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September 2006

Aug. 31, 2006


A new study suggests there is no single "God spot" in the human brain. This finding is in tension with previous research that indicated our ideas about God may be a natural result of the way we're wired. We may not have a "God spot," but most religions would say God has a soft spot for humanity.

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Americans, it turns out, aren't very comfortable with the way political liberals and political conservatives try to connect religion and public policy. At least that's what a new poll shows.

PiechartThe poll was conducted for the Pew Research Center for People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

To my mind, it reflects a general unease with the way that religion and politics get mixed in together these days in our society. I share much of that unease because people who would identify themselves as liberal sometimes think there is no place for religion in the formulation of public policy while people who think of themselves as conservatives sometimes think religion is or should be the only or primary basis for deciding such policy questions.

Both of those positions give me pause. And apparently they give lots of other Americans pause, too.

An interesting finding in the poll shows that nearly 60 percent of Americans think the influence of religion in public life is declining, and they identify that as a bad development. My view is that religion should have considerable influence in public life, but the idea that public policy should reflect only one particular religion's views is troublesome.

Religion, I think, should be among the voices -- even if it's quite a loud voice and many-toned voice -- in the discussion, but our system of government is designed to prevent the government from promoting the views of any religion and to make sure that all religions can speak freely.

So take a look at the Pew survey results and see how they strike you.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

AND a P.S.:

I'll be teaching a weekend writing class Oct. 6-8 at the Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center in Bangor, Pa. Think about joining us. For a description of the class, click here. It's called "From Pain to Hope through Writing." In it, we'll spend some time thinking about what Christianity means by hope and then we'll go to those places of personal or collective pain in our lives and write about them, remembering what it means to have hope. We'll also share some of that writing with each other. Writing about pain can be a healing process as we write toward the light. The weekend begins with a Friday evening dinner and session and ends with lunch on Sunday. An Autumn weekend in the Poconos spent with words. What could be better? Hope to see you there.

Aug. 30, 2006


Speaking of Islam, as I will be in the post below, I find it intriguing that prominent voices from Islam's epicenter, Saudi Arabia, have begun to criticize Hezbollah's leadership for the recent war with Israel. The instant a cease-fire was proclaimed, you may recall, Hezbollah declared victory. That victory is seeming increasingly hollow to others in the Middle East now.

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DEARBORN, Mich. -- When I was here last weekend for a conference, I stopped by the Islamic Center of America (pictured below here), where Imam Hassan Qazwini (shown in the bottom photo heading to lunch after Friday prayer services), a man I've met several times and interviewed at length, is the spiritual leader.

Icofa2I'd not had a chance to see this huge mosque and related Islamic Center, which opened its new facility in May 2005.

Folks, get used to this. Islam is growing in America and mosques are springing up all over the place. As that happens, Muslims -- from both the immigrant stream and the conversion stream of predominantly African-Americans -- are figuring out how to find their place in American culture.

There still is much for them to figure out and much for the non-Muslims among  us to figure out in response.

How can Muslims be true to their faith and also be politically active? What charitable role will mosques play in the larger community? How will the face of Islam change in this country as aging immigrants turn over leadership to their American-born children and grandchildren, who may well view things in a different light? How will Christians, Jews, Muslims and others ever learn to live in harmony?

I spent some time talking with Eide A. Alawan, who, on a volunteer basis, heads up the center's Office of Interfaith Outreach, which is an important goal for Qazwini. Alawan places his hopes for the future of interfaith harmony with young people (like the little boy standing amid all the kneeling men around him in the picture below).

Alawan is retirement age, but he thinks his generation of American Muslims is moving too slowly to create interfaith understanding and to communicate a clear Islamic message of harmony to non-Muslims.

Icofa7I also attended the Friday prayer service, which, as you can see, was packed. It's Islamic tradition that men worship in front of women. The explanation is that if women are in front, men would get distracted when the women bow to the ground for prayer.

So at Qazwini's mosque, women pray in the same room as -- but behind -- the men, though there's overflow balcony space for women, especially women with young children.

In his sermon that day, Qazwini urged Muslims to speak out on behalf of Lebanon and Lebanese citizens who were killed or injured in the Hezbollah-Israel war. He pointed to a recent full-page add in The New York Times paid for by a Kuwaiti Muslim as a good example of using available mainstream media to give an Islamic point of view about current events.

Icofa9As I've noted before, the religious demographics of America are changing. Christians still make up a large majority of the American population, but there's much more diversity than there used to be and it's only going to grow. So we'd better be learning how to live together without hating or killing one another.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Aug. 29, 2006


I wrote some yesterday about the first anniversary of Katrina, but I wanted to pass along to you this story from Baptist Press about New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. It strikes me that when people in the story talk about God's presence and grace in this disaster, they inevitably speak about those being channeled through human beings. Is there any other way to experience divine grace or divine presence? If so, can you describe that for the rest of us?

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For many years, I have participated in -- and, at times, sort of led -- a Bible study group that meets once a week for lunch in downtown Kansas City.

KhazariaAt the moment, we're reading Deuteronomy, one of the five books of the Jewish Torah attributed to Moses. Last week, one of our members asked what we knew about the Khazars. In response, he pretty much got blank looks.

This fellow had read a book about this group of Central Asian people who sometimes are referred to as the 13th tribe of Judaism because for reasons mostly lost to history, the Khazars converted to Judaism. The tribe helped the Byzantine Empire survive at one point.

Well, I figured that if I didn't know much about the Khazars, maybe you don't either. So I've hunted around a little and found some resources that might be helpful.

For instance, click here for the Web site of the American Center of Khazar Studies. Lots of material there. And I bet most of you didn't even know there was such a center. Me either.

Click here for Wikipedia's entry on the Khazars, though I continue to repeat my warning that sometimes Wikipedia isn't very reliable. But with enough other sources, you may be able to flag any questionable claims.

Next, click here for an interesting Web site that talks about the Khazars, though I can't find much information about the site's authors.

Check out the drawings and other Khazar-related art work on this site.

And here's a link to the 1970s book my friend had read, The Thirteenth Tribe. And a link to a 2002 book, The Jews of Khazaria.

Friends and family at your next party or reunion are going to be strangely impressed when you start in describing what you now know about the Khazars. Or not.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Today's religious holiday: Beheading of St. John the Baptist (Christian)

Aug. 28, 2006


The woman who brought an early church-state separation case to the Supreme Court has died in Champaign, Ill. I hope someone writes a good history of these cases through the eyes of the people who helped make this history. I'd read it. Wouldn't you?

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As we mark the first anniversary of the remarkable Katrina hurricane (and worry about Hurricane Ernesto), we would do well to think about the theological questions natural disasters raise and the many ways faith communities respond to the disasters themselves.

Katrinahurricanepic3Click here for Catholic Online's first part of its year-later coverage as an example of the stories being told.

It's hard to imagine how many people were affected by all this, either as victims or as responders. To put the devastation in perspective for folks who live in the Kansas City area, someone recently suggested that we imagine a six-mile wide tornado that hit the ground at Manhattan, Kan., and stayed on the ground all the way to Columbia, Mo. Whew.

It seems as if each of us knows Katrina (pictured here) victims or helpers. My church, for instance, sent a youth group to work in the Gulf Coast recovery work. And my cousin and his wife from Denver spent weeks and weeks working for the Red Cross in the Gulf Coast after Katrina. I also have friends -- columnists in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, for instance -- who lived through the trauma.

You may recall that after the tsunami struck in Asia late 2004 various people were asking how God could allow this kind of thing. In fact, I did a Kansas City Star story exploring that very question, which is the old question of theodicy. It goes something like this:

* An all-powerful God could prevent evil.

* An all-loving God would want to do that.

* But evil and suffering exist.

* So should we conclude that God is weak, not loving or simply nonexistent?

A remarkably honest answer came from John E. Thiel, professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, and author of God, Evil, and Innocent Suffering: "There are no easy answers to such questions."

In the end, Thiel said, he's concluded that "God does not cause death in any way, and there are no higher or mysterious purposes in death at all. Death is a tragic fact of life that God regards as an enemy that eventually will be defeated," and God demonstrated power over death in Jesus' resurrection.

Well, there are many ways to ponder the theodicy question, and that's what I invite you to do as you continue to remember the victims of such natural disasters -- remember and respond to their suffering in any way that you can.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

P.S.: Rep. Katherine Harris, whose exclusivist remarks about religion and politics I mentioned here over the weekend, now says her remarks were misconstrued. Yeah, well, maybe. But they seemed pretty clear when she said them.

Aug. 26-27, 2006, weekend


An example of why the Republicans may be in trouble religiously occurred over the weekend. Click here for the story and see how it fits into the next item.


Did you see the story about the poll showing a slippage in the percentage of people who think the Republican Party is a friend of religion? As I write this Friday, I've just come from a luncheon with an Islamic imam in Dearborn, Mich. He suggested to me that the support of Muslims for President Bush has fallen dramatically in the last six years, and it will be very hard work for a Republican in 2008 to capture anything like a majority of the growing American Muslim vote.

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The stem cell news earlier this week seemed promising. Scientists say they have found a way to extract early, or embryonic, stem cells from a blastocyst, or pre-implanted embryo, without destroying the blastocyst.

Stem_2I mentioned this here on the blog on Thursday. And I suggested that we be cautious about imagining all of the moral questions now are solved.

Well, it will take some time to see whether this news really is as promising as it first appears. But even if it is, my caution about the ethical and moral issues raised by stem cell research is warranted. In fact, almost immediately opponents of expanded stem cell research said the new procedure doesn't change anything. In addition, concerns were raised about the safety and effectiveness of the procedure.

I'm in favor of stem cell research, including well-regulated research using early stem cells created by somatic cell nuclear transfer or drawn from unwanted frozen, pre-implanted embryos from invitro fertilization clinics. But I recognize that even if the only kind of stem cell research allowed in the whole world is that done with adult stem cells -- which don't carry with them the controversial issues of origin -- there still are ethical problems to solve.

One, for instance, is who gets access to the treatments that might result from stem cell research. Already in the United States we have more than 40 million people who don't even have basic health insurance. Will they be treated with expensive stem cell therapy on an equal footing with people who are fully covered by private insurance? And, if not, what does that say about how we value human beings? Indeed, what does our current health care system say about that?

In his book The Political Meaning of Christianity, author and teacher Glenn Tinder says the "spiritual center of Western politics" is the notion that every single person is of inestimable value -- is "exalted," to use his phrase.

Tinder worries that we are losing our sense of that. I share his concern.

And, as I say, even if what seems like good stem cell news this past week turns out to be exactly that, there is much more we'll have to wrestle with as a culture and a nation to make sure that on the path ahead we don't violate our basic values of human dignity.

By the way, in April 2005 I helped produce for the Faith section of The Kansas City Star a full-page discussion of the ethical red flags that get raised in the stem cell debate. I have that page as a pdf file that I'd be happy to share with you. Just e-mail me at [email protected] and ask for it and I'll send it out to you, though because of other commitments this weekend it may take me until next week to do that.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this week is about choosing a rabbi to be the narrator of a piece of classical Christian music.)

Aug. 25, 2006


Speaking of outer space, as I will be below, the Vatican Observatory has a new director. Click here for a story about his views on the relationship between science and faith.

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Perhaps you read or heard about the news easier this week that astronomers have demonstrated that dark matter in the universe really does exist.

Darkmatter2Scientists have long believed that most of the matter in the universe is this invisible stuff they've labeled dark matter. But they have needed proof of its existence. Recently NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory witnessed the collision of two large galaxies. The result was a separation of dark matter from regular matter, officials say. And that provides the strongest evidence yet for dark matter's existence.

I'll let you poke around on the Web or in your own sources if the idea of dark matter intrigues you enough for further investigation. What I want to offer today instead is the thought I have that in many ways God is composed of the spiritual and theological equivalent of dark matter.

Which is to say that most of God's existence is invisible to us. Oh, yes, we can look at the universe, at each other, at our holy books, at the lives and words of prophets, at -- Christians would say -- Jesus Christ to have God revealed to us. Even adequately revealed.

But even so, I think it's like trying to get a drink of water from a full-on fire hydrant. We simply are incapable of taking it all in.

Jacques Ellul, the wonderful French Christian writer and thinker, talks about this in his brilliant book Hope in Time of Abandonment. He writes:

"The God of Israel. . .never shows himself, to put it briefly. He is the God who speaks, and his word is a promise, not a fulfillment of the present time. He cannot be an idol because he gives only a name. He gives his name to Moses, but he does not show himself. Never does he show himself. All that is seen of him is a reflection, a symbol. He gives a sign. It is the burning bush.

"He gives a mediator, and it is the angel of Jacob. When he is there, in Jesus Christ, it is not as God that he discloses himself. What we see is a man."

I contend that the truth Ellul speaks here should make us humble, even silent -- except when we feel God has abandoned us and, in hope, we cry out for the divine presence. But the evidence running amok in the world is that we think we know all there is to know about God -- and we're intent on ramming it down the throats of others.

I'll have more to say about this in my Sept. 9 column, when I take note of the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. But for now, let the idea of dark matter in the universe and the mystery of God roll around in your brains.

(By the way, NPR's "Talk of the Nation" Science Friday show today is to focus on dark matter. Check your local listings. And if you missed yesterday's "Talk of the Nation" show on religion in China, click here and poke around among the offerings. I didn't get to hear it all, but what I heard was pretty interesting.)

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

PS: Did you ever wonder where readers of this blog are when they log on? The counter I use tells me what city or country they come from. I've had readers in England, Switzerland, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Most readers are from the greater Kansas City area, though there are lots from outstate Kansas and Missouri, too. But here's a list of cities from which readers checked in over a period of a few hours one day this week: Fort Myers, Fla.; Trenton, N.J.; Livermore, Calif.; Nashville, Tenn.; Tulsa, Okla.; Scottsdale, Ariz.; Bloomington, Ill.; Irving, Texas; Plano, Texas; New York City; Denver; Memphis; Algonquin, Ill.; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Tucson; Waco, Texas; Middleville, Mich.; Des Moines; Ashburn, Va., and Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. So your comments may be read by folks absolutely anywhere. What an intriguing collection. Thanks for reading.

Aug. 24, 2006



Yesterday's stem cell news adds a new wrinkle to the debate. Well, sort of new. If, in fact, it's possible to extract stem cells from pre-implanted embryos without destroying or noticeably changing the embryo, does that mean that scientists really have found an approach to this research to which almost no one would morally object? I think it's worth waiting awhile before drawing that conclusion. These so-called breakthroughs also have a way of breaking down.

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Yes, yes, I know. We've been too serious around here for too long. So it's faith-joke break time today. Unless you're a Visigoth and are commemorating the ransacking of Rome on this date in 410 by the Visigoths, in which case you'd be in a good mood already. But for the rest of you, enjoy:

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1. There is a story about a monastery perched high on a cliff several hundred feet in the air. The only way to reach the monastery was to be suspended in a basket which was pulled to the top by several monks who pulled and tugged with all their strength. Obviously the ride up the steep cliff in that basket was terrifying.

One tourist got exceedingly nervous about half-way up as he noticed that the rope by which he was suspended was old and frayed. With trembling voice, he asked the monk who was riding with him in the basket how often they changed the rope.

The monk thought for a moment and answered brusquely, "Whenever it breaks."

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2. A woman told a friend: We’ve been letting our six-year-old go to sleep listening to the radio, and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a good idea. Last night he said his prayers and wound up with: “And God bless Mommy and Daddy and Sister. Amen—and FM!”

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3. "Is it proper for a man to profit from the mistakes of another?" a parishioner asked his minister.

"Definitely not," was the preacher's answer.

"Are you absolutely certain?"

"Yes, my son, absolutely."

"Okay. In that case, I wonder if you'd mind returning that $75 I gave you after my wedding last year?"
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4. The Sunday school teacher was carefully explaining the story of Elijah the prophet and the false prophets of Baal. She explained how Elijah built the altar, put wood upon it, cut the steer in pieces and laid it upon the altar.

And then Elijah commanded the people of God to fill four barrels of water and pour it over the altar. He had them do this four times.

"Now, said the teacher, "can anyone in the class tell me why the Lord would have Elijah pour water over the steer on the altar?"

A little girl in the back of the room raised her hand with great enthusiasm. "To make the gravy," came her enthusiastic reply.
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5. A student went to his meditation teacher and said, "My meditation is horrible! I feel so distracted, or my legs ache, or I'm constantly falling asleep. It's just horrible!"

"It will pass," the teacher said matter-of-factly. A week later, the student came back to his teacher. "My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive! It's just wonderful!"

"It will pass," the teacher replied matter-of-factly.

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To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Aug. 23, 2006


As we all follow breaking news about Iran's response to the U.N. demand for it to give up any nuclear weapons program, I thought you might find it helpful to read the Country Studies section of the Library of Congress on Iran and Islam. Most people who know Iran describe its people as predominantly pro-Western, though its government has been dominated by radical clerics in a divided governance system in which the clerics in effect exercise authority over elected officials. And don't forget that Iran is not an Arab nation. For a historical view of Iran's encounter with Islam, written by someone at the University of Minnesota in the mid-1990s, click here.

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One of the things my church is trying to do is to create small groups of people focused on a variety of topics. It's a way, in a large congregation (we have about 1,000 members), to help people get to know one another and to create a tighter sense of community.

Stour2_1As part of that effort, I volunteered to lead such a group on a monthly tour of sacred spaces in the Kansas City area. The first such tour happened this past Sunday, and we had 40-some folks join in after a luncheon together at our church.

In addition to the church's broader goals, my goal in this series of visits to other congregations is to help people understand the diversity of faith commitments others in our area make and how those commitments play themselves out in a rich variety of structures that help to give our metropolitan area an architectural and faith richness it would not otherwise have.

So on Sunday we visited three congregations -- one Jewish, one Catholic and one Protestant.

Our first stop was at the New Reform Temple, where Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn (above right) showed visitors one of the three Torahs kept in the ark in the synagogue. The NRT is housed in a former telephone exchange building.

Next we visited Visitation Catholic Parish, which two years ago completed a major redesign that included a beautiful small chapel (left) created by Santa Fe artist and santero Ramon Jose Lopez, as well as a much larger sanctuary.

Stour7Finally we had a tour of Community Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ congregation (smaller picture on right below). This building was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, though he wasn't happy with some of the changes the congregation made in his plans.

Over the years I have found that I appreciate more fully the worship space in my own church when I see it in comparison with others and as part of a larger context of faith communities.

On our next tour, we plan to visit a Buddhist center, a Catholic cathedral and an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church.

What sacred space, beyond your own, if any, speaks to you?

Stour11To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Aug. 22, 2006


It seems to me that people who want the government to ban same-sex unions -- whether called marriage or something else -- are asking the government to set some of the marraige rules that should be left up to faith communities. To see what happens when government is the final authority on who can (or even stay) be married, click here for an Arab News story on a Saudi court that annulled a happy three-year marriage. I'm thinking maybe we should avoid this sort of thing.

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A friend once told me he knew someone who tried to be an atheist but acknowledged that, "I kept having lapses of disbelief."

NewdowStill, there are lots of people in the world who profess to believe there is no god or who say nothing can be known about a god if there is one. These atheists or agnostics often are intriguing people who have given a lot of thought to their spiritual positions, even if they've arrived at a different place than I have., one of the best spiritual Web sites on the Internet, has put together a list of what it calls the 10 most influential people among this group. I've heard of most of them, and have even interviewed one of them, Michael Newdow (pictured here), the guy who has gone to court to get "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" taken off our money.

When surveys are done seeking religious affiliation, the "nones," as they're called, make up a growing category. They list "none of the above" as their religion. In fact, the Pacific Northwest has become known as ground zero for the nones.

Take a look at Beliefnet's list of folks today and the brief profiles of them and see what you can learn from these folks. They're a fascinating lot.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

P.S.: Just to reassure those of you who left comments on the "dream" entry in yesterday's blog: Your comments did not make me want to shout: "Stop the world (or planetoid), I want to get off." Carry on. Bill.

Today's religious holiday: Lailat al Miraj (Islam).

Aug. 21, 2006


Lots of commentaries are coming out about the Israel-Hezbollah war. Click here for an interesting one from the Jerusalem Post. It would be intriguing to save a bunch of these and reread them in, say, two years to see which of them holds us.

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The other morning my wife was describing to me an odd dream she'd had about riding a planetoid in space with friends.

DreamsNeither of us could make much of it. But it reminded me that dreams occasionally -- regularly, in fact -- show up in the Bible and are understood to be a way in which God communicates with us. I think immediately of dreams Joseph. husband of Mary, had, telling him not to divorce Mary. Or dreams the Three Wisemen had warning them not to go back to see King Herod. Or dreams of Jacob's ladder and him wrestling with an angel. Or the dreams Joseph, son of Jacob, interpreted for the Pharoah.

And I sometimes wonder what difference there is between a dream and a vision, such as the vision the illiterate Muhammad described of the Angel Gabriel telling him to read. Or the vision John of Patmos had that became the New Testament book of Revelation. Or the repeated visions people report nowadays of seeing an image of the Virgin Mary on a water tower or in a taco.

The Internet is full of sites that talk about religion and dreams, and you have to be pretty discerning about the world view of the people who create the sites. Click here for an interesting one, for instance. And when you do, I invite you to read this site's "About Us" section, too.

And here's a site that can educate you about the benefits of sleep (and maybe dreams). This next site describes some dreams found in the Bible, including one by Pilate's wife. Finally, here's a link about how to avoid drowsy driving -- a link that could save your life.

A now-dead woman who was a member of my church always took dreams seriously. She didn't live in what a Buddhist friend of mine once called Woowooland, but, rather, tried to help people understand their dreams and even help them see if God was trying to tell them something through them. I liked her a lot but never knew quite what to make of all that.

We journalists are almost inherently skeptical about nearly everything, wanting proof and authorities to vouch for things and solid evidence. So, for me, I am not much into the idea of dreams as a way of God speaking to us, but because my theology starts with God's glorious freedom and sovereignty, I have to allow room for the possibility that God can choose this method of communication.

I'd be interested to hear of your experiences with dreams to which you attach spiritual significance. Just don't make them so scary that you'll keep me awake at night.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.