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Heaven-bound pets? 7-31-08



If you're a regular reader of the Faith section of The Kansas City Star, you probably saw this piece last week by my colleague Helen Gray, exploring the question of whether there's an afterlife for pets.

Over the weekend and through this week I found that the subject generated a fair bit of conversation among people I know. I guess people have a soft spot in their heart for their pets and like the notion that they may spend eternity with them.

I grew up with dogs, cats, goldfish and canaries, to say nothing of the chickens I raised as a 4-H project. Those birds all ended up on our dinner table, so I'm not sure how to think about an afterlife for them. But, mostly because of allergies, I have no pets now, save for a ceramic dog that I've named for what he does best. His name is "Stay."

However, I will tell you that I never have given a bit of thought to whether I'll see my old Siberian husky Sitka or my old collie Tammy in heaven. And if there's an afterlife for pets, I'd guess that our late beagle, Doc, who did evil things like eat my books (including the first copy of my own book I got from my publisher), might be headed somewhere other than through the Pearly Gates

What the subject of pets in heaven raises for me is whether there's an afterlife for all -- ALL -- of life, from the bugs to the bears, the spiders to the squids, the house flies to the horses. How, after all, can we define "pet" in a way that would exclude some animals? (Is that a stupid-pet-trick quesion?)

Here's my answer: I don't know. And I don't know how to find out. More than that, it seems to me that spending a lot of time thinking about this is sort of a waste of the precious time that I consider to be a divine gift. There are, after all, human beings who need my attention, and while I have deep respect for the food chain, it's human beings who are at the top of my list of beings to whom I should relate and respond.

Oh, I've loved some dogs and cats over the years, and my whole family cried when some of them died. But my eyes are on humanity. I'll let God's eye be on the sparrows.

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Is religion at least partly responsible for slowing the spread of disease? This report is about a new study that makes such a claim. I'm going to have to think about this one a long time before I buy into it. But isn't it intriguing what questions engage researchers?

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

Who are the Quakers? 7-30-08


The anniversary today of the death of William Penn in 1718 provides another chance this summer to learn not just a little American civic history but also some religious history, given that Penn became a Quaker in 1667 and tried to create a safe haven for Quakers in America as well as others suffering religious persecution. Well, I say "others," but for Penn that did not include atheists.

(By the way, that's Billy Penn up top the Philadelphia City Hall, a photo I took last year, apparently saving it for today.)


Penn did not found this pacifist Protestant group, though he joined the Quakers pretty quickly. George Fox founded the Quakers in England in the 1650s. Well, the group became known as the Quakers, though officially the name was and is the Religious Society of Friends.

Fox himself reported that the name Quaker got attached to the group "because we bid them tremble at the word of God."

Quaker services are quite different from services of other Protestant denominations. They involve lots of silence. Quakers stress the role of the Holy Spirit and want almost nothing to do with formal rites and they have no ordained clergy.

Over the years, Quakers have been in the forefront of social reform movements, whether that has meant voting rights for women, abolition of slavery or any number of other peace, rights and justice movements.

Two American presidents were Quakers, though some of their policies made people wonder how firmly committed they were to Quaker ideals -- Richard Nixon and Herbert Hoover.

Quakers in America today number roughly 100,000, give or take a few thousand or tens of thousands (according to different sources), but whatever the number, many of them still live in the state name after William Penn.

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The other day here on the blog, I wrote about the 40th anniversary of a papal encyclical that banned artificial contraception. Now I read that several dozen Catholic groups have written a public letter to Pope Benedict XVI asking him to overturn that ban, in effect nullifying Paul Paul VI's encyclical. I doubt that this pope will respond favorably to such an entreaty, but I also doubt that this issue ever will go away, no matter which way a pope rules.

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

When clergy leave: 7-29-08


A little over a month ago, I wrote a column about when it's appropriate both to join a community of faith and to leave one, keying off of Sen. Barack Obana's decision to drop his membership in his congregation.


In the column, I mentioned that in 30 years of membership at my church (pictured here), "I've been through four senior pastors and enough associate pastors to fill out a football team."

Well, to my surprise, I've just learned it soon will be five senior pastors. Last week our pastor sent a letter to our congregation announcing that he has accepted a call to be the senior pastor at a Presbyterian church in Florida and will leave in September.

In many ways, the timing is right for him. He's been here 13 years and, if he were to decide to stay until retirement age, would be with us (if we'd have him -- and I have no reason to think we wouldn't) for about 12 more years.

Instead of overstaying his welcome and his effectiveness (always a danger in the clergy business) he has decided to take on a new challenge. And our congregation now must go through the process of finding a new senior pastor -- a process that, in our tradition, can take as long as two years, though I hope it will be shorter this time.

In some ways, these transitions are good for communities of faith. It reminds members that they are the ones who, in our case, make up the church. It's our church, not the pastor's, though clearly there's an important leadership role for any pastor.

But this transition is a time to remind ourselves that we are the church and that pastors come and go. It's time to remember that our religion began long before we arrived on the scene and will continue long after we're gone (barring the end of the world or some such).

And it's time to look again at who we are as a congregation and decide whether that's what we want to be in the future.

There is much to be said for commitment, especially the kind that should hold marriages together. But relations between congregations and clergy are not marriages. Rather, they're a sort of legal and moral cohabitation. And now and then it's time to change partners. But as my congregation does that, we'll give thanks for a wonderful work of ministry our pastor has done and will wish him and his family well in Florida -- all the while being somehow inevitably saddened to see them go.

It's that sadness and the transition to a new future that an interim pastor will have to help us with.

So tell us, please, your own experiences in seeing a member of the clergy leave your church, synagogue, mosque, temple or other kind of congregation. Any lessons for my congregation?

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Remember the recent to-do over the allegedly satirical Obama cover of The New Yorker? Well, now we have this published satire about the prayer Obama recently left at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. There's a link to the real prayer on my weekend blog. And if I have to explain satire to you I'll cancel your subscription to my blog.

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

Religion at the Olympics: 7-28-08


What? We have to think about faith matters even with regard to the upcoming Beijing Olympics?


Oh, indeed.

Why, way last fall, Olympic officials promised that the religious needs of people participating in and attending the games would be accommodated. And this report describes ways officials in China are working to meet the needs of Muslims at the Olympics. We'll see.

Let's hope China does better with that than it does accommodating the religious needs of its own citizens. Its record in that regard is awful, no matter what it says on its Olympic Web site. Take a close look at the page to which I've just linked you. The religious illiterates who put it together say that among the religions found in Beijing are "Catholicism and Christianity." Did you Catholics know the Chinese don' consider you Christian?

By the way, if you want to look at the State Department's 2007 report on religious freedom in China, click here.

Some folks promoting a boycott of the Beijing Olympics list some religious reasons for their stand at this site. It's a fairly standard rundown on the lack of religious freedom there. And at this site, they add information about the Chinese oppression of Tibet.

The blogosphere has been focused at least a bit on the issue of religious freedom at the games, including whether Christians should evangelize others while they are there.

Earlier this year, the Council on Foreign Relations devoted quite a bit of effort to look at the state of religion in China. Click here for that report.

So religious issues will be part of the Olympic story, though I'm betting most of the media won't do much reporting on the subject.

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A new poll in Britain suggests that about one-third of the Muslim students there think killing in the name of religion can be justified. Muslim leaders and other religious and political leaders obviously have a lot of work to do. And it's past time to get started.

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

Obama's prayer: 7-26/27-2008, weekend


Steven Waldman, the man behind, has published a copy of the prayer Sen. Barack Obama left at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and has done an analysis of it. Strikes me as invasion of privacy to print, much less deconstruct, the private prayer of anyone. But I'm not shocked that presidential candidates are subjected to such stuff. After all, there's always an audience for celebrity news, even if the paparazzi have to convince that audience it cares about this stuff.

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When I tell you that I want to commemorate an anniversary this weekend, no doubt many of you imagine that I mean to note the creation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation 100 years ago, on July 26, 1908.

King James I

Not. I'll leave that to the crime bloggers.

Rather, I want to note that on July 26, 1603, King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England (depicted here), and it was this James whose name is most familiar to us because of its attachment to the Bible -- the King James Version, which he sponsored and which was published in 1611.

I used the King James Version through much of my growing up years, though the Revised Standard Version, meant to update and modernize the KJV, came out in the 1940s and 1950s, when I was a boy. But the soaring language, rhythms and poetry of the KJV is pretty deeply implanted in my cranium and my heart.

Still, I am baffled by people who insist that the KJV is the only legitimate, God-inspiried translations for Christians to use. How silly. Since its publications many more ancient and reliable manuscripts have turned up and there are many excellent newer English translations in language that reflects modern uses and sensibilities. Dost thou gettest it? (One of you Elizabethan language experts please clean up that sentence.)

Anyway, if you have a KJV, did it out this weekend and admire its artistic achievements. Then find a modern translation that speaks to you.

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A University of Minnesota biology professor seems to enjoy poking religion in the eye. In response some religious folks want him disciplined. Is he within his rights? If so, why is he so angry at religion? Is this in the same category as the famous "Piss Christ" work by Andre Serrano?

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P.S.: Recently I told you here on the blog about a Saudi-sponsored interfaith conference in Madrid, Spain. A man who teaches at Rhodes College in Memphis, a school that pays a lot of attention to interfaith matters, was in Madrid for the conference, and has written this report. It's worth a read.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend, written from New Mexico, explores our experiences of God's presence and absence.)

A birth control anniversary: 7-25-08


The president of Malaysia has done what political leaders who are Muslims should be doing everywhere -- denouncing violence and extremism committed in the name of religion. No doubt he and some people from other faiths might disagree about who is being violent to whom, but this is the kind of general principle that people in the West would like to see from Muslims more often.

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On this date 40 years ago, Pope Paul VI (depicted here) published an encyclical called Humanae Vitae in which he condemned artificial methods of birth control.

Paul vi

In many ways, it was a surprising paper, especially given the fact the Pontifical Commission appointed five years earlier to study the subject had recommended that the church approve contraception in certain circumstances.

But the pope said no. In turn, many Catholics, especially in the United States, ignored him. In some ways, this encyclical undercut the authority of the church in the eyes of the faithful, many of whom viewed the ban on contraception as a discredited idea.

The most lucid critic of this action that I've read is Garry WIlls, the Catholic author of many books. The one in which he deals with Humanae Vitae is Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit.

Once the encyclical was issued, Wills reports, "Catholics responded with an unparalled refusal to submit. Polls registered an instant noncompliance with the encyclical. At a previously scheduled Catholic festival of devout young Germans at Essen, a resolution that those attending could not obey the encyclical passed through a crowd of four thousand with only ninety opposing votes. A simultaneous poll among German Catholics at large found that 68 percent of them thought the Pope was wrong on contraception. Similar findings rolled in from around the world."

Since then, of course, bishops and priests have been in the unenviable position of having to defend a position that many of them disagree with. And, of course, many Catholics have continued to ignore the ban on artifcial contraception.

But as Wills points out in his book, once a religious structure, such as the Vatican, makes an error, it seems next to impossible for anyone in authority to admit it and reverse it. This applies to faith communities well beyond Catholicism, but Wills' book describes in painful detail how all of this has worked in Catholicism.

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P.S.: The other day here on the blog, I wrote about the St. Bernard Project just outside New Orleans -- an effort to help St. Bernard Parish recover from the flood after Hurricane Katrina. Well, NPR's "All Things Considered" did a piece about that subject yesterday. To hear it, click here and look for the link to the Katrina story.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow was written from New Mexico and tries to explore the experience of both the presence and the absence of God.)

Getting left behind? 7-24-08


At least in part because of the changing religious landscape in America, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is handling an upsurge of cases involving religious discrimination in the workplace. So it has issued new guidelines on how to deal with these cases. Click here to read those guidelines. (Did the EEOC get all of this right?) This whole area raises one more argument for improving religious literacy in this country. If we're going to have a religiously pluralistic society -- and we already do -- we have to understand some basics about religions other than our own.

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If you've read the "Left Behind" series of novels about the end times, as viewed by (ready?) the premillennial dispensationalists, you know the fear factor that plays into all of this.Rapture

Left-behind theology says that once the "rapture" (sort of pictured here) of true Christian believers happens, they'll be evacuated from the Earth while non-believers will be left behind to go through some really, really bad times.

If this is a theology you buy (and many Mainline theologians have serious doubts), you may want to plug into a Web site that will allow you to send e-mails to left-behind folks after the rapture. It's called -- what else? --

You can pay $40 a year to create documents to e-mail to folks, presumably telling them that you miss them and hope they'll quickly become Christians so they God can, as the Web site says, "snatch them from the flames!"

I first read about this Web site in one of the "Sightings" newsletters from the Martin Marty Center. The piece, by a theology professor at St. John's University, suggests, at least by implication, that there are better ways to spend $40.

I agree. I can think of dozens of ministries and other non-profit organizations that could use the money.

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P.S.: A good effort at ecumenical dialogue will happen tomorrow night at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Wea, Kan., (near Louisburg, south of Kansas City) as Protestant and Catholic leaders gather in public to discuss the writings of the Apostle Paul. A second gathering will happen Friday, Aug. 1, in Louisburg. The link I've given you here should give you enough information to attend if you want to.

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

'Spiritual' or 'religious'? 7-23-08


The Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion is under way, and the writer of this commentary thinks the bishops might do well to take some time out to read the Bible. If they did, he says, maybe they wouldn't be so all up in arms about homosexuality. And of course he's right, though it may take Christians a long, long time to sort through this -- and the time they spend fighting over it they're using to minister to needy people. Although Jesus said a lot about doing the latter, he said nothing about homosexuality. Hmmm.

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By now we've all heard people who say they aren't religious but they are spiritual. And I suspect each of us has some sense of what we think they mean by that.


But do those categories really mean much? And, if so, what?

The other day here on the blog I wrote about Stephen Prothero's new book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't.

I want to return to that book today to share with you Prothero's highly critical analysis of the use of the word "spiritual" as a replacement for "religious" to see if you agree with him. Again, the main thrust of the book is that Americans have become woefully ignorant theologically, detached from any sustained ability to discuss religious doctrine in any coherent way. (I think he's right about that.)

At any rate, Prothero writes that the "first principle" of people who call themselves spiritual but not religious "seems to be disdain for so-called organized religion.. . .To them, dogma is always stolid and ritual aways empty. Real religion -- which is to say spirituality -- happens not when some authority tells you what to think but when you discover in your own experience some sliver of the ineffable Something.

"Spirituality, in short, is religion stripped down to its experiential dimension. More than do-it-yourself religion, spirituality is do-without religion, a form of faith that denies its connections to the institutions, stories and doctrines that gave it birth -- religion without memory."

Well, in general I agree with Prothero, but it seems to me that whether one describes one's self as spiritual or religious (or something else), the reality is that it represents a hunger for understanding and for an experience of the presence of what religion usually calls God. So I want to honor that hunger in people no matter how they describe themselves and without getting angry at them for their descriptions..

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

Causes of priest scandal: 7-22-08


We all know that religion gets blamed for much of the violence in the world. Could it be that it also can be the cause of people working against such violence? This good column in USA Today makes exactly that argument. And I think the columnist is on to something.

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I have noted before here that one of the best observers of the Catholic Church worldwide today is John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter, which is published in Kansas City.


John pays attention to details and nuance. Which is exactly what you have to do if you're going to figure out what's going on in the Vatican and in the church generally.

A wonderful example is this column, in which John notices something Pope Benedict XVI (pictured here) said last week on his way to Australia. The pope talked about what people who study morality and ethics came to call a theory of proportionality.

What the heck is that? And what does it have to do with the priest sex scandal that has stunned the church and the outside world?

That's what John carefully looks at, taking the time to explain the concept, its origins, its applications and whether it is a useful concept in trying to understand how priests could abuse helpless youngsters. I suggest you read it all -- and carefully.

One thing, however, that continues to bother me about the pope's discussion of the sex abuse scandal is that he seems willing to label all guilty priests pedophiles. Well, as I've noted before, pedophiles are attracted to pre-pubescent youth. And some of the abuse that occurred in the church does not fit that category. So the pope needs to expand his understanding, if, in fact, he's stuck with a pedophiles-only model of what happened.

I am glad that Benedict has been willing to go to the U.S. and Australia and apologize for the scandal and promise to do better. But as John Allen notes, that may be the easy part. The hard part is figuring out what to do next to prevent more abuse.

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

What's Mormon apologetics? 7-21-08


One of the tasks of religious leaders is not just to defend the faith to outsiders (a subject I talk about below) but also to help explain it to adherents -- especially those areas of doctrine that people find puzzling. So I was intrigued to find Pope Benedict XVI in Australia over the weekend taking a good chunk of time to try to unravel the mysteries of the Holy Spirit, whom Christians regard as a member of the Trinity. B-16 relied on insights from St. Augustine. No doubt more modern theologians -- Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant -- have different ways of speaking about the Spirit. My own Presbyterian denomination, for instance, publishes some basic theology on its Web site. Click here for what the PCUSA says about the Spirit. And if you want a view of the Spirit by one of the best Lutheran theologians around, read Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Triune God, by Robert W. Jenson. It's my contention that people of faith should be able to articulate their theology coherently. But I find that's pretty rare.

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Mormonism, an indigenous American religion, often has been on the defensive, as it has fought off both legitimate critics and violent protest.


That history of defense of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues today, with new and updated efforts at Mormon apologetics and at efforts to answer the sometimes-nervous questions raised by LDS followers themselves.

One source for that work is a group called FAIR, the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research. FAIR, founded in 1997, recently announced a new publication aimed at helping to answer critics and doubters. It's called Shaken-Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One's Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, by Michael R. Ash.

FAIR, by the way, will be holding a two-day conference on apologetics in August in Utah. Information is on the FAIR Web site to which I've linked you above.

Apologetics is not just a Mormon discipline. In some ways it happens in every faith. It amounts to efforts to create a careful and rational explanation of whatever religion it is so that adherents can be in a better position to articulate what they believe.

Of course, you'll find a wide range of approaches to apologetics, including some that seek to install and glorify one particular approach to a worldwide religion.

But with the many questions surrounding Mormonism in recent months and years -- from the candidacy of Mitt Romney to questions about polygamy -- it's not surprising that Mormons would turn to the discipline of apologetics to defend themselves.

In your own faith tradition, do you have some favorite practitioners of apologetics?

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P.S.: If you usually get to my blog by going through, be aware that editors there have created a new system in which you'll see only eight blogs at a time on the opening page. You may have to scroll down to find the link to get here to "Faith Matters." So, please, scroll away. This blog hasn't disappeared, but it may not always be among the first eight listed.

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