I rarely publish as a blog entry any speech I give. One reason is that oral communication is qualitatively different from written communication. It's one reason a book full of sermons often seems flat compared with hearing them live.
But I'm breaking the pattern today to share with you remarks I gave Tuesday evening at the annual Table of Faiths dinner of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council. I was one of the fill-in speakers when the person originally scheduled to speak had to back out for personal reasons.
As you will see in my remarks, the theme of the dinner was "To Know and to be Known," which is one of the primary purposes of interfaith conversation. It also turns out to be a good description of the work we columnists do. Here's what I said:
Good evening. And happy Harry Truman’s birthday. Harry, as you may know, was a Baptist who met the love of his life, Bess Wallace, when they were in a Presbyterian Sunday school together as little kids.
So first a word to the wise from me as a Presbyterian — never underestimate what Presbyterian Sunday school can do for you.
Tonight’s theme is “To Know and to be Known,” which is, of course, a good description of the purpose of interfaith dialogue. But it’s also a great description of the job of a columnist, which is mostly how I’ve spent my professional life.
So for a few minutes I’d like to unpack what knowing and being known has meant to me and how I’ve come to connect those ideas to the world of religion and faith, about which I write every day.
The task of a columnist is to get people to do something they sometimes go days without doing — and that is to think. Our job is, in fact, to complicate their thinking — to throw ideas at them that will challenge them, that will make them laugh, make them cry, make them angry, make them change their minds and/or make them work to change the world for the better.
All of that requires that we spend a good part of our lives getting to know things and ideas. We columnists are naturally curious people (in both senses of that word, meaning, first, we are full of curiosity and, second, we are at times a bid odd). And we are skeptical people. We question everything. One of our cardinal rules is this: If our mother tells us she loves us, we should check that out to be sure it’s true.
So I spend a good deal of my time using my brain as a mental vacuum cleaner, drawing in knowledge about many things, but particularly these days about matters of religion and faith. I read books, many of which I review on my daily blog. I talk with people. I go to hear speakers on various subjects. I read journalism in print and in cyberspace. And I both attend and occasionally teach classes through my church, Second Presbyterian, all in an effort to know, to be religiously literate (though I still have a long way to go).
My job is to synthesize all of this knowledge, draw meaning out of it and give that meaning back to my readers as a gift. Which is why my first book, a collection of columns I wrote for The Kansas City Star, is called A Gift of Meaning.
What I have described so far is a one-way street. It’s the “to know” part, the sponge-up part, and I want to thank many of you for being sources to guide me and help me know things. If I started naming your names we’d be here all night. So I won’t. But thanks.
But what of my obligation to be known? As a columnist, that requires that I give away parts of me, that I become vulnerable to my readers, that I share with them aspects of my life that I think will help them come to terms with their own lives and that will encourage them to enter into deep and revelatory dialogue with others in which they, in turn, give away part of themselves in an effort to be known, too.
So, just as many other columnists do, I tell them about things that have happened to me, things I’ve been thinking, things I’ve been doing, ideas I’ve run across that are worth passing on. I open up a significant part of my life so readers can begin to trust my voice as someone authentic, as someone who shares humanity with them.
So what have I allowed my readers to know about me? The list is, I’m afraid, long and varied, and I always worry about whether I’ve said either too much or too little.
But here’s a small part of a list of what readers paying attention would know about me:
-- They would know that I grew up in a small, almost all-white town northwest of Chicago called Woodstock, Illinois, which was a landslide for Protestantism.
-- They would know that in a 2014 book I wrote called Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, I revealed that when I was a Boy Scout, my troop put on annual black-face minstrel shows in the mid-1950s but seemed astonishingly oblivious to and ignorant of the deeply racist message we were offering on stage.
-- They would know that I spent two years of my boyhood in India in the 1950s when my father was part of a University of Illinois agriculture team in the time of the Green Revolution. While there I went to boarding school in the Himalayas with Christian missionary children (who, by the way, can be quite cruel to non-missionary children like me) and later I went to another school down on the plains in which my classmates were Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Jains. It’s where I began to imagine the breadth of the religious impulse in the world.
-- They would know that I was divorced after almost 27 years of marriage because my wife chose to have an affair with our pastor. It took a while to reveal that to readers after it happened, but eventually, as I was writing about the religious values of love and trust, it seemed a story I needed to tell at least in brief — and so I have.
-- They would know that my 31-year-old nephew was on the first plane to smash into the World Trade Center in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that I wrote about Karleton to try to put a face on the catastrophe of that day.
-- They would know that some months after 9/11 I took a trip with other journalists to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uzbekistan in an effort to understand not just Islam today and how the hijackers had badly distorted that ancient faith but also to understand Islam’s history and its contributions to world culture over the centuries.
-- They would know that I remarried more than 21 years ago and that between us my wife (who, by the way, is at a cousins’ reunion in her native New England right now) and I have six children and eight grandchildren, of various faith commitments and of none.
-- They would know that I am not a biblical literalist. Which is to say that I believe you can take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously but that you can’t do both. I choose to take it seriously.
-- They would know that I write a lot about death because of my belief that we’ll never understand our own life if we don’t understand our own death. And they would know that some of what I know about death comes from the fact that I serve on the board of Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care, the largest and best non-profit hospice in Kansas City.
-- And they would know that I believe the United States has a chance to demonstrate to the world what it looks like when people of many different religious traditions live in harmony. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there, and I see this as perhaps the primary task of the American culture in this century. It’s one reason I serve on the board of the Kansas City Interfaith Youth Alliance, because we must start with young people.
Well, there is more about myself that I’ve revealed to readers in an effort to get them to think about important ideas, to move through the world with honesty and with an attitude of caring and love for humanity and the planet. But you get the idea.
What I want to suggest to you tonight is that the goal of a religiously pluralistic but harmonious society cannot be achieved unless you, too, seek to know and to be known. This means not just being open to learning what you don’t know but also being open to letting others learn things about you that they don’t know.
And that includes sharing your deepest questions about faith, even your doubts. As I argue in my latest book, The Value of Doubt, doubt can be one of the most effective ways to learn and find a faith that can sustain you in bad times and inspire you to live in helpful and authentic ways. Talking about your questions, your doubts, is a way of telling others that you don’t, in fact, know all you need or want to know and that you are open to hearing about the experiences of others.
I want to make it clear that when I talk about being known in the context of interfaith dialogue, I’m not talking about the kind of information our idolatrous celebrity culture seems to marinate in — a trait that was captured so succinctly and poignantly in David Bowie’s song, “Space Oddity.” Perhaps you remember the lines:
This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You've really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear. . .
The phrase “whose shirts you wear,” of course, stands for our society’s seemingly insatiable hunger for nothing burgers about people. Instead, we need to know the condition of each other’s souls, the state of our dreams and our deepest fears — although in interfaith dialogue you can’t start there. Rather, you need to start with stories about who you are.
In this divisive time in the history of our country and our world, we need people who are willing to commit to knowing and to being known, willing to admit that we may be wrong about what we think we know, willing to explore new ideas without fear even as we hold on to traditions and truths that have sustained the human race for thousands of years.
I started my remarks by mentioning Harry Truman, born on this date in 1884 in Lamar, Mo. Let me end with a story about him.
For 12 long years, Harry lived on his grandparents’ farm just south of here in Grandview, Missouri, while he was trying to interest Bess Wallace, living in Independence, in courtship and marriage. There being no e-mail or texting at the time, Harry and Bess wrote to each other by snailmail regularly.
After Bess died in 1982, hundreds of letters that Harry had written to Bess turned up in the Truman home. To write about them for The Star, I read them all. And besides revealing one of the most awesome love stories you’ve ever heard, they also show the ability and the capacity of the human mind and heart to change.
For the fact is that some of what Harry wrote to Bess back in those early days was racist trash. I was a bit shocked to discover that as I was reading the letters, but it was clear that Harry Truman, in his farm days, was a white supremacist who had little use for African-Americans.
But guess what. Harry got exposed to the broader world and Harry changed. In the end, it was Harry Truman who issued the order that racially integrated America’s armed forces. Harry came to believe that all Americans, regardless of racial background, should be treated equally under the law. I won’t tell you that Harry came to embrace full social equality among the races as we’ve come to grasp that concept today, but he did at least recognize the need for legal equality, which is a long way from where he began in life.
So today when I hear religious bigots say anti-Jewish, anti-Islamic or anti-something-else words, I try to remember that maybe they aren’t hopeless and maybe they won’t always be bigots. Maybe, instead, they are people who need to be brought into enlightening conversations in which they can know and be known. And maybe you and I are the people who can make that happen.
May it be so. Thank you.
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A FOND FAREWELL
Finally today, here's a tribute to the late Loren Meade, founder of the Alban Institute, which has helped churches, synagogues and other houses of worship be better at what they do. Meade, who died this past Saturday, was a gift to institutional faith.