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Taking faith questions seriously: 8-31-12

Sometimes I think the differences between Christians are larger and more defining than the differences between Christians and adherents of some other faith traditions.

Living-QFor instance:

* Some Christians say the Bible is without error or inconsistency; others believe that it was written by fallible humans but within its contents somehow mysteriously it contains the word of God.

* Some Christians believe the Earth is only a few thousand years old and that Genesis gives a scientifically accurate account of creation; others believe, with most scientists, that Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and that the creation accounts (there are two, not one) in Genesis are meant to teach us not science but something about God.

* Some Christians believe that anyone who doesn't publicly acknowledge Jesus Christ as savior and lord is destined for hell; other Christians aren't even sure hell exists as a physical location and believe the question of who gets to spend eternity with God is up to God, not us or our creeds, though they would still describe themselves as disciples of Jesus.

* Some Christians insist that homosexuality is a sin and that it's a choice people make, one they can undo; others contend that the Bible has almost nothing to say about homosexuality, that its writers had almost no understanding of what we today are beginning to understand about sexual orientation and that the Bible should not be used as a weapon in a political debate the way it was used once to defend slavery. (See my essay on this subject found under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)

And on and on.

It will come as no surprise to my regular readers that I tend to identify in each of those instances with the latter group.

Which is why I'm glad that two pastors, David M. Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy, have written a new book explaining the approach Christians in that latter group tend to take on a variety of issues: Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.

The book is drawn from a popular DVD course of the same name. And both the book and the DVD would make great resources for adult Christian education classes in churches.

The book brings in such well-known theologians and academics as Brian McLaren, Walter Brueggemann, Amy-Jill Levine and others to provide insights into such subjects as the Bible, creation and Jesus. One need not agree with all of them to learn from them or to be challenged by their thinking.

Felton and Procter-Murphy say they have aimed this book at "people of deep spiritual integrity who simply cannot suffer the shallow message of the churches of their birth any longer. These people have an intuitive sense that there is more to Christianity than the rigid rules and theological constructs of the past." It is, they say, for "those who are yearning for something more than the shallow platitudes that too often pass for theology in our churches."

Throughout the book readers will find what may well be fresh insights to them. For instance, early in the book the authors deal with the question of what it means in Christianity to be "born again," saying that "even though a whole religious culture has risen up around the phrase, the concept of being born again is essentially based on a mistranslation." The original Greek term means not born again but "born from above," they say. And that implies not a one-time event but a long spiritual journey.

Similarly, in their treatment of Jesus, they correctly point out that "today, Jesus has been misused so often by so many, it's no surprise that many of the priorities, practices, and teachings of the Jesus represented in the Gospels are ignored or intentionally contradicted by the institutional church. . . .Despite the varying witnesses of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), one characteristic is consistent throughout: Jesus raised a prophetic voice that critiqued, questioned, and confronted the status quo."

Well, anyone wanting a good, solid grounding in a version of the Christian faith that encourages hard questions and is unwilling to settle for old answers that fly in the face of reason, science and experience would do well to begin with this book. Though understand that this is the kind of book that drives fundamentalists nuts.

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Now that the Republicans have their presidential ticket set, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has put together religious biographies of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. They're worth a read, though keep in mind that there's no religious test for office under our Constitution.

Another gay church leader: 8-30-12

After all the coverage the media gave several years ago to the selection of V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire (and even to his retirement), I was surprised to read so little about the choice of the Rev. Gary Paterson (pictured here) to be the first openly gay head of a major Christian denomination.

Gary-paterson(Some members may disagree with me, but I'm not counting here the Metropolitan Community Church denomination, with a bit over 200 congregations around the world, though it clearly has been on the front lines of including gays and lesbians in Christian congregations.)

Paterson, a pastor in Vancouver, B.C., has been chosen to lead the United Church of Canada, the country's largest Protestant denomination.

So I was pleased to see that the Vancouver Sun's religion writer, Douglas Todd, wrote the story about Paterson's election to which I linked you in the first paragraph above as well as this brief sidebar about some of the influences on Paterson.

I'd like to think that the lack of coverage of Paterson was an indication that gay people taking leading roles in churches is so common nowadays that it's no longer news. But I suspect, instead, that it's just another indication that citizens of the U.S. pretty much ignore most of what goes on in Canada.

In any case, Paterson's selection reminds me to invite you to read my essay about what the Bible really says about homosexuality. Look for it under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page or simply click here.

(The photo here today was taken from the same Vancouver Sun site at which the story of Paterson's selection is told.)

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This interesting Washington Post piece describes how the Republican Party, as seen through its national platform, "has morphed over the past half-century from a socially moderate, environmentally progressive and fiscally cautious group to a conservative party that is suspicious of government, allied against abortion and motivated by faith." The question is whether such a platform, by growing narrower in scope and views, can appeal to a broad section of Americans. Maybe the answer is yes because hardly anyone reads it anyway and people at the top of national party tickets sometimes don't agree with the platforms on which they run. So we'll see.

* * *

P.S.: There's a new print and electronic magazine out that deals with Orthodox Christianity. It's called Theosis, and if you're interested you can read about it here.

A joyful summing up: 8-29-12

All right, ladies and gentlemen, let's gather around the easy chair of the famous Huston Smith, the teacher most known for introducing all of us to, as the title of his most famous book has it, The World's Religions.

Live-rejoicingSmith is going to tell us stories of his long life (which began in 1919) and his relentless willingness to travel the world and learn about the myriad ways human beings worship and live within religious traditions.

Well, most of us won't have a chance to do this in person, but such storytelling is what makes up Smith's latest book, And Live Rejoicing: Chapters from a Charmed Life, written with Phil Cousineau. Smith is a great storyteller, and this book is one story after another. Through each story runs Smith's belief that we are to look at our lives and rejoice in the gift that they are.

To be candid, this is not Smith's most important or interesting book. Indeed, it's kind of a follow-up to his earlier autobiographical work, Tales of Wonder.

Some of the stories about Smith's boyhood in China are engaging and amusing, as are tales of his college days in Missouri at Central Methodist College (now University) in Fayette. I heard Smith talk about some of that in Kansas City a few years ago, and he's quite a compelling speaker.

But a few of the anecdotes in the book seem marginal at best, and I got the feeling that Smith's basket of memories could have used one more winnowing before he put them into print. For instance, why would we care that after Smith spent eight days in extended Zen meditation he "made manic love" to his wife?

None of this, however, diminishes the fact that Smith has been hugely instrumental in raising the world's awareness about the many religious traditions across the globe. His work, though proceeding from a Christian base, has been enlightening and respectful of other traditions, and you certainly get the sense of a balanced and inquisitive man in this small book.

So thanks to Huston Smith for a life's worthy work. And if you are interested in just under 200 pages of Smith vignettes, this book (which will be published next week but can be pre-ordered now) is for you.

* * *


So the other evening I was flashing through the TV channel guide and noticed a show called "The American Bible Challenge." Not sure what an American Bible is, I selected it and, though I didn't learn an answer to that question, I did discover that the host is none other than comedian Jeff Foxworthy. I saw three teams competing to answer questions any second grade Sunday school kid should know. And now I read here that the GSN network, of which I've never heard, says it set a record for a first show by attracting 1.7 million viewers. Well, if this can improve the ridiculously low level of biblical literacy in America, it's fine with me. Still, just because you know that the Bible says Noah's Ark landed on Mount Ararat and not on Mount St. Helens (RIP), are you a more committed, generous and compassionate Christian or Jew? (You might be a biblical illiterate if you think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife.)

Who can forgive the past? 8-28-12

The subject of forgiveness long has fascinated me because it has never seemed simple, at least understood by the great faith traditions.

Forgiveness-judaismYes, they call their adherents to forgive and to seek forgiveness, but there are rules and risks involved. I hope to explore some of these in a weekend seminar I'll help lead next April at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in Pennsylvania (more about that later).

But for now I want to dig into the subject a bit based on this news story that my friend and colleague Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn passed on to me the other day. As you will see by reading it, it has to do with descendents of Nazis doing a week-long march across Poland, focusing on the death camps that Hitler's German regime built there in World War II to murder Jews in the Holocaust.

A local Polish organizer said that the Germans participating are doing so because they "would like to ask for forgiveness for what their grandparents did."

This got Rabbi Jacques' attention, and he said to me: "I am appaled by the idea that grandchildren of Nazis would believe they can ask for forgiveness for their grandparents' sins. 1) Only someone that performs the deed can ask for forgiveness. 2) Only the victims have the ability and right to grant forgiveness."

I asked him to expand on those ideas and to place them more thoroughly in the context of historical Jewish understandings.

He replied with some text from a Wikipedia entry that he felt got it right. You can find what I'm about to quote in bold type by clicking here (the footnotes in the text below are explained on the Wikipedia site):

In Judaism, one must go to those he has harmed in order to be entitled to forgiveness.[12] [One who sincerely apologizes three times for a wrong committed against another has fulfilled his or her obligation to seek forgiveness. (Shulchan Aruch) OC 606:1] This means that in Judaism a person cannot obtain forgiveness from God for wrongs the person has done to other people. This also means that, unless the victim forgave the perpetrator before he died, murder is unforgivable in Judaism, and they will answer to God for it, though the victims' family and friends can forgive the murderer for the grief they caused them. The Tefila Zaka meditation, which is recited just before Yom Kippur, closes with the following:
  • "I know that there is no one so righteous that they have not wronged another, financially or physically, through deed or speech. This pains my heart within me, because wrongs between humans and their fellow are not atoned by Yom Kippur, until the wronged one is appeased. Because of this, my heart breaks within me, and my bones tremble; for even the day of death does not atone for such sins. Therefore I prostrate and beg before You, to have mercy on me, and grant me grace, compassion, and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all people. For behold, I forgive with a final and resolved forgiveness anyone who has wronged me, whether in person or property, even if they slandered me, or spread falsehoods against me. So I release anyone who has injured me either in person or in property, or has committed any manner of sin that one may commit against another [except for legally enforceable business obligations, and except for someone who has deliberately harmed me with the thought ‘I can harm him because he will forgive me']. Except for these two, I fully and finally forgive everyone; may no one be punished because of me. And just as I forgive everyone, so may You grant me grace in the eyes of others, that they too forgive me absolutely." [emphasis added]
Thus the "reward" for forgiving others is not God's forgiveness for wrongs done to others, but rather help in obtaining forgiveness from the other person.
Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, summarized: "it is not that God forgives, while human beings do not. To the contrary, we believe that just as only God can forgive sins against God, so only human beings can forgive sins against human beings."[13]
Jews observe a Day of Atonement Yom Kippur on the day before God makes decisions regarding what will happen during the coming year.[12] Just prior to Yom Kippur, Jews will ask forgiveness of those they have wronged during the prior year (if they have not already done so).[12] During Yom Kippur itself, Jews fast and pray for God's forgiveness for the transgressions they have made against God in the prior year.[12] Sincere repentance is required, and once again, God can only forgive one for the sins one has committed against God; this is why it is necessary for Jews also to seek the forgiveness of those people who they have wronged.[12]

In recent years we have seen instances in which politicians offered apologies -- and, at least by indirection, sought forgiveness -- for things done by others long ago, such as slavery. I think it would be fascinating to gather people of different faith traditions and kick around whether such forgiveness is possible and what the different traditions teach about that.

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Tampa, site of the now-open GOP national convention, may not be the most religious city in the country, but, as this piece reports, there's plenty of religion to be found there for people willing to look. Not much religion? Maybe Tampa is compensating for being located next to a saint (Petersburg).

Rethinking sexual ethics: 8-27-12

Sex may not be society's most divisive subject, but it's close.

Making-Love-JustAt a time when sex is simply everwhere in pop culture, most people of faith continue to be embarrassed about any serious discussion of it.

Not Marvin M. Ellison, who teaches Christian ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary. Several years ago he wrote Same-Sex Marriage? A Christian Ethical Analysis. And now he has followed it up with a serious and important new book, Making Love Just: Sexual Ethics for Perplexing Times.

This is not a book for people unwilling to re-examine traditional thinking about sexuality. But Ellison insists that such a re-examination is badly needed. Why?

Because, he writes, "the conventional Christian approach to sex and sexuality, most often negative and rule-oriented, is woefully inadequate."

Given that, he argues persuasively, "the church's mandate is to educate people of all ages to be ethically astute lovers in their intimate and social, political and economic connections."

I especially like Ellison's call for us to take our time in thinking through all of this. We must not, he argues, using a phrase borrowed from philosopher Anthony Weston, settle for "premature clarity."

The Christian tradition surely has had a great deal to say about sex over the centuries, but Ellison maintains that "the church has never managed to produce a reliable tradition of ethical wisdom about gender and sexual justice." Thus, he says, Christianity "requires critique and transformation when it comes to sex and sexuality."

This is not a particularly easy read. It sometimes uses thick academic language when something more accessible would have done well.

But, in the end, it raises important issues that not just Christians but all people of faith would do well to wrestle with.

(To bring in a voice with an alternative view from Ellison's, I give you this essay about same-sex marriage by Michael Cook, editor of I disagree with some of Cook's conclusions and assertions, but I've always found him to be thoughtful and a worthy proponent of positions with which I sometimes take issue.)

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Anyone following the presidential race (in other words, that tiny minority of Americans, the voters) knows that Mitt Romney is a Mormon. And that Mormons mostly insist that they are Christians. And that a lot of traditional Christians disagree with Mormons on that point. The writer of this intriguing piece suggests that if Romney becomes president, he'll "be the first arguably non-Christian -- let's say 'post-Christian' -- elected to the office." It's an interesting argument, and I'm still sorting out what I think about it. But it's worth thinking about.

Muslims criticizing Muslims: 8-25/26-12

The complaint about Muslims I hear most often from non-Muslims is that they don't speak out often enough or loudly enough about violent extremists who also claim to be Muslims.

Islam-05Since 9/11 this charge has been made over and over, and although there is a grain of truth behind the indictment, the reality is that many Muslims and many Islamic organizations have regularly condemned terrorism and other extremist positions and actions.

And yet some Muslims in some countries continue to do and say things that are an embarrassment to Islam.

Which is why you have such people as Mehdi Hasan, political director of the Huffington Post UK, feeling the need to speak out against such acts and to defend Islam from its internal idiots.

For instance, recently it was reported that an 11-year-old girl with Down's Syndrome in Pakistan was arrested and charged with blasphemy for burning pages of the Quran.

Hasan quickly fired up this column in which he condemned that action and called Muslims to more sensible behavior.

And Hasan did not pull any punches. He wrote this: "What on Allah's earth is wrong with so many self-professed Muslims in the self-styled Islamic Republic of Pakistan? Have they taken leave of their morals as well as their senses?"

(In tone, at least, his words sound sort of like what many Republican leaders were saying a few days about about ignoramus words spoken by Rep. Todd Akin, still the GOP's Missouri candidate for Senate.)

Whenever a member of a faith tradition runs amok, it should be other members of that tradition who first cry foul. That's what Hasan has done here, and Muslims around the world should be proud of him for that.

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When Rick Warren canceled a forum that was to feature Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, Warren blamed it on the toxic nature of the campaigns. Hmmm. That's not what the campaigns say. They say they just weren't interested in attending. If I were running I'd prefer a forum hosted by Fr. Guido Sarducci.

Celebrating a liberator: 8-24-12

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- My wife and I were here the other day having lunch with old friends and the topic turned to the quality of local TV news.

WilberforceQuickly the complaint was raised about how Kansas City's stations all seem to lead off many broadcasts with details of the latest murder or other heinous crime. And, of course, criticism of journalism is a national parlor game, so I wasn't especially surprised.

But I want you to know that I'm not going to write about local murders here today. Rather, I'm going to write about international murders -- aka the slave trade -- and one man's successful effort to help stop them.

For today is the anniversary of the 1759 birth of William Wilberforce (depicted here), who, out of his Christian convictions, worked tirelessly with others to abolish slavery in England.

In fact, England abolished slavery in 1833 just before Wilberforce died.

Wilberforce was the subject of a great movie a few years ago, "Amazing Grace," in which Ioan Gruffudd played the main character.

By the way, if you are a pastor, you can go to the movie's website and get a free copy of the film for your congregation. It could be a great tool for youth ministry and other purposes.

So, no modern murder news here today. Instead, let's celebrate the wonderful work of a man motivated by his faith.

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Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest. The Christian activist group Sojourners, in response to the burning of a mosque in Joplin, Mo., and other atrocities, is starting a billboard campaign reminding folks they are to love their neighbors. Oh, yeah. That rule.

Non-Jews learning Hebrew: 8-23-12

When I was in Poland a few years ago with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn doing interviews for the book we wrote about non-Jews who saved Jews from the Holocaust, we were struck by how much Jewish culture had returned to Poland despite there now being only a small Jewish population.

Hebrew-alphabet1There were Jewish festivals, Jewish restaurants, Jewish theater classes in colleges and more. Most of it was done by non-Jews for non-Jews, but clearly there was a growing interest among Poles to rediscover the 500-year history of Jews in Poland.

Just a reminder: More than 90 percent of Poland's approximately 3.3 million Jews perished in the Holocaust. Many of those who remained left or went underground either a year or so after World War II ended or in the 1960s, when the government adopted antisemitic measures.

At any rate, I was pleased, but not surprised, to learn by reading this piece in the Times of Israel that the phenomenon Jacques and I saw in Poland is continuing and that many non-Jews in Poland today are studying the Hebrew language.

Language often is a window into the heart of the people who speak it. Its structure, its idioms, its sound, its phrasing can be quite revealing. So as non-Jewish Poles begin to internalize the core of Hebrew they inevitably will grow to have a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Jewish people. And what could be wrong with that?

(By the way, Presbyterian seminary students are required to learn both Hebrew and Greek, given that the Bible originally was written in those two languages.)

(The graphic here today shows the Hebrew alphabet. Don't forget to read from right to left.)

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Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA Today's good religion reporter, writes this interesting piece about religion and politics, focusing especially on the increasing marginalization of Protestants. The religious landscape in the U.S. is shifting for sure, and our three branches of the federal government reflect it.

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

Shining art's light on faith: 8-22-12

Last month I briefly introduced you to a Middle Eastern artist and his interfaith work here.

Hatemi-art-1But on reflection, I think I didn't pay Haydar Hatemi (pictured below) the attention he deserves. So today I'm going to give you more links to the work of this Azerbaijani-born painter and talk a bit about what I think art can do to advance inter-religious understanding.

Hatemi (pronounced HOT-u-me) is a world-class artist who lately has been painting scenes from Jewish, Islamic, Zoroastrian and Christian sacred writings.

This spring he was the subject of this interesting profile (scroll down to page 12) in Jewish Muslim Friendship, an online magazine focusing on western New York. Hatemi

Although Hatemi's work has focused largely on the time of the Ottoman Empire, I recently have gone back to look at some of his more recent work called "Stories of the Messengers," 47 paintings that explore four sacred texts in the aftermath of 9/11.

His painting you see here today depicts the birth of Christ. I am about as far from an art critic as it is possible for a journalist to get, but I hope you will appreciate the reverence and detail seen here. I invite you to visit the "Stories" link I gave you in the previous paragraph and have a look at several other paintings in this series.

It has long seemed to me that we cannot fully appreciate our own religious tradition until we see it through the eyes of people outside of it. That's part of what Hatemi's art gives Christians, Jews, Muslims and Zoroastrians a chance to do.

By taking the sacred scripture of each tradition seriously, he has opened up through his art the possibility of new understandings and a growth in respect.

And in a world in which the voices of exclusivism and unreason are everywhere, Hatemi's message is one we need to hear.

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A new study suggests that religious people give more to charity than others. This could be one of those cases in which people actually pay attention to what their faith traditions teach. What a concept.

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

The need for healing rituals: 8-21-12

Between birth and death, countless occasions -- some planned, many not -- would go better with healing rituals.

Caring-liturgiesHow do you properly mark the end of a 27-year marriage so both individuals can catch their breath and move into the future as healthily as possible?

What can be said or done when the moment comes to move aging parents out of a home in which they've lived for 55 years?

And how might it be possible to create a metaphor or symbol that would honor a man transitioning from a long career in the ministry to a time of retirement?

The Rev. Susan Marie Smith, a former Kansas Citian and author of the just-released book Caring Liturgies: The Pastoral Power of Christian Ritual, thinks that in each case some kind of creative, ritualistic act is needed. And she makes a persuasive case for that belief in this needed book.

Smith, now rector of an Episcopal church in Ohio, lays out the theological and pastoral case here for such rituals, which, she argues, help those involved understand their context so they can move to the next phase of their life as unwounded as possible.

What she wisely does not do is to create a book of cookie-cutter rituals to use for all occasions. That's because she understands that each situation is unique. Indeed, the work needed to create an appropriate ritual or liturgy can be part of the healing process.

Full disclosure: As she was writing this book, Susan asked me to help her edit and organize it, though the folks at Fortress Press did the final editing. As I was working with Susan on this task I also was chairing a visioning task force at my church, and in our final report we recommended that our congregation gather together people who could help create the very kind of caring liturgies Susan recommends in her book.

Working on the book reminded me of the several times in my life (divorce, unexpected death in the family, more) in which a healing ritual would have helped me. But none was available or no one suggested it. And, thus, I struggled more than necessary with each situation.

Healing rituals, of course, do not change the reality of whatever the situation is. They won't make everything all better instantly. But they can help name the reality and give participants tools to be able to gather themselves and begin to see a way forward.

The Catholic and Episcopal traditions are much better at this sort of thing than most of us Protestants. But all traditions -- indeed all faiths -- need help with this area.

And this book is a great place to start.

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The proper and necessary condemnations of Rep. Todd Akin's outrageous remarks about "legitimate" rape have cascaded across the political spectrum. In some ways, it's good for Republicans and Democrats to be united again on something. Thanks, Congressman Akin. What struck me about all of this was how representative Akin seems to be of people who decide public policy positions on the basis of rumor and superstition and not on the basis of empirical data, reason and principles of goodwill and love. Here's a good commentary about that subject. The thinking that Akin reflected in his original remark (and not in his later clarification) is similar to the thinking derived from a strictly literal reading of the Bible -- you know, that Earth is only a few thousand years old, that macro-evolution is a fairy tale, that women should shut up in church. And on and on.

* * *

P.S.: My friend Alvin Brooks, former mayor pro-tem of Kansas City, will speak tomorrow morning about faith and domestic violence at a breakfast hosted by the Newhouse Shelter. You were supposed to have reservations in some days ago, but it looks like there's flexibility for you to attend. Details you need are in this pdf document: Download Day of Prayer letter.