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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.
"For the atheist, winning the evolution-creationism debate means exposing the logical fallacies and bad science of creationism’s meaning-conferring stories. But the victory rings a hollow note, since disabling the “How did we come into being?” question leaves no possibility of asking the more important question “Why are we here?”
The skeptic’s life is always an option, but not everyone who holds fast to AiG’s creation narratives is foolish. Most people prefer a life with meaning, however implausible the meaning-conferring story. Some will themselves to believe the unbelievable because doing so is conducive to a meaningful life.
Could it be that Mr. Ham knows that what he professes to believe is ridiculous and that his Creation Museum is a mockery of intelligent life in 2014? Perhaps. But in the end, is he worse off than the resolute evolutionist who accepts a short existence in a universe with no creator, no purpose?” —Peter Han
Read more of his commentary, "Science Versus The Bible: Reasons Why This Debate Will Never Be Settled."
"For the atheist, winning the evolution-creationism debate means exposing the logical fallacies and bad science of creationism’s meaning-conferring stories. But the victory rings a hollow note, since disabling the “How did we come into being?” question leaves no possibility of asking the more important question “Why are we here?”
The skeptic’s life is always an option, but not everyone who holds fast to AiG’s creation narratives is foolish. Most people prefer a life with meaning, however implausible the meaning-conferring story. Some will themselves to believe the unbelievable because doing so is conducive to a meaningful life.
Could it be that Mr. Ham knows that what he professes to believe is ridiculous and that his Creation Museum is a mockery of intelligent life in 2014? Perhaps. But in the end, is he worse off than the resolute evolutionist who accepts a short existence in a universe with no creator, no purpose?” —Peter Han
Read more of his commentary, "Science Versus The Bible: Reasons Why This Debate Will Never Be Settled."

"For the atheist, winning the evolution-creationism debate means exposing the logical fallacies and bad science of creationism’s meaning-conferring stories. But the victory rings a hollow note, since disabling the “How did we come into being?” question leaves no possibility of asking the more important question “Why are we here?”

The skeptic’s life is always an option, but not everyone who holds fast to AiG’s creation narratives is foolish. Most people prefer a life with meaning, however implausible the meaning-conferring story. Some will themselves to believe the unbelievable because doing so is conducive to a meaningful life.

Could it be that Mr. Ham knows that what he professes to believe is ridiculous and that his Creation Museum is a mockery of intelligent life in 2014? Perhaps. But in the end, is he worse off than the resolute evolutionist who accepts a short existence in a universe with no creator, no purpose?” Peter Han

Read more of his commentary, "Science Versus The Bible: Reasons Why This Debate Will Never Be Settled."

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GOP Presidential Candidates’ Stories Reveal the Depths of Their Positions at the Thanksgiving Family Forum

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Republican Candidates at the Thanksgiving Family Forum

"You guys are in a church, and that is not by accident."
~Bob Vander Plaats

There’s something that “opens everything up,” as Paul Raushenbush said on our program, when you ask a person about their religious or spiritual tradition. Asking such an intimate question conveys a sense of respect. And to be asked may be somewhat disarming; it tells the person that you’re interested in not only his or her worldview, but what makes that person who he or she is. More importantly, it communicates that you’re ready to sit and are willing to listen to a thoughtful, complex, nuanced response. That’s something we don’t expect or demand enough in our national political races.

The Thanksgiving Family Forum at First Federated Church in Des Moines, Iowa gave six GOP presidential candidates that chance. Absent were the gotcha questions that left Rick Perry fumbling to remember the government agency he wanted to eliminate and prompted Herman Cain’s Libya flub. Instead, personal storytelling and exploration of formative experiences fueled this faith-focused conversation.

Moderator Frank Luntz, a pollster for FOX News, began the two-hour conversation by laying out his intentions in his introduction, “I want you to understand what’s in these people’s hearts, not just the soundbites” and “understand their worldview so that you will know what to do come January 3rd.” His style of questioning gave the candidates an opportunity to flesh out their ideas and explain their moral positions in the context of their Christian traditions.

There were plenty of unscripted, dare I say sometimes moving, moments too. Luntz asked several valuable questions to draw out the candidates’ character: to describe a personal failing that would inform their work as president, to share an experience that helped shape their faith and spirituality. A choked-up Herman Cain relayed a story about facing his mortality upon being diagnosed with cancer. Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann describes the pain of her parents’ divorce while she was a teen. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum confessed to seeing his daughter who suffers from Trisomy 18 as less of a person, and trying not to love her to avoid the pain of losing her during her medical crises as an infant. Rick Perry confesses that Jesus filled a hole in his soul.

And even though Luntz, in an artful move, invites Occupy Wall Street protestors to address the audience before the roundtable discussion, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich did not extend a hand across the aisle of the culture wars in America with his attack on Occupy Wall Street protestors and specifically secularism, “…(secularism) has dominated our academic world, our academic world supplies our news media, our courts, and Hollywood, so you have a faction of America today who believes things are profoundly wrong…they are determined to destroy our value system.”

The event was hosted by The Family Leader, a conservative Christian organization based in Iowa, and co-sponsored by Focus on the Family-affiliate CitizenLink and the National Organization for Marriage. Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader, said in introductory remarks, “We don’t the church to be political…we don’t need you to be Republican or Democrat, but we need you to be biblical.” His effort to make religiosity non-partisan was later overshadowed by his comment that the next President of the United States will come from the Republicans present at the debate that night.

The civil nature of the discussion was the real standout of the evening, and how that tone was created and sustained is worth pondering. Was it the way Luntz established the ground rules for the discussion? Without overtly saying so, he somehow made it clear that the “winner” of the night would not be the candidate who outdid or shamed the others, but the one who emerged from the discussion with the most integrity.

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To Pray or Not to Pray? Civil Religion and the 9/11 Memorial Service

by Rick Elgendy, special contributor

Obama and Bush Pray at 9/11 CeremonyU.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama and former U.S. President George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bush observe a moment of silence at the time the first hijacked airliner crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center during the tenth anniversary commemoration of the September 11, 2001 attacks at the lower Manhattan site of the World Trade Center in New York. (photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

Last weekend, as the nation marked the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, our collective media gaze focused on lower Manhattan, where the memorial service and dedication led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg had already provoked controversy. Though the focal point of these events was undoubtedly — and rightfully — on remembering those lost, that controversy was a revealing glimpse of contemporary American religion.

Bloomberg, concerned to avoid religious entanglements in a government observance, had not invited any clergy to participate, nor had he included prayer in the schedule of the service. This move, predictably, provoked protest from religious conservatives. Chief among these: Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, who entreated Bloomberg to reverse his decision, since “invocations are the quintessential American form of solemnizing events.” Sekulow, whose organization advocates for an understanding of religious liberty wherein religion dwells comfortably in the public square, insisted that his argument had little to do with either partisanship or proselytizing. Instead, worried that “[t]o exclude prayer from any events remembering 9/11 only serves to diminish the purpose of the event,” he engaged in an all-out public relations campaign, including a letter-writing drive, a talk-radio tour, and a debate with David Silverman, president of American Atheists. Bloomberg did not relent, but that was not the end of the story.

The service itself featured, in addition to Bloomberg and the reading of the names of the victims, readings from President Obama, George W. Bush, and Rudy Giuliani. President Obama read Psalm 46 in its entirety. President Bush quoted a letter from Abraham Lincoln, which closed with its own prayer. Giuliani, hardly a darling of religious conservatives, read the well-known opening of Ecclesiastes 3 after a preamble in which he claimed that “[t]he perspective that we need, and have needed…are best expressed by the words of God,” and followed his reading with a benediction: “God bless every soul that we lost. God bless the family members who have to endure that loss, and God guide us to our reunion in Heaven, and God bless the United States of America.” It turned out that no clergy were necessary: the politicians, whether spontaneously or in response to political pressure, brought religion into the service on their own.

Sekulow’s telling response came on Monday’s edition of his daily radio program, aimed at political advocacy. After assuring his listeners that he continues to disagree with most of President Obama’s policy agenda, he gave Obama credit for reading scripture: “[W]hether in his heart of hearts he believes it or not, he said it, and that’s important,” Sekulow responded to one caller. His co-host (and son) Jordan Sekulow then opined, “they’re not theologians, they’re not pastors, [but they were trying to] make the event solemn, and that’s what we do in America. Americans pray at memorial services. We pray in bad times; we pray in good times. We pray when we remember those we lost, and events like this.”

With the exception of the occasion, this exchange might be so commonplace as to go without comment from most corners. But the banality only obscures the strangeness of it all: that Christians who take themselves to be highly traditional, faithful, religious believers, unapologetic followers of Jesus Christ, yearn to hear a politician read a Psalm to them in public — whether earnestly or not! — and shift their use of “we” between reference to “Christians” and to “Americans,” without a thought about the difference. These are the defining features of American “civil religion”: a “God” stripped of most visible, traditional particulars, inserted into a new set of symbols — the flag, the government, a blessing of an American nation — and guaranteeing the basic rightness of the American cause, whatever that may be. This “God” is called upon to solemnize public events by invoking the felt memory of particular religious traditions with all its connotations of “divinity,” but is shorn of any particularity except the American kind. That many Evangelicals have adopted the promotion of civil religion as a Christian calling is one of the most important and most perplexing cultural issues of our day.

Yet, civil religion is not a strictly Evangelical phenomenon. Its presence in American politics harkens back at least to the mention of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence. It certainly predates the modern religious right and represents the uneasy compromise between religious liberty as free exercise, seemingly calling for some public acknowledgement of America’s many religious citizens, and as disestablishment, requiring those acknowledgements to be vaguely generic and non-exclusive. On a smaller scale, it is not unusual for many Americans who have never darkened the doors of a church on an ordinary Sunday to seek ceremonies offering religious articulation of life’s major milestones and events: birth, adulthood, marriage, illness, death, etc. For Christians (for whom I can speak), who understand themselves as called to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice, these moments might provide welcome occasions for hospitality.

But there is a darker side to civil religion: if the “we” in Jordan Sekulow’s comment that refers to “Americans” is normative for all, rather than merely descriptive of many, then that “we” leaves out many others who exercise their right not to freely exercise a religion or to exercise a religion incompatible with the civil religion. The impetus to identify with civil religion easily becomes uncivil, for example in fights about whether or not mosques are welcome in local communities, or about the placement of the Ten Commandments in front of courthouses. The connection between specifically Christian discipleship and these types of endeavors, which are usually presented as defenses of religious liberty against creeping secularism, is rarely made explicit, likely because it is tenuous, at best.

In the meantime, perhaps some of those in attendance or viewing at home derived a modicum of comfort from hearing President Obama read Psalm 46, or from Giuliani’s closing words; few would begrudge them that. But we would also do well to treat our civil religion, the cloak of divinity that politics wears uneasily and often dishonestly, as an object of suspicion as much as an American tradition.


Rick ElgendyRick Elgendy is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology 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.

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Frances Kissling on the Limits of Common Ground: A Sneak Preview

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

 Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling, Charles Camosy of Fordham University, Jennifer Miller of Bioethics International, and Peter Singer of Princeton University at the Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair Minded Words conference at Princeton University in October 2010. (photo: Ricardo Barros)

The audio above is an excerpt from our upcoming show with Frances Kissling, “Listening Beyond Life and Choice,” which we’re almost finished producing for a January 20th release. In the excerpt above, Kissling, a longtime voice in the public conversation about abortion and former president of Catholics for Choice, says she doesn’t believe there’s much promise in finding common ground with people whose views and ideology we fundamentally oppose: “the pressure of coming to agreement works against really understanding each other.”

Cracking open our deepest divisions requires a willingness to be courageous and alsoto be vulnerable:

"…when people who disagree with each other come together with a goal of gaining a better understanding of why the other believes what they do, good things come of that. … I have changed my views on some aspects of abortion over the last ten years based upon having a deeper understanding of the values and concerns of people who disagree with me. And I have an interest in trying to find a way that I can honor some of their values without giving up mine."

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I wasn’t interested in the birth of Christ. I just wanted some pretty ornaments…this isn’t really about religion. You’re not really giving our valuable cultural differences that much credit if you believe a couple of twinkling lights can erase a Jewish past.
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Jessica Grose, in response to Mark Oppenheimer in their spirited exchange in Slate on the merits and perils of Jews owning Christmas trees. Grose, in the pro-tree camp, argues that “festooning a fir tree does not negate my deeply felt Jewishness, nor does it dilute the Jewish traditions I still follow.”

Oppenheimer, who is avowedly anti-tree, sees Jewish Christmas tree ownership as succumbing to the “blandishments of mainstream Christian material culture (a culture I happen to adore, but for other people).”

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

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I found this a difficult as well as instructive debate (that occasionally left me nearly speechless) precisely because we had virtually no common ground, no relevant, mutual vision of a good society. Since we didn’t share some fundamental moral values or social and political goals, our debate was less an argument than an exchange of opposing beliefs.
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— Lawyer and social critic Wendy Kaminer writes in The Atlantic about her debate with Femi Otitoju, a British equality campaigner and diversity consultant, on the moral limits of free speech.

Kaminer’s essay is a provocative and challenging perspective that really makes the reader think. I found myself creating scenarios in my mind and trying to think through all the options. I look forward to hearing from Ms. Otitoju when Intelligence Squared releases the video.

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

[via theatlantic]

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Rick Warren and the Presidency

Krista Tippett, Host

I’ve been fuming a bit this week over the way the usual constellation of journalists, pundits, and commentators have analyzed this past Saturday’s Civil Forum on the Presidency, hosted by Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church in southern California. I watched the forum with great interest and found it a useful contribution to our evolving sense of who Barack Obama and John McCain are, what they believe in, how they explain and present themselves.

82383336I won’t focus here on my personal impression of how the candidates performed. I will say that I found much to admire in the way the evening was laid out. Interviewing them separately and asking each of them roughly the same set of questions provided a remarkable display of how different they really are. While some of Warren’s questions were predictable, I thought that many of them were very good, and different enough from the usual network or public broadcasting fare that they elicited a few answers we hadn’t heard before.

For example, Warren asked each of them, in the context of tax reform, to “define rich.” At another point he noted that what is often called “flip flopping” may be a sign of wisdom — changing one’s mind can be a result of personal strength and growth. Such common sense questions and statements have been lamentably rare in all the debates hosted by professional journalists in this long campaign season up to now.

And yet the edition of the Sunday New York Times that landed on my doorstep the next morning did not even report on this first post-primary encounter of the two candidates on the same stage. I’ve heard and read one parody after the other online, in print, and on the air, at least in my home territory of public radio. When these news gatherers have seen fit to mention the Saddleback event, they’ve analyzed it in terms of what it says about the changing Evangelical scene. The same kinds of journalists who are happy to earnestly take the temperature of “the man on the street” have gleefully made fun of the demeanor and words of Saddleback members who attended the event Saturday night and church the next morning. It’s been a field day for pat generalizations about Evangelicals that nearly amount to caricature - sometimes verging on bigotry - that might be nixed by editors if it were about people of different ethnicity or race.

Obviously I have strong feelings about this. Did any of you watch the event? What do you think?

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