Giving Thanks to My Ancestors on Día de Los Muertos
by Jenny Ward McDonald, guest contributor
Last fall the idea to visit the family graveyard came to mind for the first time in ages. Día de Los Muertos seemed like the perfect excuse to make the journey. I allowed life and distance to keep me away, however, and I never went.
I am not Latina, but I did develop a strong appreciation for Mexican culture while studying midwifery on the Texas/Mexico border. When I moved home to Georgia, I kept a piece of Mexico in my heart. Since the first idea to celebrate my ancestors Mexican-style entered my mind last year, the urge had only grown stronger. So as November approached this year, I resolved to do it. I invited my two sisters. One said she’d bake a casserole and we planned to picnic at the cemetery. On October 31st, they both cancelled on me. I was determined, however, and went anyway.
“I had an opportunity to read the speech, and I almost threw up. In my opinion, it was the beginning of the secular movement of politicians to separate their faith from the public square, and he threw faith under the bus in that speech.”—
The GOP presidential candidate, who, like John F. Kennedy, is also Roman Catholic, was speaking to a group at the College of Saint Mary Magdalen in Warner, New Hampshire in October when he made this comment about JFK’s seminal speech in 1960 in which the then-Democratic presidential candidate expressed his faith in the separation of church and state.
His Black History 101 Mobile Museum educates people on African-American history and culture by displaying selections of more than 5,000 artifacts from black history in the United States. Wish I was in Dearborn last night to see some of pieces on hand…
Don’t worry. The article you are about to read has nothing to do with what you should or shouldn’t put on your Thanksgiving dinner plate. There’s nothing worse than having your hopes for the perfect holiday meal dashed by someone telling you that you might want to think twice before choosing this or that side dish.
No, this article is about the undeniable health benefits of thanksgiving — that is, the conscious expression of gratitude — itself.
Gratitude is extolled by every religion on earth as an essential virtue. Cicero, the renowned Roman orator, called it “not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” Only recently, however, have medical researchers begun delving into the impact gratitude has on our mental and physical health.
Considered a pioneer in the field of “positive psychology” — a discipline that focuses less on illness and emotional problems and more on health-inducing behavior — Emmons makes a convincing case for the upside of maintaining a thankful attitude.
In one of Emmons’ studies, participants were divided into three groups. At the end of each week one group wrote down five things they were grateful for. Another group kept track of daily hassles. And a control group listed five events that had made some impression on them. In the end, Emmons discovered that those in the gratitude group generally felt better about their lives, were more optimistic about the future and — perhaps most importantly — reported fewer health problems than the other participants.
Mmmmm… nothing like a little gratitude to balance that extra helping of mashed potatoes.
Like many others, I can relate to what Dr. Emmons is discovering about the connection between a grateful heart and a healthy heart. But for me it goes even further, deeper than that. Over the years I’ve found that gratitude grounded in my spiritual practice, and not mere positive thinking, is the real key to consistent health.
Emmons notes this himself in his citation of a 2002 study (McCullough et. al.) that found that those who attend religious services or engage regularly in some type of religious activity such as prayer are more likely to be grateful. This is not to say that you have to be religious in order to be grateful, only that our faith tends to enhance our ability to be grateful.
While I have no idea what I’ll be having for dinner this Thanksgiving, one thing I’m absolutely certain of is that keeping track of what and how I think is at least as important as what I eat. Experience has shown that putting first things first will keep everything else — including my health — in order.
Eric Nelson is the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California who likes to follow and write about trends in science, theology, and medicine.
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“Buddhism for me is like food I ate for ten years, for a long time as a monk, and the food you eat goes to your bones and stays there, so in that sense it’s inside me, it’s not that I wouldn’t be identified by Buddhism but it’s there, a part of me … Buddhism has this emptiness and in opposition to it the ‘is-ness’, but the zero concept – there’s nature, there’s the whole existence of the universe but that itself for me is a part of the zero.”—
The South Korean poet, who studied as a Buddhist monk for a decade before rejoining secular life, is considered a favorite for the Nobel Prize — with authors like beat icon Allen Ginsberg and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh having written forewords to his books of poetry.
Have you experienced Joe Hutto's "My Life as a Turkey"? Currently watching a program on PBS Nature. Some fascinating insights into imprinting, presence, and being... Enjoy!
I had seen previews on PBS for this Nature special several times but never found the time to watch it. Your question was the catalyst. Thank you. What a gorgeous film and what a novel way of seeing the world!
I’m embedding it within this reply so that others may watch it in the days leading up to Thanksgiving in the States. In many ways, characters like Joe Hutto and Alan Rabinowitz, whom we interviewed for “A Voice for the Animals,” are windows for our species. They’re eccentric characters that teach us about ourselves as a species and as a sentient beings through their interactions with wildlife. They also prove that we have a lot to learn when it comes to our sweeping generalizations about other species.
Here are a few of Joe Hutto’s words of wisdom that strike at the core of who this man is and how we can learn from his observations:
"And I realized that my involvement in this experiment was going to be a very personal, very emotional ride for me — and not just a science experiment."
"Each day as I leave the confines of my language and culture, these creatures seem to become in every way my superiors. They are more alert, sensitive, and aware. They’re in many ways, in fact, more intelligent. They’re understanding of the forest is beyond my ability to comprehend."
"Emotions are certainly not peculiar to the human experience. In their observation of death, the death of another turkey that is a member of their group, it’s a very conscious behavior as if they are trying to understand what the meaning of this is."
And, boy, I’d regret not commenting on the ending scene with Turkey Boy. My Life as a Turkey is a brutal reminder that with all of the kindness, the tenderness, and the social interaction between man and bird, nature and creatures desire not only to survive but to dominate and establish dominion.
Thank you so much for the reminder, Trent Gilliss, senior editor
On Being is a public radio project hosted and produced by Krista Tippett, with a production staff of five including me, Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, Susan Leem, and Anne Breckbill. The program is produced and distributed by American Public Media, which also distributes such popular shows as The Splendid Table, A Prairie Home Companion, Marketplace, and many more. We’re based out of St. Paul, Minnesota.
Connecting the Dots of the Social Gospel Movement with Changes Afoot Today
by Krista Tippett, host
"Social issues," Walter Rauschenbusch wrote, “are moral issues writ large.” Maybe that sounds like a straightforward statement. But it holds an emphasis, enwraps a whole theology that gave rise to the split between what we now experience as two branches of Christianity: Evangelical and mainline Protestant.
While pastoring a German Baptist church in Hell’s Kitchen in New York at the turn of the last century, Walter Rauschenbusch saw poverty and desolation at every turn. That he lived in a moment kindred to ours is immediately evident in the subject headings of his most famous book Christianity and the Social Crisis: the morale of the workers, the physical decline of the people, the crumbling of political democracy, the wedge of inequality.
This book was going to print as Rauschenbusch set off for a year’s sabbatical in Germany in 1907. He returned as a best-selling celebrity, a galvanizing figure in movement that became known as the Social Gospel. Though, as his great-grandson Paul Raushenbush tells us in our show "Occupying the Gospel," Walter never liked that catchphrase. It’s just the Gospel, he said.
Looking at the Bible with eyes fresh from the suffering he witnessed in Hell’s Kitchen, Walter Rauschenbusch saw a call for social healing, social renewal, and social justice in and between every line. The dedication page of his book contained these shortened lines from the end of The Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom Come! Thy Will be Done on Earth!” Walter Rauschenbusch believed in a transcendent God and an afterlife, but he came to feel that Christians had focused too much on the afterlife and not enough on their responsibilities in this life.
In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. cited Walter Rauschenbusch as a formative teacher in his understanding that “any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the…social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”
I read Walter Rauschenbusch too, when I studied theology in the early 1990s. He’s still studied at all kinds of seminaries — evangelical to mainline. He is not remembered in American culture like the twentieth-century public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, for example. But I’m sensing some spirit, some essence, of Social Gospel theology as 21st-century Americans apply faith to social issues and crises now. And as Paul Raushenbush points out, a most interesting example of this is the way in which new generations of Evangelicals have been engaging on matters of social justice — taking on the environment, global poverty, and human trafficking. They may care as deeply about what we think of in our time as “moral values issues.” But they’re seeing a Gospel, as Walter Rauschenbusch did, that compels them to see social issues as moral issues too.
Paul Raushenbush moderates an online chat with Sami Awad for the Global Voices of Non-Violence conference. (Photo courtesy of EGM Ethnographic Media)
In connecting these dots, Paul Raushenbushis a lovely conversation partner. He grew up largely unaffected, at least overtly, by the legacy of his great-grandfather. He became a rock and roll producer in Europe after college. He flamed out. Recovery, “getting clean,” was part of his return to faith. He ministered to street youth in Seattle and San Paolo, Brazil, and worked at Riverside Church in New York, and then became a chaplain and associate dean of religious affairs at Princeton. He was there for eight years before leaving to be full-time senior editor of the Huffington Post religion section, which he helped launch in 2010.
He has many interesting things to tell about the Social Gospel, religiosity among the young in our time, and his view of modern religion from an ultra-modern online perch. None is more counterintuitive, perhaps, than the fact that he is constantly urging contributors to the religion section of the Huffington Post to “be more religion-y.” The posts that go viral are often about getting grounded in tradition — learning the basics of the Bible, for example. In his piece of the famously liberal Huffington Post universe, he welcomes conservative voices. A progressive Christian himself, he is impatient when his fellow liberal faithful are less passionate than others, less articulate in communicating the Gospel they believe in. I have a feeling, in Paul’s presence, that he doesn’t merely give voice but embodies the theological spirit of his great-grandfather, in a most intriguing way.
O God, we thank you for this universe, our home; and for its vastness and richness, the exuberance of life which fills it and of which we are part. We praise you for the vault of heaven and for the winds, pregnant with blessings, for the clouds which navigate and for the constellations, there so high. We praise you for the oceans and for the fresh streams, for the endless mountains, the trees, the grass under our feet. We praise you for our senses, to be able to see the moving splendour, to hear the songs of lovers, to smell the beautiful fragrance of the spring flowers.
Give us, we pray you, a heart that is open to all this joy and all this beauty, and free our souls of the blindness that comes from preoccupation with the things of life, and of the shadows of passions, to the point that we no longer see nor hear, not even when the bush at the roadside is afire with the glory of God. Give us a broader sense of communion with all living things, our sisters, to whom you gave this world as a home along with us.
We remember with shame that in the past we took advantage of our greater power and used it with unlimited cruelty, so much so that the voice of the earth, which should have arisen to you as a song was turned into a moan of suffering.
May we learn that living things do not live just for us, that they live for themselves and for you, and that they love the sweetness of life as much as we do, and serve you, in their place, better than we do in ours. When our end arrives and we can no longer make use of this world, and when we have to give way to others, may we leave nothing destroyed by our ambition or deformed by our ignorance, but may we pass along our common heritage more beautiful and more sweet, without having removed from it any of its fertility and joy, and so may our bodies return in peace to the womb of the great mother who nourished us and our spirits enjoy perfect life in you.
"I want volunteers from the First Church who will pledge themselves, earnestly and honestly for an entire year, not to do anything without first asking the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ And after asking that question, each one will follow Jesus as exactly as he knows how, no matter what the result may be." ~Charles Sheldon, from In His Steps
In the halls of my high school, back in the 1990s, the initials W.W.J.D. (What Would Jesus Do) appeared as a seemingly sudden trend, gracing armbands, lanyards, backpacks. I associated it with teens either trying to fit in or proclaiming their Evangelical Christian faith through (then) fashion-forward accessories. But, Charles Monroe Sheldon, a Kansas preacher, first coined the phrase in 1893 in his novel, In His Steps. In a sense, those woven armbands draw a loop back to the Social Gospel Movement and the Evangelical impulse it grew out of.
Sheldon was a high-profile Congregational minister and an early advocate of civil rights for African-Americans and women. He also supported prohibition to battle alcoholism, seeing it as a serious social disease. And though Sheldon had the spirit of social activism, he was in many ways out of step with his time. He intended the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” to guide moral behavior as well as be applied to all aspects of living, including one’s occupation.
The novel begins with a young man who was “evidently a tramp” in shabby clothes coming to town looking for work and for help. He approaches the fictional congregation, even the pastor of a small Kansas town (much like the one Reverend Sheldon served), and finds that no one will help him. He later walks into the middle of the Sunday service and shames those present for the hypocrisy of turning their backs on him asking, "But what would Jesus do? Is that what you mean by following his steps?"
In the audio above, theologian John D. Caputo talks about the evolution of this powerful phrase. It’s a way to see what drives Christianity, he says, even the soul of it. But how it’s been appropriated today as mainly a slogan of the Christian Right is a degradation of a very good question, one that has a “magic to it.” According to Caputo it has most impact when applied to one’s own morality, but when used to with a prescriptive morality for others, “you take the teeth out of the question” and it becomes a kind of weapon with which to judge others.
However, Reverend Sheldon was not exclusively applying WWJD to public or private morality himself. He had a more nuanced approach. He felt that as much as one needed to be responsible for their own actions, “people were defenseless against these larger structural forces in this society,” hence his own contributions to social activism.
One intriguing interpretation issue is the challenge of actually determining what Jesus would have done. As Caputo puts it, “the question really is a question and it’s a difficult question because it involves making an interpretation, of taking Jesus who lived in a very different time a remote corner of the Roman Empire, in an occupied country, and who probably was not a very political person. So we’ve got to look at the New Testament narrative and figure out for ourselves what it’s telling us to do in our time.”
Listen to the first 80 seconds of Melissa Block’s piece on last night’s All Things Considered. And then fast forward to the final 67 seconds of the audio. What a powerful message, a powerful couple minutes of radio. To hear the contrast of the fluid voice of the Congresswoman before her brain was penetrated by a bullet in January of this year, and then witness the powerful will of her language several months later rages with hope.
Now, listen to the full ten-minute piece with Block’s interview with Representative Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, which is bookended with Gabby’s voice. The context makes her readings all the more powerful. Non?
Yes, even those of us who work in public radio are not immune to those “driveway moments” in the darkness of the early evening. What a gift.
Thanksgiving is a time when many families gather in gratitude, and sometimes in prayer. Paul Raushenbush says his family prayer was written by his great-grandad, Walter Rauschenbusch. Composed around the turn of the twentieth century, the theologian and Baptist social reformer’s words remain as beautiful and poignant today as they did a hundred years ago.
Thanksgiving Day Prayer by Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918)
For the wide sky and the blessed sun, For the salt sea and the running water, For the everlasting hills And the never-resting winds, For trees and the common grass underfoot. We thank you for our senses By which we hear the songs of birds, And see the splendor of the summer fields, And taste of the autumn fruits, And rejoice in the feel of the snow, And smell the breath of the spring. Grant us a heart wide open to all this beauty; And save our souls from being so blind That we pass unseeing When even the common thornbush Is aflame with your glory, O God our creator, Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
Do you have a family prayer that you recite on Thanksgiving? How does your family give thanks?
With the demise of my own community’s two most revered leaders, Sandusky and Joe Paterno, I have decided to continue to respect my elders, but to politely tell them, ‘Out of my way.’ They have had their time to lead. Time’s up. I’m tired of waiting for them to live up to obligations.
Think of the world our parents’ generation inherited. They inherited a country of boundless economic prosperity and the highest admiration overseas, produced by the hands of their mothers and fathers. They were safe. For most, they were endowed opportunities to succeed, to prosper, and build on their parents’ work. For those of us in our 20s and early 30s, this is not the world we are inheriting.
Holding Life Consciously: The Artistry of Bridging the Sciences and Humanities Through Focused Attention and Open Awareness
by Krista Tippett, host
Considering light as both particle and wave. (photo Wylie Conlon/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
I’m not sure I’d seen the words “physicist” and “contemplative” in the same sentence many times, much less found them together as descriptors of the same person, before I spoke with Arthur Zajonc on "Holding Life Consciously." (His name reflects his father’s Polish origins, by the way, and rhymes with “science.”) As a professor of physics at Amherst College, his research interests have ranged from the theoretical foundations of quantum physics and the polarity of atoms to the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. He also has a long-time contemplative practice and is a leading figure among academics exploring the relevance of contemplative traditions for higher education. And even when he is discussing elemental questions of science, he is likely to invoke ideas of the 18th-century literary figure Goethe, or the 20th-century scientist/philosopher/educational innovator Rudolph Steiner.
Writing that, I realize how erudite and perhaps abstract it might sound. In fact, being in Arthur Zajonc’s presence is as calming and grounding as it is intellectually intriguing. He has acquired an amazing range of tools across an adventurous 40-year career that explores human knowledge and human being in all their wholeness. Yet his tools and ideas are remarkably accessible — “sensible,” in fact, a word he uses often. He paints a manageable picture of how human life itself — lived fully and held consciously — compels us to integrate qualities of thought and mind that our culture often holds apart. We ourselves and everything around us have an interior as well as an exterior — and we can explore both with due vigor. Life as well as science has both an experiential, intuitive context and an objective, factual basis — and surely we must take all of this seriously if what we are really after is truth that matters and knowledge that serves.
Arthur Zajonc finds a favorite example of this layered nature of reality in the elemental substance of light. As we’ve explored a number of times here at On Being, the scientific debate over whether light is a particle or a wave was resolved in the 20th century with the unexpected conclusion that it is both. I’ve always pointed to this as an intriguing example of how contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true — a lesson straight from life that the answers we arrive at depend on the questions we are asking.
But Arthur Zajonc takes this debate and its implications to yet another level. Whether light is a particle or a wave, he points out, is still not the whole story of light; those of us who live in a world of light and darkness live in our experience of it, not in a perception of particles and waves. Goethe defined color, evocatively, as “the deeds and sufferings of light” and insisted that light and color have sensory and moral effect as well as physical properties. And surely it is not insignificant, and also worthy of investigation, that light is a primary spiritual metaphor across the centuries and across traditions.
Rudolf Steiner explored this idea, beginning from a scientific perspective, in the late 19th and early 20th century and has been a formative thinker for Arthur Zajonc. Here again, he is drawn to the integrated approach — and the experiential application of ideas — of Steiner, who founded the Anthroposophical Society in Switzerland, which continues to flourish across the world. Waldorf Schools are probably the best-known fruit of his philosophy. These schools intentionally cultivate the wholeness of the humanity of a child: intellectual, practical, ecological, musical, and spiritual.
Zajonc’s own life experience has been recently reshaped by a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. He has seen the progression of this illness in other members of his family, and so has some understanding of what is ahead. This is at one and the same time a source of grief and a continuation of the adventure Arthur Zajonc has long been on — to explore what holding life consciously means, now with a progressively debilitating condition. He tells me:
"There are two main types of meditation and both of them are part of my life, which one is a concentration and the other is what I call open awareness. It’s a very open presence.
In the concentration phase, tremors actually worsened.
You have a line of poetry or from scripture or an image and you bring your full undivided single-pointed attention to that content. But as we’re straining mentally to do that, the hand begins to tremor more. And then when you release the image and become very still and quiet and open yourself wide, the hand slowly calms to the point where indeed your whole body feels at ease and the tremor disappears. Interesting…
I can see that the mind and the body are so delicately attuned to one another that these practices affect the Parkinson’s state itself. … So here’s the question I pose to myself. Is it possible to be alive, active in the world, and yet have such calm, such kind of inner openness and presence that one can lead a life, at least in part, that is an expression of that quality of meditative quiescence that’s on the one hand quite alert and on the other hand, completely at ease, completely at rest. … And I’ll keep you posted as to whether that comes out all right or not.”
If you want to find God try spending 30 yrs. in a siberian prison.
Did you (or someone you know) spend three decades in a Siberian gulag? If so, let’s talk! We definitely want to hear about your experiences and ways of thinking about the divine in the world. Here’s my email address: firstname.lastname@example.org and my phone number: 651.290.1354.
If not, might I recommend reading Slavomir Rawicz’s epic tale “The Long Walk” (the movie is not nearly as good as the book) — a miraculous story of a Pole being imprisoned in a Siberian gulag in 1939 and then escaping and trekking thousands of miles to freedom. He might have some insights into the nature of God and man that could further this conversation.
I look forward to your reply, Trent Gilliss, senior editor
I’m assuming you heard our show with Arthur Zajonc in which we call out this wildly popular ten minutes of guided meditation. We posted Zajonc’s bell sound meditation right here on Tumblr. And, if you have the time and the inclination, please let us know what you thought about it; we’ve been fascinated by the experiences.
Have you read Dr. Melanie Joy's book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows?Or Dr. Will Tuttle's book, The World Peace Diet? Or Dr. Charles Patterson's book, Eternal Treblinka, Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust?Might you interview Dr. Steven Kaufman, one of the founders of CVA, Christian Vegetarian Association, or Dr. Richard Schwartz, Director of JVNA, Jewish Vegetarians of North America?
Good morning, Anonymous.
Although I haven’t read the books you suggested (to be honest, never even run across these titles before) and wasn’t aware that Christians and Jews had formal vegetarian organizations, we have several staff members who are smitten with animals and our species’ relationship to them. We recently produced a show with Alan Rabinowitz titled “A Voice for the Animals” that you might enjoy. And Colleen Scheck, a former producer for our program, wrote a lovely post about the animal/human bond worth checking out.
Participants at a conference reflect on a plenary session speech by Parker Palmer. (photo: Fund for Theological Education)
Parker Palmer is the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal and the author of nine books, including well-known titles such as The Courage to Teach and Let Your Life Speak. He is the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, perhaps most recently the Utne Reader’s 2011 Visionaries, 25 People Who are Changing the World.
“The human heart, this vital core of the human self, holds the power to destroy democracy or to make it whole. That is why our nineteenth-century visitor, Alexis de Tocqueville, insisted in his classic Democracy in America that democracy’s future would depend heavily on generations of American citizens cultivating the habits of the heart that support political wholeness.”
We corresponded by email over the course of several weeks for this interview.
Parker, you cite five habits of the heart you feel are necessary to moving forward as a democracy: understand that we are all in this together, develop an appreciation for the value of “otherness,” cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways, generate a sense of personal voice and agency, and strengthen our capacity to create community.
In and of themselves, none of these habits seem too complex or difficult for us to achieve, and I’m guessing most people would find it easy to embrace them, at least conceptually. What prevents us from becoming better at practicing these habits?
You’re right, Kate, of course. Saying the thing is always easier than doing the thing! So it’s important to understand why we have trouble embracing good ideas and allowing them to animate the way we live.
We resist the first habit of understanding that we are all in this together because it’s easier to pretend that we live in individual silos than to allow ourselves to get the fact. To take but one example, that the large and tragic achievement gap in public education between white kids and kids of color is something we all pay a price for sooner or later. If my son is doing well in school, great; I’m happy. But if his black and Latino classmates are doing poorly, I need to be unhappy about that, very unhappy, and advocate for the changes in public education that would help close the gap.
Among other things, that gap helps explain the fact that we now have more African Americans somewhere in the judicial and penal system than we had in slavery ten years before the Civil War. And that’s not only costly to this society in terms of the threat of crime, the cost of incarceration, etc., it’s flat-out evil in the way it crushes the spirits of young people who have just as much promise as my son does.
So, when you step outside your silo and understand your interconnectedness, life becomes more complicated and ethically demanding. But the bottom line is, what do you stand for: narrow self-interest or the common good? And do you understand that narrow self-interest can be self-defeating while caring about the common good can be a way of caring about yourself and those you love?
I’m 72 years old, so I reflect more often on the fact that I’m going to die than I did when I was 30, or 40, or 50. On that day, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be saying to myself, “Boy, am I glad that I spent all my years on Earth feathering my own nest and not giving a hoot about anyone other than my family and friends!” I’m pretty sure I’d rather be saying, “I’m glad I did what I could during my brief sojourn on this planet to help bring a caring community into being, to love my neighbor as myself.”
As you know, Kate, I say quite a lot in the book about each of those five habits, but let me say a few words about one more: “Cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.” This one is right at the heart of our democracy, both institutionally and personally. America’s founders, for all their blind spots, gave us a set of governing institutions whose genius lies in their ability to hold tension creatively over time. Democracy is all about taking the tension of our differences and using it as an engine to keep moving us forward on important social issues. So why is it hard to live this one? Because it requires us to resist the ancient and well-known “fight or flight response” that kicks in when we find ourselves in a tension-ridden situation. Our instinct is either to run away or to punch out the source of the tension!
We all know at some level that if we can hold tension creatively — in the family, in the workplace, in the larger community — we often emerge with a better solution to the problem than if we ran away or used force to control the situation. My favorite close-to-the-bone example involves raising a teenager. Good parents can see their teenage child’s potential and “true self” while they also see that child making some bad choices and perhaps even going off the rails. But good parenting means holding our children in a way that both acknowledges their long-term possibilities and their current realities, knowing that the worst thing we could do is to try to force the outcome. Many of us know how to do that kind of “holding” in our private lives, so we have the capacity to do some of the same in our public lives.
The key, of course, is love. Love leads us to hold the tensions we experience as parents in a creative way. Of course, the kind of love we have for those close to us cannot be replicated in the public realm. But can a different form of love — love of the promise of the human spirit, love of the common good — lead us to hold political tensions creatively? I’m not sure, but I sure hope so, because a politics rooted in greed or hunger for power rather than love of the commonweal is a politics headed toward self-destruction.
I’d like to devote much of my remaining time and energy toward helping to make our public life more compassionate and more generative — and I know many, many people who share that vision and that desire.
“For at least some of those with soul-destroying morning commutes, liberation may indeed be at hand. A preliminary presentation posted by Stanford University researchers describes the effects of allowing customer service employees at a billion-dollar Chinese company to work from home: Productivity went up, as did hours worked, and employees seemed happier for it.”—
—Ray Fisman at Slate reports on a study that shows that telecommuting may not be the “working from home” joke many of us make it out to be. And, yet, when all the workers were offered a telecommuting option, half the employees opted to inhabit a cube, “preferring the hours in commute in exchange for the human interaction of office life and a fixed beginning and end to each work day.”
On a morning, sharp with winter, fresh with cold, I rise and walk on mesa paths, red with longing-mine, red with loving-mine.
In slivers of air, here and there, smells of sage come and go. But their memory always lingers.
Bluejays dart through juniper without even a hello. But ravens stop and chat. From the tops of topmost branches, they say: one day, you’ll understand our conversation. And it maddens me. By which I mean, it gladdens me beyond belief. Or rather, into it.
For I do believe. I believe in the trinity of piñon, sage and juniper. I believe in the holy ghosts that live in yellow plains, drained of green but not of life. I believe in lavas that bind mesas so they do not yield, not easily, not yet. I believe in rocks that I know by name but that don’t know me, not now, not yet. (One day, they will.) I believe in birdsong that persists through winter and heartsong that keeps the land beating through droughts, rains, snows, love, loss, betrayal. I believe in immenseness, space and a spirit I have found again, by another name, in another guise. I believe. Finally, I believe.
Shebana Coelho is a writer and documentary producer. Her work has been broadcast on National Public Radio, The Discovery Channel, and BBC Radio Four. She received a 2007 Fulbright grant to Mongolia to experience and record life in nomadic communities. Shebana was born in Bombay, India and is currently living in geographical limbo.
Picture this: an Iraqi reporter becomes interested in the work of a Jewish student in Israel after reading an article about Jewish-Muslim relations in medieval Spain that the student published online. The reporter contacts the student and interviews him about future prospects for Jewish-Muslim coexistence.
As the student in this story and co-author of this article, Joshua Stanton knows first-hand how technology is reshaping the way people of different religions interact. To start with, he and the Iraqi reporter would never have connected without the Internet, which enabled them to bypass regional politics and borders.
Yet the Internet’s potential can yield various outcomes. Despite our increased connectivity, people of different faith traditions remain all too likely to talk past one another. Just look at the comments section of any online news article.
The Internet also allows people to perpetuate longstanding arguments over the most central of religious identifiers: sacred texts and the figures within them. Which son was Abraham prepared to sacrifice — Isaac, a central figure in the Jewish and Christian traditions, or Ishmael, whose story is central to Muslims? Did Isaiah predict the birth of Jesus in the Hebrew Bible? And of course, who was the religious prophet of ultimate importance? Recycled ignorance and nasty disagreements over disparate prophetic texts often leave online dialoguers depleted and demoralized.
The key, it would seem, is not whitewashing the differences that exist between religions and their sacred texts but clarifying them and using them as a basis for informed discourse online.
People of faith do well to read their own sacred texts with curiosity about how these writings influence their understanding of what a life faithfully lived looks like. Yet we also become more responsible and more informed practitioners when we allow those outside our traditions to read along with us, over our shoulders. Too many people have not looked seriously at other traditions’ texts. And too many interpreters do not interpret in ways that invite “outsiders” into the conversation.
For example, Muslims and Jews may know that the Torah and the Qur’an differ over which son God called Abraham to sacrifice — Isaac or Ishmael. But do they know that some rabbinic commentaries affirm the Qur’anic position that the events must have taken place in a dream? And have Christians considered how such ideas might inform their interpretations of the story that view it as foreshadowing Jesus’ obedience and death? Without opportunities for more public, hospitable investigations of one another’s scriptural traditions, Jews, Christians and Muslims might simply reassert old stereotypes, even as their leaders and scholars model isolationism.
Technology allows people to learn about sacred texts, their origins, their histories of interpretation and their ongoing relevance from informed leaders and scholars they would not otherwise be able to learn from.
ON Scripture, a new initiative launched by Odyssey Networks, a multi-faith media coalition, in collaboration with the major online news site, The Huffington Post, aims to create this sort of online space. It presently offers resources focused on the study of Christian scripture, but is poised to launch ON Torah in the coming months, which will focus exclusively on sacred Jewish texts. Odyssey Networks also hopes to launch ON Quran in order to highlight the rich textual traditions of Islam and thus enable all three Abrahamic traditions to have centres of text study housed on the same website, making it easier for individuals to find out information about all three faiths.
While initially operating independently, the weekly online articles from ON Scripture about the Torah and the Christian Bible offer interpretations that religious leaders put forth about their own tradition’s sacred texts, guided by the traditional cycle of scriptural reading of that particular tradition.
In time, we hope to expand the conversations, perhaps having rabbis, pastors and imams in dialogue with each other in videos that broadcast respectful dialogue about scriptural texts, even in light of real differences. While the forum is currently in English, it may come to span multiple languages, bringing people of faith from across the globe into constructive dialogue aided by cutting-edge translation technology.
As people of faith open their scriptures in full public view, they open themselves to grow in mutual understanding and appreciation of how ancient scriptures continue to shape and motivate people of faith. Even in disagreement, there can be understanding.
Matthew L. Skinner is Associate Professor of the New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota and Founding Editor of ON Scripture.
Joshua M. Z. Stanton is Founding Co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue and of ON Torah, as well as a Schusterman Rabbinical Fellow at Hebrew Union College.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on November 8, 2011. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
Are Legal Obligations Enough? Did Penn State's Joe Paterno Fail a Moral Test? What's His Culpability?
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The Patriot-News editorial board has issued a stinging condemnation of the moral and ethical responsibility of Penn State officials, including the university’s legendary head football coach, Joe Paterno. How are you thinking through this mess and the moral and ethical responsibilities of Paterno about these alleged crimes against children?
“Many people have criticized the so-called ‘social gospel,’ but Jesus taught that we are to take the gospel to the world. Actually there is no such thing as a ‘social gospel.’ It is a misnomer. There is only one gospel … The cup of cold water comes after and sometimes before rather than instead of the gospel. Christians, above all others, should be concerned with social problems and social injustices. Down through the centuries the church has contributed more than any other single agency in lifting social standards to new heights.”—
Unforeseen Beauty and Possibility: A Decade of Discovering Islam
by Krista Tippett, host
The Brooklyn sun on September 11, 2001. (photo: by Joshua Treviño/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
In a perfect world, or at least a perfectly informed one, most Americans would have known something about Islam as the 21st century opened. They would have been aware that over one billion of the world’s people belong to this faith that emerged from the monotheistic soil of Christianity and Judaism. They might also have known that Muslims would soon be the second largest religious group in the U.S., after Christians. And that statistic might have come alive in American imaginations in the form of the doctors and teachers, parents and citizens it represents.
But we don’t live in a perfect world. September 11, 2001, was many Americans’ catastrophic introduction to Islam. Certainly, up to then, there were Islamic images that populated the American sense of the world out there — threatening images, many of them, associated with bombed embassies or the first failed World Trade Center attack. Islamic terrorists were default suspects, too, we recall, in the immediate hours after the Oklahoma City bombing.
But September 11 was the day, as someone said, when the Middle East came to America. That Tuesday we woke up as post-Cold War people — citizens of the prosperous remaining superpower. By Wednesday we had become post-9/11 people, with newly fearful eyes on the world. And our new enemies declared themselves agents of Islam.
I was in Washington, DC, on that day seeking funding for the wild idea of a weekly public radio program on religion. I had been piloting programs for about a year, getting an enthusiastic response from listeners and a tepid one from programmers. Talk of religion, many argued, was necessarily proselytizing and divisive. Moreover, faith wasn’t an appropriate focus for a weekly hour of public radio — not a reasonable, weighty subject for public life like politics or economics or the arts — best left as a private matter.
“My sense of the holy, insofar as I have one, is bound up with the hope that someday, any millennium now, my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law. In such a society, communication would be domination-free, class and caste would be unknown, hierarchy would be a matter of temporary pragmatic convenience, and power would be entirely at the disposal of the free agreement of a literate and well-educated electorate.”—Richard Rorty (1931-2007), from an exchange between the American pragmatist philosopher and the Catholic philosopher Gianni Vattimo in The Future of Religion.
Who Was the Buddha? The Story of a Human Being Like You and Me
by Toni Bernhard, guest contributor
An image of the Buddha is carved into a banyan tree at Wat Mahathat in Thailand. (photo: McKay Savage/Flickr, cc by 2.0)
The name Buddha means “awakened one.” This is the story of how a young man became the Buddha. As with all ancient tales, we can’t know what is to be taken literally and what is to be taken metaphorically. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m inspired by his story either way.
The Buddha was born a prince in a small kingdom in northern India. His name was Siddhartha Gautama. His father, the king, indulged his son’s desires and protected him from being exposed to human suffering. The king posted guards at the palace gates to keep Siddhartha from seeing how less fortunate people lived. He even had attendants hold a parasol over his son so he wouldn’t experience heat or cold or dust. Everything unpleasant about life was hidden from him.
When Siddhartha was nine years old, his father took him to a plowing festival. At one point, the nurses left the prince unattended under a rose-apple tree. In striking contrast to the noise of the festival, it was calm and quiet under the tree. Siddhartha sat cross-legged and became aware of the sensation of his breath going in and out of his body. It was his first experience of true calm and peacefulness. Soon his nurses returned and broke this peaceful abiding, but the experience had a profound effect on the young prince.
One day, when Siddhartha was a young man, he talked his attendant, Channa, into taking him beyond the walls of the palace. For the first time, Siddhartha was exposed to life as the rest of us experience it.
"It’s our effort on this planet as creatures who have a mind and use language to ask questions and answer them through speculation, through story-telling, to explore the universe and answer those fundamental questions: Where do we come from? What are we? And where, if any place, are we going?"
It interests me, looking back now, to see how Robert Coles stressed language as inextricably bound with spirit. Jean Berko Gleason is, like him, a wisely child-like delver. A professor emerita of psychology, she continues to imprint and expand the field of psycholinguistics that she helped to create — the exploration of how human beings acquire language and what this says about who we are.
She began to make her mark on linguistics decades ago with a test that looks, on the surface, like it’s about basic grammar. She created the wug, a simply drawn mythical creature. This, it turned out, was a savvy tool for demonstrating that young children could apply complex grammatical rules and form new words that no one had ever tried to teach them. Even after 50 years in her field, Jean Berko Gleason remains amazed and delighted at the extremely ordinary human capacity to learn language and work with it. She infects me with that amazement.
She also brings us up to speed on the evolution of this scientific field’s “nature versus nurture” debate. Every discipline, it seems, has one. When I was in college, the MIT linguist Noam Chomsky had taken the intellectual world by storm with his suggestion that we are born with universal, innate language templates that only need to be triggered for humans to speak.
Looking at the “wug test,” you might suspect that it tells some of the same story — of an innate skill that is biologically, not socially, rooted. But as Jean Berko Gleason has grown in her field and watched it grow with her, she has become increasingly fascinated by what we are learning about the intense interaction that draws forth, inspires, and hones that biologically-rooted capacity in all of us as children.
Moreover, Jean Berko Gleason suspects, there is something instructive in the adult human’s compulsion to speak with children, to engage them in language. In ways we’ve barely begun to scrutinize and study, she says, we are unfolding with children as we help them unfold language. The technologies we now have to study the brain are showing us remarkable things — like the physical markers of babies born in bilingual households with bilingual brains. But these technologies, Jean Berko Gleason insists, will never replace our need to observe the miraculous results of mothers talking to their babies.
While we were producing this week’s show “Unfolding Language, Unfolding Life,” a number of us tested this theory on our kids, with varying results. Putting a microphone in front of a five year old, or a thirteen year old, is not the straightest route to natural interaction. But I was amazed, for example, when my teenager, after he’d stopped being reluctant and sarcastic, began to reflect in quite a sophisticated way on the word “human” as “plural” — as pegging us not just as individuals but as part of something, as part of humanity. Which means, he says, that we also “have to do our part.”
This is a fascinating echo of a big idea Jean Berko Gleason leaves me with. In recent years, she’s delved into the fact that children in every language and culture studied by linguists have huge animal vocabularies. She’s puzzling, these days, over what that says about us as human beings. Certainly, we are drawn to life, to living beings. And more and more, we are aware that these beings think and may be conscious. We can’t fathom that, because they can’t tell us about it. But we are given a vast gift in our ordinary, inborn skill of language. Alone among the creatures, as Jean Berko Gleason puts it, we are able to reflect, to be conscious of ourselves, and to comment on that.
I’m grateful that she is out there studying the deepest meaning of human language, and I now appreciate it in a new way in my ordinary, day-to-day life.
Infographic courtesy of John Pasden/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0.
“The reality emerging out of the Exodus is not just a new religion or a new religious idea or a vision of freedom but the emergence of a new social community in history, a community that has historical body, that had to devise laws, patterns of governance and order, norms of right and wrong, and sanctions of accountability. The participants in the Exodus found themselves, undoubtedly surprisingly to them, involved in the intentional formation of a new social community to match the vision of God’s freedom.”—
On November 17th, we’ll be releasing our interview with his great-grandson, Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, in which he speaks about the the social gospel movement and how it may be resurfacing in a renewed interest for authenticity.
“In spite of everything that’s gone before, the last 12 months have been the happiest and most special of my life. To become a parent is a blessing I never imagined might be bestowed upon me until recently. It’s an awe-inspiring responsibility and both David and I are determined to fulfil that responsibility — not just to our son but to his generation. We want him to grow up in a Britain where every young person is not just loved as much as we love him, but is afforded fair treatment and respect. However, as we start thinking about Zachary’s future education, it’s clear that this Britain doesn’t exist yet.”—