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What that Muslim study means: 1-31-11

Today I want to back up a few days and do a bit of unpacking of the new report about global Islam from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public LIfe and the John Templeton Foundation. For the Washington Post report on the study, click here.

Islamcrescent First, to remind you of the highlights:

* The world’s Muslim population is expected to increase by about 35 percent in the next 20 years, rising from just over 1.6 billion in 2010 to just under 2.2 billion by 2030. As a result of this growth, Muslims will make up 26.4 percent of the world’s projected population of 8.3 billion in 2030. That would be up 3 percentage points from 23.4 percent of the estimated 2010 world population of 6.9 billion.

* Over the next two decades, the report estimates, the number of Muslims in the United States will go from less than 1 percent of the population to 1.7 percent, which means growing from about 2.6 million people in 2010 to 6.2 million in 2030. (Please note, however, that counting Muslims is a difficult task because they don't keep track of themselves in quite the almost compulsive/orderly way that, say, Presbyterians do. So you'll find guesses about the current Muslim population of the U.S. that range from less than 2.5 million to more than 10 million. But the 2.6 million figure that Pew uses probably is a good, if conservative, estimate.)

I found several things about the report particularly interesting.

The first is that the Muslim population of Europe, currently estimated at 6 percent of the population will wind up 20 years from now at 8 percent of the population. Thus visions of a thoroughly Islamicized Europe simply don't hold much water. Today Europe accounts for about 2.7 percent of the global Islamic population. In 2030, Pew says, Europe will be home to, well, 2.7 percent of the global Islamic population. Not much change there.

Similarly, as the report's executive summary notes, "A majority of the world’s Muslims (about 60 percent) will continue to live in the Asia-Pacific region, while about 20 percent will live in the Middle East and North Africa, as is the case today." Indeed, many people don't realize that the largest predominantly Muslim country in the world today is not in the Arab world. Rather, it's Indonesia.

Also, the rate  of growth among Muslims has been slowing in recent decades and is likely to continue that decline between now and 2030, the report suggests.

Islam-Christian At the end of those 20 years, will Islam be the world religion with the most adherents? Well, that seems quite doubtful. After all, Islam isn't the biggest religion today. Christianity is (with estimates ranging from 2.1 to more than 2.5 billion adherents). And the 20-year growth projected for Islam looks as if it will give Islam numbers in 2030 still less than Christianity has today. For Islam to become the biggest religion Christianity would have to go into a fairly precipitous decline. We see some of that decline in Europe, but in Africa and Asia we see Christianity booming. So my guess is that Christianity will continue to be the religion with the most adherents for as far as the eye can see.

These kinds of reports, based on good observations and facts, are especially helpful in a world that suffers from unneccessary fear of Islam. This is not to say that there aren't people who identify themselves as Muslims who are violent extremists engaging in terror. There are and they must be stopped. But legitimate concern about those radicals should not cloud our picture of the whole of Islam.

In that regard, I liked this paragraph in the Washington Post account of the new study:

"This will provide a garbage filter for hysterical claims people make about the size and growth of the Muslim population," said Philip Jenkins, a religious history scholar known for his books on Christianity and Islam.

For more about the Piew study and additional helpful resources about Islam from the Religion Newswriters Association, click here. And for more religious data than you can throw a stick at, go to the Web site of the Association of Religious Data Archives. For other data on world religions by ranking of size, see this site.

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As the Twitter/Facebook revolutions continue to unfold in several Middle East countries, the leader of what's called an Islamist party in Tunisia, where all this began, has returned to the country, and wants people to know he's no Osama bin Laden and no Ayatollah Khomeini. In an interview with the Associated Press, he describes his goals and approaches. As for Egypt: As I mentioned here recently, I was last there in 2002 on a post-9/11 writing assignment for The Kansas City Star. So just a heads-up: On Wednesday of this week, I plan to reprint here on the blog the primary piece about Egypt that I wrote then because I think it provides some useful insight into where the country was then and some clues about how the country moved toward all of this unrest in just the few years since then.

Gay and Orthodox Christian? 1-29/30-11

Anyone who has followed my writings over the years knows that I believe the Bible in no way condemns homosexual orientation. For a detailed look at why I think that, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page and you'll find my essay/speech on the subject.

There you will see that I arrive at my position through biblical exegesis as a Protestant who takes the Bible seriously and not via a social/political approach.

Homosexuality-orth Indeed, I am convinced that nearly all branches of the Christian church have gotten this matter wrong for a very long time, in much the same way that some Christians read the Bible and came to the wrong conclusions about slavery.

Most of the conversation about all of this has taken place among Protestant Christians and Catholic Christians. Christian Orthodoxy, which officially condemns homosexuality, has not raised up many voices that might stand against such teachings and argue for inclusiveness and liberation.

Which is why I welcome a new book, Homosexuality in the Orthodox Church, edited by Justin R. Cannon. Its publication date is this month.

Cannon, a theologian now working toward the possibility of ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, has brought together several compelling stories of Orthodox people who have been wounded deeply by the church's stance on this issue.

But beyond that, Cannon provides a brief but quite well focused chapter in which he discusses the various passages from the Bible that Christians who stand against homosexuality use to justify their positions.

Cannon also has created an online resource called "Inclusive Orthodoxy," which offers many resources for people who are open to considering the reality that the Bible does not consider any sexual orientation sinful but, rather, seeks to welcome one and all into what Jesus called the kingdom or realm of God.

Cannon's new book joins the list of fairly recent books that seeks to move the church toward the light on this issue. They include Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality, by Jack Rogers; Same-Sex Marriage?, by Marvin M. Ellison, and Would Jesus Discriminate?, by Cindi Love.

Cannon says the real question is not about sin or sex. Rather, the real question is: How can the church faithfuly minister to and love homosexual Orthodox Christians?

For that branch of Christianity, he's right. And this new book moves the conversation in the right direction.

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A legislator in Wyoming has proposed a change in that state's constitution that would deny any adoption of Sharia law. And in the midst of this frivolous process of needlessly fomenting fear about Islam, he talks about Sharia as "very reminiscent of what we call the Old Testament-type legalism, the eye-for-an-eye, tooth for a tooth sort of punishment." Thus he insults Jews and Judaism in order to insult Muslims and Islam. How do these goofballs get elected, anyway?

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P.S.: Another in a series of interfatih discussions between Rabbi Alan Cohen and the Rev. Scott Myers will take place at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 15, in room 250 of Massman Hall at Rockhurst University in Kansas City. For a downloadable pdf poster with details of the event, click here. AND: At 3 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 20, The Gathering VII will take place at Congregation Beth Shalom at 9400 Wornall in Kansas City. Organizers describe it as "a citywide celebration of hope and a time of prayer for the peace of Jerusalem."

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ANOTHER P.S.:: I just discovered that my latest book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, is out on Kindle. You can order the Kindle version at, but if you want the real, hold-the-paper-in-your-hands version, e-mail me.

Gospel music for civil rights: 1-28-11

Gospel music. It's mostly about heaven and sweet Jesus and the bad old devil, right?

Gospel Well, a lot of it is, but researchers are discovering an almost-forgotten depth of this music, which has deep roots in the African-American community. They are finding that some of this music gave voice to the most persuasive proponents of civil rights and other peace justice issues.

A Baylor University researcher who is overseeing a preservation effort called the "Black Gospel Music Restoration Project" has found that a lot of "B" sides of old 45 records address exactly these issues.

"The reason we haven't known about the 'B' sides before is that more than third of what we've received is not in the lone book that tries to catalog all gospel music," says Robert Darden, an associate professor of journalism at Baylor and a former gospel editor for Billboard magazine. "When we've known about a song, it is almost always the hit or 'A' side."

National and international interest in preserving these old gospel recordings was spurred in 2005 by this piece by Darden in The New York Times.

All of this strikes me as more evidence of the connection between religious faith and morally driven social causes designed to liberate people from various prisons. Can music be a tool in this? Clearly. And it's a good thing not to lose the history of how some of that happened.

If you want more information about "Black Gospel Music Restoration Project" click here. At the page to which that link will connect you, it's possible to search through the entire collection being gathered by this intriguing project.

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Egyptian_flag I mentioned here yesterday the protests in Egypt (you see that country's flag pictured here today) and the future of democracy there and in some other predominantly Muslim countries. Yesterday's protests seemed at least as potent as the ones the day or two before that, and it's increasingly unclear whether President Hosni Mubarak can withstand the onslaught. Nor is it clear to me whether the Muslim Brotherhood -- banned but tolerated in Egypt -- will begin to take a more active role. To help all of us understand what's happening not just in Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon but in other countries in the Middle East, I want to link you to a couple of pieces. First is this one by the Egyptian Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who has returned to Egypt to participate in the protests. ElBaradei is critical not just of Egypt's leadership but also of the response by the American government. Next is this piece from Commentary magazine that is also critical of the American response to developments in the Middle East. Finally, here's a CNN piece explaining how the situations in Egypt and Tunisia are different. We're still days, weeks or months away from knowing whether the current turmoil is of huge significance or simply a blip on the screen. I'm guessing something just below huge significance with long-term consequences we can't yet foresee.

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P.S.: For a shorter permalink to this posting use or click here.

Billy Graham's regrets: 1-27-11

When you think about a preacher and politics, what preacher's name comes almost instantly to mind? Right. Billy Graham (pictured here), now in the twilight of his life.

Billy Graham Only now this same Billy Graham, asked in a Christianity Today interview if he'd do anything differently in life, says yes. Among other things: "I also would have steered clear of politics."

Well, well. What are we to make of this? Two things, I think.

First, Graham has some natural regrets about the ways in which he came to look like a political partisan, one who was in the pocket of the Republican Party. And I'm sure he has special regrets about the ways in which some of the politicians he befriended let him down. (I'm thinking of you, Richard M. Nixon.) I think that viewing things from this end of his life Graham understands that at times his own ego and need for public attention drew him to presidents like a moth to a flame. And sometimes he got burned.

(The book to read about Graham and his political involvements is The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy.)

Second, it's impossible for any preacher worthy of the calling not to be political in some sense. The whole human enterprise is political in that politics is a primary means by which we seek to accomplish systemic good. Preachers simply must have a word to say about all of this or they will have darn little to say about anythng. So they can speak about politics and how it should be conducted, but they must avoid partisanship if their ministries are not to be compromised and thrown off into narrow fields that destroy their credibility.

That's a lesson it took Graham a long, long time to learn.

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When I was last in Egypt in 2002, it was clear that President Hosni Mubarak was running a police state. On major streets in Cairo, for instance, I could see military men with rifles high in towers looking out over the city for any sign of trouble. No nation can endure such repression forever, and this week Egyptians took to the streets by the thousands -- in protests organized on such social networking tools as Facebook -- to demand the end of the Mubarak Regime. But can such protests hold together? This Christian Science Monitor piece expresses doubts about that. For one thing, the banned but winked-at Muslim Brotherhood seems not to be participating in the protests. For another, the protests seem to be led by a loose and essentially leaderless collection of groups. I'll be intrigued to see how, if at all, what's happening now in Egypt (and elsewhere in the Muslim/Arab world) fits into a new Pew Research Center Forum on Religion & Public Life report to be released today called "The Future of the Global Muslim Population." I'll have more to say about that report once I've had a chance to digest it.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is today. To read it, click here.

Ways of being Jewish: 1-26-11

There is more than one way to be Jewish. You can be a religious Jew, meaning you believe in God and follow the faith of the people described in the Hebrew Scriptures. Or you can be a Jew who seeks to live by the ethical standards outlined in the Torah. Or you can be a Jew whose primary concern is the continued existence of Israel and the ultimate survival of the Jewish people.

Jewish-symbols And, of course, you can be a combination of all of those.

Those were the descriptions used this past Sunday evening by my friend Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn when he spoke as part of an interfaith series at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Kansas City. This coming Sunday evening he and I will speak there together about Christian-Jewish relations and especially about the meaning of Jesus for both of us.

What I found especially valuable about Jacques' talk was the reminder that when we think of people of a particular tradition we should remember the diversity found within that tradition.

As he noted, it's impossible to say what Jews think about this or that issue. Jews don't all think alike. Or act alike. Or look alike. Or do much of anything alike.

And, of course, the same is true with people of other religious traditions. Heck, the theological diversity within my own Presbyterian congregation means that you can't even label the people within one church as somehow all cut from the same cloth. Oh, when we profess our faith publicly at the time we join the congregation we're asked to affirm certain beliefs and hopes. But our understanding of those matters also varies -- sometimes widely.

So let's all be careful when we talk about this or that faith community and not act as if everyone is in lockstep. Indeed, usually it's the diversity within such traditions that give them strength.

By the way, for an excellent primer on Judaism, order Jacques' book, Accessible Judaism: A Concise Guide. And you also can order the book we wrote together, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

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The other day here I mentioned the difficulty the Catholic Church has now in being a strong moral voice because of the priest abuse scandal and the way that has been handled by many church authorities. That very point was made again this week when Italy's top bishop leveled harsh criticism at Premier Silvio Berlusconi for his role in a sex scandal. If you read the story to which I've linked you, go next to the comments left below. Several speak of people who live in glass houses throwing stones. That is some of what the abuse scandal has cost the church. How sad. But how infinitely sadder for the abuse victims.

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P.S.: Earlier this week here on the blog I wrote about faith communities creating more environmentally friendly structures. In response, I heard from Paul Carlson, pastor of Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Denver. He told me that in December 2009 his church installed 106 solar panels on the roof, after talking about it for three years. "Bella Energy of Denver was the company we used," he said. Better yet, "we are extremely happy with them. We will own the panels outright in six more years." I'm thinking that for the mortgage burning it would be appropriate to start the fire using the sun and a magnifying glass.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest column for The Presbyterian Outlook now is online. To read "A charge to my pastor," click here. And my latest National Catholic Reporter column just posted online today, too. To read it, click here.


More faith near Ground Zero: 1-25-11

When most of us think about worship spaces near Ground Zero in New York City we first naturally tend to think of the proposed Islamic community center and mosque there and then perhaps of St. Paul's Chapel, which, being quite close to the site though quite undamaged, served as a center of respite and help for first responders and others after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Stnicholas What most of us tend to forget is that when the World Trade Center buildings came down, another structure that was destroyed then was St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, located just south of one of the twin towers. (The photo here shows it when the twin towers still stood.)

Well, as you can read at the site to which I've linked you in the previous paragraph, determined efforts are under way to rebuild that small church.

As the site reports, "donations of almost $2 million have been received, as well as additional pledges of construction materials and appointments for the complete rebuilding of the church. The city of Bari, Italy, where the relics of St. Nicholas were originally bestowed, has donated $250,000. The government of Greece has contributed $750,000 to these efforts and the Ecumenical Patriarchate has given $50,000."

Much remains to be done to get St. Nicholas up and running and to integrate it into the new reality at and near the World Trade Center site. But I find it encouraging that this effort is being made so that Lower Manhattan will not miss out on the benefits that come from having vibrant faith communities active in neighborhoods. They can add much richness and texture to life in any community and their destruction is almost always a loss for more than just the congregants.

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I've written here on the blog a time or two in recent weeks about the uprising in Tunisia and what it says, if anything, about the future of democracy in predominantly Muslim countries. This piece in The New Yorker suggests that if the U.S. and other Western countries invest in programs that promote democratic reforms we'll make a lot more progress than if we use violence to overthrow oppressive regimes. For one thing, the former approach is more in harmony with traditional Islam.

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P.S.: My latest column for The Presbyterian Outlook now is online. To read "A charge to my pastor," click here.

Faith in solar power: 1-24-11

ver several years, I've taken note here on the blog and in other venues of ways in which faith communities are becoming more aggressive environmentalists, seeking to exercise responsible stewardship of the resources of the Earth.

Sunlightpower Many churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious gatherings have become advocates for more sensible and sustainable use of natural resources and many of them have adopted practices and policies that further this cause.

One of the intriguing byproducts of all this is that it is creating economic opportunities for companies that design, build and maintain worship facilities that are more environmentally friendly than many of the worship spaces created in previous generations.

Today I wanted you to know about just an example of that -- Sun Light & Power, a company based in Berkeley, Calif., that designs and builds houses of worship (as well as space for other non-profits) for faith communities of a variety of traditions.

If you browse through its online list of projects done for faith communities you'll find everything from a Zen center to Baptist, Episcopal and Lutheran churches to an interfaith center.

Sun Light & Power, created in the 1970s, is far from the only commercial venture that is benefiting from the increased emphasis on ecological sensitivity by faith communities, but it's a good example of what's happening. So if your own congregation is considering modifying an existing structure or building something new, remember that more and more there are experts out there that have experience not just in alternative energy solutions but also who have a history of working with religious bodies.

If you know of such companies where you live, let me know.

(The top photo here today is not a Sun Light & Power project but, rather, the O'Connor Uniting Church in Canberra, Australia, with its solar panels in the shape of a cross.)

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Pope Benedict XVI has told priests to do a better job on marriage counseling and has said the church should handle annulments more carefully. No one, he says, has an absolute right to be married in the church. It must be so hard for the Catholic Church right now to make pronouncements about almost any matters involving intimate relationships, given the priest abuse scandal. Even when what the pope and other authorities say is good and right and needs to be said, the church's failures in the abuse mess undermine the moral authority of those who are speaking.

Praying us toward peace: 1-22/23-11

he pragmatist, the realist, the materialist in me wants to dismiss the idea of praying and chanting for peace as an idealist's pipedream.

PrayingWithTheEarth But that, it turns out, is way too easy. That ignores the commitment that such activity can produce in the one praying and chanting. That ignores the community that such activity can build when prayers are done in the company of others. And that ignores the action that can result because of the commitment and renewed sense of community that grows from such seemingly passive activities.

At least that's what I came away thinking after reading my friend J. Philip Newell's soon-to-be-released new book, Praying With the Earth: A Prayer Book for Peace, and having a conversation about all of this with Philip on his visit to Kansas City this past week to lecture several different times at Nazarene Theological Seminary. (I'll give you a link to the audio tape of that conversation below. The top photo here today shows Philip and me talking at my house after dinner the other night.)

Philip (and his wife Ali) and my wife and I met more than 10 years ago at Ghost Ranch, the national Presbyterian conference center in northern New Mexico where I teach each summer and where Philip -- a pastor, author, teacher and poet -- also teaches and has done chaplaincy work. (For details on the writing class I'll teach there July 4-10 this year, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)

He's a wonderful thinker whose spiritual roots are in the Celtic tradition and who draws on that close-to-the-Earth approach to life to help him in his life and work. Reared in Canada, he makes his home now in Edinburgh, Scotland.

In his new book, he offers daily readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the words of Jesus in the Beatitudes and from the Qur'an, then offers daily prayers that open up their readers to a sense of oneness about the universe and its creator. It's lovely language and I hope groups in various faith traditions will use this book as a tool to move them toward a deeper commitment to work for peace in a world that desperately needs peace today. As Philip told me, the Christian household contains a storehouse not just of prayers and hopes but also practices of peace that are "waiting to be recovered."

As you may be able to tell from the cover depicted here, the book contains some lovely illustrations that add to the mood of the book. Indeed, as Philip says in the book, "The artwork used throughout this book comes from the Hebrew, Christian and Islamic worlds. . ." The book is due out in March but can be preordered on today.

We spoke at some length about such interfaith connections and how what we can learn from other traditions almost inevitably strengthens our commitment to our own faith. Philip is, as I say, a wise and articulate man and I hope you enjoy our conversation, which runs about 25 minutes. To hear it, click on this link: Download J.P.Newell

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A new effort has begun to find the mass, unmarked graves of Jews murdered by special mobile killing squads, or Einsatzgruppen, before the Nazi-run gas chambers opened in World War II. The story of all these killings is hard to read but it's important and necessary history. The book to read is The Holocaust by Bullets.)

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In the interfaith spirit in which J. Philip Newell works, today I also want to introduce you to four books from various traditions that you may find worth your while.

Tao-of-Success * The Tao of Success: The Five Ancient Rings of Destiny, by Derek Lin. Is the ancient spiritual path of the Tao in some way opposed to the idea of success -- whatever that means -- in life? Not at all, says this Taoist master. He offers stories and lessons drawn from Taoist teachings as a way to get readers to re-think what success might mean and how they might achieve it without caving in to the cultural pressures that often define success in destructive ways. In some ways this book represents a melding of the best of eastern and western thinking.

Shadow-Buddha * In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet, by Matteo Pistono. This is the remarkable and engaging story of a man who first went to Tibet to study Buddhist ways and who became, eventually, a political activist who, as a journalist, seeks to tell the world of the pain and suffering the Tibetan people have suffered -- and continue to suffer -- at the hands of their Chinese overlords. This is a story not just of the Tibetan people and their oppressors but also of Buddhist leaders, such as the exiled Dalai Lama, who have worked on the international stage to tell the story of Tibet and to bring changes to and for their people. As a good companion book, I also recommend Surviving the Dragon, by Arjia Rinpoche, which I wrote about last year here after meeting Rinpoche in Indiana.

American Veda * American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West, by Philip Goldberg. How have the spiritual traditions of India influenced religious, social and cultural life in the United States? Let this author, director of outreach for, count the ways. One need not begin just with the Beatles going to India to study Eastern thought, though in many ways that's when Americans began to sense that something was afoot in the transmission of knowledge and insight from East to West. One can -- as Goldberg does -- go back many years before that, to Emerson and others. This book is quite a comprehensive account of the back-and-forth influences between India and America, influnces that in 2009 led Newsweek magazine to run an essay called "We Are All Hindus Now." Well, no, we're not, but the influence of India and Hinduism is widespread in America and we'd do well to understand it. This is the book that will guide that journey.

Illustrated-Rumi * The Illustrated Rumi: A Treasury of Wisdom from the Poet of the Soul, a new translation by Philip Dunn, Manuela Dunn Mascetti and R.A. Nicholson. At the risk of inappropriately crossing faith traditions, I think of this lovely book as a monument to Sufi iconography. Sufism is Islam's mystical path, and the greatest Sufi voice is the 13th Century poet Jalalu'ddin Rumi, who, at last check, remains the best-selling poet in America. The book offers fresh looks at Rumi's moving poetry as it combines them with a remarkable selection of art that enhances the experience of reading Rumi. This is a coffee table book, yes, but one that should not -- and probably won't -- just sit on coffee tables. It begs to be lifted and read.

Alone in the universe? 1-21-11

lthough I think there are things all of us can learn from what's called the Intelligent Design movement, I find that those words -- at least for me -- lift up the notion of a God who created a finished product. Perhaps that's unfair, but the idea of "design" seems to imply a creation that forever after sticks to the plan of the designer, the way a bronze statue might remain essentially unchanged for centuries.

What has been more helpful to me is the idea of a creator who continues to create and who even designates some of the creative responsibility and energy to the creation and its creatures. This idea, drawn out by many thinkers, including Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, moves me toward an understand of a God who in a loving, non-coercive way, draws humanity into a new and brighter and more loving future. (The book to read is God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, by John F. Haught.)

That's part of the background for me when I read about modern science, particularly cosmology --the big-end stuff. And so I was fascinated by this piece from Brian Greene, author of (among other books) The Elegant Universe, which I read several years ago. It seeks to help readers understand such new science as String Theory and M Theory as ways of explaining the hard-to-explain universe in which we live.

Greene notes that the universe is expanding and, as it does, solid chunks in the universe (stars, planets, etc.) are moving farther and farther away from one another. So that one day -- perhaps a few billion years from now -- if there are still people on Earth they will look into the sky and see. . .well, nothing. All the stars we see now will be too far away. There will be nothing to see.

And what will that do to the ideas of those people about where they live? What will they make of theology in a universe without any possibility of relationships outside one's own corner of it?

Don't you wish you could live long enough to find answers to all these questions? Well, maybe. But if you did, just know that there then would be more questions yet to be answered. All of which should make people of faith humble, but it rarely seems to.

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What kicked off the revolutionary turmoil in Tunisia was self-immolation of an unemployed 26-year-old college graduate. This CNN piece traces the intriguing history of this practice back more than 1,000 years, raising obvious questions about the religious mandate, if any, for self-sacrifice. Religion certainly has accommodated and even at times encouraged civil disobedience, but when does the respect for life run up against the demand for change? Purposefully setting oneself aflame in protest is radical political suicide, perhaps not dissimilar (except in the number of victims) to suicide bombing. Can there ever be a time when your own religion, if any, would approve of such an action? I can't think of one in the Reformed Tradition of Protestant Christianity, where I locate my spiritual home.

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P.S.: "Dream On," a two-day Revolve Tour Christian inspirational event for junior high and high school girls is coming to Kansas City on Feb. 4-5. Before you decide to go or send your daughters or granddaughters you might wish to read the statement of faith that guides the Women of Faith program, after which Revolve Tour patterns itself.

The fallout from Tunisia: 1-20-11

When political revolution -- or something like it -- occurs in the Arab-Muslim world, what are we to make of it?

Tunisia_domino That's the question the turmoil in Tunisia has raised, and there seems to be no easy answer. The hope of most freedom-loving people, of course, is that it will lead to more freedom for people struggling under oppressive regimes. But that's not yet clear -- and may not be for a long time.

Today I want to link you to four pieces to help you think about all of this. The first comes from New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who wonders aloud whether the spark of change in Tunisia might be similar to the spark that kicked off a revolution in Poland in the 1980s.

Next is a MercatorNet piece by a writer from Jordan. This piece suggests that a home-grown revolution, such as is occurring in Tunisia, may have longer-term effects in the Arab world than one imposed from the outside, such as the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The third is this relatively brief piece in The New Republic suggesting that Tunisia is unique in that it can afford revolution while places like Saudi Arabia can't. Hmmmm.

And, finally, here's a piece by a novelist who experienced the turmoil in Tunisia first hand and who supports the revolution.

All of this once again raises the old question of whether Islam and democracy are compatible. Well, of course they are, but the version of democracy that may work best in Islamic lands may not look exactly like the democracy that works (sometimes) in the United States or in other Western countries.

In any case, the point is that people of all faiths (and none) in all countries should have the right to choose what kind of government they will have and should be free from tyranny, which often has ruled in Arab lands in the last 100 years.

(In the photo here today, a Tunisian employee takes down a portrait of former President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.)

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There was a nice biblical find in Wisconsin the other day -- a 340-year-old Bible -- that no one apparently new was stored on a shelf in a Lutheran church. That's one way to avoid a library fine -- outlive the librarian. And the library.