Interfaith Insight - 2021

Permanent link for "Reflections on a gracious and deep thinker" by Doug Kindschi on December 28, 2021

As the year comes to an end, I remember the life of John Polkinghorne, with whom I had the privilege of being with numerous times over the years and who passed away at the age of 90 this past March.  He was considered by many as the leading figure internationally in combining insights from science and theology.  

Polkinghorne had a distinguished scientific career of over 25 years in Cambridge, where he worked with the Nobel laureate Paul Dirac. He became a professor of mathematical physics and published six science books plus numerous articles. In his forties he decided to study for the Anglican priesthood, and following ordination in the Church of England, served for five years in parish ministry. He returned to Cambridge as a chaplain and then later as president of Queens’ College until his retirement in 1996. He published over 20 books on science and religion; was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1997 for distinguished service to science, religion, and learning; and in 2002 received the $1.5 million Templeton Prize, awarded annually for an “exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”  

I had the opportunity to meet him and make a presentation at a conference at Oxford University in 2010 honoring his 80th birthday. During my visiting fellow appointments at Cambridge University, first in 2013, and again in 2016 and 2018, it was always a special privilege to spend time with him periodically at his home and to be inspired by his intellect as well as by his deep belief and gentle personality. 

My long-term interests in science and religion began in college and continued throughout my time while serving as Dean of Science at Grand Valley State University. Reflecting back, I realized the two worldviews appear to be in conflict, and yet when properly pursued we find deep points of convergence and mutual insight. Now with my involvement in the interfaith dialogue I realize that I am doing the same thing. The various world religions, as well as the secular stance, are different worldviews that seem to be in deep conflict. While the world religions make significantly different factual claims they do have much in common when one goes deep into the values and insights into what is ultimately meaningful.  

Religions have in common the impulse to care for others, to make the ordinary life of all people more just and equitable while at the same time affirming that life is much more than just physical well-being. The various religions or worldviews have different visions of life’s purpose but they also bring a transcendent perspective to what is truly meaningful.

The various sciences look at reality by asking different questions.  The biologist pursues how life develops and evolves, while the physicist asks about mass and velocity, as well as probes the basic constituents of matter itself.  Our various religious perspectives also ask different questions about reality and each provides its own lens through which we seek to make sense of the world. We can learn from the sciences as well as the various faith traditions that take seriously the ultimate questions of life, purpose and meaning.  No one view can claim the whole of understanding.  We are enriched by interacting and being in dialogue, both in the sciences and in interfaith efforts, with those whose experiences and questions are different from our own.       

John Polkinghorne’s book, Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, explores what he calls “bottom-up” thinking by taking the evidence of both scientific experiments and religious experience to develop theories that seek to be coherent and explanatory.  He attributes the success of science to limiting its scope to “only one dimension of the human encounter with reality, essentially that which can be called impersonal.”  He also argues that because of this limitation, “scientific achievement cannot be claimed to constitute the attainment of complete and absolute truth. Instead science’s exploration of reality must be seen as resulting in the creation of ‘maps’ of the physical world which are indeed reliable, but only on a particular scale.”   

The map image reminds me of the difficulty of making a two-dimensional map of the three-dimensional planet earth.  When looking at a flat map of the flight route from America to England, it seems like one goes too far north rather than straight east.  That is because the map distorts what is in fact the shortest distance on the globe, which is the arc of a great circle. My Muslim friends point out the same situation when in their daily prayers they are to face Mecca, for which the shortest “great circle” route is actually facing northeast from Grand Rapids.  

Theology and religion use metaphor and symbolism to create maps which help us comprehend aspects of reality that go beyond the limits set by science. Because of the complexity and uniqueness of human experience the religious “maps” are not as specific and precise, but yet they can be invaluable in helping us make our way through the pathways of our human existence. 

Polkinghorne also recognizes the difference between the cumulative nature of science and the importance of tradition and heritage in other fields. He points out that a “physicist today understands much more about the universe than Isaac Newton ever did, simply by living three centuries later than that great genius. In religion, as in every other encounter with reality, there is no presumption to be made of the superiority of the present over the past. Just as the individual creative works of Bach and Beethoven are an indispensable part of our present experience of music, so in theology the insights of great figures of the past … remain a necessary part of the contemporary conversation.”

For Polkinghorne, both science and religion require a rational strategy based on experiment and experience.  Both build models and use metaphors. At the ceremony announcing his Templeton Prize in 2002, he said, “The two forms of enquiry view reality from different perspectives. ... I believe that I need the binocular approach of science and religion, if I am to do any sort of justice to the deep and rich reality of the world in which we live.” 

I will miss his kind and gracious manner as well as his deep appreciation for multiple ways of understanding our world. 

Lunch with Polkinghorne at Cambridge University

Posted on Permanent link for "Reflections on a gracious and deep thinker" by Doug Kindschi on December 28, 2021.

Permanent link for "A Season of Light" by Doug Kindschi on December 21, 2021

In the dark days of winter, let us seek light. In this period of the Winter Solstice many traditions find ways to bring light into our lives. 

Earlier we celebrated the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah that began Sunday, November 28 and ended eight days later the evening of Monday, December 6. Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem following the defeat of the Syrian occupation in the second century BCE. The menorah was to be 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. Thus, during the holiday an additional candle is lit each day in the menorah until all are burning on the eighth day.  

This week is Christmas and Christians have led up to it by lighting an additional candle each of the four Sundays of Advent, which this year also began on the same day as Hanukkah, November 28. Light is an important part of these celebrations, in part because of the time of year, Winter Solstice, when daylight is the shortest in the Northern Hemisphere. It certainly fits in with other Christian themes, as when 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 said to his followers, “You are the light of the world.” 

Other religions recognize the importance of light in their holidays. In the Hindu, Sikh, and other dharma traditions the celebration of Diwali is also considered a Festival of Lights.  It represents the victory of light over darkness, good over evil and hope over despair. During these darkest days of the year this theme of light can be a time of renewal, expectation, and hope. 

While this time of the year is marked by shorter days and increased darkness, we are also aware of what seems to be an increasing darkness in our world and nation.  Anti-Semitism and hate crimes are on the rise in our own country, while tensions and violence between ethnic and religious groups around the world are prevalent in each day’s news.  

Sometimes it is hard to see the light when harassment, abuse, bullying, and demonizing the opponent seems to be the standard for the day.  Morality is no longer the expectation as long as my side wins.  We are drifting further apart into polarization and the so-called “echo chambers” which put the blame on the “other.”  Instead of finding ways to work together, everything is put in terms of “us and them."

M. Craig Barnes, the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote in the magazine Christian Century about the need to rediscover the virtue of gentleness:

“In these days of intense factionalism and demonizing partisanship, few of us are aspiring to gentleness. … We think about the ‘them’ who are to blame for our problems. ... The harsh reality is that since the day Cain rose up against Abel, we have never been as careful with each other as we were created to be. The Bible’s first story of life outside paradise is about violent conflict between brothers, and we haven’t done much to improve on the plot.”  

Barnes cites Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, who “claimed that when God’s creatures come together, a holy space is created between them. It is in this realm that they can always find the Creator still at work. If they leave their relationships, they also leave behind that holy space.”

While it does seem that the news is quick to report the negative, could it be because it is not the usual? Indeed, most of life is not violent. As someone pointed out, you never read about an airplane landing safely; it’s the unusual that makes the news.

In these dark days let us seek such glimmers of light and come together from our various traditions to celebrate the light and seek the holy spaces in our relationships. Whatever your tradition, let this dark season of the year be the time to seek the light of goodwill to all, peace on earth, and respect and dignity for all persons.

Posted by on Permanent link for "A Season of Light" by Doug Kindschi on December 21, 2021.

Permanent link for "Can we be good without God?" by Doug Kindschi on December 14, 2021

“Can we be good without God?”

This was the title of an article in the Atlantic magazine in 1989. Written over 30 years ago by Glenn Tinder, a professor of political science emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, much of it sounds like it could have been written today.

Tinder worried that the spiritual center of Western politics is being lost, along with the principle of personal dignity. Without a religious understanding of sin, he writes, “It is difficult for secular reformers to reconcile the sense of the dignity of individuals with a recognition of the selfishness and perversity of individuals.”  Thus, he contends, the secular reformers “fail to see how human beings actually behave or to understand the difficulties and complexities of reform.” 

He sees the importance of maintaining hope.  Tinder continues, “I suggest, however, that the main task facing political goodness in our time is that of maintaining responsible hope. Responsible hope is hesitant because it is cognizant of the discouraging actualities of collective life; it is radical because it measures those actualities against the highest standards of imagination and faith. Whether so paradoxical a stance can be sustained without transcendental connections—without God—is doubtful.”

In facing needed reform, America has left us with, he writes, “stubborn injustices and widespread cynicism; conservatism has come to stand for an illogical combination of market economics and truculent nationalism. Most of the human race lives in crushing poverty, and the privileged minority in societies where industrial abundance undergirds a preoccupation with material comfort.”  Tinder continues, “If the great causes and movements all have failed, and unqualified political commitments have become impossible, why not, as Paul asked, eat and drink, since tomorrow we die? This is a question that secular reason should take far more seriously than it ever has. The absorption of Americans in the pleasures of buying and consuming, of mass entertainment and sports, suggests an Epicurean response to our historical trials. The dangers—erosion of the grounds of political health and impairment of personal being—are evident.”

In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, he finds hope not only in religious commitment but also in the compassion and care within families, including primates and other species. Reciprocal altruism also developed in our evolutionary history because we need groups to survive. This leads to early concepts of what we now call the “Golden Rule.”  For Sacks, the development of religions enabled large societies to share a moral structure reinforced with symbols, rituals, and narratives that could bind together a community.

Sacks concludes his chapter on the role of religion in maintaining morality as follows, “So religion has something to add to the conversation and to society…It builds communities. It aids law-abidingness. And it helps us think long term…The religious mindset awakens us to transcendence. It redeems our solitude. It breaks the carapace of selfhood and opens us to others and to the world.”

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and frequent speaker at the Kaufman Institute events, notes that justice predates many of the religions of the West and Middle East. The three religious traditions all look back to Abraham as the father of their faith traditions.  Abraham is chosen by God “so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” (Genesis 18:19) This was 500 years before Moses received the law and more than 2,000 years before Christianity and Islam. The ethical principle, doing what is right and just” is recognized by God and precedes religious law, ritual and doctrine.

When the great rabbi Hillel was asked to summarize the Torah, he did not quote scripture or the law but appealed to a basic moral principle: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.” This “Golden Rule” is at the base of all religious practices and is a powerful constraint on the temptation to manipulate our own self-interest by claiming it is God’s command. 

If you want a scriptural passage that makes the same point, you can’t go wrong with what the Hebrew prophet Micah said: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? Only to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly before God.” (Micah 6:8)

As we seek a deeper understanding and commitment to morality, let us affirm these vital aspects from our human dignity, our faith, and our religious teachings.

Posted on Permanent link for "Can we be good without God?" by Doug Kindschi on December 14, 2021.

Permanent link for "Can we share a morality during division and polarization?" by Doug Kindschi on December 7, 2021

“Whether or not you believe in God, religions accomplish something miraculous: They turn large numbers of people who are not kin into a group that is able to work together, trust each other, and help each other. They are living embodiments of e pluribus unum (from many, one).” These are the words of Jonathan Haidt, leading author, social psychologist, and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University.

Now whether that working together leads to establishing hospitals and schools, feeding the poor and peacemaking; or whether it inspires division, polarization, and even terrorist activity, is a topic in our current discussion.  Most religious traditions include a minority whose religious fervor can become extreme and even violent.  This religious devotion, however, is often, and in fact, usually directed toward constructive goals. It is our task to direct the power and energy of religious commitment to working together for the common good. 

Jonathan Haidt has written two very popular and best-selling books, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.  In both books, he is not seeking to evaluate the truth of various religious claims, but to understand how religious and moral beliefs form the way in which the human mind evaluates the competing claims.  Religion and morality are no longer the exclusive domain of the philosophers and theologians. Cognitive scientists, psychologists, political scientists, biologists, and social psychologists are now bringing experimental and scientific findings to the topic. 

Haidt’s own work identifies five basic dimensions that are built into the emotional and intuitive sense of most humans' needs, and are more basic than just rational analysis of morality. The dimensions of avoidance of harm and justice as fairness often predominate. The other three factors are also important, namely loyalty, reverence, and respect.

We address the emotional and intuitive side of a person as the way to introduce dialogue and further discussion.  Haidt quotes a successful businessman as saying, “If there is one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as from your own.”  It is a good lesson for anyone interested in interfaith understanding or in addressing political division.

When it comes to religion Haidt admits, “I used to be very hostile to religion. And then, in doing this research on moral psychology and … looking at the social science evidence on the effects of religion, well, it’s pretty clear… In the United States, where we have a competitive marketplace and religions compete for adherence … they create moral communities that encourage people to not just focus on themselves.”

In an interview with Krista Tippett, he explains how his research led him away from a polarization that led to anger.  “The feeling of losing my anger was thrilling. It was really freeing. When you get people to actually understand each other, and they let down their guard, and they learn something new, and they see humanity in someone that they disliked or hated or demonized before, that’s really thrilling. And that, I think, is one of the most important emotional tools we have to foster civility. Because once you get it started, it’s kind of addictive.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book Morality also seeks to recover a communal sense of morality. It can be based on our various religious values, but also on a deeper realization and awareness of human dignity.  Knowledge, travel, and communication have expanded our world, and our society becomes more diverse. We are also increasing our awareness of how there are a variety of ways we can be moral. Likewise, there are multiple visions of the ethical.  There can be an ethics of duty, often seen in cultures of the East. Ethics of honor are often found in Mideastern cultures and religions. In the Judeo-Christian cultures we find an ethics of love. In classical civilizations we observed a civic ethics which is focused on service to the city-state, with an emphasis on virtues like wisdom, prudence, and courage.

Sacks urges that we respect the variety of moral understandings, but that a commitment to one’s own moral sense is important. While liberal democracies in the West provide assurances of “freedom from” various abuses, morality seeks a “freedom to.” That is, to do what is right, keeping in mind our responsibility to what is beneficial to others and their well-being.   

This has been our mission for interfaith understanding and it has taken many forms. Yes, there have been conferences and educational programs, but we have also fostered dinners, visitations to other places of worship, and the developing of personal relationships around common interests.  Haidt urges us to “do the long, slow work of getting people to have something of a human relationship — and especially, sharing food is a very visceral, primal thing. Once you’ve eaten, shared food with a person, there’s a deep psychological system that means, ‘We are like family.’”

While our continual struggle with the pandemic has limited the ability to engage lots of personal interaction and especially eating together, we can still seek the understanding and acceptance for all who share our human family. May this be on both the rational and emotional level as we seek to love our neighbor.

Posted on Permanent link for "Can we share a morality during division and polarization?" by Doug Kindschi on December 7, 2021.

Permanent link for "Seeking ancient wisdom as we face the challenges of the present" by Doug Kindschi on November 30, 2021

"Science in my generation has become like a razor blade in the hands of a 3-year-old."

Albert Einstein is so quoted in Krista Tippett’s book, Einstein's God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit.  It was as he watched German science being handed over to fascism that he began to lose faith in the increase in knowledge without a corresponding growth in wisdom. 

Why do we talk of modern science and ancient wisdom, but not “modern wisdom?” Why do we find ourselves returning to Socrates, Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas when seeking wisdom?  Why do the various religious texts and scriptures come up when the topic of wisdom is examined?

Tippett continues regarding Einstein’s concern about the advance of knowledge at the expense of spiritual wisdom. “He began to see figures such as Gandhi and Moses, Jesus and Buddha and St. Francis of Assisi, as what he called ‘geniuses in the art of living.’ He proposed that their qualities of spiritual genius were more necessary to the future of human dignity, security, and joy than objective knowledge.”

One might attribute the success of science to it limiting its scope to only one dimension of the human encounter with reality, essentially that which can be called impersonal or objective.  Even in this limited domain, science does not attain complete and absolute truth. The exploration of science results in the creation of “maps” of the physical world which are indeed reliable but not complete.

The map image reminds one of the difficulties of making a two-dimensional map of the three-dimensional planet Earth.  When looking at a flat map of the flight route from America to England, it seems like one goes too far north rather than straight east.  That is because the map distorts what is in fact the shortest distance on the globe, which is the arc of a great circle. My Muslim friends point out the same situation when in their daily prayers they are to face Mecca, for which the shortest “great circle” route is in three dimensions facing northeast from Michigan. 

Theology and religion use metaphor and symbolism to create “maps” which help us comprehend aspects of reality that go beyond the limits set by science. Because of the complexity and uniqueness of human experience, the “maps” are not as specific and precise as physical maps, and yet they can be invaluable in helping us make our way through the pathways of our human existence.

Another difference is between the cumulative nature of science and the importance of tradition and heritage in other fields.  A typical physicist today understands much more about the universe than Isaac Newton ever did.  This is simply because she is living three centuries later than that great genius. In religion, as in many other encounters with reality, we cannot presume that the present is superior to the past. The individual creative work of a Bach or a Beethoven continues as a vital part of our present experience of music.  Likewise, the theological insights of great figures and writings of the past are relevant to a contemporary understanding of wisdom.

Science and religion seek to explain, but there are different and yet not incompatible ways of explaining. I could ask why a candle burns and give a scientific explanation involving the breakdown of hydrocarbons into molecules of hydrogen and carbon, which vaporize and react with oxygen from the air to create heat, light, water vapor, and carbon dioxide.  Or I could give a practical explanation: It’s burning because I just lit it a few minutes ago. 

One could also offer a purposeful explanation:  It’s burning because we are celebrating a birthday, a Sabbath, a Hanukkah, or a baptism.  While the scientific explanation might be precise and non-controversial, the purposeful explanation might be more relevant in a given situation. All of the explanations can be true while at the same time not in opposition.

The kind of knowledge that leads to wisdom is not necessarily the kind of empirical knowledge that science explores.  That is why personal experience is so critical to the development of wisdom.  We can understand people and certain emotional issues often better through a novel or movie than through factual or scientific studies.

In his latest book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains why science, by only looking at external observations, cannot discover human freedom or human dignity. He writes, “There is something intrinsically dehumanizing in the scientific mindset that operates in detachment, driven by analysis, the breaking down of wholes to their component parts. The focus is not on the particular—this man, that woman, this child—but on the universal. Science per se has no space for empathy or fellow feeling. That is not a critique of science, but it is an insistence that science is not the sum total of our understanding of humanity.”

Science and objective knowledge likewise will not add to our knowledge of right and wrong, nor will it be the key to restoring morality to our communities. “It is our existence as moral agents,” Sacks writes, “our capacity to refrain from doing what we can do and want to do because we know it might harm others … that makes us different and confers dignity on human life.”

In our personal and communal life, let us affirm that commitment to take the higher road even when it requires sacrifice. It will be the moral commitment to do what is right for our fellow humans and for our community. Let us seek this gift of wisdom to act justly and care for all people. 

Posted on Permanent link for "Seeking ancient wisdom as we face the challenges of the present" by Doug Kindschi on November 30, 2021.

Permanent link for "Gratitude and thanksgiving, fundamental to a fulfilling life" by Doug Kindschi on November 23, 2021

“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 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. Thanksgiving is more than sending thank you notes or responding to an individual gift.  

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 contribute to 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 numerous studies of such virtues as wisdom, forgiveness, humility, and hope.  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 gratitude and 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, is used 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 thanksgiving are fundamental to living a life with meaning.    

Posted on Permanent link for "Gratitude and thanksgiving, fundamental to a fulfilling life" by Doug Kindschi on November 23, 2021.

Permanent link for "Whatever happened to civility?" by Doug Kindschi on November 16, 2021

“Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment. It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos.”

So spoke President George W. Bush in his inaugural address in 2001.

Forty years earlier President John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address of 1961, also noted that “civility is not a sign of weakness.”

More recently, while being interviewed by Krista Tippett, Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist, author, and professor at New York University responded, “When you get people to actually understand each other, and they let down their guard, and they learn something new, and they see humanity in someone that they disliked or hated or demonized before, that’s really thrilling. And that, I think, is one of the most important emotional tools we have to foster civility.”

And yet today civility seems to be in short supply. Jonathan Sacks in his final book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, wrote of the dramatic shift in British politics. “There has been a coarsening of language,” he wrote. “Insult, rage, vicious attacks on opponents, intimidations, and abuse have all become common place.”  He called it a poison and “a threat to the very nature of representative democracy.”

Sacks noted a similar phenomenon in American politics as reported in the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit wrote of “ever greater partisanship, zero-sum governing, and tribal gridlock,” as well as a “surprising crudeness and incivility.”

Stephen Carter, Professor of Law at Yale University Law School, author, and best-selling novelist, is also a conservative columnist (writing for many years a column in Christianity Today).  His book Civility warns that we no longer have conversations about morality, and this is a threat to democracy. He proposes to “rebuild our public and private lives around the fundamental rule that we must love our neighbors, a tenet of all the world’s great religions.” We must, he writes, “discipline our individual desires and work for the common good.”

In his book, he relates how, as an 11-year-old Black boy, he and his family moved in the 1960s into a white neighborhood of Washington, D.C.  He sat on the front steps with his two brothers and two sisters, waiting to see how they would be received. Seeing no one smile or greet them in any way, they feared what they had been told about how whites treat Blacks. He writes, “I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here.”

But then a white woman coming home from work saw them, smiled, and welcomed them. She went into her house and minutes later returned to offer them drinks and cream cheese and jelly sandwiches to make them feel welcome. Carter continues, “We were strangers, black strangers, and she went out of her way to make us feel welcome. ... She managed, in the course of a single day, to turn us from strangers into friends.”

He recalls that changed his whole attitude and his life. She “was generous to us, giving of herself with no benefit to herself, and she demonstrated not merely a welcome that nobody else offered, but a faith in us, a trust we were people to whom one could and should be generous.”

Carter further reflects, “We were not waiting for them to love us.  We were only waiting for them to greet us. … Our community, after all, is not limited to whom we are closest. Nowadays, whether we speak of our neighborhood, our town, our state, or our nations, our fellow passengers are mostly strangers. But our duty to be both respectful and kind does not disappear simply because they are people we do not know. … We see another rule of civility — one of the simplest and most straightforward — a simple duty of kindness:  Civility creates not merely a negative duty not to do harm, but an affirmative duty to do good.”

In the Jewish tradition, this duty is captured in the requirement of chesed — the doing of acts of kindness.  It is derived from the understanding that human beings are made in the image of God, thus imposing a duty to treat all persons with dignity and respect. It requires us to act with kindness to our fellow citizens including the ones who are strangers.

The concept of chesed appears in the Torah more than 190 times, which many would argue makes it a primary ethical virtue in Judaism. It is also reflected in what is considered a primary value in Christianity, as reflected in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Kindness and caring for your neighbor, especially one of a different cultural group, is taught in this parable.  It is the greatest commandment – to love God and love your neighbor.

Let us heed these basic truths as a foundation for a renewal of civility in our society. 

Posted on Permanent link for "Whatever happened to civility?" by Doug Kindschi on November 16, 2021.

Permanent link for "Being a victim or choosing to act with hope and gratitude" by Doug Kindschi on November 9, 2021

Never define yourself as a victim. You cannot change your past but you can change your future.  There is always a choice, and by exercising the strength to choose, we can rise above fate.” 

So wrote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain. In his book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, Sacks tells of the world’s oldest man who in 2017 died just a month before his 114th birthday. Yisrael Kristal was a Holocaust survivor who did not have an easy life. After spending four years in a Polish ghetto and then taken to Auschwitz, where his wife was killed and two of his children died, he was finally liberated but near starvation weighing only 82 pounds.  While clearly a victim of terrible acts of cruelty, he refused to consider himself a victim but looked to the future.

Sacks writes of his own experience, “Looking back, I see myself as an object acted on by forces largely beyond my control. Looking forward, I see myself as a subject, a choosing moral agent, deciding which path to take from here to where I want eventually to be. Both are legitimate ways of thinking, but one leads to resentment, bitterness, rage and a desire for revenge. The other leads to challenge, courage, strength of will and self-control.”  He calls this “the triumph of choice over fate.”

Another component of living for the future is the attitude of gratitude.  The late Senator John McCain could have easily taken on victimhood following his more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. As a Navy pilot, he was shot down while on his 23rd bombing mission over Hanoi, was badly injured and taken prisoner.  He was tortured and spent two years in solitary confinement.  He was given the opportunity to be released early but refused because the other prisoners who had been there longer were not given freedom.

Following his eventual release and major medical procedures and operations, he continued his military service for many years until finally retiring with a disability pension. He chose not, as he put it, to be a “professional POW” but began to build his second career, not in military service but in public service as an elected member of Congress. Following two terms in the House of Representatives, he was elected to the U.S. Senate where he served into his sixth term before his death in 2018.  

McCain was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a very aggressive brain tumor, and previously survived three melanoma cancers. But once again he did not consider himself a victim but entered radiation and chemotherapy to treat the disease.  In an interview, he said he faced the future with gratitude for having “had a great life.”  In that same interview, he mentioned gratitude at least five times.  Repeatedly, McCain made the choice not to be a victim but to live for the future.  He chose to see his life with an attitude of gratitude.   

Abdu’l-Baha, son of and successor to the founder of the Baha’i faith, tells the story of Buddha speaking to his disciples as he was planning to send them out to teach.  He wanted to be sure that they were prepared for the hardship ahead.  He asked them:

“When you go to the East and to the West and the people shut their doors to you and refuse to speak to you, what will you do?”— The disciples answered: “We shall be very thankful that they do us no harm.” — “Then if they do you harm and mock, what will you do?” — “We shall be very thankful that they do not give us worse treatment.” — “If they throw you into prison?” — “We shall still be grateful that they do not kill us.”

“What if they were to kill you?” the Master asked for the last time. “Still,” answered the disciples, “we will be thankful, for they cause us to be martyrs. What more glorious fate is there than this, to die for the glory of God?” The Buddha then responded and said, “Well done!”

We are not all called to become martyrs, but in whatever life brings we have the choice to be thankful or to become a victim.  Science has recently affirmed what our religious traditions have taught, that gratitude and thankfulness can bring life fulfillment and meaning in all that we do and experience.

As a Hindu guru once said, "Some people complain because God put thorns on roses. Others praise Him for putting roses among thorns." 

The temptation to blame events or actions of the past is there for each of us.  But that is precisely what cannot be changed. We can choose instead to take action to help create a future that has meaning.  It is our choice: being a victim or choosing to act with hope, faith, and gratitude.  

Posted on Permanent link for "Being a victim or choosing to act with hope and gratitude" by Doug Kindschi on November 9, 2021.

Permanent link for "Learning from others by listening" by Doug Kindschi on November 2, 2021

In the world of the internet, it is fascinating how many “experts” there are on religion, especially somebody else’s religion.  Even though my work the last few years has been with interfaith dialogue, I certainly cannot claim to be an expert on any of the religions, even my own Christian faith.  But what I do claim is that the more I engage in dialogue with persons of different faiths, the more I learn about them – and about my own faith.

Over the years I have had the privilege of traveling to many different countries where Christianity is the minority religion.  These experiences have been very enlightening and at the same time required me to think more deeply about my own beliefs.

The Swedish theologian and New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl became a leader in interfaith matters.  He was a professor, then dean of the Harvard Divinity School, and later selected as a bishop in the Church of Sweden.  He is well known not only for his books and scholarly articles but also for his three rules of religious understanding: 

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  2. Don't compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for "holy envy."

For Stendahl, “holy envy” meant being willing to recognize elements in the other religious tradition or faith that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.


As one engages in this spirit with other religious people and traditions and goes deeper into the essence of these beliefs, certain principles and values become apparent. For example, various versions of the “golden rule” are found in most traditions.  In the Jewish tradition, it is summarized by the statement of Rabbi Hillel, "What you yourself hate, don't do to your neighbor. This is the whole law; the rest is commentary.”


For Christians, it is taken from the words of Jesus, "Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets."  For Islam, it comes from the sayings of Muhammed, "Wish for your brother, what you wish for yourself."  In Hinduism, it is expressed, “One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma.”


Most other religious traditions, as well as humanist expressions, contain similar teachings.  Other understandings at the core of many religions include the role of forgiveness, service, and care for the environment.


The specific beliefs and doctrines of the various religions differ in many ways and it is important to discuss and understand the different truth claims being made.  It is also instructive, as well as the path to understanding and peace, to seek these basic values at the core of the various belief systems and to appreciate what it means to be human and how we can pursue our common good.


Returning to Stendahl’s Rule 1, “When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies,” highlights the role of listening. This principle of listening in order to learn from the adherents of another religion has been an important practice in our interfaith efforts over the years. Our dialogues, special events, Abrahamic Dinners, and other programs have sought to hear the voices of many different perspectives. 


Listening in this intentional way helps us not only to understand the other perspective or belief, but it also challenges our own beliefs and moves us to a deeper understanding. Among our different beliefs, we also find a resonance of values with others as we seek to contribute to the common good.


We don’t really know the other’s point of view without listening. Or put another way, it’s hard to listen when you are talking or when you are thinking of a response.


In the Jewish tradition, perhaps the most important confession and prayer is known as the Shema (from the Hebrew word meaning “hear” or “listen”). It is the centerpiece of the morning and evening prayers and contains the words from Deuteronomy chapter 6, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”


Gila Sacks, reflecting on the one-year anniversary of the death of her father, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, noted that the most defining feature of his life was that he continued to learn “every single day.”  He would learn from books, from law and history as well as world events. But, she recalls, “he learned mainly from people. He would seek out people to learn from, from every possible path of life. And he would seek out what he could learn from everyone he met. And he would do this through conversation, through talking, and listening. So for him, conversation was a defining and spiritual act, a way of opening ourselves up to something beyond ourselves, of being challenged, the only way we could really become more than we were before.”


In his latest book prior to his death, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, Sacks warns of the polarization that has led to a breakdown of the very concept of truth.  This in turn leads to the loss of trust and finally to the loss of morality, which threatens our democracy.


Can we restore the ability to learn from others and engage those who believe differently?  Let us affirm conversation and listening as a “spiritual act, a way of opening ourselves up” to the common good. 

Posted on Permanent link for "Learning from others by listening" by Doug Kindschi on November 2, 2021.

Permanent link for "Affirming one's identity while learning from others" by Doug Kindschi on October 26, 2021

The challenge for America is to embrace an ethic that includes “respect for different identities, relationships between diverse communities, and a commitment to the common good.”

This is the theme of Eboo Patel’s 2018 book, Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise.  He is clear that our effort is not the “melting pot” image, often used to describe how we come together.  That assumes we are somehow absorbed into a common mix that obliterates our differences.  He prefers the image of a “potluck” where we bring our various dishes to share, and where the variety enhances our experience with mutually different experiences.

An important part of this manner of coming together is sharing our stories in ways that enable us to learn from each other as well as learn with each other. Patel shares some of his personal experiences as he learned to appreciate his own heritage while also learning from others.    

He tells of when he was in junior high and very self-conscious of his minority status. When his grandmother from India attended one of his junior high functions “at my largely white suburban school, dressed in her Indian clothes and speaking with her Indian accent, I quaked with embarrassment.” 

One of his teachers, sensing his situation, told him that his grandmother reminded her of her Italian grandmother.  She continued, “Outside of native peoples, we all come from somewhere, and we should take pride in our heritage and customs of our family.”  Patel recounts how this made him feel more fully American. 

He also recounts the story of how his father came from India to America. Patel explains, “I am in this country because an institution started by French priests in the Indiana countryside in the 1840s, committed to the faith formation and economic uplift of poor Midwestern Catholic boys, somehow saw fit to admit a wayward Ismaili Muslim student from Bombay into its MBA program in the 1970s.  That man was my father.”

Patel continues to describe his father’s devotion to Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish football team, leading to the occasion of what he identifies as one of his earliest interfaith memories. Frequent trips on Football Saturdays from Chicago to the campus always included a stop at the Grotto, a shrine to the Virgin Mary. On one occasion, Patel quizzed his father about why he as a Muslim would pray at a shrine dedicated to a Christian figure.  His father pointed to the hundreds of candles and quoted from the Qur’an that God should be seen as “Light upon Light.”  He then said, “You have a choice whenever you encounter something from another tradition, Eboo.  You can look for the difference, or you can find resonances.  I advise you to find the resonances.”

Patel learned from his father that one’s identity can be multiple, just as our nation can affirm multiple identities.  His father could affirm his Muslim and Indian identities while also identifying with the Fighting Irish of the Catholic Notre Dame University who had given him a place in his education.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his latest book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, also examines the important concept of identity as well as its danger when it becomes toxic. He says that identity is a part of our “primal, irrepressible need to belong: to identify with something larger than Me.” It can be a powerful motivator for the good, or be extremely dangerous when it leads to war or when it dominates politics in ways that actually threaten our democracy.

He outlines how nation, race, and class identities have historically led to wars, prejudice, and racial purity concepts such as that which led to the Holocaust.  Led to the extreme, a society can lose not only the ability to negotiate differences, but even a common understanding of truth. It is in this way that Sacks worries about the current individualism and toxic polarity that places Western democracy at risk. 

Is it possible that as we can, as Patel urged, learn more about, and with, those of different faith traditions, that we too can “look for the resonances?”  Can we even find ways to communicate with those whose positions and politics are not our own, as Sacks urges, to seek ways that bring us to further understanding rather than promoting ways to confront and divide?  It may not be easy but our identities might actually be enhanced and strengthened as we relate deeply to others while working for the common good.

Posted on Permanent link for "Affirming one's identity while learning from others" by Doug Kindschi on October 26, 2021.

Page last modified December 28, 2021