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April 18, 2007

HEALTHY RESPECT FOR RELIGION

A new study suggests that most physicians in the U.S. think religion can benefit people who are ill and that sometimes God intervenes to heal them. This is the latest in a long series of studies and reports connection faith and healing. The caution I try consistently to issue is this: Don't let religion be seduced by science. That is, let's not imagine that it will take scientific proof that prayer "works," say, for religion to feel validated.

* * *

RELIGION CAN BE FUNNY, TOO

Hold on, folks. We've been way, way too serious around here for too long.

LaughingfaceTime for a little humor break.

As regular readers of this blog know, when I offer a short collection of faith-based jokes, they aren't original with me. Many of them come via Beliefnet.com, though also from other sources, including you. If you have any decent jokes of this ilk, send them along to me.

And if you really want something serious to think about today instead, remember that it was on this date in 1521 that German reformer Martin Luther, at his trial at the Diet of Worms, declared, "Here I stand. I can do nothing else. God help me. Amen." For the rest of you, here goes:

1. A Sunday school teacher asked, "Olivia, do you think Noah did a lot of fishing while he was on the ark?"

"No," replied Olivia. "How could he with only two worms?"

* * *

2. A nun, badly needing to use a restroom, walked into the local Hooters. The place was hopping with voices and loud music. And every now and then, the lights would turn off.

Each time the lights went off, the place erupted into cheers. But the room got deadly silent when the nun walked in.

She asked the bartender: "May I please use the restroom?"

He replied: "OK, but I should warn you there's a statue of a naked man in there wearing only a fig leaf."

The nun said she'd just look the other way.

So the bartender showed her to the back of the restaurant.

When she emerged a few minutes later, the place erupted in applause. She went to the bartender and asked, "Why did they applaud me just because I used the restroom?

"Well," he replied, "now they know you're one of us. Would you like a drink?"

"I still don't get it," the nun said.

"Every time someone lifts the leaf on that statue," the barkeep explained,  "the lights go out. Now how about that drink?"

* * *

3. Children were lined up in the cafeteria of a Catholic school for lunch. At the start of the line was a big pile of apples. A nun had left this note there: "Take only one. God is watching."

At the other end of the line was a big pile of chocolate chip cookies. A student left this note next to the pile: "Take all you want. God is watching the apples."

* * *

4. As the storm raged, the captain realized his ship was sinking fast.

He called out, "Anyone here know how to pray?"

A man stepped forward and said: "Aye, captain, I know how to pray."

"Good," said the captain. "You pray while the rest of us put on our lifejackets. We're one short."

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


April 17, 2007

RESPONDING TO THE VIRGINIA TECH CRISIS

When a catastrophe occurs, such as the massacre at Virginia Tech yesterday, people of faith, especially the clergy, respond in many ways. Often, of course, these responses don't get a lot of media attention because they are private and personal -- and frankly they shouldn't get a lot of attention. I don't mean for this story about Baptists responding to the massacre to seem like an exhaustive account of what clergy and others with faith connections did yesterday and will continue to do because of this horrific event, but at the same time maybe it will help all of us remember that in times like this it's often clergy who are on the front lines.

* * *

IS THE HUMAN SOUL IMMORTAL?

The other day here on the blog, some of the discussion among commenters turned to the question of the human soul. (By the way the picture here is "Soul Brought to Heaven" by Adolphe William Bougeareau.)

SoulOver the years I have found this to be one of those areas that confuse many Christians. I cannot speak for the theology of other religions on this with any authority, though I have studied a little of what some of them teach.

What confuses Christians, I think, is the difference between the ancient Greek idea of the immortality of the soul and the contrasting Christian idea, which gets this name: the resurrection of the body. They are quite distinct notions.

I've found the best explanations of the differences between those two ideas in writing by Shirley C. Guthrie Jr., a theologian who died a year or two ago but whose book Christian Doctrine is really well done, and in writing by Daniel L. Migliore, especially in his book Faith Seeking Understanding. Migliore has been a professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.

First, Guthrie:

"If we hold to the genuinely biblical hope for the future, we must firmly reject this doctrine of the soul's immortality for several reasons. First, the Christian faith does not pretend that death is not so bad after all. . . For the biblical writers death is real, total and terrible. . . . Death is hideious, because, so far as we are concerned, it means the end of us, not just the death of our bodies. Secondly. . .the Christian hope is not in the indestructibility of man, but in the creative power of God. . . .God alone has immortality. If there is life beyond death for men, it is not because they possess in themselves some immortal quality death cannot destroy, but because God gives them eternal life or immortality."

Now from Migliore:

"The ancient doctrine of the immortality of the soul is, from a Christian perspective, inadequate on at least two counts. The belief in the immortality of the soul posits an inherently indestructible element of human life which is separable from the mortal, corruptible body that it temporarily inhabits. Christian hope in the resurrection of the body does not rest on an immortality that is supposedly an inherent possession of at least some segment of human existence. Instead, Christians hope in the resurrection as a gift of God analogous to the creation at the beginning and to the event of reconciliation in Christ. Moreover, God wills to give new life to the whole person, not merely to a disembodied soul. Even when we cannot adequately conceive of a resurrection body, the symbol stands as a bold and even defiant affirmation of God's total, inclusive, holistic redemption."

These two quotes are from people who, like me, find their home in the Reformed Tradition of Christianity, and there is much more they have written that I could have quoted. But you now have the names of their books if you're interested.

Here, in a little bit of contrast, is what the Handbook for Today's Catholic says, in part, about "Individual Death and Judgment":

"The Church believes in two final destinies -- one for individuals and one for humankind as a whole. . . .Your life as an earthly pilgrim reaches its point of arrival at the moment of death. . .If your basic love-choice at the moment of death was the absolute Good whom we call God, God remains your eternal possession. This eternal possession of God is called heaven. If your ultimate love-choice at the moment of death was anything less than God, you experience the radical emptiness of not possessing the absolute Good. This eternal loss is called hell."

The part of that I personally would challenge is the implication that human choice overrules divine choice. I am unwilling to deny God the freedom to choose to be in eternal relationship with anyone whom God chooses, no matter that person's "love-choice." I think God's will trumps human will in the end, though I also acknowledge that God may be perfectly willing to let go of people who, in life, chose not to say yes to God.

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


April 16, 2007

LEAVING HOME -- AND CHURCH

NEW YORK -- While I'm here working on my Holocaust book project, I read this piece Sunday in the The York Times and thought it intriguing enough to pass along, in case you haven't seen it. It suggests that many Hispanics coming to the U.S. are abandoning the church-going habit altogether. I suspect that does not mean they are abandoning faith in God. But I trust that many eventually leaving church now will discover that Christianity is a team sport, so to speak, requiring a community of faith to help provide the banks of one's theological river. If you have good arguments against that, I'd like to hear them.

* * *

LEARNING TO HATE HATE

Sometimes I look at what young people are being taught and it encourages me.

WhiteroseThe other day, for instance, I was one of the preliminary judges for the White Rose essay contest sponsored by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education. (For information about the White Rose, click here.)

I was judging essays written by eighth and ninth graders. Their task was to read a Holocaust-era diary or other writing by a young person (though this time not Anne Frank) and to report on what they learned and then reflect on whether that would make any difference in their lives.

Time after time I found these young people saying they went into the assignment without much enthusiasm but their reading and research changed their minds. They found young people struggling for their lives against the Nazi killing machine for no reason beyond their Jewishness. And they not only admired them for their fight but they also, at least in print for this essay contest, indicated that they would take the gifts of life more seriously, that they would fight prejudice and hate, that they would make a difference in the world.

Just as kids have to be taught to hate, so, too, must they be taught to love and to respect others.

So praise today to the school boards who require Holocaust education, to the teachers who take that mandate seriously, to MCHE for providing so much help with the process and to the students who are willing to open their minds and learn the sometimes-grim lessons of history.

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


April 14-15, 2007, weekend

HAVING TO SAY YOU'RE SORRY

The Dallas Morning News, which historically has offered its readers some of the best religion coverage of any paper in the country, also has a blog about religion. Click here for some thoughts on that blog about Don Imus and his willingness to apologize -- for which I, too, give him credit, no matter how stupid and racist his remarks were (and they were all of that).

* * *

A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS?

When I met and heard retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong speak last year to a seminar I attended near Washington, D.C., I found him fun and engaging but clearly willing to say things to provoke an argument. That's sort of what he sounds like in this interview in the Rochester, Minn., newspaper. But where would the church universal be without dissenting voices?

* * *

AN UPDATE ON THE PRIEST ABUSE SCANDAL

Without a lot of comment from me this weekend, I want to point you to new reports from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the scandal of priests sexually abusing children. Click here for a story about this.

AbuseIf you click here, you will be linked to site of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection. There you will find a press release on new data on the abuse of minors, a press release noting that virtually all dioceses in the country are in compliance with the bishops' directives on all of this and the full 2006 audit on implementation of the bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."

As all of us know, many victims of abuse don't trust the bishops to do the right thing with all of this. One of the primary voices for victims is the SNAP organization. SNAP stands for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. You can look at the group's site to get a sense of how it feels about the way this whole scandal has been handled. In fact, if you click here, you can read a SNAP leader's statement that calls these new reports "essentially a PR sham."

People talk about "the scandal," but, really, there were two scandals in one. The first was priests abusing minors. The second was the way some bishops covered up these sins and crimes by quietly moving priests around, allowing them to continue their behavior.

As many of you also know, the Boston Globe broke this story in 2002, though in many aspects of it had been revealed earlier in the National Catholic Reporter. But click here for the Globe's special site of its extensive and updated coverage of the scandal.

Although I think many bishops sincerely want to find ways to prevent this kind of scandal, it's going to take a very long time for those wounded to experience any kind of healing -- if that's even possible. And it's going to take vigilence and a long-term commitment on the part of the church to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. As David Clohessy, the SNAP national director, told me in an e-mail the other day, "complacency protects no one. Only vigilance protects."

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

Today's religious holiday: Vaisakhi (Sikhism, 14th); Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day (Judaism, 15th)


April 13, 2007

POPE'S ROLE IN HOLOCAUST STILL AN ISSUE

The question of how much Pope Pius XII did in World War II to save Jews from the Holocaust continues to be debated fiercely. Now it has causes the Vatican's ambassador to Israel to boycott an annual Holocaust memorial next week because it portrays the pope in a negative light. I wish I could be around 100 years from now to read a much more fully documented account of this history. At the moment, my reading is that Pius didn't do enough but he did more than many of his critics contend.

* * *

THE CHALLENGE OF CIVILITY

Earlier this week I served on a panel at St. Paul School of Theology as part of a program called "The Future of Civility."

Saintpaul_2Our panel was to discuss "Civility in the Local News." The other panelists were Vincent Orza, a former TV anchor who serves now as the dean of the business school at Oklahoma City University, and the Rev. Gordon McClellan, an associate pastor at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan.

Lots of good discussion, but I thought these were some interesting points made either by one of the panelists or by someone in the audience:

* We don't own God. When we imagine we have God all figured out and then treat others as if they're all wrong about their perceptions of God, it leads to a lack of civility and needless division.

* Two major U.S. Supreme Court decisions have been occasions for the profound religious divide that continues to bedevil the nation: The decision outlawing school-led prayer in public schools in the early 1960s and the 1973 decision legalizing abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. Those decisions did not cause the divisions so much as reveal them. And until we can reach some consensus as a society on the issues involved, we may not be able to re-establish civil discourse as normative.

* Labels inevitably hide more than they reveal. Our use of labels to describe people or groups of people should be careful and judicious, and we should pay attention to nuance.

* Too few people have time or take time for reflection. Information comes at us so fast from so many directions that, in response, we sometimes simply fly off the handle and spew out, Don Imus-like, whatever first comes into our heads. As Orza said: "There's never a moment when someone's not saying something."

I'll stop there so you can reflect. Take your time. (And for regular commenters on this blog, I appreciate those of you who try to be part of the solution.)

Oh, and by the way, click here for an interesting recent New York Times piece about civility on blogs.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow is about my recent visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.)

P.S.: If you haven't read much writing by Kurt Vonnegut, who died this week, you should, of course, read Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle, but for a sense of his religious beliefs (or non-beliefs), read his book Palm Sunday, especially the Palm Sunday sermon he preached once at a church in New York. Vonnegut was one of my favorite writers, even though he sometimes disappointed me.


April 12, 2007

A VOICE FOR DARFUR

Perhaps, if you live in the Kansas City area, you saw this story in The Star yesterday about Google Earth partnering with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to show people more about the human catastrophe in the Darfur section of Sudan. If you go the the Holocaust Museum site, you can download Google Earth and take a look. At any rate, this is more evidence that the Jewish community is among the most consistent voices on behalf of the people of Darfur. Why? Who else knows genocide so well?

* * *

THE VALUE OF LIFE, ROUND 2

I have a bit of an assignment for you today.

SingerThe other day here on the blog, I quoted 1920 words that presaged the Nazi move to do away with life that Hitler and other German leaders considered unworthy. Click here to read that.

In response, one reader asked how the disturbing words I quoted from Dr. Karl Binder differed from positions taken today by a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, Peter Singer (pictured here).

Well, I knew about Singer and some of his controversial writings about animal rights and the value of people with mental disabilities and so forth, but I haven't read enough of him to draw any firm conclusions on whether his positions differ markedly from the ideas that led to eugenics and other Nazi horrors.

However, in the "Frequently Asked Questions" of Singer's Web site, I did find some words that, though perhaps different in tone from Binder's, seem to suggest that it is possible for us not only to draw conclusions about the worthiness of an individual human's life but also to adopt policies that might lead to ending that life. But perhaps I'm reading too much into it.

For example, one question raised of Singer is this: "You have been quoted as saying, 'Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person.' Is that quote accurate?" The start of Singer's answer: "It is accurate, but can be misleading if read without understanding what I mean by the term 'person'. . . (K)illing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is a being who wants to go on living."

At any rate, my assignment for you today is to tell me what you know about Singer and his writings and indicate whether you think he's moved down the slippery slope of what we might call Binderism. If you have never read anything by Singer, spend a bit of time on his Web site today, especially in the FAQ section, and see what you think.

As I've said before, all religion worthy of the name insists that human life -- all human life -- is precious. The only serious argument is when such life begins. Once it's begun, however, religion insists it must be protected and even cherished.

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


April 11, 2007

FOUR SCORE FOR BENEDICT

If you're not busy this Sunday, you can go to the Vatican to help Pope Benedict XVI celebrate birthday No. 80. I'll miss it. I'll be in New York on Sunday, not Rome, so if you go, please report in. And does this birthday give you any additional thoughts on the recent topic here about whether faith communities should set mandatory retirement ages for clergy?

* * *

WHAT IS FAMILY ALL ABOUT, ANYWAY?

Anyone who knows me knows how important I think family is.

Img_0068That's why, in the picture here taken Easter Sunday afternoon, you see my wife and me with our six grandchildren. We love spending time with them and try hard to be an important part of their young lives.

At the same time, I think it's crucial that we not misunderstand the role of family. I can speak about this only from a Christian perspective. But perhaps some of my thoughts are applicable to other faiths as well.

The family, however important, is not the central instrument God uses to be in relationship with us. (Despite what such groups as "Focus on the Family" suggest.) Family is not the tool God uses to redeem us. It's not the necessary structure required for living an authentic life of faith. Rather, the church, whatever its failings as an institution managed by humans, is that instrument.

That's why, when I spoke at a Good Friday service last week, I said that water is thicker than blood. By which I meant, in a Christian context, that the water of baptism creates an eternal family that is more lasting and even more important than the families into which we happened to be born.

Read the book of Ruth in the Hebrew scriptures. Ruth clearly understood that families get created sometimes by love and commitment rather than just by blood. Read the New Testament story of disciples interrupting Jesus and telling him his mother and brothers and sisters were outside and wanted him to come away with them. What does he say? He asks who really are his mother and brothers and sisters. And his answer is this: Whoever does the will of God.

Jesus was not denigrating nuclear families. Rather, he was expanding our vision. He was suggesting, as I put it, that water is thicker than blood.

And yet I would say that if you gave me a choice of spending an afternoon with six random members of my church or my six grandkids, I'd pick the grandkids every time. Imagine that.

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

P.S.: I will be participating again this year in the annual AIDS Walk to raise funds for Kansas City area AIDS service organizations. It will be on Saturday, April 28. If you want to donate, just click here. And thanks for any help you can give.


April 10, 2007

GO AHEAD, MAKE MY DAY

Getreligion.org, a really interesting site that focuses on how the press covers (or, more often, doesn't cover) religion, raises this question: Who would make the perfect religion writer? Well, yes, you are free to go to the site and leave a comment saying that I fit the bill, but how would you really answer the question?

* * *

HELP FOR PREACHING ABOUT SEXUALITY ISSUES

Regular readers of my blog and column know that I believe the Bible should not be used as a weapon of oppression in the debate about homosexuality. I also believe that otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians should be eligible for ordination as clergy in my denomination, though they aren't yet.

HomosexualityTo come to this conclusion -- which is at odds with the historic position of much of Christianity -- I have had to do what I always have to do when considering tough issues. That is, I have had to take the Bible seriously and to consider carefully what it says and what its primary message is.

As I have worked through all of this, including the exegetical work to study biblical passages (especially the ones that inevitably get tossed out as prooftexts, such as Leviticus 18:22), I have concluded that people need lots more help than they are getting to be able to understand what the Bible says and, maybe more to the point, what it means (and doesn't mean).

One rather new resource I've discovered recently comes from the Human Rights Campaign, a group that does advocacy work on behalf of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. HRC now offers scriptural study help through a Web site called "Out in Scripture." It offers weekly assistance with the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, which is the listing of scripture verses on which many pastors base their sermons week by week.

While you're looking at the HRC scriptural help site, take a look at the site's Editorial Advisory Board. You and I may not agree with everything every person on this board writes or says or does, but it's a collection of serious scholars. I know Warren Carter pretty well and have great respect for his work. One person I wish were on the list is Jack Rogers, an evangencial Presbyterian who has done an about-face on the issue of ordaining gays and lesbians and has written a carefully nuanced explanation of that in a book called Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church.

I'm not very interested in yet another long and fruitless argument about whether the Bible condemns homosexuality. But I would be interested in your thoughts on what HRC has offered here.

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

P.S.: After yesterday's collection of comments by readers here, I'm tempted to suggest that those leaving comments try to remember that the people they criticize also are children of God. But I'll hold off for now.


April 9, 2007

ANOTHER RELIGIOUS FAILURE

A new report in U.S. News & World Report suggests the U.S. government -- years after 9/11 -- has not figured out much of anything about how to woo and support the many Muslims in the world who want to fight terrorism, too, and who often are referred to as moderates. This surprises me not at all. It's hard to name much that this administration has understood well about fighting terrorism. Once it did the right thing by invading Afghanistan, not much else -- including Afghanistan -- has gone right.

* * *

WHAT'S LIFE WORTH?

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Washington at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (pictured here) doing some research for the book I'm working with with a rabbi about Jews in Poland who survived the Holocaust with non-Jewish help.

Holocaustm1Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I made a stop in the museum book store before we left, and picked up a few volumes we needed for our research.

One was Sources of the Holocaust, edited by Steve Hochstadt. It offers a series of documents that helped to shape the thinking of the Nazis as they prepared their "Final Solution" to rid Europe of Jews. While they were at it, they also intended to do away with other people they deemed defective or undesirable.

Hochstadt quotes from a 1920 document by Dr. Karl Binding, a jurist, called "Permission for the Extermination of Life Unworthy of Life."

I'm going to offer a few samples from that despicable document here and raise the question of why religion must always stand against this kind of thinking. First, the quotes:

"Are there human lives, which have so completely foreited the quality of a legally protected entity, that their continuation, for the living person, as well as for the society, has permanently lost all value?

". . .One perceives with pain how wastefully we handle the most valuable life, filled with the strongest will and the greatest vitality, and how much completely uselessly squandered labor, patience, and wealth we use, only in order to preseve life unworthy of life. . .

"That there are living humans, whose death would be a deliverance for themselves and at the same time a liberation from a burden for society and the state, the carrying of which, outside the sole value of being a model of the greatest selflessness, has not the smallest use, cannot be doubted in any way. . .

"Again, I find, either from the legal, social, ethical, or religious standpoint, absolutely no reason not to permit the killing of these people. . ."

Binding finds no reason not to kill people he declares to be unworthy of life. And that, of course, is precisely what the Nazis did -- to Jews, to homosexuals, to Gypsies, to the mentally retarded and on and on.

By contrast, as Glenn Tinder argues in The Political Meaning of Christianity, healthy religion declares the individual to be exalted, to be of inestimable worth -- no matter male or female, sick or well, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu. And because of that great worth we are mandated to protect human life. Indeed, this commitment is at the core of the debate over abortion and the question of exactly when life begins. But there never should be a question about the value of human life once it exists. It is priceless because it is a creation of God. We can recognize that the quality and enjoyment of life ebbs and flows with passing conditions, but never the value of life itself.

All of which again raises the question of why religion -- specifically the Christian church -- failed so miserably in the Nazi years to stand up for its core values.

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


April 7-8, 2007, weekend

PERILS OF THE HOLIDAY

Easter apparently can be dangerous, as Cardinal Francis George of the Chicago Archdiocese found as we was blessing Easter baskets. Is there a "Religious Workers' Compensation" program?

* * *

A PAPAL PUBLISHING ANNOUNCEMENT

As Pope Benedict XVI conducted Easter services this weekend, he also announced publication of his first book as the pontiff. It's about Jesus. One measure of a person's influence is how many books get written about him or her. The pope's new one must be No. 1,304,491,085,103,021 about Jesus, give or take. I think there are only half that many on Abe Lincoln.

* * *

A HEAD START ON RELIGION AND POLITICS

Well, look. We all know that religion is going to play a part in the 2008 presidential race, and probably lots of other races next year.

XianflagSo why not get informed about the candidates from a reputable source that takes religion seriously and knows that religious beliefs of officeholders can affect public policy?

The question is how those beliefs might have such an effect. Constitutionally there can be no religious test for officeholders, and that's a good thing. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't ask questions about how a candidate's faith commitments might result in this or that approach to public questions.

A good new source for such information comes from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public LIfe. The Pew folks recently fired up their Web site to offer all of us good basic information about the candidates, their religion and their views on major public issues.

Not all possible candidates are profiled on the site yet, but Pew promises the data base will grow as time goes on.

The Easter weekend may not be the most opportune time for Christians among you to start this educational process, but make a note to yourself to come back here after you've celebrated the holiday and eaten all your chartreuse eggs.

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

Today's religious holiday: Easter (Christian, 8th); Easter/Pascha (Orthodox Christian, 8th)