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June 18, 2008

ANOTHER CALL TO REFORM ISLAM

This may be an example of a headline that winds up not representing some pretty nuanced comments from a scholar, but click here for a story with this headline: "Islam stuck in the Middle Ages, says Professor Hans Kung." Kung, of the Global Ethic Foundation, is quite a famous Catholic theologian, who has been in trouble with the Vatican before. He has delivered a lecture -- soon to be broadcast on TV in the United Kingdom -- in which he asked that the Abrahamic faiths tear down bridges between and among them. In that talk, he apparently revisited the old charge that Islam has never had a reformation. Well, I invite you to read the story as well as the many comments left by readers after it and see if this is the headline you'd hve put on it.

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CONGREGATIONS KEEP GOING & GOING & GOING. .  .

A new study says that faith communities have a going-out-of-business rate that is miniscule -- about 1 percent a year. But, the study finds, that doesn't mean congregations are in robust, healthy shape. Rather, it means that even weakened congregations often figure out ways to keep limping along.

Church-closed

For an abstract of the study, click here. It's published in the June issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

For a press release about the study from Duke University, click here.

I think the study authors are on to something when they suggest that even weakened congregations find ways to keep going.

One thing those congregations sometimes do is live off of endowments. Often you'll find big old Mainline Protestant churches in downtown urban areas that have fewer than 100 people in the pews each Sunday. And yet over the years -- if not centuries -- they have managed to gather a large enough endowment fund to be able to pay the insurance, staff, electric and gas bills and on and on. Once in awhile these churches actually come back to new life. For examples, read Diana Butler Bass' book, Christianity for the Rest of Us.

And some small congregations keep going because there really is no alternative if members want any worship experience at all. That's often true in rural areas, though small churches in the countryside often share pastors with other small churches in "yoked" relationships.

Beyond that, some people of faith simply don't want to give up. And who can blame them?

What's your experience with congregations that decide to call it quits?

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P.S.: World Refugee Day is Friday. For information and ways to participate, click here and you'll get to the site of Tents of Hope site, which focuses on Darfur.


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


June 17, 2008

VATICAN TO FILM MAKERS: OUT

The Vatican has banned any filming for the next Dan Brown movie, "Angels and Demons," both at the Vatican itself and at any Catholic church in Rome. The story is, the Vatican says, "an offense against God." Well, I found Brown's The Da Vinci Code an offense against good writing, but not God.

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OH, THOSE PESKY CATHOLIC MYSTICS

I'm usually reading three or four books at the same time. Well, not at the same time exactly. But I have one going in this room, one in that, a third in another room. Like that.

Blaise_Pascal

One I've been working on off and on for some time is From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, by Jacques Barzun. I like Barzun. He writes well and often has insights that I simply don't find elsewhere. But I ran across a passage the other day that flew up red flags.

Barzun was writing about Blaise Pascal, the 17th Century French scientist and philosopher (depicted here) who didn't even make it to age 40. Here's the paragraph on which I got stuck:

"Pascal was not a mystic. It is a misuse of the term to apply it to his religious fervor. A mystic is one who seeks union with God. Catholic dogma frowns on mysticism, because it makes God a Being that a human soul can consort with, overlooking Christ and blurring the relation of creator and creature."

What? I said to myself. How could that be? If Catholic dogma frowns on mysticism, why were so many of the mystics Catholic? (Yes, there are mystics in other religions. For instance, Sufism is the mystical path in Islam, while Kabbalah is Judaism's mystical approach.) Now, surely the Catholic mystics sometimes drove church authorities to distraction because of their occasional flirtations with heresy, but it's also true that Catholicism has recognized and even celebrated its mystics.

So I asked Robert W. Finn, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, what he made of Barzun's claim.

His response:

"I believe your surprise at Barzun’s characterization is warranted. I do not know Barzun’s book, but Catholicism certainly embraces an authentic mysticism. It would be difficult to compile any list of saints that do not include mystics (both from contemplative and active life). Indeed the Universal call to holiness emphasized by the Second Vatican Council was a reminder that we are all called to a deep intimate prayer which urges us – by the action of God’s grace in us – to transforming union. There is, of course, a significant section on contemplative prayer in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 2709-2724.

"St. Augustine famously says, 'You have made me for yourself O God, and I cannot rest until I rest in thee.' Catholic teaching would hold that the human soul is endowed with a natural desire and capacity to know God.

"St. Thomas Aquinas: In and of ourselves we do not have the positive ability to reach God. Nonetheless we come to know God by revelation and faith. What we cannot attain by natural power, we can reach by the grace of God. Christian denominations that reject the notion of supernatural sanctifying (habitual) grace may not find this acceptable.

"In his 1994 interview, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II, in the chapter commenting on Buddha, distinguishes some aspects of a Christian mysticism. 'Christian mysticism is born of the revelation of the living God. This God opens Himself to union with man, arousing in him the capacity to be united with Him, especially by means of the theological virtues – faith, hope, and, above all, love.'

"Pope Benedict (in Deus Caritas Est, nos. 13-14) cites the Old Testament imagery of marriage between God and Israel, (a mystical union) and asserts that – not only in prayer – but in Eucharist we see God's invitation to intimacy and union: It 'operates at a radically different level and lifts us to far greater heights than anything that any human mystical elevation could ever accomplish. … It becomes union with God through sharing in Jesus' self-gift, sharing in his body and blood.'

"The Pope refers to this as a 'sacramental mysticism,' noting how it not only is our union with God but with each other in the Body of Christ. This recalls the use of the title for the Church, most often associated with Pope Pius XII, 'the Mystical Body of Christ.'

"Catholic understanding of Mysticism excludes ideas of the “annihilation or absorption of the creature into God,” but emphasizes rather a living presence and intimate union with God the Creator, Who is contemplated by the creature in His Divine essence.

"Catholic Mysticism is not tied to 'techniques or ascetical practices' which somehow cause union, nor is it a kind of Gnosticism – reflected today in 'New Age,' where the One Eternal Word of God is displaced by human words or representations."

Now, I'm sure that Bishop Finn does not consider himself the world's greatest expert on Catholic mysticism, but I frankly think he got it a lot righter than Barzun.

Anyone, in turn, care to defend Barzun's understanding?

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


June 16, 2008

DECIDING WHO OWNS CHURCH PROPERTY

As some Christian denominations split and certain congregations leave, there are disputes about the ownership of church property. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has done this helpful interview on this subject with a law professor at George Washington University that might assist you in understanding the various ins and outs of all this.

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FINDING GOD AT AUSCHWITZ

As many of you know, I've been working on a book with a local rabbi about Jews in Poland who survived the Holocaust with help from non-Jews. (Click on the "Holocaust book project" link under "Check this out" on the right side of this page for more details.)

Auschwitz-15

As a result, I've spent the last couple of years mostly reading Holocaust-related books. Recently, my book-writing colleague, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, loaned me a book he had borrowed from the library of his seminary. It's a 1948 book by Dr. Gisella Perl called I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz.

Dr. Perl was a Jewish physician from Transylvania in Hungary, and in the spring of 1944 she and many other Jews of Hungary were rounded up. First they were forced to live in ghettos and then taken to death camps. She was sent to Auschwitz, where her skills as a medical doctor kept her alive because the Germans forced her to treat patients there in horrid conditions. Eventually she was transferred to Bergen Belsen in early 1945, from which she was liberated by the British that April. (That's me in the photo here when Rabbi Jacques and I visited Auschwitz last summer.)

But I want to focus today on just one paragraph in her book. In it, she is talking about the many babies she aborted to save their mothers, who were not allowed to give birth in Auschwitz. Being found pregnant was one more excuse to murder Jews.

"No one will ever know what it meant to me to destroy these babies," she writes. "After years and years of medical practice, childbirth was still to me the most beautiful, the greatest miracle of nature. . . Every time when kneeling down in the mud, dirt and human excrement. . .I prayed to God to help me save the mother or I would never touch a pregnant woman again. And if I had not done it, both mother and child would have been cruelly murdered. God was good to me. By a miracle, which to every doctor must sound like a fairy tale, every one of these women recovered and was able to work, which, at least for a while, saved her life."

One of the frequently asked questions about the Holocaust was "Where was God?" This woman found an answer. Would it have been your answer? Do you trust her answer? Do you understand it? Do you cheer it?

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


June 14-15, 2008, weekend

LENDING IOWANS A HAND

People of faith know they must respond to others in need, and our neighbors north of Kansas City in Iowa are in serious need right now because of serious flooding. For information on how to help folks in Cedar Rapids, put together by the staff of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, click here.

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RUSSERT KNEW WHAT TO ASK

One thing I especially liked about NBC's Tim Russert, who died Friday, was that he asked questions he knew regular folks on the street would want to ask. For an example, click here to see a video of Tim asking then-presidential-candidate Mitt Romney about discrimination against blacks in the Mormon church.

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NO WAVERING FROM THESE BISHOPS

Catholic bishops meeting in Florida again have spoken out against research involving early, or embryonic, stem cells. To read their statement, click here. You can disagree with them (and I do), but you have to say that they are consistent in their opposition and willing to take a public stand, no matter who is or isn't on their side. By the way, John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter is in Orlando covering the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' meeting there. For his latest report, click here.

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A LOOK AT NEW BOOKS ABOUT FAITH

Keeping up with new books carrying religious themes is, frankly, both a joy and a pain because the task is impossible.

Books

I love reading, and I especially love reading books having to do with theology and other faith matters. But in some ways it's like trying to get a drink of water from a full-on firehose.

So let's all admit that we'll never be able to read all the new books in this category. Still, I like to give you a decent sense of what's being published. So here's the latest list.

* 10 Books that Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn't Help, By Benjamin Wiker. From The Prince by Machiavelli to the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels to Mein Kampf by Hitler, Wiker argues that because ideas have consequences, the world would have been much better off without these and other such books. He's a fun writer, quite accessible, and the book is a good review of some important works. But I'm not sure he convinces me that the bad ideas advocated in these books would not have found a way into the public discourse in other ways and done as much damage. And as evil as some of the ideas in these books are -- and they are -- I'm uncomfortable labeling every word of each of them irredeemably evil, which, in essense, is what Wiker does. Still, if you want to be provoked to ponder evil, this is a great place to start. And I find his occasional over-the-topism sort of entertaining.

* The Episcopal Church in Crisis: How Sex, the Bible, and Authority Are Dividing the Faithful, by Frank G. Kirkpatrick. This religion professor here tackles one of the most complex and difficult crises in any faith community, and does it in a way that people on all sides of the issues should be able to appreciate. As he writes in the introduction, his focus is on the arguments being used in this dispute, not in the intense power struggle. He's interested in the basis and authority of the arguments, the competing visions of the church those imply and how those visions might be lived out. And that focus is the strength of the book. In some ways the 2003 election of V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire has given the Episcopal Church a unique opportunity to figure out who it is and where it's going. This book, whose author reveals considerable empathy for Robinson and his supporters, should help a lot.

Next, three that are at least somewhat related in terms of subject matter:

* The Big Questions in Science and Religion, by Keith Ward. The author, an emeritus professor of divinity at the University of Oxford, an Anglican priest and a deep reader (though no expert) in science, offers here a well-organized and quite useful look at such questions as: Are the laws of nature absolute? Does the universe have a goal or purpose? How can evolution and creation be reconciled? If you are seeking end-the-arguments, definitive answers to these and similar questions, you may be disappointed. But if want an open discussion that is mindful of the ambiguities, Ward provides that.

* Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith, by George E. Vaillant. The argument here, essentially, is that humans are hard-wired to be spiritual, which means to be moved by positive emotions, such as compassion, love and forgiveness. Each of the great religions, the author says, promotes those values, but what will make the world better is not more doctrinal religion but a universal consensus about the nature of human beings and their ability to live out constructive values. The author is a psychoanalyst and research psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard University. The book is worth a read, though I found his hope in the improving spiritual condition of humanity at least a little naive, especially given what humans have done in the last 100 years.

Bookstacks

* Chance of Dance: An Evaluation of Design, by Jimmy H. Davis and Harry L. Poe. The authors, one a chemistry teacher, one a reigion teacher at Union University, are sympathetic to the Intelligent Design movement, though they are quite clear that -- at least so far -- it does not qualify as a science and should not be taught as such. They neither dismiss I.D. nor do they advocate it without qualification. Thus, they provide a helpful look at design, free of the polemic often found in its most virulent detractors.

* I Am Not a Social Activist: Making Jesus the Agenda, by Ronald J. Sider. The author, who teaches at Palmer Theological Seminary, is one of the most articulate and interesting voices among Christian evangelicals. His insistence that people deal with poverty, the environment and other social issues has had an unusual clarity for years. In this book, a collection of essays previously published in Prism magazine, Sider makes the case that Christians should be motivated not by social agendas as such but, rather, by a desire to live the way Jesus would want them to live. That, he says, would lead them to take the positions he takes.

* God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, by John Dominic Crossan. This book came out last year but I haven't had a chance to give it a look until recently. Crossan is a profoundly intriguing writer and thinker, though as a member of the Jesus Seminar he keeps some distance between himself and strict or traditional Christianity. But his idea that Jesus, in various ways, stood against the oppressions of the Roman Empire is quite right. (As is his insistence that Jesus and Paul must always first be located within Judaism and within the Roman Empire.) Indeed, the idea of empire in New Testament studies has been really hot the last few years, and it would be hard to feel you're really up to speed on all that without reading Crossan.

* Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of the Christ, by Stephen J. Nichols. From books to films to bling, Jesus shows up throughout the history of America's culture in various guises. Nichols offers a good view of all that. In recent decades, good scholarship by Christian evangelicals has flowered, and Nichols is part of that. I just wish he hadn't begun his book by writing that "Billy Sunday who, in addition to saving thousands of souls. . ." Why? Because, of all Christians, evangelicals surely know that nobody saves another's soul. Christian theology insists that that's God's work.

* Christ Walks Where Evil Reigned: Responding to the Rwandan Genocide, by Archbishop Emmanuel M. Kolini of Rwanda and Peter R. Holmes. In 100 days in 1994, Rwanda blew up in terrifying bloodshed in which some 1.2 million people died. Where was the Christian church before, during and after all this? This book offers some answers, and they include some harsh criticism of religious failure. This is a good book for discussion groups because each chapter has questions at the end to ponder.

Now two about peace:

* A Persistent Peace: One Man's Struggle for a Nonviolent World, by the Rev. John Dear, S.J. For nearly 30 years now, Father Dear has been engaged in the pursuit of peace in countless ways, both in the U.S. and abroad. This is a personal story that starts with his drinking as a frat boy at Duke and carries him through to serious work for reconciliation, including at Ground Zero in New York after 9/11. If you want to know what inspires a peace activist, check out this one.

* Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas, by David Cortright.Books The author, who has studied peace movements and been active in them for years, presents a most helpful history going back for centuries, but focusing on the last two centuries. Anyone engaged in the important but often-frustrating business of peacemaking will have a better perspective on the work having read this book. Watch the prices, however. The Amazon link I've given you says it's $90 but available for $68.40 there. But the Cambridge University Press site has it for $29.99.

Now two about the pope:

* The Essential Pope Benedict XVI: His Central Writings and Speeches, edited by John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenna. The editors have selected key passages from Benedict's own words to give readers a clearer sense of who this man is and how his mind works. It may not tell you everything about his thinking but it gives quite a complete picture.

* Questions and Answers, by Pope Benedict XVI. From a variety of Q&A settings, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division has drawn together in this book the pope's responses to lots of questions. The questions come from children, teen-agers and even priests.

And, speaking of things Catholic, two new ones from the "Shepherd's Voice Series" by Basilica Press are What God Has Joined: A Catholic Teaching on Marriage, by Bishop Kevin W. Vann of the Diocese of Forth Worth, and God's Plan for You: Understanding Your Personal Vocation, by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb.

Now others:

* Expect Greater Things: Fulfilling Your God-Given Potential as a Person of Faith, by John R. Myers. In the spirit of Robert H. Schuller, who wrote the foreword for this book, Myers offers a system for focusing on getting more out of life, at least in part by giving more. This one is for people who may be spiritually stuck and looking for deeper meaning in life.

* Tibetan Buddhism & Modern Physics: Toward a Union of Love and Knowledge, by Vic Mansfield. The author has noted the Dalai Lama's intense interest in science and has sought here to see where modern science and Buddhism can be in conversation in constructive ways. Although a deep knowledge of neither science nor Buddhism is required to read this, it helps to be on speaking terms with both.

* The Religious Case Against Belief, by James P. Carse. The author, who taught religion at New York University for several decades, wants to distinguish between belief that is hemmed in by sometimes-willful ignorance and an attitude of open exploration that recognizes humanity's limited ability to perceive broad -- especially divine -- truths. It's a call for humility.

* Choosing Your Faith: In a World of Spiritual Options, by Mark Mittelbereg. Count this book in the category of Christian apologetics for people who haven't quite decided whether to embrace any faith. It's clear where the author is going but he's quite hospitable along the way.

Bibles

* Simple Ways: Towards the Sacred, by Gunilla Norris. This is a call to mindfulness. In brief bites, the author feeds readers with things we probably know but rarely thing about as she moves us toward a more intense spiritual sensitivity.

* The God Awful Truth About Heaven, by Jack Beam. This is a silly little book by a man who has rejected the Christianity of his childhood and, to replace it, has found what he calls evangelical agnosticism, which mostly means sarcasm. You won't learn a thing about serious biblical exegesis, but you may get some sense of how people think when they don't ever get what faith is really all about.

I usually don't list fiction here, but here are two that might interest you:

* Hidden, by Shelley Shepard Gray. This one introduces readers to the Amish as it tells the story of a young woman who turns to them to get out of an abusive relationship.

* The Four Givings: Unlock the Miracles Within, by Jeffrey Gillespie. If you're into religious fiction that seeks to be a self-help book, you might enjoy this one. The various characters in the plot learn about grace, forgiveness and other matters that help them redeem their lives.

And, finally, I want to mention again four books I've mentioned in columns in recent weeks, including my column this weekend:

*The Yellow Leaves, by Frederick Buechner. See my Saturday column.

* New Territories, New Perspectives: The Religious Impact of the Louisiana Purchase, edited by Richard J. Callahan Jr. See my column from last weekend.

*Interfaith Heroes, by Daniel L. Buttry. I wrote about this in a column in May.

* What's the Shape of Narrative Preaching?, edited by Mike Graves and David J. Schlafer. I wrote about this tribute to the Rev. Eugene L. Lowry last month.

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P.S.: The new president of the Southern Baptist Convention and I have several things in almost-common. For instance, he's from Woodstock and so am I. But he's from Woodstock, Ga., whereas I grew up in Woodstock, Ill., which was named after Woodstock, Vt., near which my wife grew up. Also, Johnny Hunt, the new SBC president, is Indian -- Lumbee Indian, or Native American -- whereas I spent two years of my boyhood living with Indians, only the kind who live, as I did then, in India. Yes, and I used to say that Prince Charles and I went to different schools together, too. 

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend, written from Springfield, Vt., has to do with what faith teaches us about aging.)


June 13, 2008

FORGIVE US, FATHER, FOR WE ARE SINNING

A couple found, uh, having sex in a church confessional booth in Italy have repented, this report says. Pretty convenient. Sort of like dying at a funeral home.

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SEPARATING SUPERSTITION FROM RELIGION

So it's Friday the 13th.Friday-the-13th

And I'm wondering about the relationship, if any, between superstitions and religious beliefs. Which sent me rooting around amidst the good stuff and the gunk out on the Web, where I turned up this sort of interesting piece by a guy who is pretty much devoted to fostering atheism, agnosticism and/or secular humanism.

In the piece he argues that religions and superstitions share quite a bit in common. Yeah, well. So do Marco Polo and Queen Victoria, in that they're both dead and that's one of the most important things you can say about either of them now.

I kept looking.

And, behold, I found this much better piece by a Seventh Day Adventist educator, who clearly understands what religion is really about.

I also remembered that a recently disclosed bit of writing from Albert Einstein called religious a childish superstition, so here's that story. I am loathe to argue with Einstein but, heck, why not. After the all the subject is religion, not relativity, his area of expertise.

But not wanting to leave things with just three views (isn't that bad luck?) I finally turned to the Catholic Encylopedia online to read its densely packed, if brief, item on superstition. It seems, not surprisingly, to take a rather low view of superstitions.

Anyway, in my book the fact that it's Friday outweighs the fact that it's the 13th. I like Fridays. I liked them even more when I was working full time, but even now there's a nice sense of completeness to having reached another Friday. So enter your weekend pondering this question: What quality does it take to make a regular old stition a superstition?

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow was written from Vermont and ponders human longevity.) 


June 12, 2008

CROSSING CULTURAL LINES FOR RELIGION

Recently here on the blog I wrote about ways in which people of one religion were studying with people of other religions. Still, I was a little surprised to find this story, which says that Koreans are becoming a dominant group of graduates in biblical studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But maybe I shouldn't be surprised. In 2002 when I spent a little time in Uzbekistan, a predominantly Muslim country with a decent sized Russian Orthodox Christian minority, I discovered Korean missionaries at work.

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SHE THINKS, THANK GOODNESS, THEOLOGICALLY

I don't regularly read the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, but whenever I do I almost always find something intriguing. I happened to pick up the current issue and have read the cover piece, "Credo: Reverence First, and then Belief," by Marilynne Robinson (pictured here), author of the much-acclaimed novel Gilead.

Robinson

Robinson, who teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa, spends a lot of time thinking theologically. I don't always agree with where she ends up or even understand sometimes where that is, but I find her a stimulating thinker who can get me to re-examine my own conclusions about things. And that's always a good thing.

Her Divinity Bulletin piece to which I've linked you is not the whole article. For that you have to get the print version. But there's enough there to give you a taste of where she's going.

But here are some of her statements in the piece that particularly struck me. See how they strike you:

Harvard bulletin

* "Except for that descent into hell, which I don't find in scripture, there is nothing in the Apostles' Creed I am not ready to affirm." (Do you find that descent in scripture?)

* "History up to the present moment tells us again and again that a narrow understanding of faith very readily turns into bitterness and coerciveness. There is something about certainty that makes Christianity un-Christian. . . .(B)ecause I would be a good Christian, I have cultivated uncertainty, which I consider a form of reverence."

* "If predestination can be seen as gloomy, as making God a tyrant, then free will can be seen as harsh and constraining, as making God another kind of tyrant. . . . It seems to me only reasonable to assume that both doctrines are in error. . ."

* "There is the matter of hell, not easily dismissed since Jesus speaks of it. . . .I don't know what to make of hell but clearly it means that what we mortals do has an eternal significance, and this is certainly consistent with a posture of reverence toward this world, with all its sins and afflictions."

* "I am not of the school of thought that finds adherence to doctrine synonymous with firmness of faith."

* ". . .it looks more and more as though inferring human character and behavior from the (human) genome would be like inferring the works of Mozart from the keyboard of a piano."

* "There are those who believe our awareness of the fact that we circle a gigantic fusion reaction at appalling speed on a globular mass of indeterminate origin takes the mystery out of things. I beg to differ."

* "Reverence tells us that truth always utterly exceeds what we know or can know, even if that knowledge comes to us as revelation. This God with whom we have to do, this God whose thoughts are not our thoughts, claims from us, I believe, not static and confident belief but active and humble attention."

And to this last Robinson statement, let the people say, "Amen."

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


June 11, 2008

WHY, ODDLY ENOUGH, OBAMA'S VOICE MAY HELP

As this presidential campaign year proceeds, you will be hearing a lot -- maybe too much -- about religion and politics. But in this commentary for the Wall Street Journal, William McGurn makes the good and helpful point that Sen. Barack Obama understands why religious language in the public square can be not only useful but also necessary. Obama points out, correctly, that political reformers often are driven by religious motives.

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A SITE FOR SORE EISEGETES

As sort of a joke in a posting here last December, I asked whether Beliefnet.com, a good spiritual site on the Web, would become Disbeliefnet.com now that it was being taken over by medial mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Disbelief

Well, shut my mouth.

I just discovered that there really is a Disbeliefnet.com site. I don't think it has a thing to do with Murdoch, but it certainly is skeptical (I'm being really, really polite) about religion.

Please know that if you choose to visit the Disbelief site, you may well find yourself offended -- if not by the rancor expressed toward faith, then perhaps by the occasional raw language and on-the-edge ideas. So visit at your own risk.

But I frankly have no problem with this sometimes-juvenile approach to religion. I think religion can take whatever people throw at it. Certainly the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have done faith no harm in their pro-atheist books. Nor will this kind of site hurt religions that are solid in their healthy and creative values.

I wouldn't spend a lot of time at the site. Much of it is just rant-and-rave immaturity with a sometimes-funny touch of sixth-grade humor.

But what I seriously don't like about this site is that it makes no attempt to tell you who is posting it. That kind of anonymity is just indefensible cowardice. That's my belief, not my disbelief.

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


June 10, 2008

NO RELIGIOUS REBELS WANTED

In Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population of any in the world, a sect that considers itself Muslim but believes there was a prophet after Muhammad has been ordered to return to mainstream Islam. Is government proclamation the way to establish theological orthodoxy? Maybe not.

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MARY: SHE'S NOT JUST FOR CATHOLICS ANYMORE

Several years ago, I was invited to give the graduation speech at the University of St. Mary in Leavenworth, Kan. I accepted and wrote my speech. Then the invitation was withdrawn because the board of the school wanted to punish The Kansas City Star for publishing a series of articles (with which I had nothing to do) about AIDS in the priesthood.

Virgin_Mary

You'll find a column I wrote about the experience in my book A Gift of Meaning.

At any rate, because I already had written the speech, we decided to post it on The Star's Web site. It got lots of hits, including from faculty members, who voted overwhelmingly to condemn the board for its punitive action.

What was the speech about?

It was about Mary and what even Protestants like me could and should learn from the life of the mother of Jesus. I figured that if the newly minted graduates were going to go through life known as having come from a school named after Mary, they'd do well to have thought about what her life means.

All of which is prologue to say that I was glad to read a piece in the new issue of Theology Today by Tim Perry, who teaches theology at a Canadian college and seminary, that begins this way: "Evangelicals are rediscovering Mary." Unfortunately, the publication's Web site does not offer the full text of the article, but I can link you to this 2003 article from Christianity Today about why evangelicals should not ignore Mary because it shares some of the same ideas.

And I can share a few of Perry's observations, because I think his findings coincide with my own observation that Protestants generally -- and maybe evangelicals in particular -- have been paying more attention to Mary in recent years. So here is some of what he says:

* "We (evangelicals) have begun to reflect on (Mary) in distinctively evangelical devotional ways and for distinctively evangelical theological concerns."

* "Even laypeople are showing an interest in sober, sensitive conversations about our Lord's mother."

* Interest in Mary is "best seen as arising partly alongside and partly in response to a near half-century of Marian debate within Catholicism."

* "Some evangelical Protestants are reengaging with Marian doctrine because of a unique confluence of genuine Catholic invitations with evangelical receptivity to those invitations over the last forty years."

I'm curious to know, if you're a Christian, whether you have noticed and/or participated in this phenomenon. And I also want to know whether you, too, will ever disinvite me once you've invited me to give a speech just to get back at The Star.

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


June 9, 2008

THE HEADACHES OF CHURCH LEADERSHIP

If you become leader of a big organization you can expect to be handling trouble. Take Pope Benedict XVI, for example, who now has to figure out what to do about two nuns who chained themselves to the Vatican on Sunday to protest their treatment by their convent. Is there a particularly religious or even Catholic way he should handle this versus the way a the CEO of a secular company might? I think he has some obligations to truth and compassion that should mark his handling of this case. It'll be intriguing to see if we learn what he did.

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IN MEMORY OF ST. COLUMBA

I've been to Scotland only once in my life, when I was a boy. But I mean to go back and, while I'm there, I mean to visit the Iona Community on the Isle of Iona.

St_Columba_Icon

Some youngsters from my church had a chance to spend some time there a couple of years back, led by our senior pastor, who came to us from a pastorate in Scotland, though he's actually a native of Northern Ireland.

Today is just the right day to dream about going to the Isle of Iona because it was on this date in 597 that St. Columba (depicted here), the pioneer missionary to Scotland who used Iona as his base, died. From Iona, Columba, an Irish native, evangelized Scotland's mainland as well as Northumbria. He was established his monastic outpost in the 560s.

Today the Iona Community is home to the Wild Goose Resource Group, which produces new music, liturgy and other worship aids for churches around the world. One of the leaders of the group, John Bell, has spoken at my church.

The conventional wisdom says the church in Europe is dead. But Europe also is the source of such renewal efforts as the Wild Goose group, which is having an effect around the world. So the picture is more complicated than just large, empty European cathedrals.

Have a look at the Iona site today. And then let's picture ourselves there in person within the next few years.

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P.S.: Ask.com recently did a check of how often people on its site searched for Pope Benedict XVI and how often they searched for the Dalai Lama. Guess what. People searched for the Dalai Lama 18 percent more than they searched for the pope. The question is what this means. I have no idea. Do you? 

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

Today's religious holiday: Shauvot (9th and 10th; Judaism)


June 7-8, 2008, weekend

WHAT WOULD HANUMAN DO?

A business school in India has named a Hindu monkey god its chairman. Do you go there to get an MBA -- Monkey Business Administration degree?

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A TAXING PROPOSAL

What are you doing with your federal tax rebate check? As this story reports, faith communities from hither to yon are hoping you'll give some of it to them. Isnt' that what President Bush has wanted all along -- tax money supporting faith-based groups?

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UNVEILING THE SHROUD OF TURIN

Shroud

Maybe you noticed the story in the paper a few days ago in which Pope Benedict XVI announced that the mysterious Shroud of Turin will go back on display in 2010.

I've long been intrigued by the shroud. I've read a couple of books about it, though I must say I find it difficult to explain my interest in it. Usually relics don't do much for me. And, as you might suspect, I harbor profound doubts that the shroud is what some claim it to be -- the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. The odds against that are, frankly, enormous.

And yet -- despite various scientific efforts to determine whether it's authentic -- the shroud remains a mystery. Some suggest it dates from the 13th or 8th centuries or somewhere in there, anyway. But others aren't sure the science is reliable.

So the question I invite you to think about and respond to today is how much of your faith either depends on or is affected by material things. That is, would it make a difference to the Christians among you if the Shroud of Turin turns out to be either a fraud or the real thing? Would it, in other words, affect your faith in some way? Similarly, in what ways do Torah scrolls or ancient copies of the Qur'an or old Bibles or crucifixes or anything material like that add or substract from your faith?

Matter is, of course, different from spirit, but I think there's some kind of interconnection, and maybe the Shroud of Turin provides the opportunity to define that more clearly.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend deconstructs the nation's formational religious story.)