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McLaren's path forward for Christianity: 8-19/20-17

I first heard of Brian McLaren 15 or 20 years ago when I was looking into the fast-spreading phenomenon known as the Emergent Church Movement. McLaren was sort of the guru of that Christian movement with roots in the evangelical branch of the faith but with hopes to focus less on personal salvation and more on being a healing presence in a wounded world.

McLarenHe's written several important books to help guide struggling churches, and I've reviewed several of them, most recently here last year when I wrote about his book The Great Spiritual Migration.

McLaren is a church voice well worth hearing. And I'm really glad to be able to tell you that he's coming to my own church, Second Presbyterian of Kansas City, Sept. 16 and 17 and that you're invited to hear him. Here is Second's Facebook page giving details of times.

As I've mentioned several times before, this year marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, and many Protestant denominations have been experiencing decline in recent decades. People have earned a pile of doctorate degrees trying to explain why that's happening and what can be done about it.

Great-spiritual-migMcLaren sees all of this in fresh ways, as do other Emergent Church Movement leaders such as Tony JonesDanielle Shroyer, Doug Pagitt and the late Phyllis Tickle.

As I quoted McLaren in my review of his latest book, "It is tempting to leave Christian faith altogether. But there is a treasure hidden in its field, and I want to assure you that you have permission to shovel away the distractions and rediscover the precious gift that has for too long been buried."

Like much of our culture in this post-modern, even post-Christian era, the church is feeling its way forward (and sometimes backward) but not in the dark. It knows where (and who) light is. McLaren may help Christians find it anew.

Come hear.

(The photo of McLaren at right is one I took a few years ago when he spoke at Jacob's Well Church in Kansas City.)

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 P.S.: I'm in Arkansas for a few days with my bride and some friends to take a breather at the end of summer, so you won't find the usual second item on the blog today. I plan to be back to regular blogging on Tuesday, assuming I can escape Arkansas in one piece.

Revisiting the disasters in Charlottesville: 8-18-17

With several days of distance between the racist violence last weekend in Charlottesville, Va., and now, it's time to take a new look at what happened there and what it means for people of faith -- especially white Christians -- in the U.S.

Religion-white-supThis Atlantic article, published soon after the Charlottesville clashes, is not a bad place to start, given that it raises the right questions about how Christians responded to acts of violence, some done by people who themselves claimed to be Christian. Here's some of what the piece said:

Racial divisions have been part of the American church for as long as it has existed. Many early denominational splits were driven by Christians who supported slavery and justified it with Bible verses. Historians argue that the spread of Christian private schools in the South in the 1960s and ’70s was largely driven by racism. White supremacy is undeniably a part of the history of American Christianity, as is abolition, and support for civil rights. Clashes over race have roiled congregations for as long as they’ve been in America.

And it’s not just history, either. Much of the anger directed at white Christians following the Charlottesville attacks was tied to Trump. Some people believe his election empowered white-supremacist fringe groups like those who gathered in at the “Unite the Right” rally this weekend. They blame white Christians for enabling this to happen: More than 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for the president, as did 60 percent of white Catholics. At best, they ignored or dismissed Trump’s appeal to these racist fringe groups, these critics say; at worst, they were complicit.

It’s easy to call out blatant hatred and violence, but the bigger question is whether Charlottesville will change anything next Sunday, or the next, or the next.

Sometimes cultural forces are stronger than religious teachings. The former can overwhelm the latter. The world saw that happen with the spread of Islam, for instance. When the Prophet Muhammad introduced Islam, it was astonishingly liberating for women. But as the religion moved into new territory, where deeply patriarchal society systems ruled the day, those systems suppressed -- at times crushed -- the early Islamic impulse to give women more equal rights. Islam today still is recovering from that disastrous history.

Similarly, the cultural acceptance of racist thinking in the South -- even into modern times -- often swamped Christianity's core message that we're all beloved children of God, no matter our race. In my own lifetime I have seen evidence of that systemic bigotry in the South, with public drinking fountains labeled "White Only" or "Colored Only."

So the question facing all people of faith in the aftermath of Charlottesville is whether we will have the courage to stand by our deepest beliefs in the equality of all people before God or whether we're going to excuse racist deviations from those beliefs because, well, who knows why?

In this era of fake news, conspiracy theories and big lies as truth, our religious leaders must truly lead, speaking truth not just to power but also to the weak, the poor, the targets of hatred. And the people in the pews must join them.

That's why I find it at least somewhat reassuring that a leader like Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, was willing to write this Washington Post op-ed piece saying that "White supremacy makes Jesus angry." (Remember that Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew and, if around today, would never be mistaken for a suburban white American.)

I also found it reassuring that hundreds of clergy went to Charlottesville before the clash there to be a presence for peace. Here is the story of one Church of the Brethren pastor. In the story about her there is mention of the "Antifa" (anti-fascist) counter-protesters. The Atlantic has done this story about how some of those counter-protesters (far from all) also have fallen into the habit of using violence. It's called "The Rise of the Violent Left" and may remind those of you who lived through the 1960s of radical groups like the Weathermen, later the Weather Underground Organization. Please note that the Atlantic piece is a strong condemnation of violence by "Antifa" proponents but not a statement of false equivalency between those opponents of fascism and those who advocate neo-Nazism and white supremacy. In neither case is violence justified except in self defense, but only in the latter group are the ideas being supported indefensible under any circumstances. In other words, there's certainly nothing morally wrong with being against fascism, though there is moral error when that opposition turns to violence to make its point, whereas neo-Nazism and white supremacy are always wrong, and the violence used to support those positions simply makes everything worse.

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HEBER SPRINGS, Ark. -- I'm spending a few days with my bride and some friends on an end-of-summer breather here at Eden Isle on Greers Ferry Lake. While I'm gone I won't be adding the usual second item to the blog. My regular blogging pattern should return on Tuesday, inshallah.

Some lightness in the darkness: 8-17-17

Before the sun-shattering darkness of the total eclipse arrives on Monday, sending all of us into panic and navel-gazing and possibly mindless shopping sprees, I think maybe it's time for a small humor break. After this bizarre, at-times disgusting week of national news, humor is what we need almost more than anything.

SunSo here are some jokes and comments and whatnot I found floating around the internet, waiting for bloggers like me to swipe them and pass them on.

If you've got better ones, send them on to me.

-- Sign in New-Agey Woodstock, N.Y.: “If you lived here, you’d be om by now.”

-- Q: How do you make holy water? A: Boil the hell out of it.

-- A man is angry because he has it in his head that someone stole his wallet. He walks into a church to steal someone else's wallet, but he has a change of heart during the service. He confesses to the priest afterwards about what his intentions had initially been. The priest asks, "What made you change your mind?" The man says, "In your sermon on the Ten Commandments when you got to 'Thou shall not commit adultery,' I remembered where I left my wallet!"

-- A husband and wife are in church. The preacher notices that the husband has fallen asleep and says to the wife, “Wake your husband up.” The wife answers, “You're the one who made him fall asleep, you wake him up.”

-- Three men are traveling on a ship, when they are accosted by the Devil. The Devil proposes that if each man drops something into the sea and he cannot find it, he will be that man's slave. If the Devil does find it, however, he will eat that man up. The first man drops a pure, clear diamond, and immediately gets eaten. The second drops an expensive watch, trying to impress the Devil, and gets eaten. The third man fills a bottle with water and pours it into the sea yelling, "You think I'm a fool? Try finding that."

-- Late one night, a preacher was driving on a country road and had a wreck. A farmer stopped and said, "Sir, are you okay?" The preacher said, "Yes, I had the Lord riding with me." The farmer said, "Well, you better let him ride with me, because you're gonna kill him."

OK. Enough. Resume speed.

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Thousands of members of the clergy are asking Congress to keep the Johnson Amendment as the law of the land. Good. As I've written before, President Trump is simply wrong in wanting to gut this law that prohibits pastors from endorsing political candidates from their pulpits. I gave my arguments for keeping the amendment a few months ago here.

Providing free legal help for Muslims: 8-16-17

Over the course of American history, different immigrant groups have created organizations designed to watch out for the their own interests.

Meek-1There have been churches in which services were offered in German, say, or Swedish. There have been sports teams made up of Italian or Mexican soccer players. And on and on.

It's in this self-care spirit that the Muslim Legal Fund of America was established in 2001. I learned about this group just the other night when I attended the 21st annual awards dinner of the Crescent Peace Society, a Kansas City Muslim-based (but interfaith) organization created after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which at first was falsely attributed to a Muslim.

Khalil Meek, executive director of MLFA, based near Dallas, spoke briefly about the organization at the CPS event and how he became involved in the group.

Meek grew up in Texas in a Baptist family full of preachers and didn't meet his first Muslim until he was in college. He immediately decided that this person was simply "a confused Christian." So he tried without success to convert him to Christianity. It didn't work. Instead, in 1989, Meek converted to Islam.

As he learned more about the history of the U.S., he said, he discovered ways in which members of minority groups responded to their conditions and worked to better their own lives and the lives of others.

Meek-2"Because of the shoulders and the sacrifices of people who have gone before us," he said, "Muslims now are in a position to be able to organize themselves to respond in a similar fashion (as other minority groups)."

In 2001 he helped to form MLFA, though he wasn't then and isn't now a lawyer. Instead, he learned that civil rights "are worthless unless there's someone to enforce them."

So he and others raised funds from individuals and hired lawyers to help Muslims with civil rights or civil liberties cases. After 14 years, they shifted to funding a non-profit law center and hired lawyers to work there.

Today that center has about 20 attorneys on staff that offers free legal help to Muslims with constitutional issues.

As the MLFA website says, "Muslim Legal Fund of America is a charity that funds legal work and programs to defend Muslims against injustice in American courtrooms, prisons, and communities. Muslim Legal Fund of America is the ONLY national tax-exempt nonprofit legal fund dedicated to defending Muslims’ civil rights and civil liberties in American courtrooms."

It's not exactly equivalent to a Japanese floral arrangement group or a Vietnamese cooking society in the U.S., but it does look out for its own. Which turns out to be a common American immigrant experience.

(The top photo shows Meek speaking to the CPS dinner Sunday evening at the Overland Park Marriott; the bottom photo shows him talking with Ian Grillot, winner of the CPS 2017 Hero Award for his role in trying to stop a shooter earlier this year at a local bar and grill where Grillot was meeting with friends. The shooting resulted in the death of Srinivas Kuchibhotla and hospitalization of Alok Madasani and Grillot.)

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I noted here yesterday that it was the 70th anniversary of India's independence and of the partition of the country into India and Pakistan. The Atlantic has done this piece, in light of all that, about what may be forced conversions to Islam of Hindu women in Pakistan. It's more evidence of the terrible ripple effects of partition, which itself was a terrible ripple effect of British colonialism.

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P.S.: My co-author and friend Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn knows so much about the ancient wooden synagogues of eastern Europe, especially Poland, that he's even given a presentation about them at my church and, more recently, at the World War I Museum in Kansas City. He just passed along this link to a piece about how a recent exhibit about those synagogues in Poland is now online in a virtual tour. Have a look. Take the tour. And if you want Jacques to speak somewhere about this matter, let me know and I'll pass along your request.

Our culture's strange trip to Fantasyland: 8-15-17

There's simply no question, as Kurt Anderson asserts in this cover story in the current issue of The Atlantic, that Americans increasingly have become willing consumers of conspiracy theories, fake news and magical thinking.

FantasylandWhat Anderson calls the "fantasy industrial complex" has seduced many Americans. Examples he cites: "A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it's a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ."

There's more. Much more. But that's a representative sampling of the spilth too many Americans accept as reality.

Anderson's piece is an adaptation of his book to be published shortly: Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire -- A 500-Year History. And it's well worth a read. But it has issues related to religion that I want to point to today.

The primary issue is that Anderson sometimes seems to lump all people of faith, but especially Christians, into one, as if everyone was a fundamentalist. And sometimes he's not careful about his assertions.

For instance, he notes that two-thirds of Americans "believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God." First, there are two tales of creation in Genesis, not one. Second, it is possible to believe that those creation tales are the "word of God" (with different understandings of what that might mean) without believing they tell a literal and historical story. In other words, the stories there can reveal something important about who God is even though the stories themselves are rooted in metaphor, myth and allegory.

Now, it's true that sometimes Anderson calls the biblical literalists members of "extreme Christianities," implying there might be other kinds. But it's easy to lose track of non-literalist approaches to Christianity when he gives the literalists so much attention. As he notes, "Extreme religious and quasi-religious beliefs and practices, Christian and New Age and otherwise, didn't subside (in the 1970s), but grew and thrived -- and came to seem unexceptional.

Anderson's account describes the rise of the Rush Limbaughs and similar radio and TV gas bags full of misinformation, taking special note of the end of the so-called "Fairness Doctrine" on public airwaves. And he describes the early use of the internet to spread the sort of factual quackery we're experiencing today.

"In 1994," he writes, "the first modern spam message was sent, visible to everyone on Usenet: GLOBAL ALERT FOR ALL: JESUS IS COMING SOON."

I suppose none of what Anderson writes about religion should be surprising. The vast majority of Christians get little publicity. Media coverage of religion tends to focus on extremes and tends to quote the wackiest representatives of faith traditions, not the most rational.

But be assured that there are reasonable religious people in the world who, along with Anderson, bemoan the fact that we seem to have slipped as a culture into a world of magic thinking and crazy conspiracy theories. Healthy religion should condemn all of that while offering ways to find reliable information.

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Today marks 70 years since India achieved independence from Great Britain and since the country was partitioned into predominantly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan. The Associated Press has done this helpful look back at some of the traumatic personal experiences of that time. And Raj Bhala, who teaches law at the University of Kansas, has written this Bloomberg piece focusing more on what partition has meant in terms of economics. It's pretty clear in hindsight that Indians and Pakistanis have paid an outrageously high price in the aftermath of colonialism.

'We're No. 1!' So what? 8-14-17

The other day here on the blog I mentioned a new estimate from the Pew Research Center that Islam would be the world's largest religion by 2060, which is 15 years earlier than Pew's previous estimate of when it would achieve that status.

Icofa-4I want to go back to that today to make a few points that I didn't take the time to make then.

First, it always seems to me that rankings of the world's religions by adherents tells us very little. In some ways, it's like the weekly stories about which movies had the largest box-office takes over the weekend.

Which is to say that just as the movie rankings tells us nothing at all about the quality of the films, so the religion rankings tell us nothing about what difference these religions are making in building a world of peace, compassion, justice, mercy and love. Might it be possible to do surveys that would give us rankings about those matters? Probably not, so pollsters settle for what they can measure.

But can they really measure the number of adherents of different religions accurately? Again, probably not -- and for many reasons. But I think it's fair to say that Pew does this about as well at this as anybody, perhaps better, using modern surveying techniques.

As the story to which I've linked you notes, "modern survey research and demographic methods can take the once murky business of calculating the size, distribution, attitudes, behavior and likely spread of the world’s largest faiths to a degree of scientific accuracy inconceivable in the Victorian age."

One problem in trying to get this right is that different religions count adherents in different ways. For instance, we Presbyterians tend to be pretty careful about church membership numbers because local congregations are required to pay a "per capita" amount (click on "things to know" and then "per capita") to the regional governing body, and no church wants to pay more than it has to, preferring to keep donated funds working in or through the local congregation.

By contrast, you can be a Muslim by adopting the five pillars of Islam and agreeing to live by them. Attending worship services at a mosque is encouraged but mosques don't keep membership roles in quite the same regulated way that many Christian churches do. Which is why you get estimates of Muslims in America ranging from the 3 millions to the 12 millions.

Worrying about which religion is No. 1 in the world seems like a waste of time, though the estimates are sort of interesting. What we really need to know about religious adherents is whether they're improving the world or contributing to the evil that often seems to permeate our atmosphere.

(The photo here today is one I took a few years ago at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Mich.)

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Why did Charlottesville happen? Columnist Leonard Pitts says it's because we regularly lie to each other about matters of race. The most distressing part of that to me is that so often religious communities have contributed to the problem, starting with churches in the 18th and 19th century that defended slavery.

A beautiful site to explore your doubts: 8-12/13-17

Ever since Jean Richardson, the former program director at Ghost Ranch, left some years ago to take a similar position at the Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center in northeast Pennsylvania, I've been seeking an opportunity to go to Kirkridge and lead a program.

Kirkridge_LOGOI've now scheduled just that for late April 2018, and I hope you'll either join me or pass this information along to someone you think might be interested.

I'll be leading a session for pastors on Friday, April 28, designed to encourage them to find ways to give their congregants opportunities to ask the hard questions of faith publicly and to express their doubts about faith without worrying that their questions might get them labeled as heretics. Then starting Friday evening through Sunday noon, I'll lead a session for anyone that will focus on the need to walk through doubt to find an authentic faith. You can find both sessions listed here on the Kirkridge website.

Cover-Value of DoubtI'll be drawing on my latest book, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. It makes the argument that unless we have the freedom to express our doubts and challenge what we either don't understand or agree with we'll probably never find a faith that can sustain us in difficult (or joyful) times.

As I prepare for these Kirkridge sessions, another author pointed me to some writing by an Orthodox Christian leader, Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Surouzh, a monk and metropolitan bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church who died in 2003.

Here's what Anthony wrote once:

There are two absolutely different attitudes to doubt in the mind — there is that of the scientist and that of the believer. For the scientist, doubt is a systematic weapon; it is a joy. For the believer when he takes the wrong attitude to doubt and to the problems he is facing, it is a moment of anguish. What happens usually to the believer is that having believed in all simplicity that everything is clear, simple, straightforward, he suddenly discovers that life gives the lie to what he thought to be true. Then his answer is 'I am disloyal to what I thought, I am disloyal to my faith, to my Church, to my God'. The problem is not only about subtleties but about basic things, about God Himself, about the Church, about what is at the core of the believer's life. Then he feels that what is at stake is the breaking down, the destruction, the disappearance of the object of faith, and God's existence is now questionable. The values which were essential, which were existential values for him, are questionable, and therefore his very existence becomes a problem and seems to be insuperably problematic.

What, in fact, are people of faith to do with such doubts? How might they be resolved without losing faith altogether?

That's some of what we'll talk about at Kirkridge.

But Kirkridge also is a beautiful place of retreat. And in this world of 24-hour news cycles, we all need some retreat space. Closer to Kansas City, such space is available at the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center at Lake Pomme de Terre. I have served on the board there for several years but, as of our annual board meeting last week, I'm now am going to emeritus board status. I encourage you to look at HSRC as an opportunity for you to experience some quiet time designed to help restore your soul.

Once you've had that experience, I hope you'll also want to join me at Kirkridge next spring.

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What are people of faith doing to prevent war between the U.S. and North Korea? Here's one example: A Catholic bishop who is head of the international justice and peace committee at the U.S. Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops, has weighed in with a direct letter to the U.S. secretary of State. Are others speaking out for peace? Here and there, but on the whole the religious world seems strangely silent.

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P.S.: A big cheer for Sheila Sonnenschein, who will receive this year's Vern Barnet Interfaith Service Award at the annual Thanksgiving dinner Nov. 12 at the Islamic Center of Johnson County. The dinner is sponsored by the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council and Heartland Chapter of the Alliance for Divine Love. Sheila, who is Jewish, has been working for years with people of faith traditions different from her own to improve interfaith relations in our area. Among many other activities, she serves with me on the board of the Kansas City Interfaith Youth Alliance. I hope lots of you can be there in November to applaud Sheila.

Some useful arguments about religion: 8-11-17

For a long time I've been writing about the importance of interfaith understanding and basic religious literacy. The book to start with is Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't.

Between-one-faithBut I have a new book about this subject to recommend to you today, and it takes an intriguingly different approach to the subject.

It's called Between One Faith and Another: Engaging Conversations on the World's Great Religions, by Peter Kreeft, a philosophy professor at Boston College.

In it, Kreeft imagines two college students and a professor whose class on comparative religions the two are taking. Then he sets them to arguing about what they're learning in class. But they don't argue alone. The professor often joins them and, as he notes, he learns from this discussion, too.

The made-up names of these three characters reveal a bit about where they stand on questions of religion. There's Thomas Keptic (say it quickly all together), an atheist with a profoundly logical mind; there's Bea Lever, a Christian who is open to learning from other traditions, and there's Professor Fesser, a committed pluralist who wants to know as much as he can before committing.

Kreeft begins by asserting that "truth is ultimately what God thinks. . .So our attempts to find truth are ultimately attempts to read God's mind."

In some ways, the rest of the book responds, "Good luck with that." But not quite. That's too easy a response. Rather, the response found here is also, "It's hard, but let me try."

So the first thing Thomas and Bea discover is that neither one of them can agree on what religion really is. But as things move forward, they open themselves up to some interesting dialogue, which eventually becomes trialogue.

The characters in these imagined conversations consider these faith traditions: primitive religions; Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

One of my favorite passages in the book quotes Bea, who declared this to Thomas: "You say you have no sense of the sacred because you're an atheist. But I say that you're an atheist because you have no sense of the sacred." Bingo.

Soon after that, Thomas sort of proves Bea's point by saying this: "Science explained religion away. The cause is logical, not psychological. The fear of ghosts and spirits disappears once you show people that what they explained by spirits in the past can be explained better by science in the present."

In the end, the professor pleas for going slowly and carefully when seeking to understand faith traditions. He finally tells Bea and Thomas: ". . .you're both rushing to judgment. You're getting nowhere because you insist on being judgmental toward each other before listening and learning from each other, as we were supposed to be listening and learning from each religion. You see, I'm arguing for a most humble position. That's what pluralism is."

Sometimes the conversations here get a little dense because of the use of academic language. But for the most part, they are easy to follow and enlightening about different faith traditions. And that's a good thing.

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I may have more to say about this in a later post, but a new estimate from the Pew Research Center says Islam will become the world's largest religion by 2060, which is 15 years earlier than its previous estimate. Lots of religiously illiterate Americans already believe Islam has more followers than Christianity, but that's not the case. Yet.

Where will artificial intelligence lead us? 8-10-17

A friend from Denver visited my wife and me recently and left with me a copy of the Denver Post that included this Washington Post story about artificial intelligence and some of its pros and cons.

Artificial-intelligenceAmong the questions this friend asked was this: "Do you think that a computer can be taught to 'believe' in God or will people just leave Him behind?"

Her question was a reminder to me that I have spent precious little time getting educated about (or worrying about) artificial intelligence.

So my quick answer to her question is this: I have no idea. But I'm pretty sure that even if somehow we can create a machine that can understand any concept of God, the result would not automatically mean that human beings would abandon God.

My lack of knowledge about AI does not mean that it's not becoming an important topic to which all of us should pay more attention.

In fact, Religion News Service recently did this article about the threat to human uniqueness that AI represents to some people. As the story notes, ". . .the idea that robots may have a consciousness and become almost indistinguishable from humans disturbs some, as recent movies such as 'Ex Machina' and 'Her' attest. The possibility that humans are not unique opens up questions about the nature of humanity."

And that is where religion comes in. All religions have drawn conclusions -- or at least raised questions -- about the nature of humanity. Are we creations of a loving God? Are we simply accidents of a blind, disinterested cosmos?

AI inevitably will challenge our religious conclusions about all of this, meaning we'd do well to have a good handle on what we actually believe about the nature of humanity and what is up for negotiation.

Doing that kind of open exploration and conversation inside a faith community is not the only way to go about that task, but faith communities that ignore these questions are doing their followers no favors.

(By the way, if you Google "Artificial Intelligence Pros and Cons," you get this list of resources. Enjoy.)

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A pastor from Texas says God has given President Trump authority to take out North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-Un. Do you ever wonder why God often seems to speak just to mega-church pastors from the South? Weird.

The serious issues edited genes raise: 8-9-17

DnaWell before the Human Genome Project was completed almost 15 years ago, I was writing commentary and analysis pieces for The Kansas City Star about ethical questions associated with the growing ability to manipulate the human genetic code.

For instance, in a July 2, 2000, column I noted "a sea of hyperbolic congratulations (about the Human Genome Project's progress) at least equal in size to the 3.1 billion subunits of DNA (illustrated above) that make up the human genome. And yet we'd all do well to listen to the warnings about the path ahead. We'd do well, in fact, to become genetically literate." (You can find that column in my first book, A Gift of Meaning.)

I'm not at all sure that humanity is any more genetically literate today than it was then, but the need for such literacy has not decreased at all.

That was made clear recently when it was announced that scientists, for the first time, had edited genes in human embryos.

As the Religion News Service story to which I've just linked you reports, ". . .scientists essentially snipped a mutant gene known to cause a heart condition that can lead to sudden death.

"The work is controversial because it showed that scientists could manipulate life in its earliest stages and that those changes would then be inherited by future generations, if the embryo were allowed to grow into a baby. (The embryo in question was destroyed.)

"It also raised the tantalizing promise that the baby would be disease-free and would not transmit the disease to his or her descendants."

My, oh, my. So many questions and issues here. Is it the job of scientists to be digging into DNA to identify and change mutant genes? Which is a way of asking whether somehow mutant genes have some larger purpose in human evolution and should be allowed to do their work. Was the embryo that was destroyed human life? And, if so, was the destruction equivalent to murder? What would a disease-free world look like? And on and on.

The RNS story raised similar questions: "Should these edited embryos be allowed to develop into babies? Could scientists edit out undesirable traits to create customizable 'designer babies'? Could it increase inequality in society between those with access to such technology and those without?"

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan provides some answers to such questions in the RNS piece. And clearly they aren't the only answers possible here. But these are issues that everyone should know about and be as informed about as possible.

And because such scientific work raises ethical and moral questions, one place to be discussing all of this is in faith communities. Is your congregation, if you have one, paying attention to all this? If not, maybe you should make that happen. Among the resources to draw on in the Kansas City area is the Center for Practical Bioethics. OK. The ball now is in your court.

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Once again Muslims in the U.S. are attacked and once again President Trump says nothing about it. Sometimes inactions speak much louder than words.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column is now online. You can find it here.