The Pursuit and Practice of Happiness Is an Awareness of the Suffering and Pleasure of Others
by Krista Tippett, host
A basketball court transformed by flowers and incandescent light. Four thousand people in attendance. Four global religious leaders. I have never concentrated as hard as I did in the two hours I spent on that stage. But it was, in the end, a delight. And it was fascinating as an encounter as much as a conversation. The Dalai Lama embodied joy, his radiant and playful presence, was as defining as the words he spoke.
The biggest challenge with discussing “happiness” in this culture might be finding our way back to the substance of the word itself — a substance that has been hollowed out by its uses in culture. I found myself planted in the definition of happiness that the French-born, Tibetan Buddhist scientist and monk Matthieu Ricard offered on this program. He defines happiness as “genuine flourishing” — not a pleasurable sensation or mood but a way of being in the world that can encompass the fullness of human experience, joy and pleasure as well as suffering and loss.
Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church, and Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom all added to that definition as they laid out the virtues and habits, the spiritual technologies, that their traditions have carried forward in time. They all described corollaries, in a sense, to the Dalai Lama’s joyful yet disciplined teachings on cultivating compassion and calmness in the mind as way of flourishing in and amidst all of life’s experiences. But the most exciting part of interreligious encounter, for me, is not rushing to hear similarities but savoring particularities — the distinctive vocabularies of thought and practice, the beautiful and intriguing differences that come to light even as we may seem to be circling towards the same goal.
And so among my favorite moments are Professor Nasr’s explication of beauty as inextricably linked to virtue and happiness in Muslim tradition. Beauty, he says, makes the soul happy. Bishop Jefferts Schori talked about the long tradition in Christianity of practicing gratitude and “the presence of God” in the midst of ordinary activities of life. Rabbi Sacks evoked sabbath as a space to focus on the things in life that are “important but not urgent.” He described the extraordinary power of pausing to let life’s “blessings” — an awareness of the deepest sources of our happiness — “catch up with us.” Such reflections unsettle notions of happiness as a “right” and as something to be “pursued.”
A discussion of happiness is intrinsically serious, too. As we were also reminded in the course of this discussion, spiritual happiness is never merely personal in nature. It is linked to an awareness of the suffering and pleasure of others. And at the same time, it is something we cultivate in our bodies as well as our minds. It communicates itself in our very presence.
There was, fittingly, a great deal of laughter on this stage of religious dignitaries seated center court at Emory. There was a festive atmosphere in the room altogether. Listen, and watch, for yourself. Ponder, and enjoy.
Walter Brueggemann Recites Psalm 146
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Sometimes we have to make some difficult cuts for a one-hour show, but, with Walter Brueggemann, a kind of rock star in the theological world, it becomes even more challenging. The audio above includes one of these behind-the-scenes moments.
When Krista asked him to read a biblical verse that means something special to him, he responded by reading an excerpt of Psalm 146. Why he chose it and his explanation is even more intriguing.
Listen in and let us know how you react to his understanding of these verses.
Phyllis Trible has taught us that the Hebrew word for ‘mercy’ is the word for ‘womb’ with different vowel points. And so mercy, she suggested, is womb-like mother love. And it is the capacity of the mother to totally give one’s self over to the need and reality and identity of child. And mutatis mutandis then, mercy is the capacity to give one’s self away for sake of neighborhood. Now none of us do that completely. But it makes a difference if the quality of social transactions have to do with the willingness to give one’s self away for the sake of the other rather than the need to always be drawing all of the resources to myself for my own well-being.
So it is this kind of generous connectedness to others — and then I think our task is to see how translates in to policy…I think that a community or a society finally cannot live without the quality of mercy. The problem for us is what will initiate that? What will break the pattern of self-preoccupation enough to notice the others are out there and we’re attached to them?
French Christians Protest Provocative Play about Jesus, Religion, and Consumer Culture
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
A woman holds a banner reading “Touche pas à Dieu!” (“Don’t touch God!”) during a demonstration in Paris, France this past Sunday. The Institut Civitas called on Christians to gather and denounce “Christianophobia” and Argentine-born author Rodrigo Garcia’s play Golgota Picnic, which the fundamentalist Christian group judges as “blasphemous.” Thousands of Catholics took part in the demonstration and stopped at the Théâtre de Rond-Point on the Champs Elysees which is running the play, which contains a stage littered with hamburger buns and scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion with biblical readings.
Golgota Picnic is a hard-hitting critique of consumer culture and religion in which, Garcia said to the BBC, “depicts the life of Christ through shocking images of contemporary consumer society.”
Photo by Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images.
That’s way too much earnestness for the ironic. It’s way too much idealism for the cynical. And it’s way too much selflessness for the self-absorbed. In short, people aren’t upset at Tebow’s God talk. They’re upset that he might actually believe it.
—Daniel Foster ends with this provocative thought in the National Review Online regarding Tim Tebow’s response to Detroit Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch mocking his style of prayer after sacking the Denver Broncos quarterback: “He was probably just having fun and was excited he made a good play and had a sack. And good for him.”
The commentary is well worth reading. What do you think?
Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
An Advent of Doubt and Struggle
by Debra Dean Murphy, special contributor
Advent is my kind of season.
No, not the pseudo-Advent of most Christian piety with liturgically-correct hymns and texts on the Sundays of the season and full-on Christmas hoopla all the other days, but this one: the ancient, autumnal interval of darkness and foreboding with its achy uncertainty blanketing landscapes both inner and outer. This Advent offers room for doubt and struggle. It grants permission to rest in — rather than to resolve — the tensions and paradoxes, the sometimes maddening contradictions that shape the life of discipleship.
We read the appointed texts for the Sundays of Advent and they are startling in their bleakness, their familiarity inuring us to meanings inscrutable, ominous, perilous. (Unless we subscribe to the Left Behind school of hermeneutics, in which liturgical Advent doesn’t exist and these texts are never bad news for us).
What the season reveals in its hymns, poems, texts, and traditions is that we begin the Christian year not by embarking on a straightforward path to nativity joy but by acknowledging the gaping chasm that exists, as Rowan Williams has put it, between “our deepest and holiest longing and the reality of God.”
Prophetic oracle is a fitting literary companion for traversing such a divide. While the lectionary texts for Advent are rooted in a time and place that have everything to do with their significance for our own time and place, it’s the apocalyptic form itself that provides strange comfort to those of us with less than sunny spiritualities. We are not very sure of ourselves, theologically and otherwise. Our questions often consume us, overwhelm us. More than anything, sentimental Christianity makes us want to run away from church and never come back.
But the Advent rantings of John the Baptizer and the little apocalypse of Mark’s gospel intrigue us and are part of the reason we stay. There’s something interesting going on here, something that even an accommodated church can’t quite tame, obscure, or ignore. The God spoken of in these ancient texts is saving a people and redeeming all of creation. In this work we sense, with Flannery O’Connor, that “grace must wound before it heals.”
And we also sense that the three-fold coming (adventus) of Christ — as baby refugee, as word and sacrament, as glorious Lamb of God — is more political than personal: He comes to “shake the powers in the heavens” that justice at long last might be established, that the politics of fear and the economics of scarcity might be exposed as the fraudulent scams they are. In Jesus is abundance — life and health and joy for all. For the brooding skeptics and cynics among us, indeed for all Advent people, He is the apocalyptic thief who breaks in not to rob us but to give us the goods.
Maybe a domesticated church — even one that observes pseudo-Advent — can hear this good news with new ears.
Photo by Stuart Anthony/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0.
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for publication at the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
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.
—Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination
Facing Our Darkness on Halloween Night
by Caroline Oakes, guest contributor
Photo by Susy Morris/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
Like most people, since I was a child, Halloween brings a heady rush of excitement that definitely goes beyond costumes, jack-o-lanterns, and even trick-or-treating for good chocolate.
Year after year, exhilaration sets in as children and parents begin their animated zig-zagging through neighborhoods in the deep dark of night, dressed as something or someone they aren’t really, knocking on the doors of perfect strangers, coming face-to-face with the unknown and unseen.
Now, I am aware that some parents and a number of churches are less than enthusiastic about the traditions of this liminal night, and are going so far as to pull their children out of Halloween activities entirely, or are offering “Godly” alternatives. (Heard yet about “Jesus Ween”?)
While some people’s claims that Halloween should be assailed as inherently “evil” or “of the devil” and not consistent with Christian values are questionable — both theologically and historically — the real regret here is the opportunity that is lost by missing the point of Halloween.
In pre-Christian, Christian, and now post-Christian times, October 31st has traditionally been a night to name and face our fears, a time to face “the dark” — the dark outside of us, and the dark inside of us.
When we give our children the freedom to take those first steps out into the dark of Halloween night, we are allowing them to learn, first-hand, that the foreboding darkness that will envelop them will not, in fact, consume them.
They learn on their own that, even if they wear a mask of something they think is really scary, they don’t actually become that scary thing. In the act of putting on the mask, the scary thing loses much of its power, and the child’s own sense of inner power, inner light, and identity is affirmed.
As Halloween comes and goes each year, children slowly and safely wander farther from home, becoming more secure in their growing knowledge that what looks (at first) like something deep, dark, and foreboding can also be full of surprise, delight, and even joy.
The subliminal messages here are positive and healthy ones for our children and for our planet. The world around us, even the world inside each one of us, is neither all evil nor all good, neither all light nor all dark. There is always more than meets the eye.
So, parents banning Halloween night? There is real irony here. Parents forbidding their children (and themselves) this chance to face their fears, telling them instead that they cannot dress up, they cannot go outside in the dark, they cannot trick-or-treat, may actually be promoting fearful messages — that the world is a terrifying place, no one is safe, and we have no power over the inner and outer demons of our lives.
These are messages that perpetuate the dangerously dualistic, black and white, uncompromising way of seeing the world that is polarizing our society today.
But when we shed some light on the dark complexities of Halloween night, even the simple exchange of trick-or-treating can carry an important subtext: at every open door on Halloween night, children and their parents are enacting the universal (and spiritual) principle of giving — namely, that it is good (indeed it is a sign of our inner humanity) that we can willingly open our doors and give generously to complete strangers, even to those who wear masks, making them unrecognizable and frightening to us. There is always more than meets the eye.
Halloween can be as grace-filled as it is black-dark, a night to discover, year after year, that when we venture out into the darkness of the unknown, the night can be beautiful. Others are kind. Evil is actually a lot like a monster mask, and after an exhilarating few hours of exploring the dark, we can always return to the light of home, safe and sound.
And sometimes with a boatload of pretty darn good chocolate.
Caroline Oakes is a writer with a degree in ascetical theology from The General Theological Seminary. You can read her “Mind and Spirit” column in The Bucks County Herald. She lives in in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry and contribute a deeper understanding of the world around us.
Happy Birthday to Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel
by Chris Heagle, technical director
Mahalia Jackson would have been 100 years old
today on October 26th. To celebrate, here’s one of her best-loved interpretations, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”
She recorded over two dozen albums in her lifetime, won five Grammy awards, and was honored from nearly every direction — from gracing a 32-cent stamp to being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She appeared in a few films, most memorably perhaps in Imitation of Life and was a smash at the Newport Jazz Festival. Hers was the chosen voice for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral. Though she was often courted by other artists to crossover and sing jazz or blues, she never did, saying famously, “When you sing gospel you have a feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong.”
Editor’s note (10.16.2011 1:53pm): Thanks to an astute reader, we made a factual error in this post. Mahalia Jackson’s birthday occurs ten days from the date of this posting, on October 26th. We apologize for the error and got a little too excited about sharing this great gospel hymn and remembering this wonderful singer.