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July 19, 2007


Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says the Bush administration has been waging a phony war against radical Islam and is making no gains. And some days it seems as if traditional Islam isn't doing very well against the militant Islamists, either.

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Just to continue our mini-theme of spending a few of these summer days wallowing in religious history, today I want to note that it was on this date in 1825 that the American Unitarian Association was founded. It grew out of what many called the liberal corner of the Congregational churches of New England. (Today the Congregationalists are known as the United Church of Christ.)

ChanningThe impetus for the separate movement was an 1819 sermon preached by William Ellery Channing (pictured here) in Boston.

In 1961, the organization became known as the Unitarian Universalist Association after a merger with the Universalists.

The UUs, as they're called, have Christian roots, clearly, but are not considered (either by themselves or by traditional Christians) as being under the Christian umbrella today. That mostly has to do with their departure from the belief that Jesus was and is divine and part of the three-person Godhead, the Trinity.

In many ways, however, the UUs are as or even more passionate about following the social and humanitarian teachings of Jesus about love and commitment to neighbor.

The UU Web site has an About Us section that you might find interesting.

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

P.S.: What looks like an interesting documentary film with religious overtones, "Missionary Kid," will be shown at 9:30 p.m. Friday, July 27, at the Kansas City Central Library as part of the KC Fringe Festival. I'll be out of town, so if any of you can go, let me know how it is.

July 18, 2007


A teen-age girl in England has lost a court case in which she claimed her rights to express her Christian faith were being denied because her school wouldn't let her wear a ring signifying her pledge of chastity. Makes me wish again that such cases were always easy and without nuances. Still, maybe the publicity from the case will cause a few young folks to think about abstinence.

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FARRELL, Pa -- I was walking around in the Jewish cemetery here on Monday noticing something both odd and telling, something, in fact, that I noticed as a kid in my hometown of Woodstock, Ill.:

People are divided even in death.

Jcem1The cemetery here in Farrell, as you can see in this picture I took, separates Orthodox Jews from Reform Jews. As I've taken this photo, the Orthodox are on the left, the Reform on the right. Same cemetery, but, in essence, different sections for different congregations.

In Woodstock, the division was even more stark. On one side of the street was the Protestant cemetery, on the other the Catholic cemetery.

My parents, being Protestant, naturally are buried on the Protestant side.

These divisions in death perhaps are not so surprising. They merely reflect the various ways we divide ourselves up in life.

And yet there is, finally, a sort of eternal irony about seeing these divisions in a burial plot. What? We don't want the death Orthodox communicating with the dead Reform? We're trying to keep the dead Protestants from recognizing their common humanity with the dead Catholics?

Well, as life gets more complicated, of course, we see families experiencing mixed marriages -- Jews with Christians, Orthodox with Reform, Catholics with Protestants, Hindus with Muslims. And this death-division system begins to break down.

But I think we should be cognizant of its remaining signs in our midst -- as in the cemetery here in western Pennsylvania on the Ohio border -- and ask ourselves whether such divisions are worth retaining.

(By the way, I was in this part of the country for a couple of days doing some interviews with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn for the book project we're working on. For details, click on the "Holocaust book project" link under the "Check this out" link on the right side of this page.)

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

July 17, 2007


In the spirit of using some of our summer time to think about history, as I suggested a few days ago, I want to celebrate a birthday today.

WattsWell, yes, of course I could be talking about my niece, who lives in the Bay Area near San Francisco, but I'm thinking that maybe more of you know about Isaac Watts (pictured here) than know about Julie (though, trust me, Julie has better looking hair than Watts).

So I'll keep the Julie celebration inside the family and, instead, give you a few links to learn more about Watts, a pioneer English hymn writer, born on this date 333 years ago.

If you're a Christian, you almost certainly recognize these Watts hymns: "Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun," "Joy to the World," "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." And those are just a few of about 600 hymns credited to Watts.

Watts, born in 1674, was a pastor of a dissenting church in London. He lived until late 1748. That was 74 years. Pretty good for then. But I'm betting Julie makes it a lot longer than that -- and that she'll spend some of her years singing hymns by Watts.

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

July 16, 2007


Speaking about the pope, as I will be below, his recent decision to make the Latin Mass more available to people who want it seems to have hit a snag -- priests not familiar enough with Latin to do the job. And I won't be much help to them. My two years of high school Latin have pretty much left me with a dead language. (And by language, I mean six or eight words.)

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As most of you know, the Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI have been in the news quite a bit lately for many reasons.

JewchrisBut the one I want to return to today has to do with the pope's recent decision to ease the rules on when the Latin Mass may be used.

That decision was accompanied by complaints from many Jews because the Latin Mass for Good Friday historically has included a prayer for the conversion of the Jews. There has been some initial lack of clarity about whether the pope really intends to reinstate that prayer. I hope not. But if he does, the question is whether, in effect, that decision negates the letter, if not the spirit, of "Nostra Aetate," the 1965 document that finally put the Vatican on record as saying that Jews should not be blamed collectively for the death of Jesus Christ.

If, in fact, the pope wants that conversion prayer used and if, in fact, that undermines the authority of "Nostra Aetate," as I believe it would do, then I stand with the Jews on this one.

The sad reality of Christian history is, as I've said before, that it is stained by century after century of virulent anti-Judaism, which I believe helped to create modern antisemitism, without which the Holocaust would have been inconceivable. My book-writing partner, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and I intend to include in the Holocaust-related book we're writing (for details, click on the "Check this out" link on the right side of this page) a chapter that details that lamentable history.

It's my belief that by centuries of evil behavior toward Jews, Christians have forfeited any right to seek their conversion. Nor, in fact, do I believe conversion is necessary. I believe God has never abrogated the covenant with the Jews. Rather, I believe that Jesus has opened for me and other Gentiles the door to that eternal relationship with God that Jews already had -- and still have -- because of the covenant God made with Abraham.

Until those of us who are Christian match our centuries of anti-Judaism with its opposite, I believe the only way to invite Jews to consider Christianity is in silence. They simply will have to look at my own life of faith and decide whether there's anything about it that attracts them.

And if you aren't aware of the anti-Jewish history in Christianity, I suggest one good place to start is the book Holy Hatred: Christianity, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust by Robert Michael.

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

July 14-15, 2007, weekend


The pope of Egypt's Coptic church had some hard words this weekend for Pope Benedict XVI and his recent document saying non-Catholic churches weren't fully churches. If the subject of Benedict's document interests you, I also recommend the lead piece in the Faith section of The Star this weekend by my colleague Helen Gray.

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A man in Romania tried to sue God, it's reported, but prosecutors wouldn't take the case because God doesn't have a home address. Odd. The church I attend sometimes calls itself the house of God.

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Regular readers of this blog know of my interest in promoting healthy and constructive and honest interfaith dialogue.

InterfaithSo it heartened me to learn the other day that the Henry Luce Foundation has awarded a $300,000 grant to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania to improve relations and understanding among Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

(Reconstructionist Judaism sometimes is considered the fourth branch of the religion -- along with Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Most American Jews are Reform. Reconstructionism began in the early 20th Century.)

The three-year grant will allow RRC to create an educational component that will help its students understand the complexities and requirements of the post-9/11 world.

The RRC president, Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, said the grant will help students "have the capacity to collaborate with their peers of other faiths."

In a world torn apart by sectarian violence, interfaith dialogue is absolutely crucial. As I've said before, the purpose of such connections is not conversion (at least not first) but, rather, to know and to be known. What flows from that is up to the people who participate.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about the use and misuse of the word hate. NOTE: As of late Saturday morning the column is not posted on the Star's Web site. I'm trying to get that fixed. Until then, go buy a paper. UPDATE: As of early Saturday afternoon the column is posted.)

July 13, 2007


Thailand is in the midst of a craze that is driving Buddhist officials there nuts, it's reported. Well, every religion seems to attract the gullible and superstitious. Why should Buddhism be different?

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A couple of years ago I did a longish piece for The Kansas City Star about the increased interest in environmental protection among evangelical Christians.

GlobeSince then that interest has only increased -- and not just among evangelicals but also among people of many faiths.

Today I want to point you to one of the more interesting tools available on the Web to get you thinking about your own response and responsibility to the environment. It's called, and it's designed to give you a sense of the affect you are having on the environment.

It will ask you a series of questions and then suggest how many Earths would be required if everyone lived like you. I confess my score was 6.1 Earths.

Now, this is not a scientific survey and there's lots of room for disagreement about the questions asked and whether they really are getting at the issue. It's also true that this is aimed at an individual response to ecological degradation, whereas (as I pointed out in a column a few weeks ago) some of these problems require societal answers. For instance, no matter how often you personally ride public transportation, it's not going to make much difference if your government continues to subsidize automobiles by continuing to construct and widen freeways at public expense.

So take the test today. Tell us how you did. And tell us what your faith community says you should be doing about any of this.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will focus on the widespread misuse of the word hate.)

P.S.: The Jewish newspaper The Forward published an interesting editorial this week about how terrorism at the hands of the radical Islamists may be leading toward a sensible peace solution in the Middle East. See what you think.

Today's religious holiday: Obon (Buddhism)

July 12, 2007


Experts in the British Museum have found a small clay tablet that they believe provides evidence of the historical accuracy of the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament. The battle over how much of the Bible is myth and metaphor and how much is verifiable history may never been settled, but this seems to be an important find.

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Summer is a good time to slow down a little and learn some history.

ErasmusSo today I point you toward Desiderius Erasmus (pictured here), who died on this date in 1536. He was a Dutch humanist and Greek scholar who turned out to be part of the Protestant Reformation. His idea was to reform the church through scholarship and instruction in basic Christian doctrine.

Erasmus, who lived in Basel, Switzerland, is often described as the first popular author after the advent of printing. As something of a pre-reformer, Erasmus is given credit, as it's sometimes put, of laying the egg that Martin Luther hatched.

One of the contentious issues in Catholicism today is whether there should be married priests. Well, the father of Erasmus was a priest (or a monk) who was faithful to Erasmus' mother. So there you go.

Erasmus lived at a time of major geographical, scientific, medical and intellectual discovery. When people in his era read Virgil, for instance, they discovered fascinating things. Erasmus wanted to enter into that spirit of discovery by digging into the Bible. He believed that reading the New Testament text in the original language (Greek) would make it possible for contemporary readers to experience what listeners heard in the time of Jesus.

The result was an early form of textual criticism as Erasmus and other scholars tried to return to original sources.

So do your own hunting around for information on Erasmus today, and mourn his passing on the anniversary of his death.

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

July 11, 2007


Speaking of churches outside Roman Catholicism, as I will be below, the pope has just restated his belief that such churches are suffering from a "wound" and are not the true church. This repeats the controversial position taken in 2000 in a paper called "Dominus Iesus," which the current pope, then a cardinal, essentially wrote. That document said, in summary, that Protestant churches "are not Churches in the proper sense" but that persons baptized in such churches are in "a certain communion, albeit imperfect" with the true church. That document also used the word "wound" to describe churches not in full communion with the Vatican. If this is to be the Catholic position, is there any hope for Christian unity beyond all other churches agreeing to come under the authority of the pontiff? I don't see how.

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As many of you know, the Episcopal Church has been going through various kinds of inner turmoil and disagreements. (I know, I know, what faith group hasn't?)

SchoriSome of that has been associated with its new presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori (pictured here).

Well, today I'll be brief so you can spend a bit of time reading something she wrote recently about baptism and evangelism. What I'd like to hear from you is how you think her thoughts are in harmony with -- or in tension with -- traditional Christianity.

Some critics of her and the Episcopal Church have suggested that both have wandered from the faith. Is that how you read her writing here?

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

Today's religious holiday: St. Benedict Day (Catholic Christianity)

July 10, 2007


An interesting imam, whom I've interviewed in the past, is quoted as saying he's not sure an American Islam exists. If not yet, I think it is developing.

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ABIQUIU, N.M. -- The other day at lunch here at the dining hall at Ghost Ranch, J. Philip Newell, stopped me to say hello again. We had met here two years ago. He's here for the month of July doing some teaching and writing.

Newell2If you're Christian and don't know about Newell (pictured here outside the Ghost Ranch dining hall and swimming pool), one of the leading experts now on Celtic spirituality, let me introduce him and his work. Or, rather, introduce yourself to him by clicking on the Newell link above.

He's a poet, a theologian and more. He's based in his native Scotland (where he once served as warden of the Iona Community) but spends quite a bit of time in the United States, teaching and leading spirituality seminars.

He told me that he's just finishing a new book on Christ as he is understood in the Celtic tradition. What that means, he said, is that instead of thinking that Jesus had come from the outside to bring news of some different way of life to humanity, Celts believed that Christ came to remind humanity of what they really already knew and what was inside of them.

Yes, they were (and we are) broken people, but into that brokeness, Christ came to remind them of their wholeness, a wholeness reflected in the knowledge that God created all the world, including all of humanity, good. Just as it says in the Bible.

Well, Newell and his wife Ali lead intriguing worship services. Two years ago, their daughter Rowan spent time in my writing class here at Ghost Ranch. She's doing refugee work now in Scotland.

At any rate, I think Christians can expand their understanding of the faith by getting to know Newell and his work. So take a look around his Web site today and see what attracts you.

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

July 9, 2007


A new United Nations report suggests that urbanization around the world has not, as expected, led to a lower priority for religion. Secularization sometimes has a tougher go of it than its proponents think it will, I guess.

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Change is rarely easy.

GaymarriageSo it's no surprise that as the Conservative branch of American Judaism works through a change in policy that allows rabbis to bless same-sex unions, the response has been mixed.

This report from the Jewish newspaper, The Forward, suggests that some are adapting to the new practice with relative ease, while others remain adamantly opposed to it.

As a Christian who believes there is no biblical reason to oppose either same-sex unions or ordination of otherwise qualified gays and lesbians to be clergy, I'm glad to see members of another faith move through some of these struggles and adopt what I believe is the right stance.

Oh, I know that many people disagree with my position and that it's even in conflict with the officials rules in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). But just because I'm in the minority doesn't mean I'm wrong.

So take a look today at the account of the Jewish Conservative experience in this area and see if there are any lessons for your faith community, if any.

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

Today's religious holiday: Martyrdom of the Bab (Baha'i)