested
in interfaith activities in our area.
One of the members has been
reading The Faith Club, an account of how three women, Christian,
Jewish and Muslim, came to understand each other’s faiths deeply. I was
able to tell the God Talk group that the women will be at Park University
I also mentioned the upcoming
Festival of Faiths, a series of events created by different groups to enhance
our own friendship across faith lines.
The Festival begins Nov.
7 with the Interfaith Council’s luncheon. The Festival includes a presentation
by Judea Pearl, father of slain Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl, with Muslim
Akbar Ahmed, author of Islam Under Siege, at Village Presbyterian Church
Nov. 13. It concludes with my own organization’s 23d annual Thanksgiving
Sunday Ritual Meal Nov. 18.
But the group was not just
interested in programs. How did interfaith work develop here?
The Pluralism Project at
Harvard University studies the increasing religious diversity in our country
and the ways through which people of different faiths organize local interfaith
Ellie Pierce, chief researcher
there, speaking here at the nation’s first Interfaith Academies, said,
“At the Pluralism Project, we consider Kansas City to be truly at the forefront
of interfaith relations.”
But Kansas City does not
have an area-wide association of clergy or congregations. Without such
a structure, how did Kansas City gain its national reputation?
Lay people is how, I told
the God Talk group.
Interfaith efforts in other
cities are often structured to represent constituent religious organizations.
They run into “political” problems.
Clergy are busy, and their
first responsibility is to their congregations. No matter how devoted they
may be to interfaith work, their participation is often shaped by institutional
Here in Kansas City, the
Interfaith Council is composed mainly of lay people of various traditions.
They are not bound by ecclesiastic duties to represent their institutions.
They come, like The Faith Club women, simply as people of faith.
Institutions are essential.
But Kansas City’s growing success, I told the God Talk group, arises from
folks with loyalty to their faiths beyond institutional constraints.
676. 070822 THE STAR'S
Opera raises questions of violence
Is violence ever justified? Does beneficial
social and political progress ever originate from murder? Do religious
and moral conviction transform a terrorist into a martyr?
The ancient Indian faith,
Jainism, with about 4 million adherents world-wide and over 40 Kansas City
area families, may be the most consistent in saying no. Its teaching of
ahimsa, non-violence, influenced modern teachers like Gandhi and Martin
Luther King Jr.
But for most faiths, including
Judaism and Christianity referenced below, the answer is more difficult.
Consider the subject of the work which will conclude the Lyric Opera’s
50th Anniversary season, abolitionist John Brown. Some consider him a terrorist,
some a martyr after his execution for 1858 raid on Harper’s Ferry on the
He was a troublesome figure
in these parts, too, and his ferocity is depicted in a mural in the Kansas
In 1856 Brown and his gang
killed five pro-slavery settlers in what is called the “Pottawatomie Massacre.”
Brown had come to Kansas after the sacking of Lawrence by those wanting
Kansas to be admitted to the Union as a slave state.
In one of the most electrifying
arias of the opera, Brown, who as a child, “too small to help,” had witnessed
another boy, his friend, a slave, beaten ferociously by his master, tells
of reading in the Bible about “Moses who had seen a brutal beating of a
slave — and Moses killed a man! Moses! Moses himself took a human life
to defend a helpless slave.”
Were Moses — and Brown —
right to answer violence with violence? Was the Civil War fought among
Christians the correct way to achieve the liberation of the slaves?
Was our War of Independence
justified to escape “taxation without representation”?
Are those today who claim
inhuman subjugation or political or economic enslavement or exploitation
justified in reacting with violence?
Frederick Douglass and Ralph
Waldo Emerson give their views in “John Brown.”
The opera, a world premiere,
was composed by Kirke Mechem who was raised in Topeka and may be best known
for a previous opera, “Tartuffe.”
The other operas this season
also contain religious elements. In Verdi’s “Aida” and Bizet’s “The Pearl
Fishers,” priests and priestesses play roles. Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”
is a parable of virtue, and the Queen of the Night’s selfish aria threatening
to disown her daughter unless she kills the priest Sarastro contrasts sharply
with John Brown’s belief that violent means is justified by worthy ends.
675. 070815 THE STAR'S
Build sense of sacred with the right
A certain religious “liberal” who writes
“a popular column for a mainstream daily newspaper” was “no . . .match”
on a local public TV station against a “right-wing minister of a suburban
mega-church (who) had grabbed the (local and national) spotlight by pushing
a successful amendment to his state’s constitution to ban marriage equality
for gay citizens,” writes Robert N. Minor, professor of religious studies
at the University of Kansas, in his new book, When Religion is an Addiction.
Minor says the columnist
had his facts straight, his arguments were cogent and his preparation included
The columnist “was polite,
reasoned and inoffensive to everyone. And, as a progressive friend of mine
commented, the right-winger ate him alive,” Minor reports.
I’m not sure I have the objectivity
to judge whether what Minor calls the “arrogant and condescending,” authoritarian,
tone of the “right-winger” was more appealing to the viewers than the “nice”
tone of the columnist.
What I do know is that Minor
raises questions that trouble many people of many faiths. How can a tolerant
person accept intolerance? How does one respond to those who want to use
government to enforce their own religious views on everyone else?
In beginning his answer,
Minor quotes Robert Frost: “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take
his own side in a quarrel.”
Minor says that liberals
eschew the sound-bite type of communication he associates with “right-wingers,”
and doubts that liberal attempts at nuance often succeed in such contests.
Minor intensifies his criticism
of liberals by calling them “enablers” of those addicted to the high that
comes from thinking one is absolutely right in matters of faith.
He draws a parallel with
family and friends of alcoholics who cover-up or excuse the problem, enabling
the alcoholic to deny the addiction.
A liberal who declines to
point out religious addition because of respect for all religious perspectives
is an “enabler.”
Minor’s work continues an
important examination of addictive believers in such earlier books as Leo
Booth and John Bradshaw’s When God Becomes a Drug: Breaking the Chain of
Religious Abuse and Addiction, Matthew, Sheila and Dennis Linn’s Healing
Spiritual Abuse and Religious Addiction and Stephen Arterburn and Jack
Felton’s Toxic Faith.
As for that columnist, well,
would it be too liberal for him to write that while he respects Minor’s
viewpoint, the columnist thinks it is possible to build upon a sense of
the sacred even with “right-wingers”?
Part of me says Yes, part
of me says No.
674. 070808 THE STAR'S
It is not for us to choose
Can you speak the ultimate spiritual truth?
Will it fit inside the words and syntax of language? Is there a point to
the verbal disputes about God or the Absolute within and among various
faiths? Is one religious organization the receptacle of full and final
Or should different perspectives
be welcomed even if we favor the viewpoint most helpful to us, within our
own particular background and experience?
Swami Tyagananda, head of
the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston, and a chaplain to students at
Harvard and M.I.T., was in town recently to address the Kansas City Vedanta
Society. He is active in interfaith work, so I raised such questions
He told the story of
two Indians, one who said that Vishnu was the supreme god and other who
argued that Shiva was greater. They went to a sage for help.
The sage said “Not I, nor
my father, nor my grandfather — none of us has met them, so I am not in
a position to decide. Each of you continue your own practice. Each practice
can bring you toward experience of the truth.”
Tyagananda said religion
can begin with faith, and that can lead you to experience of God, but once
you have experience, you don’t need faith anymore because you experience
“Most people who quarrel
have not had such an experience. But those with experience don’t fight
about who is right. They just smile.”
I had asked him about two
views among the very different philosophies in Indian thought. Advaita,
Non-Duality, taught by Shankara (788-820), holds that there is no self
separate from ultimate reality. A contrary view, Dvaita, Dualism, was expounded
by Madhva (1199-1278) who taught that there is an everlasting distinction
between the self and the absolute.
Like other Hindu teachers
to whom I’ve put this question, Tyagananda smiled and said that it is unnecessary
to decide between them. “Who is to decide whose view is lower or higher?”
Each had his own experience, and what is important to us is the experience
Tyagananda questioned the
idea that one view is right and therefore all other views must be wrong.
“All can be right. All of
the philosophies and all of the religions — including Vedanta — are only
partial readings of the Infinite. If the truth is infinite, which philosophy,
which tradition can say, ‘I have got it fully!’?
“The moment you say that,
then you are limiting what is unlimitable. How can anyone have the audacity
to say ‘We have the truth entirely”? All are just snap-shots from different
August 2, 2007 10:09 AM CDT
bishops says pope's comments about Christian salvation misinterpreted
Sheri Baker-Rickman, Staff Writer
that Pope Benedict XVI made regarding the Catholic Church being the sole
spiritual path to salvation July 10 have been misinterpreted, Joseph F.
Naumann, archbishop with the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, said.
Benedict XVI said the “Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church.”
said the statement means that Jesus founded only one church, not many.
He said Jesus' church and the Catholic Church have the same elements.
churches cannot be described as churches under Catholic doctrine because
they lack sacramental priesthood and the Eucharist, Naumann said.
a Catholic, who understands the unique presence of Jesus in the sacrament
of the Eucharist, to abandon the church is wrong,” he said. “For those
who have come to understand and experience Jesus through other ecclesial
communities, we respect their faith and would say nothing to diminish its
City Interfaith Council founder the Rev. Vern Barnet described the pope's
comments as “unnecessarily provocative.'
statement damages interfaith relations because it attempts to place the
(Catholic) Church in a position of superiority rather than as an equal
among world faiths, all of which are groping in human ways with the finite
powers and limited backgrounds and experiences that we all have, to understand
an infinite mystery,” Barnet said.
each others' traditions is essential to interfaith dialogue, Barnet said.
is clear from this and previous statements that the pope has never really
understood other faiths, as his notoriously unfortunate lecture at Regensberg
last Sept. 12 demonstrated in a number of ways, despite his reputed great
intellect,” Barnet said.
that non-Catholic faiths are defective or incomplete suggests the pope
is a captive of one tradition, rather than a wise exponent of it,” he said.
Chuck Stanford of the Rime Buddhist Center echoed Barnet's concerns.
very inflammatory comments sadly are consistent with the more recent statement
issued with the pope's approval about the superiority of the Catholic Church,”
Stanford said. “His comments damage interfaith relations and interfaith
dialogue at a time when these are critically needed.”
said that in 1999, Benedict, then a cardinal, criticized Buddhism as an
“autoerotic spirituality” that seeks “transcendence without imposing concrete
said global tensions exist within and between religions and fundamentalism
is on the rise in many faiths, which threatens religious freedoms.
said different faiths should work for common solutions to social ills.
is my sincere hope that religious leaders worldwide will work to foster
respect of all faiths and work to encourage interfaith dialogue,” Stanford
said. “His holiness the Dalai Lama has personified these ideals of respect
for all religions and encourages and has personally engaged in many interfaith
said the pope's comments are detrimental to encouraging dialogue among
Macke, representing the Archdiocese of Kansas City, agreed with Naumann
and said news reports have been misinterpreted.
reports, especially the AP wire story, were misleading and basically false
about Pope Benedict releasing a document declaring the only way to salvation
was through the Catholic Church,” Macke said “Nowhere in the document is
the statement or any similar wording that the only way to salvation is
through the Catholic Church.
document does not in any way attempt to denigrate other Christian denominations.
The document is clarifying what the Catholic Church teaches that the Catholic
Church believes to be the Church of Christ. In terms of the incorrect statement
that 'salvation is only through the Catholic Church,' the document basically
says that because of the elements of truth that are present in these churches
they are indeed used by Christ as instruments of salvation for their members.”
673. 070801 THE STAR'S
Be careful when cherry-picking Bible
Last week’s column noted that “The Hebrew
scriptures present God as a healer.” I could have cited passages such as
Gen. 20:17, Ex. 15:26, 2 Kings 20:5 and Ps. 30:2 to support my point.
But reader Neil Harris responded,
“I read your column today with some interest: ‘The Hebrew Scriptures present
God as a healer.’
“I had just emerged from
one of my periodic attempts to get through the dismal parts of the Old
Testament and New Testament, and 2 Samuel 24 was on my mind: ‘The Lord
sent a pestilence throughout Israel from morning till the hour of dinner,
and from Dan to Beersheba seventy thousand of the people died.’ (NEB)
“The pestilence was one of
three nasty choices God gave David for the latter’s conducting a census—though
it seems God made him do it. Some healer! (The version of the story in
1 Chron. 21 has Satan inciting David to do the census. Were they interchangeable?)
“And the people of Jericho,
as well as the beasts, might have died saying, ‘Healer?’ Yeah, right.
“Now you, Vern, are the expert
in scriptures. Am I cherry-picking? Are you? Perhaps God would have been
a greater healer if we could have gotten him into an anger management class.”
Well, Prof. Harris, you are
right. I did cherry-pick. That’s what people do when they use the Bible.
It’s what people do in quoting Shakespeare or Emerson or Dante as well.
We select what is helpful to make our point.
But the problem of cherry-picking
is acute if a text is authoritative in the sense of being divinely inspired,
internally consistent and literally true.
The idea that God is unchanging
may come from Aristotle, but I’m not sure it is in the Bible, except for
Christians in Heb. 13:8. The scriptures present God in many moods. In Deut.
32:39 we read, “I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal.”
In the Bible God changes
his mind and repents (Gen. 6:6, Ex. 32:14, 1 Sam 15:35, Jer. 26:3), creates
evil (Isa.45:7), rewards the wicked (Prov. 26:10), commands killing the
“old and young, both maids, and little children, and women” (Ezek. 9:6),
is jealous (Ex. 20:5), gets angry (Ex. 22:24), protects a murderer (Gen.
4:15) and so forth.
We are not likely to select
such passages for inspiration. And I never recommend that people simply
open the Bible and read whatever their eyes find.
We can cherry-pick what we
like from literature composed thousands of years ago in different cultures
in antique languages, and ignore the rest—unless our faith requires us
to struggle with the whole of it.
672. 070725 THE STAR'S
Duty says prepare for pandemic
Do people of faith need to think about
a possible avian flu pandemic?
To approach this question,
let’s review some religious history.
Many of our hospitals were
formed by religious groups.
The Hebrew scriptures present
God as a healer. Jesus often treated the diseased, and he commanded his
followers to “heal the sick.” (Matt. 10:8.)
In Islam, the Qur’an itself
becomes a “cure,” and great medical advances were made in Islam that later
benefited the West.
The medicine Buddha is a
frequent imagine prescribing therapies for the world. The Hindu Ayurveda
medical tradition is said to have been revealed by the god Brahma.
The seventh Sikh guru, Har
Rai, established a hospital* and cured the son of the Mughal emperor, Shah
Jahan. Today many Sikhs are involved in health care.
Chinese acupuncture involves
the spiritual forces of yin and yang.
In primal traditions like
American Indian and tribal African ways, the “medicine man” plays an essentially
spiritual role. The Navajo healer, for example, may create a sand painting,
an image through which spirits restore the patient to primordial health.
Our English word “salvation”
is related to the Latin for “health.”
In most religions, healing
the sick is an obligation.
But what if so many people
are sick or contagious that schools are closed, the hospitals are overwhelmed
and places of worship must be used, not for regular services, but rather
to quarantine and house the sick? When so many bodies are piled up that
the few well undertakers are able to bury them?
Such questions were on the
agenda last Friday at “a preparedness summit for faith leaders” held at
the Nazarene Theological Seminary.
Arranged by the Kansas City
Health Department, the conference, “Mission Possible: spiritual response
and survival during a public health crises,” gathered clergy, religious
volunteers, health care professionals and disaster relief experts to considered
the poor response by Philadelphia in the 1918 flu pandemic, contrasted
with the much better St. Louis response, and provided worksheets for participants
to plan for their groups as part of metro preparedness.
Faith leaders can find a
checklist for their preparation at www.pandemicflu.gov/plan/community or
call the Kansas City line at (816) 513-6152. The primary focus of the checklist
is to help religious professionals take care of themselves and their staff
so they will be able to help the ill.
Kansas City health director
Dr. Rex Archer, who recently served as president of the National Association
of County and City Health Officials, cited the watchman in Ezek. 3 and
had the gathering recite together what could be a spiritual mantra: “The
only thing harder than preparing for a disaster is explaining why you didn’t.”
*still functioning, my friend
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa writes, and the eigthth Sikh Guru, Guru Har Krishan,
a young boy of 7 years, healed many of a small pox plague in the Punjab.
671. 070718 THE STAR'S
Are '60s values splittting hairs?
Last week I wrote about the “summer of
love” forty years ago and the theological study of the hippies of that
time that became part of my doctoral dissertation.
I asked whether what happened
then has meaning for us now. Were the values uplifted by the hippies absorbed,
ignored or corrupted by the larger culture? Did the hippies do much more
than liberate our hairstyles?
The play that seemed to capture
that era’s “alternate culture” challenge to the “dominant culture” was
the first rock musical, “Hair.”
I saw one of the 45 performances
of “Hair” in 1967 at The Cheetah in New York before the show moved to Broadway.
I was shaken to the depths by its honesty. It portrayed a spiritual power
in epic struggle against oppression. In it I saw a model for what
the church could be.
H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1951
book, Christ and Culture, presented five ways Christ can be related to
the culture of the time.
The first two are polar opposites.
The Christ-against-culture position maintains that Christ and culture are
irreconcilable and that Christians must give complete allegiance to Christ.
The Christ-of-culture perspective
says Jesus fulfills and illumines what is best in one’s culture and one
must align oneself with it.
The remaining three are medial
positions, Christ-above-culture, Christ-and-culture-in-paradox, and Christ-the-transformer-of-culture.
Since the hippie movement,
in word, in song, in deed, rejected a culture bent on economic gain to
the neglect of spiritual concerns, chastised a nation more enchanted with
technology than personhood, eschewed a society too scheduled to enjoy the
moment, and pursued war instead of peace, the hippie perspective generally
paralleled the Christ-against-culture position Niebuhr identified.
Hippies did not talk a lot
about the church, but they did talk about “the tribe.” And the tribe was
to live in this world without adopting the secular values the world cherishes,
just as some have envisioned the church as the body of Christ, bringing
witness and redemption to the sinful.
When I saw the Broadway production
of “Hair,” I was shocked and angry. The pure tribal message of spiritual
duty was commercialized into selfish indulgence.
A simple example. The original
had no nude scene, but the Broadway version used the tribe to titillate.
So I repeat and rephrase
last week’s question. Can anything sacred be popularized in our secularistic
culture without its corruption? Can the church, the tribe, resist the world’s
670. 070711 THE STAR'S
The summer of love has lessons
Forty years ago this summer I heard a song
advising, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers
in your hair.” It was “the Summer of Love” and the flowering of hippies.
That spring was also when
Martin Luther King Jr and many others protested the Vietnam War.
I was in divinity school
and decided I needed to understand what theological perspectives were undergirding
the hippies in order to complete the chapter on spiritual communities in
my doctoral dissertation. I went to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. I read
everything I could find.
A 45-page excerpt of my dissertation
was published in a professional journal in 1969 as “God Is Doing His Thing:
The Hippie Heresy and Liberalism.”
In it I argued that the hippie
phenomenon was far more complicated than popularly portrayed, and that
liberals should consider hippie remonstration against their assumptions.
Liberal assumptions, for
example, were packed into Harvey Cox’s 1965 widely noted book, Secular
City. Hippies challenged the value religious liberals then placed
on the secular and liberal neglect of the sacred. Liberals
focused on problems rather than on ultimate mystery. Liberals were consumed
with politics rather than practicing worship.
But the pre-commercial hippies
joined politics and worship and saw problems as doors that opened transcendent
This tweaks what theologians
call “realized eschatology.” The ultimate end we seek is already present
if we are awake to it. The righteousness we are seeking is available now
by doing our duty, and in such duty is ultimate bliss.
For me, in the midst of a
war, it meant placing my draft card on the altar at the University of Chicago’s
Rockefeller Chapel during Sunday worship and the consequent FBI investigation
and reclassification by my draft board.
In “Hair,” the musical that
came to characterize hippies, burning a draft card became a sacred act
It is 40 years later. This
is not a summer of love answering war. The hippie faith that living
right will make things right is shaken.
Did the hippies change much
more than hair styles? Let me answer with a question.
I saw one of the 45 performances
of “Hair” in 1967 at The Cheetah in New York before the show moved to Broadway,
where, in my opinion, its pure and profoundly moving message of spiritual
duty was commercialized into selfish indulgence.
And so the question. Can
anything sacred be popularized in our secularistic culture without its
669. 070704 THE STAR'S
Water, rock powerful symbols
In many world religions, water is a transforming
agent. And when people from many faiths gather, water can symbolize both
the distinctive rivers of faith and the ocean of mystery into which those
rivers ultimately flow.
So when, from Canada, Connecticut,
California and places between, 45 religious professionals and students
assembled here at the Saint Paul School of Theology to learn about doing
interfaith work, they brought water. And each also brought a rock.
Ceremonially, one by one,
they poured their water into a 3-gallon clear glass jar, dropped their
rocks into it and voiced their hopes as the Interfaith Academies began
Faithful readers of this
column over the years may recall that waters have been collected and dispersed
on several interfaith occasions.
To a collection of waters
from the Ganges, Nile, Tiber, Thames, Yangtze, Jordan, Euphrates, Missouri,
Kaw and elsewhere, in 2001 water was added from 14 area fountains by members
of 14 faith groups at the interfaith “Gifts of Pluralism” conference to
celebrate the fact that faiths from all over the planet now flow into our
The meaning of this collection
of waters was deepened at the 2002 anniversary observance of 9/11 when
these waters were poured into the pool at Ilus Davis Park, and then retrieved
to signify our tears washing away our self-righteousness.
After Academy participants
added their waters to the collection, the two-week schedule began, including:
* visits to six exceptionally
hospitable religious sites
* classroom study of various
faiths with an international faculty
* related films in the evening
* case studies of perplexing
interfaith situations such as community opposing the sale of a church building
to Muslims wishing to use it as a mosque
* exercises such as interpreting
problematic sacred texts
* a panel of media experts
* library study time
* time out for a Royals game
and a visit to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
* exploring the resources
of such as Harvard’s Pluralism Project
* devotional experiences
from many faiths
* discussions of participants’
interfaith efforts in their own locales
* a performance of scenes
from the Kansas City play, “The Hindu and the Cowboy”
At the end of the two weeks,
the participants retrieved a rock someone else had brought, washed but
undiluted by the mingled waters, and celebrated the gifts of learning from
one another and from the spiritual richness of Kansas City and this nation,
to take home.
668. 070627 THE STAR'S
We all need one another
Yehezkel Landau is one of the international
scholars leading the two-week Interfaith Academies ending here today.
A dual American-Israeli citizen,
he spent 13 years working in Kansas City’s sister city, Ramle, Israel,
where he met then Kansas City Mayor, now Congressman, Emanuel Cleaver.
He also met Kathleen Sebelius, now Kansas Governor, who was part of an
interfaith group he addressed at a hotel in Jerusalem one sabbath evening.
About this, his first visit
to Kansas City, he says, “I’m very impressed with the cooperation among
the different faith groups. It is a model to see diversity as a blessing
and not a threat.”
I asked why he went to Israel.
“My Judaism brought me to Israel as a religious Zionist who believes that
the spiritual integrity of Judaism requires in our time a sovereign state
that is faithful to the teachings of Judaism which include justice and
peace as central imperatives,” he said.
“That means putting life
and justice, human rights, peace above control over the whole of the Holy
Land. We have to share and create two states so that both Jews and
Palestinian Arabs can express themselves, not just politically but also
spiritually, in the fullest possible way.”
There Landau was co-director
of Open House Center for Jewish-Arab Coexistence. Now he teaches
at Hartford seminary where one-third of the students are Muslim.
Since his main interest is
in Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations, I asked why he agreed to be involved
in a program with many other faiths.
“I think we need each other,”
he said. Each faith has “something special, if not unique to teach the
“We in the Academies just
came back from a Buddhist center, and the notion of detachment is a healthy
corrective to excessive attachment to material things including territory.
Holy lands should be seen as means and not ends.
“God says that ‘All the land
is Mine, and you should be unto Me a kingdom of priests and holy people,’
so we have to do sacrificial service, which at the present time means sacrificing
some territory in order to create a just peace in Israel and Palestine.
“A Buddhist perspective can
help Jews and Arabs find a higher meeting ground and share material resources
like land and water in the Holy Land, which I understand belongs to God,
and we both belong to it.
like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh have visited Israel and Palestine
to share their commitment to universal, unconditional compassion, which
we definitely need.”
667. 070620 THE STAR'S
Do not open mouth and insert foot
As I walked past Nichols Fountain
near the Plaza last week, I heard two men verbally bullying two darker-skinned
boys about religion.
The older men, Christians,
were condemning the younger ones, Muslims in high school I learned later,
to hell. I decided to intervene and backtracked.
At the point in the assault
at which I entered, one of the Christians was insisting that the bible
has always been the same.
I asked, how could that be?
There is no original text extant. The sacred writings have been gathered
over millennia. For the first four centuries of the Christian area, which
texts were inspired were in dispute, and as late as the Council of Trent
(1545-1563), decisions about what should be included in the canon were
I was more sympathetic to
the other Christian’s approach. Instead of simply condemning the boys,
he related that his becoming a Christian saved him from a life on drugs.
One can appreciate the faith
that provides such important, even life-saving, benefits.
But drugs were not problems
for these boys, and stories about being saved from perils by one’s faith
can be found in every religion. I don’t see how that gives one bragging
rights about one’s own faith being superior to other faiths for all other
So he tried another tack.
Allah, he said, came after Jesus.
This statement astonished
the boys, as it did me.
Allah is the Arabic word
for God. Translations of the New Testament into Arabic use the word wherever
it appears as God in English, just as the French use Dieu, the Spanish
Dios and so forth.
The Christian did not know
enough about the faith he was condemning to know that Muhammad, who did
live some 600 years after Jesus, is not Allah. Muslims believe that Muhammad
was a great man, but not divine.
“We are young,” said the
boys thanking me, naturally respectful of older folk, even those who were
Sharing one’s faith can be
a beautiful thing. But have I learned about the faith of the persons
with whom I am speaking? Have I allowed them to share their faith journeys
before I heap on my condemnations and insist my faith is superior?
What if I fully understood
the conditions that make another person’s faith precious to him or her?
Might I also see how my own faith has developed from my own life circumstances?
Recognizing where I was born, when in history, who my parents were, the
experiences I’ve had, the friends I’ve known, might lead to a modesty about
claiming my way must be the way for all others.
666. 070613 THE STAR'S
Bloch building enhances spiritual experience
My daily 3-mile walks usually take me by
the south lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and I’ve watched as the
Bloch Building was dug and planted and now blooms.
Last week, I was finally
Religion has generated art
since prehistoric times, and even today spiritual issues are raised in,
for example, David Salle’s “Diabolic Life Restoring Machines,” Kerry James
Marshall’s “Memento #5,” or my favorite, Robert Rauschenberg’s “Tracer,”
all on display in the new building’s contemporary gallery.
I like to give my students
tours. In the 1933 building, I often start with the Assyrian relief of
the genie fertilizing the date plant, to show the spiritual intimacy between
humans and nature, as also revealed in Egyptian theriomorphic deities,
interesting to contrast with Greek anthropomorphic gods.
Or contrast Christian Renaissance
painting with Chinese Song Dynasty scrolls. In Girolamo da Santacroce’s
“Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence” we see God atop the painting, but in Xia
Gui’s “Twelve Views of Landscape” the Tao, the Way, appears everywhere,
presenting two very different visions of sacred power, one external to
the world acting upon it, with humans the focus, the other power infused
everywhere within the world, with human activity a footnote.
The Christian painting, like
the creeds, seeks to be explicit in what it depicts, while the landscape’s
effect is heightened by what is implicit, framed not in the geometry of
the Christian painting but rather in a field that can only be suggested.
Moving right along, we see
the glorious “Shiva Nataraja,” a Hindu dance of cosmic destruction and
creation, suggesting the personal capacity for transformation.
The “Stele with Scenes from
the Lotus Sutra” marks the eruption of a new form of Buddhism, not just
for monks but for all humankind.
The “Luohan” is an image
of individual enlightenment, but the bodhisattva “Seated Guanyin” says
there is something about the universe that draws us all toward enlightenment.
And the Block building? What
is its spiritual message? It is more than a superb container.
The new building is respectful
of the 1933 structure in such a way that its own dignity is enhanced, just
as we humans are ennobled by joining respect for others with self-respect.
And the building’s
doors and windows welcome the outside—from the contiguous lawn to the sun
93,000,000 miles away, whose energy rebounds at night through the building’s
Thus the building says, “Behold!”
665. 070606 THE STAR'S
When faith becomes partisan
Two items from the mail bag.
The first is from a Christian
minister who did not like last week’s column about valuing the worship
practices of many faiths when only one way is correct. Of my joining with
Muslims for prayer he wrote, “Your Muslim kin will probably reach out and
kill you one day.”
If I knew no Christians,
I would not find his faith very attractive.
The second letter was generous,
supportive and thoughtful throughout its two single-spaced pages. The writer
deeply believes in the importance of “bringing the religions of the area
together for fellowship and dialogue.”
But the letter was motivated
by “loving concern” about statements I’ve made which were interpreted as
Citing scripture, the writer
believes that we must support “our duly elected leaders” even when “we
may strongly disagree with their policies” and “support our government.”
The time to express ourselves is through voting, not afterwards.
Conceiving of me as a religious
leader, the writer says my words should be about cooperation and love,
not words of criticism.
I understand the writer’s
perplexity about the mixing of faith and politics. But I have three quick
*Supporting the policies
of elected leaders is just as partisan as disagreeing with them. Our Constitution
explicitly provides for dissent between elections. I don’t see how support
is inherently more spiritual than disagreement.
*Inspiring leaders like Gandhi,
Martin Luther King Jr and Archbishop Desmond Tutu protested the evils of
their governments as part of their spiritual leadership.
In the Hebrew scriptures,
the prophet Nathan scolded King David. On meeting King Ahab, instead of
showing respect, the prophet Elijah called him the “ruin of Israel” to
his face. Jeremiah’s oracles of condemnation were presented to King Jehoiakim
Many other examples from
many traditions could be given to suggest that justice is a higher spiritual
value than submission to worldly authority. Had I been in Hitler’s Germany,
how could I have submitted to his authority?
*Interfaith work is not just
singing Kumbaya. With insights from the primal faiths, it must address
our environmental crisis. With the methods of Asian traditions, it must
develop deeper understanding of personhood. With the wisdom of the monotheistic
religions, society must be made just and peaceful.
Religion is not a lazy trance.
It is giving ourselves utterly to the Holy, not to political powers that
would rather control us.
664. 070530 THE STAR'S
We can see the holy in many faces
The men form several lines, shoulder to
shoulder. Now they bow, now prostrate themselves, now sit on their legs
and raise one finger, signifying there is but one God.
I am with my Muslim kin at
Friday prayer. This may not be my own faith tradition, but I have faith
in my Muslim sisters and brothers here.
I think of other places of
worship I have visited, some of which I have unintentionally violated because
of my ignorance, but where the grace of the other worshippers made me nonetheless
Such varied customs!
* The Christian Eucharist, with
the wafer and wine called the body and blood of the Savior.
* Arti in the Hindu temple,
a flame offered to a deity, then as it is passed around, the worshippers
cupping their hands over the flame and raising palms to forehead as a purification.
* Folks sitting in meditation
in silence announced and ended with the striking of a bell in the shape
of a huge bowl producing the most gorgeous, lush sound at the Buddhist
* The joy of the Jewish congregation
as the Torah scroll is taken from the ark, read from, paraded through the
synagogue and kissed as it is returned to the ark.
* The warm conversation as
folks eating together in the langar, the Guru’s kitchen in the Sikh gurdwara,
preserving the intention of universal service with the elimination of class
* The sweating of nearly
naked bodies in a hut of branches covered with animal hide in darkness
punctuated with the opening of a flap so hot stones can be added to the
pit in the center, in the Lakota inipi ceremony, or sweat lodge.
* Shouting a Japanese chant
standing under a powerful waterfall after consuming a little sake and salt
in a loincloth and headband in a Shinto misogi ritual.
A visitor from another planet
might find nothing in common to these religious ceremonies emerging from
different times and cultures, and be puzzled why I find them all so stirring.
Should such a visitor suddenly
join me as the Muslims around me offer salaams, greetings of peace, to
one another, I would say:
We human beings have encountered
the holy, the infinite, and wish to govern ourselves thereby.
But we are finite. The wars,
oppressions, and other cruelty you find on planet earth sometimes arise
when people confuse a finite idea of the holy with the holy itself.
Still, I am moved whenever
I see people recognizing our limitations as we reach to honor what is beyond
663. 070523 THE STAR'S
Hindu temple fosters values
You are a Hindu priest in Kansas City.
What brought you here? What do you do? And can you help me sort out various
terms for religious leaders?
I put such questions to the
two priests at the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of Kansas City in Shawnee.
The Temple began in 1991
and its growth now requires plans to expand the building.
Shastri Rajendra Pandya and
Seshasai Rompicharla both come from priestly families in India.
Pandya, born near Gandhi’s
home town of Porbandar, saw the spreading of his faith and culture to the
West and recognized the need Hindus here have for priestly services. Before
coming to the US, he served in Canada.
Rompicharla has several family
members also serving in the West. He comes to Kansas City from Dallas.
A Hindu priest offers puja,
rituals of divine homage, on behalf of individuals and families as they
come to the temple throughout the week, for which his exacting knowledge
of Sanskrit is required.
He may also perform such
services for the sick, to dedicate a new house, and to preside at weddings
Rompicharla says “God is
one but takes many different forms,” just as we may dress differently for
Thus a priest may offer puja
for one family who favor the god Vishnu or another family who favor Shiva.
A priest does not give sermons.
And Hindus do not seek to convert others to their faith.
Still, Pandya values his
the wisdom of his ancient culture, that we are to help one other.
five values with the English name for his faith: H-honesty, I-integrity,
N-nobility, D-devotion, and U-unity.
Now for some terms, alphabetically.
An acarya is a professor,
especially one learned in the tradition of the Vedas (the most authoritative
In olden days, Brahmins were
members of the priestly caste. Highly educated and ritually pure, their
scope was great, from practicing law to cooking for others. Nowadays, anyone
may do such things except be a temple priest.
A guru is a teacher and often
specifically means a personal spiritual guide.
A pandit is a master or a
scholar who conserves classical Sanskrit traditions of ritual, philosophy
and literature. The term may also be applied to any learned person. The
meaning has been corrupted in
its popular American use as “pundit.”
The rishis are the ancient
Swami literally means owner
or master and is a title offered out of respect for a teacher or holy person.
662. 070516 THE STAR'S
Share your faith like a bowl of soup
The story this column relates is not particularly
dramatic or even unusual. It is not especially theological.
But it is a story of faith.
I like it because it is typical
of the kindness I myself have encountered from Muslim friends, here and
around the world.
I offer it in response to
readers who almost every week tell me that Muslims want to take over this
country and that I have an obligation to condemn Islam.
It is told by one of my students
at the Saint Paul School of Theology, Kitty Shield. Here are her words:
There is a small Italian
restaurant close to where Chuck, my husband, and I live in Wichita. It
is one of three restaurants owned by three brothers from Lebanon.
Over the years Chuck and
I have become friends with Ali Issa. We have spent evenings just sitting
and talking with him after the restaurant has closed.
Ali is a Shi’i Muslin and
it has been wonderful to talk to him and to learn about his faith.
We have also shared our faith
with him, but since Ali was educated in Roman Catholic schools in Lebanon,
I think we have learned much more than he has.
Four years ago, when our
parish, St James, was looking at starting to feed people prior to our new
Wednesday evening classes, I approached Ali about the possibility of our
getting soup from him.
We had gotten several estimates
from other restaurants and it was looking bleak as to whether we would
be able to stay within our proposed budget.
Ali said that if we would
pick up the soup, he could give us 10 gallons for $25.00 per week.
We would get whatever soup was the soup of the day unless they were having
fish soup. (We had staff members who were worried about mercury in the
fish when we had pregnant mothers eating the soup.)
After about six months our
youth minister, Teresa Rogers, asked for Ali’s phone number because we
had not received a bill for the soup. Teresa had left several messages
and Ali told her he was having problems with his computer system taking
St James’ name into it and he would get back to her.
I was in the restaurant with
Teresa having lunch and we asked Ali if the problem had been fixed.
He got a huge grin on his
face and he told us: “I prayed about this matter and my computer will never
be able to take St James’ name into it. My cost to St James is that
all the members pray for peace.”
He wanted us to do what was
really needed to be done: pray with him for peace. The members of St James
do pray for peace and Ali, too.
661. 070509 THE STAR'S
What is your faith quotient?
A couple Saturdays ago The Star ran a general
religious literacy test. Today you have a chance to see how much you know
about religion in the Kansas City area.
Circle true statements and
cross out false ones.
1. Three denominations have
their world headquarters here.
2. Kansas City, Mo, has never
had a Jewish mayor.
3. Except for the New Reform
Temple, most Jewish groups now are located in Johnson County.
4. Pilgrim Chapel on Gillham
is opposed to interfaith efforts.
5. Both Kansas and Missouri
have Sikh sites.
6. None of Kansas City’s
black churches has a white minister.
7. Holy Trinity Orthodox
Church on Pflumm used to be located on Russian Hill in Kansas City, Kan.
8. An annual Dec. 31 “world
peace” meditation began in 2000.
9. A liberal Roman Catholic
national weekly paper is published here.
10. All Roman Catholic parishes
in the metro area are part of a single diocese.
11. The Country Club Plaza
includes an architectural feature modeled from a minaret, the Muslim tower
from which the call to prayer is made.
12. Almost every American
city our size has had an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
13. Both American and Southern
Baptists have seminaries here.
14. The area has only one
15. Don and Adele Hall recently
receive an interfaith award.
16. The Hindu Temple in Shawnee
includes images only of Hindu gods.
17. A park here contains
a statue of St Martin of Tours with a wristwatch.
18. No Jains live here.
19. The Jewish Community
Relations Bureau was one of the first organizations to foster interfaith
20. The Kansas City Interfaith
Council is two years older than its Wichita counterpart.
21. Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist
group, has operated in the area since the 1960s.
22. The North American Interfaith
Network will have its convention here in 2008.
23. The Star publishes a
verse from a non-Christian faith on its editorial page each Saturday.
24. As part of the
covenant between the Roman Catholic and Episcopal cathedrals down town,
once again this year a joint Easter vigil was observed.
25. Folks at the Village
Presbyterian Church have joined with others to plan a Festival of Faiths
for Nov 10-18 this year.
ANSWERS: All odd numbered
statements are true, all others are false. Half correct is a good score.
You know the town.
660. 070502 THE STAR'S
Heartland good choice for meeting of
Book learning is one thing. Real life may
be another. A faith you read about may seem very different from encountering
it in those who faithfully practice it. In even the best text, some things
remain opaque, but an interfaith friendship may reveal them.
For most of my career I’ve
combined parish or community work with adjunct teaching. I think this mix
has helped keep my teaching real and my ministry challenged by the ferment
of ideas in the academy.
So when Kansas City
was selected as the first site in the nation for religious practitioners
and students in a fully-funded program to train them for working in our
religiously plural nation, the learning strategy of combining guest scholars
with local faith leaders at their sites made perfect sense to me.
Cooperating in two concurrent
“interfaith academies” June 13-27 and June 13-20, free to students, are
Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, Religions for Peace at the United
Nations Plaza, our own Saint Paul School of Theology and our local Interfaith
Last week I took the Rev
Bud Heckman, project director, and his assistant, Zack Shaeffer, from New
York, around town to meet folks from some of the sites that will be part
of the Academy program. I had only a little more than a day, and part of
that time was spent at Saint Paul arranging facility space, but we visited
friends at the Rime Buddhist Center, the Sikh Gurdwara and the Hindu Temple.
We worshipped Friday evening at B’nai Jehudah.
The program also includes
Orthodox Christian and Muslim sites.
And just before they left
on Saturday, we went to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where Academy
participants will visit its collections of religious art from many traditions.
We also firmed up arrangements
with the Tivoli Cinemas for a special showing of a religious film June
18 to which the community will be invited, with a panel discussion following
Before he left, Heckman said,
“People on the coasts don’t realize the religious diversity in the middle
of America. Kansas City offers a positive example” of faiths encountering
each other respectfully.
Pamala Couture, Saint Paul’s
academic dean, said that Kansas City is “a safe place for dialogue.”
Al Brooks, formerly Kansas
City Mayor Pro Tem, met with Academy planners and said that “As 911 has
showed us, we need to learn about Islam and other religions” in order to
build genuine community.
for information and an application form.
659. 070425 THE STAR'S
Let's think about US empire
Cornell University’s Barry Strauss, author
of the much-praised book The Trojan War: A New History, will explore
whether America is an empire and if that could be a good thing, in a lecture
at 7 pm at the downtown library tomorrow. He’ll use 911 as a reference
Ancient themes can lead to
deeper understanding of today’s issues, so I asked him to compare the role
of religion in antiquity with today.
He said that while ancient
Greeks and Romans might not at first appear religious to us, they in fact
“No important public or private
decisions were taken without first obtaining divine approval.
“But priests had relatively
little power in those societies because politicians and other secular figures
could interpret the will of the gods. There was no separation of church
“In modern America, where
church and state are separated, it has always been assumed that people
will get many of their most important values from religion—but that they
do so privately.
“In recent years, however,
with the decline of organized religion, Americans have tended to rely on
secular institutions for their values. This hasn’t worked very well, in
my opinion, and many of us are at sea and have lost our moorings. That
may help explain why, in America, religion is making a comeback
Since some people in other
nations interpret the US role in Iraq as a Christian imperial enterprise,
I asked Strauss if there are spiritual aspects to the idea of empire beyond
military and political dimensions.
“Yes,” he said, “including
both good and bad,” destructive spirituality.
“Imperial power always corrupts
some, and perhaps most, people who wield it. And yet, to govern an empire
can also inspire a sense of duty and even of mission.
“In my judgment, to govern
an empire is, on balance, a burden. It is better not to be an imperial
power as long as a state can maintain its freedom. But that isn’t always
possible, because freedom needs to be defended, and that sometimes means
projecting power abroad.”
Some in Arab lands object
to permanent US military bases as a violation of their sacred territory.
Some readers who write me insist
that Islam is at war with Christian America. Two days after 911 controversial
columnist Ann Coulter wrote, “ We should invade their countries, kill their
leaders and convert them to Christianity.”
Strauss says that thinking
about empire may reveal the complexities of our situation, without easy
658. 070418 THE STAR'S
A question of pay to pray
Should I accept tax money for the five
invocations I provided as guest chaplain for Kansas City City Council sessions
I was still thinking this
through when, as my tenure began, I designated the non-profit organization
I lead to receive the city’s stipend, and before and after that, I’ve sought
advice from a lot of people. Perhaps writing about my perplexity will be
useful to others.
Here are some arguments in
favor of taking the money:
Any professional providing
services to the city deserves compensation. If the city engages an architect,
a janitor or a lawyer, the time and expertise is recognized with remuneration.
As Luke 10:7 says, “the laborer deserves his wages (Luke 10:7).”
In my case, I adjusted my
schedule to add about 15 hours including travel time to honor the Council’s
request. A one-minute prayer takes a lot longer to write than a five-minute
The interfaith prayers embraced
all citizens regardless of their belief or unbelief, so disqualification
of my work as sectarian would be unlikely.
Tax monies are regularly
pay chaplains in the armed forces and in prisons, though the justification
for them recognizes that military personnel and prisoners may not
otherwise have the access to religious services. And a full-time chaplaincy
job is requires a greater commitment than saying a few prayers.
Since the early days of the
Republic, chaplains for the Congress have been paid.*
No government official tried
to guide me in how I prayed, so there is no question of political influence
If I didn’t want the money,
I could donate it to charity.
Still, without questioning
the judgment of my colleagues or the practice of prayer at official
governmental meetings, my personal decision in this case is to decline
I just can’t shake the feeling
that it is embarrassing, even a little sleazy, for me to take government
money for praying.
Even donating the money to
a worthy cause gives me control of tax money. I do not want that power
in exchange for praying.
I accept pay from non-government
groups for my services, but I would not want a single citizen to feel that
he or she was paying taxes for a prayer that did not suit him or
Lawyers do pro bono work,
physicians offer their skills to those who cannot pay, and business executives
bring their acumen to non-profit boards without collecting salary.
Citizens volunteer in the
life of the city in many ways. I’d prefer to provide my services as a gift
rather than a gig.
*Justice Burger, Marsh v
Chambers, 463 US (1983).
657. 070411 THE STAR'S
Learn why religion thrives in US
Many scholars of religion in America believe
that one key reason religion flourishes here in comparison with Europe
is our tradition, enshrined in the Constitution, of keeping government
out of religious affairs.
But Derek Davis, an expert
in church-state matters who visits the KU Apr 16, sees recent changes to
this tradition in the way the Supreme Court is interpreting the First Amendment.
Davis was the director of
the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University
until last year. He began his career as a lawyer. He currently is dean
of the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor’s graduate school and college of
He says that “an increasingly
conservative Court in the last twenty years or so has been concerned that
past decisions were too harsh in separating church and state, the consequence
being a discrimination against religion.”
As an example, he cites the
Court’s approval of “voucher strategies for funding religious schools
as well as legislation that provides monetary supplements to religious
While Davis tends toward
objective presentations, I asked him for his personal view. He responded:
“I believe that government
aid to religion compromises religion, cheapens it, and makes
religion merely the newest in a long list
of government programs” with attendant supervision and monitoring.
“A total separation is impossible,
but keeping the institutions of religion and government separate has been,
in my view, the primary reason for the success of religion in our history.
“Merging religion and government
tends to water down religious truth and make it a mere tool of government
policy. If you survey the world, the countries that make religion the engine
of government policy are riddled with dissension and discrimination and
tend to be far less economically developed.
“Diversity is a problem for
them whereas it is a strength in our country.
“Separation of church and
state has been good for religion, not bad, contrary to what many today
seem to believe.”
His talk at 7:30 pm Monday
in the Kansas Union in Lawrence is entitled, “Religion and Politics in
the U.S.: Conflicts and Anomalies.”
He says he will address the
many conflicts and inconsistencies we have, such as our official national
motto “In God We Trust” while also adhering to the separation of
church and state.
He will also discuss the
advantages and merits of mixing religion and politics as well as the disadvantages
and dangers to both church and state.
656. 070404 THE STAR'S
Electing the right prayer
Praying on another’s behalf is a sacred
trust. Last month my duty as chaplain to the Kansas City City Council was
to offer the invocation as each Thursday’s legislative session began.
I made many mistakes, and
not just mispronouncing the name of a Council honoree.
While I noticed Councilman
Eddy not at his place at one session, I did not know he was in the hospital
until later and so failed to name him in the pastoral section of my prayer.
My first prayer was addressed
to “Spirit of Generations,” and a Council member asked afterwards where
God was in the prayer. I think I remedied that by the second week, but
I should have anticipated the concern.
I am not certain that my
plan was entirely successful for five distinctive prayers, each identifying
a different theme, focusing one week on recent local achievements, another
week on Kansas City’s world-wide relationships through our sister cities,
and so forth.
But the chief challenge came
from the fact that the first session occurred right after the primary election,
and the last session right after the general election.
How could I pray in a pastoral
way that recognized individual joy and pain of winning and losing? How
could I articulate the dynamic of the citizens as the results of the election
were being assessed at that moment? How could I view the situation impartially
while I have personal relationships with some involved in the contests?
And do this briefly?
I tried balanced and ambiguous
phrasing. I tried reporting a common evaluation without my own judgment;
I tried using a unifying tone of voice into the mic.
Here is how that final prayer
“O Spirit of Justice, you
who work throughout history and community through fallible people, we gather
acknowledging your sway in the aftermath of the city’s election.
“It was often said there
were two good mayoral candidates,
to vote for one, not against the other.
Yet it is also said the voting pattern, and the closeness of the vote,
might suggest a division — which can be healed with the grace of the one
who did not win, who has given the community so much for so long so well,
with wisdom to be found and outreach to be manifested by the winner.”
The complete prayer can be
found at www.cres.org/city.
Praying on behalf of the
Council, with the members’ own attention to infinite detail embraced in
a larger vision, humbled me with their gracious permission for me to try
to find words blessing their work.
655. 070328 THE STAR'S
Season of lent a time for long reflection
Easter, the celebration of the resurrection
of Christ, is the most important festival of the Christian year, always
in the spring. Christians ready themselves for Easter in the preceding
weeks, called “Lent,” from “lengthening” days.
I asked the Rev. R. Glen
Miles, senior minister of the Country Club Christian Church, to explain
what Lent means to Christians. Just before he left for a mission trip to
South Africa, he sent this response:
Many Christians across
the world are observing the season of Lent, a 40-day period of prayerful
reflection as we prepare to celebrate Easter.
During this time of year
we examine our lives, our actions and behaviors to see if we are following
the will of God.
The phrase, “will of God”
is often misunderstood. Some folks think that it is an exact blueprint
for every decision that lies before them. I suppose the will of God is
something like that but I think that it is much more open-ended.
When we study of the will
of God, we revisit ancient questions from old prophets like Micah who asked,
“What does the Lord require of you?” His answer gives us a huge clue about
how we are to live, to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with
I am convinced that I have
been called by God into the ministry, but I have said many times that I
could be selling sodas at Royals games (a worthy profession!) and still
be in the will of God as long as I were seeking justice, doing kindness
and humbly acknowledging my place in the universe.
Another question to consider
during Lent was asked of Jesus: “What is the greatest commandment?”
Jesus fudged on his answer by noting two commandments, “Love God and love
your neighbor.” He was probably not the first to say something like this,
but for Christian folks his answer gets our attention. We Christians can
easily be distracted by arguments over theological concepts like salvation,
but in the long run what we are truly called to do, during every season
of the year, is love God and neighbor.
When Christians carefully
review their lives and wrestle with old prophets like Micah and thoughtfully
deliberate with our Lord, we become better citizens of the world.
There are some folks in our
faith who are hoping for an escape from all of this. They think we are
going to be taken up while almost everyone else is going to be left behind.
That may be well and good
for some but in the meantime a life lived for justice, a day given to kindness
and a moment spent loving God and neighbor will go a long way toward bringing
peace on earth.
654. 070321 THE STAR'S
A mayor should be open to all
Both Kansas City Mayoral candidates support
Mark Funkhouser says although
he has not been involved in interfaith efforts here or before he came to
Kansas City, he respects the “huge variety” of beliefs and would probably
respond to invitations for him to participate.
In an interview, Funkhouser
said he recognizes a deep spirituality that moves people, whether that
spirituality “is in the context of formal religion or not.”
When I mentioned Kansas City’s
selection as the pilot site for two national interfaith academies for training
religious professionals and emerging religious leaders at the Saint Paul
School of Theology this summer, Funkhouser said he was glad such programs
were happening here.
Alvin Brooks says, “I have
spent my life trying to improve conditions for minorities and to build
bridges between different racial, ethnic and religious groups. Since Sept.
11, 2001, I regularly read from the Qur’an, the Torah and the Bible.”
Brooks has often attended
an interfaith event even when he had no role to play, as when the Kansas
City Interfaith Council arranged an observance on the afternoon of the
first Sunday after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and at the annual Thanksgiving
Sunday Interfaith Ritual Meal held most recently at Temple B’nai Jehudah.
He also has accepted invitations
for major roles at interfaith events, such as at the 2001 “Gifts of Pluralism”
interfaith conference. When the national CBS broadcast about interfaith
work in Kansas City was screened at Union Station the following year, Brooks
introduced the event. He delivered the message at the interfaith World
Peace Meditation in 2003. He spoke at the presentation of the interfaith
play, “The Hindu and the Cowboy and Other Kansas City Stories” at the 2004
Harmony luncheon. He was a featured speaker at the first Salaam Shalom
Celebration in Leawood in 2005.
He has co-chaired the annual
dinner for the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education and the annual luncheons
of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.
Although Brooks is a Christian,
he has received awards from Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish and interfaith
groups including the organization formerly known as the National Conference
of Christians and Jews, Kansas City Region.
Two of his honorary doctorates
come from religious institutions, one Catholic, one Protestant, Rockhurst
University and Western Baptist Seminary.
In 2004, Brooks initiated
a monthly interfaith dinner group so folks from all over the metro area
could discuss their spiritual journeys in a social setting.
At the funeral of an adult
son, Brooks asked leaders of several faiths to present readings and prayers.
Kansas City, like the entire
metro area, exhibits growing religious diversity, and both candidates seem
to appreciate that fact. I know of no city where interfaith leadership
is part of the mayor’s job description, but the interest in knowing folks
of all faiths might be an asset in serving a community.
653. 070314 THE STAR'S
Some dance to remember
Dance, like other arts, originated with
religion, many scholars say. Psalm 150 commands praising God with dance.
Still today in India, the gods Krishna and Shiva are often portrayed dancing.
Whether you are dancing in
your basement or watching a professional performance, whether the Eagle
Dance of the American Indians or classical ballet, the movement of the
body is itself a blessing.
Even if the subject of a
dance appears to be secular, merely an exhibition of technique, just sheer
fun or a way for partners to enjoy each other, it is the soul animating
Sometimes dance may
produce profound insights into the nature of humanity, as in the Kansas
City Ballet’s recent production of Jose Limon’s “The Moor’s Pavane,” based
on Shakespeare’s “Othello.”
A couple years ago the Ballet’s
Matthew Powell created a dance that seared the souls of many of us who
The dance began with the
voice of an Iraqi woman who described how happy she and her husband and
their two daughters and the men they chose for their husbands were. Her
gratitude was immense. The dance showed us their joy.
Then an explosion. Only left
was the weeping woman.
Powell says his dance is
not political. It doesn’t matter who caused the explosion; human tragedy
Powell had read Martin Luther
King Jr’s 1967 speech, “Casualties of War in Vietnam,” and was especially
struck by this passage:
“The past is prophetic in
that it asserts that wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.
One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that
we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful
ends through peaceful means. How much longer must we play at deadly
war games before we heed the plaintive pleas of the unnumbered dead
and maimed of past wars?”
The dance, “La Folia,” was
first performed at the Ballet’s “In the Wings” series, which this year
This Sunday the Joffrey Ballet
presents Kurt Jooss’ 1933 anti-war masterpiece, “The Green Table,” first
performed by the Joffrey in 1967, the same year as King’s speech.
The dance shows pretentious
diplomats negotiating at a green table, failing, shots fired, Death, the
Profiteer, the ravages and futility of war, the wounded survivors and finally,
in gruesome irony, the self-important political powers reappear at the
green negotiating table, personally untouched by the horrors they unleashed.
Such dances enlarge the spirit
652. 070307 THE STAR'S
Open prayers need open hearts
Here are three prayer scenarios.
* Beginning with a Jewish
prayer and ending with a Muslim prayer, the National Council of Jewish
Women’s luncheon last Wednesday featured Christian, American Indian and
Buddhist panelists on the theme, “How do you talk to God?”
The Rev. Yolanda Villa noted
that within the Christian tradition, practices vary. She herself may pray
kneeling, in a chair, on her back, or with a Bible in front of her.
Prof. Daniel Wildcat said
there is no time when prayer is not appropriate—including when one encounters
a traffic jam. The American Indian traditions include speaking thanks directly
to animals as members of the Creator’s world.
Dr. Bethany Klug said that
Buddhists do not so much pray to anyone as cultivate an energy of awareness
that all things are interdependent.
See quoted a poem by Thich
Nhat Hanh illustrating the practice of awareness even in an everyday ritual:
“Bushing my teeth and rinsing my mouth, I vow to speak purely and lovingly.
When my mouth is fragrant with right speech, a flower blooms in the garden
of my heart.”
* Several months ago a breakfast
including Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian and other religious
leaders featured a distinguished local rabbi. After his lecture, a Christian
minister was invited to conclude the event with a prayer. Even though the
diversity of the group was obvious, he offered an excluding prayer “in
Several spoke to me afterwards
about the minister’s failure to recognize the integrity of the Jewish faith,
which had been brilliantly displayed in the rabbi’s lecture, and the imperialism,
perhaps unconscious, of a prayer offered on behalf of all of us in the
language of a tradition known for its past oppression of Jews
The rabbi wrote about the
breakfast with exasperation, but it is really the responsibility
of the Christian community to end such disrespectful public practices.
* I am this month’s chaplain
for the Kansas City City Council. How does one pray for the Council members
and on behalf of all the citizens the Council members represent?
How does one recognize the primary and the general elections, both of which
occasions are part of the context for their sessions this month? How
does one recognize the service the Council members perform without judging
the particular policies they have enacted?
Questions raised by these
three scenarios suggest that no pat formula or style of prayer works for
all people and all occasions, but generous intent and open hearts are essential.
651. 070228 THE STAR'S
Speaker's words echoed
“Spirituality is sensing that all things
are connected,” said Charlie Kreiner the first time I heard him, in 1989,
at a workshop in Oregon. I have never met anyone more charismatic. He died
During the first break in
the workshop, a rabbi told me that Kreiner was expressing the essence of
Judaism. A Christian minister said he was conveying the teachings of Jesus
for our time. A Buddhist said, “If the Buddha were alive today, he would
be saying what Charlie is saying.”
“When we sponsored him as
a speaker through Harmony in a World of Difference in 1990, someone skeptically
asked me who would show up for a class entitled ‘Homophobia, Racism and
Oppression.’ That night there was standing room only. Charlie’s clear perceptions
and skilled responses to violence in our society have inspired many of
us to examine our own lives and leadership, and carry on community work
with more courage, compassion and skill,” says Maggie Finefrock, then head
of Harmony, now of The Learning Project.
In KU religion professor
Robert Minor’s book, Scared Straight: Why It’s So Hard to Accept Gay People
and Why It’s So Hard to Be Human, are these words: ‘I owe my initial inspiration
to an international men’s workshop leader, Charlie Kreiner. His fingerprints
are all over this book.’”
The Rev. David E. Nelson,
past convener of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, says, “In
my identification of who I am, I often say, ‘I am part of the human liberation
movement.’ I first heard that line from Charlie Kreiner. It belongs to
him, but it also belongs to any of us whose spiritual practice involves
working for the liberation of all human brings.”
Kelly Gerling, a leadership
development consultant, recalled Kreiner’s insight that the differences
among people are not the reason for prejudice but rather the excuse, and
that “to remove the motive to find an excuse to think of others” with hostility
and to abuse them “requires a process of healing that he so skillfully
demonstrated and lived.”
Thomas F. Edgerton, who attended
a Kreiner workshop in Kansas City, says, “I have never met any one man
who so wanted each of us to prosper, to heal, to hope and to share the
healthy vibrancy of the human condition with others.”
Leadership, Kreiner said,
is not a role or holding a position, but an activity that frees other people.
To lead others, one must be able to lead oneself. To lead oneself, one
must heal from the ways one has been hurt. To heal, he asked and modeled
this question: “What is keeping me from loving every person on the planet?”
650. 070221 THE STAR'S
Music opens a dialogue
Who can tell us what lies beyond
In a Babylonian epic, the
spirit of Enkidu laments the conditions of the afterworld to Gilgamesh,
his beloved friend in this world. The Greeks told of Orpheus who was allowed
to enter the underworld to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice, but failed
to return with her because he violated the condition not to look at her
following behind him.
In The Divine Comedy, Dante
explores the three realms of hell, purgatory and heaven. Dante’s poem was
inspired by the Muslim story of the Night Journey of Muhammad from Jerusalem
to the seven levels of heaven.
With modern medical advances,
folks who once might have been considered dead have recovered, with accounts
of the beyond.
One striking but little-known
story will be presented here Saturday by Dialogos, brought to Kansas City
by the Friends of Chamber Music. It is “The Vision of Tondal,” written
in the 12th Century by Marcus, an Irish monk. The story was widely dispersed
in medieval Europe.
The text tells of an unconscious
man whose soul leaves his body. After an invocation, the questions start:
“Why do your legs not dance? Why does your tongue not sing?”
The darkness is impossible
to conceive “even if one put all the nights of the world together.” Still,
the soul is guided by an angel.
The suffering, even the thought
of eternal damnation, leads the soul to an empty throne, a beam of
light and a return to the body with the exquisite knowledge of evil and
Dialogos director Katarina
Livljanic says that the story is “almost like the phenomenon of a ‘near-death
experience’ told in a strikingly direct and timeless” way. The “emotional
force of this music” from her native Croatia has proved “to reach people
from different languages and cultures” as the group has performed in many
different countries and “always had a very direct connection with people’s
Judy Vogelsang, Honorary
Consul for the Republic of Croatia, prepared for the concert by working
with a related KC Public Library exhibit, the music and language departments
of area schools, the Strawberry Hill Museum and Cultural Center and
the Kansas City Croatian American community whose churches preserve in
their liturgy the style of early music that Dialogos will present.
She says the old music
is like a drink of water to the parched throats of modern busy life.
Whether the music is
about the grave or a metaphor for how to live, Vogelsang says the music
offers a “fine balance” to our own time of turmoil.
649. 070214 THE STAR'S
Love and be known
In his book, Myths to Live By, Joseph Campbell
discusses three kinds of love, eros, agape and amor.
Elsewhere he describes eros
as “the zeal of the organs for each other,” the biological urge for physical
intimacy. In India, the god Kama, like Cupid in the West, is armed with
arrows to afflict one with yearning for satisfaction of such attraction.
Agape is not merely love
for one’s friends and one’s neighbor as oneself, but a kind of affection
which overcomes ordinary human divisions such as by nation, race and religion
to embrace not only humanity at large but also one’s fiercest enemies.
Here he cites Jesus who said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse
you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully
use you, and persecute you.”
These first two types of
love are impersonal, but amor discriminates. Of the three, amor is perhaps
closest to the love we associate with Valentine’s Day because it grows
out of an intensely personal and unique relationship. It is love not just
for any person but for a particular person, a “significant other.”
Campbell notes that amor
is Roma spelled backwards in order to contrast the earlier church-sanctioned
marriages of the Middle Ages, impersonal unions arranged for political,
property or family reasons, with the later ideal from Islam introduced
by the troubadours, that love is a divine passion between two people who,
smitten with an attraction between their souls, deliberately choose each
Because such love reverses,
violates, the social order, Campbell characterizes it as the triumph of
libido over credo, the “impulse to life” over the beliefs which supported
the social order.
While Campbell’s historical
characterizations may be offensive, many scholars agree that the introduction
of romantic love was a turning point in Western civilization. One could
even argue that the emphasis on personal relationship ultimately led to
the Protestant Reformation with its teaching of the “priesthood of all
And in fact, the Puritans
came to call marriage “the little church within the Church.”
Thus amor is just as spiritual
as agape. And others have taught that eros is also inherently a spiritual
Whatever species of love
may be named, it offers the opportunity to know and be known, from the
kind of knowledge Adam had with Eve which enabled her to conceive, to the
ineffable knowledge given to the mystics in their ecstasies with God, to
the “knitting” of David and Jonathan’s souls, to the enduring companionship
of wedded love.
648. 070207 THE STAR'S
Holy books have contrary passages
Almost every week someone contacts me,
as a caller with an open heart did last Wednesday on KCPT’s
“Talk Back Live,” to ask about troubling passages in Islamic literature,
or to cite them to prove that Islam is an evil religion.
Today I’ll try to put such
inquiries in perspective. A future column will look at specific citations
within the Islamic traditions. Here are three examples from other faiths.
*Suppose I tried to attract
you to a faith with a beloved scripture based on God’s upbraiding a warrior
who does not want to fight because he would be killing his own kinsmen.
You might not be very interested.
But that is exactly the scene
of the great Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita.
However, most Hindus understand
the text as a metaphor. The battle is within each of us to see clearly
and to do our duty without attachment to the outcome.
*Let’s try another religion’s
scripture. In this one, the greatest leader of the faith is angry with
his army because the soldiers spared women and boys, though he allowed
saving the virgins for the pleasure of the soldiers.
Such stories appear in the
history of the Hebrew people, in passages such as Numbers 31, Deuteronomy
6, 7 and 20, Joshua 6 and Judges 21.
*Would you call a religion
a cult if its divine person asks his followers to hate their parents, siblings
and children, said he came not to bring peace but a sword, and whose body
and blood some of his follows believe they consume each week?
Christians revere scriptures
which include Luke 14:26, Matthew 10:34 and John 6:54 which are the basis
for these characterizations.
Are such characterizations
fair? Are these citations taken out of their literary and historical contexts?
Are the English translations reliable?
If you are Hindu or Jewish
or Christian, would you be disturbed if someone presented your faith as
I have described it to others who knew little about it? Would you think
I might be poorly informed, guided by a political or religious agenda or
passing on material someone else gave me from the internet?
And how would you explain
passages in your faith’s scriptures that a sincere person of another faith
might question? Would a metaphorical interpretation such as most Hindus
suggest for the Gita work for you? Would you cite contrary passages in
your scriptures to balance the troublesome verses?
Does such an examination
of your own faith open up possibilities for understanding problematic passages
in the traditions of other faiths?
647. 070131 THE
Three sides to one question
Tonight I answer questions from viewers
on KCPT’s “Talk Back
Live,” hosted by Steve Rose. But to get a running start, here are three
answers to an important question.
Why should I be interested
in learning about someone else’s religion? I’m happy with my own, which
I know is correct.
* First. I don’t know a better
way of really understanding your own religion than by learning about others.
It's like cities. You really can’t appreciate Kansas City without knowing
something about Topeka, New York, Washington, San Francisco, Paris, Madrid,
New Delhi, Tokyo, Lima, Cairo. And visiting or living there for a time
is even better.
For example, a Christian
may more fully appreciate the claim that Jesus is the only Son of God when
the Christian understands why Jews and Muslims disagree, and why
Hindus tell of many incarnations of God, and why Buddhists do not even
teach belief in a Creator God at all.
* Second. The question implies
that religion is primarily concerned with correct belief. But belief is
of secondary importance in most religions.
Consider Judaism. Traditionally,
simply being born of a Jewish mother makes one a Jew. No creedal test is
required. Jewish theological positions range from atheism to belief in
a coming Messiah.
And the Buddha warned against
relying even what he taught because tightly held beliefs impair the ability
to see the world afresh and accurately.
So, as Ed Chasteen is fond
of saying, “Who’s right is the wrong question” when getting acquainted
with another faith because being correct may not be a parallel concern
of that faith at all.
Thus it is said that 90%
of the Japanese get married in a Shinto ceremony, 90% get buried in a Buddhist
ceremony, and 100% send Christmas cards.
Scholars sometimes identify
four components of religion: belief, organization, worship and moral codes.
The importance of these components varies with the faith.
* Third. It is our duty as
citizens to know our neighbors, our country and the world. Comprehending
others’ faiths can be an important guide to understanding what others value
and how their behavior is shaped.
This is true on countless
issues, whether the tremendously varied religious approaches to stem cell
research or the puzzles of foreign policy.
But though appropriate, “duty”
is a heavy word. Once people taste interfaith exchange, and get to know
folks of other faiths, pleasure and friendship often abound; and working
through the tough spots becomes a blessing that lifts the heart day after
646. 070124 THE
Council's mission welcomes all
At a retreat last week-end,
the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council took another step toward its
goal of making Kansas City the most welcoming place on the planet for people
of all faiths. “We’re serious about this,” said retiring Council convener,
David E. Nelson, a Lutheran. “This is not just some wild-eyed vision. We
are serious,” he repeated.
I asked Bruce Jeffrey, a
consultant with PriorityAdvantage who led the retreat, to comment on this
goal. He said than any group’s vision should make it stretch. The Council
is far more diverse than the non-profits he typically works with, he said,
but that the goal was “very unifying” for them all, that it “inspires and
The leadership of the Council
has now passed to Caroline Baughman, a Pagan selected by her peers, including
American Indian, Buddhist, Baha'i, Christian Protestant, Christian Catholic,
Christian Orthodox, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Sufi, Unitarian Universalist
and Zoroastrian members.
I asked her if she thought
it was significant that a person of her faith, so often misunderstood,
had become the Council’s convener. “I haven’t thought much about that,”
she said, “but, yes, I am proud.” She went on to explain that she understands
her position more as a steward than a manager since the Council requires
consensus in making its decisions. Others spoke highly of her skills. She
is member of the UMKC School of Medicine Faculty.
Kathy Riegelman, now co-convener,
said that the interfaith relationships she had developed have made her
more effective as a hospital chaplain with folks of diverse faiths, even
as it has deepened her own faith. And the respectful manner by which the
Council members seek to work with each other, “grounded in spiritual values
that we share, gives us marvelous hope for the future.”
Baughman noted that while
the Council was formed in 1989, in a sense it is also new because it was
reorganized two years ago. “When we consider this infancy, it is amazing
what we have accomplished.” The Council has held two successful awards
luncheons, the more recent of which attracted 750 people. It has established
interfaith book clubs, runs a speakers bureau and offers classes and other
For Baughman Kansas City’s
distinctive interfaith approach not only includes knowing your neighbor
and respecting your neighbor’s faith and the ways of those who claim none,
but also finding “spiritual nourishment” even in the way the Council’s
business meetings are conducted, modeling unity in diversity.
The Council’s web site is
645. 070117 THE
There is no victory in violence
I’ve been thinking about Martin
Luther King Jr and his place in planetary religious history.
In America, he fulfills a
tradition reaching back more than 2,500 years ago to India, where the idea
of ahimsa, non-violence, transformed Hindus, Jains and Buddhists. The vegetarianism
of some Jains who will not cut even cultivated plants to eat may be an
Until King, the Abrahamic
faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have not been much affected by
ahimsa. The Bible, for example, contains many violent stories and images
King, who kept a photo of
Gandhi, above his desk, at one point called Gandhi “the guiding light of
our technique of non-violent social change.”
What Gandhi achieved in India
and King offered to America, is, in planentary history, an unprecedented
union of East and West, as remarkable as that spiritual realization 2,500
years ago. Here’s what I mean.
In general, Asian faiths
have approached spirituality by turning inward. By comparison, the Abrahamic
faiths are external. They involve rules, such as the Ten Commandments,
that govern community behavior. Sacred concerns, such as justice, are often
expressed in social or even political arenas.
(It is true that Christians,
for example, may have a “personal” relationship with God, but God is normatively
seen as the Ruler of history, a Power beyond the self.)
Gandhi, who was stimulated
to recover his own tradition by reading Jesus’ advocacy of non-violence
in the Sermon on the Mount, united the Asian focus on the self and the
Abrahamic focus on social justice in the term swaraj, self-rule, with two
meanings, personal and political. India must free itself from colonial
rule and govern itself, and each person must free oneself from hatred.
Thus both Gandhi and King
required their followers pursuing social change to gain control of themselves
through purification so their spirits were strong and loving enough to
confront evil without responding violently. In this King more than fulfills
the Asian tradition; he fulfills a Christian truth seldom practiced.
Liberation requires both
personal and political effort. The prayer “Let there be peace on earth
and let it begin with me” transcends narcissism only when it is coupled
with action in the public realm. King spoke of an “inescapable network
King brought this spirit
to social and economic injustice and his protest against the Vietnam War.
For both Gandhi and King, victory is achieved only when your enemy becomes
your friend. You can’t achieve such victory through violence.
644. 070110 THE
Gomes balances religion with politics
To evoke America’s religious spirit as
a “beacon” to others, Ronald Reagan borrowed the phrase, “a city set upon
a hill” from Puritan governor John Winthrop. The phrase is also a favorite
of one of America’s greatest preachers, Harvard’s Peter J. Gomes, who comes
here Jan. 20. Gomes offered prayers at the Reagan and Bush 41 inaugurals.
I interviewed him by phone last week.
“How does that image
of America fare today?” I asked. He said image remains important “because
America wants to be a good, and not just a big and powerful, nation. But,
alas, the Iraq War has compromised that ideal. We are not practicing what
we preach. We are surrounded by deceit at home, and we’ve lost confidence
in our leaders and our mission abroad. The war has done incalculable damage
to us as an exemplary people.”
Until recently, Gomes, now
in his 60s, has been a life-long Republican, a prominent African American
clergyman of that party.
I asked, “How do you answer
your critics that such a statement is political, not religious?”
He said all religious analysis
is political. “It’s just a question of whose politics. If you agree with
me, I’m spiritual; if you don’t, I’m political. I’m prepared to take the
hit on that. Any religion that speaks to a contemporary issue is bound
to be charged with the crime of being political. The real question is not
whether (the analysis) is political, but whether it is right or wrong.”
Gomes, who has over 30 honorary
degrees and has been featured on “60 Minutes,” says he tries “to speak
difficult truths in a very difficult time in as clear and as loving a way
as I can about the issues of the day for those interested in candor and
About his lecture here, “Charged
to Change,” he says, “We have been content for so long doing the same old
same old. Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different
results. If Christians took their faith seriously, significant change would
result upon our culture.”
Gomes applauds the increasing
visibility of non-Christian faiths. “But I cannot speak for them because
I am a Christian. I hold all religions in respect, but that doesn’t mean
I feel diminished in my own religious experience, not at all. One can’t
have religion in general; one has religion in particular,” as one cannot
speak without speaking in a particular language. “I suspect God has a larger
view of the whole thing than any of us can imagine.”
For information about the
lecture at Country Club Christian Church, visit www.cccckc.org or call
643. 070103 THE
Go forth with an open mind