He told me that, as human beings, our work isn’t measured by taking the sum of our good deeds and the sum of our bad deeds and seeing how things even out. He said, ‘The only thing you need to think about is: Are you trying to improve, are you trying to do better? And if you are, then you’re a saint.’
—Bryce Clark, speaking about Mitt Romney, who as a 19-year-old sought Romney’s advice as a Mormon spiritual leader in Boston.
This profile piece in The New York Times is several months old but does a fair job of exploring the candidate’s authority as a faith leader and human being.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
There’s a common explanation that profound sadness leads to someone’s becoming a comedian, but I’m not sure that’s a proven equation in my case. I’m not bitter about what happened to me as a child, and my mother was instrumental in keeping me from being so. She taught me to be grateful for my life regardless of what that entailed, and that’s directly related to the image of Christ on the cross and the example of sacrifice that he gave us. What she taught me is that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not no pain — it’s that the pain is actually a gift. What’s the option? God doesn’t really give you another choice.
—Stephen Colbert, referring to the death of his father and two brothers in a plane crash in 1974, when the comedian was ten years old.
If you are a fan of the enigmatic Colbert or at all curious about the genius of comedy or the depth of his Catholic faith, Charles McGrath’s profile, “How Many Stephen Colbert’s Are There?,” in this coming Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is one not to be missed.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Honoring His Father and Faith: A Mennonite Tests His Peace Stance
by Bruce Stambaugh, guest contributor
Forty years ago, the very first sermon I heard preached in a Mennonite church was on non-resistance. It was exactly what I was looking for spiritually, and I embraced it. My father, a World War II veteran, was skeptical, but eventually accepted my decision.
Four decades later, I accompanied my 89-year-old father on a special excursion called Honor Flight for World War II vets. Dad was dying of cancer, and he had long wanted to make this trip to Washington, D.C. Regardless of their physical condition, each of the 117 vets on the plane was required to have a guardian for the all-day roundtrip. In his situation, Dad needed extra care.
Given my non-resistance stance on war, I was reluctant to go. I likely would be the only conscientious objector on the packed plane. But this trip wasn’t about me. It was about my father fulfilling one of his dreams. I needed to go with him, regardless of my personal convictions.
As anticipated, the vets received their patriotic just due. Upon landing at Reagan National Airport, fire trucks sprayed arches of water across our arriving jetliner — a ritual usually reserved for dignitaries. As we exited the plane and entered the terminal, a concert band played the patriotic music of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and “God Bless America.” Dozens of bouquets of red, white, and blue balloons tied to posts and chairs bobbed in the air. Hundreds of volunteers young and old vigorously greeted us.
The entourage visited several war monuments in the U.S. capital that day. At the circular, granite National World War II Memorial, strangers approached the vets with reverence and emotionally shared their gratefulness. They shook the vets’ hands and thanked them for their service. I quietly took it all in, tears streaming, emotions and thoughts mentally whirling. Still, I tried to focus my attention on caring for my elderly father.
Returning to the airport later that same day, the vets received a similar patriotic welcome home. Dad said his experience ranked right behind his marriage of 67 years. With that comment, I was glad that I had the chance to experience that day with my father. I felt honored and glad he was able to go. Dad died three months later.
Despite all the hoopla of the day — or perhaps because of it — the futility of war became all the more obvious to me. The events reinforced my non-resistance stance. In listening to the vets on the plane and buses that transported us throughout the day, I heard them all say that they hated what they had to do. I also remembered the words of Jesus, who said to turn the other cheek and go the second mile and beyond for your enemy.
For a day, I had one foot on the foundation of God and country and the other on the teachings of Jesus. The trip with my father was an inspirational reminder of the commitment I made as a young man to a different way of making peace in a hostile world. Because of this experience, I bonded with my father in his time of need, and I greatly respected what my father and the other veterans on the flight had done. Yet, I knew I could not have done what they had — not because of cowardice, but out of conviction.
I had participated in the Honor Flight out of love and respect for my earthly father. I had held fast to my peace convictions out of love and devotion to my Father in heaven. In that paradox, I found no conflict whatsoever.
Bruce Stambaugh is a retired educator and a freelance writer living in Millersburg, Ohio. You can read more of his writing on his blog at Roadkill Crossing, and Other Tales from Amish Country.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Being Comfortable in the Presence of Mystery
by Krista Tippett, host
Mario Livio speaks with Brian Greene (photo: ©The Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of the Imagination/Flickr)
When I first picked up Mario Livio’s book Is God a Mathematician? I knew I wanted to speak with him. Given that title, it is perhaps surprising to learn that he is not himself a religious man. But in his science, he is working on frontiers of discovery where questions far outpace answers — exploring the nature of neutron stars, white dwarfs, dark energy, the search for intelligent life in other galaxies.
In vivid detail and with passionate articulation, he reinforces a sense that has come through in many of my conversations with scientists these past years. That is, in contrast to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western, cultural confidence that science was on the verge of explaining most everything, our cutting-edge, twenty-first-century discoveries are yielding ever more fantastic mysteries. The real science of the present, Mario Livio says, is far more interesting than science fiction could ever be.
For example, the fact that the universe is expanding rather than contracting is new knowledge. That has led to the discovery of what is called, for lack of precise understanding, “dark energy,” which is accelerating this expansion. This utterly unexplained substance is now thought to comprise something like 70 percent of the universe. Likewise, the Hubble telescope has helped humanity gain intricate new detail on the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos and the relative insignificance of the space we take up in it. At the same time — and this is one of Livio’s intriguing mysteries — this new knowledge and perspective also shine a new kind of light on the inordinate power of the human mind.
Livio’s question “Is God a mathematician?” is actually an ancient and unfolding question about the uncanny “omnipresence and omnipotent powers” of mathematics as experienced by science and philosophy across the ages. The question itself, as Livio says, is as rich to ponder as any of its possible answers. And so is the fact, behind it, that our minds give rise to mathematical principles, which are then found to have what physicist Eugene Wigner called “an unreasonable effectiveness” in describing the universe.
Livio also picks up on an intriguing theme left dangling in my lovely conversation in 2010 with the Vatican astronomers Guy Consolmagno and George Coyne — the enduring question of whether mathematical truths, laws of nature, are discovered or invented. Livio unapologetically offers his conclusion that there is no either/or answer possible here — that mathematics is both invented and discovered. That is to say, as he tells it, scientists habitually “invent” formulations and theories with no practical application, which generations or centuries later are found to describe fundamental aspects of reality. Even mathematical ideas that are at first invented yield real discoveries that are relevant, true, and wholly unexpected.
I was also interested to learn, as I went into this conversation, that when Mario Livio is not doing science he is a lover of art. “Beauty” is a word that recurs across my cumulative conversation with scientists, and Mario Livio infuses that word with his own evident passion. He is not quite sure, when I press, what that might have to do with his simultaneous passion for art. And yet there is something intriguing — mysterious even — about his description of how echoing allusions from science and art come to him effortlessly in his writing.
And in the backdrop of our conversation, images from the Hubble Space Telescope have brought a lavish beauty of the cosmos into ordinary modern eyes and imaginations. One senses that of all the accomplishments in which he has played a part, Mario Livio is most proud of this one. For him, science is a part of culture — like literature, like the arts. And he wants the rest of us, whether we speak his mother tongue of mathematics or not, to experience it that way too. This conversation brings me farther forward on this path.
I kept thinking, as I spoke with Mario Livio, of Einstein’s references to the reverence for beauty and open sense of wonder that Einstein saw as a common root experience of true science, true religion, and true art. His use of the word “God,” Mario Livio tells me, is similar to Einstein’s grasp for the word “God” as a synonym for the workings of the cosmos. I am struck once again with the capacity of modern scientists to be more comfortable with the presence of mystery, and bolder in articulating its reality than many who are traditionally religious.
Centenarian Woman Thanks God and Deputies Who Defied Court Order to Evict
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"I knew that they know what they were doing. God don’t let them do wrong."
Here’s one of those feel-good stories that makes you smile for human decency and feel a little bit sad knowing that this act of kindness may be an exception. On Tuesday, WSB Channel 2 in Atlanta reported that Vinia Hall, a 103-year-old woman, and her 83-year-old daughter were about to be evicted from her home when deputies of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office and hired movers defied a court order to evict the two from their foreclosed home in northwest Atlanta.
For the purposes of this project, take note of the strong expressions of faith in God “making it right” and citations of the Bible, by Ms. Hall and also by a neighbor and community activist too.
If it is art — if it is honest to God, card-carrying, well done, well-crafted, well-honed art — it comes up so sweetly against the side of religion that they are essentially kissing each other. We can’t escape the fact that somehow religion is concerned with the subjective world, as is art. And they share a territory that somehow circumvents or circumscribes the mind, and they have a conversation together.
—Phyllis Tickle, from "A Return to Mystery: Religion, Fantasy, and Entertainment"
Looking back at this old transcript in anticipation of this week’s show, “Monsters We Love” with Diane Winston, I found these lovely lines worth pondering.
Photo by Wyoming Jackrabbit/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0
~Krista Tippett, host
I had an opportunity to read the speech, and I almost threw up. In my opinion, it was the beginning of the secular movement of politicians to separate their faith from the public square, and he threw faith under the bus in that speech.
The GOP presidential candidate, who, like John F. Kennedy, is also Roman Catholic, was speaking to a group at the College of Saint Mary Magdalen in Warner, New Hampshire in October when he made this comment about JFK’s seminal speech in 1960 in which the then-Democratic presidential candidate expressed his faith in the separation of church and state.
Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Is Justin Bieber the Evangelical Christian a Prophetic Figure?
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
You don’t have to “get” Justin Bieber. Just look around and listen to your teenage nieces or your pre-teen neighbors living next door. It’s more than just a love affair with the seventeen-year-old singer and pop star. He’s a heroic figure to many of his fans, so I get what Cathleen Falsani means when she uses the word “prophetic” to describe him (although I do, admittedly, cringe a bit hearing her making the declaration).
In this interview with PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, the author of Belieber!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber discusses the cultural icon’s religious background, the role of faith in Bieber’s life, and how the young Evangelical Christian talks about his faith in ways that make his fellow Christians uncomfortable.
Photo by Snow Belieber/Flickr, cc by 2.0)
You can spend forty years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. I do wonder where it will end.
—Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Q:The very subject discussed today was pivotal in my walking away from fundamental evangelicalism. No grace, no reverence. I am searching for individuals who are seekers of truth, not willing to accept pat answers from non thinking individuals. Any suggestions on a denomination that will allow me to question and think outside the box? I am not ready for Buddhism, even though some of the teachings resonate with me. I am at a crossroads and could use a little direction.
Anon, although we are mere journalists and not spiritual counselors, perhaps I could offer some words of wisdom from a former guest, Rabbi Sandy Sasso, who offers this advice in "The Spirituality of Parenting":
"Don’t let the people who gave you a bad impression of your religious tradition be the only ones to define it. You, too, are a part of that tradition, and you’re not just a descendent, you are also an ancestor, and you helped to create the future of that tradition. So give it a second chance. Many times we have bad experiences with particular religious tradition, but that is not the best of the tradition. We need to look to the best of the tradition, because there are wonderful things within religious traditions, and they give us this language that allows us to speak."
If this advice is not helpful, perhaps I can echo the suggestions of several wise elders I’ve heard over the years: simply put, “try on” a religion for a while and see how it feels and fits. Perhaps it’s doctrine or ritual that’s important to you or maybe it’s the individuals within a community that matter most.
I’d like to solicit our readers for their guidance and experience; please share your wisdom for this individual in the comments section.
~answered by Trent Gilliss, senior editor