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Are we all Hindus? 8-31-09

Sometimes I am at least slightly mystified by some of the journalism on religion that I see, hear and view.


An example is a recent Newsweek piece called "We Are All Hindus Now." The point of the piece seems to be that the religious views and commitments of American citizens are changing. Well, yes. But that's not exactly news.

The piece also pointed out that some of Americans' newer views and positions on religious issues tend to resemble some of the views and approaches that Hindus have long held -- such as the notion that there are many paths to God and that no one religion represents all the truth.

Well, it's kind of interesting to make that point and, as the reporter, Lisa Miller, did, to use some recent polls and studies to back it up. Indeed, there really is something to that point.

But the reality is that most Americans, by far, still are Christian (however they would define that) and a big segment of those Christians intentionally steer away from almost all of the "Hindu-like" approaches that Miller suggests Americans are adopting. I can see such Christians reading such pieces (at least the headline) and imagining that the media, again, just don't get it.

So the headline, "We Are All Hindus Now," is clearly a wild stretch and nowhere near to truth. Yes, yes, I know that in some ways such headlines are metaphor, are hints, suggestions, are word plays. Their purpose often is not to convey accurate information but, rather, to draw readers in so they can be told information they might need.

But if publications such as Newsweek want to maintain any credibility with the wide range of Christians in America, perhaps something more accurate would be called for.

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How do you list your religion on Facebook? I identify myself there simply as a Presbyterian elder. Some folks with the Washington Post's religion blog have been checking out some politicians. Click here to see what they found. Does any of this matter?

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P.S.: My latest Presbyterian Outlook column now is online. To read it, click here. To read all my previous Outlook column, click here.

ANOTHER P.S.: Please plan to join me and my co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, at one of the two events described here to launch our new book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Rainy Day Books will be there to help you buy a copy and you'll even get to meet some of the people whose remarkable stories we tell in the book.

Colleges' religious roots: 8-29/30-09

All over America there used to be (and in many places still are) colleges and universities that have religious roots.


This weekend is a good time to think about that because it was on Aug. 30, 1856, that the Methodist Episcopal Church founded Wilberforce College (now Wilberforce University) in western Ohio. It was just the second institution of higher education in the U.S. created for African-Americans. Click here for some Wilberforce history.

Although nearly all religious communities in America support the idea of public education, paid for with dollars from taxpayers, many also have offered private, or parochial, alternatives. This has been good for America. I say this as someone profoundly dedicated to public education.

It took American society time to adopt the idea that higher education should be publically supported, so most of the early colleges and universities in the U.S. were private, and often they had religious sponsors.

In its early years, even Harvard, founded in 1636, was essentially in the business of training clergy for Puritan congregations, though, as this history says, it never had a formal affiliation with any denomination.

My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), long has been a leader in education, creating colleges all over the country. Many still are affiliated in some way with the denomination, though the church now provides precious little funding for them.

And certainly the Catholic Church in this country has created some of our best colleges and universities -- from smaller schools, such as Rockhurst University in Kansas City, to Notre Dame and Catholic University.

Well, no doubt you can name Baptist, Lutheran, Jewish, Mormon, Methodist and other colleges and universities with religious roots and connections. And I say our faith communities deserve thanks for adding much richness to our educational traditions.

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The Vatican secretary of state says Pope Benedict XVI has no intention of reversing reforms adopted by Vatican II. It would be intriguing to read a thorough study of how Catholics around the world now view the changes that came out of the second Vatican council in the 1960s. There indeed still is division, with what I think is a small but dedicated and vocal minority who think Vatican II was a major error, heretical and invalid, while by far most others are on board with most, if not all, of the reforms that emerged. But that's just my guess.

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P.S.: If you missed the lovely eulogy of his father by Ted Kennedy Jr., whom I met a few years ago when he came to Kansas City to give a speech, here's the text of it. Just to clarify, this text misspells the name of author Shelby Foote.

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P.S.: For information about the health care forum I'll be moderating Sunday starting at 3 p.m. at Community Christian Church in Kansas City, click here, then scroll down a bit.

The essence of ministry: 8-28-09

What is the most effective ministry?


Well, in many ways that depends on the needs of the ones receiving ministry. In my experience, those offering ministry often misinterpret those needs, thinking that people in need require some fancy words or some complex theological explanations for what has happened to them

More likely, all they need is our presence.

The day after Sen. Ted Kennedy died this week (he's pictured here), I had a nice note from my sister, the one whose son perished on 9/11 almost eight years ago as a passenger on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center.

She told about going with Karleton's widow "to a 9/11 memorial in downtown Boston. Ted spoke along with others. When the speeches were over the speakers came down to the audience so they could speak to us individually.

". . .I went up to Ted. I was standing next to his right side. I thanked him for his speech. And I said, 'I know you understand.' He put his arm around me and gave me a big squeeze. This was a few weeks or so after JFK Jr had crashed. Ted was a Teddy Bear."

Notice what happened there. My sister and Ted Kennedy gave each other the gift of presence. Yes, a few words were spoken. But mostly he ministered to her by his presence and she ministered to him by being present to acknowledge his own pain.

I think we sometimes make ministry too complicated. It's nothing more -- but surely nothing less -- than giving ourselves away to meet the needs of others.

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A judge has ruled a Kentucky law that acknowledges dependence on God is unconstitutional. Well, duh. How in the world do such obviously unconstitutional laws get passed, anyway?

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P.S.: You can follow me on Twitter at

Lutherans move ahead: 8-27-09

Because I was on the road last week when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted at its national governing convention to "find a way" to allow committed gays and lesbians to be pastors, I have waited until now to get into the subject.


Those of you who have read me for any length of time know that I would approve of this move. And I do. I can find no biblical or theological reason to ban otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians from any ministerial office in the Christian church. At the same time, I recognize there are many people who disagree with me and do so with passion and with conviction that I am wrong and they are right.

I do not want to dismiss such people. I want to understand them and to have them understand me.

Part of understanding my position requires an appreciation of language. The new ELCA document that undergirds the church's decision is called "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust." You can find a link to download the document by clicking here.


If this subject is of any interest to you at all, I hope you will read the carefully crafted statement and appreciate its nuance and its frank admission that there is disagreement about many aspects of human sexuality within the church.

This kind of document is exactly the right tool for learning about various approaches to this question and for appreciating differences. It is so, so different from the radically myopic know-nothingism that typifies so much talk radio today on any hot-button issue. That's because the ELCA paper refuses to demonize people who hold positions different from the ones it proposes.

As I say, I think Christians of good will can find biblically justifiable reasons to permit gays and lesbians to be clergy (and that such people can add immeasurable gifts to the church). But that requires an appreciation of the complexity of understanding scripture written 2,000 or more years ago. To insist simply that, say, Leviticus 18:22 settles the matter for all times and all places is not to take scripture seriously.

At any rate, have a look at how the Lutherans dealt with this and, if you can, join me in congratulating them for the care they have taken throughout this process.

By the way, for a wealth of source material from the Religion Newswriters Association on the subject of gay clergy, click here.

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I thought this Washington Post "On Faith" blog entry offered a good analysis of how Sen. Ted Kennedy, who died this week, viewed his Catholic faith. Does any of you come from the "social justice" tradition of Catholicism? If so, do you agree with this analysis?

The role of religious art: 8-26-09


I want to go back into history again today -- as I sometimes do, especially in the summer -- to give me an excuse to talk a bit about religious art.

It was on this date in 1498 that Pope Alexander VI commissioned Michelangelo to carve the Pieta, the marble sculpture that shows Mary mourning over the body of Jesus that she holds on her lap.

Pieta means pity, and I've long thought that Michelangelo captured a sense of resigned bereavement in Mary's face as well as the seeming finality of death in Jesus' body. This achievement is especially remarkable considering that when the pope commissioned the work, Michelangelo was only 22 years old. More proof that sometimes genius is no respecter of age or experience.

The Pieta says things to the viewer that words simply cannot convey. And in that way it represents the importance of art in general and religious art in particular.

Religious art is a reminder of the limits of language. Many people insist on particular wording of beliefs and on the literal truth of words in sacred writings, even though all words are metaphors, pointing to a reality beyond themselves. Art gives us a nudge to remind us of that because art shows that not everything can be contained within the ability of words to describe it.

In the Christian tradition, the sermon is a left-brained way of preaching the gospel, while the sacrament of Holy Communion is a right-brained way of preaching the same gospel. That's because the sacrament relies not just on words but also on the taste, touch and feel of the elements of bread and wine. And those become sacramental because they point to a truth beyond themselves.

So thanks today to that old pope and, mostly, to Michelangelo.

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If Bernie Madoff really has cancer, is it God's punishment? Well, it's no suprise to me that my friend Rabbi Brad Hirschfield says no. At least probably not, given how little the human mind can understand about the divine.

Baptists, Baptists everywhere: 8-25-09

QUITMAN, Ark. -- So we're driving through this little town in northern Arkansas on Sunday morning and I am noticing churches.


Mostly Baptist churches.

The first is Howard General Baptist Church. And I'm thinking, there sure are lots of Baptist branches. Which is true. In fact, today I'm going to give you an incomplete list of Baptist branches. I'm not sure anyone can compile a complete list, given how many independent Baptist churches there are and how often others change affiliations with this or that group.

But what connects all these Baptists is that they are Protestant Christians who hold that only believers (which means someone old enough to make an informed and free commitment) should be baptized and then only by immersion (as pictured here). In other words, they oppose infant baptism and baptism that requires just the sprinkling or dabbing of water on the person's head.

But because of the Quitman church, let's begin with the General Association of General Baptists. General Baptists were one of two groups to emerge in England during the Puritan reform movement of the 17th century. As Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions reports: "While sharing the view that only believers should be baptized, the two groups differed with respect to the nature of the atonement of Jesus. Those who regarded the atonement as general (i.e., for all persons) came to be called General Baptists. Those who interpreted it as applying only to the particular body of the elect acquired the name Particular Baptists."

Roger Williams, the great religious freedom advocate, is given credit for helping to found Baptist churches in what became the United States. The first national body of Baptists, however, did not come together until 1814, and a few decades later the Southern Baptist Convention set itself up as a separate body, while the Northern Baptist Convention (now the American Baptist Church) was established in 1907.

At any rate, today the Southern Baptist Convention represents the largest group of Baptists in the United States, reporting it has some 16 million members in 42,000 churches. But recent reports suggest the Southern Baptists also face declining numbers, as do many Protestant churches in the U.S.

But you also have:

* The National Baptist Convention, founded in 1886, a historically black denomination.

* The Primitive Baptist Church. (You can surf around on this site and see how you would classify this church. Most would say fundamentalist or quite theologically conservative.)

* Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. (This is the group that includes Jimmy Carter and his church. These folks moved away from the Southern Baptist Convention over various issues.)

* The National Association of Free Will Baptists. This group traces its history back to the early 1700s.

* There's even an Independent Baptist Network, which sort of connects Baptist churches that don't want to be connected in any formal way.

Well, there is much, much more to know about Baptists in this country. If you want a good rundown that places Baptists in context with other religions in this country, I recommend the third edition of the book America's Religions by Peter W. Williams.

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A city council candidate in a town in Michigan says if city workers don't agree to work for $1 a year they are going against the "holy will of God." Is he saying God is a cheapskate employer? What exactly is the message here? 

New interfaith partners: 8-24-09

Way back in 1893 (just 15 years before the Cubs last won a World Series), a World Parliament of Religions gathered in Chicago. Somewhere on one of my bookshelves, I have a two-volume account of what went on there.


Out of that effort has grown a great deal of interfaith activity. In fact, the 1893 gathering often is given credit for spurring interfaith dialogue in this country and elsewhere, too.

The most recent news with connections to that long-ago event is the announcement of a partnership between the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions and, an online resource for people interested in interfaith dialogue.

In a press release about the new partnership, Leo Brunnick, founder and CEO of Patheos, said the "Council for the Parliament of World Religions is unique in its ability to bring so many of the world's religious representatives together. They do the hard but necessary work of fostering interreligious understanding and harmony, while honoring the essential and precious nature of each tradition."

As you can see by looking at the Parliament's Web site, to which I've linked you above, the group plans to hold a conference in December in Melbourne, Australia, a city that, as far as I know, doesn't have a baseball team with anything like my Cubs' century-plus-long record of frustration. (But perhaps religious people while there could ponder whether God is punishing the Cubs for something.)

As I've said many times here, the call of our generation is to learn to live together in religious harmony. The alternative, as we've seen throughout history and many places today, is unsustainable over the long haul and leads only to heartache and even violence.

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The cast has been removed from Pope Benedict XVI's broken wrist, but the pontiff says his wrist still is a little "lazy." Still, it's good to see the Catholic hierarchy throw off the cast system.

Inside terrorists' brains: 8-22/23-09

Especially since 9/11, people have been trying to figure out the minds of terrorists. What makes them tick? Why do they do what they do?


Well, I have no exhaustive answer for that, but in reading Robert E. McGlone's excellent new book, John Brown's War Against Slavery, I ran across a fascinating passage that helped me understand how complicated answers to those questions can be.

Brown, as you may know, fought valiantly and at times violently against slavery and the people who supported America's slave system. Indeed, in 1856 in Pottawatomie, Kan., he lead a group of abolitionists, including several of his sons, who murdered five pro-slavery people. Most famous, of course, was his attempt to seize Harpers Ferry and start an anti-slavery revolution.

At any rate, here is some of what McGlone writes:

"This brings us back to the question of how a deeply religious man like Brown could silence his conscience sufficiently to order murder. How could he believe himself chivalrous or just while taking men from their homes and families in the dead of night and butchering them? . . .

"Questions like these have intrigued scholars of twentieth-century terrorism, among them social psychologist Alburt Bandura. . .(who) identifies six psychosocial 'mechanisms of moral disengagement' that terrorists use to silence their own 'self-sanctions' and placate the scruples of their supporters against committing destructive acts.

"First, terrorists rationalize violence by putting it in the service of religious creeds, righteous ideologies, or national imperatives.

"Second, they try to compare their acts advantageously to allegedly most heinous acts or plots sponsored by an oppressive enemy. . . .

"Third, they may deflect or mitigate their sense of responsibility for the violence they commit by seeing themselves as instruments of impersonal forces over which they have no control.

"Fourth, they may blame their actions on the provocations of a third party, as when terrorists strike at Americans on grounds that the American government is complicit in the victimization of the terrorists' people. . . .

"Fifth, through selective inattention to consequences, terrorists may disregard or distort the effects of their deeds.

"Finally, they dehumanize their victims by objectifying them into 'savages' or 'satantic fiends,' or assigning them to other categories that render them incapable of suffering or responsive only to brute force."

It would be fascinating to see whether these six categories pretty adequately described the 9/11 terrorists and their decision to hide behind Islam for their violent ideology.

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Florida's governor says he's asked God to protect his state from hurricanes, and so far it seems to be working. Could be. But it also reminds me of the guy in downtown Indianapolis who beat on a drum at noon each day to keep away the elephants. And guess what. No elephants.

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NOTE: Until Monday, Aug. 24, my Internet access may be sporadic or even non-existent for hours at a time or even longer. So it may take longer than usual to get your comments posted. Thanks for your patience. Bill

Religious symbols on graves: 8-21-09

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As I do periodically, the other day I walked through the three cemeteries that are near my home, and this time I tried to pay attention to the variety of religious symbols found there on the headstones.

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As a Christian, it was pretty easy for me to recognize the symbols, though, of course, I had no idea exactly what the people who placed them there wanted me to know about them or about the people buried there.


In the two Christian cemeteries, as you might imagine, there were crosses galore -- and various kinds of crosses, too, as you can see from these photos.

But also prominent were the initials IHS, which you often also see in Christian churches. There are two common explanations for them. One is that they are the first three letters of the Greek name for Jesus, Iota, Eta, Sygma. The Greek name is ΙΗΣΟΥΣ.

The other common explanation is that they letters are derived from a Latin phrase. It comes from the first letter of "Iesus," Latin for Jesus; the first letter of "Hominum," Latin for "of men," and the first letter of "Salvator," Latin for savior. Thus, IHS, Jesus, Savior of men.

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A lamb, of course, symbolizes the "lamb of God," Christ Jesus. Or may simply be a way of referring to "our little lamb," a child who died.

A dove is a standard symbol of the Holy Spirit in Christian Trinitarian theology.

And then sometimes more secular markers are used to say something about the person buried there, such as the symbol below here indicating the person died of AIDS.

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In the Jewish cemetery near my house, almost all the headstones are flat to the ground and carry no symbols at all, only the named of the person buried there along with his or her dates of birth and death.

(That's what's shown in the photo below.) But the lack of symbols there is mostly just the policy of the cemetery, not because Judaism forbids such symbols on graves. Indeed, I've been to Jewish cemeteries, here and in Poland, where the grave markers contain many different symbols. Two standard ones are a jar for someone connected to the Levites and hands for someone connected to the Cohanim.

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Well, we use art in many ways to express things that sometimes words can't adequately cover, and perhaps nowhere is there such an eternal or final effort at expressing religious ideas in that way as in cemeteries.

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CONWAY, Ark. -- So as we're traveling through here yesterday I picked up a copy of the Log Cabin Democrat and read this story about the arrest of a man who said he was on a mission from God to stop evildoers "by shooting them in the face." Lordy, lordy. Why does mental instability so often seem to require enlisting God as a co-conspiritor? What's that about, anyway?

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NOTE: Until Monday, Aug. 24, my Internet access may be sporadic or even non-existent for hours at a time or even longer. So it may take longer than usual to get your comments posted. Thanks for your patience. Bill

Birthing three theologians: 8-20-09

Yes, yes, I know it's my bride's birthday today and I do, indeed, intend to celebrate that. She was born into a Congregationalist family, later became an Episcopalian and today is a Presbyterian with an Anglican heart, so I think of her as an Episcoterian.

But today also is the birthday of three Christian theologians about whom you would do well to know if you don't already.

We'll go oldest to youngest, though all now are dead.


* Francis Asbury (depicted here) was born on this date in 1745. He was a pioneer American Methodist bishop, though born in England. John Wesley appointed him in 1771 to be a missionary to the land that would become the United States a few years later. When the Methodist church in America became a separate organization in 1784, Asbury and Thomas Coke were ordained its first two bishops. He rode by horseback all over the place, right up to the day of his death in 1816, as he oversaw the churches under his purview. Good thing he never married because his annual salary was just $64.


* Rudolf Bultmann (pictured here) was born on this date in 1884. He was a German Lutheran New Testament scholar who is given credit (or blame, if you hate the idea) for helping to create "form criticism" of the New Testament. The idea behind this is that various oral traditions eventually got collected into the written gospels, and it's useful to try to understand those various traditions and how they came together. Bultmann also was an advocate of understanding and replacing old metaphors in scripture with more modern images so the gospel could be more fully understood by today's readers. Scriptural literalists blame form criticism or "higher criticism," as the approach sometimes is called, for encouraging people to discount the truths of the biblical stories.


* Paul Tillich (pictured here) was born on this date in 1886. He, too, was a German Lutheran, but as Hitler came to power in his native land, Tillich came to the U.S., where he taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York (as well as Harvard and the University of Chicago) until his death in 1965. Tillich is most known for his terminology for God, which is the "Ground of Being." He, too, has had numerous evanglical critics, especially for what they consider his pantheistic views of God.

(And just for the record, my bride looks nothing like any of these three guys.)

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President Obama yesterday spoke with a collection of religious leaders who are sympathetic to his efforts to reform health care in America, saying it's a moral obligation. I'm going to have to find a good history of the 1930s legislation that created Social Security to see if politicians cast the debate in moral terms. I agree with the characterization, though that doesn't obligate me to agree with the specifics of what's been proposed.

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NOTE: Until Monday, Aug. 24, my Internet access may be sporadic or even non-existent for hours at a time or even longer. So it may take longer than usual to get your comments posted. Thanks for your patience. Bill