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The benefits of a concept of oneness: 4-18-19

What, exactly, does it mean to have a sense of oneness about life? And more to the point, what difference does it make if, in fact, you have such a sense?

OnenessNew research published by the American Psychological Association suggests that people who see the world that way tend to find life more satisfying than people who don't.

The press release about the story to which I just linked you quotes the author of the study, Laura Marie Edinger-Schons of the University of Mannheim, this way:

“The feeling of being at one with a divine principle, life, the world, other people or even activities has been discussed in various religious traditions but also in a wide variety of scientific research from different disciplines. The results of this study reveal a significant positive effect of oneness beliefs on life satisfaction, even controlling for religious beliefs.”

Different religious traditions emphasize the idea of oneness in different ways and with different levels of importance.

For instance, Judaism's central prayer, the Shema, speaks of the oneness of God: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One."

From that insight -- or revelation -- flow many implications about the way all of existence is connected to or contained in that one divine being.

When Jesus later says that he and "the Father are one," he connects himself to that cosmic sense of oneness and then tells his disciples to "abide in me," meaning, in effect, to join in that oneness, too.

Islam, of course, is insistently monotheistic, meaning that nothing exists outside of God or at least without permission of God. Muslims use the term "Tawhid" to refer to this oneness.

Eastern religions, too, teach their followers about that the whole of creation is interconnected in some ineffable way.

In addition, much of science, with no reference to religion at all, operates on the underlying assumption that there is nothing in the cosmos that is not, in some way, connected to the rest of the universe.

And even ancient Greek philosophers contemplated oneness. For instance, Plato, in his work called Timaeus (I've never forgiven him for misspelling my family's surname), contended that the entire world is one large organism.

It is, of course, easy to lose sight of the idea of oneness when we live interrupted, distracted, self-focused lives.

The study's author, Edinger-Schons, said that strengthening the more general belief in the oneness of everything has the potential to enhance peoples’ lives and might even be more effective than traditional religious beliefs and practices at improving life satisfaction.

But just FYI, no, all of this does not mean that you'll be happier with life if, the next time you order a pizza, you say, "Make me one with everything."

(The image here today, by the way, appears to be an album cover. You can find it here on Amazon.)

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The shock of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris this week continues to reverberate. But as a Baylor history teacher writes in this RNS column, there are several examples of other great churches burning and of their eventual reconstruction. This has been a sad Holy Week for Christians around the world, though as Beth Allison Barr writes, "Holy Week is also the perfect time to hope for resurrection."

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P.S.: As no doubt all of you remember, today is National Columnists Day, commemorating the day in 1945 on which the patron saint of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Ernie Pyle, was killed in World War II. My friend Dave Lieber of the Dallas Morning News and I were behind its creation. So tell your favorite columnists today either how much you love them or tell them how much they make you upset. Just don't ignore them. Or -- here's an idea -- take one to lunch today. Just not me today. I have other plans.

Should the Census Bureau ask about religion? 4-17-19


As the U.S. Census Bureau prepares for the 2020 count, one of the questions it won't be asking is about what religion, if any, you follow.

But should it ask that? That's the question this story in the Deseret News explores, and it's for sure a question worth some conversation.

"For centuries," the story reports, "government officials have struggled to justify certain questions, including ones about religious affiliation.

"'Any question that raises privacy concerns or is controversial will generate a problem,' said Margo Anderson, author of 'The American Census: A Social History.' 'The question of religion is so explosive.'"

Adding a question about religion to the census could produce lots of helpful data for people who care about the shape of the culture and its future. But any census question should respond to a justified government need to know the answer, and it's hard to imagine any legitimate need the government might have to know, say, how many Methodists there are in the country or how many Catholics or Muslims.

There are private group that make such estimates, of course, and those figures can be helpful to sociologists and others who are trying to get a grasp on the shape of society. For instance, from such sources as the Pew Research Center, we learn that there has been a large increase in recent decades in the number of American adults who say they are religiously unaffiliated. The estimate of such "nones" now is nearly 25 percent of the adult population.

But why would any government agency need to know that?

It's not that the Census Bureau has always shied away from religious questions. As the Deseret News story reports, "During the second half of the 19th century, the census included questions about religious organizations, collecting information about average church attendance and income. In the early 20th century, these questions were shifted to a new, stand-alone Census of Religious Bodies, which took place every 10 years from 1906 to 1946."

But eventually such questions seemed problematic and were dropped.

As the courts and the Census Bureau wrestle with the final form of the 2020 count and its various questions, let's leave questions about religion to non-governmental agencies interested in such research, even as we remember the large role religion continues to play in the lives of many Americans.

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This terrific Washington Post column is in full harmony with the 2000 Kansas City Star column I wrote about the Notre Dame Cathedral and reprinted on the blog here yesterday. Yes, Notre Dame is an iconic historical structure -- but first it's a church. When sacred space is destroyed, we all lose. By the way, at the same time as the Notre Dame fire, a blaze also broke out at the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. But it apparently was controlled quickly without serious damage or injuries.

What Notre Dame Cathedral means to the world: 4-16-19


Like many people, my heart was wounded when I heard about Notre Dame Cathedral catching fire yesterday. In honor of that amazing old building, I'm reprinting today a January 2000 column I wrote about the cathedral from Paris. You can find this Kansas City Star column in my first book, A Gift of Meaning.

The headline, which now seems sadly ironic, was this:

In an Uncertain World, a Source of Constancy

Paris -- The chill winter mist enveloping the Cathedral of Notre Dame tonight creates the same brooding atmosphere outside that's found inside the astounding old temple.

I am sitting in a small area near the main altar toward the front of the great sanctuary. The few dozen seats here are designated for people who wish to pray and are not just for tourists who have come to gawk at this twelfth-century monument to the divine.

So I pray, no doubt in a way that the faithful have prayed here for hundreds of years and the way they've prayed around the world throughout the two thousand years since Christianity branched itself off decisively from Judaism.

But I do not only pray. I also observe. And I think about the way in which the practice of this faith connects people across miles and centuries -- people of incredible variety but all rooted in a Middle Eastern peasant by whose life our very calendar is figured.

This evening two men in dark suits, ties and sweater vests are preparing the cloth for the altar and making other arrangements for a later worship service. Like chambermaids changing sheets, they flap and float the white cloth in the dark, candled air, before letting it settle on its holy place for the Mass.

Then, while one places candles in tall holders, the other checks the connection on the electrical cord to the microphone attached to the lectern. The cord, some awkward accommodations to modernity, is taped to the floor with what looks for all the world like duct tape.

Maybe that's part of what it takes to hold together a world religion -- duct tape and what it represents: a willingness to adapt to the times to spread the steady word of hope that faith would speak to a troubled, skeptical and distracted people.

On a pillar behind me is a plaque in French recording evidence that the faith represented by this huge stone cathedral is directly connected to the branch of the religion with world headquarters in Rome. The May 30, 1980, visit to Notre Dame by Pope John Paul II (Jean-Paul, in French) is commemorated on the sign. This pope, now near the end of his long and important reign, took time nearly two decades ago to pay homage to the French people and to this famous symbol of the Roman Catholic vision of Christianity and those who pledge allegiance to it.

No doubt part of his reason for coming was that Notre Dame represents the faith that has survived these two millennia and that now claims one-third of the world's population as adherents.

I do not mean that its beginning was similar to the start of the faith. No, Notre Dame, though built in stages (beginning with a foundation stone laid by Pope Alexander III in 1163), was, even at its start, an architectural dream of huge proportions. That very size makes Notre Dame unlike the faith, which began with a tiny band of Jewish people in the backwaters of the Roman Empire -- people who, whatever their hopes, could not have envisioned a French cathedral or a worldwide (if lamentably divided) fellowship of the faithful.

But just as there is a core to the religion -- the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ -- so there is a core to Notre Dame. That centrality, at least viewed from the outside, is the big-boned, imposing presence that has stood for the faith's core, even as the city around the cathedral changed in breathtaking ways in response to history's often cruel, bruising, though sometimes celebratory evolution.

In the evenings now, the streets of Parish around Notre Dame are filled with small Peugeots and Renaults and Citroens and large tour buses. The lighted sidewalks are packed with tourists who seem to get drawn into the front entrance of the cathedral the way iron filings are attracted to a magnet. And the River Seine, along the edge of the grand edifice, provides a way for tourist boats to shine spotlights on Notre Dame as they pass.

So the building, like the faith, has survived. Inside now there is electricity, and you can buy postcards from small gift shops and souvenir medallions from vending machines. but the essence of Notre Dame is the same as it has been for centuries, just as the essence of the faith is the same two thousand years after the birth of Christ.

And in a world that seems to uproot nearly everything every two weeks, the constancy is enough to steal my breath.

May the old structure be fixable. And may the hearts of the French (and the world) heal.

(The photo here today came from this site.)

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As Artificial Intelligence plays a larger and larger role in our lives, I'm glad to see some people raising questions about whether it is a morally neutral technology. This RNS story describes a conference hosted by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission that considered some questions about that very subject. AI may, indeed, be a wonderful technology, but as we know about other technologies, there are moral and ethical reasons for caution.

Our genetic future no longer is in the future: 4-15-19


As work on mapping the human genome made progress in the 1990s I followed it and wondered where it was leading. When the work of mapping the 3.1 billion subunits of DNA that make it up was completed in 2000 I wrote a Kansas City Star column about it that you can find in my first book, A Gift of Meaning.

I noted, first, all the proclamations about what a wondrous achievement this was (as it was). But I also noted that "there also were a few words of caution about the hard work and dangers ahead. . .And. . .we'd all do well to listen to the warnings about the path ahead. We'd do well, in fact, to become genetically literate. If we don't we may well lose control of our very lives."

It both pleased me and broke my heart a little that the other evening when I heard someone at a big bioethics dinner say something very similar almost two decades later.

Kansas City native Jamie Metzl, a historian and attorney who has authored a new book called Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity, spoke at the annual dinner of the Center for Practical Bioethics. (The book's official publication date is April 23, but it can be pre-ordered now.)

The future of genetic engineering, he said, is not in the future, it's now. But most people have no clue what that means. Most people continue to be genetically illiterate. (Apparently not everyone read or responded to my 2000 column about this. Sigh.)

Today, he said, it helps to imagine that "our biology is a form of I.T. (information technology)." Which is to say that health care professionals with access to our genetic information will have an enormous amount of data to help them decide what kind of treatment is right for us. And that genetic map soon will be available to parents immediately after giving birth.

So your personal sequenced genome, he said, will be the basis of your health care. More than that, he said, "all of this is coming faster than most of us appreciate."

So everyone, Metzl said, must be part of the societal conversation about where all of this goes.

As he writes in his book, "Our species as a whole will be making monumental decisions about our genetic future of the coming years. Some of these decisions, like passing laws, will happen on the societal level. But many significant choices will be made by individuals, like each of us figuring out how we want to make babies."

In the July 2000 Star column I mentioned, I wrote this: "Scientists have brought us here -- but we'll make a serious mistake if we don't bring in ethicists, sociologists, poets, preachers, philosophers and others to help guide us now."

That was true almost 20 years ago. It's even truer today. The future, after all, just barged in the door.

(The photo here shows Jamie Metzl, right, in conversation with John G. Carney, president and CEO of the Center for Practical Bioethics.)

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Here's a fascinating essay that explains why majority-Muslim countries in Africa, once they achieved independence, elected to adopt the legal systems of their colonial rulers instead of using Shari'a law as the basis of jurisprudence. "Muslim-majority countries," the author writes, "stunted the democratic potential of Shari'a by rejecting it as a mainstream legal concept in the 1950s and 1960s, leaving Shari'a in the hands of extremists. But there is no inherent tension between Shari'a, human rights and the rule of law. Like any use of religion in politics, Sharia’s application depends on who is using it – and why." It's hard to imagine anything less well understood about Islam among non-Muslims than Shari'a. Which is why ridiculous state legislators around the country have tried over and over again to outlaw its use in American courts. Here's the result of that in Kansas, as I wrote in a Flatland column.

A bitter tale of human ruin after WWI: 4-13/14-19

In his 2015 book, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, Philip Jenkins argued persuasively that that brutal and astonishing conflagration had many theological overtones and undertones.

WWI-museumAs, I suppose, all wars do, given that all wars are the result of some kind of human failure. And what religion doesn't try to mitigate, explain or repair human failure?

What is especially striking about World War I, however, and its immediate aftermath exactly 100 years ago is that it came at a time when at least many Christian had moved toward the idea that humanity was not just theoretically perfectible but was actually making serious progress in becoming so. This thinking, labeled "liberal theology," imagined that people were getting better and better morally and that one day we'd be so damn good that God would pat us on the head and give us gold medals. Liberal Christian theology got some things right, but it got that idea terribly wrong.

And World War I destroyed that idea. When five years of bitter shedding of blood followed by a vengeful treaty were in the history books, the poet Ezra Pound summed it all up with these sorrowful words in his poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley:

There died a myriad,

And of the best, among them,

For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.

The National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City is now taking a look at the sickening aftermath of the war in a small but effective new exhibit, "1919: Peace?". 

I visited it the other day and recommend that you do the same. And as you do, I challenge you to think about what that war and what all wars say about our relationship to God and our affiliations with world religions that preach peace, reconciliation and love. Are we not listening? Are we incapable of reaching such soaring moral goals? Is the human race to be stuck in the mud of immoral and destructive choices forever?

1919PeaceThe museum's advance information about the exhibit notes that "the war — and its lasting effects — did not end even with the signing of the Treaty of Paris at Versailles on June 28, 1919. Men and women still lost their lives either directly from continuing hostilities or from lingering wounds and diseases. The influenza epidemic continued unabated until the summer of 1919. From the dark hostile woods of North Russia to the uneasy peace along the Rhine in occupied Germany, death and the threat of war reigniting continued."

And, of course, starting in 1917 and continuing until about 1926, there was the Russian Revolution. As the museum's senior curator, Doran Cart, notes: “When we look at the lingering effects of World War I in the immediate aftermath of the armistice and the Treaty of Paris at Versailles, we do not see a tremendous degree of resolution. In fact, the degree of upheaval across the world is arguably just as significant after the war.”

One of the displays in the new exhibit includes a quote from Sgt. Albert E. Robinson about his experience of seeing death from war up close: "I looked at him -- my first dead foe -- and it seemed as though all the glory were struck from the war. A mere boy he was, named Hagedorn."

All the glory. Robinson somehow had bought into the mirage, the myth that there is glory in war. There may be heroic acts of rescue and sacrifice, but war itself is in no way glorious. It is, rather, a human disputation against the divine goal of peace and harmony. War shames us -- even when it is the least evil of a series of evil choices, as World War II was for the U.S.

Go see "1919: Peace?" and weep. For those alive 100 years ago and for those of us alive now.

* * *


Former Pope Benedict XVI, who retired unexpectedly in 2013, has written an essay about the priest abuse scandal in the church that explains very little and does little to move toward a solution. But he gets in a shot or two at the much-maligned 1960s, which seem to take it on the chin far too often. Sometimes silence is the best response from former leaders.

Pondering theological issues in -- Nebraska: 4-12-19


As Christians move through this season of Lent, Jews approach Passover (starting at sundown a week from now) and people of other faith traditions mark milestones on their annual liturgical calendars, life inevitably intrudes, requiring us all to face difficult questions of faith.

Not to engage with those questions would be evidence that we don't take our faith traditions seriously.

If you need a little encouragement to do that from people actually doing that, look now to Nebraska. There, as this RNS story reports, people of different faith traditions are trying to explain this spring's massive, destructive flooding and their response to it in theological terms. (The floods, of course, also affected Iowa and Missouri in serious ways, but the story focuses on the Cornhusker state.)

"In the days following major Midwestern floods this spring," writes Emily McFarlan Miller, "people of faith prayed for their neighbors and got busy lending a hand.

"They also turned to their beliefs to make sense of a disaster that washed away homes and roads, leaving more than a billion dollars of damage in its wake."

In some ways, this is another instance of the old theodicy question raising its fuzzy head -- the question that asks why there is evil and suffering in the world if God is good and all-powerful. There is, it turns out, no satisfying answer to that question. There just isn't.

Miller quotes someone from a Berean church in Lincoln, Neb., this way: “We can speculate all we want, but then in the end we simply have to trust that God’s ways are the best ways. He knows what he’s doing, even when we don’t understand why.” The RNS story continues: "Barring direct revelation from God as to why things like devastating floods happen, he said, some Christians would say 'we simply don’t know.'”

That's one helpful way of putting it, though not the only way.

What the theodicy question demands, in the end, is some humility. It requires us to acknowledge that we are finite beings trying to grasp the infinite. And, in the end, we have to decide whether to spend our time on such mysteries or whether, instead (or along with), we should do what we can to alleviate the damage and problems at hand.

(The image here today, taken by Officer Mike Bossman of the Omaha Police Department, shows flooding in eastern Nebraska. It came from this TV news site.)

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A man -- apparently the son of a law enforcement officer -- has been arrested in the case of arson at three historically black Louisiana churches. If he's found guilty, how about as part of his sentence he be required to attend worship at each of those churches? I bet those congregations could teach him a thing or two.

Religious errors politicians make and may make again: 4-11-19

Yesterday here on the blog, I wrote about the sometimes-surprising way Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg is speaking openly about his Christian faith.

Church-stateAmong those who've taken note of this and other examples of religious talk among politicians who identify as progressive or liberal is National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters.

In this column, Winters outlines various errors that politicians on the right have made in talking about and promoting religion as he suggests candidates on the left avoid those same mistakes.

"What are the possibilities," Winters asks, "and the potential pitfalls of this renewed interest in religion on the left?"

He lists several.

One, of course, is an unmerited, divisive focus on human sexuality, particularly homosexuality. A good reason to avoid most of that, Winters suggests correctly, is that "any fair reading of the Gospels reveals that the Lord Jesus spent far more time urging his disciples to be generous to the poor, welcoming to the stranger and treat people with dignity than he did discussing any sexual issues."

This is especially true of homosexuality. A consistent misreading of the Bible has led people who identify as conservative or evangelical or fundamentalist to insist that homosexuality is a sin, rather than a normal, if relatively rare, aspect of created life.

But, Winters insists, at the top of the list of mistakes the right has made with respect to religion is "the conflation of religion and politics." Politicians on the left, he says, would do well not to make that same mistake. It leads to such stunning phenomena as the vast majority of evangelical Christians voting for Donald J. Trump, whose values have long proven to be an almost-complete rejection of evangelical moral values.

Well, the truth is that whether we want to hear about religion and politics in the already-begun 2020 presidential race, we will. And we would do well to remember that one of the few legitimate questions about religion to ask candidates is how their faith commitments would affect public policy.

Pretty much everything else is either spin or is out of bounds.

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A recent Chicago gathering about the Catholic Church in the U.S. caused religion scholar Mark Silk to conclude something like: "the future of Catholicism will be ineluctably pluriform: different things to different people." Seems a safe bet because that's what not just Catholicism but almost all faith traditions now seem to be. But maybe it's a healthy thing to acknowledge reality.

A presidential race focused on religion? 4-10-19

The mayor of South Bend, Ind., is running for the Democratic presidential nomination and is openly talking about two matters: That he's gay and that he thinks his Christian faith should be guiding his decisions about public policy.

Pete-buttigiegIt's the latter matter of religion that seems to be surprising quite a few people.

As this Atlantic piece notes, Pete Buttigieg (pictured here) recently said this: “'We need to not be afraid to invoke arguments. . .on why Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction.' He also questioned Donald Trump’s religious sincerity. 'I’m reluctant to comment on another person’s faith, but I would say it is hard to look at this president’s actions and believe that they’re the actions of somebody who believes in God.'”


Statistics show that more than a third of religiously unaffiliated adult Americans are former Catholics. Now, this report says, young Catholics are working hard on college campuses to bring them back into the fold. If the approach has some success you can bet followers of other faith traditions will be paying attention and maybe even copying what they're doing.

Another city takes a step toward interfaith understanding: 4-9-19

As the Kansas City area this week marks another annual observation of SevenDays events, including some interfaith gatherings, it's good to know that other communities around the country also are engaging in celebrating the reality of religious pluralism.

WorldReligions-1Atlanta is an example, as this Atlanta Journal-Constitution article notes.

As the story reports, the city "held its first Day of Religious Pluralism on Thursday, marking the 51st anniversary of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with a continued mission to deepen Atlantans’ understanding of one another, and to promote a safe, respectful and inclusive city."

Over this past weekend, someone in a group to whom I was speaking asked me whether engaging in inter-religious activities and discussion was just another way of saying that all religions are essentially alike.

Not at all, I responded.

As a matter of fact, every religion makes exclusivist claims that followers of other religions reject. What's important is for adherents of every tradition to understand their own religion well enough to be able to discuss it intelligently and to learn more about the beliefs and practices of other traditions so that they can remove ignorance, which can lead to fear, which can lead to bigotry and even violence.

One of the things that almost always happens when people from different faith traditions learn about one another is that they deepen their commitment to their own religion. Conversion is not the goal of interfaith dialogue and it's almost never the result.

The Atlanta story indicates some local pride in the effort to honor the growing religious pluralism there. I'm frankly not terribly familiar with that city's history of interfaith efforts. What I do know is that Kansas City has been an early leader in this field, but the move to appreciate religious pluralism here still isn't reaching as many people as it should.

Perhaps if you are a member of a congregation you can talk to your leaders about ways that they can offer instruction in interfaith matters. The Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council has people who can help you. Go for it.

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I enjoyed hearing this NPR report over the weekend about a "purple" church in Raleigh, N.C., which is to say one made up of red Republicans and blue Democrats. If you missed it, here's a chance to catch up on it. My own congregation is kind of that way, too. The pastoral and lay leadership has to learn how to respect all people and their opinions about a range of issues.  Civility. What a concept.

A wise objection to state interference in religion: 4-8-19

People of faith -- and sometimes the governments that serve them -- often try in various ways to make sure that their particular religion is seen as the norm.

In-god-trustGo, for instance, to Saudi Arabia and there's zero doubt that Islam is the chosen -- and only approved -- faith. Across Europe various religions have been granted establishment privilege, such as the Church of England.

But one of the underlying strengths of the U.S. is that we have no established religion. Rather, at least in theory, all religions are welcome and should be treated equally under civil law.

When, however, legislators begin to shove one particular religion down the throats of the public, people should object.

And that's just what the Argus-Leader newspaper in South Dakota is doing in this editorial. The paper, based in Sioux Falls, is objecting to a recent law that requires public schools to prominently display the national motto, “In God We Trust,” starting in 2019-20.

"It’s reasonable," the editorial said, reasonably, "to view this as an attempt to formalize Christianity as the state’s official religion in the eyes of those students, which violates the 'establishment clause' of the First Amendment."

It always puzzles me why people of faith want the state to support or in some way approve of their particular religion. Any religion worth its salt should be able to stand on its own two feet. Its failure to do so without state sanction indicates an internal weakness of that faith tradition.

Now, government should not be hostile toward religion. Rather, it should create a level playing field, favoring no particular religion. That appears to be what the state government of South Dakota is failing to do. So good for the Argus-Leader for being willing to object to this state legislation that leans too far in the direction of one religion.

* * *


Yesterday I spoke to an adult Christian education class at St. Andrew Christian Church in Olathe, Kan., and noted that it was on that date in 1830 that Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I noted that the church started with six members and now has more than 16 million worldwide. Maybe we could learn something about church growth from the Mormons, I suggested. Later in the day I saw this story saying that although  the LDS church still is growing, the rate of growth has been slowing for several years. So maybe the growth lessons the LDS could teach other faith traditions aren't quite as robust as I first thought.