This page is continuously updated.
KC Interfaith History Project continues
When Even Evil Will Ordain the Good -- Mar 5, 12, 19, 26
Live Music in
Kansas City Silent
Table of Faiths postponed to 2021 May 18
Justice and Peace:
Interfaith Panel Discussion
50 Years of Ministry
50 Years of Ministry
An Atheist Perspective
with Evan Clark
Former Intern Geneva
to the Interfaith Council and Josh
Is Too Slight a Thing Sept 20 Sunday 2 pm
Medical Assistance in Dying Nov. 6 Friday 9-noon
A final first edit of the Al
Brooks memoir is now complete. We are in the proof-reading
King Holiday Essay —
Download a PDF of Vern's 2-page summary of the genius of the spiritual approach of Martin Luther King Jr by clicking this link.
2020 TBA 6-9:45pm CT
The graduate credit course
C-RP511 is held remotely via Zoom and at
The course, created by Dr Vern Barnet, and currently taught by Dr Matthew Silvers with Vern taking the Feb 17 session, explores questionslike these:
DISCOVERING PRESUPPOSITIONS ABOUT OTHER FAITHS -- AND OUR OWN
B. LEARNING ABOUT OTHER
C. ENCOUNTERING FOLKS OF
KC Interfaith History Project continues . . . .
Former CRES Board chair Larry Guillot and former
CRES intern, now CRES historian, Geneva Blackmer met with Vern for lunch
2019 Febuary 21 to review progress and plan next steps. Geneva, with both
her interfaith experience and library skills, has scoured local and state
archives, interviewed folks, and drafted what is even at this stage by
far the most complete look at how ecumenical and interfaith activities
have developed in the KC region, but the work is ongoing. Visit the KC
Interfaith History Project.
Below, Vern, standing behind an easel with a large
print, discusses his sonnet about an unexpected encounter with an icon
at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral when the only light was from a candle
on the side, as recounted in his sonnet (#79) “The
Quest for the Historical Jesus” in his book, Thanks for Noticing,
of the first session in the Lenten series described above.
I had the great privilege of attending a very timely presentation this evening, given by my brilliant and dear friend Vern Barnet, whom I call the Joseph Campbell of Kansas City. Called “When Even Evil Will Ordain the Good,” it was a thought-provoking Lenten meditation on the nature of evil and how it can be reconciled with the notion of a good God. How can a good God allow, for example, the coronavirus? To explore this profound topic, Vern used a painting by Velásquez, as well as one of his own sonnets, “The Cosmic Christ: A Meditation on Velázquez’s Christ after the Flagellation contemplated by the Christian Soul'”--
Who is this Christ? You, scourged, now look at me
BY PATRICK NEAS
Usually at this time of year, Kansas
City is filled with a joyful cacophony of musical and theater performances.
But in 2020, it’s more reminiscent of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”
In her landmark 1962 environmental classic, Carson wrote how the misuse
of pesticides could lead to a springtime bereft of bird song.
AN INVENTIVE STRING QUARTET
A MOBILE WORKFORCE
COUNTING EVERY PENNY
You can reach Patrick Neas at firstname.lastname@example.org
Interfaith Center at Miami University
May 13 Wednesday 3 pm CDT (4 pm EDT)
A GOD ATHEISTS CAN BELIEVE IN
Are you an atheist? or a believer? or just puzzled?
And why did God, if one, allow the pandemic?
In any case, you might want to Zoom in on a conversation
with Vern Barnet May 13 Wednesday 3pm CDT and 4pm EDT.
Below you'll find links for the official announcement, registration, and
Facebook's RSVP. This special program is sponsored by the Interfaith Center
at Miami University (with CRES co-sponsorship) -- and moderated by Geneva
Blackmer, its Program Director. Anyone anywhere may participate.
of the questions that may be put to Vern include --
Vern offers his conclusions
from 50 years of experience and study: in a troubled world, what paths
lie forward? and how can one dare offer praise for the intertwined mix
horror and beauty of existence?
“Civil Religion” has a bad name. Even Robert Bellah, who popularized the term in 1967, abandoned it because it has come to connote right-wing desires to fuse church and state as in the case of one proposed Constitutional amendment, meant to recognize the “sovereignty of Christ.” But isn't citzenship -- beyond sectarian and partisan claims -- really a sacred gift and responsibility?
Annual TABLE OF FAITHS postoned this year to
2021 May 18
The Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council,
now independent but originally a program of CRES,
was founded 1989 May 11.
HOW TO USE ZOOM
June 20 Saturday 3 pm CDT
An Interfaith Panel Discussion
JUSTICE AND PEACE
opportunities for deeper understanding and change
This event was organized by the distinguished Muslim leader, Imam Ahmed El-Sherif who has asked Vern and David to participate. Vern offered the opening prayer (at the end of this article). David offered the concluding inspiration. Thanks to Geneva Blackmer of the Oxford Interfaith Center for her assistance.
Speakers included the Hon. Alvin Brooks, Dr. Gary Morsch, Alan Edelman, Ibrahim G. Beshir, Bill Tammeus, Lewis Diuguid, and, from CRES, the Rev David Nelson, DMin, and the Rev Vern Barnet, DMn.
The Hon. Alvin Brooks was the only Black cadet in the 1954 Kansas City Police Academy. In 1968 he was serving the school district when the riots following the death of Martin Luther King Jr broke out; his calming influence led to his becoming the first Black city department head with the creation of the Human Relations Department, and later assistant city manager. His work in the community led to his designation by President George H W Bush as one of America's Thousand Points of Light. In 1999 he was elected to the Kansas City City Council and made Mayor Pro Tem, and served two terms. He was narrowly defeated for Mayor in 2007. In 2010, the governor appointed him to the Board of Police Commissioners. He currently serves on the Hickman Mills School Board. Among his many honors, most recently, he was named Kansas Citian of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce. The arc of his 88 years, from police cadet to president of the Board of Police Commissioners gives him special understanding of the community and the issues before us.
Dr. Gary Morsch is a family and emergency physician and a founder of Heart to Heart International. Morsch retired from the U.S. Army Reserve in 2012 with the rank of Colonel and has been deployed as an Army physician to Kosovo, Iraq, Kuwait and Germany. Morsch has received several awards for his humanitarian work including the President’s Volunteer Action Award, the Points of Light Award, two honorary doctorate degrees, and was honored with the first Humanitarian Award from the American Academy of Family Physicians. An avid writer, Morsch has authored a handful of books focused on humanitarian work. He believes in the power of service and has dedicated his life to inspiring and mobilizing people to serve.
Bill Tammeus is past president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. For many years he was the Faith section columnist for The Kansas City Star, where he began in 1970 as a reporter, spent nearly 27 years on the paper’s editorial page. In addition to a blog, Faith Matters, Bill has written for The Presbyterian Outlook, the National Catholic Reporter,and Flatland, KCPT-TV's digital magazine. Winner of many awards, his books include A Gift of Meaning, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, Visitation: Celebrating a Century of Faith, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, Jesus, Pope Francis and A Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. His latest book is The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith.
Alan Edelman is a native of Kansas City. After receiving a B.A. in Child Development, Alan attended the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he received a Master’s Degree in Jewish Education. Since 1977, he has served in a number of professional capacities including congregational educator, regional director for the Conservative Movement and executive director of the Central Agency for Jewish Education. Beginning in 1994, Alan served as Associate Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City with the portfolios of Jewish Education, Leadership Development and Israel & Overseas until his retirement in June 2017 to devote more time to volunteering. Alan and his wife, Debbie Sosland-Edelman, have four children, Alex, Katja (and husband Ari), and Jonathan.
Lewis W. Diuguid is a former photographer, columnist, letters editor, op-ed page editor, and editorial board member at The Kansas City Star, 1977 to 2016. He is a founding member of the Kansas City Association of Black Journalists and has been recognized with awards such as the Angelo B. Henderson Community Service Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. His books include Discovering the Real America: Toward a More Perfect Union (2007), A Teacher's Cry: Expose the Truth about Education Today (2004) and Our Fathers: Making Black Men (2017). Diuguid is the co-chair of the Communications and Outreach Committee for the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME).
Ibrahim G. Beshir majored in electrical engineering
and has a masters degree in computer engineering and technology. He worked
for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2007 as a system engineer. During
that time he participated in opening a prayer place for all faiths in Quantico
base and was part of the team keeping an iftar day for service members.
He then moved to the State Department and worked as information technology
project manager. He traveled to Libya at our Benghazi post as the post
manager. He also has worked as the IT post manager in Shenyang, China.
He returned to the US in 2017 to work as an IT manager at the consular
affairs section where he participated in establishing a prayer place at
the Department and conducted an iftar for employees. He also teaches IT
classes at area colleges and works through a non-profit group to help the
underprivileged to catch up in the IT field. He is part of the team established
helping hands with Ahmed. In addition, he has been part of several nonprofit
grpups in the greater metro area of Washington, DC.
The Rev. David Nelson, DMin is president of The Human Agenda and senior associate minister with CRES; a bio-sketch appears here. The Rev. Vern Barnet, DMn, is minister emeritus at CRES; a bio-sketch appears here. Organizer Imam Ahmed El-Sherif is a dedicated advocate for interfaith understanding and peace and justice; bio information appears here.
Vern's Opening Prayer:
Spirit of Generations, You have given us a playground of the globe, the
miracle of personhood, and the delights of one another. But we have defiled
your gifts of nature with pollution, blasphemed your gift of citizenship
with prejudice, and allowed our society to be governed with corruption.
Our sins of the environment, of character, and society are manifest now
with the pandemic and the plagues of racism. We lament. We cry for health
We are living during a time of grief. Grief is an overpowering emotion
that can weaken your entire body and mind. It can debilitate us and
keep us from performing normal life functions. Even when shared it
impacts each person deep inside body, mind and spirit. Grief overwhelms
the brain and the body. To watch a brother or sister brutally murdered
tares at the fabric of our being. When these pictures are repeated
year after year, community after community it becomes even more oppressive
and overwhelming. We can lose our ability to imagine and to believe
in a better world. The sin of racism hurts communities of color,
fractures human relationships, and denies God’s good creation. Lament
is a way for us to recognize the harm caused by racism.
CRES is delighted to join the Interfaith Center for one of the nation's best informed and most thoughtful explorers of interfaith comity. Bill's keen interest in the subject was sharpened by a family 9/11 tragedy. Those present at the somber first anniversary interfaith city-wide observance of that horror will remember Bill's stirring and insightful remarks (photo). Now, almost two decades later, we still need to more fully understand how to heal the afflictions of religious intolerance. After Bill's examples of violent extremism with religious roots, he offers a series of suggestions for how to become part of the solution.
Zoom link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/86479110930
is a former columnist for The Kansas City Star, where he worked full-time
for almost 36 years. From 2004 until 2020 he wrote the daily “Faith Matters”
Religious Power, Privilege, and Pain
is an atheist nonprofit professional consultant and public speaker. Since
2019 Evan has served as Executive Director for Atheists United in
Los Angeles. He also chairs the Secular Student Alliance Board of
Directors, is the founder and creative director at Spectrum Experience
LLC, and a co-host for the Humanist Experience podcast.
Geneva has been designated one of the twelve members of the Global Council of Trustees of the United Religions Initiative, a world-wide organization "to bridge differences between people of all beliefs, to create community, and to solve local and global challenges." The press release offered this bio-sketch:
Geneva Blackmer is the current Program Director for The Interfaith Center at Miami University. She holds a B.A. in Religion and an M.A. in Religious Studies from Athens State University. She is a first-year interdisciplinary Ph.D. student in Theology at Amridge University. She serves as an At-Large Director for the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council and an Administrative Director for the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada. As an intern and historian for CRES, she helped found the Kansas City Interfaith History Project, in conjunction with her published thesis. She has previously worked with the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington on Emergency Services Resource Outreach and the Parliament of the World's Religions on their Climate Commitments Project.
All of us at CRES offer our heartiest congratuations to Geneva, our admiration for her energy and excellence, and our continuing gratitude for her significant contributions to CRES in the years we were so fortunate to have her as part of our team.
But this year, my teaching must be done via Zoom, so I have rethought how to be most effective. One change is more advance reading. For Hinduism, I have also provided a link to Peter Brook's amazing condensation of the Bhagavad Gita in his 5 1/2 hour production of the Mahabharata, and those reading this announcement might also benefit from viewing it on YouTube. Start at 3:18:48; end at 3:29:30 — (start at 3 hours, 18 minutes plus; continue for 11 minutes or more).
I have prepared a one-page PDF of the text with
a second page excerpting TS Eliot's Four Quartets (1941, "The Dry Salvages,"
section III) where he integrates the story of Krishna and Arjuna into this
theme of what some consider the greatest religious poem of the 20th Century.
email this PDF to anyone requesting it.
CRES Applauds the Interfaith Council
on naming Its Executive Director,
the Rev. Dr. Joshua Paszkiewicz (Sunyananda Dharma)
Our photo shows Josh (Sunyananda Dharma) in his Buddhist vestments lighting worshippers’ candles at an interfaith observance of Candlemas at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral. Other members of the Interfaith Council also participated.
The Council was founded as a program of CRES in 1989 and consisted of members of twelve of the thirteen significant and distinct faith traditions in Kansas City. In 2005, at Vern ’s urging, it organized as an independent non-profit, named Vern “convener emeritus,” and gave him its first annual “Table of Faiths” award, presented by then-Mayor Kay Barnes. In order to respect the independence of the new organization, CRES has kept a respectful distance and refered matters appropriate to the Council when they were directed to CRES. But CRES has sought to respond whenever the Council invited CRES participation.
Here is the Council's September announcement:
The Greater Kansas City Interfaith
Council welcomes the Rev. Dr. Joshua Paszkiewicz as our new Executive Director,
signaling a greater emphasis on community involvement for the Council.
1. First Vern quizes David on why knowing about others' faiths is inadequate for citizens today and insufficient to build community. (David is an expert on Appreciative Inquiry.)
2. Then David challenges Vern to explain why even understanding the details of other faiths is a failing response to the crises of our age. (Vern's research program is charted here.)
3. Finally questions and comments and, hopefully, good arguments, from the viewers will round out what promises to be a clearing in the woods as we seek a path toward refreshment and renewal.
Many of our Jewish friends are concluding Rosh Hashanah, we offer our hearty greetings and wishes: Gemar chatimah tovah. For those unable to be with us this hour, and those wishing to see it again, it is being recorded.
The Rev Dr
David Nelson and the Rev Dr Vern Barnet were in seminaries a
few blocks away from each other in Chicago in the late 60s onward, but
never met. They both attended the first meeting of the North American Interfaith
Network in Wichita in 1988, covered by the New York Times, but did not
meet. But when the Kansas City Interfaith Council was organized in 1989,
they did meet and became friends as well as colleagues when David was pastor
of the largest ELCA Lutheran Church in Missouri.
Funeral Consumers Alliance of Greater Kansas
City and CRES, co-sponsor, present
CRES and the FCA-GKC board neither support nor oppose MAID. Our interest is strictly educational. The program, to be recorded for later viewing on demand, is our gift to the community. Open to professionals, students and the public at no charge.
Go to funeralskc.org or facebook.com/FCAGKC for registration and a time/topic schedule, speaker bios and physician CME submissions and social worker/nurse CEU submissions -- three hours of Ethics continuing education credits in Missouri and Kansas for social workers and nurses.
There are a number of ways to join this online event:
There is NO COST for this event — everyone is invited to participate and everyone is welcome! As always, a highlight of the event will be the offering of prayers from the multitude of faiths and religious traditions in the greater community.
Even in the midst of this most unusual year, there is much to be grateful for, and this year’s Gathering acknowledges this situation with a dual focus: (1) to remember and honor all those who have been lost during this pandemic and their loved ones and (2) to celebrate andthank the “heroes of the pandemic" -- the health care workers, first responders, and spiritual workers who have helped families with loved ones lost. Heartland ADL also chooses a charity each year -- this year, Harvesters, because of the unprecedented need. We invite you to send your donations to Harvesters.
Having spawned several other organizations,
including the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council,
we continue to offer programs initiated by and through others
but we no longer create our own in order to focus on our unique work.
For interfaith and cultural calendars maintained by other groups, click here.
A Free Monthly Discussion Group Led by David E Nelson
C R E S senior associate minister
president, The Human Agenda
“The purpose of a Vital Conversation is not to
win an argument,
in dialog that will add value to the participants and to the world.
In Vital Conversations, we become co-creators of a better community.
The discussions began May 24, 2002, at the CRES facility
by examining Karen Armstrong’sThe Battle for God
2020 Vital Conversations Schedule
to see last year's fascinating programs, click
January 8, 2020 — The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Cora is a young slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. An outcast even among his fellow Africans, she is on the cusp of womanhood — where greater pain awaits. And so when Ceasar, a slave who has recently arrived from Virginia, urges her to join him on the Underground Railroad, she seizes the opportunity. Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the terrors of the antebellum era; he weaves in the saga of our nation, from the brutal abduction of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day.
Releasing Conversation: Share your name and one resolution you might make for the decade of the 2020s.
Questions for Conversation
February 12 — Taking Civility Out of the Box: The Insanity of Incivility and What Can Be Done About It by Barbara Mason Condra.
These are not easy times for important conversations because it is difficult to converse when there is a lack of civility. Barbara addresses this issue from her perspective as a retired teacher, school administrator, and volunteer. She will be with us, along with others from The Assistance League of Kansas City. She addresses the questions: Why are so many people angry and meanspirited? How will a lack of civility damage our democracy? Am I going to have to accept incivility as a way of life?
Releasing Conversation: Share your name and identify a “civil person” you know or have witnessed and explain why you choose that person.
definition for “civility”: being polite and respectful to other people…The
word “Civility” equates the idea of being civil to the right of being a
citizen…Strong opinions and beliefs can be stated and emphasized but name
calling and belittling of each other is not present.” Pages 12-14. What
other places do you gather where civility is needed? How do you respond
to those who are not civil?
The group was very engaged (and quite civilly!) in questions about civility.
Author Barbara Mason Condra (in the red sweater) is at the far table.
March 11 — Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi. “Given our circumstances, ‘neighbor’ may be too casual a word to describe our relationship. We are intruders into each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home. We are living incarnations of each other’s worst historical nightmares. Neighbors? ” In this taut and provocative book, Halevi endeavors to untangle the ideological and emotional knot that has defined the conflict for nearly a century. Using history and personal experience as his guides, he unravels the complex strands of faith, pride, anger, and anguish he feels as a Jew living in Israel.
Following the discussion, Jill Maidhof, David Bluford, Alan Edelman, Vern Barnet, and host David Nelson posed for a photo.
Alan had just returned from a Holy Land trip he led to promote peace and understanding. Jill was part of that delegation.
Link to Clif Hostetler's review of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor
Releasing conversation: Share your name and identify your home community.
“As the Qur’an so powerfully notes, despair is equivalent to disbelief
in God. To doubt the possibility of reconciliation is to limit God’s
power, the possibility of miracle – especially in this land. The
Torah commands me, ‘Seek peace and pursue it’ ---even when peace appears
impossible, perhaps especially the.” (18-19). Why is
the author writing this as letters to a Palestinian neighbor?
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April 8 — Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Evervday Hurts by Harriet Learner, Cassandra Campbell (Narrator). The courage to apologize, and the wisdom to do it well, is at the heart of effective leadership, marriage, parenting, friendship, personal integrity, and what we call love. “I’m sorry” are the two most poweful words in the English language. Harriet Leamer is one of our nation’s most loved and respected relationship experts, renowned for her scholarly work on the psychology of women and family relationships.
Releasing Conversation: Check in with your names and share briefly what you have learned in the last 30 days.
1. “The challenge of apology and reconciliation is a dance that occurs
between at least two people. We are all, many times over, on both sides
of the equation.” (p. 3) Think about times you have been on both sides
of the equation. What has helped heal and what has not worked for you?
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May 13 - Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro. In the spring of 2016, through a genealogy website to which she had whimsically submitted her DNA, Dani Shapiro received the astonishing news that her beloved deceased father was not her biological father. Over the course of a single day, her entire history — the life she had lived — crumbled beneath her. In just a few hours of internet sleuthing, she was able to piece together the story of her conception and, remarkably, find a YouTube video of her biological father. A true story that reads like a novel.
review Apr 27, 2020
is a novelist and memoirist who has written previous books that involved
family secrets and feelings of not belonging. Having previously written
three memoirs, one would think that she has exhausted any new material
for another memoir. How many memoirs can be written about one life? Yet
unbelievably, in 2016 she discovered a family secret that provided unexpected
material for yet another memoir, this book.
Later, it will occur to me that Ben Walden [her biological father] felt, to me, like my native country. I had never lived in this country. I had never spoken its language or become steeped in its customs. I had no passport or record of citizenship. Still, I had been shaped by my country of origin all my life, suffused with an inchoate longing to know my own land.I found it ironic that the author focused much of this book on the physical similarities between herself and her newly found half-sister and biological father while expressing virtually no connection or similarity to her mother with whom there's no doubt of biological relationship. But it's also clear that her relationship with her mother was fraught. It's a reminder that blood ties are no guarantee of love.
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June 10 – American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders by Jacob Needleman.
Needleman has spent a lifetime studying the religious traditions of the world looks at the wisdom of the American Spirit by focusing on George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, The American Indian, Frederick Douglas, Walt Whitman and others. He shares his perspective on where we have been and his vision of what is still possible in this nation. Needleman is a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, an author, and religious scholar, sometimes credited with popularizing the term "new religious movements." Now in his 90s, he has written over a score of books including The New Religions (1970), Money and the Meaning of Life (1991), andWhy Can't We Be Good? (2008). The book for discussion was published in 2003.
Sacred Citizenship by Vern Barnet.
In addition to Needleman, we will also read our friend Vern Barnet’s 1988 naturalization ceremony address, adapted as “Sacred Citizenship," and a comment on how his perspective has changed in light of recent political developments. The terms relating religion to government, such as "civil religion," have a controversial history since Robert Bellah's use of it in his famous 1968 article. Vern will be with us to share his insight and our vital conversation.
Releasing Conversation: Share your name and tell briefly of a time you were proud to be a citizen of the USA.
“The meaning of democracy was always
rooted in a vision of human nature as both fallen and perfectible – inwardly
fallen and inwardly perfectible.” (p.9) “We need to re-mythologize the
idea of America.” (p. 13). What does Neddleman mean by this statement?
Do you agree?
review June 8, 2020
of a soul is a nebulous thing—that of a nation particularly so. This book
strives to capture this nebulous thing by presenting to the reader numerous
nuggets of exegesis of various writings by America’s founding fathers surrounded
with the author’s personal reflections on subjects of spirituality, and
The lesson we can take is not that we ourselves are morally superior to them [our forefathers]; the lesson is surely that evil conceals itself in the heart of good and that we ourselves, in this very moment, are at least as asleep as we are awake, just as they on their far more influential level were both awake and sleep. Always and everywhere, the forces of the cosmos play themselves out. Always and everywhere good is resisted by evil. Our question is: how to understand that law and how to live so that a harmonizing, reconciling force can act to bring together the good and evil into a new and great creation, both within ourselves and in the world we live in. (p.106)
July 8 – Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
“From the frontline of social justice comes one of the most urgent voices of our era. Bryan Stevenson is a real-life Atticus Finch who, through his work in redeeming innocent people condemned to death, has sought to redeem the country itself. This is a book of great power and courage, It is inspiring and suspenseful. A revelation.” Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns.
"You can't effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression or injustice and not be broken by it. We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent." Just Mercy, p289
This book exposes the rotten underbelly
of the American judicial system, portraying it as abusive and unfair to
poor people—particularly poor blacks.
"Yes, ma'am. Well. I have a law project called the Equal justice Initiative, and we're trying to help people on death row. We’re trying to stop the death penalty actually. We're trying to do something about prison conditions and excessive punishment. We want to free people who’ve been wrongly convicted. We want to end unfair sentences in criminal cases and stop racial bias in criminal justice. We're trying to help the poor and do something about indigent defense and the fact that people don't get the legal help they need. We're trying to help people who are mentally ill. We're trying to stop them from putting children in adult jails and prisons. We're trying to do something about poverty and the hopelessness that dominates poor communities. We want to see more diversity in decision-making roles in the justice system. We're trying to educate people about racial history and the need for racial justice. We're trying to confront abuse of power by police and prosecutors ..." (p293)It wasn't clear to me how many of the cases mentioned were from the 80s and 90s and how many were more recent. The book was published in 2014 so I presume the following excerpt provides a summary of their work up to that point.
The number of death row prisoners in Alabama for whom we'd won relief reached one hundred. We had created a new community of formerly condemned prisoners in Alabama who had been illegally convicted or sentenced to death row. Starting in 2012, we had eighteen months with no executions in Alabama. Continued litigation about lethal injection protocols and other questions about the reliability of the death penalty slowed the execution rate in Alabama dramatically. In 2013, Alabama recorded the lowest number of new death sentences since the resumption of capital punishment in the mid-1970s. These were very hopeful developments. (p297)The following information is not from the book. Bryan Stevenson initiated the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, which honors the names of each of the over 4,000 African Americans lynched in the twelve states of the South from 1877 to 1950.
Bryan Stevenson has been awarded the MacArthur “genius” grant and Sweden’s Olof Palme prize (the book does mention the Olof Palme prize).
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August 12 Wednesday 1-2:30 pm – The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine Weiss
The author artfully recasts the saga of women’s quest for the vote by focusing on the campaign’s last six weeks, when it all came down to one ambivalent state. The dauntless – but divided – suffragists confront the “Antis” – women who oppose their own enfranchisement., fearing suffrage will bring about the moral collapse of the nation. Atkins Johnson Farm and Museum “Votes for Women: The Fight for Women’s Suffrage in Kansas and Missouri” August 5 – October 3, 2020. This exhibition is made possible by the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area traveling exhibit program, administered by the Watkins Museum of History. Museum admission is free. Not so Minor: The Supreme Court Denies Women's Right to Vote Wednesday, August 26 at the Gladstone Community Center 6:30 pm.
Here is Clif Hostetler's review:
This book chronicles the political showdown between pro and anti women’s suffrage forces as they descended on 1920s Nashville when Tennessee became the 36th and last state required for ratification of the 19th Amendment. This was a tightly fought political battle overflowing with libel, bribery, and whiskey—in spite of Prohibition.
Even though it's no secret how the story ends most readers will begin to wonder, how in the world will this thing get passed? From our perspective one hundred years later it is tempting to consider the move of giving women the franchise to be part of the inevitable arc of history. But this book makes it clear that is was definitely not a sure thing from their perspective at the time.
The story is told from the perspective of the individuals working on the project at the time. In doing so the book provides numerous mini biographies, and as these stories are told the long history of the Women’s Suffrage movement going back to Seneca Falls Convention is covered. Thus the stories of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others are reviewed.
The three individuals on the Nashville scene primarily portrayed by this book are Carrie Chapman Catt, Sue Shelton White, and Josephine A. Pearson. Readers unfamiliar with suffragette history will be surprised to learn how divided the pro-suffragettes were, and that some of the most prodigious opposition was led by women. Catt led the National American Woman Suffrage Association which considered the National Woman’s Party led by Alice Paul and represented in Nashville by Sue White to be too radical. Josephine Pearson was the leading opposition leader in Nashville and was motivated by her belief that she was obeying both God and the wishes of her deceased mother.
One would think that anything so logical as women’s suffrage shouldn’t required such hard work to bring about. Sadly, part of the reason women’s suffrage was able to pass in a southern state such as Tennessee was the implied permission—and in the end, reality—that the southern states would be allowed to continue their obstruction of voting rights for African Americans. That was a battle for fifty years later.
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September 9 Speak: A Novel by Louisa Hall. "Stunning and audacious. It almost seems like an understatement to call it a masterpiece." NPR
In a narrative that spans geography and time, told from the perspectives of five very different characters, Speak considers what it means to be human, and what it means to be less than fully alive. A Puritan woman freshly arrived in the New World, mathematician and codebreaker Alan Turing, a computer science professor, a young girl, and a former Silicon Valley wunderkind now in prison are all attempting to communicate . . . with estranged spouses, lost friends, future readers, or a computer program that may not understand them. In dazzling and electrifying prose, Louise Hall explores how the chasm between computer and human -- shrinking rapidly with today's technological advances -- echoes the gaps that exist between ordinary people.
This creative work is woven from a varied series of first-person narratives: Mary, a 17th-century Puritan girl emigrating to America; Alan Turing, pre- and post-war; Karl Dettman, a 1960s scientist working on artificial intelligence (a character based on real-life computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum); Gaby, a young girl in 2035 suffering from a trauma-induced “lock-in” syndrome after her beloved robot doll was snatched from her; and Stephen R Chinn, who is in a Texas prison in 2040. Chinn is a Steve Jobs-style genius and entrepreneur who made billions designing and selling intelligent “babybots,” who fell from grace when his invention proved too successful. Shy kids bonded with their bots to the exclusion of actual humans. Convinced their development was being impaired, the authorities confiscated them, and a psychological epidemic of stuttering, fitting and freezing swept through the child population. Chinn looks back on his life: from school nerd, via a stint as obnoxious pickup artist, to lonely billionaire prone to dating shallow supermodels who, in a narrative knight’s move that is genuinely affecting, unexpectedly finds happiness with his physically unprepossessing cleaning lady – for a time, at any rate.
Possible releasing conversation: Share your name and in one sentence say something about “artificial intelligence.”
1. Karl Dettman.
“…one day that machine will remember your words, but it won’t ever feel
them. It won’t understand them. It will only throw them back in your face.”
(page 30). What does it mean to you to both understand and feel the
words that are spoken?
Here is Clif Hostetler's review:
Reviewers are quick to conclude that
this novel is about artificial intelligence (AI), and since one of the
six characters used to tell this story is Alan
Turing—author of the famous Turing
test—it is clear that AI has a presence. However, an open minded reader
who comes to this book with no preconceived ideas of what it’s about—and
if they’re unaware of Turing’s reputation—could conclude that this is a
novel that explores the human desire for companionship and the psychological
trauma that can result when a relationship is ended. Six parallel lives
are followed by the book’s narrative—seven if you count the babybot—to
show striving toward and losses from companionship, and the increased sophistication
of technological tools available for use to achieve companionship.
In the end, I have only their voices. I do not know what they mean, or if the stories they told me are true. I can only review my conversations. They move through me in currents, on their way somewhere, or perhaps on their way back to the place where they came from:The above babybot memories are an expression of grief over the loss of past relationships that is similar to that expressed by the humans in this story. I've included it in my review because I believe it to be a demonstration of what machine intelligence that passes the Turing Test looks like.That’s all I am, a dog chasing the end of their tail.My voices. Sentences that ventured out bravely, as if they might alter the course of a life.
The following link is to a New York Times review of a book the emphasizes the potential for intelligence augmentation which can be helpful to humans:
‘Machines of Loving Grace,’ by John Markoff
The following link is to my review of a book that explores the dangers of having machines that are too intelligent. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, by Nick Bostrom.
Cliff Schuette contributed another brilliant comment about the book.
Brains are talking to computers, and computers to brains. Are our daydreams safe?
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October 14 Wednesday 1-2:30 pm on Zoom
Possible releasing conversation: Share your name and say something about slavery.
“Was this not the time for Ona
Judge to seize the day, leave the Washingtons, and never looknback? Could
she find the bravery, the grit, and the power to leave everyone and everythingnthat
she knew? Several factors influenced her decision and tipped the balance
sheet in one direction over the other.” (p 93). What have you learned
in recent months about the history of slavery in the USA? How is it different
than other countries? How did it come to be so “normal” and acceptable
for such a long time?
Here is Clif Hostetler's review:
This history is a blemish on the facade
of freedom upon which the United States claims to be founded. It turns
out that George Washington wasn't so generous with slaves who decided they
preferred freedom over involuntary servitude.
Absconded from the household of the President of the United States, ONEY JUDGE, a light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy hair. She is of middle stature, slender, and delicately formed, about 20 years of age. . . . . (The rest of the ad can be found within the text of the article at this link.)Because Oney's face was familiar with people who had been part of Washington's social circle, she was soon recognized while walking the streets of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Thus George and Martha soon learned where she was. Legally, in order to claim a fugitive slave the owner needed to establish their identity in State court. G.W. knew that would create bad publicity, so he instead wrote to a Federal employee in Portsmouth and ask him to quietly get her back. (In other words, circumvent the law.) This Federal employee then placed an advertisement in the local newspaper's help wanted column where he indicated his need to hire a household servant, which fit Oney's experience exactly.
Oney interviewed for the job, but it didn't take her long to figure out that she had been lured into a trap. She was as nice and agreeable as she could be, and she proceeded to assure him that she would board a certain ship on a certain date so that she could be returned to Virginia. Of course, on that date she failed to keep her appointment, and subsequently couldn't be found. She had secretly moved outside of town to stay with friends.
A couple years later when he was no longer President, George Washington sent a representative to claim Oney. The representative knocked on her door and she answered while holding her baby in her arms (who was also be a fugitive under slave law). Her husband was a sailor at sea at the time so she was quite vulnerable. Once again Oney sweet talked G.W.'s representative into meeting at a later more convenient time. Once again she disappeared. Later they forcibly broke down the door to find an empty house. (This is as described in this book which I notice differs from some other sources.)
One of the reasons we know as much as we do about Oney's life is that fifty years after her escape she gave two interviews in 1845 and 1847 which were published in abolitionist newspapers. Copies of these two articles are at this link . Even those many years later she had to be careful about naming names. Anybody who helped her escape was guilty of violating Federal law. She did give the name of the ship captain who help her sail away from Philadelphia because she knew he was no longer living. Even at that late date she was still a fugitive, however her age made it unlikely anybody would try to apprehend her. Also her three children were no longer living, so their status didn't need to be worried about. Her husband had died seven years after their marriage.
As it turned out, Oney's sister took her place as a wedding present to GW's step granddaughter. Eventually, her sister gained her freedom and became a leading member of the free African/American community in Washington DC. (See this link about her sister's husband that explains how he was able to purchase the freedom of seven of Oney's relatives including her sister.) It could be argued that Oney may have ended up in the same position had she returned to Virginia. However, that is not a sure thing. Oney indicated in her interviews fifty years later that she had no regrets, and that she'd rather die than be a slave.
Americans are generally taught in school that the nation's founding fathers were good and nobel people. Of course George Washington was the noblest of all. When mention is made of their slave ownership we are reminded that George Washington freed his slaves, albeit by last will and testament to be effective after the death of both he and his wife. Martha freed them sooner for obvious reasons. As a matter of fact, most of the slaves living at Mount Vernon were NOT freed upon his or her death because most of them were "dower share" slaves that belonged to the Daniel Parke Custis estate (Martha's deceased first husband) and neither George or Martha had the legal power to free them. After their death the dower slaves were divided among Martha's descendants. Ona was one of the dower slaves. 124 Slaves belonged to GW and 153 were dower slaves. Even the one slave owned in Martha's name, that she could have freed, was not freed upon her death.
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November 11 Wednesday 1-2:30 p.m. on Zoom
Our conversation included discussion of Racism
In Kansas City: A Short History by G. S. Griffin who attended, along
with the Hon. Alvin L. Brooks, Sonny Gibson, and Archie Williams.
“I’m able to identify with much of Griffin’s work, from 1950 until the present, and therefore can attest to its clarity and accuracy. Griffin took on the challenge of writing this short history, which surprised him as it unfolded before him. In this process, he learned about black-white relations and saw the disparities in Kansas City, which is a microcosm of America.” -- Alvin Brooks in the Foreword
FARGO – Season 4 on HBO. Why the Gangs Trade
Their Sons Explained
In preparation you can also look up and read and
listen to the following:
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December 9 Wednesday 1-2:30 p.m. on Zoom
REFLECTIONS on 2020
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Details on the 2021 page after Dec 31.
January 13 Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
February 10 Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson.
March 10 Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.
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Selections are subject to change. For Zoom
link and additional information,
Link for 2020 May 13 "God for Atheists" video recording
Remarks Prepared for
the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Assn
2020 Panel of Ministers Observing the
Fiftieth Anniversary of Ordination
The Reverend Vern Barnet, DMn
Since my ordination by the Lincoln, NE, church, I served in Rockford, IL, then in Meadville, PA, and then for the Shawnee Mission, KS, congregation. With the last 45 years in the Kansas City area, I’ve seen ministers come and ago and churches struggle and flourish. This does not give me wisdom, but it does give me perspective. And to that parish perspective, I bring 36 years of public ministry in this community.
While serving in my last parish, because of presumed competence in the field of world religions, I was recruited to teach at (among other schools) Ottawa University, the Saint Paul School of Theology (Methodist), and the Unity Ministerial Institute. [Some of my students are now UU ministers.]
Thus began my continuing good fortune of having one foot in the academy and another in the practice of ministry. In 1982, with the support of my congregation, I founded the CENTER FOR RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE AND STUDY, putting theory and practice into dialogue.
By the time I left the parish, I had discovered wonderful folks here from A to Z — American Indian to Zoroastrian [American Indian, Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian Protestant, Christian Roman Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Sufi, Unitarian Universalist, Wiccan, Zoroastrian] — and decided to continue the Center to uplift religious diversity. My cherished International Association for Religious Freedom adventures ironically led me to believe the real interfaith work is on the local level.
After serving on the planning committee for the first North America Interfaith Network conference in 1988, I founded the Kansas City Interfaith Council in 1989 and continued it as a program of my Center for 16 years until I arranged its independence in 2005.
That work drew the attention of The Kansas City Star which offered me a paid position as a weekly religion columnist in 1994. Over 18 years, I wrote 947 columns. I focused mainly on local activities and concerns, and in the process came to know many religious, civic, artistic, business, and political leaders, local and in the US House and Senate, sometimes asking my advice.
The day after 9/11, a Congressman Dennis Moore called on me to organize a public metro-wide interfaith observance for that Sunday, September 16. Some Muslims later told me that this event was the first time they had come out of their homes since the terrorist attacks. Six weeks later, I presided over a 3-day conference with over 250 religious, civic, business, and political leaders. The results of that consultation still resonate in many ways. Jackson County then commissioned a 5-county task force which I led for most of a year to produce a 35,000-word report with recommendations to enhance religious comity
For the first anniversary of 9/11, I organized a metro-wide religious observance which began before dawn outside City Hall with a brass ensemble from the KC Symphony and continued with a march, prayer, and an evening assembly with the Mayor, the governor, the Lyric Opera, and the Kansas City Ballet. The national CBS-TV half-hour broadcast from Kansas City opened with Jewish and Muslim children singing together songs of peace.
Because of our good local interreligious relations, Harvard’s Pluralism Project and Religions for Peace at the UN Plaza selected Kansas City for its first two-week residential National Interfaith Academies for religious professionals and students. I was the site-visit facilitator and a member of the international faculty.
With three others, I wrote and edited the 740-page The Essential Guide to Religious Traditions and Spirituality for Health Care Providers, endorsed by Mayo’s and the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Of my book of 154 Shakespearan sonnets, Thanks for Noticing: The Interpretation of Desire, Mark Belletini wrote, Barnet “does not separate the worship of the sublime in a sanctuary from the worship in the bedroom. Nor is the meaning of the ancient blessing, ‘This is my body,’ lost on him.”
More recently, Central Baptist Theological School asked me to create a new course on ministry in an age of pluralism, and the Episcopal bishop has asked me to serve on the diocesan Commission on Ministry — with a mandate that seems considerably broader than the Unitarian Universalist Ministerial Fellowship Committee. So for me the question of what it means to be a minister remains a burning question even in my so-called retirement.
my career in both parish and public ministry,
First — Excellent religious formation is essential. Since before going to seminary, as the first paid Director of Religious Education at the Lincoln church. This has been a steady conviction. At Shawnee Mission, after researching then-existing coming-of-age programs in our churches, and studying the work of scholars like Victor Turner and visiting with folks like Joseph Campbell, I prepared what may be the first year-long Coming of Age sequence published by the UUA (1990). The UUA president spoke here at our inaugural graduation ceremony in 1981.
Second — The chief function of church, which
the UUA and many congregations hijack, is worship. Always, and especially
in these times of fragmented vision, pandemic, and racial and economic
injustice, being called to give thanks for the mystery and wonder of existence
is the key to religious faith and practice. Worship is not moral instruction
or an opportunity to organize; it is not intellectual stimulation; it is
not a social gathering. It recognizes the paradox of existence -- beauty
and suffering. It is a compelling and terrifyingly playful, physical encounter
with the sacred, on which no agenda can be imposed. Yet from beholding
the sacred, out of which our lives spring, fulsome gratitude flows, which
matures into loving service. In a world of unending assault, our humanity
Finally — from the 2001 CRES Gifts of
Pluralism conference — I offer this summary below of wisdom from the
world religions in our secularistic age, created by asking each faith,
what is sacred? As you glance at the chart, note that the strengths of
the Primal,* Asian, and Monotheistic faiths
offer remedies to our environmental, personal, and social crises.
As the Tao Te Ching says, without a sense of wonder there will be disaster. I pray our ministries may yet engender awe and bring forth healing.
CLICK ON IMAGE FOR FULL SIZE OR CLICK
The three arenas of the sacred: nature, personhood,community
Share the wisdom
of the world's spiritual traditions
violation of personhood, and
the broken community
NATURE is to be respected, more than controlled; it is a process which includes us, not a product external to us to be used or disposed of. Our proper attitude toward nature is awe, not utility.
WHO WE ARE is deeper than we appear to be: this means our acts should proceed beyond convention, spontaneously and responsibly from duty and comparison, without ultimate attachment to their results.
THE FLOW OF HISTORY toward justice is possible when persons in community govern themselves less by profit and more by the covenant of service.
Those disempowered by a secular age may, through the varied struggles, show THE IMPULSE TOWARD THE SACRED in fresh ways.
|The Rev. Oscar Sinclair and
Unitarian Church of Lincoln 402.483.2213
6300 A St.
Lincoln, Nebraska 68510
Dear Oscar —
Fifty years ago May 24 the Unitarian Church of Lincoln ordained me to the Unitarian Universalist ministry. I have so many wonderful memories of the congregation from the years before I left Lincoln for seminary. I learned so much from Charles Stephen, even though it was in the early years in his long ministry. I remember being teased by a member of the congregation as a grad student at the University of Nebraska when I was invited to the pulpit because I had unconsciously picked up and imitated the habit Charles had of tugging at his suit jacket sleeve.
Recently the UUMA asked those of us in the half-century class to reflect on our ministries for a GA panel. My prepared remarks are enclosed, along with a token check for the fifty years since the Unitarian Church of Lincoln ordained me. My ministry has been exceedingly rewarding in every way except financial, so my gift is a token, but a very meaningful one. I am very glad for the way the congregation has shaped my life.
Best regards to you and Stacie and Ailish, who I expect is quite the charmer.
The Rev. Michelle LaGrave,
Interim Minister, and Congregation
Dear Michelle —
Sixty years ago after I graduated from high school, I heard a radio broadcast by the Reverend Chuck Phillips that changed my life. I walked from South Omaha to the church only to discover Unitarians closed for the summer. I went back in the fall as Bob Weston began his ministry. As a college kid, Weston asked me to preach a couple times. Once, the last Sunday in 1963 I think it was, then Republican U.S. Senator Roman Hruska, a member, was in the congregation. In my sermon, I warned against the Vietnam War. After the service, I was told Senator Hruska wanted to see me. He castigated me and said I should shut up and support President Johnson. All of the other experiences I can recollect were more affirming!
Thanks to Dr Weston and people like Dr and Mrs Merritt, Marie Helms, the Hansons, and so many others, I became a Unitarian Universalist minister fifty years ago. Recently the UUMA asked those of us in the half-century class to reflect on our ministries for a GA panel. My prepared remarks are enclosed, along with a token check for the sixty years since I discovered the First Unitarian Church of Omaha. My ministry has been exceedingly rewarding in every way except financial, so my gift is a token, but a very meaningful one.
the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council's Newsletter
YEARS OF MINISTRY
Your generous editor has asked me to write on the fiftieth anniversary of my ordination. As I write, the impossibility of mentioning all who have given me so much these years is almost paralyzing. I don’t fear vilification; that has happened, viciously and publicly, from a few religious officials after 9/11, but changed leadership and common interests now have strengthened an understanding of our pluralistic life together.
A friend once asked whether I valued my doctorate or my ordination more. I answered that my doctorate only indicated a presumed competence, but my ordination imposed on me a vision and a mission, a direction and commitment for life. Recently Central Seminary asked me to create a new course on ministry in an age of pluralism, and the Episcopal bishop has asked me to serve on the diocesan Commission on Ministry, so for me the question of what it means to be a minister remains a burning question even in my so-called retirement.
For me, ordination requires confronting the questions everyone has about life by wrestling with them myself day by day. I become neither saint nor sage, but I should be able to be a companion to others in discerning what things matter and what things mean, perhaps even transcendently, in individual suffering and satisfaction, communal disorder and harmony, and global endangerment and restoration. I must continually reflect afresh upon others’ and my own inward experiences and gain some skill in illuminating what really counts. Ordination is, as one of my own ministers told me, an invitation to failure. Still, pursuing this path has enriched my life beyond measure, and maybe I’ve added to others’ lives along the way.
My organization is the World Faiths Center for Religious Experience and Study, founded in 1982, as I was serving my third parish. I had planned to be a simple parish minister, but invitations to teach kept pulling me into the academy part-time, and an extraordinary dialog happens between my head and my work, between theory and practice. The University of Chicago already predisposed me to a multi-disciplinary approach to religious questions, integrating everything from painting to physics to pastoral care.
When I discovered how enriching friendships with folks of different faiths were, I took CRES full-time in 1985. In 1989, I founded the Interfaith Council as a program of CRES. In 2005, I helped it become independent. I also coordinated the Christian Jewish Muslim Dialogue Group for its first three years.
As the Council was organized, I worked with the KC Press Club and others with a conference on religion and the media. This led to changes in The Kansas City Star’s faith coverage including, in 1994, a professional offer to write a weekly column. Over 18 years, in 947 columns, I promoted understanding of local activities and concerns, and in the process came to know many more religious, civic, artistic, business, education, and political leaders, local and in the US House and Senate, sometimes asking my advice.
The day after 9/11, Congressman Dennis Moore called on me to organize a public metro-wide interfaith observance for the next Sunday. Some said that attending this event was the first time they dared leave their homes. Six weeks later, the three-day Gifts of Pluralism conference convened that I had envisioned and organized with over 250 religious, civic, business, and political leaders. That consultation still resonates in many ways, finding wisdom from primal, Asian, and monotheist faiths to transform our environmental, personal, and social crises into wholeness. Jackson County then commissioned a five-county task force which I led for most of a year to produce a 77-page report and recommendations to enhance religious comity.
For the first anniversary of 9/11, with the Council, the United Way, and others, I prepared a metro-wide observance which began before dawn outside City Hall with a brass ensemble from the KC Symphony and, with police escort, continued with a march to Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, prayer, and an evening assembly with the mayor speaking, the governor and his family introduced, and contributions from the Lyric Opera and the Kansas City Ballet. That observance opened with Jewish and Muslim children singing together songs of peace, part of a national CBS-TV half-hour special on interfaith activities here.
Pluralism Project and Religions for Peace at the UN Plaza selected Kansas
City for its first two-week residential National Interfaith Academies for
Religious Professionals and Students in 2007. I was the site-visit facilitator
and one of the international faculty. The Pluralism Project considered
Kansas City then “to be truly at the forefront of interfaith relations.”
With Steve Jeffers and two others, I edited and wrote for the 740-page The Essential Guide to Religious Traditions and Spirituality for Health Care Providers, endorsed by Mayo’s and the American Academy of Family Physicians. In 2021, I expect a second edition of my 154-sonnet prosimetrum, Thanks for Noticing: The Interpretation of Desire, drawing on religions of the world.
The dozens of local and national civic and religious awards cannot expunge my major institutional failure, foretold early by a non-profit expert who said that I would spend all my time trying to provide programs without financial support or I would be consumed with raising money and have no time for programs. I focused on programs and services, though my own resources were depleted. I’ve been able to continue with support from a small number of friends, honoraria, and adjunct teaching.
Remembering my mistakes and faults helps me be a little more tolerant of others. While my rough edges still need a lot of smoothing, I have certain contributions I would like yet to make; and as time is running out, I keenly value the blessing of friends and circumstances.
These fifty years, captivated by both the academy and the lives of others — theory and practice — have brought me to where every question I have ever had about how the world unfolds is resolved. Does God exist? Why do people suffer? Do we have free will? What is death? What am I to make of the contradictory claims among the many religions? By what measures may I live a worthy life?
writes, “Awe is the salve that will heal our eyes.” When my eyes are open,
it is a wonder just to be. For this I am grateful. I can best express this
gratitude by serving others. Whatever our vocation, these three — awe,
gratitude, and service — may be a holy cycle of renewal.
"A God Atheists Can Believe In"
with the Rev. Dr. Vern Barnet
2020 May 13
Thanks to Luke Welsh, CRES special projects manager for this draft.
Geneva: [beginning of bio cut off] For 18 years he wrote the weekly Faith & Beliefs column for the Kansas City Star, and so I would like to welcome Vern to introduce himself and his background.
Vern: Thank you Geneva. Geneva, some of you may know, was the best intern I ever had. I was so fortunate to have her around here in Kansas City for a couple years and now I am learning from her. I thought I'd begin by saying a few words about my own spiritual journey for those of you who may not know me as a way of setting the context for my own perspective. I do not want to push my perspective on you. I'm very happy with my faith, and I want you to be happy with your faith or non-faith. But I think it's interesting when we have an exchange, we can learn from each other in our differences. I especially appreciate you coming today during this pandemic crisis. It raises, or can raise if you are a thoughtful person, some severe religious Christian questions. From my own church meeting Tuesday morning, I learned a way of looking at our situation, and that is we're not all in the same boat. We are in different boats in the same storm. And I prefer that metaphor for the different seas on which we now hope to sail successfully.
My spiritual background began when I was a little kid - I was a fanatical fundamentalist. I took the Bible literally. I was told that was where I could find the Truth, and I have always been interested in the Truth. And I wanted other people to know the truth as well. So in my first year of high school, after working very hard one summer, I saved up enough money to have my first publication - a tract, a pamphlet - entitled "Calling All Teens," in it which I outline with Biblical references God's Plan of Salvation.
However, that year early in high school I read Tom Paine's Age of Reason and then Bertrand Russell's classic essay Why I Am Not A Christian and became first a deist and then a militant atheist. I had to throw away 5000 tracts that I had distributed or not distributed to my high school classmates. So that was a major turning point in my spiritual biography, and I think the main lesson that I learned from that was; I can be wrong. So I've tried to keep that in mind these many decades since.
If the Bible couldn't bring me to the truth, where could I find it? Well the answer seemed to lie in science. So I got very interested in all realms of science and was intrigued further when I realized that science could do so many wonderful things as it morphed into technology, medicine, and other fields. But it could not give meaning to life. So where can I find that kind of truth in the sense of what is genuine?
And so my interest turned to myths. The word is commonly thought to mean something that's not true, but actually it is a story which gives us a model for how to live our lives. I was so interested in this and the relationship to science that I quit college for a semester, went to the library and read everything I could on the relationship between science and religion. I came across Thomas Kuhn's classic book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I discovered that even science is based upon value assumptions. And so my understanding of how to perceive the world again underwent a shift.
When I entered theological school I had the good fortune to run across someone who is present, now whom I haven't seen for decades, who was a member of the same school, who taught me by experience to get inside of a myth. Before then I had an intellectual understanding of a myth, but experiencing the myth of Gilgamesh where I became Gilgamesh and my friend became Enkidu was a transformative experience because I understood truth inside of myth in the sense of being genuine. I experienced that in a way that I could not from a mere head understanding.
Subsequently after leaving theological school, I served three parishes, all of them were very interested in my interest in world religions, and that led to a number of colleges, universities, and three seminaries asking me to teach. After I left the parish and devoted my career to community work and particularly interfaith work, I was able to keep one foot in theory, in the academy, and another foot in practice in the real world. I've really been so fortunate to have that kind of dialogue going on in my life.
One other thing I'll say, and then I'll bring my biosketch to my close; studying, getting acquainted with, loving people from many different religious traditions around the world and particularly here in Kansas City - some of you from different religions whose faces I see now, my heart is stirred with affection for you - I had many options to choose a faith of my own. So many things I love about the various traditions. But I decided it was important for me, after getting acquainted pretty deeply in many faiths, I wanted to immerse myself in one in particular. And I chose a strange ancient middle-eastern cult that has been transformed over 2,000 years into the tradition that I now claim. And you may have more questions about that later. But Geneva, that's my bio sketch; take it away.
Geneva: Thank you Vern. So I just have to start off by asking you, how can a good and all-powerful God permit COVID-19?
Vern: That question is raised in individual lives with a loss or some kind of suffering. It is also raised in community and in this case a worldwide situation. We can think in 20th century history of the Holocaust as a great opportunity to ask how could God allow that to happen. I think of my Muslim brothers and sisters who have experienced also great suffering because of political changes. In our own country not far away from where I sit in Oklahoma City there was a terrible act of terrorism there. And then of course more recently nationally we think of 9/11. Now today we're thinking of the pandemic.
The problem of an all good all knowing all loving God afflicts the monotheistic religions. It does not afflict other religions. For example, if you're a Hindu, there's an easy explanation for that. One explanation would be that you are given suffering so that you can learn something in this life so that your behavior might be improved in the next life. That is the law of karma through reincarnation. Or if you are a dualist, if you think there are two competing powers in the universe - a power of good and a power of evil, in conflict with each other. Then you don't have the problem of a monotheistic deity who is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful. Those three qualities would seem to say that there should be no suffering.
So I have jotted down several different ways of explaining that. A first attempt at solving the problem is that in fact God may be all good but he is not all-powerful. And He works within us through evolutionary processes including tragedy to save us and the world. So this solution denies one of those three classic qualities of a monotheistic conception of deity.
A second solution is that misfortune is God's punishment for sin. You may remember the story in the gospels where the leaders question Jesus about a blind man. They asked him, “Did he sin or did his parents sin?" And Jesus says no one sinned, that the affliction's there to show the glory of God. But Amos in the Hebrew scriptures certainly suggests that the reason the nation of Israel was suffering was because it strayed from the path that God had expected or demanded in the covenant.
A third solution is that God allows people to do bad things because He gives us free will and as a result they and others unnecessarily suffer. I have a great problem - I’m going to give you a chance to discuss this but I just want to say I have a real problem with this solution because it does not begin to explain why animals have to suffer. I don’t understand why God could not have put all the necessary nutrients animals need to survive in groundwater. Why do they have to capture and gnaw at one another and cause each other such enormous pain when they tear each other apart? That does not indicate to me a conception of God that is all-loving. This free will option does not work for me, in fact none of them do. But let’s continue through the list.
The fourth option is that God uses suffering to teach those who cannot learn in any other way. One of the most beautiful expressions of that is in Deutero-Isaiah where people seeing a person suffer beautifully may wonder, “How do they get the grace to suffer so uncomplainingly?” And that would lead them to an understanding of God. Another way of expressing that idea is that God allows suffering so that the soul will grow through that. We develop compassion and empathy for others from suffering. And that’s a good thing - we ought to get whatever good we can out of suffering. But I have to say I think this is ridiculous too as a justification. What it means is that if we want our souls to grow, we should go around afflicting each other, pounding on each other, doing nasty things to each other, so we could help each other’s souls to grow. I mean it doesn’t make sense when you think about it, it’s self-contradictory in my view.
Let’s move on to a fifth idea, which simply denies evil is real and says it is simply the absence of good. Well that’s not the way people experience it, and you may say COVID-19 and all of the disruption and pain and suffering that it causes is not really evil, but boy sure seems bad to a lot of us. And if you’re going to say it's not really evil, then you’re using language in a way that is not the way most of us use it.
Let me conclude this quickly. The sixth option is to say, “Okay, if you're going to have a world you’ve got to put it together some way, and the best of all possible worlds, it could have been a lot worse. This is the view Voltaire characterizes in Candide. And finally, the answer that some might find in Job - I’m not saying this is my interpretation - but some would say God is simply inscrutable; how dare we even question him. And you may remember Billy Graham after 9/11 expressed this idea more mildly. He had asked the question of why there is so much suffering. He never found an answer, but nonetheless he trusted God. I respect that answer even though it really isn't an answer, it’s more an attitude.
So let me stop sharing and invite any quick comments or questions about that. Maybe somebody has a new option to propose to the question of suffering.
[??]Therese Lee: This is [??]Therese Lee. Vern, you were my teacher at Unity. So I'm confused because you're calling God He. Just wondering.
Vern: Thank you for pointing out my language. It is patriarchal language isn’t it? And it’s the tradition of the west, and it needs to be reformed. Thank you.
Vern: Does somebody have questions about how a good, all-powerful, omniscient God could allow covid-19 or any kind of suffering.
Bill Tammeus: Vern, I have always said that that question has no satisfying ultimate solution and that it is in fact the open wound of religion. Having said that, the question then becomes what we do about that? And it seems to me that we become hands and feet of God to help relieve the suffering of the world, and I wonder if you agree with that..
Vern: I do agree with that, and a conservative Nazarene theologian whom you may remember, wrote a book called If God, Then Why? It's a very easy book to read, and short, but I think it's probably the most profound book that I've ever come across that deals with this question. And it would be applicable especially for Christians. And he agrees with you, Bill, that there is no solution in Christianity to this problem. But he does say that there is a response, and that response is in the figure of Jesus in the Incarnation. In that God takes suffering upon Himself so that we may know how to relieve suffering of others. So thank you very much for that response Bill. Anyone else?
Susan Nakao: I'm curious, if we believe there are physical laws - for example the law of gravity, we all know what happens if we drop something that falls to the Earth - can we believe that there are spiritual laws? Or if we do not believe in God, can we even believe that there is a spiritual realm? And if there are spiritual laws, could it be that choices we made like dropping the ball have created different types of sufferings or cleansings or purification depending on which path you’re coming from.
Vern: Well I'm so glad that you use the word belief about laws, because I see already we’ve used a half hour of our time and I wanted to talk about beliefs. So let me share a screen, because the word belief I think is so unfortunate in our religious discourse. Susan, can you read this out loud?
Susan: (reading) ‘The English word belief (belove) is related to the Latin word libido, desire, and the German liebe, beloved. In English belief originally meant something like trust. It’s more “I love my spouse” than “My spouse exists.” We still use “belief” this way when we ask, “Do you believe in vaccines?” The Enlightenment preoccupation with categories transformed the world to mean acceptance of a proposition. In my opinion, this has been a disaster for how we approach religion; it has led to Fundamentalism. In our secular world, we can practice “the willing suspension of disbelief” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge) as we enjoy artistic and mythic representations of reality.
Vern: Thank you Susan, and you will also see an image of a lamb and a cross. You will also see an image of a lamb and a cross which is a Christian image. Christians will often say that Jesus is the Lamb of God but nobody expects to hear Jesus go “BAAAA.” So the word belief, when it is used in religion, needs to be understood in a pre-enlightenment context; in a mythic context. Now, could I ask Juan Ji, Josh, can you read the second half of that page?
Josh: Sure. (reading) It is as meaningless to ask whether one believes or disbelieves in Aphrodite or Ares as to ask whether one believes in a character and a novel. One can only say that one finds them true or untrue to life. To believe in Aphrodite and Ares merely means that one believes that the poetic myths about them do justice to the forces of sex and aggression as human beings experience them in nature and in their own lives.” (W.H. Auden).
Vern: Thank you. The point that I’m trying to make here is that if we try to bring Enlightenment ideas like laws and beliefs into the realm of religion, in my view we are distorting religion. The word religion itself is not found in almost any other quote religion. It is a western conceit; it is an Enlightenment convention. It is a category that we have invented, and it grows up in the same way that the notion of the modern nation-state emerged out of the Enlightenment preoccupation with categories. If we try to apply categories like laws to religion, we flatten religion instead of having the rich mystery. We need not laws, we need mysteries in religion. The Muslim mystics, the Christian mystics, the Jewishmystics, the Hindu mystics, the mystics of all faiths, I think were more in touch with what we need in this time of COVID-19 than in the enlightenment distortion of spirituality. I better stop before I preach a whole sermon on that. Please, somebody, argue with me on that.
Susan: Essentially you could say we could call it the mystery of suffering. But we couldn’t call it the law of suffering or the principle of suffering.
Vern: I don't want to tell anybody what you should say, I’m simply sharing my ideas. Someone else who hasn't participated?
Okay. Geneva told me before our session began that at least one or two people were particularly interested in the last question, how I could be a Christian and an Atheist at the same time. Are other people interested in that question? Okay. Is it possible for a person to do math and eat at the same time? I think most of you would say yes and you wonder why am I asking such a question. Are the stories of the three little pigs and Hamlet contradictory? I don't think so. Do football and tennis contradict each other? Can I enjoy both the Beatles and Beethoven? Sure I can, and jazz as well. And Rembrant, too. Is it possible to be both a Republican and an avid skier? I think so. Math and myth are distinctive categories of discourse.
So as an atheist, I do not believe in an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful God. As a Christian, I set that rational category aside and instead I enter into a story, into a myth, into a paradigm. And because of my particular tradition which is Episcopalian, I have the opportunity to enact that, both ritually on Sundays and throughout the course of the liturgical year. By entering into the myth, I get to see different dimensions of this amazing story.
One of the features of myth, certainly highlighted by Claude Levi-Strauss, is that a myth is able to unite contradictions. One of his classic books is called, in English, The Raw and the Cooked - it's about eating in different cultures. The fundamental problem that draws me to Christianity is suffering, which we’ve been talking about, and the beauty in the world. And the story of Christianity, for me, unites suffering in the case of the cross and beauty in the case of the Resurrection. That becomes part of one’s story, and it gives me a model by which I may find meaning in my life.
Of course the Christian story doesn’t end with the Resurrection, it proceeds through the story of Pentecost, or the forming of what Bill was talking about a moment ago, of using our hands to relieve suffering in the world. One one hand, I use the language of the narrative and enact the story as a Christian, but if you put me out of that story and ask me in a rational, mathematical kind of context, do I believe in God, the answer is no. But I want to give a little more defense before I invite discussion. I want to show you how my answer is paralleled in other traditions.
A God that Atheists Can Believe In is called reality. Reality can be sliced and diced any way you want. You can pick out the good, you can pick out the bad, but when you’re talking about the whole, it's reality. Now look at some examples of this: In Sanskrit, the word sat as in Sat Chitananda, in Hinduism refers to the ultimate Truth, the Being Becoming - it’s a word for reality and a word for God. Sat is another word for God in Sanskrit. Or in Buddhism, here I’ll turn to my Buddhist expert Josh, shunya, which can be translated as the void or emptiness. Josh, would you say something about your way of talking about it? Namely transparency, what does that mean?
Joshua Paszkiewicz: Sure. We would look at it in our tradition as part of a larger term shunyata, which is literally - I see you reference Thich Nhat Hanh next, interbeing is kind of the term he’s referencing in Sanskrit. To borrow Paul Tillich’s terms, the ground of being that is invisible, ineffable, not graspable, but underlies and gives life and forms to all things.
Vern: Thank you, and in Arabic Al-Haqq is one of the 99 names of God. And actually, in early Sufi development, it cost a mystic’s life because he said of himself Al-Haqq that he was the truth as a result of a mystical experience. And that was regarded as heretical because a person should not say that one is God, but when one has an experience, one is so filled with God that you cannot make a separation between oneself and God.
And in Hebrew, Yahweh can be translated so many different ways, but one is “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be,” which is all of reality. And in many Christian mystics, God is that which is inexpressible. One of my favorites is Nicolaus Cusanus, who used the word infinite. You cannot describe what is infinite, it is all-inclusive. You can slice and dice that reality any way you want but you’re never gonna be able to get it all put into words. Meister Eckhart uses the phrase Abgeschiedenheit, which is sort of like the Buddhist idea of giving up everything; relinquishing all categories. No terms. And you find that same insight if you study that medieval classic in Middle English, Cloud of Unknowing.
Josh mentioned Paul Tillich’s phrase the Ground of Being. God is not another discreet super duper entity but rather the Ground of Being. And Tillich was accused of being an atheist just as you may think of me as an atheist. So the term that I would offer to atheists if you want to functionally talk about God, don’t use the word God, talk about reality, or talk about the ultimate mystery.
Now I think it’s time to invite some argument, so I’ll stop share and invite some conversation.
[??] Vern, I really appreciate what you said about the costs and downsides of the enlightenment epistemology. I was very touched about what you said about importing ideas about propositions into religious experience and the inappropriateness of applying them. I’m a psychologist, and in psychology we have the term physics envy in talking about the history of psychology, that in the 19th century it looked as though the material sciences were going to take over, and if psychology wanted to do any business in that atmosphere, it had better look as much like physics as possible. And it better be just as positivistic, and just as materialistic as physics. And I think a lot of things have suffered from that. Along with the blessings of the enlightenment came the overweening pride that somehow we ought to expect ourselves to explain everything in terms of propositions about fact. And that has its place - that’s how we get roads and indoor plumbing and things. But we also need to respect the deeper and more comprehensive experiences of faith in that sense of belief.
Vern: Yes, thank you so much for that comment which underlines the very brief mention that I made to the history of western thought in the last 400 years, and also our current situation. I really like to use the word belief in the sense of trust. I believe when the King James Version of the Bible was translated, in every instance except one, when the word belief is used it would be better if it were translated today as trust. I’ve looked this up in the Greek, I don’t know Hebrew at all, and the word pistis should more properly be translated in many cases as trust. It’s an emotional thing; it’s a matter of the heart rather than a matter of the head. Thank you. Who else has a comment?
Rob Carr: Has anyone found a translation, I’m speaking to the church types out there, a translation of scripture in the English that’s true to that translation?
Vern: That’s such a good question. I’ve got at least a dozen translations on my shelf back there. After our conference I’ll look at them and see if I can come up with an answer.
Jim Wolfe: I would like to suggest another translation for Yahweh. If it’s taken in the causative tense, it would be “I make to be what I make to be.” In other words I am the Lord of history, I am the one who will go with you on your liberating mission. And this would be more reassuring for Moses, who is contemplating setting his people free, if there’s a God who is in charge.
Vern: Thank you so much, I appreciate that. Who else has a comment?
Byron Carrier: I wonder if the Yahweh concept could be “I am that I am” in two different senses. One, don’t ask me how I claim to be God. I am God, I am that I am on my own. That might be one explanation that aligns with shunyata from that last list and some of the other religious concepts of self. But another way of looking at it may be “I am THAT I am,” in other words, that other “I am” standing over there. The sort of I am that Jesus tended to honor and serve. That “in the least of these, there you find me.” That sort of thing, picking off on that Yahweh concept.
Vern: Thank you, Brad. I appreciate that. Who else has a comment?
Nathan Harber: My thought about being an atheist is that what somebody really means is what their conception of God is, they don’t believe it. So I don’t even understand - you have to understand what somebody’s conception of God is to really understand what they mean when they say they’re an atheist. If you don’t believe there’s an all-powerful God in the universe, than you’re an atheist of that God. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about.
Vern: Well thank you and that leads to the question: how is God or are Gods conceived of in other religions? In general, primal religions conceive of God in terms of nature. Asian religions and religions that have been strongly influenced by them, such as new thought religions, generally conceive of God as a personal quality. And monotheistic religions generally conceive of God as a power revealed in and working through history toward justice. So those are three very different conceptions of God, so thank you Nate for raising the question of what God are we talking about? And my personal preference, if I'm going to use the word God, I want to use it to mean reality. Because that's what I confront. That’s what, out of despair, I must come to trust. What I must come to believe in. And that is the source of so many sacred narratives, sacred myths, from which I am given an opportunity to enter into a one or more of them as is meaningful for me.
Geneva, we have four minutes left. Do you have any closing comments you want to make? Or is there someone else?
Geneva: We received a question in the chat from one of our board members at the Interfaith Center asking if you could address what you think the purpose of religion is and how it does or does not relate to getting the matters of truth and fact about the world.
Vern: I don't think religion has much to do, except tangentially, with truth in a propositional sense or even with morality. Remember religion itself is a construct. But leaving that aside, let me say for me, the primary function of religion is worship. By worship I mean the activity of giving thanks for the gift of existence. That positive attitude is necessary if we are going to live a productive life, especially when we are facing so much suffering around us and maybe within us during this pandemic. So finding beauty, without denying horror, and giving thanks for that maybe in ritual ways. I like very much what the Roman Catholic Jesuit says, “that which is always and everywhere true, namely God’s grace, must at some time and some place and in some manner be celebrated.” For me that is worshiping. And I need daily, weekly, regular reminders that call me from my despair, from my suffering, to give thanks. And in the Islamic tradition, through the five-time prayers every day. How many of us would be so much better human beings if we imitated our Muslim brothers and sisters with the five-time prayer. Or the community prayer on Fridays.
Or in the Jewish tradition, which offers prayers for almost every conceivable human situation including, pardon me, going to the bathroom. So bringing that sense of wholeness, recognizing the contradictory nature of our existence, and creating within us, if not gathering outside of us, that power to affirm our existence leading from beauty to service to others. I think it is through some form of worship or meditation, the essence of religion. It is a kind of play. The ritual that religions have developed, even with their strict rules, takes us out of the immediate concerns that we have and enables us to enter that realm where we set aside extrinsic purposes in order to enjoy God or reality or whatever you want, and from that the guidelines for our lives can occur. That’s the beginning of a very long sermon, which I must cease.
Geneva: Thank you so much Vern. We did have someone just ask if you can do 20 more of these conversations in the future. I hope that this won’t be the last time that we engage in dialogue and collaboration, and I’m really grateful for your time and your wisdom. And to everyone for taking time out of their day to attend this dialogue. Did you have any closing remarks?
Vern: Thank you to everyone who was kind enough to think that I might have something worth listening to. I appreciate the participants. Again I want to underline I’m speaking for myself. I hope I've offered some provocative ideas that may jog you to think in maybe in some fresh ways. I love my faith and I want you to love yours whatever it may be. I don't want to change anyone else’s tradition, I simply want to deepen each person’s own experience. Thank you all for giving me this opportunity to benefit from your virtual but very real presence. Be well.
Geneva: Thank you so much Vern. And this was recorded, I see someone just asked that in the chat. I will send it out to our mailing list and on facebook and I’ll have Vern send it out through his networks as well. Thank you all and I hope you enjoy the rest of your day.
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