Albert Einstein's Faith: Was the Great Physicist Spiritual?
by Krista Tippett, host
Albert Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, remains difficult for me to grasp fully. But I feel I have come to understand something of the man — his expansive spirit, his relentless curiosity, and his reverence for the beauty and order of nature and thought. I was daunted as I began, but delving into Einstein was a delight.
And there is a logic of sorts to that, as humor was an aspect of Einstein’s genius. Freeman Dyson suggests that his ability to make light and to laugh, even at himself, was one key to the magnitude of his scientific accomplishment. Science is often about failure. Einstein himself proposed that he made so many discoveries because he was not afraid to be proven wrong, repeatedly, on his way to all of them. But Einstein also employed humor to philosophical and ethical effect, weighing in trenchantly on mankind’s foibles.
Einstein held a deep and nuanced, if not a traditional, faith. I did not assume this at the outset. I’ve always been suspicious of the way Einstein’s famous line, “God does not play dice with the universe,” gets quoted for vastly different purposes. I wanted to understand what Einstein meant as a physicist when he said that. As it turns out, that particular quip had more to do with physics than with God, as Freeman Dyson and Paul Davies illuminate.
Einstein did, however, leave behind a rich body of reflection on the “mind” and the “superior spirit” behind the cosmos that has never made its way into popular consciousness. He didn’t believe in a personal God who would interfere with the laws of physics. But he was fascinated with the ingenuity of those laws and expressed awe at the very fact of their existence. Throughout his life, he thrilled to all he could not yet understand. He was more than content with what he called a “cosmic religious sense” — animated by “inklings” and “wondering,” rather than by answers and conclusions. Here is a passage that comes close, I think, to a concise description by Einstein of his quintessential “faith”:
"A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty — it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves … Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature."
With Paul Davies, I was able to pursue how Einstein changed our view of space and especially time, a subject that has always intrigued me. Before Einstein, as Davies describes it, human beings thought of space and time as fixed and immutable, the backdrop to the great show of life. But we now know they are elastic and intertwined, part of the show themselves. Einstein described our perception of time as an arrow — traversing linear and compartmentalized past, present, and future — as a “stubbornly persistent illusion.” Such language is evocative from a religious standpoint. As Davies discusses, it echoes insights that run throughout Eastern and Western religions and ancient indigenous cultures. Davies finds an affinity between Einstein’s view of time and the religious notion of a reality “beyond time,” and of “the eternal.” And because he speaks as a person conversant in current advancements of Einstein’s science — cosmology and the Big Bang, black holes, even the search for life beyond this galaxy — his insights carry for me a special weight of authority and, yes, wonder.
I came across many wise and touching pieces of writing by the spiritual Einstein while preparing for these conversations. Einstein was a passionate letter writer. He wrote to fellow scientists, friends, and strangers. He loved responding to the letters of schoolchildren. One of his correspondents for a time was Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. He had struck up a warm friendship with her and her husband, King Albert, just before World War II. In one tragic season in the midst of already tumultuous political times, her husband died suddenly, as did her daughter-in-law. Einstein wrote to her:
"Mrs. Barjansky wrote to me how gravely living in itself causes you suffering and how numbed you are by the indescribably painful blows that have befallen you. And yet we should not grieve for those who have gone from us in the primes of their lives after happy and fruitful years of activity, and who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.
Something there is that can refresh and revivify older people: joy in the activities of the younger generation — a joy, to be sure, that is clouded by dark forebodings in these unsettled times. And yet, as always, the springtime sun brings forth new life, and we may rejoice because of this new life and contribute to its unfolding; and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be. There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions. And such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope. For us, there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest forms.”
I emerged from these discussions with a new sense of Albert Einstein — not just as a great mind, but as a wise man. He was fully human and flawed, certainly in his intimate relationships. But he was undeniably an original, and not just as a scientist. If past, present, and future are an illusion, as he said, none of us ever really disappear. We all leave our imprint on what is now. I have a profound sense of Einstein’s imprint, and it comforts me. I suspect that if he heard he was the subject of a program called Speaking of Faith more than 50 years after his death, he would make a funny, kindly, self-deprecating joke. But if he could listen with twenty-first-century ears, he might be intrigued by how his generous, questioning, “cosmic” religious sense is deeply kindred with the religious and spiritual yearnings of our age.
Images: top, an inset of a page from one of three existing Einstein manuscripts on special relativity (1912). No known original manuscripts exist from the year of publication in 1905. (courtesy of The Jewish National & University Library, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
bottom, Albert Einstein sailing his boat on Saranac Lake. (courtesy of The Fantova Collection, Princeton University)
"Well, I think perfection is the booby prize in life, actually. It’s very isolating, very separating, and it’s also impossible to achieve. So you’re always struggling to become something you’re not." —Rachel Naomi Remen
I’ve been with Speaking of Faith for six years, and in a few weeks I’ll be moving on to a new position within American Public Media. As I prepare to depart, I’d be grateful if you’d join me in reflecting on some of the best moments of SOF. What are your favorites?
What Does WikiLeaks Reveal About Our Inner Selves?
by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
Julian Assange of WikiLeaks holds a copy of The Guardian newspaper that features a report using the site’s leaked documents on the Afghanistan war. (photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
[Governments] used to be able to control what…newspapers and news organizations would do in part by informally controlling their access to information, by in essence saying, ‘If you go over the line, we’ll stop talking to you. We won’t invite you on to the press plane. We won’t give you a seat on the bus.’ And reporters behaved within certain parameters in part, because they do need that continued access. WikiLeaks doesn’t need a seat on the bus. —Micah Sifry, executive editor of TechPresident.com on FutureTense
Micah Sifry’s commentary on the unfolding WikiLeaks story on the war in Afghanistan has gotten me thinking about questions of trust and relationship-building in and beyond the realm of journalism and politics. At its worst, needing to keep our “seat on the bus,” as Sifry puts it, can result in collusion and self-censoring. Information or, put differently, necessary truths, get squelched in favor of preserving expedient relationships.
Maybe we do this with family, friends, and loved ones — keep things to ourselves to maintain a connection, a sense of belonging, or simply to get our basic needs met. But coming at it from another direction, I believe there are moral and relational benefits to interdependence. Both sides have to consider each others’ needs. Empathy is triggered. No one party can act with reckless abandon. The work of peacebuilder and conflict transformation practitioner John Paul Lederach comes to mind here.
I wonder if the truths unearthed through WikiLeaks’ release of classified documents about the war in Afghanistan will galvanize a public response. NYU Journalism professor and blogger Jay Rosen offers some sobering insight in his PressThink blog:
"We tend to think: big revelations mean big reactions. But if the story is too big and crashes too many illusions, the exact opposite occurs. My fear is that this will happen with the Afghanistan logs. Reaction will be unbearably lighter than we have a right to expect — not because the story isn’t sensational or troubling enough, but because it’s too troubling, a mess we cannot fix and therefore prefer to forget."
Alan Rabinowitz was a discovery, and my interview with him is as full of revelation and beauty as any I’ve done.
This is in part because he is an extraordinary person. How many people have stories of looking jaguars and lions in the eyes in the wild and walking away? Or of encountering pygmy humans believed to be lost? Or of discovering an unknown primitive species of deer? But the inner odyssey that has taken him towards all these experiences, and that he has taken in response to them, is as remarkable.
Alan Rabinowitz was born a stutterer, before this condition’s neurological base was understood. His difficulty in speaking was so profound that it masked his intelligence and personality for the first 20 years of his life. He was isolated in school, put in classes for “retarded children.”
After being mute all day, as he tells it, he would come home and be able to talk to his animals — a redemptive experience, he tells us, that is shared by many stutterers. Out of ignorance rather than cruelty, his parents essentially left him alone with his pain. But his father did notice that the “Big Cat House” at the Bronx Zoo relaxed and delighted his son, and that after these visits his speech was a bit easier. For Alan Rabinowitz, these were experiences of relief, pleasure, and a painful empathy. He deeply internalized something I think many of us have felt in the presence of powerful, wild creatures circling in cages — a wild, heartbreaking animal with grief and longing. Alan Rabinowitz looked those jaguars and tigers in the eyes and said, I’ll find a place for you — a place for us. A few years later, after rapidly distinguishing himself as a wildlife biologist, he began to do just that.
He is very clear, though, that his earliest exploits of tracking raccoons and bears in the Great Smoky Mountains were as much about getting himself away from people as anything else. In the meantime, he finally found a therapist who helped him thrive in the world of speech, to become the “fluent stutterer” he is today. Soon he began to help create some of the world’s most innovative wildlife preserves where big cats could roam and flourish — first in Belize, and later in Thailand, Taiwan, and Burma.
Here is where a defining irony — a humanizing and deeply moving irony — of Alan Rabinowitz’s story comes in. Having traveled to the most remote places on earth, driven by his passion to save animals, he kept bumping up against people in unexpected, life-changing ways.
He discovered the last 12 members of a community of human beings, Mongoloid pygmies. He had no common language with them, stuttering notwithstanding, and yet he tells us movingly of connecting with the elder of this tribe in a way that transcended words. With this man who was the last viable male of his race, and who could no longer find a mate, Alan Rabinowitz came to reevaluate his marriage to the woman he loved and decided to begin a family.
I am fascinated, too, that in the span of his career, the science of wildlife conservation has made its own version of this circle — integrating a concern for human thriving as essential to the work of animal preservation. Within a few generations, scientists have learned that the model of isolating endangered big cats in large protected spaces is not a defense against extinction. They need to move far more widely, need to exchange their genetic material, need in fact to coexist with human beings. The projects Alan Rabinowitz works on now are called “genetic corridors.” And his organizations invest in the flourishing of human communities as part of their investment in the survival of big cats.
There are so many amazing moments in this conversation, especially a story Alan Rabinowitz tells of facing off with a jaguar in a jungle in Belize in a preservation area he had created. The eye contact they shared transported him back to those moments of longing in the Bronx Zoo. But this time they could both walk away and both free in ways he could not have imagined as a child. And today, as he tells us, he is facing a new inner frontier. He has been diagnosed with a slow-moving cancer that is forcing him anew to see the urgency of his life’s choices — to keep protecting the animals who need him and to be there for his family, including a son born with a stutter, who means the world to him now.
Alan Rabinowitz is as whole and healed as anyone I have ever encountered, by the definition of healing that my wise guests have imparted to me. He has incorporated his sadnesses and wounds, his suffering and grief, into his very identity. They have become part and parcel of the gifts he has to offer to the world. I am better for experiencing his passion and his generosity of spirit towards both animals and humans. I feel grateful to have been in his presence — the presence, indeed, of his wonderful voice. I think you will be too.
When I first heard the interview with Matthew Sanford on the radio, I was moved beyond words. I wanted to hear it again. The second time I heard it, online, I was more moved still.
I wanted to understand what had touched me so deeply beyond his extraordinary story of loss and victory, and the candid and engaging quality of his telling. There was something else I could hear in the silences between his words that mesmerized me. What was it, exactly? I still do not know, but I keep asking the question.
On the surface, Sanford’s life and mine have little in common. Very different stories indeed. Why, then, do I feel so strongly that I know what he is talking about? It cannot be the accident, the hospital, the paralysis — all of it so tragic that to say I understand would be worse than arrogance; so tragic, indeed, that it almost drowns out a subtler resonance. And yet, is it not this resonance that Sanford points to when he mentions silence, darkness, and quietness as portals to a deeper awareness?
It could be an illusion, this feeling that there is something in common, something that I understand. But it could also be that the commonality resides not in what human beings experience but in the way we experience it; that it is not in the action but in the gap, in the silence that follows and precedes action, that we meet as equals and see the other in ourselves.
A similar question comes to mind when I think of what Sanford calls “the gulf” — the isolation of personal experience from other personal experiences, the “existentialist” separation between self and even those the self most loves. I do not share with him the exact same reason for this gulf, his particular experience of pain and loss; what I share is the awareness of the separation and the anguish that results from that awareness.
Sunset at the mouth of the Douro in Porto, Portugal. (photo: Simon Blackley/Flickr)
As Sanford acknowledges, we all share it. We know we cannot be sure that the emotion we feel is perceived in the same intensity and depth by anyone else, however much intimacy there may be between those concerned. And, when two lovers watch the sun bleeding into the ocean, do they see the same shades of orange and red? Yet, if we share the desperate awareness of this gulf, is that not a most powerful commonality?
Mystics and theologians, Buddha and Christ have claimed for such a long, long time that separation is the illusion, yet we hang on to this illusion with all our might. It is clearly more soothing to us than that which we have in common. After all, “to have in common” means to have one’s boundaries less clearly marked, to feel with another — pretty scary stuff that may explain why we lend so much weight to our differences and place so much value on them, from individuals to societies, from East to West and North to South. Even when we hate the differences (those seen as negative always embodied in “the other”) and in direct proportion, it seems, to how much we hate them, we pour our attention on them; we bring them out under the glaring sun so everyone can stare at them until they seem insurmountable in their three-dimensional “reality.”
But, Sanford claims, if we find ourselves in darkness, or in a very quiet place, we become more attuned to a different, subtler reality; and if we are strong enough to become vulnerable, to stay with the fear — in short, if we “surrender” — we may glimpse the contours of authentic feeling (how scary is that?) and hear the song of our oh-so-common human experience of striving and losing, loving and letting go, living and dying at every moment of existence.
And this may be the most healing story we can tell ourselves.
Ms. Paulinolives in Rock Hill, South Carolina and teaches Art History and Criticism at the University of Winthrop and the University of Porto. In her "Writing in the Margins" she muses on a home in-between: languages, places, ways of seeing.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
On June 30, Krista interviewed Alan Rabinowitz for this week’s show "A Voice for the Animals" — discussing topics ranging from his severe stutter, Dawi (the last pure Mongoloid pygmy), large wild cats, genetic corridors, and his recent cancer diagnosis. We live-tweet (SOFtweets) all of our interviews now. Here is the Twitterscript of that interview:
In 10 minutes, we’ll be live-tweeting Krista’s interview with Alan Rabinowitz, dubbed the “Indiana Jones” of wildlife science.
As Alan Rabinowitz sits in his chair, he says, “Grabbing a taxi on 5th Avenue is much more challenging that tracking a tiger in Bhutan.”
Rabinowitz — “What turned me away from religion is what people were saying or reading did not go along with their actions.”
Rabinowitz on his childhood stuttering — “Most stutterers can do two things: sing, and you can speak to animals.”
Rabinowitz — “Over and over, I swore to myself as a child if I ever found my voice that I’d be there for them [animals].”
Rabinowitz — “…[I found that] when I could speak fluidly, most people didn’t have that much to say that’s interesting.”
Rabinowitz — “I associate myself with those who pit themselves against environmental hardships than I do with pure scientists.”
Rabinowitz — “Science is a language of truths that would be there whether humans would be there or not.”
Alan Rabinowitz is talking about a pivotal moment of his life when he found the Taron in the Himalayan foothills.
Dawi, a Taron tribal elder asking Alan Rabinowitz why isn’t a father — “You act like a man who still has this deep, deep hole inside of him.”
Rabinowitz — “We had to save the last tigers. Tigers are just plummeting.”
Rabinowitz — “The dictatorship in Burma consists of several dozen generals. The one man on top is the controlling influence.”
Rabinowitz — “Being among these remote communities showed me a model how people can live w/ their environment and can move forward.”
Rabinowitz — “You can tell a person from Churchill because they’re always looking around the corner.”
Rabinowitz — “You can tell a person from Churchill because they’re always looking around the corner.”
Rabinowitz — “I rarely meet a Mayan now carrying a gun..’if we see a jaguar we stop on our bicycle and watch it now.’”
Engineer Chris Heagle summarizing Alan Rabinowitz talking with Krista Tippett — “Marriage is like confronting a wild leopard”
Rabinowitz — Genetic corridors for large cats vital to saving them - more than conservation parks http://is.gd/daooj
Rabinowitz — “Stuttering gave me my life. I’m so pleased to be born a stutterer, because that’s how I got to where I am.”
Rabinowitz — “As I get older and have thoughts of slowing down, I get told ‘I have cancer” and that has the opposite effect.”
Rabinowitz — “I don’t see myself as a hero..I see myself as lucky for being able to..pursue the things I love that made me feel whole.”
Rabinowitz on his son’s stuttering — “Seeing my son sad is painful. Although stuttering gave me my life it’s not something I wish on anyone else.”
Rabinowitz on continuing adventures despite having cancer — “I had to live the life that defined me the best, both to myself and to my family”
Rabinowitz — “I truly believe when you attempt to do good things for good reasons a lot of positive energy gets out there in the world.”
Rabinowitz — “It doesn’t matter if life is short or long, it matters if there’s meaning for you personally.”
“This is not simply something from below, but it’s being met from above in constructive ways as well … the fact there are centers for religious studies arising at universities around China with public support, the fact that there’s now a discourse about the positive role that religion can play in Chinese society.”—
—Tom Banchoff, director of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs
All this week, NPR has been airing Louisa Lim's reports from Beijing that highlight various aspects of religious growth and change in China, including stories about burgeoning support for Buddhism, women's mosques and female imams, divided Catholics, and the rebirth of folk religion. “God is rising here…” says one Chinese Christian woman quoted. This series "New Believers: A Religious Revolution in China" helps illustrate how that’s happening.
This week’s guest, Alan Rabinowitz, stuttered as a child with such severity that he would sometimes go into twists and spasms when he tried to speak. He hadn’t even spoken a full sentence to a human being until high school.
The audio above is excerpted from a section of the unedited interview that we reluctantly had to cut for time. Rabinowitz goes into detail about this childhood stutter and explains the journey he undertook to becoming a “fluent stutterer.” Listen to his moving account in which he describes how these extreme tactics, including electro-shock treatment, ultimately led him to find his voice, and why that drove him into a life as a wildlife biologist and conservationist.
I like to say that I’m not an an optimist, but I am a person of hope. That is to say, I cultivate the virtue of hope in myself. Hope takes account of the enormity and darkness of challenges and problems, and yet it meets darkness with light, and points to resilience and goodness where they can be found.
In this spirit I am drawn to Barbara Kingsolver’s hope and resolve that, however grim the man-made crises of our time, we are gradually getting some things “more right.” And, Kingsolver advises, we must treat hope itself as a renewable resource, something we put on with our shoes every morning.
But she also says, reframing an equation many of us are internalizing, that it is not the job of the next generation to right the grand, looming environmental crises of the present. The work has to start here and now with our daily routines. Barbara Kingsolver has made one kind of beginning with her family’s “food life.”
Her story begins with a sense of urgency, however, in Tucson, where she had spent half her life, and her children the whole of theirs. As she became more aware of the larger issues she explores in her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life — including the elaborate environmental cost of the global food chain — she came to perceive this great American city as a kind of space station, utterly dependent on the outside world for its most basic needs. And after three consecutive years of drought, she felt she was staring global warming in the face. “Like rats leaping off the burning ship,” her family moved to a farm in Appalachia to land that could feed them.
There is an irony in the fact that Barbara Kingsolver’s move to a simpler, sustainable life required a certain level of social and economic privilege, just as the ostensibly back-to-basics idea of organic food remains beyond the range of choice and budget of many. For me, the adventure related in her book — of giving her family’s life over to planning, planting, weeding, cooking, freezing, storing, and harvesting both plants and animals — appears immediately impracticable in light of another “drought” in American life and in my own, a drought of time.
Kingsolver helps put this into perspective by reminding me that the cheap and easy habits we take for granted — lettuce for salad all year round, strawberries in January — began as luxuries for the very rich. What her family did for a year, living off what they could grow and raise on the land around them, is the way most human beings have lived forever and many in the world still do.
The real irony is that the way most Americans eat is elite in the extreme. This is hard to grasp, as the crops behind some of the cheapest, easiest staples of American life — including that ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup — are underwritten by government funding. The real costs of much of our food do not turn up itemized in our grocery bills, but hidden in our taxes. And then there are, of course, the environmental costs, harder still to see and calculate and that we confer as a debt to our children. Some people give up meat, Barbara Kingsolver says; she has given up bananas, no longer willing to live with the fossil fuel footprint that is necessary to bring them all the way to her in Virginia.
But this conversation, which you can hear in the audio link at the top of the page, is not really about what we have to give up. The U.S. culture has fallen into “the language of sin,” Kingsolver says, when it comes to discussing changed eating habits. We steel ourselves to replace what is bad for us with what is good for us; we grit our teeth and enter the realm of sacrifice and penance. What surprised Kingsolver most in her year of local eating was how pleasant it was for her whole family, really, once they had retrained what felt like habit. They became focused in the most practical, daily way not on what they did not have, but on what they had — what was in season, what the garden was yielding plenty of today. It became, she says, a long exercise in gratitude.
I’m very aware that the details of my life — including the northern climate of the place I inhabit — limit my ability to follow Barbara Kingsolver’s experiment in totally local eating. But since this conversation I have begun to frequent the farmer’s market for the first time in my life. I planted a vegetable garden last summer and made pesto from basil I grew. I tossed my own home-grown lettuce, and watched tiny green tomatoes bud with the rapture of an expectant mother. I’m living some new questions about food life now, to paraphrase Rilke; as Barbara Kingsolver might say, I’m getting it a bit more right. And I’m delighting in the truth of my favorite line in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: “Food is the rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure.”
Last year, while working with a primary school class here in Belfast, a child said:
"Pádraig, let me ask you a question. God loves us right?"
Avoiding the complexity of anthropomorphic projections of human experiences onto God, I answered, from the heart of me, with what I hope.
"Yes," I said.
"And God made us all didn’t he?" she continued.
I avoided discussions of “made” and “He” and said:
"Tell me this," she said, "why did God make Protestants?"
When I asked her why she was asking me this, she said:
"Well, they hate us and they hate Him."
I had been amused at the start. Now, I was not amused. I wondered what stories were educating this funny, witty, engaging, and lively child.
This child understood some human lessons and had learnt them well. They hate us. They hate our God. They are unknown, and the hollow story we tell is that they are also unknowable.
Another child that I was working with once drew a picture of a big boot, kicking a small figure. The boot was labeled “Catlichs” and the boot “Purdestints”. He could not yet spell, yet he knew the rules of the story he believed.
There is an Irish saying that I love: ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine. It translates as “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live”. Krista’s interview with John Paul Lederach reminds me of the intentionality we must incarnate when working with our lives to create avenues out of violent conflict. We must nurture unpredictable relationships. We must share shelter with people whose shelter we would rather not share. We must share stories with people whose stories we would rather not share. This may not be popular, but it may just save us.
Last week, I watched from my window as a band parade made its way from commemorations in the city northwest up the Crumlin Road. My flat is about 300 yards from the place where a sit-down protest was underway to stop those parading. The history of both groups, one mostly Catholic-Nationalist and one mostly Protestant-Unionist is important.
What is also important is that each was saying to the other “We belong here”.
“We belong here” has often been coupled with “And you don’t”, a point which we’ve proven in Ireland with grief and grieving. The slow, slow antidote to this story of not-belonging has always included something that is older than language — a positive encounter with a person who represents the thing that we think we should hate. There are stories from here that make me cry and hope every time I hear them — stories of bravery, honesty, truth-telling, sheltering, and embrace across every possible barrier to belonging.
Part of my work is facilitating discussions between people who are interested in building relationships with those who are perceived to be an “other”. Earlier this year, one group spoke of their neighbourhood’s trauma following a shooting on a Friday afternoon in the 1990s. Seven men left dead. One of the women said “and there’s many that died whose hearts kept beating”. She spoke of a Protestant paramedic who tended the bodies of Catholic dead who was so traumatised that he could never return to his work. While we speak of 3,700 people who lost their lives from our 30-year conflict, we all know someone who kept their life, but who felt like they’d lost it. There are stories within stories that are desperate to be heard, and when they’re heard, they bring us to the place of encounter and empathy, which is the essence of hope and humanity.
The riots that brought attention to Belfast last week are localised. This doesn’t mean that they are ignorable. They are not. They speak to a deep wound in our capacity to remember. A mostly-ignored government funded “Report on the Past” was published last year. Its recommendations are brave and I hope we can pay attention.
I am thinking now of Anaïs Nin who said: “We do not tell stories as they are. We tell them as we are.”
And who are we in this part of Ireland? We are people who all know stories of hurt, pain, division, separation, fury, and prejudice. We are people who have loved the land we live on. We are people who have done and spoken and created and given beautiful things and terrible things to each other. We must be educated by the stories that gave rise to last week’s events. We must engage in Lederach’s vision of the moral imagination to hear, include, and transcend these events.
And, we must tell different stories. Not necessarily new ones, but deeper ones — stories of remembering, belonging, safety, and shelter.
Pádraig Ó Tuama lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland where he works in reconciliation and chaplaincy initiatves, primarily with the Irish Peace Centres’ Faith in Positive Relations programmes. 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. He posts occasional poetry at Hold Your Self Together.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Photo Caption: Nationalist protesters block the route of Loyalist Protestant Orangemen in the Ardoyne area of North Belfast, Northern Ireland as they return home from their traditional Twelfth of July celebrations in the city center on July 12, 2010. (photo: Stephen Wilson/AFP/Getty Images)
Vegetarian activists demonstrate during a “Veggie Pride” event in Lyon, France. (photo: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP/Getty Images)
Exhaustion. A tough day and I was late leaving work when I realized that it was my night to cook for my vegan housemates. What easy, go-to meal did I have in my repertoire that I could whip up quickly without shopping ahead or thinking too much? Chili? Nope, meat. Omelet? Nope, eggs. Quesadillas? Cheese. Spinach soufflé? Eggs, milk and cheese! Arriving home, I glanced at the newly constructed cooking schedule to find that it was not my night to cook after all. A reprieve.
Sometimes work and life collide unexpectedly and serendipitously. This week, as I migrated comments from previous releases of "The Ethics of Eating" show into our current commenting system, I learned, of course, that our listeners are thoughtful, passionate, and diverse. While many expressed appreciation for Barbara Kingsolver’s reflection on her year of eating locally, some were outraged at the fact that she referred to slaughtering animals for food as “harvesting” them. Some found her yearlong experiment to be steeped in economic privilege. Still others considered it to be an impractical if not unsustainable way of life given limits of time and energy.
As I read these comments, I couldn’t ignore the fact that my current situation roots me centrally in these ideological and spiritual questions. Two weeks ago, I welcomed two new housemates into my home for the coming year. Our intention is to not only share expenses and responsibilities, but to share meals together as well. It won’t be simple. They are vegans; I am not. They buy only organic products and shop exclusively at the co-op; I shop sales at a large supermarket. They are home much of the day; I have a full-time job.
Suddenly I find myself challenged with the very questions and decisions that Kingsolver and SOF listeners invite me to face. Some of these challenges expose a lack of clarity in my own belief system, while others expose a misalignment between my held and lived values. So as I embark on my own yearlong experience with (at least partial) veganism, I open myself to these challenges and the myriad questions that accompany them:
Is killing a sentient being for food cruel or is doing so simply playing my part in a carnivorous food chain?
Am I able to integrate my love of animals and the bond to my pets with eating animal meat and loving a good steak?
Am I willing or able to spend the extra money it takes to eat organically and locally?
Where will I find the time and energy it takes to work full time and prepare healthy meals?
As I settle into the messiness of these questions, I’ll start planning ahead about what to serve the vegans this week.
My Grandfather's Faith: Contradictions and Mysteries
Krista Tippett, host
The crescent-topped dome of Masjid An-Nasr peeks through trees of a residential neighborhood in Oklahoma City. (photo: Andrew Shockley/Flickr)
My grandfather was the Reverend Calvin Titus Perkins, known by all as C.T. He was a Southern Baptist evangelist — a traveling preacher in Oklahoma, the former Indian Territory. He arrived, when he was a very young boy and it was a very young state, in a covered wagon. That famous dry Oklahoma dust seems embedded in the few black-and-white photos I’ve seen of him and his unkempt, unsmiling siblings. Several of them went on to drink and divorce. He was a man of passion but also a lover of order, a believer in rules. The bare bones Calvinism that flourished on the frontier offered him not only a faith but a way beyond the chaos and poverty he knew as a child.
When I left home at 18 for Brown University — in part because it was farther from Oklahoma than any other school that accepted me — my grandfather epitomized what I felt I had to escape from. His was a small, closed world defined by judgment. I was throwing myself toward possibility, toward life with a liberating small “l.” The Eternal Life that all his theology drove toward was really about the avoidance of death and damnation. As I grew older, this threat utterly lost its sense for me. How could every Catholic and Jew, every atheist in China and every northern Baptist in Chicago, for that matter — every non-Southern Baptist — be damned? Could God be so petty, and heaven so small?
The meanness of the God C.T. preached was contradicted, more poignantly, in his own person, though he would never have seen this in himself, nor did I have the words for many years to describe it. He was funny and smart and large-hearted. He had left school after second grade but could perform complex mathematical equations in his head. The copious notes he made in the margins of the Bibles he preached from bespoke a delight in the workings of his mind.
But I saw with my own brand of judgment that there were questions that he would not ask — contradictions too frightening to name. I would leave. I would ask. He reconciled himself to my move in the knowledge that Brown had a Baptist foundation in Roger Williams. Yet for a good decade, at Roger Williams’s erstwhile institution and beyond it, religion ceased to interest me altogether.
Religion, and my grandfather, began to catch up with me again in my thirties and forties, as life (that liberating small “l” heavier now with time) played its sweet circular tricks. I left a high journalistic and political road to study theology. I could scarcely believe that I was becoming religious again and vowed that I could do so only if I could reconcile it with the fullness of my mind. In this, I was still defining myself in opposition to my grandfather, again defying his example.
Strange, then, that as I set out to create a public radio program about religion in the early 2000s, I began finally to be grateful for his place in my life. Our public imagination about religion was dominated by a few shrill preachers, and evangelical Christianity had reentered American politics in a whole new way. Missing from view was a universe of thinking faith and spiritual inquiry I had found thriving just beneath the surface of extremes and platitudes. Missing too was an awareness of the humanity of people like my grandfather and the hard-won integrity of his way of life, circumscribed as I might find it with my farther-traveled, better-educated eyes. The religious historian Martin Marty speaks in the plural about the categories we use to describe vast groups of religious people, salvaging the messy, diverse humanity that slips beneath the cultural radar: evangelicalisms, Protestantisms, fundamentalisms. I’d add: Judaisms and Buddhisms.
"Islam" doesn’t lend itself to pluralization in that way, either linguistically or theologically, but "Muslims" does. "The Muslim world" is as deceptively monolithic a phrase as any we use and as meaningless as "the Christian West." I’ve spent more time learning that, excavating it, than I could possibly have imagined when I proposed this radio experiment two years before 2001.
So what would my grandfather think of me spending my days illuminating the faith of Muhammad? His thorniest interfaith challenge was breaking my mother’s heart by forbidding her to see her high school boyfriend, who was Methodist and therein a peril to her mortal soul. Still, even the religious world of Oklahoma has changed, and the larger world’s changes have reached Oklahoma. We hear from an inordinate number of Muslim public radio listeners in places like Tulsa.
Last year I received a package that moved me to tears, from a Southern Baptist minister in the Deep South. He had been shaken by the hatred he experienced rising up in his congregation, in their community, in the years following 9/11. Hatred, he knew, was not Christian and could not be of God. He had written an illustrated book introducing the faith of Muslims to Christian children so that understanding and compassion might take root in the place of fear. He sent me an inscribed copy.
I love to think, as I wrote back to him, that my grandfather’s faith might have evolved in this way if he had lived into our century. This Southern Baptist minister embodied the “depth theology” which the great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel best described — those places deep in our traditions where orthodoxy becomes paradox. For whether or not Muslims will go to heaven remains a real question in Southern Baptist belief and many other forms of Christianity. But in a place just as doctrinaire, compassion for the stranger, the outcast, the other is a command. The one is a question to be held, in the knowledge that its meaning will not be unlocked in this lifetime. The other is a command to be lived, breathed, and embodied right now. The seeming contradiction between them is Mystery — a mystery which can form the basis of shared life between the righteous across boundaries even as they remain faithful to beliefs that set them apart.
These days I’m in conversation with scientists as much as religious thinkers. I know too much to take the clash of civilizations between science and religion seriously any more than I can accept it as a framework for the relationship be tween Muslims and the West. I’ve explored the social ethics of Charles Darwin and the “cosmic religious sensibility” of the quintessential scientist, Albert Einstein. Einstein fervently dismissed the notion of a personal God that my grandfather held so dear — the idea of a God who would set the laws of physics in motion and then turn around and meddle in them. Yet Einstein spent his days pursuing the order he perceived “deeply hidden behind everything” and describing it mathematically.
As I pursue my fascination with the spiritually and morally evocative nature of his scientific discovery and others, I am experiencing my grandfather for the first time as an intellectual companion. I feel his untapped mind, those questions he bottled up and could not ask, right beside me, delighting too. The cutting-edge insights of physics, biology, and neuroscience don’t defy or in any way address most of his orthodoxies directly. Instead they open a whole new world of imagination about what it means to be human, alive, and amazed. They open new and deeper questions about what it means to be religious. The Vatican has even brought Galileo back into its fold — Galileo, who wrote that mathematics is the language in which the universe is written. I love to imagine how different my grandfather’s faith would have been — how different his life might have been — if he had pondered the notion that the mathematics in which he was so mysteriously fluent might be the mother tongue of his God.
From “Conflict Resolution” to “Conflict Transformation” Krista Tippett, host
John Paul Lederach is one of the most esteemed names in conflict mediation in the world today. He is also Mennonite, an icon of this tradition that passionately embraces the biblical command to “be peacemakers.” John Paul Lederach insists on calling his work “conflict transformation” rather than the more commonly used term, “conflict resolution.” Across three decades, in over 25 countries on five continents, he has sought to help people transform their relationships with their enemies.
You can solve a problem without resolving a conflict, he points out. And you can resolve a conflict without setting real change in motion, without creating justice that will make the renewal of conflict less likely in the future. This, he says, is the true challenge of peacebuilding, one that always takes generations to accomplish. It is as much the work of creativity and “moral imagination” as of dialogue and commitment.
Much in John Paul Lederach’s vocabulary and toolkit is counter-cultural, from an American perspective, with our ignorance of history and fondness for quick fixes. These days, he tries only to take on projects where the participants are committed to ten-year efforts rather than those lasting one to two years. This, he says, makes the difference between a community that’s learning to be crisis-responsive rather than crisis-driven — where ingrained adversarial patterns of interaction become impossible to fall back on. That, of course, in an individual or collective life, is the mark of true change, and we all know from life that it takes time.
In Kanchanpur, Nepal, two facilitators take part in a community process to work on a conflict between Forest User Groups (young woman standing) and several groups of “encroachers” including a landless group and a Kamaiya (young man standing), or bonded laborers. (photo: Chup Thapa)
And, in our show "The Art of Peace" (audio above), he tells us remarkable stories from across the globe. These are stories that live below the radar of mainstream international news, and yet they offer powerful and empowering examples of real, systemic change in individual lives and in societies. He takes us inside a photograph of a dialogue, which you see above, between former enemies in Nepal. The participants range from ex-slaves to landless “untouchables,” to conservationists, to agencies regulating the use of forests. Their conflicts are the shape of the 21st century — a complex and perilous balancing act between the distribution of natural resources for a particular group’s survival and the greater good of preservation. Around the world, such conflicts are increasingly devolving into war. By contrast, in year seven of a ten-year process, these Nepalis are finding very creative and sustaining ways to honor their competing needs while nourishing a new common life.
Even as John Paul Lederach describes situations worlds away, his stories hold wisdom for all of us. Change, he asserts, always begins with a handful of people in relationship. In his writing, he makes a helpful distinction that while large-scale movements — including peace movements — can forge turning points, they tend to form around what they are opposing and do not necessarily carry the seeds of new, positive forms to shape the future. He is more interested in finding what he calls “critical yeast” rather than “critical mass.” To put it another way, in John Paul Lederach’s experience, enduring change is seeded not by large numbers of like-minded people, but by a quality of relationship between unlikely combinations of people.
This creativity and courage of relationship is evident in the Nepalis to whom he introduces us. It is there, likewise, in a remarkable organization of peasants in Colombia who have forged improbable relationships with warring militias, in whose conflicts they had previously been caught as victims and pawns. One of the principles of this group that has endured for over two decades is that “we will seek to understand those who do not understand us.” On the basis of formulating and living such an idea, they have created a heretofore unimaginably peaceful space for their children and grandchildren.
John Paul Lederach and his daughter Angie attending a meeting in Cape Coast, Ghana. (photo: George Wachira)
This is not, however, an abstract or sentimental conversation that denies the hardness of the tasks at hand. That same “successful” group in Colombia lost its founders to assassination, yet survived. In West Africa, where John Paul Lederach’s daughter Angie has followed in her father’s footsteps, the trauma of the horrific phenomenon of child soldiers goes far beyond anything that will be “resolved” in this lifetime. These young people have not only been brutalized, they have been forced to commit unspeakable violence against members of their own families and communities. We hear what John Paul and Angie Lederach have learned in a context like this about the non-linear and non-verbal nature of healing. He helps us understand why, even in the course of trauma in ordinary life, music and poetry can help us re-inhabit places in ourselves at the level of blood and bone, where violation has marked us and words cannot initially reach.
In my conversation with John Paul Lederach, we end in an unexpected place where his life and imagination have led him — a fascination with the ancient art of haiku as a way to capture what Oliver Wendell Holmes called “the simplicity on the other side of complexity” that emerges again and again as human beings navigate the overlapping territories between violence, trauma, healing, and hope. These haiku honor the difficulty of peace as much as its promise. He took this haiku, for example, from a candid conversation he had with a colleague in Northern Ireland, years after the Good Friday Agreement accords had been signed:
"Maybe," he says, "This is as good as it will get: Peaceful bigotry.”
This conversation with John Paul Lederach is one of those redemptive experiences I get to have and share in this line of work — of discovering someone who is nourishing the world, though rarely making headlines. He emboldens the rest of us not to be overwhelmed by the unremitting images of violence and despair that come at us from every direction. He urges us to remember the importance of the immediacy of human relationships, especially the unlikely ones, and the worth of investing our imagination, courage, and time in them. This, too, is peace.
“I am asking some of you old timers, the Gen-Xers, to take a breath and see how far things have come. When we were kids our parents forced us to be doctors or engineers. When I have a kid I am going to force him/her to be a governor.”—
Do cultural identity and role models have a different form between generations? I had to wonder after reading this article from The New York Times about Indians in U.S. politics. Nikki Haley, the Republican nominee for governor of South Carolina, and Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, are both of Indian descent. They both converted to Christianity in their early 20s. Governor Jindal changed his first name from Piyush to Bobby, after the Brady Bunch character.
The reaction is mixed within the Indian community. Many are asking whether they should celebrate the increased visibility of Indian Americans within politics, or lament their conversions that mask or downplay their South Asian heritage.
But Abhi’s quote above might point to a difference in generations. It seems the younger generation of Indian Americans views their identity as diverse and more fluid. Thus, they are more willing to revel in similarities, whereas the older generation might be more rigid in their definitions of identity. What do you think?
“It is impossible for someone like myself, who grew up in one of the worst-affected areas during the Troubles, not to notice that the areas now reeling from riots, burning cars and confrontations with the police are the very same ones that suffered most in previous decades. This is no coincidence. It is no coincidence either that these riots are not taking place in more well-to-do parts of the province, just as they didn’t in the past. I watch these youngsters and, all but for a change of fashion, they could be the same people who were on the streets in the 70s and 80s. It is soul-destroying to observe.”—
As I read this, I couldn’t help but think of our recent interview with John Paul Lederach and his emphasis on peace as a long-term effort that comes about by finding solutions to basic needs, such as employment and housing that is needed in these impoverished parts of Belfast.
I’m a research junkie and a word nerd. When I was in graduate school, I spent a year researching one of the earliest Old English poems, "The Dream of the Rood." The project began as a lexical analysis for a linguistics class, and what I discovered was that many words had multiple senses — and the available translations didn’t emphasize this. I ended up doing my own translation of all 256 lines. It was immensely rewarding to unfold levels and layers of meaning this way.
I then began studying the Bible with a concordance and would spend whole afternoons looking up every word in one verse. I felt like I was digging up ancient treasure. Word archaeology. I began to see an analogy between words and computer icons. The way you can click on something and it opens up a whole world you couldn’t have imagined before you clicked.
I’ve also read a couple of books by Neil Douglas-Klotz in which he translates various words of Jesus into the Aramaic that Jesus actually spoke, and from there into English. The result is quite poetic and illuminated. For instance, here’s an excerpt from his translation of the Lord’s Prayer:
Grant us what we need each day in bread and insight: Loose the cords of mistakes binding us, As we release the strands we hold of others’ guilt.
The other day I was doing evening prayer with the radiant little book, Celtic Benedictions, by J. Philip Newell. One of the verses was: ”I commune with my heart in the night, I meditate and search my spirit” (Psalm 77:6). In my New Revised Standard Version Bible, there was an alternate translation for “I commune,” which I read as “My music spirit searches.” I found this odd but inspiring. It took me a minute to realize that because of how the notes were laid out, I was reading it wrong. The alternate translation for “I commune” was simply “My music,” and for “search my spirit,” it was “my spirit searches.” So the verse would then read, “My music is with my heart in the night; I meditate and my spirit searches.” The New International Version translates this verse as “I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit inquired.”
Maybe all of this doesn’t excite you like it does me. I realize it’s this very sort of thing that confirms some folks’ rejection of the Bible, but, for me, it emphasizes poetic truth as what’s valuable over hard fact. There’s grace and mystery in it, not fixed formulaic answers.
Much has been made of what gets lost in translation, but I’m here to say that a lot can be found. When I research and explore this way I feel like I’m peering into a divine kaleidoscope. My music spirit searches, and finds communion in and with the words.
The image above of “The Dream of the Rood” is scanned from the only surviving manuscript, known as the Vercelli Book, from the medieval period. (credit: image and text courtesy of the University of Oxford)
Susan Carpenter Sims is a writer and collage-maker living in Taos, New Mexico. She writes a weekly column for The Taos News and blogs about her love of a historic local church at The Whole Blooming World.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Editor’s note: Update (2010.07.14) A resourceful reader, Allison Boyd, helped us find her! The following entry was submitted by a guest contributor without a name or an email address. Rather than letting this lovely post go unread, we published it with the hopes that the author will recognize her or his fine work and contact us so we can give proper credit and adulation!
John Cullinan has written a thought-provoking piece in National Review Online that challenges Western media with glossing over of anti-Christian sentiments in Turkey and the recent spate of killings of Catholic clergy in the country:
"…it’s also a fact that the killing of Catholic clerics in Muslim-majority states tends nowadays in the West to be passed over in silence or treated as business as usual. Imagine for a moment what would happen if — God forbid! — a very senior, foreign-born Muslim cleric were murdered in the U.S. in circumstances amounting to a hate crime. It is not difficult to imagine the likely aftermath: wall-to-wall media coverage, repeated international condemnations, and multiple presidential apologies.”
Reading this piece reminded me of the feeling I had after watching the documentary Control Room several years ago. A news consumer has an obligation to seek out multiple perspectives on stories in order to be better informed. Not any one news organization will canvas the many stories needing to be told. And so, one ought not trust or dedicate his energies to a single source or two.
Be curious. Ask questions. Seek knowledge. Read diligent. Consume responsibly.
I’ve got some work to do.
In the photo above, the parents of the Turkish teenager jailed for killing Italian Catholic priest Andrea Santoro attend his commemoration ceremony at Saint Maria Church in Trabzon, Turkey on February 5, 2007. The priest was shot dead by the 17-year-old boy who confessed to the murder. (photo: (Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images)
Shubha Bala, associate producer Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The World Cup final expects to draw 700 million viewers in a few hours. And with all the fanfare and elaborate ceremonies preceding this championship game, soccer at its core is a game of universal appeal and absolute simplicity. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the continent of Africa itself.
We saw a continent come together to support its last surviving participant, Ghana, when all others were eliminated. Can you imagine the English doing the same for their Scottish brothers, or Americans celebrating Mexico advancing?
As photographer Jessica Hilltout, who documented the many ways in which the sport is played across Africa in her series "Amen: Grassroots Football," points out in her interview with The New York Times, “The beautiful game exists in its purest form in what I saw — people playing for the joy of playing.” And, the game can be played almost anywhere using almost anything: driftwood fashioned as goal posts, leather sandals as soccer shoes, pitches as gravel parking lots, and even balls made out of old socks and plastic bags and twine.
This passion for play, regardless of one’s environment or circumstances, takes place in the farthest reaches of our planet. The slide show below is a selection of photographs from Flickr capturing that joy of the game.
A New Generation, A Simple Revolution Krista Tippett, host
In his book The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, Shane Claiborne quotes the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard: “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.” Shane Claiborne has given himself over to finding and emulating “real Christians” — past and present — who “act accordingly.”
We’ve updated and refined our show with Shane Claiborne and re-released it in our podcast and on the radio because he has continued to grow in appeal and influence, even as the politicized Evangelical voices that dominated the news when I first interviewed him in 2007 have receded. We also supplemented this interview with a written Q&A update on his work and thinking that is fascinating and inspiring. I hear echoes of Shane Claiborne’s influence — or rather, echoes of the emerging universe of which he is a charismatic exemplar — in the recent decision of the Southern Baptist Convention to take on Christian responsibility for the natural world and climate in a whole new way. I am confirmed in my sense that he represents something larger than himself and his community when I speak with Evangelical leaders and hear from them that the evolving story of younger Evangelicals is scarcely being told.
And the story Shane Claiborne has to tell addresses a question I encountered in our culture in 2007 and continue to encounter today. Born of longing as much as curiosity, it goes something like this: How can we possibly move beyond the rancorous stalemate of our culture — the culture war divides into which even religion has fallen and which religion itself has inflamed?
Shane Claiborne’s life was at one time a kind of microcosm of that stalemate and is now a tale of contrast to it and life beyond it. It also illustrates how new generations — and others in “older generations” whom they are inspiring — are pragmatically redefining the meaning of a life well lived. He puts it succinctly, I think, when he says that he and his companions are less interested in what they will do — be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher? — than in what kind of person they will be — what kind of doctor, lawyer, or teacher.
Shane Claiborne’s theological heart and mind were first captured by 40 homeless families in north Philadelphia who moved into an abandoned Catholic cathedral and were rewarded with an eviction notice. As he tells it, he and over 100 students from his Christian college, Eastern University, put their lives alongside them and helped catalyze a minor miracle. The media of Philadelphia was galvanized. People opened their homes. Section 8 housing was made available. In the end, all 40 families had found or been given a permanent place to live. And Shane Claiborne was set on fire by this experience of resurrecting the essence of Christianity quite literally, as St. Francis of Assisi said before him, in “the ruins of the church.”
In making this kind of connection, Shane Claiborne exhibits a capacity I’ve observed in others his age and younger — an ease of movement, in thought and conversation, between what is ancient and what is modern, what is local and what is global. It is almost as though they are not constrained by space and time as previous generations have been. They draw with immediacy, even intimacy, on the words and example of St Francis, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr. And they bring a 21st-century twist to a classic adage of how to be of help to needy others. So, Shane Claiborne says, his community gives people fish and also teaches them to fish. But beyond that, he adds, they are compelled to ask, “Who owns the pond? And who polluted it?”
One could certainly make the case that the culture wars, with a strong religious component, have not ended but simply assumed new forms. And yet, and still, maybe these New Monastics are as much a great story of our time, and ultimately more defining a force, than what will dominate the headlines today and tomorrow. I recall a conversation I had with Benedictine nun Joan Chittister (I’m sure she wouldn’t want to be called an “old monastic”) a good decade ago. She told me about St. Benedict, one of the founders of the entire monastic enterprise. Benedict had his share of problems in his day, the sixth century, including being poisoned and reviled by other religious people who didn’t like what he was up to. And Sister Joan pointed out to me that if you had observed him and his followers in the midst of the great historical drama of the Roman Empire of his time — one little community here, another there — you would never have guessed that they were starting a movement that would endure into the 21st century, and along the way keep European learning and civilization alive — from the margins — during Europe’s Dark Ages.
Happily for all of us, Shane Claiborne knows his history. Ask him if he thinks that the constellation of small communities he’s a part of can really change the world, and he’ll tell you that this is the only way it’s ever been done. The New Monastics are part of larger, important, and underreported stories of religion in the present, including the evolution and diversification of Evangelical Christianity, and the way in which young people are challenging “religion as usual” with their keen insistence on authenticity and spiritual depth.
Your community, The Simple Way, has expanded in the last several years, even in terms of physical space. What used to be one house is now six residences. I imagine life at The Simple Way has changed quite a bit. How has it changed from its humble beginnings?
We are turning into a little more of an intentional village than an intentional community. We had a big fire about four years ago that burned down our main house and community center, and it caused us to step back and think about where we are headed together. Instead of building back the center, we decided to buy up some of the abandoned and troubled houses on the block and grow into them — and to build a park on the old land where our houses used to be.
What’s cool is we are a little more decentralized and sprinkled in the neighborhood. It is less about a house on the corner with a bunch of missionaries and more about a neighborhood that is on a mission together. So now we still gather for prayer and meals, but it is just as much neighbors as “relocaters” to this neighborhood.
What’s it like living there now? Growing a community is sort of like raising a kid; there are different stages. Each has its own charm and its own awkwardness. We continue to stay true to our original vision: “To love God, love people, and follow Jesus.” But now, we are not a bunch of young folks in one house. We like to say we are a web of subversive friends plotting goodness together with an open invite for new conspirators. In fact, you can have a bunch of folks living in a house and not have community, and you can have community without all living in one house. Things are still hubbed out of our neighborhood here in inner-city Philadelphia with the gardens and murals and open fire hydrants on hot days, but all sorts of stuff has been born, provoked, and inspired by the story here in Philly. I like to believe we are still committed to doing small things with great love. After all, Mother Teresa’s mantra has always been close to our heart: ‘We can do no great things, only small things with great love.’ What is important is not how much we do but how much love we put into doing it.
What’s gained and lost with this type of success and growth? The world is infatuated with success and growth, bigger is better. So we started The Simple Way as a prophetic critique, calling ourselves a 501c3 anti-profit organization. I guess The Simple Way is less simple now. Ha ha ha. But no less fun. Now we just get to give more money away. We are helping to rebuild a hospital in Iraq that was bombed by the U.S. and that I visited again this year in January.
We have a football league now where young men are being mentored and learn character (and conflict management!) on the football field, with over 150 kids on a dozen teams, each sponsored by a local congregation. We still get to help kids with homework, but now we also get to see some of them beat the odds and actually make it through high school and even to college. So we are doing all sorts of new stuff in the neighborhood. And around the world.
We have a magazine now called Consp!re magazine and a directory of communities called Community of Communities. I suppose the great thing is it really does feel like a movement. After all, we are not spreading a brand or a franchise but just want people to inspire each other to live meaningful lives that are not centered around themselves but around God and neighbor. Just as important as choosing a campaign or issue or cause, it is important to choose relationships with real people. We will not “Make Poverty History” until we “Make Poverty Personal.” And, unfortunately, it is often more popular to talk about poor folks as it is to talk with poor folks.
You cited Martin Luther King Jr. in a previous conversation with Krista: “‘We’re called to be the Good Samaritan and lift our neighbor out of the ditch.’ But after you lift so many people out of the ditch, you start to say, ‘Maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be transformed.’” What does that road look like today in terms of a sustainable, self-reliant community? Yeah, we can’t just swat at the mosquitoes, we have to do something about the swamp that is producing them. As long as we uncritically care for victims, the systems will continue to produce victims. That’s why charity has to lead to justice, otherwise we just end up accommodating injustice with our philanthropy and volunteerism. In fact, sometimes charity is a way we quell our guilt but do little to change our lifestyle, much less challenge systemic injustice or take on the principalities and powers.
As we mature, we get to ask new questions, deeper fundamental questions about poverty and violence — and not just respond to the symptoms. For a while we were giving people food, then we started asking why people are hungry. You know the old give someone a fish and they eat for a day, teach them to fish they eat for their life — and then there is more. You start saying, “Who owns the pond?” “Who polluted the pond?” “Why does a fishing license cost so stinking much?”
The great thing about community is that we can feel like we are part of something bigger and more holistic than ourselves. We are more together than any of us is on our own. Some folks will love feeding people. Others will love tearing down the gates around the pond. Regardless, we celebrate that each is critically important and incomplete without the other.
One of the things we have really wrestled with this year is the gun violence. In 2006, guns murdered 27 people in Australia, 59 folks in England, 190 folks in Canada, and 10,177 people in the U.S. We have nearly one homicide every 48 hours in Philly. So we are trying to teach kids conflict resolution and nonviolence as we see it exemplified in Jesus and the cross. And eventually, after you hold a kid as he bleeds from gunshot wounds, as I did a few months ago, you also start to ask, “Where are they getting the guns?” And the answer is that there are a few notorious irresponsible gun shops in Philadelphia. So we have begun to approach the owners asking them to sign a voluntary code of responsible business that our mayor and 300 other mayors insist would decrease gun violence. When they refuse, we have gathered outside the gun shops and held vigils and prayer services, even direct action putting our bodies in the way of the trafficking of guns. And it seems to be working; the worst gun shop in Philadelphia closed down last year, but we have many more to go.
We also see things like the bio-diesel coop creating jobs for formerly homeless folks. It’s all about having imagination and creativity as we interact with the patterns of injustice and oppression.
You travel and speak quite a bit, and you’ve been invited to speak in a dozen countries in the upcoming year. What are you learning from other communities that you’re taking back to The Simple Way? It’s funny. Four years ago when I wrote my first book, the publisher said, “Social justice books don’t really sell, but we like yours because you don’t argue people into social issues. You story people in.” Now after about half a million sales, it seems like I get a social justice book every few weeks to do a foreword or cover-blurb for. There is a new Christianity emerging in post-religious right America. And it is arising from a generation that is convinced that we cannot settle for a Christianity that uses our faith as a ticket into heaven and an excuse to ignore the hells around us. And it comes from a growing movement of Christians that not only care about people, but are genuinely and intimately in love with Jesus. People care about the fragile world we live in. They are reading the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other and asking, ‘How does my faith affect the way I live?’
Can you share a story that illuminates what you’re learning?
What’s beautiful is there are many different expressions. Protestants and Catholics are living together in Northern Ireland. Black and white South Africans are raising their kids together outside Johannesburg. Israeli and Palestinian Christians are fighting the home demolitions together. Christians along the U.S. border have created sanctuary houses in places like Arizona and are helping folks get proper documentation and confront terrible laws (We even met folks that had organized worship services along the wall with Christians living on both sides serving each other communion by throwing it over the wall.). That is what I see. Christians living with brilliant courage and creativity and whose faith causes them to engage the world and the injustices facing our world.
I am excited as I see these sorts of communities because they catch people’s attention. And I believe the Gospel spreads best not through force but through fascination. In the past few decades, much of Christianity has become less and less fascinating to the world. But I see so many signs that this is changing, and there is a whole new crop of Christians that are reading the words of Jesus and asking, “What if he really meant the stuff he said?”
Conversely, faced with these commitments that take you away from Philadelphia and The Simple Way community, how do you stay connected to the people you care about and love? What have you learned from them as your stature has grown publicly? Actually one of the things that’s really hilarious is seeing neighbors who I’ve known for years stumble across a story I’ve done in Esquire magazine or see me on CNN and come over hooting and hollering. The cool thing is, after we laugh it off, we go right back to jumping in the fire hydrants or weeding the garden.
One of my favorite moments this year was getting to take a ton of my neighbors along with my family from Tennessee to commencement at Eastern University where I got an honorary doctorate. It was the most beautiful site to see kids I had mentored, and had seen grow up, with my mom and pop and some of my favorite scholars. Then a couple of weeks later I got to go with kids here to the high school graduation around the corner and celebrate them. There are lots of heroes here.
In the end, community keeps you pretty grounded. People who know you well are not overly impressed by you. Ha ha ha. I have a quote on my wall that says:
Dear God, forgive me for thinking too highly of myself. Dear God, forgive me for thinking too lowly of myself. Dear God, forgive me for thinking of myself too much.
Is it vital that you stay grounded in The Simple Way community so that your message stays true to how you’re actually living? How does this message deepen as you live and work? We are always tempted to abandon the small things in pursuit of the big things — to leave community for the sake of the movement or to leave the grassroots to lobby on Capitol Hill. There are book deals and TV shows and clothing lines. Oh my… We can convince ourselves that there are more important things to do than help Tyreek with his homework or sit on the steps and listen to Betty talk about her husband beating her up again. But those are the important things.
As I look at Jesus, one thing that strikes me is how He is constantly present with pain and struggles around him. The Gospels are filled with interruptions and surprises — someone whose daughter just died, a party that ran out of wine, someone pulling on his shirt or asking him for something. He lives in those interruptions, the very things we don’t have time for and try to squeeze out of our predictable routinized lives.
I love trying to connect my public vocation with my life in the neighborhood. I’ve gotten to travel with families here and take homeless folks to Yosemite as I travel. And I continue to try to have integrity with how I travel — having folks offset the carbon footprint and insisting on staying in homes not hotels so I get to meet real people and save real money. Ha ha ha. I am grateful for a community that supports me as I do that.
I also find it utterly important not to think too highly of ourselves if God should graciously use us. One of my friends has reminded me that there is a story in the Old Testament where God spoke through a donkey. He says, “God spoke to Balaam through his ass, and God has been speaking through asses ever since.”
News this week of a remarkable conversion, as the Southern Baptist Convention — the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. and one of the most socially conservative — takes on environmental stewardship with both humility and boldness. The Southern Baptist Declaration on Environment and Climate Change is introduced with words like this:
"We believe our current denominational engagement with these issues have often been too timid, failing to produce a unified moral voice. Our cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed. We can do better. To abandon these issues to the secular world is to shirk from our responsibility to be salt and light. The time for timidity regarding God’s creation is no more."
I can’t help but hear echoes of Ellen Davis here, and be confirmed in my sense that her kind of theological reasoning has spread much farther and deeper than has heretofore been visible on the surface of our public life. It is also a reminder of the effect of up-and-coming generations in and around Evangelical Christianity, like Shane Claiborne, who has continued to grow in visibility and influence since I interviewed him in 2006. We’re putting him back on the air this week.
Shane Claiborne — and this week’s Southern Baptist declaration — are reflections of a fascinating process of discernment and self-examination that has taken place in many quarters in the aftermath of the intense, electorally oriented, Evangelical political focus that culminated in the early 2000s. As Richard Cizik — then VP of the National Association of Evangelicals — said on SOF a few years ago, Evangelicals’ core virtue of “conversion” can be a powerful force when they change their discernment about something and throw themselves behind it. We called that show "The Evolution of American Evangelicalism." And the group Cizik is now leading, The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, is yet another expression of that ongoing dynamic.
The fact that change is possible is one of the simplest and most powerful antidotes to despair about entrenched divisions in our culture. I cleave to that reality, and I see it borne out every day.
Volunteers with the Southern Baptist Convention based in Kansas clear debris from a yard in Biloxi, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina struck the coast in 2005. (photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)