With Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming U.S. visit, we’re taking the opportunity to start a broad-ranging conversation about the rich tradition of Roman Catholicism. With all the recent headlines, diverse practitioners of the faith have had little voice in telling their stories.
This is where you come in. If you are or were Catholic, we’d like to hear your perspectives on what anchors and unsettles you in this vast tradition. We’re receiving a tremendous response already, but we’d love to hear more. Feel free to comment on this post, or, even better, share your story and your images with us using our form. Cheers.
Honor Moore has a memoir coming out in May called The Bishop’s Daughter, which was excerpted recently in The New Yorker. It tells the story of her father Paul Moore, a prominent, progressive Episcopal bishop in New York who passed away in 2003, and it reveals what had been a personal and family secret: that this father of nine children and sitting bishop had many homosexual liasons and apparently at least one long-term relationship with a man.
Although Honor Moore’s account is understated, and written with remarkable compassion for her father, this story disturbs on so many different levels I’m not sure I can count them. It raises the spectre of the Episcopal Church’s deep division over the installation of an openly gay man, Gene Robinson, a few years ago. It reminds us of the destructive power of the closet. It begs the question of how Paul Moore managed this falseness and somehow kept his world from absolutely crumbling. And, it surfaces another in a fairly remarkable recent string of revelations about sexual secrets in the lives of powerful and famous men — men, in particular, for whom keeping such secrets had extraordinary and inevitable consequences.
Adding to the pathos, a letter from three of Honor Moore’s siblings in this week’s New Yorker questions the ethics of her posthumously outing her prominent father. Certain to sell books, but what are we really learning (anything?) about spirituality and sexuality, and secrets?
In the next few days, we’ll be rolling out a new program exploring the tradition of humanism. During Krista’s interview with Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University, he mentions how he looks to modern literature as a source of understanding.
The next book on my personal reading list is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s a work of science fiction. Like “atheism” or “spirituality,” the term “science fiction” has been painted into a corner. It has come to mean aliens and lasers and space ships. (I’m looking at you, Star Trek…)
But I think more broadly of science fiction as speculative fiction, a protracted thought experiment. Against the utopian dreams of flying cars, world peace, robot butlers, and unlimited scientific progress was set another batch of science fiction. I think of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I think of the German silent film Metropolis, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (which I can’t stand), and the recent Children of Men.
These represent a hell created by us, not the Hell of Scripture. So these prophetic dystopias are relevant to us in a way that parables of hyperdrives and aliens aren’t. And perhaps for many people, the dystopias may be more relevant than parables of miracles and angels.
We look at an Orwell or a Bradbury or a Huxley and ask, “If we’re heading in directions explored by these dark modern prophets, do we know how to turn around?” But is looking into a funhouse mirror enough? Is it even a start?
While conducting some research for our upcoming show on humanism, I was reminded of an amazing truth about ancient texts. Greek philosophy doesn’t come to us whole; it is an inheritance in pieces. The passage of time always edits, and of Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher who died in 270 BCE, barely any original writing remains.
The scarcity of original texts can be difficult in some ways. We must learn what we can about him, Epicurus, from the philosophers who wrote about him after his death, the Epicureans. The most important of these writings, and the one source for texts by Epicurus himself, is a biography by Diogenes, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, from 230 CE. It is not always easy to do research on a figure whose personal writings are so few.
But I have been grateful in the past couple of days that we have a small selection of texts directly from Epicurus. Ancient Greek philosophy often feels to me vast, far away, and incomprehensible. On the contrary, you can read Epicurus’ three letters, quoted in Diogenes’ biography, in one short sitting. The letter to Menoeceus is a summary of Epicurean ethics. It opens with these lines, “it is never too soon nor too late to devote oneself to the well-being of the soul.”
I’d say the same about the ancients. It is never too soon nor too late to find some ancient Greek philosophy online and read a little.
Last month, leading Danish newspapers reprinted the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that sparked protest and rioting two years ago. They did so as a demonstration of freedom of speech, they explained, after a plot was discovered (and stopped) to kill the man who drew the cartoon.
The reprints were cited as provocation in new recordings that surfaced, purportedly by Osama bin Laden, threatening reprisals in Europe. For a better understanding of the meaning of the original controversy from an American Muslim perspective, I recommend listening to our program with Vincent Cornell as a resource.
Catching up on my New Yorker reading, I ran across this article from the March 3 issue about the way the human brain is hardwired for math. It reminded me of my own peculiar sense of numbers as a kid, especially the numbers 1-10. At some point, around 1st grade, my brain gave those numbers distinct personalities, genders, and even relationships with each other. The number 6 for instance was an awkward, nerdy boy, and the number 9 was a sophisticated young woman. 6 looked up to 9 like a cool older sister, but she couldn’t stand him, and whenever they were multiplied or added, 9 couldn’t wait for the computation to end. She much preferred the company of 4 and 8, both of them cool, confident boys, though 8 was more disaffected than eager, cheerful 4 (I could go on and on like this).
What’s fascinating to me is the author Jim Holt’s statement that, according to cognitive science, “We have a sense of number that is independent of language, memory, and reasoning in general.” To me, numbers feel like a human invention, just as alphabets and words are human inventions, but it’s apparently more like numbers are a part of nature. And according to this research, our brains grasp the rudimentaries of math as intuitively as we grasp hunger, thirst, and love.
It made me think of Janna Levin’s response on our show "Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth" when Krista asked her, “Does the fact that one plus one equals two have anything to do with God?” Levin said, “If I were to ever lean towards spiritual thinking or religious thinking, it would be in that way. It would be, why is it that there is this abstract mathematics that guides the universe? The universe is remarkable because we can understand it. That’s what’s remarkable.”
About the images: top photo by jbushnell/Flickr and second photo by Genista/Flickr
OK. I had begun this post with a long-winded preface about SOF’s coverage of Islam, how much I’ve learned, the good I hope it’s doing, and all the rest. Nix that.
The fact of the matter is I long for a complementary, not-so-academic vision of Muslims — people I can relate to as a Westerner rather than continually being aware of that sense of otherness. For me, there’s no better path to this understanding than through pop culture. When it comes to the Middle East, in particular, Saudi Arabia, Rajaa Alsanea’s book Girls of Riyadh does exactly that. Her writing is not heavy-handed or overly didactic, but lithe with impact through colloquial language and subject matter that all blossoming young adults can identify with.
Although it’s fiction, one learns more about the lived reality of youth culture and the integration of Islam among the upper crust of Saudi socialites than the many news reports and documentaries that are “good for you.” In some ways, I found myself identifying with the plights of these four (five counting the narrator?) young women, their longing for independence and community of family, love, and career.
The cultural differences are vast and deep, but tellingly so are the similarities. I only wish I could read Arabic so that I could savor all the subtleties of language and slang used in Alsanea’s original text Banat al-Riyadh. The book’s a clever, fun, page-turning expedition. You’ll buzz through it in no time.
OK, I apologize. This satirical headline from The Onion touched my funny bone on so many levels that I had to share. I quickly remembered the horror of an 8th-grade boy who found his brand new, jet black concert t-shirt from Sammy Hagar’s 3-Lock Box tour a desert army brown after my mother bleached it. And, with the Lenten season in full swing and me washing every article of clothing and blankets in my house after a week-long flu, I immediately wondered if I had gotten sloppy with my own stuff.
If the headline wasn’t enough, they topped it with the secondary slug, “Error Not Caught Until After Holy Spin Cycle” and a great doctored image captioned “Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo assures reporters at a Vatican press conference that it is far too late for club soda.”
There’s a pretty interesting article in the New York Times Magazine this weekend. Noah Feldman looks at the historical and present-day functioning of Shariah, that body of Islamic law that is so freighted today with apocalyptic connotations in the West. In his article, he looks at the balancing of powers in previous Islamic empires, and how the constitutional developments in current Muslim-majority countries look to infuse Islamic principles into state law.
Tony Soprano, Ojibwe Poetry, and "Technicians of the Sacred"
Kate Moos, Managing Producer
We do talk about big ideas at work. But we also talk about what TV shows we are catching up on. I happen to be watching the final season of The Sopranos on DVD. I will not include a spoiler here. But I will mention a minor but significant plot element that occurrs in one episode — an Ojibwe poem I first read in the break-through anthology Technicians of the Sacred years ago. Here it is, in one of its many variant forms:
Sometimes I I go about pitying Myself While I am carried by the wind Across the sky.
Seeing this poem turn up on TV was like bumping into an old friend in an unexpected place after many years. Watching the haunting impact it had on Tony Sorprano reminded me of my first reading of it, which might be something like: “Get over yourself. Life is changeable and various.”
But I actually learned something from Tony Soprano’s take on it, which I would characterize as slightly different — and oddly even more positive — than mine: “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Life is a long, wonderful journey.”
Technicians of the Sacred changed how many writers thought about literature and poetry in the 1970s. It’s gratifying to see that it is still being carried by the wind across the sky.
With fewer travel commitments in the coming months, we’ll have more time to set up interviews and produce programs. So, we’re currently pursuing a number of interesting voices, recording interviews, and producing shows with interviews we’ve recently completed. Which all means that in the coming weeks and months, you may be hearing shows on:
The Gospel, as Done by Mick and Keith Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer
Yesterday morning I was making breakfast, cleaning the kitchen, and listening to the Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet, one of my favorite of their albums (includes “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Street Fightin Man,” etc.). This record has a great rendition of the story of the prodigal son, a biblical parable with a message that I have never appreciated, until yesterday.
I have always felt that there should be consequences for the younger son having left, blown all his money, and then comes back to be received into the fold of his family. And what about the elder son who remained there, steadfast and dedicated, his inheritance intact? What message does he receive, other than, ‘You might as well go off and blow your wad, too, because it doesn’t really matter’? Well, OK, so this really isn’t the message.
And yesterday it seems as though I had a eureka moment, long after most of you, I suppose. So, life isn’t fair, right? We all know that; we’ve seen it every day in the news where there are injustices and sometimes no consequences. But for a reader of the Bible, does one wish that God’s love be merely fair with consequences for bad decisions? I would think not. My guess is that we want it both ways: we want justice here on earth and for God’s love to be unconditional. What is wrong with that? But the story is not trying to reflect how it is here on earth, and only how God’s love is — unreasonable, irrational, and that is the beauty of it.
So what are the benefits of remaining on the farm? Or, in another way, what are the benefits of leading a life within the fold of God’s love? I would guess there are many different answers to this question, depending on whom you ask.
I also have to think, ‘What if the younger son went off, blew all his money, and became Buddhist?’ Would he still be “dead” to his father?
Before I arrived here in snowy St. Paul, not very long ago, I was living in Venice, Italy, sharing a two-bedroom apartment in the old Castello neighborhood with a scientist of sperm whale sound and a landscape architect. I worked days at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Palazzo Venier Dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, cleaning the base below the Calder mobile, washing the windows, selling tickets, and guarding rooms in which hung paintings by Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Severini, Miro, and Pollock. Doing a boring job in a beautiful place is one of the greatest opportunities for meditation I have had, and I spent many hours comparing Mondrian’s The Sea to the ripples on the canal outside the wrought iron grated windows.
I became fascinated with a theme I saw in Mondrian’s landscapes, Brancusi’s birds, and Giacometti’s human figures. Each of these artists purposefully spent years of his working life paring down, making an attempt to paint or sculpt the essence of a natural image, ever simplifying the visual language he used. They all believed, in some instances with a spiritual fervor, that it was possible to find and express essence.
When I was in high school, my best writing teacher came to me through Biology. She taught me to describe the beginnings of life in the “primordial soup” briefly, on one side of a piece of paper. This was a painful process of excision, of finding the fatty words lacking in meaning and cutting them until the essay became its leanest self. Poets use this practice too; they choose the briefest of all possible ways to spin the phrase. Annie Dillard’s latest novel, The Maytrees, was originally a 1400-page manuscript, now just over 200.
Wise cutting makes for good writing and sculpture, yes, but since being in Venice I have come to see cutting away excess as a meaning-making practice too. Isn’t this how ascetics craft their very lives? Wouldn’t all our lives be more sustainable if we could, like the absract artists, pare away the metaphorical fat?
Daniel Mendlesohn in Sunday’s NY Times elegantly articulates what’s at stake in the most recent revelations about high-buzz memoirs that turned out to be complete fictions. Both memoirs told stories of suffering and oppression that was were not a part of the authors’ experiences. Of particular interest to me was Mendelsohn’s dissection of our excessive interest in “identification.” He writes:
While these statements [on the part of the authors explaining their intentions] want to suggest a somehow admirable desire to “empathize” with the oppressed subjects, this sentimental gesture both mirrors and exploits a widespread, quite pernicious cultural confusion about identity and suffering. We have so often been invited, in the past decade and a half, to “feel the pain” of others that we rarely pause to wonder whether this is, in fact, a good thing.
Empathy and pity are strong and necessary emotions that deepen our sense of connection to others; but they depend on a kind of metaphorical imagination of what others are going through. The facile assumption that we can literally “feel others’ pain” can be dangerous to our sense of who we are — and, more alarmingly, who the others are, too. “We all have AIDS,” a recent public-awareness campaign declared. Well, no, actually we don’t: and to pretend that we do, even rhetorically, debases the anguish of those who are stricken.
I’ve just returned from one of my favorite weekend routines: an early morning walk through the park with my happy, bounding yellow lab, Oban. I live near one of the busiest parks in the state of Minnesota, but at 6:30 on a winter Sunday morning, it’s just the two of us, and, if we’re lucky, a few early-rising creatures. Today a chorus of woodpeckers guided us through a timbered path on the public golf course – the same path where last fall a large grey owl monitored our steps from atop a broken tree limb.
I treasure these walks with Oban for the opposing sense of solitude and companionship I feel with him. In simple ways, he reminds me about commitment and the reciprocity of relationship. I’ll walk along at a steady pace; if he runs ahead too far, he’ll turn around and wait for me to catch up, or if he lags behind, I’ll look back and find him running at me full speed to stay close.
We’ve talked about doing a program on the human/animal bond and its spiritual resonance (a topic of greater interest to the pet owners on our staff). Our recent re-broadcast of our program with Katy Payne reminded me of this. Since whales and elephants are not our domestic companions, I hope we can address similar themes of intuitive connection and belonging through the animals closer to our daily lives. I have yet to find a guest who would be a good fit for this topic. Any suggestions?
The project “…was conceived as a response to global religious tensions which intensified in the wake of 9/11. Professional and amateur photographers from around the world volunteered to explore New York City’s richly variegated spiritual life and discover how diversity in belief and practice enriches our own individual experience… Our project aims to remind us all how fortunate we are to live in a city where myriad beliefs coexist in peace and tolerance; we can connect to others and share comfort, sadness, hope and joy as we walk our unique spiritual paths.”
Here’s a few examples of photos from the Brooklyn exhibit:
Ingrid Mattson, head of the Islamic Society of North America, is someone we’ve dubbed a “new voice for Islam.” A new book, meanwhile, is the result of six years of interviews with thousands of Muslims worldwide. There are great interviews on Altmuslim and ReligionWriter, respectively, with the two authors of this new book called Who Speaks For Islam: What A Billion Muslims Really Think. Some important ideas, especially as we are in an election cycle, though we have become used to hearing and tuning out these weighty analyses. I’m not sure we know what to do with them; one hopes our politicians do, though.
Says co-author of the book, Dalia Mogahed:
There are essentially three prisms or filters through which everything the U.S. does or says is viewed by Muslims worldwide. The first filter is the perception of cultural disrespect, that the United States does not respect Islam and Muslims. That I could talk about for a long time. The second filter is the perception of political and economic domination. It’s the perception that the U.S. believes, “Democracy is great, but not for Muslims,” and props up dictators so that the wealth of the nation can be exploited. The third filter is that of acute conflicts — Palestine, of course, and now Iraq and Afghanistan.
These three filters are not independent of each other. They overlap, and one reinforces the other and is in turn reinforced by the other. The filters of cultural disrespect and acute conflicts, for example, overlapped in Abu Ghraib. So changing that won’t be easy; it will require both diplomacy and engaging people on policy.
I enjoyed Nicholson Baker’s essay about Wikipedia (a warning: in his discussion of Wikipedia vandalism, he quotes some profane language) in The New York Review of Books. He notes the astonishing fact that 1500 articles are deleted from Wikipedia every day, and there are warring factions of deletionists and inclusionists battling each other all the time.
Baker has often written about his worry that overlooked but wonderful things are disappearing from the world. He once said in an interview, “It makes me unhappy when certain things change or things are superceded… my nine year old daughter’s personality… Card catalogues; things too.
Jiffy Pop right now feels imperiled. I always think, thank God it’s still hanging there, even though people don’t really buy it for the popcorn anymore — maybe they never did — but now it’s a nostalgia item.” (If I knew more about Wikipedia, I would edit the page on Jiffy Pop to include Baker’s anxiety about its continued survival.)
It made me think of St. Irenaeus, whom John O’Donohue quoted on our most recent show. A second century bishop of the Christian church, he helped delete a lot of early Scripture from the canon, including all the writing of the Gnostics. But when it came to choosing which of the several testaments to the life of Jesus was the right one, he gave up his deletionist tendencies and became an inclusionist. It was due in part to him that the New Testament included four gospels instead of just one.
The response to my previous entry reminded me that we have been in pursuit of our next program on the topic of spirituality and recovery from addiction for awhile, and I don’t feel I personally am making great headway identifying the right voice(s).
There are a million stories to tell, of course, which sometimes actually makes it harder to find the one right story to hone in on. What are the stories that matter to you? Who would you interview? Who do you read on the subject? We’re truly curious to hear your thoughts.