Putting words around end-of-life issues is such a difficult task that, even in our tweets, it became difficult to substitute the words “death,” “dying,” or “aging” literally when she used demonstratives like “this” and “that” to represent those ideas in conversation.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and reposting for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets:
The Elemental Force of Music and the Human Voice: A Place Where Grace Can Come In with Bobby McFerrin
by Krista Tippett, host
Years ago, when my children were young, we danced around the house to Bobby McFerrin’s Hush album. I’ve followed his adventures with magnificent orchestras and with the jazz great Chick Corea. I’ve heard his setting of the 23rd Psalm, addressed to a female deity, played in churches. And I’ve watched him leading thousands of strangers in the “Ave Maria” — singing notes they did not know they knew to sing — to their own deep delight.
Bobby McFerrin is an explorer on frontiers of the human voice; he sings the territory between music and the human spirit. I knew this when I sat down to speak with him, but I couldn’t guess how beautifully he would be able to put it into words or how theologically he does so. As an interviewer, I’ve learned that words can be unfamiliar and blunt tools for people whose principal mode of expression is art.
As we first begin to speak, this famously hyperkinetic performer is very quiet. He tells me that as a teenager he considered becoming a monk, because of his love of quiet. He tilts his head upward, with a thoughtful smile, and says he was fascinated by the monastic rhythm of life that brought one, compulsively and predictably, back to an awareness of the presence of God.
Bobby McFerrin instead took up art as a measure of his days. His way of making music — “catching songs” as he describes it — points at the elemental force of music, especially the human voice, in what is human and what is sacred.
As I was preparing to interview him, I found an online review struggling with the spirituality that is never far from the surface in Bobby McFerrin’s music. “He may be spiritual,” the blogger wrote, “but he apparently knows the world of the flesh as well, and has a very wicked sense of humor.” Here’s the truth as I see it: spirit, body, and playfulness are of a piece in Bobby McFerrin’s music and his person, as they are in all of us when we’re getting the complexity of our being halfway right.
But he takes it a step further. He uses music, as he tells me, to lean into that place where flesh and spirit are in tension. He sings the Psalms, pacing back and forth for his morning prayer. He loves that they mine the sweep of human experience, from gratitude and delight to rage and self-pity. He even proposes singing in moments of temptation — singing, before saying a word or lodging a critique that you know is unkind, or that you know would be best kept for another moment. Singing as an ethical discipline.
I begin to wonder if this is a subtle part of the reason that we find music and musicality of wondrous variety at the very heart of our many religious traditions. As breath has a power to join body, mind, and spirit, so too and more passionately does music. Bobby McFerrin’s projects across the years — including his “instant opera” Bobble, inspired by the biblical Tower of Babel story — have incorporated Tibetan throat singing, Qur’anic recitation, and liturgical chant. He attends an African-American church sometimes, he tells me, and it cannot help but be soaked in energy and beauty, because the worship service is a kind of addendum to hours of singing together.
In recent years, Bobby McFerrin has taken the mysterious and life-giving delight of singing together to rooms full of strangers. On a stage with neuroscientists at the World Science Festival, he moved his body and the audience saw and sang the pentatonic scale. Science is now able to study what is happening in our brains in this kind of musical moment. And at the same time, we rediscover the primal joy and homecoming in the simple act of singing together with a bunch of other people. There’s a parable of our time in there, one that I like.
Near the end of our conversation, he tells a remarkable story of an ethnomusicology student who came to one of his concerts and approached him backstage with some urgency. She had been unearthing and cataloguing dead, extinct languages in Africa. How, she asked him, do you know some of these languages? He was, she said, singing their vocabulary and syntax when he was ostensibly improvising.
We are “embodied memories,” Bobby McFerrin says. Music may be one key (the only key?) to unlocking some of those. For me, this story also makes me wonder, “Is music older than language? Is song at least as elemental to what it means to be human as words?”
Bobby McFerrin says, “This is what I want everyone to experience at the end of my concert … this sense of rejoicing. I don’t want them to be blown away by what I do. I want them to have a sense of real, real joy from the depths of their being. Because I think when you take them to that place, then you open up a place where grace can come in.”
Grace came in to my conversation with Bobby McFerrin. And it’s left me humming.
The musician Bobby McFerrin describes the art and act of improvisation as “simply motion, just the courage to keep moving.” In the audio above (from this week’s show "Catching Song"), he offers a three-week challenge for building improvisational muscles and describes how it works. Here are the steps:
Set a timer for 10 minutes.
Open up your mouth and sing.
Don’t stop for 10 minutes.
Do this every day for three weeks.
Sounds pretty simple, right? McFerrin, however, warns that every inch, atom, and molecule of your being will want to bail. Self-judgment will creep in. But don’t falter. Keep going. McFerrin holds open the tantalizing promise that, in a few short weeks, you’ll see a change.
So, who’s up for the challenge?
Once you’ve tried McFerrin’s improvisational workout, we’d love to hear what it was like. What surprised you? Delighted you? Share your reflections here in the comments section. You can even record yourself and send in your improvisational vocal creations here at (612) 326-4044. If enough people participate, we’ll produce an audio montage and post it to the blog.
It was not in my nature to be an assertive person. I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life. And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself…
Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, ‘Listen to me.’ This was where I faltered. I preferred to listen rather than speak, to see instead of be seen. I was afraid of listening to myself, and of looking at my life.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author has said that she feels more comfortable observing other people than being a participant on the stage of life. But in this week’s New Yorker, Lahiri opens up and tells the story of how she became a writer. Hers is a story of stealth audacity and of finding a home for herself in solitude the of her desk.
The nature of “free will” is central for those who study ethics, the law, and religion. And science is getting in on the discussion.
Researchers cannot determine whether humans can make truly voluntary choices or if we’re justifying unconscious impulses. But their findings around the edges of it are illuminating.
For example, Miller-McCune reports that antisocial behavior is linked with the belief that free will is an illusion.
Researchers asked participants to read three types of essays: one that argues that free will is real, one that argues that it is an illusion, and a third one on a neutral topic. The experimenters are trying to instill a “disbelief” in free will.
The participants in this group reported that they were less likely to help a woman raise money for college (a fabricated scenario). They reasoned that it takes energy to help someone else, and, if a person doesn’t believe in free will then he or she is more beholden to one’s urges and will want to preserve energy. According to the authors of the study, “disbelief in free will serves as a cue to act on impulse, a style of response that promotes selfish and impulsive actions.”
Now, note that this study had a small (121) pool of subjects, and they were all scientifically-minded psychologists or philosophers. The researchers created a scenario about a man named John who kills a shop owner “because he needs money.” They were asked how strongly they agreed with three statements:
John is morally responsible for his action;
John did it because of his own free will;
John’s decision was up to him.
A high level of agreement with these statements correlated with how extraverted the subjects reported themselves to be.
Journalist Tom Jacobs raises interesting legal implications from this work:
"If these results hold up, they could pose a challenge for the legal system, with its need for impartiality. A jury that is largely composed of extraverts ‘may be more willing to hold a person morally responsible for an action, even if the person could not have done anything to prevent the action from coming about,’ they write. ‘Extraverts may be less likely to evaluate excusing conditions for bad actions,’ even when doing so might be appropriate."
Tuesday Evening Melody: “The Birth and Death of the Day” by Explosions in the Sky
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
This evening’s melody is recommended by Mila Vecore, a listener who heard our call-out for song suggestions on the radio and made her way to our submissions form. This is exactly the kind of story we were looking for:
"My mind (and soul) went straight to a song by an instrumental band, Explosions in the Sky, called "The Birth and Death of the Day." It is amazing how much emotion it evokes without a single word being expressed. In fact, I chose this as our wedding march and, as if the weather seemed to conspire with the music, an unexpected and very temporary rainstorm hit our outdoor ceremony, only to dissipate shortly thereafter with beautiful sunshine.
This song captured that moment, but every time I listen to it I can tell it would be memorable for many others, for their own reasons, if they just were exposed to it.”
I hadn’t heard this track before. But, after listening to it, you’ll madly long to have attended Mila’s wedding!
A big thanks to exposing us to this album! We’re glad you wrote.
About half-way through the Aimee program I thought I heard Krista mention a book about the all-consuming nature of ministry from a woman's viewpoint. Perhaps I was distracted while driving but I thought the book was written by a woman. It sounded like an ideal gift for my pastor, who's going on sabbatical for 8 weeks. Didn't see it referenced on the website. Does anyone recall what book Krista mentioned? Or did I hear incorrectly?
Thanks for the question. Although Krista didn’t recommend any book at this point in the show, she did credential Anthea Butler with her work, Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World.
I’m not sure if this is light reading for a sabbatical, but I’ve often been surprised by what qualifies for leisure-time activity. Cheers!
“When I go to a campus where the Muslim Student Association and the Hillel are not talking to each other, my question to them is, ‘Who did you feed in Ramallah by not talking to Hillel? Who did you keep safe in the south of Israel by not talking to the M.S.A.?’”—
The Closest Thing to Oprah Winfrey in Early 20th-Century America
by Krista Tippett, host
I’ve said this before, and I’ll keep saying it: Pentecostalism is one of the great underreported and misunderstood “religion stories” of our time. This faith with a strong egalitarian, populist instinct has always empowered people on the margins of society, culture, and religion itself.
And so it is not remarkable — yet this memory surprises nevertheless — that one of the most influential women in American religious history was Pentecostal. Aimee Semple McPherson was a famous preacher and worship leader decades before the most liberal denominations in the United States ordained women as ministers. She was the first woman to obtain a license from the FCC to run a radio station. She helped to feed 1.5 million people in Los Angeles during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Among other things her commissary, it is said, “kept the Mexican community alive” — the lowest rung on that city’s Depression-era socio-economic hierarchy.
Sister Aimee, as she was known then, also generated controversy to rival her accomplishments. She was not just a powerful woman when women were not generally powerful; she was sexual when women were not supposed to be sexual — or, rather, only women of a certain kind. She had a famously tumultuous personal life, was accused of staging her own kidnapping in 1926, and created an extravagant worship style replete with lavish costumes, moving sets, and live animals. We heard from one listener who remembered his mother’s account of a Sunday service where Sister Aimee came down the aisle of Angelus Temple — the 5000-seat church she built in Los Angeles — atop a white horse.
I confess that it is probably easier for me to admire Aimee Semple McPherson from a distance of several decades. The journalist Dorothy Parker called her “Our Lady of the Loudspeaker.” For those who were not captivated by her, her love of the limelight seemed to defy the very spirit she preached. I might have had the same reaction. Her preaching voice, heard in this show by way of archival recordings, is by turns moving, alarming, and histrionic. Some recent scholars and documentarians have called her a precursor to modern televangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, or a harbinger of the brand of highly politicized Christianity that has garnered so much attention in our time.
I can’t say those analyses are wrong, but they are certainly incomplete. Unlike many televangelists, she amassed no great fortune and fed many hungry people without strings attached. Unlike the politically mobilized Christianity of our time, her life and message always returned to the simplest themes of Christian faith, presented most effectively to people without clout. In the U.S., Pentecostal women have become less prominent in ministry as Pentecostalism has entered mainstream culture. But “Sister Aimee” is a source of hope for women now embracing charismatic faith in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Anthea Butler says that what was viewed as scandalous in her time — her volatile family life, her failed marriages, her evident humanity — makes her more inspiring, not less so, in ours.
In not wanting to reduce Aimee Semple McPherson to analogy or analysis, I find myself in company with one of her more unlikely recent chroniclers — the novelist John Updike, who reviewed a spate of new biographies about “Famous Aimee” for The New Yorker in 2007. Here is how he ends that essay:
"The reality of her, gone from the scene for most of a century, emerges affectingly not in sociological boasts but in anecdotes that take her as she came. In 1927, a month after the charges against her were dismissed in Los Angeles, she arrived in New York in furs and a yellow suit, and was taken to a prime watering spot of the Roaring Twenties, Texas Guinan’s speakeasy, on Fifty-fourth Street. A reporter called out, with whatever sardonic intent, that she should be invited to speak. Guinan agreed, and, as Epstein tells it, ‘Aimee, demure, dignified, stone sober … left her table and stood in the center of the dance floor, smiling until everyone was quiet.’ Then she said:
'Behind all these beautiful clothes, behind these good times, in the midst of your lovely buildings and shops and pleasures, there is another life. There is something on the other side. “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” With all your getting and playing and good times, do not forget you have a Lord. Take Him into your hearts.
'And that was all — a miniature masterpiece of the evangelist's art, silencing a boozy crowd in no mood to hear it. Epstein writes, 'All at once they applauded, and Tex put her arm around Aimee. The clapping went on for much longer than her speech had taken.'”
Reminder of an On-Stage Exchange Thanks to Kungfutofu
Ms. Tippett:So Sylvia, one thing following on that. Lovingkindness meditation is also towards one's self. You share a story in your writing about precisely that, but you share what you often say to yourself when you're in a moment of anxiety. OK. So I think this is just great advice. I'm going to hang onto this. "Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax, take a breath, let's pay attention to what is happening, then we'll figure out what to do." I think that's a fabulous sentence for one's self and for one's children.
Dr. Boorstein:I'm so pleased that you found that. It's tremendously pleasing to me because I meet people in some significant numbers who tell me that they say to themselves in moments of distress. I say — they say, "I say to myself, 'Sweetheart, you're in pain. Relax, take a breath.'" I love that. A whole bunch of people out there saying to themselves, "Sweetheart."
“A powerful store of social capital still exists. It is called religion: the churches, synagogues and other places of worship that still bring people together in shared belonging and mutual responsibility. The evidence shows that religious people – defined by regular attendance at a place of worship – actually do make better neighbours. … Religion creates community, community creates altruism and altruism turns us away from self and towards the common good.”—
—Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom
In his article in the New Statesman, the chief rabbi builds on Robert Putnam’s recent research on the role of religion in public life. Sacks argues that religion and its institutions can, and should, play an important role in civil society — as an instructive model and a great convener of people.
“It is no coincidence that the big debate over the nature of society – the red Tory/blue Labour exchange – is driven by people who do God and is largely a response to theologians like Alasdair MacIntyre. Like it or not, the voice of the theologian is back in the public square.”—
What Confucianism and Pentecostalism Have in Common
by Susan Leem, associate producer
A visitor looks at the statues of the 72 Disciples of Confucius in the courtyard at the Koshi-byo, or Confucius Shrine in Nagasaki, Japan. (photo: Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)
Dogma, well at least its noted absence, has made its way into two of our recent shows. And it is non-dogma itself that binds two very disparate belief systems. Astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees avoids it, “I am not a person who adheres to any religious dogma.” And so did flamboyant preacher Aimee Semple McPherson as she embraced Pentecostalism, a non-dogmatic and fast-growing denomination of Christianity.
Though himself atheist, Martin Rees notes, “I can see a closer affinity with Confucianism and systems of thought like that.”
“Every person processes and embodies their tradition in an original and organic way that is complex and embedded in the person’s experience of joy and suffering; loss and loves. When talking about religion we are always treading on delicate and intensely personal ground and an authentic religious conversation involves listening more than speaking in order to fully understand and appreciate another person’s religious background.”—
—Paul Raushenbush, the wise and elegant editor of Huffington Post Religion, has just written an outstanding piece on the art and work of bringing religious ideas and difference into our public spheres. It’s sentences like the quotation above that deserve slow reading and pondering.
He then applies this thinking to what happens to religion in politics and in political lives, weaving in some astute observations from former Senator John Danforth. When I spoke with Danforth several years ago, he gave me much to think about. He has lived this line of faith and politics in an especially robust way.
Lately we’ve been playing around with radio promos and the top of the show, foregoing our regular theme music because it just doesn’t quite work for us, editorially speaking. And, this point was demonstrated while producing our recent show with Martin Rees.
So, Chris Heagle, our technical director went to work. I think playful best describes his reworking of the top with Krista reading script. Non? Does the Star Trek theme ever get old?
Marilyn Monroe holds a framed portrait of Abraham Lincoln. (photo: Milton Greene, via Michael Donovan/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
This spring I’m finally reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterful work, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It’s been instructive to read her historical account in the midst of this season of political folly — from Newt Gingrich’s rapid freefall to Rep. Weiner’s embarrassing Twitter pics to John Edwards’ alleged criminal cover-up. But of course when is politics not a display of the follies of men? And I mean “men” here: rare is the female politician caught with her pants down, lawyering up to combat sleaze or scandal.
Published in 2006, Goodwin’s book chronicles the lives of Lincoln and three of his famed political adversaries — accomplished men who later became trusted members of his cabinet and fiercely loyal friends. (The film rights were secured by Steven Spielberg years before the book was finished; Daniel Day-Lewis plays the title role next year).
In America’s popular and poorly exercised historical imagination, Abraham Lincoln is mostly a cardboard caricature, but in Goodwin’s narrative he emerges as a compelling, complex figure. Not really a surprise, I know, but the person and his politics — Lincoln’s private ambition and public comportment, his personal burdens and professional brilliance — are irresistibly rendered.
So it’s never helpful (or truthful) to characterize earlier eras like Lincoln’s as more respectable or dignified than our own, top hats and high collars notwithstanding. The historical record is clear that politics has always been cutthroat and politicians have always been capable of the worst of human behavior. Nor should we assume that Victorian prudishness about sex curtailed the exploitation of women as disposable objects for the amusement of powerful men. Prostitution abounded in Lincoln’s America.
But there is something about the inherent contradictions regarding sex in our own age that seems to contribute to a perpetually adolescent outlook on human relationships. Americans are famously puritanical in our views about sex yet perversely voyeuristic about the sex lives of the famous.
We complain when CNN spends hours of air-time covering Anthony Wiener’s underpants problem, but seasoned media researchers know that such stories are the bread-and-butter of higher ratings and revenues. We gripe, but we can’t turn away.
There is also the correlation between the cultivation of celebrity and a lack of intellectual rigor, which makes sex (or at least sexiness) a preoccupation in American politics. Candidates for public office rarely speak in anything but clichés and soundbites; carefully controlled image is everything.
The three- to four-hour political speeches of Lincoln’s day — dense with ideas and historical and literary references — are unfathomable in our own. In a fast-paced visual culture, we want airbrushed good looks not lengthy, complex oratory. Before you know it, people like John Edwards think their sexual attractiveness makes them invincible.
In the end, though, the downfall of men like Wiener and Edwards — whether short-lived or for the long haul — may be less about sexual preoccupations (theirs and ours) and more about small lives (also theirs and ours). One of the ironies of our increasingly globalized world is that we are more solipsistic than ever, living our lives through the mediation of smaller and smaller screens, surrounded by people but starving for real human connection.
In 19th-century prairie towns like Springfield, Illinois where the isolation was real, it was somehow possible to “live large,” to practice the virtue of magnanimity: a generosity of spirit and intellect that is the opposite of our modern smallness, that seeks contentment not in self-gratification or the attainment of celebrity but in giving oneself fully to a transcendent purpose. Not that Lincoln and some of his rival-friends, especially, weren’t bundles of neuroses, capable, at times, of self-serving pettiness — but at least they exhibited, when it mattered most, something of genuine human selflessness in service to the greater good.
In our time, unfortunately, the self is most often the greater good. And politicians whose very survival as politicians — getting elected or staying elected — consumes their every waking moment, seem inexplicably tempted toward small, selfish, secret acts of betrayal and self-sabotage. Acts that are intended to prop up the insecure ego but which ultimately humiliate and destroy, laying low not just the powerful men themselves but the women and children, family and friends, who love them.
It is time for you to bring The humanist & environmentalist E. O. Wilson on your show. Mr. Wilson would be a leveling influence to those guests on your show that feel that the answer to society's disfunctional lifestyle is prayer and more technology. I would guess that he would tell you that society has a bright future but only in relation to our allowing the environment to also have a bright future. *
Jim Mauch - Cudahy, Wisconsin
* That Twinky came from the environment.
E.O. Wilson is a guest that we’ve discussed several times but have never been able to schedule. We definitely want to have him on the program. Not only are his many ideas about the environment and philosophy intriguing, his religious background and upbringing are worthy of asking him about and how it informs his approach to life and work event today.
“Health is not a commodity. Risk factors are not disease. Aging is not an illness. To fix a problem is easy, to sit with another suffering is hard. Doing all we can is not the same as doing what we should. Quality is more than metrics. Patients cannot see outside their pain, we cannot see in, relationship is the only bridge between. Time is precious; we spend it on what we value. The most common condition we treat is unhappiness. And the greatest obstacle to treating a patient’s unhappiness is our own. Nothing is more patient-centered than the process of change. Doctors expect too much from data and not enough from conversation. Community is a locus of healing, not the hospital or the clinic. The foundation of medicine is friendship, conversation and hope.”—David Loxtercamp, author of A Measure of Days: The Journal of a Country Doctor, as read in his interview with NPR’s Liane Hansen.
The Dalai Lama and Dr. Richard Davidson trade smiles during the first day of the Mind Life XIV Conference at the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala, India on April 9, 2007. (photo: Tenzin Lhwang/AFP/Getty Images)
Richard Davidson is best known for peeking into the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks. With brain neuroimaging, he is trying to understand how their contemplative practices change a human brain — functionally and structurally. We’ve wanted to speak with the neuroscientist for several years now, but it wasn’t until Krista spoke to him at Emory University last fall that we were able to schedule an interview.
Early in his career, Davidson was discouraged from doing this work by his advisors, who feared he wouldn’t find any results. His research has implications not just for practitioners of Buddhism, but also for improving the learning and social behavior of school children. His most thrilling finding is that our brain is more flexible than we realize, even in adulthood.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and reposting for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets:
Ernie Barnes used his canvas to celebrate black American life in elongated, vibrant strokes. “The Graduate” (shown above) is one of the professional football player-turned-artist’s best-known paintings, which is part of a body of work Barnes called “The Beauty of the Ghetto.” Barnes passed away in 2009.
According to his long-time assistant Luz Rodriguez, “The Graduate” is rooted in Ernie Barnes’ experiences growing up in segregated Durham, North Carolina during the 1940’s and 50’s:
"Because it was rare at that time for a member of the family to graduate from high school, it was commonplace and an honor for the new graduate to walk home from campus still dressed in their cap and gown. As the new graduate walked home, people on their front porches stood and clapped, which instilled a sense of pride in the graduate as well as the community. This image always remained in Barnes’ psyche."
The creative inspiration for “The Graduate” came many years later while Barnes was in his car, parked at a stop light. Peering out the window, he noticed a young man striding across the street. “He expressed the attitude and confidence that Barnes captured for the mannerism in ‘The Graduate,’” says Rodriguez.
A student in New Orleans, Louisiana walks to his graduation ceremony at John McDonogh Senior High School. (photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Even though “The Graduate” depicts a solitary figure, it tells a story of collective pride and accomplishment. For Barnes, who attended North Carolina College on an athletic scholarship and graduated with an art degree, the graduate’s achievement buoys a family and a community. One person’s success may inspire a succession of possibilities.
Valedictorian Lawyna Taylor, one of 11 students displaced by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, celebrates after commencement was held in Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in the Ninth Ward. (photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Good morning. There are several paths to hear “Cosmic Origami and What We Don’t Know” with Lord Rees:
Podcast. All of our shows and the unedited interviews with each guest are free to download and will be delivered automagically to your computer. For many, subscribing on iTunes is the easiest way to get it.
Website. You can stream or download a free mp3 of the episode from the show page.
Radio. Yes, you can actually go old school and turn on the radio, dial up your local public radio station, and listen. I’m a digital devices guy but still love the serendipity of this method. The hyperlink will connect you with a listing of the 250 public radio stations that carry our program.
Blog. Each week, Krista writes an essay reflecting on her conversation with her guests. To accompany it, we create an audio post of the show. It’s sort of a combo platter of text and audio goodness.
Mobile. Not yet, but we are aiming for a late 2011 release of an iPhone/Android app. That’s right after we migrate our website from static HTML (yes, it’s true) to a content management system (Drupal for those who are curious).
“Nonviolence seeks to ‘win’ not by destroying or even by humiliating the adversary, but by convincing [the adversary] that there is a higher and more certain common good than can be attained by bombs and blood. Nonviolence, ideally speaking, does not try to overcome the adversary by winning over [them], but to turn [them] from an adversary into a collaborator by winning [them] over.”—
—Thomas Merton, from Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice
Cosmic Origami and What We Don’t Know: An Invitation to Picture Parallel Realities
by Krista Tippett, host
An audience watches IMAX 3D footage filmed by astronauts during the STS-125 Hubble Repair Mission in 2009. (photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA)
With Martin Rees as with other scientists I’ve interviewed across the years, I’m utterly intrigued by the language he uses to describe the stuff of his inquiry, the ideas that drive the work of his days — the deep structure of space and time, extreme phenomena in the cosmos.
He is an aristocrat in several senses in the world of British science. He’s a member of the House of Lords and holds the honorific title of Astronomer Royal. He recently ended a five-year term as president of The Royal Society, the august scientific fellowship to which Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Stephen Hawking have all belonged. Yet the great value of this conversation, I think, is Martin Rees’ skill in bringing the vast frontiers of science down to earth, so to speak. He sees them, and is able to describe them, as matters for public understanding and pondering.
So, for example, he uses an analogy that became the playful title of this show. As he discusses the possibility of parallel realities — once the stuff of science fiction — he asks us to picture worlds that might be out of our range of perception because they are tightly rolled up in space like origami. Or we might be like ants on a flat plane, assured that the contours of our known world are all there is. But just beyond of our range of perception, other planes also teem with life.
In his conversation with me as in the prestigious Reith Lectures he gave in Britain in 2010, Martin Rees is especially good at evoking the great puzzles that physics carried from the 20th century into our own. There are the predictable laws of physics at cosmic scales that Einstein brilliantly described. Then there is the wild, anything goes “microworld” of reality at the smallest scales — the scale where cosmic origami might happen. I remember another great physicist, Freeman Dyson, describing this as the difference between the rules of nature at the “mountaintops” and in the “rainforest.”
And I find a great and strange comfort in Martin Rees’ desire to loop in a third level of complexity that begs for some kind of unity with the other two — that of life. He makes the remarkable assertion that human beings are the most extreme complex phenomena in the cosmos by far. It is possible, he says, to say definitively true things about the workings of stars — but not to say anything that is even remotely definitively true about dieting or child care.
In fact, on scientific frontiers from cosmology to genetics, new and complicated ethical and philosophical questions are being raised that need deliberation precisely in relation to complex human life. In his Reith Lectures, he named a few: How will our lengthening life spans effect society? Who should access the readout of our personal genetic code? Should the law allow designer babies? Should we use nuclear power or wind farms?
For pursuing this kind of inquiry, Martin Rees was awarded the 2011 Templeton Prize for “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” He took some sharp criticism from some scientists and atheists for accepting the prize.
In the spirit of full disclosure, On Being receives funding for some of our shows from the John Templeton Foundation. But what brought him to our attention, compellingly, is that Martin Rees himself is firmly atheist. He is in fact as little interested in science-religion dialogue as in science-religion battles. Rather, in his third way between the two, he sees religious people as essential allies in the philosophical and ethical challenges that are being raised on scientific frontiers.
I’m grateful for the language Martin Rees uses to describe the role he’s discovered along this path — a calling to be a “science citizen.” His is an eloquent voice for many of our listeners, I think, who find the labels of “atheist” and “agnostic” too narrow if they seem to rule out ethical and spiritual life, however broadly defined. And he helpfully points at practical starting points for non-religious and religious to pursue meaning and mystery in our age — together, and with humility all around.
“Music has always been incredibly cathartic for me, whether it’s writing my own stuff or singing other people’s music; it’s very freeing. But it did take me a long while to be able to write again because I was just too far down a deep dark hole to do anything. I had to crawl back up, get some light in and have some objectivity before I could start writing again.”—
Financing Churches in Slovakia: Debate and Dilemma
by Lubomir Martin Ondrasek, special contributor
A fairly large portion of the Slovak public believes that an inordinately important concern of churches — especially the dominant Roman Catholic Church — is to pursue their economic interest and extend political influence. As a result, Slovak churches face a serious challenge: In the process of negotiations with the government concerning economic security, the decline of trust could turn into a full-blown crisis of confidence, with possibly irreversible consequences for churches.
Under the current system, the state pays the wages of the clergy, even though it does not regulate the number of clergy hired each year. Over the last decade, state expenditures for registered churches that have exercised their legal right to receive funding (13 out of 18) have more than doubled. Yet, in order not to be viewed as interfering with the church’s internal affairs and thus compromising religious freedom, the state has not tried to influence policies regarding the church and its clergy.
Changing the system of direct state financing of churches and religious societies is currently the most pertinent and widely discussed issue concerning state-church relations in Slovakia. The present system of financing of churches and religious societies is problematic and untenable in the long run, but the absence of social consensus and political will has precluded its replacement with a more appropriate model. The law that governs the financing — passed shortly after the forced nationalization of church property by the Communist Party — has been in effect since 1949, though the model of direct state support of churches stretches back to the eighteenth century. This long history indicates that any fundamental change in the financing model, which would be derived from the doctrine of strict separation of church and state, is unrealistic and, to many Slovaks, also undesirable.
In February 2011, Daniel Krajcer, the Minister of Culture of the Slovak Republic, met with representatives of the registered churches, taking the first step toward fulfilling the government’s commitment, in cooperation with the churches, to “open an all-society dialogue on the problematic issues of funding the churches.” This meeting represents an official attempt to identify and implement a mutually suitable financing model. Although there is no guarantee that this effort will prove more successful than previous attempts, both the state and the churches are better equipped to bring this task to fruition than ever before. Considering the social, religious, and political contexts surrounding the debate, it may be several years before a sufficiently broad consensus is reached and a new model of financing takes effect.
Recent discussions indicate that Slovakia will not indiscriminately copy foreign financing models, even though these models — especially the European ones — are being carefully considered. Most likely, the state will continue to subsidize religious schools, restoration and preservation of church buildings that represent national cultural heritage, wages of clergy serving in the armed forces, and various public benefit activities for the foreseeable future.
The new model will probably affect the two most controversial aspects of the current system of financing: clergy salaries and financial support for the operational costs of denominational headquarters. Undoubtedly, Slovak churches will have to rely more heavily on self-financing, but their revenue will likely continue to be indirectly supplemented by the state through a church tax or tax assignation.
Since the model of financing churches through a church tax (i.e., an additional tax imposed by the state on believers) is unpopular in Slovakia, its establishment would almost certainly lead to an outflow of members from traditional churches, as recently witnessed in Germany and Austria. Thus, the most feasible model appears to be tax assignation. In this case, every citizen would be required to designate a specific percentage of their income tax to one of the recognized churches or other previously approved cultural or charitable organizations.
Though the Slovaks’ trust of the institutional church seems to be gradually declining, they are not withdrawing their church affiliation, as has happened in some Western European countries. However, the Slovak churches must now realize that the challenge is not only economic but also ethical.
About the image: The Catholic church tower in Bratislava, Slovakia. (photo: Riviera Kid/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Lubomir Martin Ondrasek, a native of Slovakia, is a Ph.D. student in Religious Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Where can I find the recording of Daniel Lanois' "Ice," that was played on today's (5/29) broadcast?
Good morning, Karyn. Each week we put together a website for the particular show being released online and on the radio. And, two of the elements are a complete list of books and music used in the show, and a show playlist — which streams the full tracks of all the songs played in the production.
Daniel Lanois’ “Ice” comes from his album Acadie and is included in the “Presence in the Wild” show playlist. Almost any album of his is worth buying.
My mom raised me, and I didn’t get to see my dad very often. When I did see him, he would tuck me into bed at night and we would say the Lord’s Prayer together.
I remember being four or five, learning all the words and trying to get them in the right order, especially challenging since I did not have much practice. This prayer followed by “I love you Annie. Good night.” is one of the most consistent and best parts of my childhood with him.
This experience has not in any meaningful way shaped my view of faith or prayer in particular, but it has created a bond with my dad that I may not have had. Will I teach my children to pray? I doubt it. But I hope that when they spend the night at Grandpa’s, he will.
Annie Anderson works for APM’s Public Insight Network, which is trying to better understand the interplay between parenting and religion. Share your insights and forward to your friends, family, colleagues, or neighbors who might be interested in helping contribute their insights as well. You’ll be helping point her to important stories or issues that may not be covered in the news.
I am a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer. I am working to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals in the Dominican Republic. I specifically work on the three health-related MDG’s.
I was listening to the interview with Yossi Klein Halevi and was touched by his retelling of the story of Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel in 1977. Like the attainment of peace in the Middle East, the Millennium Development Goals seem like a beautiful dream that is unlikely to come true, at least in the case of the Dominican Republic. I wanted to thank Yossi Klein Halevi for reminding us about joyful twists in the story of almost “messianic impossibility.” Religion at its best can motivate to keep working towards the attainment of beautiful goals even though they seem impossible.
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Thank you for the kind words, Jonathan. A story like the late Anwar Sadat visiting Israel is one of those miraculous moments that we ought to hold on to and remember when we start to despair. I will forward on your message and thank you for the work you are doing.
I’ll admit that I have a basic news knowledge of the Dominican Republic but an insufficient understanding of the history of the country — and the island for that matter. Henry Louis Gates’ most recent series on PBS, Black in Latin America, opened my eyes to the backdrop to some of these intractable issues that challenge the people of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. But, the hour also was a heart-warming reminder about the vibrancy, pride, and rich culture of the people living on the island.
I like to say that what we do with this public radio program, one conversation at a time, is trace the intersection of grand religious ideas and human experience — theology and real life. Kate Braestrup embodies this exercise, this adventure.
I discovered her beautiful memoir, Here if You Need Me, somewhat by chance and encountered a bracing wisdom and beauty that are more than borne out in conversation with her.
Little in Kate Braestrup’s early life pointed to the vocation she has now. She grew up the daughter of a war correspondent for The New York Times, living all over the world. She became, first, a writer. But after she married her husband, Drew Griffith, they moved to a small coastal town in Maine, had four children in eight years, and found a spiritual home in Unitarian Universalism.
Drew became a state trooper and was preparing to train for a second career as a chaplain to law enforcement officers. Then one day in 1996, he died suddenly in an accident in his squad car. Within a year, Kate had enrolled at Bangor Theological Seminary in his stead.
Kate Braestrup tells a story in her book — a prism of her theology, really — about the day her husband died. She had just gotten the news, and her best friend was with her. The doorbell rang and her friend answered. There on the doorstep was a young man “clad in a spiffy dark suit” holding out a pamphlet. “Have you heard the Good News?” he asked, at which the door was closed in his face. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang again. This time it was an elderly neighbor, pot holders and a pan of brownies in her hands, tears rolling down her cheeks.
"That pan of brownies was the leading edge of a tsunami of food that came to my children and me, a wave that did not recede for many months after Drew’s death. … I did not know that my house would be cleaned and the laundry done, that I would have embraces and listening ears, that I would not be abandoned to do the labor of mourning alone. All I knew was that my neighbor was standing on the front stoop with her brownies and her tears: she was the Good News."
Recounting story after story from the work she does now, Kate Braestrup finds the “Good News” — God if you will, love incarnate — in casseroles, in impromptu search parties, in the law enforcement officers who put themselves in the position hour by hour, day by day, to be there and be of service precisely in the midst of danger and disaster they cannot make right again.
From the human dramas in which she becomes implicated, Kate Braestrup gleans and shares insight into the raw processes of human grief and healing — the fact that waiting for news of a missing person is “aching physical labor” the way in which the officer who has just discovered a young woman’s body in the woods becomes “acutely aware of the feel of ordinary ground under the soles of his boots”; the simple, stunning, recurring experience that human beings are equipped, preparing unconsciously in all we do, to deal with unimaginable loss. These losses are final, and yet they have a power to draw beauty and decency into relief, to be tended and redeemed on some level, by the practical care — the human concern — that arises to meet them.
Kate Braestrup makes me think of the formation of Dorothy Day, the 20th-century Catholic social reformer and activist. She was galvanized to create practical everyday communities of care by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which she experienced as an eight-year-old girl living in nearby Oakland. She stood on the street watching for days as the people of Oakland helped each other and helped the people of San Francisco who were coming across the bay in boats. She wondered: Why can’t we live this way, treat each other this way, all the time?
After cataclysmic events both natural and man-made, accounts of courage and help accompany the news of tragedy. Yet they are reported as extraordinary and rarely followed up. Kate Braestrup suggests that this human instinct and capacity to care is more normal, and more reliable, than we imagine.
Among her many bracing reformulations of basic truth, Kate Braestrup notes that we only use the word “miracle” when improbable events go our way. But she inhabits a world where improbable things go wrong, go badly, all the time — and so do the rest of us. Her Unitarian Universalist sensibility is reflected in her sense that Christianity has spent too much time focusing on death as a problem to be solved. This is our culture’s instinct, certainly; and yet as it turns, notions like “solution” and “resolution” are meaningless at the “hinges” of our lives.
Of the deepest lessons she draws from her work in the wilds of Maine, Kate Braestrup writes this: “Sometimes the miracle is a life restored, but the restoration is always temporary. At other times, maybe most of the time, a miracle can only be the resurrection of love beside the unchanged fact of death.”