Interfaith Insight - 2023

Permanent link for "Celebrating Christmas as a festival of light along with other traditions," by Douglas Kindschi, Founding Director of Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on December 18, 2023

Originally published December 26, 2018

There can be no doubt that we are in the holiday season. It is all around us, in television programs, store advertisements, shopping for presents, and holiday lights throughout the city and frequently on homes. Even those who do not send out Christmas cards often send out “Happy Holiday” cards. The dominant holiday in December is obviously Christmas but it is not the only religious holiday being celebrated this time of the year.  

Earlier this month, our Jewish neighbors celebrated Hanukkah, often called the Festival of Lights. The festival celebrates the rededication of the temple following the defeat of the Syrian occupation in the second century B.C.E. The menorah was lit again but there was only enough oil for one day and yet the flame continued for eight days. This miracle led to Hanukkah being called the Festival of Lights.  

Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day. Often Buddhist homes will have a ficus tree they decorate with beads, ornaments, and multi-colored lights similar to the way Christians decorate Christmas trees. In November this year, Muslims celebrated the birthday of Muhammad and Hindus celebrated Diwali, which is also known as the Festival of Lights. 

Many of these traditions use a lunar calendar for religious events that differs from the standard Gregorian calendar. Hence the celebrations are not always on the same day from year to year. Christmas is also not the same for those in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, which celebrates on Jan. 7. Actually, Christmas was not a part of the early church calendar since there was no mention in the Bible of the time of Jesus’ birth. Some theologians have suggested that the time was probably in spring, as suggested by references to shepherds and sheep in the Nativity story.

Picking the date in December is likely related to the Winter Solstice as well as the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, which was very popular in ancient times. Candles and torches represented the fading sun whose return would begin to bring new light. Evergreen plants and wreaths reminded people of the coming spring when green would again predominate. Gift giving was a part of the festivities.  

But by the fourth century C.E., Western Christian churches settled on celebrating Christmas on December 25, with the declaration of Pope Julius I. This allowed them to incorporate the holiday with Saturnalia and other popular pagan midwinter traditions. Pagans and Christians co-existed (not always happily) during this period, and this likely represented an effort to convince the remaining pagan Romans to accept Christianity as Rome’s official religion.

Before the end of the fourth century, many of the traditions of Saturnalia — including giving gifts, singing, lighting candles, feasting and merrymaking — had become absorbed by the traditions of Christmas as many of us know them today. Many Christians also mark the season by lighting candles each of the four Sundays of Advent.  

These festivals of light have different traditions and meaning in our culture. The victory of light over darkness also represents the victory of knowledge over ignorance and understanding over prejudice. The darkest day of the year can also be a time of renewal, expectation, and celebration.    

Christians joined the festival spirit in celebrating Jesus’ Nativity. After all, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) In the Sermon on the Mount he even said to his followers, “You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14) On this the darkest period of the year a celebration of light is most appropriate. Christians give gifts to each other representing God’s gift of the Christ child to the world. 

Christians are sometimes critical that Christmas time has become too commercial and has lost the “true spirit of Christmas.” But maybe our increasingly secular society is just returning to the pagan style of trying to bring light and hope to the shortest day of the year.      

Christians continue to celebrate the season of light along with their other religious neighbors. At this time of seeming darkness in the world and in our nation where fear, conflict and even violence are too prevalent, let us come together seeking understanding and peace. Knowledge of other traditions and getting to know others who celebrate differently helps us come together as community. Interfaith understanding does not mean that all religions are the same or that the differences do not matter, but it does mean that we recognize our common humanity and pursue “peace on earth and goodwill to all.” Let this be our commitment.

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Posted on Permanent link for "Celebrating Christmas as a festival of light along with other traditions," by Douglas Kindschi, Founding Director of Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on December 18, 2023.

Permanent link for "Does life have meaning? Mahler's symphonic response," by Douglas Kindschi, Founding Director of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on December 18, 2023

Originally published May 14, 2015

A musical piece that has special meaning for me was performed last weekend (May 2015) by the Grand Rapids Symphony, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the “Resurrection Symphony." David Lockington, who is retiring as Music Director after 16 years, chose to feature this piece for his final concert. He explained at the Upbeat lecture prior to the concert that this symphony is about change, and this is a time of change for him as well as for the orchestra as it transitions to a new director.  

But for Mahler it was a much bigger change that drove his composition -- namely, the change that we anticipate when we face death. Mahler had lived with death. He was one of 14 children, the majority of whom died in childhood.  During the seven-year period when he struggled with writing this piece, both his father and mother died as well as a brother who committed suicide.  The existential issue for Mahler, which he incorporated into the chorus in the fifth movement, was whether we have lived in vain, and suffered in vain.  It is the fundamental question that most religions also address. What is the meaning of life?  Is it all in vain? 

Mahler was Jewish but converted to Catholicism, probably as a political act in order to receive an appointment in Vienna where anti-Semitism was high.  His question was that of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures: “Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble.  He comes forth like a flower, and withers; he flees like a shadow, and continues not. ... If a man die, shall he live again?” (Job 14: 1-2, 14)  Nearly every religion addresses this issue and has some version of a life after death.  Whether it is reincarnation or a conscious continuation of one’s life, either in heaven or hell, religions seek to respond to this ultimate question of life’s meaning and whether it is found in this life or in the next.  The religious traditions span a wide swath of perspectives on this question and to fully explore them would require a book, of which many have been written. Muslims emphasize the final judgment, followed by either punishment or bliss.  Christians consider the resurrection of the body central and celebrate it at Easter.   

For Mahler, the clue to finishing his great symphony was at the funeral of the famous conductor and his mentor, Hans von Bülow, when he heard a children’s choir sing Klopstock’s “Resurrection Ode.”  Adding his own verses to what he heard, Mahler has the choir begin singing softly, “Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n” (“Arise, yes, you will arise from the dead”). The English translation continues: 

My dust, after a short rest!
Eternal life, will be given you by Him who called you.
Oh believe, You were not born in vain,
Have not lived in vain, suffered in vain.
What was created must perish! 
What has perished must rise again!
Tremble no more!
Prepare yourself to live!

Mahler’s resolution of this existential question provides an inspiring musical setting for this basic human quest.  What is the meaning of life?  Do we have a purpose? It can be approached via religion, through art and literature, or in this case through a powerful musical form. For me, the music itself points to meaning and purpose far beyond what the words alone can contain.

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Posted on Permanent link for "Does life have meaning? Mahler's symphonic response," by Douglas Kindschi, Founding Director of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on December 18, 2023.

Permanent link for Facing the challenge of religious diversity (2019) by Douglas Kindschi, Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on December 5, 2023

“We are the most religiously devout nation in the West, and the most religiously diverse country in the world, at a time of religious tension, conflict, and crisis.” 

So writes Eboo Patel, founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, in his recent book, Religious Diversity and the American Promise .  He continues, “How do we affirm and extend the ethic that welcoming religiously diverse people, nurturing positive relations among them, and facilitating their contributions to the nation is part of the definition of America?  Responding to that question is the task of this book.”

Patel, who was one of our keynote speakers last November (2018) at the triennial Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue, begins his book by pointing out that political theorists have long observed that diversity and democracy have not mixed well historically.  But the United States has been the “great exception” in the way our founders “set for themselves the remarkable task of building a religiously diverse democracy, an experiment never before tried at such a scale in human history.”

While the founders, many of whom were slaveholders, did not represent much diversity in gender and race, they did “create a constitutional system that protected freedom of religion, barred the federal government from establishing a single church, prevented religious tests for those running for political office, and penned more than a few poetic lines about building a religiously diverse democracy.”

Patel then continues by recounting George Washington’s letter to Jewish leader Moses Seixas, affirming their welcome as full members of this new nation.  Benjamin Franklin made financial contributions to every diverse community that built a house of worship in Philadelphia, and even raised money for a hall in Philadelphia “expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something.”  Franklin was explicit in stating that it would be open to Muslim preachers.

Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777, which became the basis for Article 1 of the Bill of Rights, stating, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States and Tripoli was signed by President John Adams and approved unanimously by the Senate in 1797. It made clear that the United States was a secular state and had no “enmity” against any Muslim nation and further stated,“it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony.”   

Patel also discusses the historic challenges to religious diversity at times when Jews, Catholics and Mormons were persecuted and not fully accepted. While we have moved beyond those conflicts, we now see members of these groups represented in Congress, the Supreme Court and the highest offices in our nation.

Patel also celebrates the contribution of religious communities to the overall welfare and social capital of our country.  The vibrancy of our civil life is in a significant way dependent on the generosity and contributions of religious groups.  He then urges that we “guard against religious preference … and continue the American ideal of free exercise for all faith communities.”  We also need to welcome the contributions from these communities, facilitate positive relations between diverse religious communities, guarding against conflict and strengthening social cohesion.” 

The task, however, is not easy and there are challenges ahead. Patel discusses the real differences between religions and their truth claims. The idea that all religions are pretty much the same and all paths are leading up the same mountain is called “pretend pluralism.” There are doctrines, rituals, and practices that counter other religions and can even insult. He writes:

“How are non-Jews supposed to view the idea that Jews are God’s chosen people, non-Christians meant to countenance the concept that you must hold to the Christian belief that Jesus is Lord and Savior in order to go to heaven, or non-Muslims to reckon with the idea that Muslims have the final revelation and others are incomplete or corrupted?”

These are real differences, and our interfaith activity urges a “thick dialogue” that seeks understanding and respect rather than a “thin dialogue” that reduces our various beliefs to some kind of bland agreement. Furthermore, to assert that all paths are going up the same mountain implies that we have a “God’s-eye view” that somehow lets us see from above the mountain and make assertions that only God could conclude.  We are each on our own path with a limited view.  To assume we can affirm or deny the path that someone else in on is a kind of arrogance that is dangerous.  We can firmly believe that we are on the right path and still maintain a humility about judging what others believe. 

We must always be on guard against thinking we know God’s intents.  After all, God chose Abraham before there existed Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or other religious structures.  We must be careful not to put limits on God’s ability and actions in dealing with his creatures.

Patel defines “pluralism as an ethic that has three main parts: respect for different identities, relationships between diverse communities, and a commitment to the common good.”   He puts special emphasis on developing “meaningful relationships between people from different religious communities.”  This was the focus of the Year of Interfaith Friendship that the Kaufman Interfaith Institute initiated in 2018.    

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Posted on Permanent link for Facing the challenge of religious diversity (2019) by Douglas Kindschi, Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on December 5, 2023.

Permanent link for Thanksgiving for our freedoms: Religion, press, and assembly by Douglas Kindschi, Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on November 28, 2023

During ArtPrize this year (2015) I walked by a large oil painting in the lobby of the AmwayGrand Plaza and stopped suddenly.  I knew that person in the painting.  And then I recognized a second and then a third person. They were an imam, a rabbi and a Catholic priest with whom we have worked in our interfaith efforts here in West Michigan.  The artist was Sharon Lange and the painting was titled, “FREEDOM – Liberty Lighting our Way.”**  Based on the First Amendment to our Constitution, it portrays our freedom of religion, as well as the freedom of speech, a free press and the right to free assembly. Adopted in 1791, it was one of the ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights.

In this season of thanksgiving we in America have much for which to be thankful, especially these freedoms that our founders insured from the beginning of our nation.  The First Amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Early settlers of the colonies came from many different religious backgrounds.  Puritans were strong in the New England colonies while Anglicans were dominant in the South. There were also Lutherans from Germany, Reformed from the Netherlands, and Presbyterians from Scotland, as well as Catholics, Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, and a few Jewish congregations.  It should also be noted that many of the slaves brought to America were Muslim but were not permitted to practice their religion.  

State-established religion was common in most European countries and the early settlers were aware of that pattern.  In some cases they came here to avoid that practice but, on the other hand, many of the original colonies had their own established religions.  Most of them required state officials to take a pledge supporting Christian doctrine, and in many cases it was specified that they had to be Protestant.  In the Maryland colony as well as a number of the southern colonies, the Anglican Church was the established church and Catholics were not even allowed to vote.  Thus the First Amendment was originally a restriction on Congress and did not apply to the states until much later. 

Likewise in the Constitution, Article Six provides that "no religious test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."  Again, for many years this applied only to federal offices. 

Among our founders we have Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to especially thank for this affirmation of religious freedom.  Jefferson was in Paris serving as our ambassador to France when the Constitution was being drafted.  He wrote Madison with his concerns about a bill of rights and especially the inclusion of religious freedom.  Madison is considered the main drafter of the Constitution as well as the Bill of Rights and later became our fourth president.  Jefferson not only wrote the Declaration of Independence but was also the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was passed in 1786 and was the model for the First Amendment.  It is of interest that Jefferson requested that the authorship of these two documents, and the fact that he founded the University of Virginia, be the only things noted on his tombstone.  Being our third president of the United States didn’t make the top three in his opinion. 

Thanks to the freedom of religion championed by these two founders and presidents of our United States, we now enjoy an unprecedented diversity and freedom of expression in our religious communities.  It has been pointed out that America is not only the most diverse country in terms of ethnic and religious backgrounds, but also the most devout when it comes to religion.  I believe it is in large measure a result of the freedoms we have enjoyed for over two hundred years.  This diverse nation of immigrants can be the model for a world that is becoming one very diverse community.  

The artist whose work caught my attention describes her work as follows:

 “In this allegorical scene, we see Lady Liberty, personified, her torch ablaze, lighting our way through the darkness; … She is an ‘ideal’ that we all look up to and hold dear. … We see her surrounded by all of us, representing the diverse fabric of our Nation.” 

It is an affirmation of our diversity, seen as a strength, and built upon our freedoms, including the freedom to worship.  In this Thanksgiving Season we have much to be thankful for. But let us not forget the blessing of our freedoms, the strength of our diversity, and our heritage of religious freedom. 

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** To see and learn more about Sharon Lange's painting, “FREEDOM – Liberty Lighting our Way,” check out the video below!

The Freedom Painting - explained

Posted on Permanent link for Thanksgiving for our freedoms: Religion, press, and assembly by Douglas Kindschi, Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on November 28, 2023.

Permanent link for Gratitude and Forgiveness, Fundamental to a Life Well Lived," by Douglas Kindschi, Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on November 14, 2023

Originally published in 2018

“Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer.
And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.”

These words from Maya Angelou open a recent book by church historian and author Diana Butler Bass, “Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks.”  She makes it clear that she is not talking about sending thank you notes, or that “painful Thanksgiving dinner exercise in which no one eats until everyone at the table says something they are thankful for. … It feels more like a turkey hostage situation than a spiritual exercise in grace.”  She does admit, however, that she is thankful when it ends.  

She goes on to explain the Western tradition of making gratitude a kind of “commodity of exchange – a transaction of debt and duty.”  You receive something, a birthday, Christmas, or Bar Mitzvah gift, but also receive the duty to respond with a thank you note or some expression of gratitude to the benefactor. 

Instead, she offers an alternate structure where we acknowledge the gifts all around us every day. She writes, “The universe is a gift. Air, light, soil, and water are gifts.  Friendship, love, sex, and family are gifts.  We live on a gifted planet. Everything we need is here, with us. We freely respond to these gifts by choosing a life of mutual care.”

Gratitude is from the same Greek word gratia, as is the word grace. It suggests indiscriminate generosity, “gifts given without being earned and with no expectation of return.”  She calls it a kind of defiance in the face of evil.  “Gratitude undoes evil by tunneling under its foundations of anger, resentment, and greed.”

Bass also cites the results from science, sociology, and psychology. She sees gratitude as a way to integrate science and faith in new ways to “reveal healing dimensions of human experience.”

Science, especially the field of psychology, has in recent decades turned to the study of the positive characteristics that lead to human flourishing and contributeto a well-lived and fulfilling life. 

The turn away from primarily studying maladaptive behavior is often attributed to a talk given by Martin Seligman in his presidential address to the American Psychological Association in 1998. The positive psychology movement has resulted in scores of books and hundreds of scientific studies and articles.  It seeks to understand and assess positive emotion and ways of human engagement that contribute to the sense of well-being.  It studies the relationships with friends and family and other social connections that promote meaning, or the sense of being a part of something bigger than oneself.   

Another recent book, “The Science of Virtue” by Mark McMinn, looks at the numerous studies of such virtues as wisdom, forgiveness, humility and hope.  Quoting the psychologist Everett Worthington, he writes, “The essence of most virtues is that they self-limit the rights or privileges of the self on behalf of the welfare of others.”  McMinn also invites us to see science and faith as good conversation partners rather than foes.

The studies on forgiveness have grown to yield over 100 scientific articles each year.  They show positive connections between forgiveness and such health benefits as lower blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension.  Forgiveness also reduces levels of pain, anger, and psychological distress as well as decreased relapse rates for persons with problems of substance abuse.  The decision to forgive releases the emotions of bitterness and anger that contribute to these unhealthy conditions.  It is also a component in moving from being a victim of past hurts and taking action to promote a more positive future outcome.

Huston Smith is a well-known author and expert on philosophy and world religions.  Smith’s book “The World’s Religions” sold millions of copies, isused widely as a college textbook, and has been translated into 12 languages. In his final book, “And Live Rejoicing,” Smith identifies gratitude and empathy as the “two categorical, unconditional virtues.”   

McMinn also writes of gratitude and the scientific studies that point to its benefits.  He sees gratitude as calling us to a humility that recognizes “that we cannot and need not be self-sufficient.”  The studies of gratitude show its relationship to sleeping better, exercising more and even visiting the doctor less often. Dozens of studies have made this connection between gratitude and mental as well as physical health. It is associated with life satisfaction and decreased risk of depression and anxiety disorders. Gratitude journaling is a recommended practice that contributes to many of these positive results.

In all of the world’s religions gratitude is emphasized and even an obligation.  The Jewish Morning Prayer gives thanks for being alive another day. Christians are entreated to “give thanks in all circumstances.” The Qur’an reminds us that our very life is a gift, and the month of fasting and prayer during Ramadan is to remind one to be thankful in all things. For Hindus, Buddhists, and other Eastern religions, gratitude is emphasized not as an obligation but as a response to the many gifts we all receive each day.

Whether we understand it through the science that studies the virtues, or realize it as a part of our religious beliefs, gratitude and forgiveness are fundamental to living a life with meaning.    

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Posted on Permanent link for Gratitude and Forgiveness, Fundamental to a Life Well Lived," by Douglas Kindschi, Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on November 14, 2023.

Permanent link for What is my response to the escalating violence in the world? by Douglas Kindschi, Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on November 7, 2023

I grieve along with nearly everyone regarding the situation now developing in the world today, especially the increased violence in the Middle East.  Pope Francis has called for peace, as did Jesus two thousand years earlier in one of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” As did the Psalmist, centuries earlier: “Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34) As did the Quran: “The servants of the Lord of Mercy are those who walk humbly on the earth, and who, when the foolish address them, reply, ‘Peace.’” (Sura 25:63, Abdel Haleem translation)

 An earlier Interfaith Insight addressed the danger of retaliation, which nearly always produces even more violence and suffering, and rarely leads to peace.  As one who has tried to engage all religious perspectives, when it comes to geo-political divisions it is difficult to respond to such divisions apart from the religious teachings of our traditions. The prophet Micah clearly answers the question, “What does the Lord require of you?” with “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) In the current conflicts, where is justice and mercy?  Is there any humility in the responses?

King Abdullah II of Jordan at the recent Cairo Summit for Peace began his statement with the following words:  “Our religion came with a message of peace. The Pact of Omar, issued at the gates of Jerusalem almost 15 centuries ago, more than a thousand years before the Geneva Conventions, ordered Muslim soldiers not to kill a child, a woman, or an old person, not to destroy a tree, not to harm a priest, not to destroy a church.”

He continued that this admonition should apply to both sides of the conflict. It is also clear that religious teachings are rarely applied to matters of politics and national self-interest. It is also clear that my own ideas will have no impact on such geo-political issues.

So what is my response? 

It is difficult not to respond, but the response should be in the form of non-violent protest. It is sad when violence at national levels becomes violence at the individual level. Protests that turn into hate campaigns, Islamophobia, or antisemitism only make things worse. 

Individuals who take ortry to take violent action, like the Cornell University student who threatened to kill Jewish students or attack an on-campus kosher dining facility, or like the Chicago landlord who killed a six-year-old by stabbing him 26 times because the child was Muslim, can never be tolerated.   

Let us as individuals and communities learn from our religious traditions the proper responses when nations and others commit violence. Yes, we should protest, we should work for peace, and we should seek mercy. As we seek justice, walking humbly might keep us from adding to the violence in our world.

Shalom, Salaam, Peace!

Posted on Permanent link for What is my response to the escalating violence in the world? by Douglas Kindschi, Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on November 7, 2023.

Permanent link for Deep divides on Israel and Palestine. What can be said? by Douglas Kindschi, Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on October 31, 2023

Recently the Religion News Service published an opinion piece written by two leaders at Interfaith America, an organization dedicated to unlocking the positive potential of our country’s religious diversity. The writers have deep personal connections to the situation in Israel and Gaza, as well as many years of working in this national interfaith organization.

One of them, Rebecca Russo, is an American Jew who has visited Israel frequently and worked with Hillel, the Jewish student outreach on many college campuses, and has many close and extended family members living in Israel. She writes about her family members, “My love for them and concern for their wellbeing – along with the wellbeing of all Jews worldwide whom I consider my extended family – is the primary reason I have felt constantly terrified these past two weeks.”  

The other writer, Jenan Mohajir,is a Muslim American who in college was an active leader in the a Muslim student group. She continued working with Interfaith America (formerly the Interfaith Youth Corp) for 17 years. She is also the mother of “three beautiful children who are part Palestinian, part Irish, part Indian and fully Muslim.”  She continues, “Preserving the dignity of Palestinian life and narratives is deeply important and personal to me, as it is preserving the dignity of my children’s family and their own stories.”    

The two recognize each other’s positions but come together on “the importance of seeing each other and each other’s people as fully human.” They also hope that in the midst of the disagreements, both professionals and students “will lead with care, creating space to honor the distinctive pain of both Israelis and Palestinians.”

While they mourn the thousands of innocent people who have died in Gaza and in Israel, they are not trying to argue the moral equivalence of the differing positions, but calling for compassion and the honoring of human life.  Read their full article here. (

The way these two colleagues at Interfaith America acknowledge these fundamental human values, while strongly disagreeing with each other on the conflict, is the kind of respectful dialogue that we at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute have worked to achieve.

Too much of the conflict in that part of the world is and has been based on each partytelling the history of past injustice rather than seeking future ways to support each community’s flourishing. Disagreement is inevitable in such times as these, but we must still care. Care for the suffering and dying, care for the history of injustice, and care for the humanity of those with whom we disagree.

Shalom, Salaam, Peace.

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Posted on Permanent link for Deep divides on Israel and Palestine. What can be said? by Douglas Kindschi, Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on October 31, 2023.

Permanent link for Miserere mei, Deus: "Have mercy upon me, O God," by Douglas Kindschi, Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on October 24, 2023

In the 1600s, at the request of Pope Urban VIII, Gregorio Allegri composed the music to the Latin text of Psalm 51, known as “Miserere mei, Deus.” For over a century it was sung by the papal choir in Rome only during Holy Week, and carefully guarded so it could not be sung anywhere else.  In 1770 a 14-year-old Mozart heard the piece, went home and transcribed it from memory.  It was later published and is now heard frequently throughout the world.  I first heard it live at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England, but later sung by the Grand Rapids Choir of Men and Boys at St. Andew’s Cathedral. You can hear a recording of the King’s College choir performance at:

It is certainly beautiful music, and the text is most appropriate for any faith tradition seeking mercy in our world of conflict and violence.  The Miserere is based on a Psalm text shared by Christians and those of the Jewish faith.  The Latin words of the sung Psalm 51 are translated, “Have mercy upon me, O God.” The theme of mercy is also reflected in most of the chapters of the Qur’an, which begin, “In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.”   Mercy, a theme shared by nearly all of the world’s religions, is the recognition that we cannot on our own live up to what it means to be authentically human.  It is the recognition that we do not always love our neighbor as ourselves, or love God with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind. 

Miserere mei, Deus.  Lord, have mercy. 

Later in the psalm we hear the words, “Make me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me.”  In our personal lives as well as in a world torn by conflict, we need not only God’s mercy but also a right spirit.  Whatever faith we claim, let this be our prayer. 

As we look at our world and in our own country, the need for mercy, graciousness, respect and love seems to be in short supply.  Politics divide, not only our country but families and friends.  Captured by our individual echo chambers, we have lost the ability to understand, let alone love our neighbor.  

Miserere mei, Deus. Lord, have mercy.

Fear of the “other” because of their religion, skin color, what they wear, or how they pray, has led to discrimination and violence.  We build walls around ourselves that prevent our seeing the humanity of others. Save us from the sin of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.  

As we face division in our own land and in the world – division which leads to hatred, and hatred which leads to violence -- we need to remember the Psalm of repentance that cries out for mercy. 

Miserere mei, Deus. Lord, have mercy.

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Posted on Permanent link for Miserere mei, Deus: "Have mercy upon me, O God," by Douglas Kindschi, Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on October 24, 2023.

Permanent link for How can we respond to violence? by Douglas Kindschi, Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on October 17, 2023

We, of course, decry the vicious attack by Hamas terrorists. But we also acknowledge the history of discrimination against Palestinians in the region.  We also grieve for the innocent civilians who are being killed in this terrible conflict.

We also ask:

Why does violence always produce more violence?  Is there any response to violence that would not create expanded violence?  It is human nature to seek retaliation when one has been the target of violence. But does it help? Does it make things better or worse?

Our nation’s experience in responding to the violence of 9/11 was described by a recent PBS commentator as not intelligent and not effective. The numbers could certainly bear that out. The cost in the loss of civilian lives in Afghanistan and Iraq is conservatively estimated as over 200,000 and the costs of both wars as over 5 trillion dollars.  Did the situation improve because of the two violent wars in response to the horrific violence against us? 

If politics is the exercise of power and governments have armies to exercise that power, is there any way that we can respond without causing more violence and even defeating our own interests?  It has been suggested that Osama ben Laden got what he wanted, a weakened West in both economic terms and perceived reduced respect worldwide. 

America observed in the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. a non-violent response to the violence being perpetrated against Black people. Responding with an alternate power of love moved our nation much further toward justice than repeated violence could have produced.

Is there any way a government can find proactive non-violent ways to prevent potential violence?  Can nonviolent approaches be used to prevent violence even if it seems difficult if not impossible for a government to do so after the violent attack has occurred?

Rabbi Dr. Ron Kronish, founding director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, believes that interfaith and intercultural dialogue can help reverse radical extreme movements. In an article first published by Huffington Post in 2016, Kronish argued that there was too much ignorance in the world and particularly in Israel. Even living in proximity with each other, there is so little real dialogue and mutual understanding between the Jewish and Muslim communities.  He urged that we find “better ways to live together in communities, countries, regions and in the world…to build trust among people of different religions who must then develop this into ways and means of living peacefully together.”

Can the religious teachings of loving your neighbor and seeking justice influence the political realm?  Can religious communities contribute to peace among people, communities, and even nations?  Let us hope and pray for that effort. 

Again, building of the wisdom of the civil rights movement, let us heed the words of Rev. William J. Barber, Protestant minister and president of the North Carolina NAACP, “When we love the Jewish child and the Palestinian child, the Muslim and the Christian and the Hindu and the Buddhist and those that have no faith, but they love this nation, we are reviving the heart of our democracy.”

He then called on our religious values saying,

“We must shock this nation with the power of love.

We must shock this nation with the power of mercy.

We must shock this nation and fight for justice for all.”


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Posted on Permanent link for How can we respond to violence? by Douglas Kindschi, Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on October 17, 2023.

Permanent link for Modern society and finding true happiness by Douglas Kindschi, Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on September 26, 2023

“But are we happier?” 

This is the question asked in one of the last chapters of the best-selling book, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.”  Author historian Yuval Noah Harari reviews in his not so “brief” story (over 400 pages) the development of early human forms, going back over 2 million years, to the first homo sapiens some 200,000 years ago and their eventual domination of the planet today. Harari, an Oxford Ph.D., organizes his sweeping story around three major revolutions: the cognitive, agricultural and the scientific revolutions. 

Since the scientific revolution, he describes the result of the last 500 years as follows:

“The earth has been united into a single ecological and historical sphere. The economy has grown exponentially, and humankind today enjoys the kind of wealth that used to be the stuff of fairy tales.  Science and the Industrial Revolution have given humankind super human powers and practically limitless energy. The social order has been completely transformed, as have politics, daily life and human psychology. 

“But are we happier?”      

He suggests that most ideologies and political promises are “based on rather flimsy ideas concerning the real source of human happiness.”  Historians research everything from politics and economics to diseases and sexuality, but rarely ask how any of this affects human happiness.

There have been impressive medical gains in terms of child mortality and extension of life span, as well as in the reduction of famines and poverty. Studies have shown, however, that “family and community have more impact on happiness than money and health.” Have our material advances combined with more mobility and individual independence been at the cost of community and family?

Only recently have scientists attempted to measure and study human happiness. Harari notes the most important finding is that “happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health, or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.”  He adds, “Prophets, poets and philosophers realized thousands of years ago that being satisfied with what you already have is far more important that getting more of what you want.  Still it’s nice when modern research – bolstered by lots of numbers and charts – reaches the same conclusions the ancients did.”

Expectations are also important to our perceived happiness but thanks to the media and advertising, we are continually exposed to idealized images of what we should want and how we should look. We are even presented with both legal and illegal chemical means to improve happiness, but likely providing just temporary pleasure.

Nobel laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman’s study revealed a paradox in temporary experiences of pleasure or displeasure versus long-term sense of happiness.  For example, the day-to-day experiences of raising children provide many opportunities for drudgery or discouragement. From changing diapers and dealing with tantrums, to the many disappointments in the growing up years, these are not particularly inspiring.  But most parents will reflect back and affirm that their children are their greatest source of happiness. Again, the important distinction between pleasure and happiness points to what Harari concludes, “happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile.”

While historian Harari takes a secular and scientific perspective on these issues, he does point to the philosophers, prophets and religious leaders who have taken a different approach to happiness. We know from other authors that happiness is a much different concept than individual pleasure.  For example, Mahatma Gandhi taught, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”  It has more to do with one’s integrity and consistency to how one feels.  There is also the issue of whether we can even seek happiness as a goal or is it something that comes to us when we are seeking and working toward something bigger than oneself.  As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.” 

In American culture happiness is often connected to individuality and autonomy.  The Declaration of Independence declares “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as a basic right. While this American tradition and law promotes individual rights and happiness, most religious expressions describe happiness in terms of duty and responsibility.  It’s not so much having our desires met and being successful and prosperous that brings happiness, but being true to one’s responsibility to God, to others, and to one’s authentic self. 

Buddhism teaches the liberation from suffering by rising above the craving for particular feelings.  The Psalms tell us to “worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful song.” (Psalms 100:2)  Considered one of the greatest thinkers in Islam, al-Ghazali wrote the book, “The Alchemy of Happiness” in which he taught that one achieves ultimate happiness by rejecting worldliness and finding complete devotion to God. 

Christians often refer to the Sermon on the Mount, when the vision expressed in Jesus’ teaching of the Beatitudes offers the best way to happiness. Jesus calls “blessed” the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, etc.  Some modern translations use the word “Happy” to describe these blessings. The 19th century Scottish publisher Robert Young translated the Bible seeking to be faithful to the literal meaning of the original words.  His rendering of Jesus’ teaching recorded in Matthew was as follows:

“Happy those hungering and thirsting for righteousness -- because they shall be filled.

Happy the kind -- because they shall find kindness.

Happy the clean in heart -- because they shall see God.

Happy the peacemakers -- because they shall be called Sons of God.” (Matthew 5:6-9, YTL – Young’s Literal Translation)

So, does our modern society with its prosperity, freedoms, and opportunity for pleasure and entertainment provide us with more happiness?  Perhaps the answer is not from the historians, economists, or scientists.  We must look deeper into the traditions from the poets, prophets, and priests in our search.      

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Posted on Permanent link for Modern society and finding true happiness by Douglas Kindschi, Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU on September 26, 2023.

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