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Imagining Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama: 3-30/31-19

My Flatland column that posted this morning is about the Rime Buddhist Center in Kansas City. Because that center offers Tibetan Buddhism, I thought it would be helpful to focus here this weekend on what might happen to Tibetan Buddhism when the current Dalai Lama, now 83 years old, dies.

Dalai-LamaThis Reuters piece deals with that question, and it's sort of scary for the tens of thousands of Tibetan Buddhists who live in exile, mostly in India.

China, at the time an upcoming bully, took over Tibet in 1959, causing the Dalai Lama and many other Tibetan Buddhists to escape to India. The current Dalai Lama's permanent (well, as much as anything for one in exile is permanent) home is in the Himalayan hill station town of Dharamshala in India, not far from Landour-Mussoorie, where I went to a boarding school for part of a year in my boyhood.

As the Reuters piece notes, Tibetan refugees in India and elsewhere say "they are worried that their fight for a homeland will die with the 83-year-old Buddhist monk as China’s international influence grows. . .Though he (the Dalai Lama) has set up a democratic structure for Tibetans in exile, many find it difficult to see how things will carry on after his death."

China's treatment of Tibet and its Buddhist culture is in harmony with its general mistreatment of religion within its borders. Which is to say its government has been quite hostile to religion.

Here is part of what the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2018 annual report says about religious liberty in China: In 2017, "China advanced its so-called 'sinicization' of religion, a far-reaching strategy to control, govern, and manipulate all aspects of faith into a socialist mold infused with 'Chinese characteristics.' The strategy amplifies the Chinese government’s existing pervasive policies that, over time, have intruded into various communities. While the faithful in China are burgeoning, Xinjiang and Tibet increasingly resemble police states, further limiting freedom of religion or belief for Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists, respectively, and authorities continue to crack down on unregistered and registered churches and persecute Falun Gong practitioners."

As that is happening in China proper, Tibet is suffocating under China's religious oppression, and the efforts of the Dalai Lama to maintain an intact Tibetan Buddhist community outside Tibet through a government-in-exile continues to be challenging.

This Dalai Lama has suggested that the practice of finding the next Dalai Lama through reincarnation will end with him, so it's even more unclear what the future holds for Tibetan Buddhists.

But for 60 years exiled Tibetan Buddhists and their gentle, wise leader have kept the faith in the face of an increasingly uncertain future.

(The photo here today comes from the Dalai Lama's website, to which I've linked you in the first paragraph above.)

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Puerto Rico's governor has signed an executive order banning so-called gay conversion therapy for minors there. Good. This kind of therapy has proven to be extraordinarily damaging to people. In effect, it's trying to turn cats into horses or sheep into fish. Just stop it. Now.

This faith stuff may or may not be funny: 3-29-19

There's been so much serious stuff happening in the world recently that unless we take a humor break, we're likely to implode or explode or just plain plode.

Easter-egg-funeralSo to help all of us out, I offer these non-original faith-based jokes today. You're welcome. Pass 'em on. But don't tell anyone that I made them up because I didn't. Had I made up the jokes here they'd have been funnier. Maybe.

In any case, here we go:

-- What would the Bible say if it had been written by today's college students?

Instead of God creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh, he would have put it off until the night before it was due and then pulled an all-nighter. 
The Last Supper would have been eaten the next morning -- cold. 
The Ten Commandments would actually be only five -- double-spaced and written in a large font. 
A new edition would be published every two years in order to limit reselling. 
Forbidden fruit would have been eaten because it wasn't cafeteria food. 
Paul's letter to the Romans would become Paul's email to [email protected] 
The reason Cain killed Abel: they were roommates.
The reason Moses and followers walked in the desert for 40 years: they didn't want to ask directions and look like freshmen.

-- Three sons left home, went out on their own and prospered. They discussed the gifts they were able to give their elderly mother. The first said: "I built a big house for our mother." 
The second said: "I sent her a Mercedes with a driver." 
The third said: "You remember how our mother enjoys reading the Bible. Now she can't see very well. So I sent her a remarkable parrot that recites the entire Bible. It took elders in the church 12 years to teach him. Mama just has to name the chapter and verse and the parrot recites it." 
Soon thereafter, their mother sent out her letters of thanks. 
"Milton," she said, "the house you built is so huge. I live only in one room, but I have to clean the whole house. 
"Gerald," she said, "I am too old to travel. I stay most of the time at home so I rarely use the Mercedes. And that driver is so rude! He's a pain!" 
"But Donald," she said, "the little chicken you sent was delicious!"

-- Finally, a few examples of church signs that caught the attention of people:

  • Free Trip to heaven. Details Inside!
  • Try our Sundays. They are better than Baskin-Robbins'.
  • Searching for a new look? Have your faith lifted here!
  • An ad for a church has a picture of two hands holding stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments are inscribed and a headline that reads, "For fast, fast, fast relief, take two tablets.
  • Come work for the Lord. The work is hard, the hours are long and the pay is low. But the retirement benefits are out of this world.

(What's the illustration here today? An Easter Egg funeral, of course.)

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Two young film-making brothers are turning a story from the book of Hosea in the Hebrew Bible into a movie called "Sinners Wanted." It's about a prostitute. And God's grace. And I'm anxious to see it.

Imagining the cosmos before there was one: 3-28-19


Almost every culture and every religion has a creation story. The book of Genesis, which both Jews and Christians consider to be scripture, has two creation stories, and they don't exactly match up very well.

Still, they offer not a scientific explanation of how the cosmos came into being but, rather, a poetic, mythological account full of truth and beauty. Here is the way Robert Alter starts his terrific new translation of the original Hebrew of the first Genesis story:

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the waters, God said, "Let there be light" And there was light.

"Welter and waste." Isn't that terrific? I love it.

The number of questions this account doesn't answer are many, starting with this one: What was God doing before beginning to create heaven and earth? And perhaps ending with this one: Who heard and recorded God's words?

It's those and other questions that drive us to seek less poetic, more scientific answers to questions and creation. And you may be glad to know that scientists are on the job.

As this press release from the Center for Astrophysics/Harvard & Smithsonian reports, "A team of scientists has proposed a powerful new test for inflation, the theory that the universe dramatically expanded in size in a fleeting fraction of a second right after the Big Bang. Their goal is to give insight into a long-standing question: what was the universe like before the Big Bang?"

When scientists ask what the universe was like before the Big Bang, it's like theologians asking what God was doing before beginning to create heaven and earth. One religious theory is that God created everything "ex nihilo," or from nothing. Well, maybe, but if the creation came from nothing, why does Genesis describe it as "welter and waste?"

You can dig through the report on the work of scientists to which I've linked you if all of that interests you (as it does me). But my point is that whether we are scientists or theologians (or both -- and, yes, there are some who are both, like the man I recently wrote about here), we are naturally curious about what came before us. As we should be.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but lack of it kills human brain cells.

(The photo here today is one I took from an airplane years ago, trying to catch the face of God looking at us. Or something.)

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The openly gay mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg, is running for president and talking equally openly about his Christian faith. As this New York Magazine piece says of him, "He’s Christian, progressive and gay. So conservative Christians who like to imply that their more accepting co-religionists aren’t 'real' or 'orthodox' because they don’t exclude gay people need to be willing to tell Buttigieg he’s taking the Lord’s name in vain. And that may be — and certainly should be — uncomfortable for them."

You thought ISIS was dead? Guess again: 3-27-19

There has been much cheering from Washington recently about the fact that the terror group ISIS now has lost all of the land it previously controlled in Syria and elsewhere.

ISIS-SyriaAnd most American have been cheering along, too. In fact, this blow to ISIS has been significant and a cause for at least some celebration.

But despite Trump administration words to the contrary, ISIS is far from dead even now. Worse, the twisted religious thinking that helped to create both it and similar Islamist terrorist groups continues to be spread in various ways.

As this Atlantic piece reports, ISIS without land is not ISIS without money. Tons and tons of money, in fact. And it's clearly continuing to use that money to achieve its terrorist purposes.

The key news in the Atlantic article:

"Even as U.S.-backed forces wrest back the Islamic State’s last strip of territory in Syria, the United States and its allies are nowhere close to bringing down the terrorist organization’s economic empire. The group remains a financial powerhouse: It still has access to hundreds of millions of dollars, according to experts’ estimates, and can rely on a battle-tested playbook to keep money flowing into its coffers. That continued wealth has real risks, threatening to help it retain the allegiance of a committed core of loyalists and wreak havoc through terrorist attacks for years to come."

Unraveling an organization like ISIS or al-Qaida is really complicated business. The financial considerations are many, and these organizations don't die willingly by seeing the light religiously.

So governments working to eliminate terrorist organizations have to use all kinds of tools. As the Atlantic piece notes, "In its effort to squeeze the group financially, Washington has been forced to rely on a fundamentally different strategy than it employed in its military campaign: The main weapons at its disposal are not air strikes and artillery barrages, but subtler tools, such as sanctioning Islamic State – linked businesses, denying them access to the international financial system, and quietly cooperating with governments across the globe. Successes will be less visible, the campaign against the group will likely take years, and there is no guarantee of victory."

What our government seems to be terrible at when it comes to fighting terrorist organizations is understanding what leads people to join them and then figuring out how to have a better argument. Instead, this administration often has given Muslims of all varieties lots of reasons to believe that Washington simply wants them to go away and, in fact, never darken America's doors again. That's simply fuel for the fires of ISIS and other terrorist organizations.

In the meantime, it helps to remember this conclusion from the Atlantic article: "The military victory against the Islamic State is cause for celebration, but it also allows the group to fall back on an economic strategy that has served it well for years. Don’t expect it to go out of business anytime soon."

(The map here today shows the land -- deep wine colored -- in Syria that ISIS controlled just over four years ago. All that land is out of the hands of ISIS now.)

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Why do church denominations matter? This Religion News Service opinion piece looks at all the trouble the Willow Creek megachurch has run into and suggests an answer to that question. Flying solo has its advantages, but in the end denominations provide an important foundational structure.

Will all Americans some day be 'nones'? 3-26-19

It has been clear for a decade or three that the number of American adults who identify as religiously unaffiliated has been growing. By some measures, this group, called the "nones" for choosing "none of the above" from a list of religions, makes up nearly a quarter of those adults.

Unaffiliated_mostThis Religion News Service piece points out that the nones now are roughly equal in numbers to those who identify as evangelical and those who identify as Catholic.

"The shift," the RNS piece says, "could signify coming political changes. Evangelicals often lean conservative and are known to have outsized influence on American elections: According to exit polls, white evangelicals alone made up 26 percent of the electorate in 2016, even as their share of the American population has dipped far below that, according to Public Religion Research Institute. . .

"A rising tide of religiously unaffiliated voters — a group that a 2016 PRRI analysis found skews young and liberal — could potentially offset that influence. But the same PRRI analysis also noted that religiously unaffiliated Americans do not vote in the same percentages as evangelicals, and are often underrepresented at the polls."

Well, the political ramifications of a growing group of nones are interesting, but I'm frankly more interested in what faith communities are doing to attract such folks and meet their spiritual needs.

One answer at least for Christianity has been the recent growth of so-called "dinner churches," a phenomenon I wrote about here. Like the early church, these gatherings include a meal that is at least representative of the Communion meal. They don't do worship in the traditional sense but, rather, offer programming and spiritual resources to people who seem uninterested in traditional worship.

The dinner church that my congregation started some four years ago, The Open Table, has seen its attendance climb dramatically -- from 15 or 20 at the start to sometimes as many as 175 now, though its average attendance is closer to 80 or so.

Dinner church may not be a good model for all faith communities seeking renewal and growth, but what the model does show is the need to experiment. With that attitude, failure just means you have learned one more thing that doesn't work, which is getting you closer to something that does work.

When worshiping communities fail to respond to social changes around them, they eventually lose the ability to communicate their eternally valid messages to anyone. And that seems pretty self-defeating.

*  * *


Now another faith community is in the news for its terrible handling of allegations of sexual abuse against children. This Atlantic report says the Jehovah's Witnesses have kept a secret file about such abuse in the church's ranks for years. The church, the report says, has built "what might be the world’s largest database of undocumented child molesters: at least two decades’ worth of names and addresses — likely numbering in the tens of thousands — and detailed acts of alleged abuse, most of which have never been shared with law enforcement. . ." Stunning, especially in light of similar scandals in other faith communities. As the old song asked: When will they ever learn?

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P.S.: What a lovely bit of news I just received. The Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council will give me its Steve Jeffers Interfaith Service Award at its annual Table of Faiths dinner on Tuesday, April 30. At the same dinner the Crescent Peace Society will receive the annual Table of Faiths award. The link I've given you will tell you what you need to know to get tickets to attend.

A problem with quoting single scripture verses: 3-25-19

There's a term used by theologians to refer to picking out favorite passages of scripture and using them out of context to make a point. They call it proof texting.

Proof-textingYou can find short, detached verses in almost any holy writ to support or denounce abortion, homosexuality, white supremacy, male supremacy or just about any other hot-button topic you pick.

It's a terrible way to use the Bible or the Qur'an or any other sacred writing, but it happens a lot. Context be damned.

One of the most egregious examples of proof texting has happened in England, where, we now learn, a government official picked out several passages from the Bible to prove that Christianity is a violent religion. Why? So that the official could turn down a Christian convert's bid for asylum.

The person seeking asylum was from Iran, and said he converted to Christianity because he said that, unlike what he understood of Islam, his understanding of Christianity told him it is a religion of peace.

After listing several passages, the government official wrote this: "These examples are inconsistent with your claim that you converted to Christianity after discovering it is a 'peaceful religion, as opposed to Islam which contains violence, rage and revenge.'"

It turns out, of course, that the government official was way out of line -- and his agency, when alerted to the situation, said so. As it should have.

So there are lots of church-state issues here, but for people of faith this is a reminder that it is usually misleading to grab a single verse or two from scripture to make a point. For instance, the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" from the book of Exodus is not a thorough, convincing and exhaustive argument against capital punishment as it's practiced in the U.S. states that haven't yet banned it.

It's also a reminder not to use the phrase "The Bible says. . ." As my pastor likes to point out, the Bible doesn't "say" anything. You have to read it. And then interpret it. And remember that the English translation of the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic found in the Bible is itself an interpretation.

When you misuse scripture through proof texting, what you are saying is that either you don't understand the scripture you're quoting or you don't respect it. Probably both. So take the pledge. No more proof texting. (I just wish I could find a single verse somewhere that says that and could convince you.)

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Sociologists, psychologists and others seem intrigued by what they assume is the way humanity invented their gods. Theologians, by contrast, are more interested in God's self-revelation to humanity. Here is part of a piece from The Economist about the former question. I say "part of a piece" because you have to be a subscriber to read it all. But it might get you thinking a bit about whether humanity invented gods or whether God created humanity. I go with the latter theory.

Racism's deep American roots: 3-23/24-19


Through a sermon series and other means, my congregation recently has been focusing on matters of race in the United States, including how to help people understand that what we think of as race is a social construct and that it has no basis in biology.

You might be tempted (especially if you are white) to think that more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War and the resultant destruction of slavery and that almost 65 years after the start of the Civil Rights Movement, we'd be done talking about racial divisions, bigotry and systemic racism. But, in fact, the religious lessons about how God views each of us as of inestimable value, no matter what color we are, seem to be as important as ever, if not more so.

Parts of the nation and the world, after all, are aflame with violence rooted in racist thinking -- from Charlottesville to New Zealand. And unless we Americans -- white, black, red, yellow and multi-racial -- know our own disgusting history and the patterns of twisted thinking that have led us to where we are today, we never will be able to create what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called the "Beloved Community."

Yes, it's important for each of us to examine our own hearts and practices to see whether and how we might be perpetuating racist systems and engaging in bigoted individual thinking and behavior. (The book to read is White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, by Robin DeAngelo.) But it's also important for us to see and acknowledge our own national history and how that has helped to create the systems that perpetuate racist thinking and action today.

For instance, are you aware of the highly influential book (not just then, but also today) published just over 100 years ago by Madison Grant? It was called The Passing of the Great Race. (A 2017 reprint of it still sells pretty well on Amazon.) And this article in the current issue of The Atlantic describes how Grant's white supremacist thinking changed American government policy in the early 20th Century and then and now infected the thinking of many Americans, including some of our current politicians.

Grant, a Yale graduate and Wall Street lawyer, argued that immigration and race mixing were killing off the white race, which he asserted was the supreme race that was meant to rule.

As he wrote in his 1916 book, "We Americans must realize that the altruistic ideals which have controlled our social development during the past century and the maudlin sentimentalism that has made America 'an asylum for the oppressed,' are sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss. If the Melting Pot is allowed to boil without control and we continue to follow our national motto and deliberately blind ourselves to all 'distinctions of race, creed or color,' the type of native Americans of Colonial descent will become as extinct as the Athenian of the age of Pericles, and the Viking of the days of Rollo." (His term "native American" did not refer to the original residents of our continent but, rather, to the white immigrants who began to arrive with Columbus.)

As the Atlantic piece notes, American presidents climbed on board Grant's misguided, xenophobic train and kept it rolling toward today. Teddy Roosevelt praised Grant's racist thinking. Warren G. Harding declared that there is "a fundamental, eternal, inescapable difference" between the races and declared this: "Racial amalgamation there cannot be." And Calvin Coolidge wrote that "Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend.”

Where did they get this junk? Grant was a primary source. It was Grant, after all, who, in his book, wrote this:

". . .the view that the Negro slave was an unfortunate cousin of the white man, deeply tanned by the tropic sun and denied the blessings of Christianity and civilization, played no small part with the sentimentalists of the Civil War period, and it has taken us fifty years to learn that speaking English, wearing good clothes and going to school and to church do not transform a Negro into a white man."

In some ways, misplaced nostalgia for the time when whites conclusively dominated all of life in the U.S. was at least partly behind Donald J. Trump's 2016 campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again." His brutal rhetoric about "s. . .hole" countries, his efforts to create immigration bans and the adoption of white nationalist stands by some of his supporters is evidence of that.

One of the results of Grant's book and its concern about racial suicide by whites was the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. As Adam Serwer writes in The Atlantic piece, Grant's thinking, adopted by some members of the U.S. Senate and House, helped to "preserve the notion that fair-haired and -skinned people are responsible for all the world's great achievements." Once the bill was passed, Sen. David Reed of Pennsylvania declared that "The racial composition of America at the present time thus is made permanent." (Sometimes permanent conditions don't last very long.)

This kind of Grant-based thinking also found its way to Adolf Hitler, who noted approvingly that the U.S. "simply excludes the immigration of certain races." It was a model Hitler would follow, and the Nazis gave various awards to Americans who had promulgated this thinking.

And Grant's thinking, Serwer writes, is still evident today "in the corridors of American power."

What recognizing the deep American roots of this racist nonsense does (the U.S. is, after all, a nation founded on white supremacy), he says, "is to call attention to certain disturbing assumptions that have come to define the current immigration debate in America -- in particular, that intrinsic human worth is rooted in national origin, and that a certain ethnic group has a legitimate claim to permanent political hegemony in the United States." In other words, whites are superior and should rule.

So Grantism lives. And faith communities whose primary message is about the requirement to love all of humanity because all of humanity is precious in God's sight need to be about the task of destroying Grantism's simplistic, erroneous, monochromatic and destructive message.

(The photo you see here today is one I took a few years ago in Macon, Ga., where an old public transportation building and its racially discriminatory sign has been preserved so everyone can witness this appalling aspect of American history.)

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A little-noticed court case in Washington, D.C., may affect religious liberty for all of us, the author of this RNS column asserts. This is why we need good journalists covering religion, including court cases. This one might have slipped through without much notice.

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The book I'm introducing you to today is related (in a quite Christian evangelical way) to the main topic above. Author Jonathan Walton, who works for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, has written Twelve Lies that Hold America Captive: And the Truth That Sets Us Free. What Walton calls lies are commonly heard statements that in many ways reinforce the dominance of whiteness in the U.S. but that contradict his understanding of Christianity. Among his list of lies: "We are a Christian nation," "We are a melting pot" and "All men are created equal." In effect, Walton is urging readers to resist making America an idol: "The dream so profoundly called for by Martin Luther King Jr. was not the American dream but a longing for the kingdom of God." He then confesses that for quite a long time, "I was willing, like so many other Christians, to receive America in exchange for the kingdom of God." Too often, he writes, what he and others in the U.S. were being offered what was he calls "White American Folk Religion," rooted in a white supremacy absolutely at odds with the Christian gospel. Even if you don't buy Walton's thinking about the centrality of Christianity, his analysis of his "twelve lies" is worth reading and responding to.

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P.S.: My congregation, Second Presbyterian, has created a team to do the annual AIDS Walk KC this year (April 27). I'd love it if you could help the AIDS Service Foundation by making a donation here. And if you choose Second as the team you want to support, well, double thanks. And, yes, I plan to walk that day.

An award for a lover of science and religion: 3-22-19

There has been, in recent decades, a phony debate about whether science and religion can live together, whether one of them but not the other tells the truth.

GleiserThe reality, of course, is that science can answer questions religion can't and that religion can offer answers that science can't. A prime example of the latter is the question of purpose: Why are we here?

Trouble arises when we seek to shut off one or the other or imagine that one or the other has all the answers.

The John Templeton Foundation understands all of that and has worked for years to encourage a conversation between religion and science. Each year, to further that goal, it gives its Templeton Prize to someone who has engaged in that conversation and somehow moved the needle forward.

A few days ago the 2019 prize was awarded to a Dartmouth College professor of physics and astronomy, Marcelo Gleiser, who, as the AP story to which I've just linked you reports, "has written books on topics ranging from the origin of the universe to how science engages with spirituality. The Templeton Prize comes with a $1.4 million award." Here's a link to a video of the award announcement.

When he won, Gleiser, a native of Brazil, said this: “I will work harder than ever to spread my message of global unity and planetary awareness to a wider audience, as we prepare to face this century’s daunting social, technological, and environmental challenges.”

Here is the story that the Templeton Foundation posted about this year's winner.

I like Gleiser's description of science as an “engagement with the mysterious.” That's also an excellent description of religion.

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Every faith tradition, it seems, has its fools, its clowns, its wicked and/or bizarre leaders. One who is making waves in the Jewish world is Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi, who says crazy things like children with Down Syndrome and autism are being punished for their sins in a previous life for gossiping and that children who are born blind are being punished for watching pornography in previous lives. Here is a Patheos story about Mizrachi's foiled plan to travel to the United Kingdom to spread his wackiness. And here is a JC Network story written after the U.K. denied him entry. Mizrachi has led a group in New York state.

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How do we teach children about the legends, the mythologies and the actual historical stories that lie at the foundation of our cultures? One answer is "carefully," so as not to create young people who imagine they have grasped the full truth of existence and their part in it. Another answer is by telling stories about the stories that shape our lives. That's the approach found in a new, small book for children called Water at the Top of the World, written by J. Siegal and illustrated by Shannon Belock. The book is designed to teach children that different societies in different parts of the world have creation stories, flood stories and other stories that seek to give meaning to their lives. The book tells children some of those stories and how people have perpetuated them and adopted them as somehow important to their identity. This is not a book that will demand that children choose this or that legend, mythology or version of history. Rather, the book's purpose simply is to let children know that the stories that may be foundational for their own lives and cultures are not the only stories around. And it's good for children to know that.

A new Martin Buber biography a path to renewal? 3-21-19

The great Jewish scholar and author, Martin Buber, died in Jerusalem 1965 in his late 80s. I was in college at the time, and though I knew Buber's name, I knew very little about him and had no idea that he would continue to be an important voice decades after his death.

BuberSo important, in fact, that he's the subject of a new biography by Paul Mendes-Flohr, Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent, which is to be published this coming Tuesday but is available for pre-order now.

The book describes Buber's painful early life -- his mother essentially abandoned him when he was four years old after he was born in Vienna -- but also his remarkably productive adult life, including his embrace of and considerable disputes with Zionism, his reliance on the love and brains of his wife Paula, who was an eventual convert to Judaism, and his various efforts to promote a spiritual renewal of Judaism and Jewry.

It's that last matter that I want to focus on today as a way of suggesting to American Jewish readers that they give Buber another look to see if he has something to say to them today -- and perhaps start with this new biography.

I frankly don't know whether a majority of American Jews would find Buber's desire for a spiritual renewal of Judaism to be necessary or worthy today. But because Buber's writing has been so influential over the years -- especially his most famous book, I and Thou, published in 1923 -- perhaps his voice is worth hearing again.

One reason I say that is that the reported state of Judaism in America today is fascinating.

The latest Religious Landscape Study by the Pew Research Center indicates that only 37 percent of American Jews believe in God with absolutely certainty, while another 27 percent are "fairly certain" about that. Among the rest, 17 percent simply say they don't believe in God. It also finds that about 30 percent of American Jews think religion is not too important or not important at all.

Is belief in God a requirement for the kind of spiritual renewal Buber was advocating? Good question. Jews themselves will have to figure that one out. In fact, no one outside of Judaism, including me, has any standing to propose that Judaism in the U.S. or elsewhere needs this or that in the way of reform or change. Buber's focus on renewal, however, is interesting, and not just to Jews.

Mendes-Flohr's description of what Buber meant by such a renewal includes that "it should seek to re-tap the primordial spiritual sensibility that had given birth to Jewish religiosity, which, alas, had been overwhelmed and suffocated by rabbinic Judaism. Hence, Buber concluded that 'only when religion strives to overcome itself,' and no longer advocates the 'kingdom of religion' but affirms 'God and his kingdom,' will Israel's foundational religiosity regain its hold on the life of the Jewish people. What the spiritual renewal of Jewry -- indeed, of all humanity -- requires is neither 'culture' nor 'religion' (nor even religiosity), but a firm grounding in 'the whole of reality, inclusive of man and God and the world, the encounter with God in the world, the redemption of the world through man.'"

Such complex thinking will need to be put in words that are more accessible for non-scholars, no doubt, but I would love to sit in on some discussions among American Jews about Buber's renewal ideas. Would a commitment to renewal result in more frequent worship attendance at synagogues? Would it lead to the louder and wider expression of Judaism's prophetic voice on matters of politics and culture? Or would it lead Jews to focus more on personal piety? All good questions, to which I have no answers.

But, as I say, this new Buber biography could serve as a catalyst for a conversation about just such questions, to say nothing of the question of how Jews find their most useful and beneficial place in society, whether in the U.S., in Israel or elsewhere.

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A federal appeals court, overturning a lower court, has ruled that the clergy housing allowance is constitutional. That allowance is an Internal Revenue Service rule that allows clergy not to have to pay federal income taxes on the cost of their housing. My guess is that this ruling will be appealed, but the story doesn't indicate that one way or the other.

A new issue in the Methodist struggle: 3-20-19

We return today to the United Methodist Church and its decision last month to retain its ban on openly LGBTQ pastors, a sad decision that I wrote about here.

UMC-logoIt turns out, this Religion News Service story reports, that a small number of votes cast for various issues at the Methodists' February conference in St. Louis may have been invalid. The church now is investigating, but it's unclear how things will proceed or what remedy might be used if, in fact, some people cast ballots they shouldn't have.

"The review was prompted by an inquiry from The New York Times," the RNS story says, "which reported that at least four ballots were cast by individuals who were not authorized to do so, pointing primarily to irregularities among a handful of delegates from Africa from the pool of more than 800 delegates at the conference.

"Four votes would not overturn some of the most consequential votes of the conference, such as the adoption of the 'Traditional Plan' — a reinforcement of the UMC’s ban on same-sex marriages and 'self-avowed practicing' gay clergy — which passed 438-384."

But other votes, such as one "that could allow churches to leave the denomination while keeping church property passed by 402-400."

What we do know is that the denomination's Judicial Council already had planned to meet in April to consider the constitutionality of the measures adopted by the special conference that voted to keep and strengthen the LGBTQ ban. So that meeting now also would have to consider what to do about these new charges of illegal voting.

What seems especially sad to me is not just that the church, in my view, made the wrong decision about LGBTQ folks, but that so much time, energy and money is being devoted to this dispute -- resources that could have been used to spread good news to the world, to care for the wounded, to weep with those who weep.

But such internal religious disputes are almost inevitable because people read scripture in different ways, leading them to different conclusions about what God wants and doesn't want. Still, it's important in faith communities to retain the freedom to be wrong.

* * *


Is evil real? The recent murders at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, provide yet another "yes" answer to that question. And that answer causes a rabbi to think about the reality of evil in this RNS column. It will teach you -- if you don't know already -- about the need to blot out the name Amalek.