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June 30-July 1, 2007, weekend


The pope, trying to mend the relationship between the Vatican and Chinese Catholics, released a letter Saturday that calls for reconciliation. I suspect this one will take plenty of time to heal.

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God certainly is busy intervening in the affairs of humanity, if various testimonies are to be believed. The latest is from Fidel Castro, who says God has protected him from assassination attempts ordered by U.S. authorities. With so much to do on the political front, I wonder how God has time to damn everything people routinely request. What a job. God can keep it.

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A couple of weeks ago, I posted an entry in which I talked about aspects of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Trinity5As I at least hinted at the time, trinitarian theology can take a lifetime to unpack, though I contend that it's not as mysterious and confusing as a lot of people make it out to be. Still, if the General Semanticists are right that one can never say all about anything (and they arae), the Trinity is a subject about which that is true in spades.

So today I briefly want to return to the Trinity to pass along a few thoughts from participants in the current debate on the subject going on in my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). Last year our church's highest national governing body, the General Assembly, received (without approving it) a report on a lengthy study of trinitarian doctrine.

It was called "The Trinity: God's Love Overflowing," and it received some pointed criticism for suggesting it would be useful to find new language to speak about the Trinity beyond the traditional formulation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The report said that traditional language should have priority but it also said it wouldn't hurt, on occasion, to use such other wording. The one that evoked the most protest was "compassionate mother, beloved child, life-giving womb."

In a recent issue of Presbyterian Outlook, an independent publication that covers the PCUSA, one of my favorite contemporary theologians, Daniel Migliore, who teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary, defended the report on the Trinity, suggesting that it properly focuses "on the good news that this doctrine enshrines. . ." (You have to be a subscriber to read the whole piece. The link will give you just a few sentences of Migliore's piece.)

Migliore called the report a reminder "that we are not to think that God can be brought under our control or captured once for all by any of our words and concepts."

An opposing view came from Inkyu Park, pastor of the University Presbyterian Church in Akron, Ohio, who suggested the report "is too fatally flawed to serve as a base for study and worship materials for the church to use in the interest of church growth and world evangelization." (Same note about this link not giving you the whole piece.)

Well, whatever you think of the PCUSA report on the Trinity, I think it's a sign of health and vigor when a church can debate aspects of its doctrine -- as long as the debate does not keep members of the church from doing the ministry they're called on to do, such as comforting the bereaved, sheltering the homeless and caring for souls.

What is your own faith community debating? And is it a healthy discussion or simply more divisiveness?

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

P.S.: Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I will speak at 9 a.m. Sunday at my church, Second Presbyterian, and talk about our Holocaust book project. Come on by. It's at 55th and Oak in Kansas City, Mo. Ask for the Witherspoon class. For more information on our book, click the "Check this out" item on the right of this page. UPDATE: We spoke to a full house and had fun doing it.

Today's religious holidays: Guru Purnima (Hinduism, 30th); Asala Puja Day (Buddhism).

June 29, 2007


As the long, long, long presidential race gets more complicated and at times even interesting, religious questions are playing an increasing role. For a look at what kind of Jewish politician potential candidate Michael Bloomberg is, click here for a piece about the New York Mayor from the Jewish publication The Forward. By the way, we're a long way from being done with religious questions in this race.

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PHILADELPHIA -- I'm intrigued by the way what I think of as religious values get transmitted within secular organizations -- and in ways that result in no one objecting.

Nsnc0728It happened here a few days ago at the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, to which I've belonged for many years.

Last year, as we were meeting in Boston and thinking about where to hold our 2008 conference, someone suggested that we return to New Orleans, where we had met in 2004, the year before Hurricane Katrina demolished so much of the city. The idea of going back was to turn columnists loose to write about the recovery effort that we guessed -- correctly, it's turning out -- still would be going on.

It would be a chance to remind the nation that there still are lots of folks along the Gulf Coast whose lives remain disrupted and who need our help. That seemed to me an expression of the value of caring, in Christian terms, for "the least of these," though Christianity has no monopoly on concern for the poor and needy, a theme found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

This year at our gathering in Philadelphia, we went a step further. When my friend Mike Harden of the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch won the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, he asked the NSNC to commit at least one hour of our seminar time at future conferences to discussing ways in which we can be voices for the voiceless, for the neediest people in society. For a story about Mike's win (and some other prizes given to other columnists), click here.

At the NSNC business meeting this past Sunday morning, the membership said yes.

It makes me wonder how religious values, in your experience, get transmitted to and through secular organizations. Got any examples?

(As for definitely not-religious values, the picture here shows the Phillies' mascot having some fun with columnists Mike Deupree, left, of Cedar Rapids, and Jonathan Nicholas of Portland, Ore.)

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will describe some of the ravages being experienced by the Christian community in Iraq.)

Today's religous holiday: Feast Day of Saints Peter and Paul (Christian).

June 28, 2007


In the U.S., the so-called region of the "nones" is the Pacific Northwest, because when people there are asked for their religious affiliation, many of them say, "none." Something similar seems to be happening in Australia, reports say. About one in five Australians say they have no religion. So the response of those Australians to folks in Oregon and Washington would be, well, "moi Aussie"?

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If you had to guess, would you say that college graduates tend to be less or more religious than people with less education?


Frankly, that would be my guess. But a new study suggests I'm wrong. At least it suggests that people with college educations are less likely to lose their religion than others.

I've certainly read reports that suggest campus life is much less hostile to people of strong faith than it once was. And perhaps students aren't facing the faith-threatening questions that any thorough liberal arts education is bound to raise as often as in the past. (My belief is that one has to face such questions head on if one's faith is to be strong and authentic.)

I really don't know all the reasons for this kind of outcome. And maybe it's just an anomoly -- one more study that comes up with a surprising but meaningless answer.

What's your experience with this question. Do you have any insights that might explain the study?

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

June 27, 2007


An editorial in the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire makes some really good points about the attention presidential candidates -- especially Democrats -- are paying to religion. Maybe this one should be posted in the campaign headquarters of all candidates.

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PHILADELPHIA -- I love wandering around big cities and noticing the various ways in which religion helps to form the urban texture.

Philch5For instance, when I was here over last weeknd in the City of Brotherly Love, my wife and I wandered around downtown for a bit, staying within a few blocks of our hotel, where I was attending the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (a wonderfully wonky group that used to have me as its president).

At any rate, right across the street from us was the old First Baptist Church, founded in 1698 -- several years before I became a columnist.

In addition to other churches, and City Hall, atop of which sits a statue of William Penn (pictured first here) holding the Charter of Pennsylvania, which says Penn wants to convert native Americans to Christianity, we saw several other wonderful old churches, not to mention Muslims and Sikhs walking the streets.

And when I was here on business in February, I had a chance to visit a downtown synagogue. Click here for an entry on that.

Philch6So today, just enjoy these pictures of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, a big old Methodist church, William Penn atop City Hall, an old Presbyterian building, Muslims women and a Sikh man on the sidewalks and, of course, the L-O-V-E statue in a downtown park, proclaiming the most important lesson of any religion.

And notice, please, the way these buildings and people are woven into the urban fabric.

Oh, and if you recognize that cool-looking guy by the L-O-V-E statue, it's because my bride is a good photographer.

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

Philch9 Philch17Philch7


June 26, 2007


Just to keep Darfur in our minds, here's a story about the international conference yesterday. If people of faith forget about this humanitarian disaster, who will remember?

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I'm always intrigued by the ways in which members of one faith open themselves up to learning about other faiths. Often, I think, this doesn't happen because of fear of being theologically led astray or in some way contaminated.

VavBut, of course, it need not be that way.

I read about a wonderful example of what I mean recently in a publication called Issues, which the American Council for Judaism puts out.

The article in question was called "Redeeming Grammar Lessons," and it was a sermon preached by a rabbi at a Baptist church in Louisville, Ky.

Imagining a rabbi preaching to Baptists may be a bit of a stretch for some folks, but Rabbi Nadia Siritsky took the opportunity (it was Transfiguration Sunday) to give folks a wonderful lesson in Hebrew grammar and then tied it to that special day.

What I learned that I did not know (and you can read the whole sermon for yourself at the link I've given you) is that the Hebrew letter Vav looks like a straight line (with a handle) and means "and." The letter is also the central letter in what Siritsky called "God's ineffable name that is made up of the letters Yud, Hay, Vav and Hay." When the letter is placed next to a verb, it transforms the verb from past tense to future tense or from future to past.

". . .I submit to you," the rabbi said, "that this letter, which dwells at the heart of God's name, is the essence of transfiguration."

Well, have a look at the sermon and see if you don't see in it a good example of how a voice from one faith can speak respectfully to people from another faith.

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

June 25, 2007


Should businesses use religion to increase profits? This report suggests it's happening. Where would you draw the line?

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I used to write a lot about science. I have always been especially engaged by cosmology -- the big picture -- and subatomic physics -- the very tiny picture.

StarsBut now that I focus nearly all my writing efforts on religion and ethics, I find I don't get to follow scientific developments the way I used to.

But today I'm making an exception because the news about black holes from Case Western Reserve University makes me marvel again at the incredible mysteries of the universe. I wish it were possible to make a case for God's existence that no one would dispute simply by looking at the cosmos, but that almost certainly would box in God in inappropriate ways.

Still, to me at least, the patterns and cycles, the order and complexity of it all speaks of something larger than the human mind can imagine.

Case Western Reserve physicists have been studying the phenomenon of black holes and have concluded, as the press release says, that there is "nothing there." That is, some black holes may have been created at the start of time but they simply cannot be created now "because the black hole evaporates before anything is seen to fall in," says one of the scientists. Masses on the edge of what appear to be black-holes-in-proccess-of-formation never cross what is called the "event horizon," so black holes don't really get created.

Well, all this is far beyond my meager scientific background, but I still am in love with the idea that all kinds of otherwise-rational people spend their careers looking at such mysteries and trying to make sense of them all.

Maybe black holes "aren't," but our minds "are," and I believe God gave them to us partly to try to appreciate the art that is the cosmos.

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

June 23-24, 2007, weekend


Mitt Romney says he's troubled by the continuing criticism of his Mormon faith. My guess is that we'll hear such criticism for as long as Romney is a candidate -- and for even longer, if he's elected.

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The Chicago Tribune reports on a festival this weekend that has to do with the way Muslims are seeking to find their way in American culture. The question is whether non-Muslim Americans are willing to let them do that without insisting on a particular outcome, which is to say without insisting that Muslims wind up looking, sounding and acting no different from Baptists or Lutherans or Reform Jews.

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Sometimes it's good to take a slow, careful look at who you have been, who you are now and where you are headed.

UmccrossA section of the United Methodist Church has spent some of the last year doing just that and has produced a "State of the Church" report that should give Methodists a reasonably good picture of themselves.

This weekend I invite you to have a look at the report as well as some of the related material -- not because I imagine that all of you are United Methodists (I'm not, though one of my daughters and her family belong to a Methodist church) and will care deeply about this but because it may serve as a useful example of a way to assess the condition -- theological, social, spiritual, financial and otherwise -- of your own faith community.

Sometimes I think those of us in congregations and/or denominations simply drift along and don't notice that we've wandered from positions and practices we inherited from those who came before us. Or we may not be paying attention to views of newer members in our congregations, so we are surprised and alarmed when we divide as a people when we never imagined there was any disagreement.

The Methodist survey, for instance, found that nearly everyone was on board with a commitment to the triune God but began to divide over the importance of mission and service as they relate to salvation.

So have a look at what the Methodists have done and tell us whether you think something similar would be of any help to your community of faith, if any.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (In my Saturday column this weekend, I ask where the passion is in faith communities on issues of racial harmony and poverty.)

June 22, 2007


Will Tony Blair convert to Catholicism? I don't know, but that's the reported speculation. And if he does, will that balance out King Henry VIII's rejection of Rome? Hmmm.

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If you had to guess, how many Muslim FBI agents would you say there are?

FbiThe answer is even a bit lower than I thought -- not quite 10 out of more than 12,000.

But as this recent report in the Arab News suggests, the Federal Bureau of Investigation would like to change that and, in the process, create better, more trusting relationships between the FBI and American Muslims.

One of the ways the agency is doing that is through humor. At a recent convention of Arab Americans, the FBI sponsored some stand-up comedy. (Just as an aside, when I was growing up, I thought J. Edgar Hoover was a stand-up comedian until the grown-ups around me assured me that he was deadly serious and meant to talk and act that way.)

Well, a little levity never hurts, but in the long run what will convince Muslims that the FBI can be trusted will be the agency's policies and behavior, including the way it treats everyone. The agency, when properly managed, can be an effective crime-fighting tool, and its agents should include people from all facets of American life.

So there's still lots of work left to do.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (In my column tomorrow, I will be asking where the passion is in faith communities on issues of racial harmony and poverty.)

June 21, 2007


No doubt you've all read about the Vatican's new Ten Commandments for driving a car (formally "Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road"), issued this week. It's proof that the Vatican knows how to attract the attention of the theologically unsophisticated media -- give them a cute story they can't resist. What's next? How about the Ten Commandments for holding a marriage together? Or the Ten Commandments for getting your PR releases published all over? For another blogger's take on this, click here.

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From time to time, I like to take note of people from our area who have made historic contributions to the field of religion and ethics.

Niebuhr_reinholdToday is a good day to do that because it was on this date in 1892, in Wright City, Mo., that Reinhold Niebuhr (pictured here) was born. He turned out to be one of the major 20th Century American theologians, and he's still worth reading. Although he was born in Wright City, he grew up mostly in Lincoln, Ill., quite close to where my father grew up in Delavan.

Niebuhr was, as you may know, not the only famous theologian in his family. His brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, also attained wide recognition as a theological thinker. Their father was a pastor, also.

Reinhold Niebuhr's on-the-job theological training happened in Detroit, where he served as a parish minister from 1915 to 1928 and where he watch the difficult lives of auto workers in a capitalistic system he came to conclude exploited workers unfairly.

Niebuhr came to adopt socialism as one answer to all the misery he saw in Detroit, even supporting at least one socialist candidate for president, though he later modified his politics.

Later Niebuhr taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where great teachers were everywhere. And a couple of years ago, the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote a piece for the New York Times bemoaning the fact that we seemed to be forgetting Neibuhr.

Well, with the links I've given you, you can explore Niebuhr's life a bit and unshelf some of his writings. Or you can just wish his ghost happy birthday.

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

Today's religious holidays: First Nations Day (Canadian Native People); Litha (Wicca/Neo Pagan, Northern Hemisphere); Yule (Wicca/Neo Pagan, Southern Hemisphere).

June 20, 2007


You may be aware of the recent upsurge in violence in Sri Lanka, the island nation south of India that was known as Ceylon when I lived in India in the 1950s. It's a continuation of a struggle that is more than two decades old, but what is new -- and fascinating -- is the hardline role being played there by some Buddhist monks. This recent report from the Christian Science Monitor is a good summation, but you might want to be alert for daily developments in this sad but fast-changing story.

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In a recent column, I made the point that the enemy of America is not Islam. Rather, what we must defend against are the murderous fanatics who call themselves Islamists -- those who twist Islam to justify their desire to have their radical ideology govern the world.

Muslim_crescentI mentioned in that piece that I often get e-mail from people who denigrate Islam.

I recently came across a Web site that openly declares its hatred for all of Islam, one that says on this page that "We stand for Islam's demise as an enemy of America unabashedly." The group calls itself the Society of Americans for National Existence, or SANE.

The site is filled with fear-mongering to such an extent that it precludes rational discussion of legitimate criticism of Muslim leadership. The SANE voices seem so strident and irrational that I cannot imagine how one could talk with such people in a reasonable way. Yes, there are people who are willing to overlook the threat that the violent Islamists truly do pose. But the SANE approach simply cuts off sanity.

I suppose one could deconstruct that "Islam's demise" sentence to penetrate its lack of clarity. Does "unabashedly" modify "stand"? Does SANE oppose Islam only when it's "an enemy of America"? (As if the whole of a multifacted worldwide religion could be an enemy of America, which includes millions of Muslims.) Or does it want Islam destroyed no matter what? The sentence leaves open many interpretations.

So today look around the SANE site and see if you can count the various classical approaches to propaganda found there.

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