Sunday, November 20, 2016

Barnet's Brilliant Book

Vern Barnet has long been one of the outstanding religious leaders of Kansas City. The accompanying picture was taken of him at the 2016 Annual Interfaith Community Thanksgiving Dinner, held for the first time on the campus of William Jewell College.
The Barnet Award
At that most enjoyable gathering on Nov. 13, the Vern Barnet Interfaith Service Award was given to Lama Chuck Stanford, a retired Tibetan Buddhist leader who has long been active in Kansas City.

Barnet founded the Kansas City Interfaith Council in 1989, and after his retirement as head of that organization, the Vern Barnet Award was created in 2010—with him as its first recipient.
(Last year’s recipient of the award was my good friend Ed Chasteen, former professor of sociology at William Jewell College. June and I enjoyed sitting at the same table with Ed and his wife Bobbie at last week’s Thanksgiving dinner.)
For many years Vern (b. 1942) served as a Universalist Unitarian minister, and he is minister emeritus of the Center for Religious Experience and Study (CRES), which he founded in 1982. In 2011, however, he was baptized in an Episcopalian church, and is now said to be an active Episcopalian layman.
His main love, though, still seems to be interfaith activities.
The Barnet Book
Vern is also an editor and author. He co-edited the 740-page Essential Guide to Religious Traditions and Spirituality for Health Care Providers (2013). The most recent book he authored, however, is not directly about religion.
Vern’s book Thanks for Noticing: The Interpretation of Desire was published in 2015. He describes the book as a “prosimetrum of 154 sonnets, glosses, and other commentary, in which the sacred beauty of sex and love is explored.” (A prosimetrum is “a text composed in alternating segments of prose and verse.”)
Vern’s sonnets are consciously linked to Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. But, to be honest, I am over my head in trying to expound upon the meaning and significance of either Shakespeare’s or Barnet’s sonnets. But I have been moved by many of Vern’s sonnets I have read.
For full disclosure, I must admit that I have not read nearly all of Vern’s book, although I do intend to keep reading it little by little--which is the way it needs to be read. Thanks for Noticing is quite obviously a brilliant book as well as a very erudite one.
Barnet’s Sonnets 78 to 86
The 154 sonnets in Vern’s book are grouped into eight sections with titles taken from the parts of a Catholic mass. The most theological part is the one titled “Credo,” and those sonnets, numbers 78 to 86, are the ones to which I have paid the most attention.
(Many of the 154 sonnets are about sex and sexuality, and I will leave it to others to write about the meaning and importance of those.)
Sonnet 78 is titled “Advent,” and as next Sunday, Nov. 27, is the first Sunday of Advent I have read and re-read that insightful sonnet—although the Eucharist does not have the same meaning to me as it does to Episcopalians or Catholics.
“Postmodern Faith: What is Truth?” is the title of Sonnet 84, and it ends with this couplet:
                                I know the Gospel is a pious tale,
                                                But who cares facts when worship cannot fail?
By these words Vern seems to urge us to a pre-modern/post-modern “mysticism” that is not fettered by facticity. Direct experience of God (Ultimate Reality) is more than, and far greater than, having (or seeking) only factual knowledge.
That is one important lesson bundled in Barnet’s brilliant book.


  1. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard, who lived in Kansas City before moving to Chicago a while back, shares these comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your comments about Vern's book.

    "About two years ago, Vern asked me to review his draft of 'Thanks for Noticing.' I told him that I was not a good choice since I do not have a background in literature, but he insisted that I look at it. It is certainly an erudite work and I was impressed with many of his perspectives, although some of the parts about sexuality were a bit too explicit for my taste.

    "I regret that I was not able to give Vern much of a critique, but I certainly enjoyed the book overall. It revealed the poets and writers whom Vern particularly admires, especially the Persian poet, Rumi."

  2. Thinking Friend David Nelson, who is my personal friend as well as Vern Barnet's good friend, sent these comments for posting here:

    "Thanks for your comments about about Vern's book. It is a brilliant study of world religions, the sonnet form of poetry, human sexuality, spirituality, and living a fully human life. It is provocative and deserves much study and dialogue. I read the footnotes over and over and then read the sonnet out loud. Vern's many appearances around Kansas City have added to the value of this book.

    "As a heterosexual male who cherishes my many gay and lesbian friends I welcome an open dialogue on issues of human sexuality and spirituality. Vern, better than anyone I know or read is not afraid to see and celebrate the holy in human love. We all can benefit from that."

  3. I care about facts a lot, which is why, even though I have a lot of sympathy with light post-modernism, I firmly reject deep post-modernism. How can one hold it as a firm truth that no one can know the truth? Taken too seriously, post-modernism degenerates into nonsense. Conversely, the old modernism was a bastion of white male chauvinist pigs. Given a chance, women and people of color have become excellent scientists and scholars. In a similar way, the radically reductionist mechanical thinking of early modern thinking simply does not directly apply to complex biological and sociological systems, such as religion.

    Religion has stories within it that seem superficially similar to scientific theories, yet it is a profound mistake on both sides to confuse religious metaphysics with scientific theories. While some degree of interface is necessary in areas such as ethics and economics, at the end of the day religion is about shared experiences and traditions, while science is about testable hypotheses. Sometimes science finds out new things that make religious people uncomfortable. Well, new science makes old scientists uncomfortable, too. It is called a paradigm shift, and it can hurt.

    I see the Bible and similar religious texts as both sacred scriptures to meditatively study, and as secular documents to scientifically study. There is no out of bounds area where science cannot probe, it is just that religion has a right and a duty to explore how to use the new scientific information. Copernicus and Darwin rattled the church. Even theologian Paul Tillich was uncomfortable with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Yet, struggle we must. Science and religion are not simply parallel post-modernist stories that can be adopted or rejected at will. Nor are they enemies locked in a zero-sum game where one must win and the other lose. They are more like prose and poetry, each with a role to play. And now that I have made it back to Shakespeare's sonnets, it is time for me to practice the silence.

    1. Craig, thanks once again for insightful and important comments.

      Just after reading your comments this morning, I read the following from Fr. Richard Rohr's daily meditation, which I think amplified upon the main point you were making:

      "Science is no longer, nor should it ever have been, our enemy; instead quantum physics, biology, and other academic disciplines are revealing that science is our new and excellent partner, much better than philosophy ever was. Truth is One. If something is spiritually true, it will also be true in the physical world, and all disciplines and all religions will somehow be looking at this 'one truth' from different angles, goals, assumptions, and vocabulary. If we are really convinced that we have the Big Truth, then we should also be able to trust that others will see it from their different angles—or it is not the Big Truth."