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Pray this amendment loses: 7-31-12

The religious demagogues are at it again.

PrayerNow voters in my home state of Missouri are being asked to vote Aug. 7 on a needless measure called the Missouri Public Prayer Amendment.

Why, you'd think that public school students are forbidden from praying in school. Not so. They can pray any time they want to -- and I bet some of them do as they start to take a test.

What is prohibited is school-led prayer -- something that was rightly declared unconstitutional back in the 1960s by the U.S. Supreme Court. And if people of faith would think about this matter, they'd be ardent supporters of the court's decision. After all, why would I as a Christian want to turn over the content and supervision of prayer to a government employee who may not share my theology?

But the folks who are pushing this state prayer amendment are simply appealing to ignorance and to a kind of cultural hegemony that we're much better off leaving in the dust bin of history.

And as The Kansas City Star said in an editorial, "Our main objection is that this amendment simply isn’t needed. It doesn’t do anything."

Well, that's not quite true. What it does is stir up the political waters needlessly to turn out voters who falsely believe their right to religious expression is being stifled.

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Michigan City, Ind. -- Just a reminder that I'm at a family reunion here and will be back to resume full blogging next week.

Read more here:

Archiving black church history: 7-30-12

As you may know if you live in Kansas City, the Black Archives of Mid-America recently celebrated a reopening at its location in the 18th and Vine district.

D-WilliamsSo I first looked on its website to see what it had on religion, given how central a role faith -- especially the black church -- has played over the years in the life of African-Americans here and elsewhere. To see the Archives' online section on religion, click here.

And I contacted the executive director, Doretha Williams (pictured here), so I could talk to her about any plans she had to expand that section of the collection.

Indeed, she already is planning a gathering of clergy some time this fall to seek their help in exactly that task. Why?

Well, no other institution has been as important to the black community than the church. You can get some sense of that in this 2009 piece from the Richmond, Va., Times-Dispatch as well as from this Wikipedia entry on the black church.

As Williams told me, a lot of the social activism that blacks historically have engaged in, including the civil rights movement, found its roots in the black church.

Thus, the subject of religion "is near the top in what we want to collect and what we want to represent," she said. "It plays a large role."

The history of religion in the black community of Kansas City (and elsewhere) goes beyond Christianity, of course. And Williams said the Black Archives would be reaching out to all faith communities to ask for help in collecting good material for the institution. So if you're part of a predominantly Africa-American community of faith, contact Williams to see how your congregation might help or contribute to the Archives.

(The top photo here today shows part of the current exhibit at the Archives that includes religion.)

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MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. -- A reminder, in case you missed my note over the weekend: I'm here for a family reunion most of this week. So although there will be regular blog posts, there usually won't be additional news items and commentary until I return and resume me allegedly normal schedule. Enjoy the Olympics with the time you'd usually spend reading the extras here.

Being Christian ain't easy: 7-28/29-12

There's been lots of buzz in the media lately about whether "liberal" or "progressive" Christianity (whatever those almost-useless terms mean) can survive.

Church-steeplesBy media, I mean places like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other similar top-cabin outlets.

I thought a top Episcopal bishop got it right when he responded to the Journal's piece with a letter to the editor.

Although I've given you a link to that letter, the Journal often doesn't let such links stay live for very long. So I've decided to reprint the letter here because I think it makes a point that needs to be made again and again, which is that Christianity is not an easy religion to follow.

If you really seek to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, you inevitably will run into opposition. And you inevitably will have to stand against the prevailing culture. In many ways that's what's happening to various "liberal" or "progressive" branches of the faith now. (I also can't guarantee that the link contained within the bishop's letter will work for long.)

Here's how Bishop Stacy F. Sauls put it:

Space does not permit a correction of the numerous factual points I could dispute in Jay Akasie's "What Ails the Episcopalians" (Houses of Worship, July 13). Instead, I offer a spiritual correction.

The church has been captive to the dominant culture, which has rewarded it with power, privilege and prestige for a long, long time. The Episcopal Church is now liberating itself from that, and as the author correctly notes, paying the price. I hardly see paying the price as what ails us. I see it as what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Many years ago when I was a parish priest in Savannah, a local politician and disaffected Episcopalian began a conversation with me. In that case the subject was homosexuality. It could have been any of the things mentioned last week as our ailments. "I just think the church should not be governed by the culture," he said. I replied that I agreed with him, but that "I just hadn't noticed that the culture was all that hospitable toward gay people." He stammered. "Well, maybe not here in Georgia."

The Episcopal Church is on record as standing by those the culture marginalizes whether that be nonwhite people, female people or gay people. The author calls that political correctness hostile to tradition.

I call it profoundly countercultural but hardly untraditional. In fact, it is deeply true to the tradition of Jesus, Jesus who offended the "traditionalists" of his own day, Jesus who was known to associate with the less than desirable, Jesus who told his followers to seek him among the poor. It is deeply true to the tradition of the Apostle Paul who decried human barriers of race, sex, or status (Galatians 3:28).

What ails the Episcopalians is that this once most-established class of American Christianity is taking the risk to be radically true to its tradition. There is a price to be paid for that. There is also a promise of abundant life in it.

Bishop Stacy F. Sauls

Chief Operating Officer

The Episcopal Church

New York

As a Presbyterian, I agree that many Mainline churches got caught up getting seduced by the culture, which helped lead to their remarkable popularity in the 1940s through the 1960s, their golden statistical era. But now that many of them are seeking to be a more consistent voice for the voiceless, lots of folks in the culture aren't very interested in staying with the Mainlines.

And as for church growth, remember that Jesus started out with 12 and ended up with 11.

(By the way, the excellent religion scholar Martin E. Marty wrote about this subject recently in one of his "Sightings" pieces. To read it, click here. And to this mix I add this excellent column by church consultant Tom Ehrich.)

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A year after Rob Bell's controversial (to some) book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, was published, it has been released in paperback along with a reissue of several other Bell books. In fact, Bell held a release event the other day to talk about the reaction to the book over the past year, especially among Christians who identify themselves as evangelical or conservative. The book casts serious doubts about whether hell even exists and about traditional views of heaven, though the author gives himself wiggle room. To say that not all evangelicals liked the book is an understatement. For those of us in Mainline churches, by contrast, Love Wins seems to be an argument against the kind of rigid theology that we don't hold, so to us, reading the book is sort of like sitting on the sidelines of a fight in which we have no dog. Thus, the seriousness with which Bell takes on the manipulative theology that tries to scare people into a some-day heaven by threatening them with an eternal hell seems a bit overdrawn, given that, as I say, many of us Mainliners (Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, etc.) give little credence to that approach to the faith. The other Bell books that have been redesigned and repackaged to go with the paperback version of Love Wins are Sex God,


Jesus Wants to Save Christians, Drops Like Stars and Velvet Elvis. For more about Bell, visit his website by clicking here. And you can order the set of books here.

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P.S.: MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. -- I'm here at a reunion with my three sisters and most of our kids and grandkids for the next several days. So although there will be regular posts here this coming week, there mostly won't be extra comments on breaking news. Besides, you'll be busy watching the Olympics.

A panorama of faith: 7-27-12

Perhaps there is no better-known Christian allegory than The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, by John Bunyan, published in 1678.

It -- and a follow-up tale -- describe how a character named Christian (and later, his wife, Christiana) go through life and move toward heaven.

It still is read today and is a classic piece of literature and lore.

What I did not know until recently, however, is that in the 1800s someone created a large painted panorama that tells the story described in Bunyan's book.

A second version of that panorama -- 8-feet high and some 800 feet long, believe it or not -- wound up in what is known today as the Saco Museum in Saco, Maine.

But eventually it got stored away and, believe it or not, ignored or forgotten about. In the mid-1990s, it was rediscovered and a restoration process was begun. That is now complete, and a full exhibition of the panorama recently opened at the museum, along with lots of intriguing information on the museum's website (above).

The link I gave you to the panorama a couple of paragraphs earlier here will let you see a half-hour film about it and learn lots more about this remarkable piece of religious art.

Maine is one of the few states I've never been to, but I'm planning to be there in late September for a reunion of people with whom I went to a boarding school in India when I was a boy. I'm hoping to make a stop in Saco to see this while I'm there.

And if you get anywhere near Maine please try to see this. From now through Nov. 10 the entire panorama will be on display in two locations in or near Saco.

Religious art has been evidence of devotion as well as the cause of endless debates over the centuries. This huge work based on Bunyan's allegory no doubt will be both.

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Because the Olympics, which open in London today, started as an event dedicated to the God Zeus, what makes us think religion wouldn't be playing a role in the games all these centuries later? Oh, my. Religion is all over the place, Religion News Service reports. It's true. I swear to (fill in the blank).

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Faith Brief cover

A Faith Brief: A Lawyer's Argument for Why Faith Prevails Over Doubt, by Patrick M. Garry. This is an intriguing little (91 pages) book by a law professor at the University of South Dakota. It falls in the category of Christian apologetics, which is a discipline that seeks to explain and defend the faith. And the conceit of the book is that the author puts on his lawyer hat and argues the case.  So Garry seeks here to present a logical case for why faith makes rational sense, at least compared with dismissive doubt. And for being so brief, it's quite a good collection of arguments. What it won't do, of course, is to convince the deeply committed atheists, who consider religious commitment to be delusional. For instance, Garry argues that "the natural order could not have come about by accident; it had to have come from God." But the so-called materialists argue exactly the opposite and would reject Garry's conclusion out of hand. Perhaps Garry's best contribution is in his chapter on theodicy, which is to say the old question of why there's suffering and evil in the world if God is good. He doesn't break any new ground here (in fact, there is no new ground to break on this ancient subject) but he does gather up some good traditional thinking about the matter, finally concluding that "adversity and suffering are really a gift from God" though "this is not to say that pain and suffering are welcome events." Garry has written the sort of engaging treatise that adult Christian education classes in churches would do well to adopt as a study book. The conversations this book would produce in such a setting would be many and fascinating.

Learning from other faiths: 7-26-12

As my regular readers know, I've long been an advocate of respectful -- but deep -- interfaith dialogue. I think citizens of the United States, in fact, have a unique opportunity because of our religious pluralism to demonstrate to the rest of the world what living in religious harmony can look like.

Noah-ArkOn the whole we Americans do fairly well at that, but there's still a lot of ignorance about religion out there (our own and others) and that can lead to prejudice, hate and even violence.

Within the past few days, I've run across two excellent examples of how we can approach other faiths with respect even while continuing to be committed to our own traditions.

The first happened this past Sunday in my own congregation, Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City.

Our pastor, Paul Rock, a simply brilliant preacher, talked about something he'd learned recently about Islam and how that very lesson could be applied in Christianity. To hear his whole sermon, click here and then choose the July 22 sermon.

He began by saying that he'd learned recently that it's common for Muslims to greet one another in their holy month of Ramadan (now underway) by saying (in translation) that "Ramadan is generous." The traditional response to that is, "Yes, but God is more generous." Paul said he loved that response and suggested it reflects an attitude of gratitude for the giver more than the gift, an attitude he urged on all of us.

Most of us, I'm afraid, have heard some Christian leaders hold Islam up to hatred, contempt and ridicule. What a welcome change to hear positive words about Islam from a Christian pulpit -- not in a way that was suggesting we convert to Islam and not as a way of overlooking the violent extremists who misuse Islam as a pretext for their terrorism.

The second example came when the son of an Azerbaijan-born artist connected with me on LinkedIn and asked me to take a look at his father's art, which promotes interfaith understanding.

To read about artist Haydar Hatemi and the lovely, engaging art he produces based on the scripture of several religious traditions, click here. (The graphic here today is the painting Hatemi did of Noah's Ark.)

His art, called "Stories of the Messengers," finds common ground in the sacred texts of Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. It's quite intriguing. Have a look. And give thanks for people like Paul Rock and Haydar Hatemi who help us appreciate other traditions even while recommitting ourselves to our own.

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Religion News Service has done this good piece about whether gun control is a religious issue. Well, in some respects you can't name a subject that isn't a religious issue. But I agree with those who say that people of faith should be leading the effort to create sensible, constitutional gun control laws in this country as a reflection of their belief in the sanctity of human life.

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

Asian-Americans' faith: 7-25-12

In the seemingly endless effort to understand the religious landscape of the United States, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has issued a new report:

AsianAmericans"Asian-Americans: A Mosaic of Faith"

It is yet another reminder not to put broad labels on people. Asian-Americans, it turns out, are quite diverse in their faith commitments. They're far from being all Buddhists or all Hindus or all Muslims.

As a matter of fact, the study finds, Christians are the largest religious group among Asian-American adults, making up 42 percent of them. This may surprise the same people who also are surprised that at least Christians also make up a large percentage of Arab-Americans.

Here are some other interesting findings from the survey, as reported in the Pew Forum's press release about it: "A majority of Filipinos in the U.S. are Catholic, while a majority of Korean Americans are Protestant. About half of Indian Americans are Hindu, while about half of Chinese Americans are unaffiliated. A plurality of Vietnamese Americans are Buddhist, while Japanese Americans are a mix of Christians, Buddhists and the unaffiliated."

Well, you can dig into the report itself from the link I gave you above. But let's all remember that pluralism reigns even within groups that appear to be homogenous. (This holds true even in my own extended family, which includes Japanese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Filipino-Americans, Chinese-Americans and African-Americans. Well, along with at least one Iowa-American.)

(The graphic here today is the cover of this new report.)

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I loved the comment from the judge who, yesterday, sentenced Msgr. William J. Lynn to at least three years behind bars for his role in the scandal involving priests sexually abusing children: “You knew full well what was right, Monsignor Lynn, but you chose wrong.” Well said, Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina. Will other church leaders learn from Lynn's bad choice? For the sake of the children, we can only hope so.

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

Is death on your bucket list? 7-24-12

When "The Bucket List" movie came out five years ago, I saw and enjoyed it.

Bucket_listBut as I watched it I thought its emphasis on finishing a busy life was a just bit overdone, given that the film's main characters  seemed to pay not much attention to death or thoughts of afterlife. But it was a brief movie that I didn't think much more about.

Until the other day. That's when I read some interesting comments from a Kansas State University professor who teaches a class called "Death and Dying in History."

The K-State in-house media people issued a release quoting Prof. Albert Hamscher as saying that "Bucket lists signify a willingness at least to discuss death again. But note how it is purely secular in its contours. It focuses on the here and now rather than the hereafter, which has been how people typically frame death. . .

"Religion has always given death a frame of reference. Absent that, death becomes a frightening topic. Death can appear frightening in that context because it has no larger explanation. It's an existential black hole."

My long-held view is that we'll never understand our own lives if we don't understand our own deaths. Bucket lists can be a way into the topic, for sure, but such lists are dead ends, so to speak, if they don't move us toward conversation and thinking about the more eternal questions about life's meaning and what death itself might lead to.

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Mark Twain used to say that his mother regularly prayed for Satan because she couldn't think of anyone who needed it more. Perhaps in harmony with that thinking, a church in Aurora, Colo., site of the recent theater massacre, prayed on Sunday for the suspect. Good for that congregation. And pay attention to the wise words of the pastor there.

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The Last Divine Office: Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, by Geoffrey Moorhouse. As many of us know because there's sex involved in the story, in the 1530s England's King Henry VIII wanted papal permission to divorce Katherine (sometimes Catherine) of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Well, the pope wasn't hot for this idea, so although I'm crunching the story down to its core here, Henry declared that the Church of England was separated from oversight by the Vatican in Rome. As I say, many of us have known all that for some time. But what I'd never spent much time considering is what this engaging and quite accessible new book covers -- the story of how Henry and his henchman (including Thomas Cromwell) essentially gained control of the Catholic religious institutions in the country, including large monasteries and small religious houses -- hundreds in all, many of them full of enormous wealth. Historians have dubbed this matter "The Dissolution of the Monasteries." Geoffrey Moorhouse, a well-regarded historian who died in 2009, tells this remarkable back story with a careful historian's touch. It is a reminder that very little happens in religious life that is not in some way affected (or, more likely, compromised) by the culture and politics in which that life finds itself. Henry VIII was a sprawling character in English history and although I knew precious little before about this aspect of his battle with Rome, I found it no surprise that the story is one of intrigue and power. This is a story all Christians -- but especially Anglicans -- should know.

Our capacity for evil: 7-23-12

If it's true -- and I think it is -- that to a boy with a hammer everything looks like a nail, it's also true that to a person with a gun everything looks like a corpse.

GuiltSurely a movie theater full of people in Aurora, Colo., early last Friday morning looked like a room full of corpses to James Holmes, arrested for trying to make it exactly that.

In response to that horrific massacre I do not want in this space to enter the re-ignited gun control controversy per se. Nor do I want to engage in the endless speculation about motive.

Rather, I want to remind us what the great religions try to teach us, which is that each of us is capable of evil. Knowing that, and knowing that religion also teaches us to consider each human being to be of inestimable value, we should do whatever possible, legal and constitutional to put the tools of evil and destruction out of reach or at least restrict our access to them. And I'm not talking only about guns. I mean anything that can be used to kill or injure other people, whether it's arms, drugs, alcohol or tiny toys on which babies might choke.

In the Reformed Tradition of Protestantism, where I find my spiritual home, we have something called the Doctrine of the Total Depravity of Humankind. It's really not quite as bad as it sounds, but it does tell us that each of us is capable of sin and that we cannot save ourselves from this condition.

The doctrine, by implication, reminds us to be vigilant. It urges us not to put ourselves in situations that tempt us to do the very evil we're prone to do.

How prone are we to such sinful behavior? Holy writ's answer is: very.

For instance, in the third chapter of the New Testament book of Romans, the Apostle Paul writes that ". . .Jews and Gentiles alike (Tammeus note: In that context, that meant everyone) are all under sin. As it is written: (Tammeus note: Paul now quotes various passages of the Hebrew Scriptures) 'There is no one righteous, not even one. . .[T]here is no one who does good, not even one."

Well, Paul had a tendency to overstate things in ways that are easy to misinterpret. He would, I'm sure, acknowledge that humans, though capable of evil, also have been known to do good deeds from time to time. But his point is that by comparison to the perfection of God, all of us are imperfect and cannot always be counted on to choose good over evil.

If we know that about ourselves, one of our tasks is to limit our exposure to temptations to evil. A recovering alcoholic, for instance, knows it's nuts to keep a full liquor cabinet in her house. And someone with a gambling addiction understands the risks of eating dinner every evening at a casino.

I am not arguing against liquor or gambling in their legal forms, though there are cases to be made against both. Rather, in the context of the Aurora shootings, I'm arguing that when we allow almost anyone to buy almost any amount of weapons and ammunition, we fail to place a high value on life and we fail to live by the widespread religious teaching that the capacity for evil can be found in all of us.

Traditional teachings of faith condemn the conditions that allowed those murders to happen.

Why did someone shoot up a theater full of people in Aurora the other evening? Given the current status of state and federal laws regarding ownership and use of weapons (and I'm not arguing against the constitutional right to bear arms, which I reluctantly support), the answer seems to be: Because he could.

We can do better than that. And the great religions urges us to do exactly that.

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The intersection now of Ramadan with the impending London Olympics has some Muslim athletes having to make choices about following the requirements of Islam versus doing their best as athletes. As this piece notes, that's not always an easy choice. All of this reminds me of the no-play choice Sandy Koufax made on Yom Kippur in 1965. But each case is different and each person must find ways to make a choice that makes sense for him or her.

A guide to religion, politics: 7-21/22-12

Under the Bill Clinton administration, various representatives of religious, government and legal communities got together and created a small handbook that outlined what current law said about public expressions of religion.

Religious Expression1It was an excellent piece of work that helped such people as school principals know what was constitutional and what wasn't when it came to questions of prayer in public schools or providing meeting space for religious groups. Well, at least it was available for such principals, though some of them acted wrongly out of wilfull ignorance anyway.

Now another, broader joint statement has been issued (well, re-issued) that, in time for this election cycle, describes what the law says about various issues relating to public expression of religion. (It first came out in 2010 and has been re-issued to be useful in this election cycle.)

It was done under the auspices of Wake Forest University's Divinity School's Center for Religion and Public Affairs. To read about the statement, click here. To read the 30-plus-page statement itself, click here.

This is a wonderful public service that should help resolve -- and maybe even prevent -- a lot of useless arguing about the current state of the law.

As the report properly notes, "The drafters of this document often disagree about how the law should address issues regarding the intersection of religion and government. For example, some of us are actively urging the Supreme Court of the United States to reverse certain decisions in this area, while others of us are vigorously opposing such efforts.

"Nevertheless, we have come together to provide a summary of how the law currently answers some basic questions regarding religious expression and practice in public life. However much we differ about what the law should be, we agree in many cases on what the law is today."

So before you go jumping into discussions about religion and politics, you'd do everyone a favor by reading this relatively brief document so you're up to speed on current law.

Then, if you want to propose changes in the law, at least you'll know what you're talking about.

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As people of faith -- among many others -- respond to the astonishing murders in a Colorado movie theater early Friday morning, let's remember to keep in our thoughts and prayers members of the clergy who will have to find ways to comfort the bereaved and wounded and help them sort through why so evil a deed could ever be committed. It's in such situations that clergy really earn their pay.

Celebrating rescuers of Jews: 7-20-12

Even five years ago, when Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I traveled around Poland interviewing members of non-Jewish families who saved Jews in the Holocaust for our book, we occasionally found some reluctance to talk about it.

As this intriguing piece notes, sometimes that reluctance was due to "modesty, or shame or fear of anti-Semitism."

But eventually we put together about 20 stories of survivors and, where possible, comments from the families who helped to save them in They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

As the Haaretz piece to which I've linked you above makes clear, Poland now is ready to celebrate those among its citizens who risked their lives to save Jewish Polish citizens in World War II.

No doubt there will always be at least traces of antisemitism in Poland, which at the start of World War II was home to nearly 3.5 million Jews. But Poles now seem much more willing to talk about this period of their history and to acknowledge those among their number who did the right thing when it was so easy not to.

By the way, Israel just recently honored more Poles as among those who helped to save Jews.

Obviously antisemitism still exists in Europe, but today its source is much more easily traced to radical elements of Islam rather than to traditional Christian anti-Judaism.

(The photo here today is one I took in April. It shows one of the walkways at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial authority in Israel, located in Jerusalem. That's Rabbi Cukierkorn on the right.)

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As people continue to ponder the relationship between science and religion, there seems to be a drift away from fixed findings. As this engaging essay suggests, for instance, quantum mechanics may, in the end, make it harder to be a materialist, which is to say someone who believes there is a strictly physical answer to all of reality.