One of the things that has long fascinated me about religion is the many -- and sometimes quite bizarre -- shapes that it's taken across history.
And, yes, I know there's an argument to be made that many worldwide traditional religions tell stories that seem bizarre to outsiders (and sometimes even to insiders). A parting of the Reed (or Red) Sea. A resurrection from the dead. A night journey to Jerusalem on the back of a winged mule-like white beast. And on and on.
But many odd religious stories turn out to be essentially harmless and even quaint and almost charming.
Such as: This BBC story tells of a faith community that formed in the United Kingdom based on a woman's belief that when Jesus returned to Earth he would come to Bedford in south-central England, just under 50 miles from London.
"Two centuries ago," the story says, "a 64-year-old woman called Joanna Southcott announced she was pregnant with the Messiah. She died in December 1814, months after making this bold claim. Inevitably, a post-mortem examination revealed there was no child."
Yes, but that wasn't the end of it.
In 1919, the story reports, one Mabel Barltrop, intrigued by the Southcott story, formed what was called the Community of the Holy Ghost (in 1926 renamed the Panacea Society). It "was a group of mostly women who believed Barltrop was a prophet and the daughter of God, and whose aim was to set up their own Garden of Eden in Bedford."
Barltrop, the story says, had learned about "the life of Southcott, who had predicted a messiah would spark 'the millennium' or the Second Coming in England. Southcott's various prophesies were kept in a sealed box, which she instructed must only be opened by a gathering of 24 Church of England bishops."
Well, the bishops never gathered to see what was in the box and the Panacea Society eventually died out a few years ago. But it left a good chunk of money. Today a charitable trust in its name uses that money for various good purposes and now also operates a museum that tells the Southcott-Barltrop-Panacea story.
Kansas City area residents also may know that three different faith communities believe the Second Coming of Jesus will happen not in Bedford, England, but, rather, in Harry Truman's hometown of Independence, Mo. So there's competition for the end-of-time event.
People seem to need to believe things that are supernatural or almost beyond belief. And often such beliefs lead the believers to live valuable, healthy and productive lives because their beliefs issue in moral behavior, in generosity, love, compassion, mercy. But sometimes, as in this Bedford case, it's hard to know why people believe what they believe and what difference it makes in their lives.
For instance, in the late Stephen Hawking's book, A Brief History of Time, there's the no-doubt apocryphal story of strange faith that goes this way:
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"
Maybe it's turtles all the way down not to bedrock but to Bedford. Or maybe not.
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POPE FRANCIS' OLD HOPES ABOUT JAPAN
Pope Francis is on a trip to the far east, including Japan. If I knew that he once dreamed of being a missionary in Japan, I had forgotten that fact until I read this RNS story about the trip. Sometimes dreams take a long, long time to be realized, even if only in part.
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P.S.: The people of Turkey under their current leader have endured a great deal -- and the oppression continues. I've written about that here in 2017 and, earlier this year, here. On Tuesday, Dec. 10, which is International Human Rights Day, the Dialogue Institute will hold a Kansas City gathering to talk about what's happening in Turkey now and what people can do to respond to the outrages there. Details you need to attend this free event are here.