This Moment of Dynamic, Unfolding Human Change in the Middle East and the Interior American West
by Krista Tippett, host
It’s fascinating how we are always surprised when the world changes — though there is no more certain prediction than that it will. As we were producing this week’s show with Terry Tempest Williams, the latest installment in our “Civil Conversations Project,” young people started flooding the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and beyond. Within a matter of days, they had unsettled regimes that have held unquestioned power for decades and set off other ripple effects that are far from over.
This is at once exhilarating, hopeful, terrifying, and painful to behold. And the question I want to ask is: What understanding is it asking of those who are watching? What context do we need to see the human dynamics and implications at play here? And what wise response can we offer?
We are taking on these questions in next week’s show with Scott Atran. He has been listening to the hopes and dreams of young people from Indonesia to Egypt for a decade. As an anthropologist, he’s sought to understand the human impulses that drive them into, as well as away from, religious and political radicalism. He sees some of these same impulses now finding expression in movements for democracy.
In some sense, the current events in Egypt have completely overshadowed our recent domestic concerns about creating civility in a political life, which, by comparison, is extraordinarily vital and peaceful. And yet, my conversation with Scott Atran points at the way in which these two pursuits in fact are deeply connected.
Even as those young people are filled with hopes and dreams, they long for examples, for proof that it is possible to realize them. As much as they want our political leaders to engage their political leaders now, they want us to show them ways of being as a nation and civil society.
Terry Tempest Williams is a very different kind of voice to add to the list of people this series has offered: Frances Kissling, Richard Mouw, Elizabeth Alexander, and others to come in the spring. First of all, she is absolutely formed by the place she inhabits — Utah, the interior American West. One of the gifts of this interview is how she opens up the contours of geographic difference that we sometimes forget among all of our other differences as a nation, as a people.
Our conversation is full of lovely and useful images — from the natural world, from unlikely civic collaborations, and from Terry Tempest Williams’ own family, which is a kind of microcosm of American divides.
Just as Elizabeth Alexander offered up words and questions from the medium of poetry, for example, Terry Tempest Williams opens up her own mediums of language and idea. Her book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, traces human fragmentation and its antidotes from her experiences in a village in Rwanda to her observations of white-tailed prairie dogs in the American desert, to a pilgrimage she took to the Italian city of Ravenna to learn the ancient art of mosaic.
Mosaic, she observes, is “a conversation between what is broken.” I find this a helpful, and more immediately realizable, aspiration than “healing” for our national and international lives in this moment of dynamic unfolding human change.
Ecotone: A Definition for Nature and Civility
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Krista’s most recent interview with Terry Tempest Williams is part of our series called “The Civil Conversations Project.” During the conversation, Ms. Williams introduces the word “ecotone” as an analogy from nature to describe a clash of cultures:
“As a naturalist, my favorite places to be are along the ecotone. It’s where it’s most alive, usually the edge of a forest and meadow, the ocean and the sand. It’s that interface between peace and chaos. It’s that creative edge that we find most instructive. It’s also the most frightening, because it’s completely uncertain and unpredictable and that’s again where I choose to live.”
Merriam-Webster defines ecotone as “a transition area between two adjacent ecological communities.” It comes from the Greek root tonos, meaning “tension.” Dr. Lucinda Johnson, director of the Center for Water and the Environment at the University of Minnesota Duluth explains “ecotone” in this way:
“The word ecotone derives from the landscape ecology literature, and refers to the transition area between “patches” or areas of the landscape that exhibit different characteristics… it is generally applied to the transition zones between two different vegetation types (e.g., grassland and forest), but can be both more subtle (e.g., edges of wetlands, which have subtle transitions from submergent to emergent vegetation, one of which dominates depending on water levels) or more extreme (the area adjacent to a stream, called the riparian zone). The ecotone shares characteristics of both of the adjoining patches (hence the transition).”
Subtle or extreme, I love the idea that when two disparate, even opposing viewpoints meet they create a new kind of landscape by the meeting itself. One that doesn’t draw a fixed line or a wall of opposing viewpoints but rather a kind of “transition area.” To me that transition area could be a new terrain that is not only different from my own reality, but that “shares characteristics of both of the adjoining patches.”
I wonder how this kind of encounter (with someone I vehemently disagreed with) would change my outlook and defining characteristics — and whether that area of tension is a space I could actually stand to reside for very long. Either way “ecotone” is neither a word nor a space I explore and/or inhabit often enough.
Mining Fresh Vocabulary, Lived Virtues, and Lessons Learned
by Krista Tippett, host
(photo: fake is the new real/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
It was strange to experience my conversation with Elizabeth Alexander about finding fresh ways to talk about difficult things, which became so painfully relevant in light of the Arizona shootings and the soul-searching around them. It’s a kind of relevance I wouldn’t wish for.
But it has emboldened our commitment to “The Civil Conversations Project” that we began in the fall of 2010, and that continued with Frances Kissling, a differently powerful and counterintuitive voice who is best known as a long-time pro-choice champion. But from inside the embittered and entrenched abortion debate, she reveals lessons in human and social change — something more than civility, as she describes it, and more meaningful than our usual goal of “finding common ground.”
One week ago, I also hosted a public forum on creating “civil conversation” here in Minnesota, where we produce our program. A diverse group of citizens gathered and brought their questions and their intentions to create new ways of living together while holding passionate disagreements. Many joined us online, and I learned as much as I contributed, and will take that learning into our work moving forward.
We are experiencing this as a work in progress and wondering, for example, if the project’s title, “Civil Conversations,” is even the right umbrella term we should grow into. Because we learn to speak differently, in my vision, in order to live differently. Words, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us, make worlds. Our civil conversations with Richard Mouw, Elizabeth Alexander, Frances Kissling, and others coming up, including Terry Tempest Williams and Vincent Harding, are not just about talking. They’re about mining fresh vocabulary, lived virtues, and lessons learned where ideals have met hard reality. If you have ideas for a better title/headline/umbrella term for what we’re doing — with you as partners, and in public service — we’d like to hear it.
And, last week, we put one of our favorite shows back on the air, John Polkinghorne on quarks and creation. In moments like these, I do love the scope of what we can and must explore while tracing what it means to be human and how we want to live. That inquiry, taken seriously, can both help us shape lives of meaning in space and time and, mercifully, experience our lives as larger than the news cycle. They can help us place ourselves and our confusions in cosmic perspective.
So with the events of the past month still fresh in my mind, I’m listening to insights of John Polkinghorne — a conversation I had five years ago — in a whole new way. I’m remembering that science, too, can help us cultivate hope and a new imagination about human and social change moving forward. He offers this, for example:
“There’s a very interesting scientific insight which says that regions where real novelty occurs, where really new things happen that you haven’t seen before, are always regions which are at the edge of chaos. They are regions where cloudiness and clearness, order and disorder, interlace each other. If you’re too much on the orderly side of that borderline, everything is so rigid that nothing really new happens. You just get rearrangements. If you’re too far on the haphazard side, nothing persists, everything just falls apart. It’s these ambiguous areas, where order and disorder interlace, where really new things happen, where the action is, if you like. And I think that reflects itself both in the development of life and in many, many human decisions.”
Protagonists help organizations become more competitive. After all, the word compete comes from the Latin com petire, which means ‘to seek together.’ Their intent is to not to antagonize, but to drive towards something. Protagonists are willing to name things others don’t yet see; they point to new horizons. Without them, the storyline never changes.
— Nilofer Merchant, from “Are You a Rebel or a Leader?”
Hopefully this excerpt from yesterday’s Harvard Business Review provides some value for us all as we move forward in our daily work lives. Some days it’s really hard to navigate and rise above the struggles of corporate life and haggling hierarchy.
But, this piece creates a space to remember that, even in the most frustrating times, we work with many hard-working folks who have the best of intentions and different approaches to addressing issues. Perhaps it offers some helpful ways of thinking, which avoids the demonization of the other and fresh possibilities for creating new conversations with colleagues.
(photo: James Duncan Davidson/O’Reilly Media/Good Company Communications, licensed under Creative Commons)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Healing Our Fractured Civil Spaces on Abortion
by Krista Tippett, host
I know that this will be heard, by some at least, as a show about abortion. Frances Kissling, after all, is a name synonymous with “pro-choice.” And of course this show touches on the ins and outs of the issue of abortion, for this is the sphere in which she has distinguished herself for over a quarter century. But the revelation of this conversation is how much Frances Kissling has learned, precisely in one of the most entrenched and contested moral values spaces in our public life, about grappling with difference.
Hers is a story of holding passionate convictions and of being open to change — a both/and, not an either/or. It is a story of unfolding wisdom about human and social change, wrested from inside the abortion debate.
Practical tools emerge from this conversation that could calm and enrich our public life on all kinds of fronts if we began to cultivate them right now. Like my former guest Richard Mouw — who grapples with difference on the conservative side of same-sex marriage and abortion, Frances Kissling is eloquent about the value of the “simple” act of listening to different others and gaining some sense of why they believe the way they do, how they came to that, where their hopes and fears lie, what they mean when they use the words they do. Echoing Richard Mouw, Frances Kissling insists that doing this is not an act of giving up the ground on which we stand. But, she insists, when we genuinely listen, “good things come of that.” New possibilities emerge that we couldn’t imagine or meet before.
And though Frances Kissling is more a politician and philosopher than a poet, she reminds me of Elizabeth Alexander when she describes the ground of these possibilities largely in terms of the questions she and others begin to be able to ask of themselves: What can I see that is good in the position of the other? What troubles me in my own position? She speaks of the courage to be vulnerable in front of those with whom we passionately disagree.
As she and I discuss, being vulnerable before others holding different opinions than ourselves is exacting for human beings in the best of times. In the atmosphere of fear that pervades our political and social divides now, it can seem impossible — literally asking too much of us humans who are biologically hard-wired to find the open questions and conflict of a moment like this almost unbearably stressful. Frances Kissling and those she has encountered on the opposite “side” of this excruciatingly charged debate show us that there are ways out. They begin with human relationship, with new conversations that lead to new visions of life graciously shared and difference peaceably navigated even while we continue to disagree.
Before we finished producing this show, we reached out to David Gushee, a Christian ethicist on the “pro-life” end of the abortion debate whom Frances Kissling mentions in terms of this new relationship. Within two days, he wrote an essay for us titled “Sacred Conversations,” which we’ve posted online and offer as an immensely rich addition to the experience of this particular show.
As always, we welcome your perspectives, reactions, and your stories as we continue to widen and deepen our Civil Conversations project — mining fresh vocabulary, animating questions, and practical virtues towards edifying and healing our fractured civic spaces.
by David Gushee, special contributor
At the heart of my Christian faith is the belief that each and every person I encounter is absolutely cherished by God. I believe every human being is ineffably sacred in God’s sight. This implies a moral responsibility on my part to do my very best to treat them accordingly. If God loves each person, followers of God’s way must love each person too.
This is a mystical vision. It is a mountaintop perspective. It is very hard to sustain it, especially in the vicious street fights of politics. And it is often very hard to see any evidence for it. But this belief is not really evidence-based. It is faith-based.
I am a Christian, born and raised in the Catholic Church before a teenage conversion to Protestant Evangelical faith. By now I find that both strands of my religious history are deeply interwoven and help to define who I am. I think that both of these strands, at their best, teach this vision of the equal and immeasurable worth of each human being. Catholic tradition, especially as articulated by the Vatican II documents and by Pope John Paul II, taught me a “consistent pro-life ethic.” Protestant evangelicalism, as exemplified in men such as Billy Graham, taught me that God so loved the world (each and every person in the world) that he gave his only son on the cross for our salvation. For my salvation!
I am also a Christian ethicist, a moral teacher, and writer. So inevitably my work brings me into occasions in which it is my responsibility and my opportunity to address hot-button issues like abortion, health care, war, torture, or gay rights.
Most conversations about these kinds of issues are profoundly unsatisfactory to me. Academic conversations tend to be highly technical, theoretical, and irrelevant to everyday life. Popular conversations tend to be angry and polemical, partisan and politicized. Neither type of conversation ever really feels very sacred to me. Academics are often scoring their tenure points while politicos are scoring their partisan points.
Over the years, I have tried to do something a little different when I engage difficult issues such as abortion. I try to play neither academic nor political games. I instead try to discern what it might mean to deal with the substance of the issue as if every person involved is sacred in God’s sight, and I likewise try to deal with my dialogue partners as if the same were true.
I saw in Frances and most of the pro-choice activists and thinkers at that meeting a serious concern for women in general, and women facing unwanted pregnancies in particular. I could tell that they were drawn into this issue because they had caught a vision of the suffering of women whose pregnancies create a crisis for them, and the even more intense crisis that this would be for them if they had no legal recourse to an abortion. Their fixed gaze on the needs and the suffering of women impressed me, and I respected it. Anyone who cares deeply about the suffering of other people is on the right track — because that is one of the ways we demonstrate our love for the sacred persons around us.
I do continue to think that our gaze on this issue must be at least bi-focal — on the suffering pregnant woman, and on the developing human life that she is carrying. I do sense that decades of defending the rights and needs of the pregnant woman have trained many in the pro-choice side to avert their eyes from the child. But I also recognize on the part of many pro-lifers the parallel averting of gaze away from the woman and her situation as she experiences it. Decades of advocacy in a polarized debate have caused both sides to miss the intertwined sacredness of woman and child. And it is certainly clear to me that the only way those whose gaze is fixed on the child will succeed in saving more of them is if they learn not only to look at the woman, but to love her.
This vision goes with me to other issues. I have been an advocate for the apparently astonishing view that no matter how much we want to prevent another terrorist attack that would destroy sacred human lives; this does not mean we are free to create a system that abuses suspected terrorists — because those swept up as suspected terrorists are also sacred human beings whom God loves. This view shapes my thinking about the right of all our nation’s children to have a good education, quality health care, and parents who love them. And it means that I refuse to go along with the contemptuous demonization of particular groups that sometimes sweeps us away — most recently exhibited in very disturbing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria.
I find allies anywhere I encounter someone whose words and deeds show that they are operating on the basis of something like this vision. Often, sadly, these allies are not my fellow Christians, for sometimes the passionate commitment of my co-religionists to the positions they advocate causes them to forget their obligation to love even strangers and enemies. No, in public life, my favorites are those who surprise me with the tender and respectful way they encounter the sacred humanity of those around them. They give me hope.
About the images: (top) Atop the Klein Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland stands a giant wooden representation of Christ on the cross. A metal placard beneath is engraved with the same phrase in four languages: “Mehr Mensch sein.” “L’homme d’abord.” “Uomo prima di tutto.” “Be more human.” (photo: mightymightymatze/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
(second) Frances Kissling listens to the author at the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair-Minded Words” conference at Princeton University in 2010.
David P. Gushee is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the co-founder and board chair of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, a columnist for the Huffington Post, Washington Post, and Associated Baptist Press, and a contributing editor for Christianity Today. Dr. Gushee also currently serves on the Church Relations Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He has published 12 books, including Kingdom Ethics, Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, Getting Marriage Right, and Only Human.
Creating Civility: A Live Public Conversation with Krista Tippett!
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
photo: Arne Halvorsen/Flickr
what: Creating Civility: A Public Forum
when: Wednesday, January 19th, 2011
time: 7:00 p.m. CST
where: Being LIVE
We’d like to invite you to join us tonight online for a somewhat impromptu event in Minnesota Public Radio’s UBS Forum. We’re approaching the evening as a kind of experiment, an occasion to learn and to plant some seeds for new vision and new ways of living together with our confusions, our strengths, and our differences. Tragic events in Tucson created a window for concern about the fabric of our common life, but that concern predated those events and has relevance and urgency far beyond them.
Many of the hardest political and social chasms right now will not be resolved quickly. So the question we’re asking is:
How do we find new ways to speak and listen to each other, to live forward together, even as we hold passionate disagreements?
This has been the animating question that has emerged in the Civil Conversations project we started on the radio and online back in the fall. What happens among us tonight will inform that project moving forward.
Bring your questions for and about our common life, and submit them through our Facebook chat box next to the video window or using this form. Krista will bring her questions too. And she’ll share some of what she’s learned in her conversations of recent weeks. We’re looking forward to the adventure!
We’ll be streaming live video of the forum and also giving you the chance to bring your questions and your intention in the UBS Forum (7pm). For those of you who can’t make it, not to worry. We’re recording the event, and video will be immediately available for playback afterward. And, we’ll continue to send real-time updates when the stream goes live on our Facebook page and through our Twitter stream. Keep an eye out!
Interview with Terry Tempest Williams: A Twitterscript
by Susan Leem, associate producer
This past Monday on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Krista interviewed Terry Tempest Williams for an upcoming show slotted for release on February 3rd. An author and environmentalist, Tempest Williams’ writing and storytelling is imbued with her experience growing up in the American West.
As a wilderness activist who grew up in Utah and teaches at the University of Utah, she bridges the worlds of the oil industry she questions and the members of her family who have made oil their livelihood. We are especially interested in how Tempest Williams navigates these two realms with civil language and an effort to stay at the dinner table, as she puts it.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and reposting for those of us who weren’t able to follow along. Krista’s comments follow “KT” and Terry’s follow “TTW, TTWilliams, and @ttwillet.” Follow us next time at @BeingTweets.
- Happy MLK day. Having a day off? Join a live tweet of Krista’s interview at 11 am CT w/Terry Tempest Williams. http://bit.ly/2m3aak 10:44 AM Jan 17th
- Pre-interview chat as we check for levels focuses on science and religion. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:02:13 AM
- TTWilliams: In the American west we see vitriol more than elsewhere, perhaps. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:04:11 AM
- TTW: when Brigham Young said this is the place, my family was right there with him. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:05:31 AM
- TTWilliams: I come from generations of pipeline workers. They built the infrastructure of the west. The land is spiritual and practical. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:07:07 AM
- @TMahady Let’s use #civility. Her name is too long. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:15:27 AM in response to TMahady
- TTW: Sense of community is not just human, also rocks, plants, animals. This reflects mystic roots of Mormonism. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:08:52 AM
- TTW: the word I play over & over is vitriol. What is it really? It is produced by sulphur dioxide, used to refine petroleum. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:14:07 AM
- TTW: I taught writing in Wyoming. Students wanted to create public readings about oil & gas, a big part of the economy. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:18:24 AM
- TTW: Drill rigs look like Eiffel towers. Movers & shakers in the coal industry came. We stayed up at these readings till 1 am. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:20:56 AM
- @TMahady Thanks for that handle. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:21:46 AM in response to TMahady
- @ttwillet: When we tell a story it tells us what it means to human. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:23:33 AM
- @ttwillet: how do we build trust in our communities? Often small gestures. Tell a different story. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:25:13 AM
- @ttwillet: I understand my neighbor Ray because I grew up with my brothers, held a rifle at 16. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:27:14 AM
- @ttwillet: If we can speak of what we are afraid of, we can create a different kind of communion. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:28:22 AM
- @ttwillet: 24th anniversary of mother’s death. We are ‘down-winders.’ Nuclear fall- out caused this. Turn anger into sacred rage. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:31:00 AM
- @ttwillet: How can I take anger and not become a polemic? How can I heal rather than wound? #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:32:50 AM
- KT: You have written about finding comfort in change. Often, change creates fear. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:34:43 AM
- @ttwillet: Civil discourse is not enough. It’s not enough to get a smile from your enemy. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:35:45 AM
- @ttwillet: I want to know what you really think. We need more than opinion, we need ideas. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:37:46 AM
- KT: Where we start again is as neighbors, if our institutions, as you have written, have failed us. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:39:13 AM
- @ttwillet: The boundaries we have counted on are dissolving. It is frightening. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:40:49 AM
- @ttwillet: When we talk about 9 mill. acres of wilderness, my e. coast friends don’t track. Issues are same. Scale is different. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:48:49 AM
- @ttwillet: Writing is solitary. But I write to create community. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:51:16 AM
- KT: Your book Finding Beauty In a Broken World : a mosaic is a conversation about what is broken. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:53:08 AM
- KT: Maybe in wake of Arizona, mosaic is a good metaphor for what we can be. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:54:04 AM
- @ttwillet : A mosaic is a collaborative process. Collaboration creates community. In community anything is possible. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:55:22 AM
- Beauty is not optional. It is a strategy for survival. - @ttwillet #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:57:07 AM
- KT : In American life where are you looking for beauty? #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:58:45 AM
- @ttwillet : It begins and ends in the land. The sky as I drove to the studio. After looking at the Gulf oil spill, we saw dolphins mating. Monday, January 17, 2011 12:00:55 PM
- They survived. There is an inherent resilience. We can trust that. &mdash @ttwillet #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:01:57 PM
- In London I saw a Victorian artifact&mdash it collected the tears of mourners. How can we create a container for our sorrow? @ttwillet #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:04:24 PM
- Krista asks if there is something else @ttwillet wishes to talk about. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:12:02 PM
- @ttwillet: What do we do? How can I be a better neighbor? The oil that I saw for miles is me, my family’s livelihood. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:13:25 PM
- I want to be present. And useful. -@twillet #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:14:42 PM
- I worry that we are losing literacy. Who knows the green winged Teal? So how will we know our losses? -@ttwillet #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:19:09 PM
- Empathy is rooted in action. When someone dies my father goes to that house the next day. He doesn’t call. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:20:30 PM
- @ttwillet : We need just enough light to shine on the next step, to show the way. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:22:06 PM
- My mother left me her journals when she died. -@ttwillet All of the journals were empty. What is ‘voice?’ #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:23:48 PM
- That concludes our live-tweet. @ttwillet tells Krista to take care, she recognizes there is a cost to Krista’s listening. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:26:16 PM
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction on January 28, 2011: An earlier version of this article misstated that Terry Tempest Williams currently teaches at the University of Wyoming. It is the University of Utah.