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February 2008

Jan. 31, 2008

GOD WASN'T HIS CO-PILOT

There are appropriate times and places to cry out to God, but a bad choice would be if you're a co-pilot on a commercial flight and nothing seems to be wrong with the trip. But this report says that's just what happened on an Air Canada flight in Europe. The story properly reminds us of the 1999 Air Egypt crash in which the pilot spoke to and of God as he flew the plane into the sea.

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MORE ON EVOLUTION AND FAITH

The other day here on the blog I linked you to a piece about evolution that said scientists and people of faith were coming closer to a mutual understanding of this long-divisive issue.

EvolAs something of a follow-up today, I want to share with you a commentary about a new publication from two scientific organizations. It says pretty explicitly that a evolution and religious faith can be quite compatible. It does this by pretty carefully defining the limits to what science can know.

The publication, "Science, Evolution and Creation" was produced by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine. The link I'm giving you for the publication will get you to a shortened version of a full 88-page report by the same name.

By the way, the author of the commentary, Phil Elias, describes the publication as written by two scientific bodies -- a description I used above. But because the Institute of Medicine was created by the National Academy of Science and is part of it I think you can make the case that it's really just one body. But perhaps that's not a major point.

I hope you will take note of the comments left at the end of the commentary and to Phil Elias' reponse to some of them. I think that will add to your reading of all this.

My own take is that when people of faith use sacred writ as a scientific textbook it gets them into trouble almost every time. That's not what the Bible, the Qur'an and other religious texts are, and to treat them that way is not only to mislead people on science but to cheapen the value of those texts.

P.S.: Speaking of creationism, Baptist Press reports that the new Museum of Creation in Kentucky is exceeding expectations in terms of draw. Wonder what the museum eventually will evolve into.

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


Jan. 30, 2008

THE REALLY, REALLY RELIGIOUS

Can you be an adherent of more than one religion at once? This report says prison policy in Washington state now allows that. Wouldn't someone claiming two religions have to think that, in the end, all religions are pretty much the same?

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MORE RELIGION AND POLITICS THAN YOU THOUGHT

As we move toward Super Tuesday next week in the presidential race, I want to take a brief time out to suggest that you may not know as much as you think you do about the candidates -- and especially some of their interesting religious background.

DangilbertDid you know, for instance, about the candidate who spent several years at a Catholic seminary before deciding not to be ordained as a priest?

Were you aware of the candidate whose platform insists that life is "holy"?

Or about the one -- not Mike Huckabee -- who wants to be known as a "born-again Christian"?

I thought not.

Perhaps that's because the candidates I've mentioned here so far have received precious little play in the press. They are what is often called third party candidates. And yet every single election cycle lots of these folks line up to run. I think it's a sign of the restless energy in American politics that this happens. And sometimes some of their ideas get adopted by the two major parties.

Here are some links to some of the minor presidential candidates, the best known of whom may be the Socialist candidate, Brian Moore, the one who nearly became a priest.

But there's also Daniel Gilbert, a committed Baptist (he's the one pictured here today); Gene Amondson, a Protestant pastor running as a prohibitionist; Steve Kissing, whose platform says life is "holy", and Ruth Bryant White, self-described as a born-again Christian.

And although I am generally distrustful of the accuracy of Wikipedia, here's the Wikipedia list of third party candidates, where who knows what else you'll find?

Is this a great country or what?

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


Jan. 29, 2008

STICK AROUND AND YOU MAY LEAD

When the 97-year-old leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints died this week, the burden of becoming the church president fell, by tradition, to the longest-serving apostle. In this case, that means Thomas S. Monson, 80, is becoming president, and this Salt Lake Tribune piece describes him as a "folksy orator known for his compassion." Any faith community may, of course, have pretty much any rules it wants to for selecting leadership, but if you were seeking the best leader would the rule of longevity be the most effective way to find him or her?

And speaking of deaths of religious leaders, in case you missed it, the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church died at age 69 of cancer.

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SOME HELP FOR AREA CLERGY

Clergy are on the front lines in many ways when people have problems.

Depressed13One of the most difficult ones they have to face is depression in people who come to them seeking spiritual counseling or advice or just a friendly face. They are not in the business of treating this disease, but if they are going to serve their congregations well, they must at least know how to recognize symptoms of depression and where to send people for help.

So again this year, the Center for Practical Bioethics and the Mental Health Association of the Heartland are sponsoring a Feb. 25 training session for clergy to help them handle all of this.

The training session site to which I've linked you has other links that can get clergy signed up to participate. It also will link you to more information about the program called "Sabbaths of Hope," which seeks to bring together a variety of resources to help clergy be ready to help in this area.

Sometimes clergy think that they simple need to provide religious answers to all questions, even those that are rooted in, say, a chemical brain imbalance or some other ailment. And sometimes well-meaning clergy simply don't know how to recognize what may be an illness rooted outside the spirit.

If you have clergy in your life, are they properly trained to be able to help in this regard? If not, point them to this resource because some day that might help you.

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P.S.: In addition to the regular Web sites of various religious organizations, some of them are starting sites that focus just on their own theology and traditions. One of the most recent is Christian Science. It might be interesting for you to compare that site with the official denominational site of what is formally known as the Church of Christ, Scientist.

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


Jan. 28, 2008

SOME WISE WORDS

The New York newspaper Newsday published an editorial on Sunday that put religion and politics in this presidential race into a good perspective. See if you agree.

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ONE CHURCH'S GUIDE TO POLITICS

As we move closer to the November elections, various faith communities are trying to help their members figure out how to be both good citizens and faithful followers of their religion.

ReligioninpoliticsIn various denominations, this takes the form of publications that outline duties, responsibilities and opportunities, as well as advice about how to keep all of this within constitutional boundaries.

Today I'm going to link you to one of the better examples of what I'm talking about here so that you can compare and contrast it with what you may be hearing, if anything, from your own religious body. It's from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and is entitled "Called to be a Public Church."

Do not, however, imagine that it's going to be a three-page quick read that says, essentially, go vote but don't use the church to campaign for any particular candidate. No, this document runs more than 70 pages and seeks to set a theological framework around the political process and the role of church members.

It tries to walk members through IRS rules for non-profit organizations and political involvement by such tax-exempt groups. In addition, it seeks to give some examples of how to be politically active and how to get up to speed on various issues confronting voters.

It's certainly far from the only such document put out by a denomination. Perhaps one of the most well-known such documents is published each year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The latest version, issued in November, is called "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship."

Have a look at both the Lutheran and the Catholic documents on this and see what you find helpful. And then, for heaven's sake, get registered and ready to vote.

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


Jan. 26-27, 2008, weekend

RELIGION'S STORIES ARE ANCIENT

Sometimes we forget just how far back the history of religion goes. This report says that archeological evidence now suggests that worship took place on the mountain where Zeus supposedly was born 1,000 years earlier than the first mention of this Greek god. Heck, it's been almost that long since the Cubs won a World Series. Well, actually, no. Their last series win was 1908, so this will be their 100th year of rebuilding. Talk about your faithful followers (of whom I'm one).

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AT LEAST THEY'RE TALKING

Despite some setbacks and roadblocks on the way toward better ecumenical relations within Christianity, there is good and recent progress, reports John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter. Good. I often think how much the internal divisions of Christianity must break the sacred heart of Jesus.

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WHEN TRUMAN TRIED TO SAVE THE JEWS

If and when you think of Harry S. Truman (pictured here) and his relations to Jews, what first comes to mind? For most people, the answer is his granting immediate diplomatic recognition to Israel when it was created in 1948.

TrumanIf you know something about Truman's personal life, you also may think of his close friendship with Eddie Jacobson, a Jewish Kansas City man with whom he ran a men's clothing shop for awhile after World War I. Jacobson, in fact, urged Truman to support and recognize Israel.

But I'm guessing you would not think of Truman as a relatively early American voice of warning and dismay over what the Hitler regime was doing to the Jews of Europe in World War II, when six million Jews -- two-thirds of the European population -- died in the Holocaust.

I've read -- and written -- a lot about Truman over the years but somehow I had missed something I just read in a book one of my daughters gave me for my recent birthday -- Harry Truman and the Human Family, by Frank K. Kelly, a former Truman aide.

Kelly wrote this:

"(Truman) was one of the few American leaders who had tried strenulously to save the Jews of Europe from Hitler's concentration camps.

"In April 1943, after he learned Jews had been 'herded like animals' into those camps, he voiced his indignation in a vehement speech to 125,000 persons in a Chicago stadium. Saying that 'no one can any longer doubt the horrible intentions of the Nazi beasts,' Truman urged all the governments at war with the Nazis to help the Jews before it was too late. He asked for the opening of 'free lands' for Jews and other persecuted minorities.

"'We know that they plan the systematic slaughter throughout all of Europe, not only of the Jews but of vast numbers of other innocent peoples,' Truman said. 'Today -- not tomorrow -- we must do all that is humanly possible to provide a haven and a place of safety for all those who can be grasped from the hands of the Nazi butchers.'"

No doubt, then, where Truman stood. And no doubt that he understood exactly what was happening in Europe. Kelly, a graduate of the old University of Kansas City, now UMKC, writes that unfortunately there was no response to Truman's call for free lands for Jews.

I've long been a Truman fan (where is he now that we really need him?) and now I have one more reason for being one.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend recognizes the various ways in which Americans are profoundly religious people.)


Jan. 25, 2008

MORE RELIGIOUS HATRED

Here's a shocker. Fred Phelps' "church" from Topeka is planning to picket the funeral of actor Heath Ledger, one of the stars of "Brokeback Mountain." Too bad he's not around to recognize what an honor it is to be the target of bigots.

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FAITH LEADERS URGE BUSH POLICY CHANGES

Various religious leaders yesterday took part in a conference call to media representatives to talk about their desire that President Bush "salvage his moral legacy" in his upcoming State of the Union speech by changing his policies "on the most pressing moral issues of our time -- war, torture, climate and U.S. and international poverty." If you'd like to listen to the event, click here, but note that it takes about 30 seconds for the recording to start and that the whole conference is quite long. I had other commitments and was not able to be part of the press conference by phone.

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RETHINKING EVOLUTION AND CREATION

We're all aware of the various ways in which science and religion have been in conflict over the years, especially on the issue of creation versus evolution. To my way of thinking, however, that controversy involves a phony division.

EvolutionSo I was glad to read this piece in the Chicago Tribune that says there is an emerging group of people who suggest that evolution is not just a mindless process unconnected to a divine presence or plan. Rather, they say, it provides subtle evidence of a God who not only created at the beginning but also continues to be part of the creation process, which is ongoing.

The Tribune piece quotes a Georgetown professor, John F. Haught, author of God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution. I've read -- and can enthusiastically recommend -- the book. In fact, Haught was a speaker at my church a couple of years ago, and I find him to be an engaging and insightful thinker who asserts that it's possible to be a believer in both God and evolution.

So one good way to understand where what the Tribune calls a "new theology" is going is to read Haught's book.

This area is one more example of the ways in which we too often imagine that there are only two alternative ways of understanding something. The either-or approach to life tends to oversimplify things that should remain complex in our discussions because that's how they really are.

So take a look at this piece and tell me what you think -- whether you're a creationist, an evolutionist or (I hope) someone who resists all such labels.

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P.S.: As a follow-up to an item here a few days ago, click here for an interview Sen. Barack Obama published online by Christianity Today magazine. In it, he describes his Christian faith.

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ANOTHER P.S.: I'll be teaching a two-hour Communiversity class on writing essays the evening of Thursday, April 17. Details about the class are in this section of the Communiversity catalog. Scroll down to page 14. Then call 816-235-1448 to sign up or e-mail commu@umkc.edu. Don't call or e-mail me to register. The Communiversity staff handles that. I'm also teaching a week-long seminar in July in New Mexico on writing your own spiritual autobiography. See the "Check this out" section on the right side of this page and click on the Ghost Ranch class item.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will recognize the various ways in which Americans are profoundly religious people.)


Jan. 24, 2008

THANK GOD FOR RELIGION REPORTERS

The interesting and -- more to the point -- useful Web site called "Get Religion.org" ran a piece yesterday that grew out of a situation in St. Louis. The point of the piece was to affirm the value of religion reporters. I know how incredibly self-serving this will sound (except that I'm not a religion reporter, I'm a columnist -- big difference), but I agree that mass-circulation journalism today simply must have reporters who understand the nuances of religion. Otherwise readers are likely to receive incomplete and misleading reporting. And yet most major metropolitan newspapers, including The Kansas City Star, try to get by with one (like The Star) or two reporters devoted exclusively to covering religion. Imagine a one-reporter sports department. Ha.

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THE CHANGING RELIGIOUS FACE OF TURKEY

In many ways, Turkey is a fascinating country with an equally fascinating religious history.

TurkeyI have been there only to change planes, but some day I'd like to wander around the place and see the various sites that relate not only to my own Christian faith but also to Islam.

I hadn't seen a good piece about what's happening in Turkey until I ran across this recent article in Christianity Today, called "Jesus in Turkey."

It recounts the long history of Christianity in Turkey and then its long decline as it moved from a predominantly Christian population to one that is overwhelmingly Muslim. But, it says, the Christian presence in Turkey is being reborn in various ways.

Turkey, as most of you know, has been seeking full membership in the European Union, but that move has been opposed both by some Western powers who think Turkey is not really European and not ready to be part of modern Europe, and it has been opposed also by some militant Islamists who want nothing to do with the West.

But I think there is a good case to be made for having Turkey as part of a Western coalition of nations that would benefit from Turkey's unique bridge position between Europe and Asia and that could, in turn, help Turkey avoid disintegrating into religious extremism.

So it will be fascinating to see how and whether Christianity continues to grow in Turkey and whether the country can move into the sphere of modern Europe. Indeed, I hope Turkey can become a model for some mostly Muslim countries, though many of them reject that model now.

P.S.: I'll be teaching a two-hour Communiversity class on writing essays the evening of Thursday, April 17. Details about the class are in this section of the Communiversity catalog. Scroll down to page 14. Then call 816-235-1448 to sign up or e-mail commu@umkc.edu. Don't call or e-mail me to register. The Communiversity staff handles that. I'm also teaching a week-long seminar in July in New Mexico on writing your own spiritual autobiography. See the "Check this out" section on the right side of this page and click on the Ghost Ranch class item.

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


Jan. 23, 2008

A BUDDHIST VOICE FOR FREEDOM

The Dalai Lama says Tibetans should continue their struggle for independence and freedom even after he's no longer around. For nearly 50 years this Buddhist leader has sounded a consistent theme. What would it cost the Communist Chinese leaders to loosen Tibet's chains?

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TRY THIS OTHER RELIGIOUS BLOG

As a journalist, I have always advised people to get their information from more than one source or news outlet. The same is true when talking about blogs as a source.

BloggerbuttonI like to think I provide you with some useful information here and links to sites that are informative, too. But I never pretend that this blog is the end-all and be-all of blogs about religion and ethics.

So from time to time I like to point you to others that offer interesting material. Today, for instance, I am suggesting that you sample the blog from Religion News Service.

RNS is a small but really quite good news service that does its best to stay on top of major religion news stories as well as trends. It's not perfect but you and I aren't either.

(Just a side note on an RNS imperfection: Just before Christmas, RNS moved a story about who the three wisemen of the Christmas story were. And in it the reporter said that we never learned whether the wisemen ever converted to Christianity. That was akin to saying we never learned whether they became fans of the Chicago Bears. There was no Christianity for them to convert to. Even if they had been quite young when they saw the baby Jesus, there still would have been no Christianity at the end of their lives. Rather, there was eventually the Jesus movement within Judaism. Only decades and decades later would it separate decisively from Judaism to become Christianity.)

Anyway, the RNS blog offers quite a variety of timely pieces about religious matters in the news. The other day, for instance, it had a pretty good take on some controversy surrounding Barack Obama's church.

So read away, both here and there. And if you have another favorite religious blog, let me know.

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P.S.: I'll be teaching a two-hour Communiversity class on writing essays the evening of Thursday, April 17. Details about the class are in this section of the Communiversity catalog. Scroll down to page 14. Then call 816-235-1448 to sign up or e-mail commu@umkc.edu. Don't call or e-mail me to register. The Communiversity staff handles that. I'm also teaching a week-long seminar in July in New Mexico on writing your own spiritual autobiography. See the "Check this out" section on the right side of this page and click on the Ghost Ranch class item.

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ALSO: Thanks for (generally) honoring my request yesterday for the newly reopened comments section -- no more than five postings a day, each no more than 300 words. Please stick to that length limit.

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


Jan. 22, 2008

OBAMA IS C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N, GOT IT?

As the presidential campaign moves forward (or, anyway, in some direction or other), Sen. Barack Obama has decided to confront head-on the ridiculous but oft-repeated misinformation that he's a Muslim, this report says. I think people fall for this kind of purposefully misleading junk because they are almost willfully ignorant and prejudiced. What's your take?

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MORE RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN VIETNAM?

When we think we know something for sure, circumstances change.

VietnamThat's particularly true with the way religions are practiced in various countries. Or not practiced. Or forbidden. Or oppressed.

It's been pretty common knowledge that in Communist-dominated countries in Asia, religion has had a hard time of it. But that may be changing in Vietnam, according to this interesting Baptist Press report. It suggests that slowly but surely religious oppression is diminishing there and that there's increasing evidence of religious activity.

I think it would be wise to wait for lots more evidence before we decide that Vietnam has become a haven for religious freedom. After all, the evidence up until now has suggested otherwise.

For instance, click here for the 2007 annual report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and scroll down to page 151. There you will find that the commission in 2004 named Vietnam a "Country of Particular Concern," which is diplomatese for "Serious Abuser of Religious Freedom." But you also will note that the commission says Vietnam has done a little better in recent times, which tends to support the Baptist Press report.

A similar assessment comes from this report issued by the U.S. Department of State.

So Americans who cherish the value of religious freedom should feel slightly better about how that value is being lived out in Vietnam, but clearly the country isn't close to where it should be to respect basic human dignity.

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P.S.: I have opened up the comments section on the blog again today after having shut it down late last week because of spamming and similar abuses. I ask you to limit yourself to posting a maximum of five comments a day, each no more than 300 words. That's the max. Fewer and more cogent would be better. I ask you to engage in civil discourse. Thanks for your cooperation.

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ANOTHER P.S.: I'll be teaching a two-hour Communiversity class on writing essays the evening of Thursday, April 17. Details about the class are in this section of the Communiversity catalog. Scroll down to page 14. Then call 816-235-1448 to sign up or e-mail commu@umkc.edu. Don't call or e-mail me to register. The Communiversity staff handles that. I'm also teaching a week-long seminar in July in New Mexico on writing your own spiritual autobiography. See the "Check this out" section on the right side of this page and click on the Ghost Ranch class item.

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

Today's religious holiday: Tu B'shvat (Judaism); Mahayana New Year (Buddhism; 22nd-25th)


Jan. 21, 2008

POLITICS AND RELIGION ISLAMIC STYLE

As we think and talk about the way religion relates to public policy it's good, in our increasingly diverse American religious culture, to take into account more than one perspective. For an interesting take from an Islamic view, click here. This essay is a good reminder that we always need to define terms carefully and to recognize how people from traditions other than our own may understand some terms in radically different ways than we do.

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SOME HELP FOR CHRISTIAN LEADERS

Most professional fields provide access to mid-career or at least ongoing training and development for the people working in them. In some cases, such as the law, it's mandatory to get continuing education credits.

ClergyshirtSome seminaries have offered occasional seminars and other programs to keep clergy and other chuch officials up to speed and fresh, but the effort, frankly, has been sort of spotty -- partly because clergy often simply cannot afford the cost or the time off to go on sabbatical. Though in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the standard procedure is for congregations to build in study leaves to the annual contracts of pastors. But how they use that varies a lot.

At any rate, Duke Divinity School has just received a major grant that is designed to deal with at least part of this problem. The $14 million from the Lilly Endowment is to let Duke develop programs that will help clergy and other leaders of Christian institutions lead and manage more effectively.

The Lilly group has been one of the nation's most important funder of such innovations and studies in the field of religion.

What we don't know yet, of course, is whether this new Duke effort simply will result in pastors who are smarter about the financial aspects of running congregations and agencies or whether there will be some more direct benefit to people in the pews and needy people served by those congregations.

So make a note to check on this in about five years and see if it's been worth the money and effort. I think it's worth a try.

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P.S.: I'll be teaching a two-hour Communiversity class on writing essays the evening of Thursday, April 17. Details about the class are in this section of the Communiversity catalog. Scroll down to page 14. Then call 816-235-1448 to sign up or e-mail commu@umkc.edu. Don't call or e-mail me to register. The Communiversity staff handles that. I'm also teaching a week-long seminar in July in New Mexico on writing your own spiritual autobiography. See the "Check this out" section on the right side of this page and click on the Ghost Ranch class item.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Because of recent abuse of the comments section here, I've temporarily closed that section. If you have comments about what I've written here today, please e-mail me. Thanks.

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