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A new honor for Pope Francis: 12-31-15

Let's end 2015 here on the blog with a story about someone who was featured in a book I co-authored this year, Pope Francis. For he had quite a year, including his autumn trip to Cuba and to the U.S.

Pope-Francis Pope-coverThe book Paul Rock and I wrote is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. It's a seven-week study-group book that I hope many of you will recommend to your faith-based book clubs.

This same pope, a native of Argentina, has just been named greatest European of the year. Yes, the recipient of the Charlemagne Prize will be Pope Francis.

Pretty good for a non-European, though his ancestry is Italian. But he's the first non-European in 1,300 years to be pope.

The Economist piece about the award to which I've linked you above explains a bit about the background of the prize, which dates back to 1950 but has roots back into the early 800s.

One reason this seems like an appropriate award for Francis is that his concern for humanity crosses many borders, both national and economic. His view of the world is not limited by political borders, often created for terrible reasons. Rather, in his world all of humanity is related as brothers and sisters, and even what Jesus called "the least" among humans are due respect and dignity -- maybe especially so if they've been crushed economically by systems that tend to favor the wealthy. The model Francis promotes is very much the model that Jesus demonstrated.

One other thing this prize does is to remind the world that in Christianity today, North America and Europe have become very much minority voices. Africa and much of the Southern Hemisphere -- which Francis has called home -- are dominating developments in the faith these days and no doubt will dominate the future, as I wrote about here earlier this week. So although Francis now lives in Europe and affects such matters there as the absorption of Syrian refugees and responses to terrorism in Paris and elsewhere, he represents the larger voice that areas of the world beyond Europe and North America are offering to Christianity, including on such matters as the environment.

In his time in office, Francis has made many friends but also stirred up some rather harsh opposition from people who, unlike Francis, have no interest in finally implementing many of the Vatican II reforms that this pope's two immediate predecessors did their best to forestall. What we don't yet know, of course, is whether this papacy will last long enough to make long-term and substantial progress on those and similar reforms.

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I was happy to hear this week that Barbara Turkeltaub, one of the Holocaust survivors whom Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I wrote about in our book, has received an honorary doctorate. Her amazing story of survival thanks to a priest and some nuns in Poland is found in They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Barbara promises to keep telling her story as long as she's able and as long as people are willing to listen and learn. It's quite a story, but just one among many in our book.

When religions and sexuality meet: 12-30-15

As the long and frustrating effort to liberate gays and lesbians from cultural and religious oppression has moved from stage to stage in the U.S., most of the attention has been focused on how various branches of Christianity have dealt with the issue.

Struggling-faithWhich is understandable, given that a large majority of Americans still identify as being part of the broad Christian household.

But a new book reveals there is much to learn by recognizing how other faith traditions have approached this subject. Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusions from 13 American Religious Perspectives opens up a wide discussion that is sure to be enlightening to everyone touched by these matters. Which, of course, is almost all Americans. The book, edited by Mychal Copeland and D'vorah Rose, has pieces in it covering the Black Church, Buddhism, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the Episcopal Church, First Nations (Native Americans), Hinduism, Judaism, the Lutheran Church, Islam, the Presbyterian Church, Protestant evangelical traditions, the Roman Catholic Church and Unitarian Universalism.

This is a collection of essays and explanations that reflects a desire for liberation from oppression. If you are part of a faith community that considers homosexuality a sin and believes the U.S. Supreme Court betrayed you when it ruled in favor of gay marriage earlier this year, you will find precious little comfort in this book. Instead, you will be challenged by many faith traditions to re-evaluate your position.

One of the first thing readers will want to know is what all those letters -- LGBTQI -- stand for. Didn't we used to talk just about gays (males) and lesbians (females)? Well, the list has expanded as society has begun to get a better grasp of the complexity of sexual identity. B is for bisexual; T is for transgender; Q is for questioning or self-affirming queer; I is for intersex (a term that refers to people born with a reproductive anatomy that seems not to fit the typical definitions of female or male).

What this helpful book makes clear is that every faith tradition is confronted by the complications of human sexuality and that they often do unwise things before they begin to treat people the way the core of their traditions say people should be treated. Sometimes those poor early decisions are based on a particular reading of sacred texts. Later, deeper scholarship will suggest ways in which those texts can be understood as culturally restricted or not binding on all people for all time. My own essay here on the blog about what the Bible says and doesn't say about homosexuality will give you a sense of that from a Christian perspective.

I won't go through all 13 faith perspectives represented in this book but let me give you a few conclusions and insights the book offers of a few of those traditions:

* "Although sexuality receives attention in religious texts and from religious communities, until recently most Buddhists have not widely discussed or even recognized alternative sexual orientations and identities."

* "The black church with its heterosexism serves to continue a system of oppression using some of the same arguments that white people have used against black people and that men have used against women throughout history."

* "Hinduism has no history of persecuting gender-variant people or same-sex relations, but in the last two centuries, as a result of internalizing the attitudes of Victorian British colonizers, many Hindus have become embarrassed about sexuality in general and same-sex sexuality in particular."

* "Many Muslims who would be typically characterized as 'homosexuals' deny the term as an imposition of binary Western modes of sexual and gender identity, preferring to understand themselves in more culturally traditional terms of spectrum gender and sexual identity. . .But it should be made perfectly clear that the social organization of these genders and sexes is not without terrifying repercussions in their particular communities, even in supposedly tolerant countries such as Turkey."

* "Unlike the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic legal texts explore at least four and perhaps as many as six gender categories."

* "With the recent Supreme Court ruling that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional, the pressure is mounting for evangelical churches.Will they change their views and be seen as accommodating themselves to an unbelieving culture or will they hold their ground and risk being seen by the culture at large as bigoted?"

* "The official Catholic position does not use the Bible as the basis for opposing same-sex acts, as some Christian churches do. In Catholicism, the teaching appeals to the church's tradition about natural law and the purpose of sexuality, incorporating scriptural texts such as the Genesis account of creation and the heterosexual thrust of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures to support or buttress the argument."

So here we have one more issue in the Culture Wars that, because people react viscerally, tends to demand quick and easy answers. But human sexuality is enormously complex, often misunderstood and difficult to contain within the bounds of religious rules and dogma. One value of this book is that it makes the truth of that complexity clear and suggests we not settle for simple answers to complicated questions.

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By the spring, Pope Francis is expected to issue a paper describing his views on whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive communion. In some sense, this is less about that specific question than the matter of whether this pope will follow through on his desire to make changes to the church in the open spirit of Vatican II. It's just a guess, but I'm thinking he will give a qualified yes, leaving it up to individual priests to make judgments about whether such couples are in the right spiritual state to receive the elements. Cutting people off from communion also means cutting them off from community, and this pope is all about community.

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P.S.: Make your plans now to join me the week of July 10 at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico for a class I'm calling "Conversations with Jesus and Pope Francis," drawn from my new book, Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church, co-authored by the Rev. Dr. Paul T. Rock. Spaces already are filling up, and it's going to be a great week in a beautiful place.

Boldish faith-based predictions for 2016: 12-29-15

It is your great good fortune that I have been given the astonishing gift of prophecy, which is rarely awarded to either journalists or Presbyterians -- and never to someone who is both. Until now, that is.

ProphecyMy powers mean that after you read this blog post you will know with some false certitude what is going to happen in 2016 in the world of faith. That is, you will know that information if you suspend disbelief and pay attention to my prophetic words. As for those words, I have only one caution: I could be wrong. But being wrong would be radically out of character for someone like me, who opines for a living, so don't give it another thought.

Here are a few things you should expect to happen in 2016:

* Pope Francis, still trying to shape up members of the Roman Curia, will arrange for them to be on a Donald Trump reality TV show and Trump will simply fire them, but not before he calls them losers.

* Groups of churches in Mississippi and Kansas will offer to host thousands of Syrian refugees, but the plan will fail when every single one of those refugees refuses to move either to Mississippi or Kansas.

* Speaking of Trump (Do we have to?), he will abandon his extraordinarily tenuous ties to the Presbyterian Church (USA) and join the Idolatrous Church of the Most High Donald, around which he will build a wall, sending the bill for it to Mexico.

* Despite months of effort, in the face of widespread apathy organizers eventually will abandon their #PastafarianLivesMatter campaign and even declare that their Flying Spaghetti Monster god has been demoted for never being quite al dente enough.

* The U.S. Supreme Court will reaffirm its 2015 decision to legalize gay marriage in all 50 states by announcing that two of the female justices and two of the male justices plan to marry -- each other. That will produce an opening on the court when Antonin Scalia quits in disgust.

* ISIS will surrender to the new Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance and the land ISIS once controlled will become a terrorism theme park.

* A worldwide interfaith organization will issue a report saying that at the current rate of climate change, Earth will be warmer than hell by the year 2356.

* A final drive by a coalition of religious leaders will result in the final abolition of the death penalty in all states in the U.S. except Texas, which, nonetheless, will promise to quit executing prisoners by either 2195 or the release of the 57th "Star Wars" movie, whichever comes last.

* A full 98 percent of these predictions will come true -- unless officially declared heretical by the World Council of Churches, Hebrew Union College, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

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ISIS documents made available to the Reuters news agency show various ways in which the theological thugs who lead ISIS seek to justify their violence by appeal to Islamic law and teachings. As I've written here before, one of the problems with such extremists is that they rely not so much on the Qur'an but on the Hadith, those collections of sayings and actions by the Prophet Muhammad, many of which were simply fabricated for political purposes long after the prophet's life. That appears to be the case in what Reuters has uncovered.

The church's future is in Africa: 12-28-15


Over the weekend here on the blog, I told you about a book that gives some ideas about how Christianity might renew itself. It was written by a native of Canada who now is a pastor in the Church of Scotland. So it had both a North American and European perspective.

Today I want to shift focus and share this piece from The Economist, which describes how the future of Christianity will be decidedly African, given the ways in which Christianity has been sweeping across that continent over the last 100 years. Those of us who follow trends in religion have been well aware of Africa's growing importance in the Christian world, but for those of us who don't live there or visit there frequently, it's easy not to think about this trend.

As the article reports, ". . .sub-Saharan Africans are embracing the gospel with the literal zeal of the converted. According to the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in 1910 just 9% of the 100m people on the African continent were Christian; today the share is 55% of a population of a billion. Moreover, figures from the World Values Survey (WVS), which covers 86,000 people in 60 countries, indicate they are remarkably devout. . ."

When I speak to groups about faith matters, I frequently ask audience members to name the world religion with the most followers. Almost inevitably someone will say Islam. No, it's Christianity, with well over 2 billion adherents. Islam comes in second with something like 1.6 billion.

Increasingly, Christianity's numbers are found in Africa. In fact, the last two times the Catholic Church elected a pope there was speculation that he could come from Africa.

As a rule, African Christianity tends to be more theologically and socially conservative. That's to be expected on a continent where poverty and strife are common. It means people are much less interested in exotic theories of soteriology or eschatology and much more interested in a God who might protect them, feed them, meet their basic needs and perform miracles.

(The graphic here today accompanied the article to which I linked you above.)

* * *


Yes, the religiously unaffiliated are increasing in number in the U.S., but some experts think the religiously affiliated around the world will grow more quickly -- in large part because of birth rates, this story reports. The long-term question, of course, is whether those children born into religiously affiliated families will stay with the faith or drift away. Drifting seems considerably easier in Western countries than in some others.

How Christianity might find itself reborn: 12-26/27-15

I want to catch you up on a book that came out a year ago but that I've just had a chance to read -- The Rebirthing of God: Christianity's Struggle for New Beginnings, by John Philip Newell.

Rebirthing-GodIt's excellent and, beyond that, it's not quite what you might expect -- or at least what I expected.

But before I get into details, I want to disclose that Philip is a friend whom I've gotten to know through Ghost Ranch, the national Presbyterian education and retreat center in northern New Mexico, where both of us teach regularly -- he more often than I. He and his wife Ali are both pastors in the Church of Scotland and are simply terrific people. I turn to Philip's work whenever I want to know or learn something about Celtic spirituality. (I'll be teaching a week-long seminar at Ghost Ranch in July. For details, click here. For seminars or retreats Philip will lead at Ghost Ranch in 2016, click here. He will be there the week before me and the week after. I am hoping he'll also stay for the week I'm there.)

Here is what I wrote about him a few years ago when he was in Kansas City and had dinner at my house. (Which is where the picture on the right below was taken.)

All right. Enough disclaimers and introductions. Now about his book:

The subtitle might lead you to believe that Philip is going to offer yet another recipe for saving declining Christian denominations in the U.S. or Europe or elsewhere in the world. Well, yes and no. This is not a book full of cogent advice about what kind of new evangelism might work with the religiously unaffiliated (now about 23 percent of adult Americans). And it's not a volume full of programmatic ideas for how to turn moribund Protestant churches into thriving centers of activity, as they had been in the post-World War II years.

It's deeper and broader -- and, in the end, more important -- than all that.

It's about what those of us who are Christian must do to rediscover the deepest, most transformative truths at the heart of faith found within the Christian household, as he likes to call it. It's about taking a deep breath and reconnecting with what Christianity wants to say about our home, the Earth, about the vital place of compassion, about what it might mean to be back in touch with the light of God and the light within us, about how to travel the road of faith as pilgrims, about what effective spiritual practices look like, about what nonviolence might teach us about our connection to the Prince of Peace, about how we can mine the deep wells of our imagination and even our unconscious and about what in the world it would look like if we took the idea of divine and human love seriously.


Philip draws heavily on his experience as the former warden of the Iona Community in Scotland, which means bringing to our attention many of the lessons of Celtic spirituality, which understands that the world was not simply made by God but also is made of God and which, therefore, is attuned to those "thin places" where the human and the divine nearly touch.

I have made a list of 25 pages of this 135-page book from which I want to quote, but I will limit myself to just a few to give you a taste of his inviting imagery and his persuasive insights.

Christianity today, he says, "is like a great giant who has fallen into the stupor of deep sleep. Its mighty energies for good often lie dormant. When it does stir, as if half remembering the enormity of its strengths, it too often stumbles into irrelevancies and half-truths that are more like a nightmare than a real awakening. Perhaps it is truer to say that Christianity as we have known it is not simply slumbering, it is dying and will be no more. But whether it is a deep slumber, from which we need to awaken, or a death, from which we need the radicalness of resurrection, there is a desperate yearning among us for new beginnings."

WDT-JPNTo think about what Christianity might be for the rest of the 21st Century and beyond, he writes, it's important to understand the radical nature of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and to think about what that might mean for the church, of which he is the head: "The story is not about resuscitation. It is about resurrection. It is not about reviving the old form. It is about something new, something we could never have imagined, emerging from death."

As Christianity finds its new way in a religiously pluralistic nation, such as the U.S., and a world full of vibrant and often ancient religious ideas and traditions, what might it have to give to the world? Philip writes this:

"What is it that a grown-up Christianity has to freely offer the world? There is so much treasure in our household that we could generously distribute. We hold within our Scripture an awareness of earth's sacredness that could more deeply serve today's environmental movements. We have inherited from Jesus a vision of nonviolence that could profoundly redirect our nations from conflict to peace. We have been taught practices of compassion for those who are poor and hungry and sick that could play a foundational role in the well-being of any society. There is no shortage of treasure in our household."

Some of what Philip writes will challenge traditional Christianity and those Christians who identify themselves as conservative or evangelical. But even they can find insight and direction here that can give new life to those branches of the faith, if they are willing to listen deeply.

(This book comes from Skylight Paths Publishing of Woodstock, Vt., which produces a wide variety of faith-based volumes. Skylight Paths will publish my own next book next summer. It will be The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith.)

* * *


In his Christmas message, Pope Francis called for peace in the Middle East and elsewhere. Oh, for the year when such a plea is unnecessary because there's already peace everywhere. Sigh.

Beauty needs no excuse for being: 12-25-15


Bethlehem-NativityAs I mentioned here yesterday, I'm devoting yesterday's and today's Christmas blog space to sharing with you a few photos that my wife and I have taken in the last year or three as we have pin-balled around.

Easter-2014Except for the photo on the left, which I took in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on the spot where tradition says Jesus was born, these aren't Christmas-themed photos except in the sense that they celebrate the incarnation of a God who, as author Annie Dillard has noted, simply loves pizzazz.

Fall-2015-3So may you see and recognize the gifts of beauty in the world.

The top photo shows a rainbow at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. I've already mentioned the Bethlehem picture at the left. The kite was flying one recent Easter over the property where my older daughter and her family live south of Louisburg, Kan. The weeping willow at left is in Rose Hill Cemetery on Troost in Kansas City. And the bottom photo, taken a couple of years ago, shows the 9th hole on the Blue River golf course in Kansas City, with the flag hoping for spring and some melting of the snow.


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Did you know that Sunni Muslims celebrated the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad yesterday, the day most Christians call Christmas Eve? The prophet's birthday is based on a lunar calendar and, thus, changes each year on the calendar that most of the world uses. But this year it came on Christmas Eve. If you're Christian and want to learn more about Islam, I invite you to back up a week or so in my blog and read several entries I wrote about the subject recently.

A taste of the world God loves: 12-24-15


As my bride and I wander our yard, our neighborhood, our nation and even, at times, our world, we take photos -- some of which we use to make blank greeting cards.

2013-09-23 15.17.15 2014-12-18 12.05.49As your Christmas present, today and tomorrow I'm going to share with you a few of the photos I've taken in recent years just as a way of celebrating what John Calvin, theological father of the Reformed Tradition of Christianity, in which I locate myself, called the "Theater of God's glory."

Cem-2 2013-09-23 15.05.49Most of these photos will have nothing directly to do with this holiday season except that, in my Christian tradition, we say that there is no place where God is not. So in these photos perhaps you might sense the presence of the divine.

If memory serves, the top photo is of Greers Ferry Lake in Arkansas. The walking bridge is in the Chicago Botanic Garden. Next to it is the sun shining down on Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City. The snow scene shows Liberty Memorial in downtown KC as seen from the fourth floor San Francisco Tower social room, where I help to lead a weekly Bible study. The flower, I, as I recall, is from Maine. And the bottom photo was taken at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, where I'll be teaching this seminar in July: "Conversations with Jesus and Pope Francis."


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In Bethlehem, which Christians have long considered the birth place of Jesus, this year you won't find much joy or many pilgrims because of fears and tensions. As this story notes, "holiday spirit is sadly lacking in the place where it all started." I was in Bethlehem in the spring of 2012 (as well as on Christmas Eve of 1957, when it was part of Jordan) and it's certainly worth a trip, but what a difference it will make when (and if) the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gets resolved in a peaceful way. Even the Prince of Peace continues to wait for that.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online here.


How to handle exclusivist religious claims: 12-23-15

On this Christmas Eve Eve, I want to back up a week or so to the story of the Wheaton College professor who was suspended for saying what is manifestly true: That Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

Quilt-of-faithsYou know now, if you didn't before, where I stand on the contention made by Larycia Hawkins, but that's not what I want to talk about today. (But if you want to read -- or listen to -- an NPR story and an NPR panel discussion about the issues raised in this matter, click here and then here.)

Rather, let's think about the reality that every faith tradition makes exclusivist claims, which is to say that every religion puts forth beliefs that are unique to each religion. The question this crowdy collection of claims raises for scientifically minded 21st Century people is how all of them can possibly be right.

Let's consider an example, one primarily rooted in Christianity but with ramifications for two other faiths:

* Christianity maintains that Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate -- fully human and fully divine -- and that to redeem humanity he was crucified and resurrected.

* Islam, by contrast, considers Jesus its second most important prophet, but denies he was in any way divine and believes he was never crucified or resurrected.

* Judaism, by further contrast, thinks of Jesus as an interesting but misguided free-lance rabbi whose life and teachings wound up splitting already-divided First Century Judaism so badly that eventually a new religion, Christianity, arose. Some Jews, incidentally, also think of that new religion simply as one more means that God has used to draw people to allegiance to the one true God -- the God described in the Hebrew scriptures.

By 21st Century standards of scientific verification, as I say, all these of these claims cannot be equally true. The question becomes how do deal with that reality. (Maybe the answer is not through 21st Century scientific standards.) Throughout human history, one of the primary ways people have dealt with it is to try to beat others into submission, even though such sacred texts as the Qur'an says there should be no "compulsion" in religion.

If healthy, creative religion is to play a part in the future of humanity, we need to find a way to acknowledge the fact that every religion makes exclusivist claims but to allow that to happen without resorting to violence to crush claims different from the ones our own religion makes.

Religion scholar Martin E. Marty, in this "Sightings" column, suggests that the Wheaton controversy may be an opportunity for people of faith to stop and consider the exclusive nature of the claims that their own faith tradition makes. He writes: "If participants can resist being viral and condemnatory or fire-branding, it is possible that this week in Wheaton can serve as one more inspiration for serious believers to take up the issue of the uniqueness of particular faiths. Some who participate, one hopes, may wear clerical robes; some, T-shirts; still others, hijabs as they take up the tasks newly forced upon them as well as freshly open to them."

For one thing, such claims focus solely on belief and not action -- the difference between what theologians call orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Our reasons for acting in compassionate and socially responsible ways as people of faith may have different motives but often our actions are similar. Perhaps there's where we should center our attention.

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Pope Francis took a slightly gentler tone in his annual address to the Roman curia this year at the Vatican, but he clearly thinks the members haven't got it right yet. He's speaking truth to power, but also power to power, not to mention holy weakness to power. It's the latter that may finally result in some reform, particularly as he continues to demonstrate that holy weakness through his open and winsome approach to ministry.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online here.

Is there room for religious moderates? 12-22-15

The worst-kept secret in America is that the number of people who identify as religiously unaffiliated is growing. Recent studies show such people currently make up nearly 23 percent of adults.

Middle-wayThis move away from traditional religion has been going on for decades, but has picked up momentum in recent years. The question for churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship is why this is happening and what might be done to turn around that momentum.

The Christian Science Monitor did this recent story exploring the question of why people of faith are leaving congregations even though they are keeping their core beliefs.

A telling excerpt:

Many are uneasy with the exclusivity that their conservative traditions lay claim to – in which the denominations assert that they have the right interpretation of Scripture and the prescription for obtaining salvation. Many are also uneasy with how this exclusivity translates into treatment of those outside the fold – what can feel like a critical judging of “others.”

For those grappling with these issues, religious institutions have a rigidity that just isn’t jibing with the increasing diversity of America. And so they’re leaving the institutions, although they still want to be on a spiritual journey with others.

These people see faith not as being about rituals and doctrine, but as about individuals coming together and enjoying an honest exchange of views.

There are several ways congregations and the branches of faith they represent can and do respond to this reality. In some cases they double-down on dogma -- becoming ever more rigid, circling the theological wagons, finding infidels everywhere. In other cases, almost the opposite is true. They practically abandon any theological claim likely to cause the slightest offense and seek to become sort of a Rodney-King-Can't-We-All-Just-Get-Along institution.

There is, of course, a middle ground, in which a deep sense of both community and humility play a role. The idea in this middle way is to support and embrace one another and to allow those in the community to ask the hard questions, the challenging questions -- all without abandoning a core set of principles and doctrines.

As is true in many other aspects of life, including politics, advocating this middle way often seems less appealing than the other ends of the continuum because it relies on reasonableness and moderation. As this Republican presidential nomination race has shown so far, candidates who at least sometimes advocate reasonableness and moderation are losing to the extremes. The task for faith communities is to find a way to make that middle way more attractive than the extremes. In an era of short attention spans coupled with some legitimate complaints about how things traditionally have operated in those communities, it's a tough -- but not impossible -- sell.

* * *


Here's another complication in the struggle against ISIS: A global think tank concludes that even if ISIS were defeated in Syria, most of the Syrian rebels remaining are in sympathy with ISIS's ideology. A key finding: “The west risks making a strategic failure by focusing only on IS. Defeating it militarily will not end global jihadism. We cannot bomb an ideology, but our war is ideological.” Sounds like we're back to figuring out how to win hearts and minds. No shock. Violence against violence rarely accomplishes anything long-term.

Understanding Islam's quasi-scripture: 12-21-15

In a continuation of my recent Islamic-themed blog posts, I will share some information today about the Hadith, those collections of sayings, stories and traditions about the Prophet Muhammad that have become quasi-scripture -- second only to the Qur'an -- for most Muslims.

HadithsOne problem with those collections, however, is that they vary widely in historicity and authenticity. And yet in some cases the extremists who claim Islam as their motive for violence rely heavily on some parts of the Hadith that were almost certainly just made up for political or theological purposes, with no real connection to what Muhammad actually said or did.

Here's part of the way Mustafa Akyol explains that problem in his book, Islam Without Extremes:

Of course -- as in "telephone game" -- it was highly optimistic to think that the original message could have survived such a long chain of transmitters. The presence of so many embellished stories only intensified the challenge. The Qur'an was written down during the Prophet's lifetime, and canonized right after his death, but the Hadiths were simply oral traditions. That's why it was an open field for anyone who wanted to put some alleged words into the mouth of the Prophet in order to justify a view to which he subscribed, or an interest he wanted to pursue. . .Hence, at the turn of the second century after the Prophet's death, Islamdom became a Hadith wasteland, with traditions justifying almost every view.

These forgeries ran into the tens of thousands -- more likely even hundreds of thousands -- and eventually Islam had to make some judgments about which Hadiths were real and which weren't.

Within the last 10 years, in fact, this discernment process has become something of a cause among some Turkish Muslims. They have created what they call the "Hadith Project." Their goal is to wade through the "Hadith wasteland," as Akyol called it, and put together a reliable collection that might be helpful in living an Islamic life in the 21st Century. Here is a 2008 Christian Science Monitor story about that work.

This is a project not without critics and skeptics -- from both those Muslims who would view themselves as deeply conservative theologically and those who would consider themselves progressives.

Here is a 2013 Reuters story that describes some of that angst from different perspectives. As the story reports:

The hadith project first attracted attention in 2008 when the BBC called it "a revolutionary reinterpretation of Islam and a controversial and radical modernisation of the religion."

Diyanet, Turkey's top Islamic authority, called this and other reports "entirely wrong" and based on Christian misreading of Islamic practice. Media interest dropped off and the project went ahead, leaving scholars abroad wondering what to expect.

What has emerged is a seven-volume encyclopaedia of what its authors considered the most important hadiths. Grouped according to subjects, they are followed by short essays that explain the sayings in their historical context and what they mean today.

The project is guided by Turkey's Religious Affairs Directory, or Diyanet, a state agency, and this Foreign Affairs piece from this past May explains some of that agency's thinking behind the project.

Extremism in religious traditions almost inevitably grows out of how scripture is read. When the Hadith got elevated to become almost scripture for Islam -- and when people began simply making up Hadiths to suit their own purposes -- it opened the door for some of the kinds of radicalism we're seeing today. The hope is that Turkey's "Hadith Project" will help Muslims know which Hadiths are authentic and worth paying attention to and, beyond that, how to interpret them in light of modernity and in light of what their true scripture, the Qur'an, tells them.

This interpretive task is necessary for all scripture in all faiths. So the Hadith Project is worth paying attention to.

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Teaching about religion in public schools in the U.S. should be mandatory, I believe, but it should never amount to efforts to convert students nor should it require students to engage in religious ritual. This Washington Post piece makes a good case for what I just wrote, and does it in light of recent misguided protests contending that students in Virginia were being seduced into Islam because a teacher had asked them to copy a key Islamic belief in Arabic to learn how hard it is to write calligraphy. Somehow we've got to create some rational national standards for how to teach about religion in our public schools. And the sooner the better.