"Physicists have no problem answering the question of ‘If a tree falls in the woods and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?’ They say, ‘Yes! Of course it makes a sound!’ Likewise, if time flows without entropy and there’s no one there to experience it, is there still time? Yes. There’s still time."
After listening to a few "Einstein’s God" interviews, my head is swimming in “what is time” versus “how do I feel time.” Well this Wired article has my head spinning even more.
Two Jesuits who work at the Vatican Observatory — Brother Guy Consolmagno, curator of meteorites, and Father George Coyne, its former director (whom you might recognize from his appearance in Bill Maher’s Religulous) — have been on our interview list for years. Yesterday, Krista was finally able to interview them, together, from a recording studio in Arizona. These two astronomers had a great dynamic between them and have a bit of different perspective from most of the “hard” scientists — usually physicists — we have spoken to over the years. Oh, and they have great sense of humor, as you can see in the video to the right of Br. Consolmagno’s appearance on The Colbert Report.
We’ll start producing this interview while Krista’s out on tour speaking about her new book, and we can’t wait to release this program! In the meantime, Colleen and I tweeted some of the lines that struck our ears. A transcript of our Twitter stream:
For the next 90 minutes, tweets from Krista’s interview w/ two Vatican Observatory astronomers: Fr. George Coyne and Br. Guy Consolmagno.
68 degrees in Arizona. They’re rubbing it in since it is frigid today in Minnesota.
Fr. George is a Jesuit who grew up in Baltimore. Tells a great story about a priest who hooked him up w/ books from the Reading, PA library.
Br. Guy grew up in Detroit and transferred to MIT when he discovered they had the largest science fiction collection!
Br. Guy joined Peace Corps b/c he “couldn’t see the point of studying stars when people are suffering.” Realized that all people love stars.
Fr. Coyne: if all we do is feed and clothe people, we’re all going to be naked; what really makes us human is music, the arts, science…
Br. Guy: you don’t find answers to theological ?s by looking through a telescope; you don’t go to the Bible to find answers to science.
Fr. George: “the God of religious faith is a lover.”
Fr. George: “My understanding of the universe does not need God. I don’t need God in my science.”
Br. Guy Consolmagno: “The tragedy of Haiti is the tragedy of death. … There isn’t any answer to that.”
Fr. George Coyne, astronomer: “To limit our human experience to scientific knowledge is to impoverish all of us.”
Br. Guy Consolmagno, on seismic and cosmic activity in the creation of life: “The climate will change. … The Earth is not a paradise.”
Fr. George Coyne: “To have faith is an extreme risk. ‘Rock of Ages’ is a nice hymn but…”
Br. Guy Consolmagno: “We know our understanding of the universe is incomplete; our understanding of God is incomplete.”
Br. Guy Consolmagno: “You have to experience something before you can react to it.”
Fr. George Coyne, an astronomer on his science: “It’s exciting to be ignorant.”
Fr. George Coyne, when he presents papers at scientific conferences: “I’m not dressed as a priest. It just confuses things.” Funny moment.
The Vatican Observatory is staffed by all Jesuits, except one diocesan priest. But the observatory was not founded by the Jesuit Order.
4 Jesuits have asteroids named after them: Xavier, Loyola, and the 2 chaps Krista is interviewing: Fr. George Coyne + Br. Guy Consolmagno
Br Guy on Galileo: why is it that 400 years later he’s symbol of science religion clash when that’s not what it was about at his time?
Br Guy: Don’t just learn science from reading Newton & Galileo, but also from Plato, Shakespeare, and scripture
Br. Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit astronomer: “Truth can sometimes only be expressed in a poetry.”
Fr Coyne: language of universe is math; it’s a tool to understand beauty; we absract to understand
Br Guy: Being able to do science is trying to understand how God plays with us
"But after I accepted that…he actually said such things, the next puzzle for me was why? Because…prior to Martin Luther King, I don’t know of any other Nobel Laureate who spoke so forcefully for the rights of African Americans." — S. James Gates, Jr., string theorist
"My trip to this institution was in behalf of a worthwhile cause. There is a separation of colored people from white people in the United States. That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it." — Albert Einstein, speaking at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1946
Albert Einstein’s spiritual sensibility is the center of this week’s program, "Einstein’s God," but I want to highlight a section from our companion show, "Einstein’s Ethics," that explores the nature of his humanitarian passions and public ethics, including his views on race. It contains one of my favorite interviews: Krista’s conversation with S. James Gates, Jr, a professor of physics whose work focuses on string theory and supersymmetry — things I don’t fully comprehend.
Originally, he was not on our radar for this program, but when we heard him speak at a conference on Einstein’s legacy, we were impressed not only by his scientific insight, but also by his reflection on Einstein the person. In this excerpt from our program, Gates speaks eloquently and thoughtfully about how he discovered Einstein’s passion for the problem of racism, and his "capacity for ethical engagement and his scientific creativity" — something Gates himself embodies. You’ll hear the beautiful voice of the legendary opera singer Marian Anderson, whom Einstein invited to stay at his home after she was denied a room at Princeton’s best “whites only” hotel.
"I think in a way that kind of cliche ‘spiritual but not religious,’ which apparently is a thing more and more people say to describe themselves, is in a way an attempt to reconcile in some cases with science. In other words…if I say I believe in this highly anthropomorphic God, if I’m religious and too old-fashioned in a sense, or buy into specific claims of revelation, that might not sit well with the modern scientific intelligence." —Robert Wright, author of The Evolution of God (February 2, 2010)
(graphic: Pew Research Center)
New research from the Pew Forum on Public Life reveals that a sizable slice of the Millenial population (people born after 1981) does not affiliate with a particular religious denomination or faith. We’re aware that people of all ages are defining themselves under the expansive umbrella of “spiritual but not religious.” We see this, in part, through the weekly listener emails that flow into our inbox.
Our contact form includes a question: “What faith tradition, if any, do you belong to?” Here are examples of some recent responses we’ve received:
I defy labels ;)
Christian, Baptist… though I refer to myself as a “recovering evangelical” currently not affiliated
atheist, with emerging theory of spirituality
the teachings of Christ, the Buddha, and my dog, not necessarily in that order
As you can see, it’s quite a spread. In his recent public conversation with Krista, Robert Wright provided some helpful insights about how this “spiritual but not religious” trend might relate to a concern with what he calls “modern scientific intelligence.”
If you consider yourself “spiritual but not religious,” can you help us understand what this term actually means to you? Does science have something to do with it? Is it primarily a youthful Millennial trend, as the Pew Forum report suggests? Are there other terms that you would add to the list above to describe yourself on this “spiritual but not religious” continuum?
New data from the Pew Forum may be unsurprising to some of us, but it amplifies what we have probably assumed to be true and seems relevant to our projects at Speaking of Faith:
"Compared with their elders today, young people are much less likely to affiliate with any religious tradition or to identify themselves as part of a Christian denomination. Fully one-in-four adults under age 30 (25%) are unaffiliated, describing their religion as "atheist," "agnostic" or "nothing in particular." This compares with less than one-fifth of people in their 30s (19%), 15% of those in their 40s, 14% of those in their 50s and 10% or less among those 60 and older. About two-thirds of young people (68%) say they are members of a Christian denomination and 43% describe themselves as Protestants, compared with 81% of adults ages 30 and older who associate with Christian faiths and 53% who are Protestants."
Since 2005, same-sex union ceremonies in the UK have been forbidden from mentioning anything religious at all. This has basically banned religious groups (like the Quakers) from consensually performing civil unions for their gay members. It looks like senior bishops in the UK are now backing an amendment to lift this ban, allowing religious institutions to perform same-sex partnerships if they choose. Some Christian groups fear this is a step towards forcing the church to perform gay marriages in the future.
Current NewGround Fellow (check out our program on the organization) Ali H. Mir has written a challenging piece in USC’s The Scoop. By definition of the Patriot Act, he says, journalists should be identifying Joseph Andrew Stack III — the suicide bomber who flew his plane into a federal building in Austin, Texas in order to kill employees of the Internal Revenue Service — as a terrorist and not simply a tax protester:
"Law enforcement and the major media outlets in the United States need to be consistent in their definition of terrorism and to use the term objectively. Selective use of the term makes it clear that objectivity is simply a conceit and that certain racial, ethnic and religious groups are incapable of committing acts of terrorism (i.e. upper-middle-class white men who own airplanes and nurture a grievance against their own government)."
The administrative dashboard for SOF Observed allows us to see who has liked and reblogged our posts within the Tumblr community. It also allows us to see who “follows” our blog. Our most recent follower, 40 Days 40 Deeds, is a group of folks in four cities across the U.S. who aspire to:
"…make small changes throughout the 2010 Lenten season to encourage people to be kinder, to give more, to inconvenience themselves a little to make the world a more pleasant place to be."
The project is in its beginning stages and I’m already liking it. Their deeds are seemingly inconsequential, but, as Pádraig reminds us, “Lent is less for giving up, and more for making space.” These small acts of kindness are really important — offering a ride home to a stranded co-worker few people like, giving your time to be a judge at a history fair, or even just letting that nasty driver budge in front of you during the morning commute — and, perhaps, just might establish new meaningful relationships andlengthen one’s telomeres in the process.
Also, this type of blog picks up on a theme taken up by a pair of Muslims living in New York City last fall. As a way of observing Ramadan, the two men vowed to visit 30 mosques in 30 days during Islam’s holiest month. Not only did they worship regularly, they got to know the many brothers and sisters of all nationalities that make up the Muslim community.
Coupling religious ritual and observance with being a better person and getting to know people — what better way to live out one’s faith and improve one’s self. And, what a great way to notice common threads in many traditions.
In 2005, just a few months after Ta’er Hamad had been arrested, she wrote:
After your son was captured, I spent many sleepless nights thinking about what to do, should I ignore the whole thing, or will I be true to my integrity and to the work that I am doing and try to find a way for closure and reconciliation…
…I understand that your son is considered a hero by many of the Palestinian people, he is considered to be a freedom fighter, fighting for justice and for an independent viable Palestinian state, but I also feel that if he understood that taking the life of another may not be the way and that if he understood the consequences of his act, he could see that a non-violent solution is the only way for both nations to live together in peace.
Over three years later, Robi indirectly received a defiant, militant reply from Mr. Hamad via its publication by a Palestinian news agency:
"Just as I refused to directly address the soldier’s mother, I cannot wish to meet her. I cannot meet with the occupier of our land on the same land. I carried out the operation as part of the struggle for freedom, justice and the establishment of an independent state, not out of a lust or love for killing. Acts of violence are a necessity imposed upon us by the occupation and I shall not abandon this path for as long as the occupation continues."
"Ta’er, how ironic, the people who most wanted to protect me from the words in your letter were my Palestinian friends and other bereaved parents in our group. They of all people have the right to talk about my actions and who I am for we have worked together for more than 6 years to try to end this terrible conflict and to give both sides a chance to live with a sense of dignity free from the terrible fear which engulfs us and gives us all the excuse for violence. The tears I saw in the eyes of my Palestinian partners in the Parents Circle when they met me after you chose to publish the letter were tears of understanding and yes friendship and love…"
"… The wisest reaction I had to the words of your letter came from my wonderful son Eran, who I thought would be terribly angry. Well he said, listen mum, perhaps this is the beginning of a dialog."
In the audio embedded up top, Trent recently spoke with Robi from her home in Tel Aviv to learn more about how she’s reflecting on this exchange, and what it means for her work with the Parents Circle - Families Forum. It’s worth a listen to hear her ongoing tenacity.
A is for Ashes and last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the day when many denominations observe the beginning of Lent — the 40-ish days leading up to the Last Supper, the death of Jesus, the finding of the empty tomb, and the mysterious appearances of Jesus.
Lent comes from the Latin word for Spring. So, it seems that Lent is for Spring.
When I was a small boy, the talk in the class was what you were giving up for Lent — crisps, or lemonade, or, for the radically committed, sweets. Last Tuesday, eating pancakes and lemons, some friends discussed what to give up. We were all agreed: Lent is less for giving up, and more for making space.
We make space to contemplate what it is that we will celebrate in 40 days’ time. We make space to recognise our faults. We pray a little more. We allow our emptier stomachs to remind us of the pithiness of our observations in comparison with real hunger. We give more money. We confess. We reconcile. We listen to emptiness for a while. We do not say Alleluia.
This Ash Wednesday, I went to Clonard Monastery between work meetings. There were workmen, nurses, office people, people in tracksuits, children, teenagers, young, old. We lined up and had ashes, made from the burnt palms of last year’s jubilant celebration of Palm Sunday, smeared on our foreheads with the words “Turn away from sin and return to the Gospel”. After Mass, I walked from the Catholic Falls Road through the city centre into the Protestant Donegall Pass. I wiped the ash from my head, aware of offence and violence.
This year, I have been a sometimes-absent, sometimes-silent friend. I have been bad at communication. Good intentions, frankly, have not been enough. Decisions about what charity to give to have resulted in distraction, not action.
I am hoping that empty space will create something for me. I am giving up eating anything between meals. Three square a day for me. And, pithy as it seems, I am also giving up sweet things. Hard core for me this Lent.
On Holy Thursday, the Eucharist is removed from the tabernacle in the church. We attend the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, reminding ourselves of the emptying of God by God. We remember the descent of our tortured and abandoned brother into Hell. We allow emptiness to create hope.
A friend of mine told me a month ago that he’s been diagnosed as HIV positive. Another friend is in the gut-clenching grip of heartbreaking decisions. Someone is unemployed. Someone is lonely. And I am hoping that Lent will create a bit of space for me to commit my time, my body, and what love I can give. Such resolutions will not, please God, end with an Easter celebration, when a fire will be lit outside the monastery and we will process into the church with springtime candles lit from that same fire.
A is for Allel…
Mr. Ó Tuama, originally from Cork, works in Belfast, Northern Ireland doing chaplaincy and community work, mostly through the Corrymeela Community and the Irish Peace Centres. Part of his community work involves writing poetry to encapsulate some of the stories of living and dying in the context of the Irish conflict.
"…there are some scientists who say ‘I don’t think electrons really exist.’ It’s useful to think of them as existing. It’s useful to build computers with that image in mind of an electron, but I don’t think they really exist… when other people think of God as a personal thing, that’s as close as you can get given the constraints on human cognition and maybe it’s not something you should apologize for…"
Transcribing Krista’s interview with Robert Wright for next week’s show, I came across this passage, which reminded me of a conversation I had with a Hindu Sanyasi when I was 16. In Hinduism, “God” has different definitions depending on what appeals to you. For example, in my family, I grew up understanding that all the different deities were forms of one personal being. But working in India, I met people who literally believed every deity existed as a separate identity — true polytheism. And this Sanyasi was my first exposure to the idea of God not as a personal being.
He explained it by saying that you have to start in kindergarten, learning simple concepts and forms. I think he believed that many people need rituals and images to understand God, but as their spirits reincarnate (and they “graduate”), they can refine their perception of God towards the truth, just like over time we can understand quantum physics (maybe!).
"Palestinian member of the Forum, Ali Abu-Awad met with more than 60 members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, Palestinian fighters most of who are on Israel’s most wanted list. He spoke about non-violent resistance and the work of the Parents Circle - Families Forum and gave them an alternative framework to function. After six hours these hardened fighters wanted to know more and there will be ongoing meetings. Many in the meantime have given up their arms and are looking for another way.”
We were aware that the organization Robi and Ali participate in as bereaved family members, and now work for, reach out to many people as part of a process of dialogue and understanding. But, reading this, was a stark reminder that their efforts extend beyond the peace-loving middle to even the most militant, radical coalitions.
More Science Behind the Human-Animal Connection Shubha Bala, associate producer
I was catching up on my Radiolab and caught the "Animal Minds" episode. In line with our discussion on animals and spirituality, this episode delves into different scientific research on whether or not animals and humans have a mental or emotional connection.
“None of the theories of the transmission of religious belief favoured by anti-theists work. Religious belief is not a marker of stupidity. In this country, among the under thirties, it is most common in those with a university education. Nor is it transmitted by brainwashing. But if religion is natural, none of this proves it is necessary, nor that it is impossible to suppress…”— —Andrew Brown, editor of the Guardian's Comment is free section, has stirred up quite a conversation with his "Are science and atheism compatible?" article — saying that science has as much ability to bring as much discomfort to dogmatic non-believers as it does to the most religious.
"Myself When I Am Real" Andy Dayton, associate web producer
"It was kind of like jazz." That’s what Nancy said when I asked her how Krista’s conversation with E. Ethelbert Miller went. Prior to the interview, Trent began paging through Miller’s second memoir, The 5th Inning, and seemed taken by the book’s honesty and willingness to acknowledge the darker corners of life. From the introduction:
"How do we cope with failure in life? How do we live when everyday we open our eyes to death? This memoir is about how I coped with failure and disappointment in career, marriage, and life. We fail as lovers, parents, and friends."
With this in mind, I sent an email to Chris suggesting he give Charles Mingus’ Mingus Plays Piano a listen when scoring the program’s soundtrack. The album has a contemplative and improvisational sound that I really enjoy — an enjoyment that’s enhanced knowing a bit of the story behind it. Appearing in the liner notes to the compilation, The Impulse Story, here’s an account from inside the studio when Mingus recorded the album:
"Somebody was playing the piano in there very hauntingly — very beautifully. Then it would stop, and start again. It didn’t sound like practicing. It sounded like somebody was just thinking on the piano. That’s the best way I could say it. I looked in the music room and it was pitch black. The lights weren’t on. So I went into Thiele’s office and said, ‘Who’s playing in there?’ ‘It’s Charlie Mingus. A very close friend of his died.’ I never knew who he was grieving over. But about a half-hour later Thiele said, ‘Charles, let’s go into a studio.’ That became Mingus Plays Piano.”
"Thinking on the piano." Replace notes with words and you might say that reading (and hearing) E. Ethelbert Miller can be a similar experience.
My suggestion didn’t make its way into the program. Miller dropped enough musical references during the interview to easily fill the program’s 50 minutes. But you can listen to the first track from the album — “Myself When I Am Real” — to get a taste of what “thinking on the piano” sounds like.
Artist Kara Walker installs her work “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (photo: Cameron Wittig/Walker Art Center)
I’ve heard E. Ethelbert Miller’s essays and short interviews on Weekend Edition Sunday and always learned something new. He has been at Howard University, first as an undergraduate, since it was a crucible of Black Power in the late 1960s. I’ve heard him observe political and cultural events — like the election of Barack Obama as president — through a fascinating lens, from that vantage point, and also from his vantage point as a poet, a “literary activist.” And I wondered what would happen if I sat down with him for a whole hour to explore the nexus of the political, the artistic, and the spiritual in the dramatic trajectory of black history over the last half century — a trajectory he has both been shaped by and has shaped.
The result is an unpredictable, playful, and challenging program. For starters, he is not eager to engage in a head-on discussion of Obama and race — the discussion many in our culture have both longed for, and not found a way to have, throughout his candidacy and now his presidency. For E. Ethelbert Miller, Obama’s election says interesting things about how white people in the U.S. have changed. He does not buy the language of a “post-racial society.” Yet he sees that both Barack and Michele Obama have made a lasting impact on global cultural associations between blackness, elegance, excellence, and beauty. And in the long run, he seems to feel, that may be more than enough, for now.
We hear the trumpet of Miles Davis and the saxophone of John Coltrane as Miller guides us in an entertaining, if not linear, way through the evolution of what he calls “blackness” in the last half century. His words and the sounds of this music join the poetry of Lucille Clifton "won’t you celebrate with me") and the prose of Buddhist novelist Charles Johnson and Muslim activist Malcolm X to evoke the eclectic range of influences that nourished the black consciousness that first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Our cultural memory has taken in some of these influences and forgotten much of the rest, though they have all continued to ferment in E. Ethelbert Miller’s being and in the diverse universe he inhabits.
He likes to imagine a healing role for African-American Muslims, for example, in the global encounter between Islam and the West in this century. He also suggests that, in this globalized world, the noun/adjective “African American” is too small. His own heritage is West Indian, and the term African American in fact obscures the far-flung immigrant story inside the story of race in the U.S. alone. But in using the word “blackness” — which culturally might seem a reversal — E. Ethelbert Miller is talking about much more than the color of one’s skin. He is talking about “the color of ideas.”
Also, I recommend reading Miller’s "My Language, My Imagination." It’s a beautiful essay based on a speech he delivered on the campus of Western Oregon University in 1998. It is a vivid, personal, concise, and energizing introduction to the turning points and inner dynamics of African-American life in our time. And it is terrific background for going on to read Miller’s memoirs — especially his first, Fathering Words — and his poetry.
African-American descendants of slaves ponder it, as do descendants of immigrants that arrived at Ellis Island. Expecting parents deliberate it, as does a bride going from maiden to married (or vice versa). Artists muse it, as do people with political or religious intentions. “It” being the meaning of the personal name — or the process of giving, taking, or receiving a name that we experience in multiple ways as giving definition, and sometimes control, to our individual identity.
I’ve been thinking about this since hearing Krista and E. Ethelbert Miller talk about the significance of naming in this week’s show. I appreciated both the weight and the humor in Miller’s description of the experience of naming his children. In his first memoir, Fathering Words, he writes about his own name change:
"…I changed my name my sophomore year at Howard. I reinvented myself. Maybe everything I am writing now is a continuation of that 1969 decision, like the Brown, Supreme Court decision of 1954. I was Gene to my parents, especially my father. I enrolled in college as Eugene E Miller, but like the legal blow against segregation, I became more social and outgoing under the name E. Ethelbert Miller.
How did it happen? Was it as quick as my grandmother changing my father’s last name from Williams to Miller when they came to America? A new identity, an escape as good as anything Houdini could do. The magic was first discovered in the lounge of Drew Hall. A number of us were thinking about running for student government as a ticket. I was selected to run for freshman class treasurer. It was obvious that no one had checked my poor math grades from elementary to high school. A consecutive record of failures with numbers that established a Ripken-like streak. The person handling my campaign was a young coed from Chicago. She had a nice afro and shape, and she was funny and smart. We sat on the floor in the lounge trying to come up with slogans for posters and we couldn’t. She asked about my middle name. Ethelbert, I told her, and she laughed. She came up with this silly expression about ‘Ethelbert Is Coming’ and soon made posters with an airplane, which struck me as stupid, but what did I know about politics. Many students found the expression funny and voted for me and I won.
So I was Eugene Ethelbert Miller after a few weeks away from the Bronx. But folks would call me Eugene until I ran for sophomore class president and decided to cast myself as a new politician. I had resigned from being freshman class treasurer because I refused to spend money on a class party and folks wanted to party and so they did so without me. Just as Richard Nixon became the new Nixon to some, I changed my name to E. Ethelbert Miller…”
In his first memoir, Miller also peppers in writings from his sister, Marie. A nurse, she shares her candid assessment of his name change:
"I thought the entire name change thing was as crazy as getting an afro, or wearing African clothes, or going to Africa. E. Ethelbert Miller, please! What was he getting into down in Washington? All that black stuff was crazy. I saw it on television. It didn’t have anything to do with my life. When you’re thinking about working in a hospital, all you see is red, the color of blood. Folks don’t have no time for race relations when they are sick or dying; and why didn’t my brother take an African name if he wanted to be so black and different? He could have been Kwame, or one of those principles associated with that thing called Kwanzaa. You know, he could have called himself Umoja or something like that."
I made the traditional choice of taking my husband’s name when I got married, primarily for practical reasons, but also because my maiden name reflected a history of family adoption, so I felt no innate connection to it. It didn’t take long for me to get used to it; in fact, I think the process of changing my social security card took longer. With my son, we chose a name that was simple, sounded regal (to us), and was connected to family heritage. I hope Owen will embrace it, though I’ll be prepared for the reality that he may amend it.
I wonder: What stories, choices, meanings are behind your names? In what ways and in what places do you find yourself pondering the meaning of your name and how it defines you?
I’m currently editing Kate’s interview with Omid Safi, which focuses on his recent book about memories and stories of Muhammad. During the conversation he says that if you ask most people a story about Christianity they can tell you about a prevailing idea or parable about Jesus; ask about Judaism and you’ll often hear something about Moses; inquire about Hinduism and Gandhi will come up or the idea of non-violence. But, if you ask them about the Prophet, they most likely will have no concrete idea or story.
Later on, he shares a wonderful story about the Prophet and the “naked embrace” of his wife when he’s questioning the veracity of his divine visions. A concrete story that humanizes Muhammad, to be sure, but also a tale about women and their influential role within Islamic thought.
In the quote above, Ms. Izzidien gives another concrete example of the Prophet through an interaction with his wife — but, this time, by weaving it into her delightful and light-hearted, but sincere, take on young Muslim women assuming the lead in courtship. A modern-day perspective worth noticing, and look for the produced interview with Omid Safi later next week!
As the newest addition to Speaking of Faith, my first task has been to prepare the show "No More Taking Sides" for rebroadcast in a couple of weeks. Listening to Ali say “Nobody want to be honest. Everybody want to be right,” reminded me of working in Gujarat when "state-sanctioned" violence, torture, and rape broke out across the state, primarily with Hindus attacking Muslims.
Although Hindu by birth, I was working there for a non-denominational organization. I was 20. Under 24-hour curfew, the media were saturated with images of brutality happening just down the street. More importantly, the dialogue of friends and colleagues concentrated on “us” versus “them.”
Recently, a friend read my personal narrative and asked, “Didn’t the Hindus realize the irony that came with attaching terms of violence to the Muslims?” Well no. Not the Hindus that took a side. They felt they were right and all Muslims were wrong. As for me, in addition to coping with the sheer force of violence, I was equally faced with a personal crisis — the Hindus I met believed I was part of “them,” but I just wanted to be human and I wanted the brutality to stop.
Robi and Ali’s story makes me imagine that organizations like Parents Circle - Family Forumcan break down the centuries of opposing sides that have persisted between Hindus and Muslims.
Arresting. From the Mail & Guardian, this difficult and disturbing set of images accompanied by an interview with Leon Botha, an artist and Progeria survivor. He is 24 years old. A Friday afternoon video *pause* in a day that leaves me reflective.
(Thanks to Boing Boing for their post leading me to this slideshow.)
“I tend to think that fictional characters are in some ways more real than biological human beings. Think of Victorian England. How many people from that era can you remember?. I would say that Sherlock Holmes is more real than the anonymous people who came and went and lived and died in east London. To be a fictional character like that is not such a bad fate.”—
Last week, we lost fiction writer J.D. Salinger and historian Howard Zinn. In the days after their deaths, I noticed Salinger quotes like this one from Catcher in the Rye peppering friends’ Facebook feeds:
"I don’t care if it’s a sad good-bye or a bad good-bye, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t, you feel even worse."
I haven’t read The Catcher in the Rye since high school, but that voice of Holden Caulfield’s is so recognizable and distinct — like someone I know really well but haven’t talked to in awhile. People have been posting RIP Howard Zinn tributes, but many don’t feature memorable quotes, which reminded me of Mary Doria Russell’s commentary about the enduring imprint of fictional characters.
What about you? Are there characters from beloved books whose imprint has stuck with you over time? Do you have quotes from these fictional friends to share?
“The problem was not a shortage of sincerity but an excess of zeal in which self-belief overrode objective judgment.”—
— —Jonathan Aitken, commenting in The Guardian on former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and his role in the lead-up to, and the aftermath of, the Iraq war. Aitken says that “once the Chilcot inquiry establishes the truth about Iraq, we should be quick not to judge, but to forgive.”
“Salvation somehow seemed closer — yet we also knew that we could be killed at any moment. The goal was to hang on a little longer. … The fury of the Haitian earthquake, which has taken more than 200,000 lives, teaches us how cruel nature can be to man. The Holocaust, which destroyed a people, teaches us that nature, even in its cruelest moments, is benign in comparison with man when he loses his moral compass and his reason.”—
“…unfortunately, society does not generally invest enough in innovation—especially in areas where it would help the poor (who aren’t an attractive market) and where there isn’t an agreed-upon measure of excellence. In the U.S., that means we have not invested nearly what we should in innovation for education.”—
This brief commentary by Bill Gates’ nicely accentuates a point made by Jacqueline Novogratz for our show to be released this Thursday (via podcast). She sees an opportunity for social investors to take risks in these unattractive markets abroad that actually might serve as new models for how we operate here in the States.
Perhaps this experimental work is going on now in more places than many of us realize. It’s just not funded properly or recognized. More directly, I’m thinking of two recent conversations we’ve had with Adele Diamond and Mike Rose. Both are challenging the stagnation in the U.S. education system that Gates’ later mentions — Diamond couples scientific knowledge of the brain with observations of children in classroom settings; Rose pairs his decades of teaching and education at all levels with his conversations with folks in all parts of the country.
Are we really listening and paying attention to what’s going on in our backyard (including Canada)? And, how are we willing to give those ideas a fighting chance of going mainstream?
"Nou Met Led Me Nou La!" (We May Be Ugly, But We Are Here!)
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, whom we first interviewed for our program "Living Vodou," grew up in Haiti, a member of the country’s aristocratic elite of African descent. He studied political science in the U.S. and earned his Ph.D. in International Relations from American University. Unlike his well-known grandfather, Dantès Bellegarde, Patrick Bellegarde-Smith was first drawn to his homeland’s indigenous religion as a way to understand his cultural identity, and later became a oungan.
The professor of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee responds to our questions about Haiti’s history, the mass media’s reporting, and Vodou’s role in recovery:
I find myself wanting to hear about the context and perspective that only you can bring to the way Haiti is being viewed and discussed while the earthquake spotlight is on it. What are your thoughts?
I am running on adrenaline at this moment, often unthinking, unfeeling, “zombie-like.” I didn’t sleep for the first several days. A Haitian baby girl, 15 days old, was found alive and well after seven days. Half her life! What stamina shown by the buried, the undead, after one week after the cataclysm.
The UN says that it is the worst disaster it has faced, presumably in terms of actual death and refugees in a single country. It is the worst earthquake in Haitian history, in a country and in a geographic/geologic area that was literally created from fault lines and tectonic plates and volcanoes. When earthquakes occurred in the 19th century, Haiti picked itself up and rebuilt itself, without assistance from the outside world. We do acknowledge that we need it this time, and hope that Haiti will rebuild based on Haitian models, at the direction of Haitian governments, with all that Haiti has in terms of a reservoir of talent both inside and outside the country.
When you say that you hope Haiti will rebuild based on Haitian models, what do you mean? Are there certain examples you’re thinking of?
Haitian models abound in all fields, areas, and systems of life. The culture provides with indigenous models of development, as well as indigenous patterns of housing development, some predating European colonization of the island of Haiti (Hispaniola), e.g. Amerindian sources. The “Miami model” now found throughout the Caribbean insists on low houses, flat cement cement roofs, and the like, which do not accord with the environment.
Other more “settled cultures” have improvised upon their legacy, while Haiti has opted for a pale imitation of American standards all too often. In the same way that our art is distinctive and derived from our religion, our housing and our cities can also be creative and innovative within our own traditions and foundations. Hence, my call for all architects and engineers to come together to rebuild Port-au-Prince.
Port-au-Prince had eathquakes in the 1860s and 1950s. It was rebuilt. The second city of 500,000 inhabitants, Cap-Haïtien, was destroyed in 1842. It was rebuilt.
There’s been so much non-stop coverage of Haiti since the first earthquake devastated the country where you grew up. I saw a series of reports on one news channel and its website that featured a reporter standing outside of a Catholic church…
Haiti has always been “defined” as 60 percent Catholic, 40 percent Protestant, but 100 percent Vodou. This recognizes that the national religion is part of a worldview that belongs to all Haitians, and for which all Haitians should be proud. Typically, we can and do worship in churches, temples, and ounfos, realizing that it’s all about “spirit” and that all spiritual disciplines have access to the spiritual world.
Vodou is merely the culturally Haitian form of such worship. Haitian music, painting, oral literature — all systems inherently found in all cultures — have a Vodou foundation at its base. Much the same as the Judeo-Christian ethos suffuses all that is American, even those millions of Americans who are atheists.
…and the report would cut away to shots of Haitians worshiping while the correspondent continued to talk somewhat off-the-cuff. I thought, “Why aren’t they speaking to more people and featuring their voices on camera — even if they need interpreters?” What’s been missed in U.S. coverage of Haiti and its cultural/religious/spiritual moorings?
Much is missing from the American reportage by media. American media, all together now, refuse to mention that the first responders were more than 400 Cuban doctors doing good work in Haiti for several years. American media are not reporting that Venezuelan and Cuban help is being resisted by the U.S. when Cuba and Venezuela are very significant allies of Haiti for the past 200 years — for the past 100 years, depending on when these countries achieved independence.
The emphasis was not on water or food, but on landing 12,000 American soldiers in Haiti. Why so many soldiers? Please explain. Haitians are refusing to oblige American reporters who insist that Haiti will have “riots” and that Haitians “loot.” Is it because Haitians are black? The same arguments were made about New Orleans during Katrina. Racism always remains true to itself. When will that stop, coming from people who are genuine in their desire to help, but remain racist nonetheless. Please stop!
As someone whose personal history represents the many layers of Haitian cultural, political, and religious identity, how are these events impacting you personally?
I have lost nine members of my extended family. Cousins of my generation have all survived, but their five homes have collapsed. One cousin in her mid-60s is sleeping in her car with her gravely ill husband. I have yet, as of today, been unable to call. News is intermittent. I am distressed and distraught.
I remember Port-au-Prince in the late 1940s and 1950s — une ville jardin, a garden city with abundant greenery and water, a small population of 150,000. I am well-born and come from a well-connected family whose story parallels Haitian history over the last two centuries. Every corpse is mine; every body is mine. Their spirit fuses with mine and that of all Haitians. Spirits live beyond death — and before birth. The dead are not dead, but alive in new dimensions. I gain solace from that ancestral thought.
That sentiment — “the dead are not dead” — reminds me of a line from Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti: “The future stems from the past, so life and death become one in the same.” Could you say more about the Vodou understanding of spirit and energy and not wasting the wisdom of one’s ancestors? And how might this Vodou worldview inform a Haitian approach to rebuilding the country?
The Gede family of spirits protect the cemetery, and also protect new life in a never-ending chain. The Gede love children, reminiscent of the relationship one often finds between grandparents and grandchildren. One’s past predicts tendencies for certain outcomes, yet, through the exercise of free will, one can transcend one’s limits.
In traditional African thought, as in most spiritual systems, reincarnation is taken for granted, though attenuated in Haiti by the impact of Christianity. Hence the lack of a heaven and a hell, yet alone a purgatory or, in pre-John Paul II times, a limbo. Souls are nearer than we realize, and their interaction with the “living,” generally beneficent. No energy goes a-wasting in a close universe!
The way one interacts with fellow beings on the planet is far more significant (and rewarding) than the way one might interact with the spirit world or with God for that matter. At critical points in our lives’ journeys, God shall not ask about our beliefs or treatment of “It,” but how we have managed our relationships with humans and other facets of nature alike.
In what ways are you seeing your local community and, perhaps, larger Haitian-American community coming together during these times?
Haiti was in the process of reinventing itself politically, socially, culturally. Now Haiti has to reinvent itself physically as well. Out of tremendous pain, rays of hope. We rebuilt after past earthquakes, after hurricanes. We are spared the scourge of volcanic eruptions; our sister English and French colonies in the Caribbean, Monserrat and Martinique, did not escape volcanoes that are at the foundations of our countries.
The Haitian diaspora, more than a million strong, will come to the rescue. This signal event forces us to come into action. “L’Union Fait la Force" ("Union Makes Strength"), the national motto of Haiti must be practiced or else the international community will dictate the terms of Haiti’s "recovery." And worse will follow!
As a Vodou priest, how has the spirit world been present during the aftermath?
Haiti needs all its ancestral spirits, now more than ever. Praise the Lwa.
You began this interview by sharing the remarkable story of a 15-day-old baby surviving the quake. How do stories like this inform your notions of the human spirit? Of what Haiti’s future might hold and look like?
Her spirit is strong, and I would hope that she was spared to produce great things in her lifetime. This is one of many miracles we have been fortunate to witness over the last 12 days! That girl, name unknown, has proven as resilient as Haiti herself.
Who might have predicted that Haiti would have survived 206 years when faced by the opprobrium of the Western powers? In defiance, we cry out, “nou met led me nou la (we may be ugly, but we are here)!”
I’m not a narcissist. But Clay Shirky thinks I should be.
The media critic recently posted a controversy-mongering blog titled “A Rant About Women,” the premise being that women would do well to act more like men — stand up for themselves more and do what it takes to get ahead, even if it means being a “pompous blowhard”:
[Women] are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.
Reading Shirky’s rant certainly doesn’t surprise from a gender standpoint. Most women have heard it our whole lives: Be more like men, even if said men are glorifying and rewarding reprehensible behavior.
What gives me pause is that Shirky, like so many of our “thought leaders,” isn’t leading at all, rather, willingly following the cultural trend of less substance and more self-aggrandizement, less selflessness and more LOOK AT ME HEY OVER HERE. So because that’s the way our culture is heading, we should equip ourselves to be better narcissists? As if we needed any help in that arena.
I see this less as a gender issue, though that is undoubtedly a factor, and more as a dangerous societal shift. We should be challenging a system that exalts arrogant self-promotion and “being discovered” over the actual work of making things better. Instead, Shirky critiques the behavior of people (not just women) who refuse to kowtow to this path of least resistance. Anna North at Jezebelsaid it well:
Shirky writes, “in an ideal future, self-promotion will be a skill that produces disproportionate rewards, and if skill at self-promotion remains disproportionately male, those rewards will as well. This isn’t because of oppression, it’s because of freedom.” Shirky has an idealistic view of self-promotion — he also thinks it’s a marker of a variety of other skills, about which I’m very skeptical (see above). Others take a dimmer view: it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and women had better transform themselves into better dog-eaters. This “change-yourself-to-fit-in” advice has been given to pretty much every marginalized group over the years …
Those who are marginalized by a system are often those best able to see its flaws, and teaching those people just to work around their marginalization is a great way to keep them quiet, and to keep anything from ever changing. Let’s not fall for it.
This “self promotion equals greater rewards” system is not a future we should embrace willingly. In fact, it’s a pretty dismal picture of humanity where navel gazing and notoriety inform our fundamental identities.
To Shirky’s credit, I think it’s a fair point that we need to stand up for our work and make our voices heard (not just women, but especially women). But I think it’s unproductive, not to mention morally suspect, to do so because we hope to “get famous five years from now.” And I can’t believe that the loudest blowhards in the room are the ones doing the real work of changing the world. They’re too busy talking about the work — or themselves — to actually get down to doing it. Why should we emulate their behavior?
As North said in her response: “’The squeaky wheel gets the grease’ is a s**tty way to run a world.”
She’s right. So how do we cut through the clamor of self-promotion and elevate the people and voices that are doing the often-thankless work of making the world better?
Ms. Hinck is a multimedia journalist and editor living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. You can read her blog Brain Popcorn and follow her on Twitter.
Reconciling "Intrusive Paternalism" and "Soft Power"
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
"This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story."
Last Friday, Krista sent around David Brooks’ recent editorial on the disaster in Haiti. As the quote above suggests, he discusses the connection between the scale of damage in Haiti and the nation’s “poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services.”
One of the many questions the situation in Haiti raises is how those in wealthier nations can help prevent this sort of catastrophe in the future. Brooks provides his own diagnosis on effective foreign aid, based on a few domestic examples:
In [the U.S.], we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.
These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.
It’s time to take that approach abroad, too. It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.
As I read this, I couldn’t help but hear Binyavanga Wainaina’s voice in the back of my mind, whom Krista spoke to in our program "The Ethics of Aid: One Kenyan’s Perspective." Wainaina is a Kenyan writer who has often been a vocal critic of foreign aid:
A lot of people arrive in Africa to assume that it’s a blank empty space and their goodwill and desire and guilt will fix it. And that to me is not any different from the first people who arrived and colonized us. This power, this power to help, is just about as dangerous as hard power, because very often it arrives with a kind of zeal that is assuming ‘I will do it. I will solve it for you. I will fix it for you,’ and it rides roughshod over your own best efforts.
I find Brooks’ call for “intrusive paternalism” hard to reconcile with Wainaina’s warnings about the “soft power” of foreign aid. But, the question still remains — what can we do to help prevent another Haiti?
One possible answer to that question comes from next week’s guest, Jacqueline Novogratz, who speaks of an approach to foreign aid that uses “a hard head and a soft heart.” She’s the CEO and founder of the Acumen Fund, which aims to combine the economic accountability of venture capital with the human-centric concerns of traditional philanthropy — an approach that is innovative, but also comes with its own questions.
“…I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”—
—from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (translation by M.D. Herter Norton), which was cited by Jacqueline Novogratz in her interview with Krista for next week’s program, “A Different Kind of Capitalism.”
The vital work of our talented colleagues at American RadioWorks (ARW) is on my mind for a number of reasons. It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I’m reminded of their 2008 documentary, "King’s Last March." I thought I knew a lot about the celebrated civil rights leader, but this program offers insight into his person that I haven’t heard elsewhere. It explores why a more pessimistic King chose a path of “deeper difficulty and greater risk” in his last year of life, and includes both familiar and lesser-known archival audio (check out Trent’s reflection from a few years ago for an audio example). There are many ways to reflect on the legacy of King. For me, one way is to have a better understanding of who he really was at various points in his life. This doc does that very well.
Also, as we continue to receive many thoughtful stories in response to our show with Mike Rose about the meaning of intelligence, I’m reminded of ARW’s more recent offering "Workplace U." It’s not a university but a movement to merge workplace and classroom that may offer low-income workers more opportunity for success than traditional educational models. There’s some real-world examples here that compliment Mike Rose’s perspective.
I know I sound overly promotional here, but I would not mention these programs if I didn’t think you would find them compelling, meaningful, and complementary to some of the topics we’ve presented in the past year. They are part of the best of documentary journalism.
Brazil army officials issued a statement saying many followers of the Voodoo religion would not accept the dead being touched until all of their rituals were concluded. Some experts on the faith validated the claim while others rejected it.
Voodoo, a mix of African religions and Roman Catholicism, is central to Haitian life and is widely observed in some form. The religion often has been wrongly associated with black magic or sorcery, leaving a lingering stereotype against its followers.
But suggestions that survivors are stacking corpses outside Port-au-Prince hospitals because they are waiting for a Voodoo ceremony is inaccurate, said Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, an expert on Haitian Voodoo, also spelled Vodou, in the department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"None of what the Brazilian authorities say makes any sense," Bellegarde-Smith said in a Thursday e-mail. "They are absolutely wrong! Most Haitians, though they believe in Vodou, are devoted Catholics or Protestants."
Ms. Tippett: When something like that happens that was so catastrophic, so many people died, you know, this question is raised of this magnitude of suffering and this “where is God?” question. And somehow this Jelle de Boer, he talked about how with a long view of time and nature, that plate tectonics are what restore life over time. He said life is directly dependent on these geological processes, that we don’t know that other planets have this type of plate tectonics or these extensive oceans and that’s probably why there may not be life there. He said here we are, lucky. “We’re lucky because of these processes where the plates separate and crack and where they run over each and crack and as a consequence of that magmas form at deep levels in the earth. They are brought to the surface and they bring not only nutrients but also water and that is the essence of life.” I mean, it’s this long view of life.
Mr. Le Pichon: Yes. This is perfectly true, but if, for example, I look at controversy between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire immediately after the Lisbon earthquake. Voltaire said, “How can that be a good God that is letting these hundreds of thousands of people being killed by the earthquake?” and so on. And the answer of Rousseau was, “Look, God created them as people living in the forest and so on and if they had still been living in the forest instead of building huge buildings in which they lived, there would have been barely anybody killed.”
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Le Pichon: So it’s the way man has chosen to live that is creating that. At the present time we have, for example, half of the mega-poles, there’s more than 10 million people who are close to plate boundaries. And we have chosen to put them there. When I was an associate professor in Tokyo University, it was at the time of the Kobe earthquake. They had a big discussion about should we move Tokyo? You know, it’s a very dangerous place.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Le Pichon: It was a very serious discussion. Should we move it to the west? It’s true, they put it in one of the most dangerous places that is. That is the challenge of humanity. We are now 6 billion and a half people, and clearly without science and technology we cannot live anymore. I mean, science and technology is essential. But at the same time, we have chosen certain ways of life in which we did not have time yet to test our reaction to the environment, and we have this problem to deal with — how are we going to tackle the problem of completely new implementations which are not environment tested? That’s one of the big challenges of the future.