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Circling down to hell: 12-31-09

To finish off this strange year, I thought today the subject should be appropriate.


So I'm going to write about hell.

What the . . .?

Well, not long ago I was looking at the 100-year-old "Harvard Classics" collection of books on one of our shelves (the collection belonged to my wife's grandfather) and I realized that I'd never sat down and read through the whole of Dante's Divine Comedy, much of which, as I'm sure you know, takes place in hell. Or at least in what Dante imagines hell to be like.

And that's the point I want to make today. My guess is that all of the images we have of hell, whether they find their roots in the Bible or in other sources, are much more a reflection of our fears of the unknown than they are of anything real. Now, I'm not for a moment saying there is no hell. I won't know the answer to that one -- if ever -- until after I die. But even Pope John Paul II suggested that hell is not a physical place but a state of being.

Because, as I've said here recently, all words are metaphors, no description we can offer of hell can either confirm its existence or describe its geography in any precise and unchallengeable way.

And as Dante Alighieri himself said once, "I found the original of my hell in the world which we inhabit." Which is not so different from this quote attributed to Oscar Wilde: "We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell."

There have been hundreds if not thousands of interpretations of Dante's epic poem. So I'm not going to suggest that my thoughts about it are in any way the final word or even get close to what Dante was up to in the work. But because the hell he describes in the poem is so bloody, so hopeless, so over-the-top graphic in its putridity, perhaps he was trying to suggest to us that the human mind can create a hell much worse than a loving God ever would. (Some theologians have thought exactly that.)

When I was a boy, my family owned a large coffee-table type, wildly illustrated version of The Divine Comedy, with various wretched depictions of the several circles of hell. It was in some ways a one-dimensional precursor to modern snuff films. And if its purpose was to scare the hell out of readers, it failed with me. I found it ridiculous, amusing and bizarre.

Perhaps that explains why, despite my best intentions, I have been unable to plod my way through much of the actual words of Dante this time. Instead, I've been reading and focusing on the brief summary of each canto provided in the translation by Henry F. Cary. It's sort of the Cliffs Notes version, but it seems to be much more straightforward than the wandering words of the wandering poet passing through hell.

Maybe Dante's work would have appealed to me more if he'd done it as a blog, with a daily posting for each of the 34 cantos about hell and the dozens of other cantos about purgatory and paradise.

Or maybe not. I just hope Dante's work didn't condemn him to, well, you know. . .

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And here -- one more time -- is the problem: People claiming to speak for God in radically certain ways. In this case it's a Muslim cleric in Iran declaring that opposition leaders there are "enemies of God" who deserve to die. It's this kind of belligerant nonsense that other people of faith must stand up in public and condemn. My doing so here will, however, have much less effect than if other Muslim leaders around the world were to do so. By the way, a group of prominent Christians who would identify themselves as conservative or evangelical is pushing for action on Iran. Their concern is well taken, though I don't necessarily agree with them on what should be done.

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P.S.: In response to yesterday's posting here about souls, David M. May, who teaches New Testament at Central Baptist Theological Seminary here (an American Baptist school), posted this reflection on his own blog about how to understand the concept of soul from a biblical perspective. Helpful stuff. Have a look.

Underdeveloped souls? 12-30-09

Each of us, I think, has a different idea of what we mean by soul.

Here's one definition from the online Catholic Encyclopedia: "The soul may be defined as the ultimate internal principle by which we think, feel, and will, and by which our bodies are animated."

I tend to think of the soul as the essence of our being, though inseparable in a mysterious way from our bodies. My semi-definition would seem to allow for change and growth of the soul as our being changes and grows and seeks to be more in tune with its eternal purposes.

All of which is prep work for sharing with you a marvelous insight about the condition of some souls. I recently received as a gift Letters to a Young Doctor, by Richard Selzer, who is a simply fabulous writer.

In his first letter in the book to a young surgeon, he is describing some overbearing, arrogant surgeons he has known, urging his reader not to be like that. And he says this: "They own underdeveloped souls, the blighted wisps having slipped into their perfect frames at the moment of birth to live out their tenancy unacknowledged."

Wow. Fabulous description.

Which got me to thinking about ways in which we allow our souls to be underdeveloped. I think it may happen when we fail to use our time wisely in ways that serve others and help us focus on eternal truths.

When, for instance, we sit slack-jawed and passive in front of mindless TV sitcoms or wild action DVDs instead of treating our craniums to the nourishing ideas in a good book, the result is an underdeveloped soul.

I'm not suggesting that from time to time we don't need relaxing entertainment. But when more people vote for "American Idol" than vote for president, somehow I suspect a nation full of underdeveloped souls.

What have you done today to develop your soul? As you think about that, I hope you remember that our souls are built for relationship.

(I'm not sure the art here today depicts a soul, but a like it and found it at

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The plague that is al-Qaida and its version of violent extremism masquerading as Islam has found a hospitable home in Yemen, this report says. As the recent attempted destruction of the airliner heading for Detroit shows, these people continue to misuse religion for radical ideological purposes. There is no reasoning with irrationality. They simply must be stopped, though in doing that we must be careful to target only those who truly want us dead, not just those who disagree with our policies.

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P.S.: The Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council is sponsoring "Winter's Light," a Jan. 23 evening of interfaith storytelling, music, dance and other arts, at Avila University. For a pdf flier about the event click on this link: Download Winter'sLightFlyer2010[1].

Redeeming all creation: 12-29-09

I was doing some reading the other day in preparation for a Jan. 31 class I'll teach at my church about how we Christians so often get funerals wrong.

As I discuss this, I want people to remember the difference between the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body and the much different old Greek idea about the immortality of the soul. The Christian faith historically has rejected that Greek idea.

One of the books I was looking through was Simply Christian, by Bishop N.T. (Tom) Wright, perhaps the most prolific traditionalist Christian writer at work today. He is bishop of Durham, England, in the Church of England.

Wright has a final chapter called "New Creation, Starting Now," in which he lays out with remarkable clarity the historic Christian teaching about what happens to us when we die. I'll quote a bit from it here shortly, but the astonishing thing to me is that so many Christians get this wrong -- and, thus, so many non-Christians criticize not the traditional teaching, with which they are unfamiliar, but, rather, the culturally popular view that the purpose of Christianity is to get us to heaven.

"Despite what many people think, within the Christian family and outside it, the point of Christianity isn't 'to go to heaven when you die,'" Wright says.

Rather, Wright says the point is that "God intends, in the end, to put the whole creation to rights. Earth and heaven were made to overlap with one another, not fitfully, mysteriously, and partially as they do at the moment, but completely, gloriously, and utterly."

Then he writes this: "The great drama will end, not with 'saved souls' being snatched up into heaven, away from the wicked earth and the mortal bodies which have dragged them down into sin, but with the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, so that 'the dwelling of God is with humans.'"

Indeed, from the beginning of the church, the Christian message has been that God intends to redeem not disembodied souls that are immortal (only God is immortal) but the whole creation. There is much mystery hidden in the details of how this will happen, and anyone who pretends to know for sure is kidding you. But the point is the redemption of all creation, humanity included -- so that, as the old hymn, "This Is My Father's World," says, in the end, "earth and heaven (will) be one."

If you don't hear this message much at Christian funerals -- and you don't -- don't be surprised. A lot of people get it wrong, preferring instead to imagine that at the moment of death God snatches our immortal souls up to heaven and they rejoice that they no longer are imprisoned in an earthly body. That may be a compelling vision, but it's not the vision of historic, orthodox, traditional Christianity.

(The art here today is by Marcia Hinds. You can find it and other works at

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Once again the Vatican has stirred up the Jewish world by seeming to move toward making Pope Pius XII a saint, and historian Robert Wistrich, in this interesting commentary, wonders why. Take note of Wistrich's own tentative conclusion about Pius XII and the Holocaust. They are in harmony with my own view of this pope -- neither an evil man nor a great hero but, like most of us, somewhere in between. The sad thing is that at the time we needed in the role of pope someone with more courage. But another point worth making here is that the process for creating saints in the Catholic Church is totally a Catholic internal process, and those of us who are not Catholic would do well not to critique the process or the results but, rather, to let the results speak for themselves. In this case, my guess is that making Pius XII a saint would not, in the minds of many -- Catholic and non-Catholic alike -- speak well for the church.

Education's faith roots: 12-28-09

Sometimes some of the more aggressive atheists seem to dismiss the idea that religion has contributed much of anything good at all to society.


Well, to the contrary, the list of positive contributions is long, indeed, but today I want to focus on the role of faith communities in creating institutions of higher education all over the United States.

Why today? Well, today is the anniversary of the founding of two such schools -- the one known now as Greensboro College in Greensboro, N.C., founded in 1838 by the denomination today known as the United Methodist Church, and St. Louis University, founded in 1818 as St. Louis Academy, and known as a college since 1820. Indeed, St. Louis University was the first Roman Catholic university in the U.S. west of the Allegheny Mountains.

For a bit of St. Louis U. history, click here. And for some history and other background about Greensboro College, click here.

Kansas City, of course, is home to several schools with religious roots, from William Jewell (Baptist) up north in Liberty, to Rockhurst University (Catholic) in the center of Kansas City, to MidAmerica Nazarene University south in Olathe, Kan., the name of which tells you its connection.

My Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination is famous for its commitment to education and for the many colleges it created, many of which retain at least some ties to the church even today. And such stellar school as as Harvard, Brandeis, Yale, Notre Dame and others find their roots in religious communities.

I'm a strong proponent of public education, but our total higher education system (well, our whole education system period) would be severely impoverished without schools that have religious roots. And this is a good day to give them a cheer. Any of you attend such a school?

(The illustration here today came from

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Here's a story about what promises to be a fascinating new book I haven't yet read -- a new translation of the New Testament (including some non-canonical, gnostic books) that aims to restore more of a jewish context to Jesus. As I've said here before, Christians miss a great deal when they fail to appreciate the fully Jewish context in which Jesus lived. Maybe this book will help. If you have a chance to read it, let me know what you think.

A subjunctive faith: 12-26/27-09

For a long time -- maybe even most of my life -- I have been wary of people who claim to have ultimate and absolute truth.

That doesn't mean I'm a moral relativist. Rather, it means that I think we need to be modest theologians, in the words of the late theologian and author Shirley Guthrie. That is, we need to be humble about the reality that our finite minds cannot comprehend the infinite in any exhaustive way.

You can even find columns I've written about this in my first book, A Gift of Meaning. On Page 112, for instance, is an August 1999 column in which I wrote, "Indeed, certainty is a curse not only of our American culture but also of human society generally. That's because far too often we have nailed ourselves to some supposedly absolute truth without imagining either the consequences or the likelihood that we haven't seen all the evidence."

I recently ran across a new way to think about all of this, and although the article I'll be citing is not available yet on the Internet, I want to share some of it with you today.

It's by Cynthia A. Jarvis, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia. Cindy's article appears in the January 2010 issue of Theology Today and is called "Ministry in the Subjunctive Mood."

She begins by quoting essayist Michele Morano explaining the difference between the indicative and subjunctive moods in language: "The indicative mood is for knowledge, facts, absolutes, for describing what's real or definite. . .The subjunctive mood, on the other hand, is uncertain. It helps you tell. . .what might be. . .(It) is the mood of mystery. . .of faith interwoven with doubt. It's a held breath, a hand reaching out. . .It's humility, deference, the opposite of hubris."

Then she comes to the heart of the matter for her: "To borrow Karl Barth's critique of religion, facts and absolutes aare what people believe in instead of God."

Exactly. Look, the reality is that our words are always metaphor. They point to a reality but are never the reality themselves, and because they are metaphor there is a certain sloppiness, a certain looseness, a certain inexactness about them. The word God can never be God. The Word of God can never been fully captured by the words of humans. And the words of, say, the Nicene Creed, can never fully express the Christian faith.

And yet, as Jarvis writes, "I would venture to say that religion has been too much in the business of certitude, the sentences of the saved awash in the indicative mood, the tomes of second-rate theologians made thick with imperative pronouncements concerning the Absolute, who appears to be more a principle than a person." And: ". . .the truth revealed in the Incarnation, God's Word become flesh, resists the indicative mood of religious certitude."

She suggests that our response to the mysteries of faith be Mary's question when told by an angel that she was to bear God's son: "How can this be?" And this response, in the subjunctive mood: "It is extraordinary -- isn't it?"

Imagine if all the people in the world who embrace the indicative mood of religious certitude were to shed some of their hubris and, instead, fall on their knees before a mystery too large for them. It would be extraordinary -- wouldn't it?

(The photo here today, showing two roads diverging, is one I took at the Lake of the Ozarks. You'll find an earlier version of this picture on the cover of my book, A Gift of Meaning.)

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I have said before that "The Simpsons" TV show deserves praise for taking religion serious. And now it turns out that the Vatican agrees with me. It recently praised the show. Wonder if that's why that woman tried to attack the pope at the Christmas service.

Merry Christmas to you: 12-25-09

For Christmas day, I invite you to gaze upon the Nativity scene that has been in my family since I was a boy. Indeed, on the bottom of one of the wise men is a sticker that says it cost 15 cents at F.W. Woolworth. Imagine that.

My mother apparently had a lot of brownish purplish paint and spread some of it some of these figures when they needed a paint job.

I hope you have some similarly warm and funny holiday memories. And I hope this season of hope brings you reasons for hope.

As a small gift to you, I offer these words from the theologian Jurgen Moltmann: “This world ‘cannot bear’ the new creation, cannot give birth to it. The potential for…the new does not lie latent within the old, but relies utterly on a new work of the God of the resurrection. The present is not pregnant with future except…as the God of the virgin conception is at work in its midst, calling forth life where there is only the potential for death and decay.”

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Where does the law stand now on having holiday displays that include religious elements on public property? The Christian Science Monitor seeks to put us up to date in this piece. Fighting about this stuff is a good indication that we take it seriously.

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P.S.: Ever wonder why the genealogies of Jesus offered in Matthew and Luke don't match up? Click here for one answer from a professor of New Testament.

Seen one, seen 'Amahl'? 12-24-09

Do you know what today is? I mean besides Christmas Eve and the 128th anniversary of the birth of my maternal grandmother?

It's the 58th anniversary of the television debut of the Christmas musical, "Amahl and the Night Visitors," written by Gian Carlo Menotti.

Indeed, TV historians think it was the first musical to be broadcast on TV, and that's probably right since the performance of the decidedly off-key Army-McCarthy hearings didn't occur until mid-1954.

Some years ago my church put on a version of "Amahl," and it really was quite moving. It's a charming little story and is among those that grow out of biblical passages but passages that get added to and fictionarlized for dramatic effect. Another example would be "The Fourth Wise Man." Perhaps a poetic example would be T.S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi," a lovely work that is among my favorites.

At any rate, the performance in our sanctuary was one of those typical amateur productions one comes to expect, with makeshift costumes and such. But the story itself seemed to transcend the limitations of the company, and the music warmed hearts.

Besides, I much prefer biblically based fiction over the silliness of Santa stories or "The (Blank) Who Saved Christmas." Though I must say I'm still waiting for "The Retired Newspaper Columnist Who Saved Christmas," which I might actually watch. I suppose if I want such a thing I may have to write it myself.

May joy find you in this season of important stories. And if you want to view a Milwaukee Opera Theatre production of "Amahl," click here.

(The photo here today is from

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On the eve of Christmas, what might the Church of England have to celebrate? This lovely piece in a British newspaper offers a list of several things in an open letter to the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. I think WIlliams has made some mistakes as archbishop, but I think the writer of this piece gets it mostly right.

Removing church barriers: 12-23-09

As my regular readers know, it's my belief that otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians should not be banned from being ordained as Christian clergy. I think the Bible, when read in its proper context, does not forbid it. (The book to read is Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality, by Jack Rogers.)


There are many Christians of good will who disagree, but I believe we are moving toward a time when most denominations will be open to the ordination of gays and lesbians.

Another bit of evidence for my optimism is found in this interesting story by my friend Eric Gorski, who covers religion for the Associated Press. (You can follow Eric on Twitter at And you can follow me there at

Eric's story is about a Denver area church that describes itself as evangelical but that nonetheless affirms full inclusion in the life of the church for gays and lesbians. I was struck by this comment from a Presbyterian seminary teacher who himself recently changed his position to favor ordination of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians:

"Highlands Church represents a breakout position, where you have a gay-affirming stance that moves beyond the traditional kind of liberal-conservative divide," said Mark Achtemeier, an associate professor at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). "I'm finding lots of moderate conservatives just think there's something wrong with a default position of excluding gays from the life of the church."

The fight for equal rights for homosexuals in the Christian community has been long and difficult and it's far from over. But slowly people are moving toward rationality and love.

I have a speech I've given about what the Bible really says about homosexuality. I finally posted it here on the blog yesterday. Look for it under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

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Christians living in the Gaza Strip are hoping to get permits to go to Bethlehem for Christmas. I was in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve once and the experience is remarkable. I hope any Christian anywhere who wants to go can do it some day.

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P.S.: What looks to be a fascinating TV program describing the ways some Baptists and some Muslims have found common ground in sacred writ will air at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 16, on the Kansas City ABC affiliate, KMBC-TV. It's called "Different Books, Common Word." Make a note on your calendar to see it if you can. It's produce by

Saving Holocaust history: 12-22-09

On the whole, Poland has done a good job preserving for history the death and concentration camps that the Germans built in the country.

But it is not a cheap undertaking to maintain these historic sites so visitors can see firsthand how the Germans went about their evil goal of wiping out European Jewry.

Now, however, the German government itself has stepped up to provide significant funding for an endowment fund meant to help preserve ground zero of the Holocaust, Auschwitz, in perpetuity. Germany has pledged more than $87 million for the fund, about half what is expected to be needed. And, of course, if thieves continue to dismantle parts of Auschwitz, the ultimate cost could be more. I linked you to a story about that outrageous theft last weekend in this posting. (Yesterday we learned that authorities have recovered the chopped-up sign and arrested five men.)

Hitler's "Final Solution" was so massive, so murderous, so breathtaking that already we have people who deny it could have taken place. That's why it's vital that the story continue to be told -- and told at the sites at which so many of Europe's Jews were murdered. Other countries that were allies of Germany or collaborated in various ways also should be contributing to this new fund.

The photo here today is of me visiting Auschwitz in 2007 when my co-author and I, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, were in Poland doing interviews for our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

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This good column in the Christian Science Monitor points out that the upcoming 9/11 and Fort Hood trials will go far in determining how non-Muslim Americans view Islam. As the writer notes, the reaction of the global Muslim community to these trials will either contribute to the view that Islam is intolerant of other faiths or will help solidify the idea that Islam is a religion of peace, but in either case, that's up to Muslims. Good point.

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NOTE: Today marks the end of five years of writing this blog and the start of the sixth. I'm grateful to all of you who have been readers for however long (though all five years are in the archives, so get busy if you've missed some). I've very much enjoyed the chance to offer many faith- and ethics-related subjects and to hear your thoughts in return. Readers, though concentrated in the Kansas City area, have come here from every state as well as from dozens of foreign countries. As I write this, among the last 100 visitors have been readers in Saudi Arabia, India, Poland and the Philippines, to say nothing of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, wherever that is. In the five years now past I have written some 1,565 posts and have published nearly 35,000 of your comments. For newcomers, I invite you to the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page for more information, including how to comment and why there are ads on this blog. Thanks for being a reader. Bill.

Growing religious oppression: 12-21-09

I mentioned here the other day the new survey on religious oppression around the world done for the Pew Forum on Religion & Public LIfe. To read it all, click here.


The findings are distressing, and it makes me wonder whether humanity has made much progress in the last several centuries.

Here's the awful news again:

The Global Restrictions on Religion study finds that 64 nations -- about one-third of the countries in the world -- have high or very high restrictions on religion. But it's worse even than that. Because some of the most restrictive countries have large populations, nearly 70 percent of the world's 6.8 billion people live in countries with high restrictions on religion. And religious minorities get the worst of it.

Now, clearly the level of religious oppression varies from place to place even within restrictive countries, and here and there one can find some evidence of progress. But the reality that religious restrictions and oppression aare so widespread should be a mark of shame for government after government.

This is especially true considering how international bodies for decades have been at least on paper standing up for religious freedom.

And in the U.S., whose citizens cherish their freedom of religion, both the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the U.S. State Department have been beating the religious freedom drum (sometimes too selectively -- especially at State) for a long time.

The annual USCIRF report on religious freedom internationally offers solid evidence of what's wrong, as does the State Department's annual report.

But the reality is that not a lot has been happening to improve things for these oppressed citizens, who are being denied a fundamental human right. More Americans -- especially our government leaders -- need to make this more of a priority. And if, as a citizen, you care about this, as you should, you should speak up, too.

(The photo here today is from

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What happens when religious radicals take over a country? Look at Somalia, the most failed nation on Earth at the moment and you'll see people who think of themselves as Islamic purists issuing various rules to control the population. This is the kind of madness that takes away fundamental human rights in the name of religion. And it's why free nations must speak out against such extremist movements.