Previous month:
June 2011
Next month:
August 2011

How did religion start? 7-7-11


I was sitting in a doctor's office the other morning when I had two surprises: 1. There was a relatively up-to-date magazine available. 2. It contained an intriguing story worth passing along to you. Better yet, the story is available online and I just linked you to it.

The June issue of National Geographic has a cover story about the birth of religion. It's focuses on a phenomenal sacred structure (not unlike Stonehenge) in what today is Turkey. The structure is called Göbekli Tepe (pronounced Guh-behk-LEE TEH-peh) (pictured here), now being unearthed, and it has given rise to new thinking about the origin of religion. (I found the picture here today at The story says, in part:

The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. It suggests that the human impulse to gather for sacred rituals arose as humans shifted from seeing themselves as part of the natural world to seeking mastery over it.

In this piece, as in much writing about religion by people whose training is in science, the unstated assumption is that religion is inevitably somehow a creation of humanity. By contrast, people of faith would much more often describe religion as simply humanity's response to an experience of the divine or to direct divine revelation.

As my friend Vern Barnet likes to say, religion finds its roots in awe and wonder, and that's certainly true. But is religion simply a made-up response to the awe one feels looking at the creation or is there some foundational truth or truths that call forth the religious response? It's too simple to put it this way, but often science would say it's the first while people of faith would say it's the latter.

Whatever its origin, religion is here to stay. The job of people of faith is to make sure it's a force for good in the world, not (as it's often been) a force for evil.

* * *


I'd like to think it was the power of the press, but I know better. Yesterday I wrote about the continuing questions of what Pope Pius XII did about saving Jews in the Holocaust. Later that same day I found this story saying the Vatican plans an exhibit of some of its "Secret Archives," including some previously unreleased documents relating to Pius and World War II. In any case, this seems like a step in the proper direction.

* * *



Blessed Are the Peacemakers, by Daniel L. Buttry. Oh, of course, you've heard of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. And Buttry, global consultant for peace and justice for the International Ministries of the American Baptist Churches, doesn't ignore them in this collection of peacemaker biographies. But he goes much deeper, giving readers dozens and dozens of sketches of inspiring people of whom most of us have never heard. Do you know anything about Bolivian women hunger strikers Nellie Paniagua, Angelica Flores, Aurora Lora and Luzmila Pimentel? You'll learn about them here. And inevitably you will ask yourself what you and your own faith community are doing to respond to hunger. And do you remember Carl Upchurch, who helped put together the national gang summit in Kansas City in 1993, with help from my late friend, the Rev. Steve Baston? Upchurch's story is in here, too. This is a great book for faith community study groups who are interested in what can be done today to promote peace. There are lots of models here, each one able to teach people something different. Buttry doesn't write about peace from strictly a historical or academic stance. He gets his hands dirty with this work. For instance, he and his wife, the Rev. Sharon A. Buttry, recently returned from a peacemaking  trip to Kenya that began with a student at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in the Kansas City area. The Buttrys joined Prof. Terry Rosell (and the whole Rosell family) to work to resolve tribal conflicts in the Molo District of Kenya.

Pius XII and the Holocaust: 7-6-11

A bit over a month ago here on the blog, I reviewed Deborah E. Lipstadt's important new book, The Eichmann Trial, about the court case 50 years ago that convicted one of Hitler's chief operating officers in the Holocaust.

Pius-XII When she was in Kansas City last week, I had the opportunity to hear her speak at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library. She gave an excellent summary of the high points of the book. (And, by the way, thank goodness for Crosby Kemper and all of his library staff. They offer some excellent free events to the public. Several hundred people showed up to hear Lipstadt.)

When she was done, Lipstadt took a few questions, and somehow I managed to ask the first one. I thought her response was interesting so I'm going to offer it to you here today.

Me to Lipstadt: You mentioned early in your talk a little about the Vatican. And I gathered from reading your book and elsewhere that you're convinced that the Vatican in World War II really did not step up to the plate and do what it needed to do (as regards the Holocaust). And I wonder if you'd unpack that a little bit for us. . .because there's a lot of controversy still about that matter.

Lipstadt: The Vatican certainly did help war criminals escape from Europe. I don't think they were helping them because they were war criminals. I'm not suggesting that. But they were people who needed to be helped to escape, just like some priests and some Vatican officials helped Jews, so they helped these people as well. Pope Pius XII's calculation was, "If I speak out, we are under threat. The Nazis can come rolling right into Vatican City and take it over." And he may have quietly supported some Catholic officials who were doing (good) things. And there were some priests, such as the previous pope, John Paul II, certainly, who was a young priest then and was involved with other priests who helped Jews. There were many priests who did. But the Vatican hierarchy really did not. We don't know the whole story. To this day the Vatican refuses to open the archives and let that information out. But it's certainly not the Vatican's most shining moment. But there are those who say, "Well, you know, Pope Pius had to make a political calculation of what was best for the Vatican." And Hannah Arendt says that when the place in the world that most claims for itself an ethical and moral voice is making its judgments based on stratetic decisions as to what is its future, something really has been compromised.

From the reading I've done, I think, as Lipstadt noted, that we simply don't know the whole story. There are credible claims that Pope Pius XII made several important decisions that helped Jews survive. And there are those who claim (I think this claim is wildly far-fetched) that Pius was "Hitler's pope." But if it's true that we don't yet know the whole story, I think Lipstadt is premature to says that "the Vatical hierarchy really did not" help Jews much. It's quite possible -- maybe even probable -- that her statement is true. But we just don't know. And as long as the Vatican declines to make its archives on this matter fully transparent, the controversy will continue.

* * *


Salon has published this engaging piece by a gay Presbyterian pastor and his experience of being hated by residents of Henderson, N.C. Anyone who has read my words in the last several decades knows that I favor ordination of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians -- and that now is possible in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), as of this month. For my reasons, see my essay on the Bible and homosexuality under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. In essence, this battle is over. People on the wrong side of history -- and the wrong side of the Bible -- may still kick and scream, but they have lost. Thank God.

Religious fear and loathing: 7-5-11

DETROIT -- One of the panels of columnists at the recent conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists here was called "Lies, Damned Lies and Talking Points."

Conflict Oh, it was, too.

John Avlon, senior political columnist for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, was one of five columnists on the panel, and he said something about political discourse today that I think also applies to religion.

A lot of politicians today, he said, seek to score political points through the use of "conflict, tension, fear and resentment."

We all -- no matter our political leanings -- have experienced the truth of that observation, as we've watched our politics dissolve into a screeching contest with darn few people learning anything as a result.

But these same destructive tools -- conflict, tension, fear and resentment -- often seem present in religious discourse these days. That's especially true when we think about religious extremists who want the world to conform to their rigid vision of how things should be.

But isn't it also true that sometimes even mainstream religions degenerate into this stuff? Like trying to scare people with an emphasis on the burning fires of hell? Or suggesting to adherents that they will be the losers if their faith community allows -- name the group -- gays, racial minorities, women, youth or others to be welcomed into the community in a full way?

From your own experience you no doubt can list times when conflict, tension, fear and resentment were found in your faith community.

So although we should work against those things when we find them in politics, it seems to me that people of faith might do well first to look inside their own houses of worship and try to undo those forces there.

* * *


Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann says God is going to heal the U.S. Does this mean we'll all have to get Godicare cards?

What's patriotism, anyway? 7-4-11

Twice in the last few days I've given a talk about what patriotism is all about. The speech will look kind of long in type here on the blog, but, heck, it's a holiday. You've got all darn day to read it. And you'll be a profoundly better American (if you are one) when you're done.

American-Flag So Happy Fourth to you. And here's my talk (or at least a slightly edited version of it):

I can’t seem to get over my astonishment at people who confuse commitment to one’s nation with commitment to one’s religion.

As someone who has lived overseas for nearly two years and who has traveled around the world to nearly 40 countries, I’m all for patriotism and always ready to declare my love for the United States.

After all, this is the country that welcomed my grandparents from Sweden 113 years ago and my great-grandparents from Germany nearly 150 years ago. It has provided them, my parents, me, my children and my grandchildren with remarkable opportunities, some of which we’ve even been smart enough to take advantage of.

But America is not my God. And though I will celebrate the Fourth of July with gusto and gratitude, I will try to remember that America is not God’s chosen nation, that criticism of America is not sacrilegious and that there is a higher calling than offering an oath of fealty to our government.

Religion is nearly universal in its teaching about this.

The Hebrew Scriptures, for instance, scoff at the idea that nationhood is permanent: “Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales,” says Isaiah 40:15.

In the New Testament, the book of First Peter tells followers of Jesus they are “aliens and sojourners” in whatever land they happen to occupy. (It would improve the quality of the immigration debate if Christians engaged in it would remember that.)

American-eagle And deeply embedded in Islam is the idea of the “ummah,” or global Muslim community, which crosses national borders with hardly a by-your-leave.

Nation states as we understand them today, in fact, have precious little significance for traditional Islam, which preaches submission to God before submission to anything else. Indeed, as many of you know, the very word Islam means submission to God.

As scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes in his book, The Heart of Islam, “Islam recognizes communities according to their religious affiliation. Christians are referred to as the ummah, or community, of Christ and Jews as the ummah of Moses, as Muslims constitute the ummah of the Prophet (Muhammad).”

Perhaps we Americans get seduced into conflating religious commitment and patriotism by what scholar Robert N. Bellah and others have called our “civil religion.”

By that, they mean the transcendent values — often linked to biblical tradition — that mark our culture. In our civil religion, the president regularly asks God to bless America, we sing “God Bless America” at sporting events, we declare that America is a city set on a hill to give moral leadership to the world and on and on.

There’s something comforting, even inspiring, about all of that. But civil religion can — and sometimes does — lead us astray by allowing us to imagine that the nation we have created within these particular boundaries is somehow divinely ordained.

And the problem did not first emerge with the 2008 Obama-McCain presidential race and its tawdry arguments about flag lapel pin patriotism. No, it’s been around for a long time.

So, in the past, we have found Lyndon Johnson saying that America was “created to help strike away the chains of ignorance and misery and tyranny wherever they keep man less than God wants him to be.”

And we have heard Ronald Reagan insisting “that a divine plan placed this great continent between the oceans to be found by a people from every corner of the earth who had a special love of faith, freedom and peace.”

And we’ve listened to Al Gore preach that “God’s hand has touched the United States of America — not by accident but on purpose.”

I could go on. You’ll thank me for not doing so.

American-Flag Our great religions regard that kind of talk as political poppycock and sacrilege. They say our first commitment must be to the creative power, or universal reality, that religion usually calls God. If you put anything before that commitment, they insist, it’s idolatry, which is exactly what the first of the Ten Commandments stands so steadfastly against.

Praying through song for God to “shed his grace” on America is a lovely and appropriate thing for people of faith to do. But when we imagine America alone thus stands blessed among the nations, our religions tell us not to be so foolish.

A few years go, I heard the late pastor Forrest Church, then senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York, suggest twice that there's a substantial difference between nationalism and patriotism.

"And I feel more patriotic today than I ever have in my life," he declared.

The first time he mentioned it was at the end of a conversation at an outdoor cafe. But we both needed to leave, so we didn't get to unpack his meaning. He next mentioned the difference at the conclusion of his remarks to a group at Community Christian Church in Kansas City, where he spoke about his new book, The American Creed: A Spiritual and Patriotic Primer. Again, there was no time to get him to expand.

It’s a book I highly recommend to you, by the way.

It would be helpful for all Americans to ponder the difference between nationalism and patriotism as we continue to battle terrorism and debate how and when to withdraw from combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Scholars have devoted whole careers to defining and understanding nationalism, pointing to various foundations for it, from language to ethnicity to religion.

And nationalism, in its most docile forms, need not be an evil construct. It can simply describe a theoretically neutral reality.

Author Benedict Anderson, for instance, in his 1983 book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, says that a clear understanding of the concept requires us to grasp the idea of nation as "an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion."

Nationalism grew to modern prominence in the 19th century, as people came to prize national identities and as states were more consciously based on a commonality among people than on, say, a monarchial dynasty, a religion or control by a colonial power.

But as nationalism became a potent force in an increasingly dangerous world, intellectuals became suspicious of its tendency to produce bad fruit. And, oh, my, has it produced some bad fruit, indeed.

In 1945, for instance, author George Orwell warned in an essay that "nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. ... By 'patriotism' I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. ... Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality."

If Orwell was right — and I think he was — the question his insights raise is what other differences there are between nationalism and patriotism and how we can encourage the healthy "ism" while avoiding the other. Here are the differences that occur to me:

Nationalism, because its goal is power, fears dissent. Patriotism encourages thoughtful dissent because it knows there's strength in the clashing of ideas.

Nationalism thinks it can win only if others lose. Patriotism doesn't see a zero-sum game but seeks answers that benefit everyone.

American-eagle Nationalism seeks the comfort of order for the sake of order. Thus, it produces such slogans as "America — love it or leave it" and "My country right or wrong."

Patriotism is comfortable with creative chaos, understanding that freedom and liberty sometimes are messy.

Nationalism wins hearts. Patriotism wins hearts and minds.

Nationalism has discipline. Patriotism has soul.

Nationalism, given its way, is too quick to compromise freedom for security. Patriotism would be more cautious.

If I must choose, I cast my lot with patriotism.

But I think the idea of patriotism, to be a helpful guide to us, needs to be unpacked in more depth.

One of the more serious questions raised by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is about the nature of patriotism.

What does it mean to be patriotic? Is it just flying the American flag? Just singing "God Bless America" at every turn? Just voicing support for our national struggle against terrorists?

If, in fact, patriotism does not go beyond those responses, it isn't worth much. I certainly am not suggesting flags and songs are wrong or silly. Not at all. But they're the frosting on the cake.

Real patriotism runs deeper. It's multilayered and not merely a short list festooned with reds, whites and blues and set to a rousing Sousa march.

If patriotism is just waving the flag, then Samuel Johnson was right that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." And, worse, Guy de Maupassant was right that "patriotism is the egg from which wars are hatched."

What we must understand in this nervous time, this wounded time when everyone so easily rallies around the flag, is that patriotism, properly understood, is a necessary virtue. But patriotism distorted — as it was in the Vietnam War era phrase I mentioned earlier, "America, love it or leave it" — is no virtue at all.

My own short list of what makes up patriotism certainly isn't exhaustive, but I don't see how it's possible to claim to be a patriot without these characteristics. Patriots:

Are well-informed. And not just about current events but also about history.

One does not get well-informed by relying on one source of information. If, for instance, you get your news solely from television, there's no possible way to be well-versed. And your sources of information should represent different points of view.

If, for instance, your newspaper's editorial page tends to be what you think of as conservative, also read a publication that tends to be liberal in its editorial positions. And vice versa.

I don't think it's unpatriotic not to be able to name all the presidents in perfect order. But patriotism does require knowledge of the broad sweep of both national and world history.

If, for example, you don't know approximately when the Civil War was fought and — more to the point — why, it's hard to imagine how you can process today's events and draw lucid conclusions about public policy.

Next, patriots register and vote. The level of voter registration and participation in elections in America is a shameful scandal.

Patriots vote. It's the very lowest threshold of citizenship. Other patriots died so we all could go to the polls. Each time we skip that civic duty for anything but emergencies, we dishonor their sacrifice. And patriots vote not just in presidential elections but in local and state contests -- including primaries.

Patriots also understand the issues and grasp where the candidates stand on them. They follow the debates, are up on the arguments, feel at least reasonably confident expressing an opinion because they have considered it carefully.

Next, patriots both praise and criticize the government. I'm always stunned at how critical some people are of whatever the government does — until a national crisis arrives. Then some of them brook no criticism at all, imagining it to be unpatriotic.

American-Flag But the truth is that we don't defend our principles by abandoning them in crises. We don't honor freedom of speech by forbidding it. In good times and bad, we need to follow what our representatives are doing in our name and, if it's done well, praise them, but, if not, call them to account.

It is not treason to disagree with whoever is president. It can, however, be unpatriotic to silence dissident voices.

Next, patriots are active in their communities. Patriots know who their neighbors are and care about their welfare. They volunteer for good causes. They donate money, property and time to help people in need.

They also support education, especially the public schools, understanding that a learned and educated citizenry is crucial to our republic.

Patriots understand that people in other countries also can be patriotic without being a threat to our own nation. People in Taiwan, France, Colombia, Ghana and India may see the world differently than most Americans do. Patriots make room for such views without demonizing the people who hold them.

Patriotism requires more than waving Old Glory. If we don't understand that, we don't have much to defend.

Well, I hope I’ve complicated your thinking just a little bit about the meaning of patriotism. Let me close with this insightful thought from 19th Century English novelist and dramatist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who once wrote this: “Every man loves and admires his own country because it produced him.”

* * *


A group called American Atheists is using this Fourth of July holiday to proclaim that people can be good without God. That's one of the great things about the U.S. People are free to advocate all kinds of ideas, even ones a majority of people think are foolish.

A fascinating survivor: 7-2/3-11

DETROIT -- Those of you who have read my latest book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, may remember the Holocaust survivor whose story my co-author and I tell first, Zygie Allweiss (pictured here).

Zygie-Allweiss Zygie, who turned 84 on May 8 (Harry Truman's birthday and the day that marked the end of World War II in Europe) lives here in suburban Detroit with his wife, Irma. Zygie's and Irma's daughter, Esther, and her husband Mike, picked me up at my downtown hotel and brought me out to the Allweiss home for a brief visit.

I really like Zygie. He's a tough, no-nonsense guy with a great, dry sense of humor. What he went through in World War II just to survive is simply breath-taking, but you already know that if you've read my book.

When I arrived, Zygie wanted to show me the wall hanging he now has that shows two photos of the Polish couple who hid him and his brother and, thus, saved their lives, Maciej and Zofia Dudzik. (They're pictured below, first in a pre-World War II picture, then one well after the war.)

He expects that a similar hanging soon will be installed at the Holocaust Memorial Center in suburban Detroit. "You've got to honor them," Zygie told me.

Dudzik-ZA Zygie has had some health issues since he came with his daughter Esther to Kansas City in September 2009 to help us launch the book. So today he uses a walker, but it hasn't dampened his spirit for life and for wanting to understand the world.

Indeed, he spoke to me about Israel, about nuclear war threats, about interfaith understanding and much more in our brief time together.

Maybe because of the astonishment of having survived at all when most Jews in Europe were murdered at the hands of the Nazi-led Germans, Zygie goes for the big picture.

"So," Zygie asked me. "how do you look at the world?"

Wow, I told him, "there's a small question." I did my best to give him a sensible answer, though I'm not sure it was particularly edifying.

But this experience was a good reminder to me of all the fascinating people I've had an opportunity to meet and learn from in my life -- from living for two years of my boyhood in India to a career in journalism that has put me in touch with all kinds of amazing folks.

What is so painful is that the world should contain millions more fascinating people like Zygie, but the Holocaust crushed that possibility.

* * *


I'm sorry I had to leave Detroit before a Jewish/African-American conference got under way there. But this report in the Detroit Free Press suggests to me that these kinds of gatherings should be happening around the country. Who's willing to put one together where you live?

Painting 'Revelation': 7-1-11

Topliff-revelation DETROIT -- For centuries, the last book in the New Testament, Revelation, has been what one theologian has called "a happy hunting ground for all sorts of bizarre and dangerous interpretations."

Topliff For an example, see the (still) late David Koresh, whose theological center as he led the doomed Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, was the mysterious book of Revelation.

It helps to know that even the great reformer John Calvin was baffled by the book. So he never wrote a commentary on it. It also helps to know that Revelation is the account of a vision recounted by its author, John (there's debate about who John was). And a vision written down does not equal minutes from a meeting of the zoning board.

The problem has been that all sorts of people have read Revelation as primarily a book of prophecy about what would happen in the 19th, make that 20th, no, make that 21st Century. The prophecies keep getting pushed back (see Harold Camping) because, well, the date-setters for the end of the world are never right, even though they claim to be garnering nothing but truth from Revelation.

All of that is prologue to my introducing you today to Debby Topliff, whom I heard speak here recently to a gathering of religion journalists. Topliff makes visual translations of parts of the Bible, including Revelation. What does "visual translations" mean? Big art. She makes large-scale paintings of the characters in such books as Revelation, Acts and Mark. She brought with her big cloth printings of her art to show us. (The top photo shows her Revelation painting.)

I am both cautious of her straight-forward approach to Revelation but also engaged by the way in which she is able to turn the storyline (if you can call it that) into what looks like folk art. She acknowledges that she's not a trained artist and that some people think her work resembles that of a seven-year-old.

That said, I found the DVD she's put together about her Revelation work helpful just in following the book of Revelation as the story unfolds in it.

One has to read between the lines a bit to guess that she probably reads the book of Revelation in a much more literal way than I do. Her degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, which has a reputation for being quite theologically conservative, in Deerfield, Ill., is a clue that such a conclusion is warranted. (For Trinity's "Statement of Faith," click here.)

Still, there is clarity in her work about the storyline itself and there is a certain charming innocense about her simple, child-like art.

So I leave it to you to decide whether to order her DVD or to follow up on her work in any other way. But one thing is clear: After all these years, Revelation has not lost its ability to attract all kinds of responses to it.

* * *


Religion News Service has done this interesting piece about whether the creedless Unitarian Universalists have much of a future. I suspect there will always be religious people at the UU end of the spectrum -- kind, loving people who love the questions but aren't much satisfied with any of the traditional answers -- though whether the UU structure itself survives is unclear.