Wednesday, December 09, 2009

My Top Ten Parliament "Take-Aways"*

Instead of writing my final reflections of the whole Parliament in paragraph form, I've distilled them down into a "Top-ten list!" Easier for you to read, easier for me to write. Contrary to evidence presented thus far, I can be terse and pithy when necessary!

10. You know less than you think you do about other religions.

9. It's a big, wide world out there--get out and make yourself at home in it.

8. Embodied community beats the pants off virtual community--every time, every day. So seek out real people!!

7. Everyone interprets her/his faith a little differently in the first person. There is no actual "textbook" Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc., etc. lived out anywhere--practice is always a bit [or a lot] different from theory. [This makes things both infinitely more interesting, and appreciably more complex!]

6. Being away is good; being home is better--but you only learn this by being away.

5. People are strange, endearing, annoying, wise, goofy, and lovely--sometimes all at the same time.

4. Religious faith is an extraordinary source of transformative power in the world--faith really can move mountains.

3. Your appreciation of your own faith deepens as you grow in knowledge and understanding of another faith tradition. [Trust me, I could have gone on for paragraphs here!]

2. When it comes to faith, listening is almost always more important than talking.

1. I am very, very glad I am a Lutheran! There are lots of reasons for this, but I will elaborate on just two. First, our eucharistic doctrine of Real Presence, and how this leads to a strong affirmation of the physical body, and the physical world. I honestly have to say I got tired of hearing the human being described as a soul, who uses/possesses/inhabits the body like a vehicle. I heard that at various times from a Jain, an Aborigine, a Sufi, and a Hindu, just to name a few; and frankly, I don't buy it. Second, the Lutheran doctrine of sin and grace. I didn't realize it until the end, but at no time in the Parliament did anyone talk about sin. Oh, I get it, sin is a buzz kill, and it is much more uplifting to focus on what we can do in the world, and what we can do together as people of faith. But frankly, that simply ignores the profound depth to which all of us, and all human societies, are mired down in sin; and the fundamental reality that we can do nothing apart from the free gift of God's grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. Sure, we have things to learn from others, and sure, we have weaknesses in our own tradition; but honestly, overall, I really, really like Lutheran theology!

So, that's all from Melbourne! Thanks to all of you who have followed this blog--it has been a fun way to feel connected so many thousands of miles away from home.


Kristin Johnston Largen


* A note on terminology: when you go into a café or deli, they will ask you, "For here or take away." The first time I heard it, it took me a few seconds to figure out what was being said--although once I figured it out, I think it makes even more sense than, "To go," in some ways!

A Coptic Mass, Quakers, and Milestones

In about 12 hours, I'll be on the plane flying home, and I'm really ready. I feel like my camera's memory card--full up! It has been the most amazing experience all around, really, I can hardly put it into words, but now it's time to come home. First, I really want to be back with my husband and my dog [even if until the end of the semester, "back" with John means being in the same time zone--a 16 hour time difference has been ridiculous to try and navigate!] Second, being a pretty strong "J," I find that variation in my daily rituals [of which there are many!], is mildly stressful, even when the reason for that variation is wonderful. It wears on me, a bit. I'm ready to get back to my routine. Finally, I'm also really ready to get back to my seminary community, and our worship life. As much as I have loved [and gloated about!] the sunshine and warmth here, it has not felt one bit like Advent, which has been really weird to me. One of the Aborigine presenters said that "a child is part of the land where she is born"--your spirit comes from the land; and I think there is something to that. I have a deep appreciation of the spiritual connection we have to specific places; and for me, Colorado in my blood and heart, winter means cold weather and snow--it simply isn't Advent in 75 degree weather! That said, it still was a great day today.

I started my morning with a Catholic Mass, Coptic rite. I'm sure that typically, they do not practice an open table, but today, in the spirit of the Parliament they did, and it was nice to receive the Eucharist. The rite itself was both familiar and strange--we said the Lord's Prayer twice, once before the Words of Institution and once after; and during The Great Thanksgiving liturgy, explicit emphasis was given to stressing the two natures of Christ. At one point, the priest said something like, "At no time was his divinity apart from his humanity, not for one blink of an eye." I'm sure if I knew more about the history and development of the Coptic church, I would understand why such references have persisted.

The first presentation I attended was called, "Introducing Quakers: What Canst Thou Say?" This was very interesting, and I found out that when it comes to the Quaker faith, the extent of my knowledge could be summed up in one word--"silence." Turns out, there's lots more of interest! [I should say that all the presenters were from the Australian Society of Friends. One presenter noted that in the US, some Quaker branches are more evangelical in constitution, and some have much more structured meetings than they do here, where they consider themselves following more closely George Fox's English model of predominantly silent meetings with no formal structure or liturgy.]

The first thing that surprised me was Quakers don't seem to consider themselves a Christian denomination--assuming that "Christian" actually has something to do with Jesus Christ. [And if they do, I want more information about why and how. And, along those same lines, I'm pretty sure they would fail Martin Luther's definition of a church, too--Scripture plays no part in their regular corporate worship life, to say nothing of the other marks, except maybe suffering…] None of the four presenters even mentioned Jesus, nor did any of the 4 pieces of informative literature that were handed out--there were no Scripture quotes, either. [Of course, this explains why Quakers don't have Sacraments!] Quaker faith is all about the personal, unmediated experience of God--and "God" is more accurately thought of along the lines of Tillich's Ground of Being: some of the presenters used works like Ultimate Spirit, Source of Being, Inner Light, etc. This personal experience leads to testimony, which leads to action in the world. Frankly, this was a connection I couldn't quite make: if what is really central is the "inward listening," which forms the core of the corporate worship experience, how does that lead to such a strong commitment to service in society? I mean, I'm glad it does--the Quakers do great work in the world, but I can't quite connect the dots. What does being a Quaker add to a simple humanist belief in peace and justice? The quote in their literature from William Penn is "True godliness does not turn men [sic] out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excite their endeavours to mend it." I'm all for it, I just don't see how: the basic principles of the Quaker faith are peace, truth, integrity, equality and simplicity. Can't you get there just as easily from the Golden Rule? I'm sounding more critical than I mean--it really is just a question.

The last session I sat in on today was on "Milestones and Signposts in Interfaith Relations: the View from Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism." This was a fun, uplifting session, with both the presenters and the audience offering positive examples of interreligious dialogue in their own traditions. The stated purpose of the panel was to "seek to establish that the milestones are actually signposts, beckoning each of us to take courageous and imaginative steps in the service of human rights, justice, and peace." It was really heartening to hear the examples from the three faith traditions of those visionaries past and present who have worked so hard to build bridges across faith lines. I especially appreciated the two Muslim presenters and their passionate insistence that both the Medinan Charter and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad himself are "concrete manifestations of the pluralistic nature of the Qur'an." That is a strong rebuke of what Christians typically assume about Islam, so I was quite happy to hear it!

My favorite quote of the day came from this session, too. The Hindu presenter, Dr. Anita Ray quoted Gandhi, who said, "To swim in the waters of tradition is good; to drown in them is suicide." Get it?

The sessions ended early for the closing plenary, which was just as you'd imagine: all sorts of different people getting up and making all sorts of meaningful pronouncement; several good music performances; and prayers from several different traditions. Well and good, but now it's time to pack & head to bed!

See you all soon!

Kristin Johnston Largen

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

LWI News: North American Church Leaders Must Become "Communion Ambassadors"

From "LWFNews" <>
Date Tue, 08 Dec 2009 12:11:33 +0100

North American Church Leaders Must Become "Communion
LWF Region Plays Key Role in Lutheran-Mennonite Relationships
GENEVA, 8 December 2009 (LWI)  - Lutheran leaders from North
America are exploring what it means to be a communion of
communities in a globalizing world at a Lutheran World Federation
(LWF) regional seminar 1-12 December in Geneva, Switzerland.
The course aims to equip North American synodical staff as
"multipliers in deepening and widening ecumenical and communion
relationships in their respective communities," stated LWF
Regional Officer for North America Rev. Teresita C. Valeriano. 
"We in the North American region have a tendency to see
ourselves as self-sufficient," said Rev. Paul N. Johnson,
Assistant to the National Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran
Church in Canada (ELCIC).  His hope is that this group of church
leaders will become "communion ambassadors" to help the region to
be connected more strongly to the wider LWF communion.
Organized in conjunction with LWF member churches the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the ELCIC, the
seminar is bringing together 22 church leaders as part of a
communion formation program. 
>Communion-Defining Ecumenism
Ecumenism figured centrally on the seminar's syllabus as
participants learned about developments in dialogues between
church communions and pondered the interface of these
conversations with realities at the synodical and local level.
Inter-denominational cooperation is routine for Rev. Larry
Ulrich in his youth ministry and mission work as Assistant to the
Bishop of the ELCIC Manitoba/Northwest Ontario Synod. However,
learning about what the LWF has accomplished in formal bilateral
dialogues "gives an official context for what we do for practical
Dr Kathryn Johnson, LWF Assistant General Secretary for
Ecumenical Affairs, emphasized this mutual dependence of all
levels of ecumenical engagement. 
She highlighted the "communion building" role of ecumenical
agreements such as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of
Justification and the action on the legacy of Lutheran
persecution of Anabaptists to be taken up by the LWF Eleventh
Assembly in July 2010. 
The Anabaptist action will have particular implications for
North America, a region where the principal LWF member churches
live closely and already are in relationship with Mennonites, who
consider Anabaptists their spiritual forbearers. 
"There is a sort of amnesia among US Lutherans regarding the
history [of persecution]," noted Rev. Michael Trice, Director of
Ecumenical Formation and Inter-Religious Relations of the ELCA.
He said the ELCA has learned that it is critical to address the
role of memory in shaping current relationships. 
There is a need to feel accountable for the tradition one bears,
agreed Rev. Dr Maria Erling, Associate Professor of the History
of Christianity in North America and Global Mission at Lutheran
Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (USA). In this regard, the
proposed action is a "teaching moment."
"Ecumenism is a mission story," she affirmed, and the
Lutheran-Mennonite reconciliation process is an invitation to
extend discussion to a wider circle. 
A key challenge for seminar participants is to live out this
reconciliation in an intentional, congregational way. "The heart
of ecumenism is that we get engaged at a local level," emphasized
Trice. "You are on the front line," he told the North American
synodical staff.  
Dr Johnson seconded the need for seminar participants to
facilitate local reception of the action: "Look for the process,
help it in your own communities."
>Diaconal Church
The seminar also took a closer look at the diaconal calling of
the church, seeking to uncover realities underlying response
strategies to natural disaster, hunger, poverty, climate change
or illegitimate debt.
Walking daily with people in their pain and struggles has
"strong potential to transform churches into listening and
compassionate communities," remarked Rev. Martin Junge, LWF Area
Secretary for Latin America and the Caribbean, during a session
under the theme of the Eleventh Assembly, "Give Us Today Our
Daily Bread." 
Junge, who was elected in October 2009 to succeed Rev. Dr
Ishmael Noko as LWF general secretary, underlined that a
missional church is a diaconal church. He invited the North
America region to contribute actively to ongoing LWF discussion
on diakonia. 
During the remainder of the seminar, participants will
contemplate what it means to be Lutheran Christians in an
interreligious world; hear about the joys and challenges facing
churches today in the different LWF regions; and engage questions
of ecology and economy. 
The program also includes worship in the Ecumenical Center,
sessions with the director, dean and students of the Ecumenical
Institute at Bossey, a trip to the Taizé Community in France, a
visit to the United Nations and dialogue with staff from the
World Council of Churches and the World Alliance of Reformed
According to Valeriano, the participants will be looking to
"bring home" what they have learned. "We will find ways to
support each other," she promised, so that the church leaders can
give back what they have learned to their communities. (802
*      *      *
(The LWF is a global communion of Christian churches in the
Lutheran tradition. Founded in 1947 in Lund, Sweden, the LWF
currently has 140 member churches in 79 countries all over the
world, with a total membership of 68.9 million. The LWF acts on
behalf of its member churches in areas of common interest such as
ecumenical and interfaith relations, theology, humanitarian
assistance, human rights, communication, and the various aspects
of mission and development work. Its secretariat is located in
Geneva, Switzerland.)



Geneva: A Sense of Forming A Communion

From Geneva
This was my last day with the class - and the focus was on forming a sense of the 'communion of Lutheran Churches' in North America. We've all had so many presentations and been almost overwhelmed by the range of activities that are generated here in Geneva, and also by local churches. And there is also a rich life of faith for people who live and work here. Yesterday was a farewell to the president of the WCC, Samuel Kobia, who is finishing his term. The open concourse at the ecumenical center was filled with visitors and with tables for a reception. Meanwhile we sat upstairs in salle 2 and 3 and heard about the Latin American Lutheran Churches and their work to share resources, and also to address the issue of illegitimate debt.
Tomorrow the group will visit the UN and address issues of global economic disparity. But in between these kinds of sessions we go out to see Geneva.

On Sunday I attended church at the Lutheran Congregation, where the focus was on stars - but in true Geneva Lutheran Church style, the service was imaginative. This time physicists who work at CERN - where the particle collider is producing collisions this week - talked about their faith, black holes, stars, mass, and gravitational pull - and the pastor, Lusmarina, made some creative suggestions about how we might think about creation being pulled, or even ourselves being pulled, by the spirit, towards our neighbors.
Tonight we went out for Fondue. I was afraid of all the cheese, so I had a platter of meat instead, served over sauerkraut. I am now full. Success! I am looking forward to being home again!
Maria Erling

Interfaith Prayer, the Bishop of Lund, and Making a Difference with Chocolate!

I want to begin today's post by saying how meaningful it has been to be here in this embodied world-wide community. I know that the world comes to us via the web every day, and I know that the internet can take us to all ends of the globe. Nevertheless, there simply is no way to compare this virtual encounter with the physical experience of being shoulder to shoulder, eye to eye with particular individuals, who have specific names and stories, who come from Japan, Tibet, Ghana, Italy, Brazil, Australia, the Netherlands, India, South Africa, etc., etc., etc. To see their faces, to hear their voices, to touch each other--it is a powerful, tangible reminder both of the larger world community and the larger body of Christ of which I am a part; and I am profoundly grateful to feel myself a part of this vast body. It is a invigorating jolt to the system, and a wonderful antidote to the incurvatus in se that can affect all of us, in our tendencies to think of ourselves, our families, our communities, our churches, our states, and our countries, all to the exclusion of others.

The first session I attended this morning was on the thorny topic of interfaith prayer. The presenters were all from Melbourne, and grounded their presentations in what are called the Black Saturday bushfires, which were burning in and around the state of Victoria on Saturday, February 7th, 2009. Somewhere around 400 fires were documented, and they resulted in the greatest loss of life from a fire in the country's history. All three of the presenters [Orthodox Jewish, Catholic, Tibetan Buddhist] were involved in the interfaith prayer service that was held to commemorate the event. All three talked about their belief that it is important for us to be able to pray together as people of faith, but it is a very difficult practice. Certainly, we don't all share the same language, nor do we pray the same way. The Buddhist representative, Dr. Diane Cousens, was helpful in that she corrected the misperception that Buddhist prayers are all about emptying the mind: one of the most common Buddhist mantras is "May all beings be happy," and by all beings, they mean every single living thing--"including bacteria in another galaxy, if scientists can find them!" This is a gift that Buddhists can bring to the table--the reminder that our prayer should be radically inclusive. Each of us has something to offer the other in our prayer traditions, and we can learn from each other and come to appreciate something that often at first feels alien and uncomfortable to us.

The Orthodox rabbi, Ralph Genende, named what is in some ways the most vexing issue of interfaith prayer when he admitted that, "It rankles for me when someone says I pray for all people in the name of Jesus. I don't pray in that name." We have to admit, he said, that sometimes the language that is most valuable and precious to you is something I can't accept, and is a barrier to me. This is a hard word to hear, but a truthful one. He also talked about the "orderedness" of Jewish prayer--there are specific prayers for almost everything; and many prayers are very particular. He laid out a typology that I hadn't heard before: he said that the three of the patriarchs are used to typify the three daily prayers Orthodox Judaism requires. Abraham is the man of the morning, up early and optimistic about the day; Isaac is the troubled man of the late afternoon, when the sunshine and the shade are mixed, and there is a lack of clarity--it takes courage to pray in this situation; finally, Jacob is the man who struggles at midnight, who discovers himself in the deepest darkness. Each of these, then, represents a different type of prayer. [I just thought that was interesting!]
As part of their presentation, each presenter offered two prayers from his/her tradition, on which we were invited to meditate for a minute or two. The Catholic priest chose, as his first prayer, Ephesians 3:14-21, which, frankly, I thought was kind of an odd choice. It got me thinking what I would have chosen: if it had been you as the Christian representative, what prayer "from the tradition" would you have offered?

The last thing I want to comment on from this session was one of the comments from the floor. One woman stood up to advocate for the activity of interfaith prayer, saying several times, "We should be able to leave our labels at the door." My response to that statement? Yuck! Religions are not simply 'labels' we slap on arbitrarily to the same universal experience, event or reality--I find that idea terribly problematic, as it simply does not do justice to the depth to which we are not only shaped and but even created by the different religious beliefs and practices that fundamentally structure our lives. This certainly doesn't mean that we cannot or should not come together in prayer with people of other faith traditions--I think we can and should--however, it does mean that such an activity is fraught with challenges, and must be undertaken with humility, respect, and integrity. [Clearly, this is why, interestingly enough, there are no official interfaith prayer services at this Parliament.]

The one part of her long statement [which only turned into a question at the end, after direct prodding by the moderator!] that did resonate with me was her statement that today we live in a post-religious age, where many people do not affiliate with a church, but nonetheless, are not devoid of spiritual yearnings: What language for prayer do we offer those people? How do we include them? This is a good question for many contexts in the US, I think.

The section session I attended was on "The Doctrine of Discovery and Indigenous Peoples." In case you didn't know, the doctrine of discovery refers to the series of papal bulls [and other subsequent documents] that gave European nations the right to seize what was considered to be uninhabited land [because it wasn't being "properly cultivated"] and enslave any people they found there. Christianity was an explicit partner in this colonization, and Christian people/nations were given specific permission [better said--imperative] to "subjugate barbarous nations." What is important to note about this is that the Doctrine of Discovery continues to provide a key piece of the foundation for property law in the United States, having entered our legal framework in the decision Johnson vs. M'Intosh, an 1823 U.S. Supreme Court case which, on the grounds of the Doctrine of Discovery, ruled that American Indians have a mere right of occupancy to their lands. [Note--occupancy, but not ownership.] It remains determinative in US federal law, particularly in the context of decisions involving Native Americans. As one of the presenters said, "Catholic Doctrine of Discovery morphed into a Protestant nation-building project."

One of the presenters in this session was Chief Oren Lyons, who is what is called "the faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan," the Onondaga Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy [sometimes called "the Six Nations"]. Among people who know, he's quite famous! In 1982 he helped establish the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations; and in 1992 he was invited to address the General Assembly of the United Nations which inaugurated the International Year of the World's Indigenous People. He reminded us that Benjamin Franklin got the idea of a democracy from the Iroquois, who had been functioning that way for centuries before the Europeans arrived here. [I haven't checked this with my American history-loving husband yet--since he is convinced I didn't learn anything about American history in my Colorado public schooling, we'll see if Virginia had anything to say about this….]

Anyway, lest you think all this is merely a history lesson, let me submit the following for your consideration. While the ELCA was wringing its hands and thumping its Bibles about gay and lesbian ordination this summer, the Episcopal Church, at their national assembly in July 2009, overwhelmingly passed a "landmark" resolution [Resolution D035] repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and urging the U.S. government to endorse the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Part of their rationale for the decision was their conviction that such a doctrine was "corrosive to themselves" and to their faith. Something to be learned there, I think.

Before I went to my afternoon sessions, I ran into an acquaintance, Antje Jackelé n, the Bishop of Lund, Sweden. It was fun to see another Lutheran, and we caught up on what has been going on in each other's churches. She told me that in April, the Swedish government voted to abolish the government's gender bias in its marriage laws: before that time, only heterosexual couples could be legally married in Sweden; same-sex couples could register domestic partnerships only. Thus, the Church of Sweden only legally married heterosexual couples; it blessed the civil unions of registered domestic partners. So, once this happened, the Swedish church had to decide if it was going to forgo acting on behalf of the state altogether and only bless all marriages, or if it would begin to legally marry all couples. [The Church decided in favor of the latter, to the consternation of some.] I wonder if the ELCA will be faced with a similar decision in a few years.

The two afternoon sessions I went to are linked, in that they both could have been cause for despair, but instead, both were sources of hope. The first session was on human trafficking, a terrible subject. However, the two speakers, one of whom was a Catholic nun [more proof that overwhelmingly, nuns are unstoppable forces of good in the world!], the other of whom was the social justice director for The Salvation Army in Australia, refused to allow us to wallow! They showed us a video, which you can find on the website of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime [], and also pointed us to the 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report of the US State Dept. [available at]. There is some great information on both those websites. It's a terrible situation, but there is reason to take heart, and there are many ways to get involved. One of the easiest, and yet most effective things you can do was pointed out to us by Danielle Strickland, the woman representing The Salvation Army: commit yourself to eating only fair-trade chocolate!! Because of how and where chocolate is grown and sold, almost 80% of the mass-produced chocolate in the world is tainted by slave labor. Thus, the network of organizations working to stop human trafficking have targeted the largest chocolate companies, to try and persuade them to use only fairly-traded chocolate. She was happy to report that Cadbury, the first group they targeted [because of its Quaker roots] agreed in 2009 to change its practices. Mars followed, with a commitment begin producing free-trade chocolate in 2010, and to be "traffic-free" entirely by 2020. As of just yesterday, Nestle announced that its "Kit-Kat" would be fair-trade ASAP, and they would follow suit with all other chocolate products. Pretty amazing! Think about adding such a commitment to your New Year's Resolutions, please!!! [Or, even better, your Advent practices!]

The second session I went to this afternoon was another film, "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," a documentary about the Christian and Muslim women in Liberia who came together, organized, and in effect, ended the terrible civil war that occurred in Liberia between the military dictator, Charles Taylor, and the rebel warlords who had come together to try and oust him from power. The atrocities on both sides were unspeakable, and the entire nation was terrorized. The women finally had had enough, and under the leadership of Leymah Gbowee, they met together at her church, St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Monrovia, to form the Christian Women's Peace Initiative. Soon, they were joined by Muslim women, who wanted to work with them for peace. Over the course of two years, these women prayed, demonstrated, and laid their lives on the line to push for peace and democracy in Liberia. This is one story that has a happy ending, too: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president in 2005--the first woman ever elected to hold the highest office in an African nation. She continues as president today, and the country continues to be peaceful. If you can find this film, I highly recommend it--it's an amazing story! [Incidentally, it concludes back at St. Peter's Lutheran, with the celebration of a Mother's Day service in 2007.]

Such presentations, linking one's faith to the practice of justice in the world--a hallmark of the Parliament, I would say--have both convicted and inspired me. Convicted me, because I know that not only do I not do enough to put my faith into action, I doubt the power of my faith, and the power of God working in and through God's people to change the world. However, it also inspired me, because it's never too late to start making a difference, and no difference is too small to matter.
Advent blessings, everyone.

Kristin Johnston Largen

Monday, December 07, 2009

Mandala in Melbourne

More pix from Perth, er, no, that is, mandala's in Melbourne. ..

Editor's note: This post allows us to post some additional photos that are not fitting into the text spaces, both the signs of disengagement and Kristin observing a mandala taking shape.

A Different Take on Myanmar and Thailand--and Gorgeous Indian Music!

I am sitting in my hotel room watching Sunday's football highlights [thank you, God, for ESPN in Australia], and I just heard Drew Brees say, "I believe in karma--what goes around comes around; maybe now it's our turn." Funny.
Before I get into my day, I want to make sure to thank John Spangler, who, while he was helping me with fonts and things via email, made the mistake of saying that if I had "a picture or two" that I wanted to post, I could send it to him and he would post it for me. Well, that was all the camel needed to get her nose under the tent [as my grandmother used to say--what a great image!]--and since then, I have emailed John multiple pictures & he has dutifully posted every one. So, if you have appreciated the pictures, thank Pastor Spangler!!
I think that one of the most common perceptions of Buddhism in the West is that it is a thorough-going non-violent religion. Many people, I think, who become enamored of Buddhism do so because, unlike Islam or Christianity, for example, Buddhism does not seem to have periods of violence in its history. Certainly, there is a large measure of truth in that statement, but I heard a presentation today that persuasively challenged that conventional wisdom. The presentation was on "Religious Conflict and Persecution: The Cases of Myanmar, Thailand and Iran." It was the first speaker, Dr. Helen James, who spoke about Myanmar and Thailand, arguing that Buddhism is the de facto state religion in both countries; and that, contrary to the perception in the West, both governments are oppressive, both governments use Buddhism to legitimize their own ends, and historically, Buddhists in both countries have been associated with violence, particularly against the minority Muslim populations--either directly or indirectly.
This, I must admit, came as a shock to me: Myanmar, of course, is a military dictatorship, but Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, and is widely believed to be democratic in sensibilities. I asked Dr. James specifically in the Q & A time on what grounds she linked Thailand and Myanmar, and what the role of Buddhism was in both countries; and her answer was unequivocal. She was emphatic that the Western dualist construct of Thailand as peaceful & democratic, and Myanmar as oppressive is false. Not only from her research, but also from her years of living in Thailand extensively off and on since the 1960s, she is convinced that the two countries have much more in common than is typically assumed; and actually, both governments perpetrate the same type of violence. Sadly, Buddhists have been complicit in both. In her view, the main reason for the misconception is that since the Cold War, the United States has cultivated Thailand as an ally, and we like our allies to have the veneer of democracy, whether that accords with reality or not. Now, of course, currently, Buddhist monks are in the forefront of the resistance movement to the regime in Myanmar--I don't want to downplay their role in that. However, as is usually the case, things are more complicated in reality than they seem on the surface, especially when you start talking about violence against women, and state-sponsored discrimination, including gender discrimination within Buddhism itself.
The other presenter in this session was Dr. Natalie Mobini-Kesheh, a Bahá'í , who spoke about the oppression Bahá'ís have experienced in Iran, where they are the largest minority group. This is ironic, given that Iran is where the religion was founded in the mid 19th century by the prophet Bahá'u'lláh. She argued that particularly since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, there has been a concerted effort to wipe out the Bahá'í, not only in Iran, but even abroad: people have been killed, shrines have been razed, students have been dismissed from universities, etc.
One of the really enlightening, enjoyable things about this Parliament is the way it has created space for people to dialogue on both sides of religious issues--and mostly, I am happy to say, this has been done very politely, even if intently. This happened in the Q & A time this morning, when a man from Iran stood up to challenge Dr. Mobini-Kesheh, arguing, first, that Bahá'í is not a real religion, because Bahá'u'lláh was not a genuine prophet [That is very interesting in and of itself, right? Who gets to say whether a religion is genuine or not?]; and second, Bahá'ís simply have not experienced oppression in Iran--those claims are false. This raises the issue of whose testimony is trustworthy, and whose stories get to be told. He questioned her respectfully, and she answered respectfully.

By the way, if you don't know what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is, you should. [It has been referred to here more times than I can count.] It was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, and among the many relevant articles for people of faith working for peace and justice in the world, Article 18 is of particular importance. It reads, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

I ended my day, as has become my custom, with an Indian artistic performance, again rooted in the worship of Hindu deities. Today, it was two different performances: the first was an ensemble that featured the classical vocalist Manjiri Kelkar, her harmonium player, Suyog Kundalkar [who was introduced as "the best harmonium player in India], and her tabla player, Milind Hingane. She sang sacred music from north India. This is a picture of the trio, and another picture of me and Mr. Kundalkar. The second was the flautist Dr. Natesan Ramani, his son, the flautist Thiagarajan, and the mridangam player, Ramadas. They played Carnatac music, which comes from south India. Both performances were gorgeous--extraordinarily skillful and technical, very different from anything you hear in the West.
Let me close this post with my favorite quote from the day. It's from a presentation on "Returning to Right Relations between Christians and Indigenous Peoples." The presenter was Caleb Oladipo, a professor at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA. He lifted up very powerfully the importance of community for indigenous people, and the need for Christians to learn from them a more holistic way of thinking. In that context, he even quoted the one of the refrains of the 2003 ELCA National Youth Gathering: "I am because we are." [Ubuntu! Remember?] He also made a statement I am still pondering. He said that the fundamental ontological problem of the Western missionary enterprise was that they were convinced that "God had not proceeded the missionaries." [Incidentally, this was in response to a retired Catholic priest who was one of those European ministers sent to "bring God" to the Aborigines; and confessed that he is ashamed now of the enthusiasm and ignorance with which he undertook that work.]
Anyway, here's the quote: in the course of his talk, he identified one of the key problems in the West right now as "The incessant desire for pleasure without responsibility." Hard to argue with that.
Until tomorrow…

Kristin Johnston Largen

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Jainism, Veils and More Great Dancing!

The first presentation I went to this morning was on the role of karma in Jainism. The presenter was Dr. Narayan Kachhara. The doctrine of karma, of course, is the teaching that auspicious activities [both mental & physical] produce peace, happiness, and harmony; and inauspicious activities produce the opposite. One's karma determines everything: God is completely uninvolved & doesn't do anything--God neither blesses nor curses anyone. This is because [interestingly enough] God is pure and perfect, which means that God has no desires and no hatred. [Incidentally, this is the logical extension of a doctrine of divine impassability, which I don't think it fits Christianity very well!] Thus, we are really in control of our whole lives: he noted that the saying, "You reap what you sow" is absolutely true. Your present state is a result of your past karma, and you shape your future state absolutely. Part of generating good karma is to have equanimity in the face of adversity: you should be the same in the face of joy or sorrow, failure or success. I know this sounds absolutely incredible--impossible and unrealistic, but that is because Christians have a very different understanding of God, the world, and salvation, of course. Such a view would be illogical in Christianity, which worships a God who willingly suffered out of love for creation.
If you know anything about Jainism, you know that ahimsa, or nonviolence, is one of their most important tenets--so much so that all Jains are vegetarian. The reason for this is that they believe that all souls are alike, and all have the same potential: plants, fish, birds, mammals, and, of course, humans. Thus, one must respect and have reverence for ALL life forms. Christianity could use more of that, I think….
After that, I popped my head briefly into the last presentation of a session on "The Headscarf Debates," and it was worth it to hear the presenter, Janaan Hashim, and some of the remarks from the audience. If you ever hear anyone say that there is no discrimination against Muslims in the US [would anyone say such a thing?!], please remind them that is simply not true. This is how she closed her presentation. Ms. Hashim is an adjunct professor at McCormick Theological Seminary and a lawyer in Illinois. In her small practice, all the lawyers are Muslim women. There was a picture of a few of them around a table that appeared in her local newspaper. Subsequently, she received a terrible piece of hate mail from a Christian, a letter telling her that all Muslims should go back to their war-torn countries [she is American], and that they should burn in hell with Allah. "This is a Christian country," he said, "God bless Christians." He sent along a doctored copy of the picture, with beards drawn on the faces of the women, and crosshairs drawn on their foreheads.
The remarks that followed the whole session reaffirmed what I have read, which is that the wearing of the headscarf is fiercely debated among Muslim women themselves. One woman came to the microphone to gently chide the speakers for not giving enough mention of the fact that many women do not have a choice to wear the hijab, but must wear it at the insistence of their husbands. For them, the hijab is a sign of oppression. The next woman came to the mic complaining that not enough time was given to the fact that 'hijab' is not just about the veil, but about a woman's entire dress. She gave the example of the young women she has seen who may wear a veil, but they wear it with tight jeans, and low-cut, tight blouses--they are not observing hijab, in her opinion!
All along, it has been interesting to see what sessions are packed, and what sessions are, well, under-subscribed. I am happy to report that the session I went to over the noon hour, "A Tale of Two Women: A Multifaith Reading of the Sarah/Hagar Narrative," was so full we actually had to move to larger room. It was just great to be in a room with people from the three Abrahamic faiths [among others, of course], listening to different, but complementary interpretations of a story we all share. There was a beautiful picture up behind the speakers, too, that highlighted the connections we all have to the stories. Most interesting to me, of course, were the Jewish presenter, Rebecca Forgasz, who shared how different rabbis have dealt with the tension between honoring Sarah as the matriarch of the Jewish people, and censuring her treatment of Hagar; and the Muslim presenter, Rachel Woodlock, who described the importance the Hagar story has for all Muslims, most obviously in the role it plays in the Hajj.

All this was great--as was the Sufi presentation I went to, which I'm not even going to mention--but far and away my favorite experience of the day was more Hindu dancing! This time, it was the Odissi dance, which is the traditional dance form of the Indian state of Orissa. This dance, like all traditional Indian dances [and all traditional Indian art forms, really], originated in a religious context, as it was originally a religious rite performed only by devadasis. The dance group performed a variety of dances, all of which told stories about different deities. My favorite was the dance that re-enacted Krishna's encounter with the gopis, the young cowherd women who loved him. One day, when they were bathing, Krishna snuck up on them and took their clothes. They pleaded with him to give them their clothes back, for they were ashamed of their nakedness, but Krishna chastised them, and told them he already could see into their hearts and he knew their purity. Dr. Chandrabhanu, the artistic director, said that this an allegory: we are the gopis, desiring God, and the clothes are the trappings that get in the way. Krishna is the loving God who strips us of the things we hide behind, that prevent us from coming before God fully and openly. You can't imagine how beautiful the dancers were--both their costumes and their movements, all of which elaborate, intentional, and deeply meaningful.
I ended my day with an Advent Lessons and Carols service at St. Paul's Anglican cathedral. It was such a lovely service, and I was happy to be there. I miss my husband John [and my sweet little dog Henry, of course: every time I see someone walking a dog I want to burst into tears. He would love it here, except I haven't seen any squirrels thus far--I wonder if Australia perhaps doesn't have any squirrel species...]--now where was I? Oh right, missing John! Anyway, it felt nice to be at the same traditional Advent service at which John will be presiding down at Southern Seminary on your Sunday night. OK, it wasn't the exactly same service [even though the Dean of the cathedral did mention Martin Luther in his homily], for example, when do you hear Ave Maria sung by a boy's choir in a Lutheran church?! However, it was comfortingly familiar. I have loved every minute of all the new things I am experiencing and learning, but it was nice to balance that tonight with the things I know and love about my own Christian tradition. I am so firmly convinced that holding those two experiences in tension really strengthens both, and the more you learn and appreciate about other religions, the more you learn and love about your own. I wish more Christians got that, instead of assuming it is either/or: either you are a good Christian and stay home where you belong, or you philander and lose your integrity. It's beyond ignorant--it's dangerous.

Good night, dear community.

Kristin Johnston Largen

Saturday, December 05, 2009

A Mandala, Jesus, and Mr. Anti-Parliament

I'm sitting here in my hotel room with a veggie ball for lunch--don't ask. It comes with chutney, and it's actually very good: chick peas & veggies rolled up somehow into a soft ball with breading on the outside. Ooh--I think I just made it worse by trying to describe it….

Just a couple remarks before I head back for the afternoon sessions. First, my favorite sign of the day today is "Don't Trust Religions--Trust Jesus Christ Only." Now, while Karl Barth may have approved, it is an interesting idea, isn't it? It doesn't say "trust Christianity," it says, "trust Jesus." So, what does that mean, exactly? Is there some non-mediated experience of Jesus that I am to trust? What does that look like? How do I experience this trust? Reading the Bible by myself? What reinforces & solidifies my trust? What happens when I doubt? Where and how do I live out this trust? As you can see, I find the whole idea complicated; and, to me, it is a rejection of all non-Christian religions, as well as [perhaps] mainline Christian denominations in favor of a more personal, confessional experience of Jesus. Not everyone is open to all perspectives, although that is certainly the dominant ethos of the Parliament!
For another example of this, I want to mention a Hindu man I have named "Mr. Anti-parliament." I have been with him now in a few of the sessions, and let me tell you, he is feisty! He's dramatically critical of all other religions, particularly Islam and Christianity, and he says the most outrageous things to the presenters in the Q & A time: people have been extraordinarily patient & good humored with him, I think. Again, not everyone here is happy with all the respecting and celebrating of religious diversity! [Perhaps you can think of some other folks closer to your homes who might share that perspective…I can.]

I also meant to report that one other cool thing that is going on during the Parliament is that a group of Gyoto Tibetan Buddhist monks are constructing a mandala in one corner of the convention center. It has been amazing to watch it come into existence day by day, from the diagramming of the template, to the painstaking labor of gently shaking into place each colored grain of sand. It's a marvel.
Last thing: I bought the video "Praying with Lior" today--it was for sale in one of the booths. If you want to see it, you can borrow it from me when I get back, while I try to see if the library can order it for the Seminary.
Afternoon blessings--and, while I've gloated horribly about the sunshine & warmth here, truth be told, I miss the snow: it's winter, after all!
Kristin Johnston Largen

Reflections from a Sunday Morning Run

I keep forgetting to mention one of the small but important blessings for which I am thankful: thus far, I have neither run into anyone [and I mean that literally], nor had an uncomfortably close encounter with a car. Why is that more of a blessing than usual? Because, of course, Australians drive [and walk] on the "wrong" side of the street, and the sidewalk. That means that when faced with an approaching group of fellow pedestrians, I have to remember to zag, instead of zigging. It also means that I have to keep reminding myself to use the proper escalator, instead of walking up to the wrong one and then standing there wondering what the problem is. Mostly I'm taking the stairs [and trying to remember to walk up the correct side of the railing]. Obviously, this is a more serious issue when it comes to traffic, as I have curtailed, but not entirely abandoned, my bad habit of jaywalking. It is a challenge to remember to look the "right" way before crossing the street, but I really don't want to end up like a bad cartoon, looking intently one direction down the street while I step out and get beaned by a bus coming the other way.
Anyway, this morning I found Cook's Cabin, which was my goal, but I could never retrace the route--let's just say it was circuitous in the extreme. I was sure I could find it without carrying the map. That was a mistake. Ultimately, in what was a serious blow to my sense of direction, I had to stop and ask someone where the park was--I hate that. It was worth it, though--I saw more of the city; and who can complain when it was another gorgeous sunny morning. [Did I mention that I ran not only in shorts, but in a sleeveless top? What's it like in Gettysburg today?!]
Happy second week of Advent--more later.
Kristin Johnston Largen

Youngest at the Parliament

Young Sikhs Know Their Pennsylvania Geography
Here is a group of the youngest Parliament participants I have met thus far: a group of young Sikhs from India. They were all thrilled to be in the picture, and interested in where I was from--they assured me they know where Pennsylvania is!

-- Kristin Johnston Largen

On Torture, Arabic, and the Chosenness of Buffalo--Day Two

This is a long post, so grab your coffee and get comfortable!
I began my day with a splendid run around the Royal Botanical Gardens--gorgeous--and when I got back to the hotel and turned on the radio "Down Under," by Men at Work was playing! Perfect!
The first session I went to this morning was titled, "Reviving Indigenous Spirituality: Reclaiming Strength and Identity." There were two presenters, both of whom spoke about the beliefs of their religious traditions, and the guiding principles that shape their lives.
The first presenter was Tsugio Kuzuno, an Ainu elder from Hokkaido, Japan. He emphasized their belief that God exists everywhere in the universe, and lives within everything. "Ainu" means "human," that is, one who can communicate with God, nature, and other humans "calmly and gently." There is an interesting dynamism in Ainu belief, in that Kuzuno talked about 'God' and 'gods' somewhat interchangeably--for example, he said that Ainu pray and make offerings of rice wine to the god of fire before the other gods, not because he is considered higher or greater, but because they believe that their prayers to the other gods will reach them more quickly through the god of fire. [This echoes Vedic belief, in which Agni, the god of fire, also mediated the offerings people would make to the different deities in the Hinduism of the Rig Veda.]
After a person dies, her body is buried, and through the work of microbes, it is recycled into the earth; her spirit, however, lives on, and returns to watch over its descendents. [We saw an example of what that means for the Ainu when, at the end of his presentation, Kuzuno brought out and showed us his father's and mother's kimonos. This was a way for him to honor them, and a way of acknowledging their presence with us, too.]
One of the most interesting ramifications of the Ainu belief in the deep, pervasive inter-conntectedness of all existence is their attitude toward human-made objects. The Ainu do not reject such objects as artificial--they are a part of the universe, too; however, they believe that we have a ethical relationship to what we create that endures as long as it does. This means two things: first, there should be integrity in what people produce; and second, you are responsible for whatever you make for as long as it exists, not just until it is thrown away or buried in the ground. This is, of course, a logical consequence of the belief that God dwells in all things. One example of this is the prayer that is typically said before building a house: "Please allow us to use part of Your body to build our house."
The second presenter was Francois Paulette, a Dene from Canada's Northwest Territories, who is a former chief of this particular group of First Nations. The framing idea of his presentation was the concept of "Diné Chanié ," which literally means "the path we walk," but signifies something like what we mean when we say "the natural order." It is an all-encompassing term that includes every aspect of life; and the Dene are similar to the Ainu in that they live out of a reality in which the whole cosmos is profoundly interrelated. The connection between the people and the land is of particular importance: I thought it was interesting that Paulette teaches occasionally at the local college, but only on the condition that he take the students to the land and not come to the campus to teach. This is because "the land is the teacher"--it is impossible to learn anything about Native culture and religion apart from the land.

One idea that both presenters mentioned was the belief regarding the spiritual nearness of infants and children to God. Paulette elaborated on this idea, saying that the Dene believe that the 'soft spot' babies are born with on their heads is a door to God--once that door shuts, we have a harder time communicating with God. One way in which the Dene facilitate prayer and communication with God is through fasting. Paulette himself practices an austere fast once a year--four days and four nights with no food or water--in order to "remind myself who I am" and be called back into relationship with God.

It is clear that for the Dene, not only relationship to land but also relationship to animals--the buffalo in particular--is extremely important. At one point, he said that the buffalo are the most sacred of four-legged animals, and when a person in the audience asked why, he said, "That is the job the buffalo have been given." In my view, this is a fascinating application of the concept of 'chosenness' to an animal--isn't it provocative to think of God 'choosing' animals for a certain type of existence, as well as humans? As you can imagine, I love this idea!!

Now, watch carefully as I transition seamlessly between two very different presentations. Paulette emphasized that the concept of Diné Chanié governs all aspects of one's life, and that those different aspects are fundamentally in relationship--family life, life among the people, and one's public life in the world. Not only does Paulette live this out by teaching for the college, but he also told us that after the Parliament, he is flying to Copenhagen for the Climate Change conference. One lives out one's spirituality in the world; and one's faith is intimately related to all the other commitments one has--personal, ethical, and political. This leads me to the second presentation I went to, by George Hunsinger, who is professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton, a Presbyterian minister, and the founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. He was powerfully affected by the terrible facts and details he recounted in his presentation--so much so that he had to stop and compose himself several times. What was patently clear is that the reason for his emotional reaction was not because he is an academic, not because he is a political activist, but because he is a Christian, a person of faith; and for Hunsinger, torture is a religious issue, an issue of faith that should concern all Christians.

[I want to say as an aside that this really resonates with the book I just finished last night, Enfleshing Freedom, by M. Shawn Copeland. That book is all about the importance of bodies in Christian thought; and she emphasizes how the body is the medium through which an individual realizes his or her essential selfhood in relationship to God and to other "embodied selves." Thus, when bodies are abused--she talks specifically about black bodies--victimized and tortured, those individuals are de-humanized, and their existence as imago Dei is fundamentally compromised.]

The title of Hunsinger's presentation was "Violence Finds Refuge in Falsehood," and he used the ideas of both Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and George Orwell to talk about the awful connection between violence--specifically torture--and deception. Solzhenistsyn is the famous survivor of the terrible Soviet forced-labor camps, which he described and exposed in his writing, particular in The Gulag Archipelago, and a winner of the Nobel prize for literature. From his own experience, he argued that "violence is necessarily interwoven with falsehood;" and "anyone who chooses violence as his method necessarily chooses falsehood as his principle." This resonates with George Orwell's descriptions of "linguistic falsehoods," whereby things are mis-named in order to avoid calling up mental images of them. So, for example, in our time, torture goes by the name of "enhanced interrogation techniques;" and we use the term "taking the offensive against terrorist brutality" to define the practice of rounding up anyone who is deemed 'suspicious,' detaining them in secret prisons, deporting them, threatening their families, etc. This linguistic slight-of-hand is necessary for such horrible violence to occur unchallenged; and, unfortunately, such activities are being condoned and practiced by our own government. Hunsinger was blunt about how he has been disappointed by President Obama, and how he worries that the promised changes in this area that the new administration heralded will not come to pass after all.

Let me be blunt as well. Frankly, the terrible torture practices that he describes so vividly [and if you want to read the particulars of his argument, check out either his Dialog article in the Fall 2008 issue, or his new book, Torture is a Moral Issue] make me question the fundamental demand of obedience made by the US military. This demand seems designed to trump all other loyalties--including loyalty to peace and justice, loyalty to the neighbor, and even loyalty to Christ--as it provides a blanket justification for the most atrocious behavior. Imagine, if you will, that upon arrival at the seminary, the faculty were to demand an oath of obedience of all the students: "You are to believe unquestioningly everything your teachers tell you." Can imagine such a thing? What would it serve, in the end?

The fact is, torture practices are not only morally unjustifiable, they are ineffective [they "pollute the interrogation stream"], they evidence a dark psychological side of human nature that is demonic, and torture "always comes home"--that is, it damages the torturers just as much as it damages the tortured: both are irreparably mentally and emotionally effected. Hunsinger concluded his presentation with some words from Albert Camus, from the interview he did at a Dominican monastery in 1948. He said, "What the world expects from Christians is that they should speak out loud and clear….to confront the bloodstained face that history has taken on today." This is Hunsinger's message as well. We may not succeed, but we should do it anyway, and we shouldn't despair.

As you might imagine, after that, I needed something entirely different. So, I went to two very fun presentations in the afternoon. The first was a Hindu dance presentation--the "Bharat Natyam," which is an ancient dance form from South India that is performed for the divine. Two Moscow ballerinas performed it for us, and it was magical--gorgeous and exuberant.
I ended Day Two with John Myers' presentation on "Learn Arabic Letters in 90 Minutes." It was fun and funny, and was grounded in the idea that "humans fear that which they do not understand." Thus, learning another's language--even on the most basic level--is an act of interreligious understanding that promotes respect for another's culture, reduces hostility, and fosters dialogue. Obviously, I didn't learn it all in 90 minutes, but I have to say that his system [which he teaches in a series of three workbooks, taking three weeks to go through] is pretty compelling.
Now I'm beating the sun to bed!
Evening blessings.

Kristin Johnston Largen

Friday, December 04, 2009

From Geneva: A Focus on Diakonia

From Geneva’s Short Course in Ecumenism
(sent digitally by the Rev. Dr. Maria Erling)

Today our discussion was all about Diakonia, and how essential it is as a dimension of the church, locally and globally. There is a new text approved by the LWF church council that will be published soon. For a pre published version of it, ask Bree Tomlinson, or Mark Oldenburg. I shared an earlier PDF of the document with them, and I think it is okay now for them to share their pirated copies more widely. And I think our diaconal ministers, and really everyone will like the text.

Tomorrow we head for Cluny, and then to Taize. I am interested in what kinds of Advent signs I will see. So far the weather and views  in Geneva have been remarkably like Gettysburg, except of course, for the mountain mists, and glorious views of snowy slopes, and all the peaceful Swiss Cows. No cannons here, but there are traces of violence in the past.

Tomorrow in Switzerland there is an anniversary of an event in 1602, the escalade, when a woman poured soup on some attackers. This glorious episode is commemorated in soup tureen shaped chocolates.

Hey! who said that food was peaceful?? 

I hope everyone enjoys their weekend feasting for St. Nicholas,

Maria Erling
(People are learning slowly to pronounce my name.)

John Hick, Under My Skin

I awoke with a start at 3:48 this morning, thinking about Zen Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, and a host of other Eastern Religions that don't have "God" at their center--regardless of how much I or John Hick would like to generalize 'God' as the name of the Divine, the Eternal One, or the Other. Clearly, my distinctions are Western Christian ones, too [which still allow me to disavow a "religious" categorization for Scientology, I feel….], that simply don't work when applied globally as a template. And yet, I don't want to give up the distinctions entirely….

The other complicating aspect of distinguishing between a religion, a philosophy, and a psychology is how it does and does not take into account the interplay between beliefs and actions--one's religious 'life in the world' is a key component in all this, too, right? Furthermore, the role of one's larger community should be considered here, too: is there some way in which religions are inherently communal, the way a philosophy and a psychology are not?

More food for thought; now, onward and upward [as my mother says!] to new and different things today.

Kristin Johnston Largen

Thoughts from Down Under on Religions and Faith

G'day mates! [OK, no one has actually said that to me yet, but it's only Day 1: I remain hopeful....]. I made it to Melbourne safely, and what a beautiful day it has been! I won't venture to guess what the weather is like in Gettysburg, but please keep the weeping to a minimum when I tell you that it has been around 70 degrees and sunny all day--oh, and at 6:30, the sun has just barely begun to set. I can't wait to see how early dawn comes tomorrow! After 25+ hours on the plane, and in desparate need of some sleep, my day is ending early, but I did want to share just a few reflections from my afternoon.

First, just walking around the Exhibition Hall, I was reminded of Ernst Troeltsch's distinctions between a religion [more of an organized, inclusive institution], a sect [more of a voluntary association with high personal standards from its members], and mysticism [more individual and spiritual], distinctions which were, of course, heavily shaped by his European Christian bias. As I passed booths for The Gnostic Movement, Scientology, and half a dozen others I had never heard of, I thought about my own bias in how I distinguish, for example, between a religion [God-centric], a philosophy [universe-centric], and a psychology [self-centric]--recognizing, of course, that all reality is always "cosmotheandric," to borrow a neologism from Raimon Panikkar. In my view, Scientology, for example, is a self-help psychology, regardless of what it calls itself, but I'm sure my distinctions are equally problematic.

The second observation I want to make concerns indigenous religions. One of my goals during my time here is to be particularly attentive to the presentations that concern indigenous religions,which are, in some sense, the polar opposite of Christianity, as they are closely tied to both place and space, and are thus neither easily transportable nor translatable; this makes them very fragile. One of the two performances I heard this afternoon was by Kevin Locke, a member of the Lakota tribe and a master of the Northern Plains flute. In bewteen songs, he talked about the languages of the many different tribes in North America, and how almost daily Native langauges are dying, as the elders--the only ones who can still speak them--are dying. Knowing how much language itself shapes reality [thinking of Wittgenstein here, particularly] I tend to think that with the death of each language comes the death of a particular world view--a particular way of seeing God, and interpreting God's relationship with the cosmos. That is a loss to all religious people, not just one particular religious community.

This need to recognize and respect the special particularity of indigenous religions, then, made the second performance I heard all the more puzzling: it was Lavalla Catholic College Liturgical Choir singing Taize chants that they have translated into the language of the indigenous Gunai Kurnai people. Frankly, I wasn't sure what to make of it. It was beautiful, of course, but since there was no introduction or explanation beforehand to put the performance in context, it was hard to know what the relationship was between the Gunai Kurnai & the Catholic choir, and what the songs meant to the people themselves. Who were they for, and what were they for? It pushed me to think about why we faciliate such interreligious cross-cultural experiences, and what we hope to gain from them. What sort of guiding principles ought to shape our actions in those situations? It's not always clear to me.

Finally, I ended the day with a screening of one of the most powerful movies I have seen in a very long time--"Praying with Lior." It is a documentary about Lior Lebling, a thirteen year old Jewish boy with Down's Syndrome who is getting ready for his Bar Mitzvah. It is perfectly clear that Lior cannot with any depth or consistency articulate anything beyond the most basic truths of his religion--and sometimes, he can't even come up with those. But it is at the same time equally clear that when he prays [Davening], he is both experiencing himself and conveying with others a deep, passionate connection to God; so much so that at the end of the movie, when he has has Bar Mitzvah, as the camera scans the room practically the entire assembly is weeping--and I can assure you that more than one person was blowing her nose in our room here, too! It recalled to mind some of the issues we have been struggling with in the Confessions course around the concept of faith--how much of faith is based on our assent and/or our understanding, and how much of faith is solely God's work. Watching Lior pray, I would have to say that faith is the experience of God doing something, and our rejoicing in it. If you can find it, rent the movie!!

One more thing--as I left the Parliament to head back to my hotel, I passed a few protestors outside the building [By the way, who protests an event with a theme of "Make a World of Difference: Hearing each Other, Healing the Earth"?!] with signs like, "Think--Don't Believe!" My personal favorite, however, was the guy wearing the sandwich board that read, "You think your religion is true? PROVE IT! $10,000 Reward." We'll see if that crowd grows over time.

A good evening to you all.

Kristin Johnston Largen

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Post Card from Geneva

2nd Guest Blogger for the week
From the Rev. Dr. Maria Erling, who is co-teaching a special 9 day course (December 1-9, 2009) on Ecumenism in Geneva, Switzerland. Erling is the Seminary’s Associate Professor of Modern Church History and Global Mission.

Erling writes:
I've been in Geneva all of 24 hours and hit all the hot spots - the Ecumenical Center, the Reformation Museum, and... The Archives! I've already found traces of our own A R Wentz in the Michelfelder files. “A.R.” lives once again!

The weather has been very nice, too, and there are mountains here, just as the postcards promise. Snow on Mont Blanc is nice. There were protests today in the downtown section of the city as groups were conducting a tour of offending global warming corporations present in Geneva. It reminded me of a tour my husband John and I took of the Jewish settlements around Jerusalem last June. Young people are organizing around this global issue more actively than we see in the US.

The group that I am working with this time is mostly composed of assistants to the bishop, and regional coordinators, who are here to learn to know the work of the LWF and WCC more closely. Staff from Geneva include Kathryn Johnson, who is the assistant for ecumenical work to the General Secretary, Ishmael Noko, and Tita Valeriano, who is the North American regional representative of the LWF. Her office is shared between the ELCA and the ELCIC. There are two leaders from Canada, David Pfrimmer and Paul Johnson, and 3 other participants also from Canada.  The ELCA leaders are Lanny Westphal, Michael Trice, and me, and the participants hail from California, Washington, Southeast Pennsylvania, Delaware, Alaska, Oregon, North Carolina, Iowa and Texas.  What I've noticed about our discussions so far is that the experience with companion synods and with immigrant church groups in the US - and leadership needs associated with this outreach - is commanding more attention from synods. I'm also realizing that for most of our congregations, the work of the synod represents the wider church - there is virtually no distinguishing among national, international, ecumenical for most members of congregations.  This presents a challenge for synod leadership, because they have to interpret so many different types of relationships.

Tomorrow we go to the Bossey Ecumenical Institute, where I will no doubt find more small stones with little white lines.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

What is the Parliament of the World's Religions?

For those who will be following my postings as I travel to the Parliament, I thought it would be helpful to provide some orienting background to the event.

The Parliament of the World's Religions has its origins in what was called the "The World's Congress of Religions," held in 1893, in Chicago, Illinois. It is considered to be the first official meeting between representatives from Western and Eastern religious traditions, and, according to the website for the Parliament [], it represented the "birth of formal interreligious dialogue worldwide."

In 1988, a group of religious leaders, led by two monks from the Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago, came together to organize a centennial celebration of that 1893 event. At that time a Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions was formed as a non-profit organization for "extending the spirit and legacy of that event through subsequent Parliaments of the World's Religions." The Council continues its work both in Chicago and globally, cultivating harmony among religions, honoring differences and working together for peace and justice around the world.

In 1993, then, the first Parliament of the World's Religions was held in Chicago, with over 8,000 participants from all over the world. There, various religious leaders endorsed a document titled, "Declaration Toward a Global Ethic," which condemned poverty, hunger, economic disparities, and abuse of the earth's resources. The document affirmed that the basis for a global ethic to which all could subscribe existed in a common set of core values found in the world's religions. It called on all people—religious or not—to subscribe to this global ethic and work together to create a more just and peaceful social order, to commit oneself "to this global ethic, to understanding one another, and to socially beneficial, peace-fostering, and nature-friendly ways of life." Subsequently, Parliaments were held in Cape Town, South Africa in 1999, and in Barcelona, Spain in 2004.

Participants in these Parliaments were able to attend worship services, paper presentations, meditation sessions, performances, workshops, and large plenary presentations by such speakers as His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela. The idea was not just to listen and learn, but to participate and grow in one's understand and appreciation of the religious other—and perhaps even to learn something new about one's own tradition. In this vein, at the gathering in Barcelona the stated goals were "to deepen our spirituality and experience personal transformation; recognize the humanity of all and broaden our sense of community; foster mutual understanding and respect; learn to live in harmony in the midst of diversity; seek peace, justice and sustainability; and actively work for a better world." These goals continue to inspire Parliament participants today.

In Melbourne, similar learning opportunities will be available, including such diverse offerings as a presentation on Celtic Mysticism, Preksha meditation led by two Jain nuns, a Shinto ritual, a session in the art of Qur'an recitation, a film on the History of the Inupiat, and a panel discussion on the Divine Feminine—and that is all on Saturday morning! Clearly, the hardest part is going to be choosing where to spend my time. [Does anyone know where I can get my hands on a Hermione-esqueTime-turner?!]

Kristin Johnston Largen