Krista Tippett speaks with philosopher Jacob Needleman. As new democracies are struggling around the world, it’s easy to forget that U.S. democracy was shaped by trial and error. A conversation about the “inward work” of democracy — the conscience that shaped the American experiment.
Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth: The World Feels More Spacious
by Krista Tippett, host
I picked up Janna Levin’s novel off a table at a bookstore, drawn to it initially perhaps because we had just completed our show with Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder on autism. Mathematician Alan Turing — known as the father of modern computing — is one of the autistic personalities who was mentioned in that interview. I was immediately taken by Janna Levin’s lush prose and the alluring, provocative ideas that she brings to life through human stories in space and time.
A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines sounds depths I had never considered before, between mathematical truths and great existential questions. It does so by probing the parallel lives and ideas of Turing and another pivotal 20th-century mathematician, Kurt Gödel. Turing’s discoveries were made possible in part by Gödel, who shook the worlds of mathematics, philosophy, and logic in 1931 with his “incompleteness theorems.” They demonstrated that some mathematical truths can never be proven. Or, as Gödel says in Janna Levin’s novel, “Mathematics is perfect. But it is not complete. To see some truths you must stand outside and look in.” This held unsettling scientific and human implications; it posited hard limits to what we can ever logically, definitively know.
Janna Levin is an atheist, if we care to categorize her. And while that simple fact informs our conversation along with her exquisite intelligence and her mathematical training, we cover territory that can’t be bounded by such definitions. Janna Levin’s most certain “faith” is in the conviction that we can agree on basic realities described by mathematics — that 1 plus 1 will always equal 2. Putting God into that equation, or barring God from it, is not her concern. Yet this conversation is a beautiful example of the deep complementarity of religious and scientific questions, if not of answers. The ideas and questions Janna Levin lives and breathes open my mind to new ways of wondering about purpose, meaning, and ultimate reality.
There is much in her thought that I struggle to comprehend and will continue to ponder. I’m intrigued, at the same time, by echoes with the wisdom of ordinary life. Gödel’s idea that there are some truths we can only see at an angle — by standing outside, looking in — is a fact even in the work I do, of speaking of faith. The deepest truths are usually impossible to see and articulate straight on.
And I feel a kindred pull to Janna Levin’s delight and passion in the great narrative of the world and humanity, epitomized in these lines from her book that we read in the show:
“I am looking on benches and streets, in logic and code. I am looking in the form of truth stripped to the bone. Truth that lives independently of us, that exists out there in the world. Hard and unsentimental. I am ready to accept truth no matter how alarming it turns out to be. Even if it proves incompleteness and the limits of human reason. Even if it proves we are not free.”
Of all the ideas Janna Levin presents, the most provocative and disturbing, perhaps, is her doubt that there is free will in human existence at all. She cannot be sure that we are not utterly determined by brilliant principles of physics and biology. Yet she cleaves more fiercely in the face of this belief to the reality of her love of her children and her hopes and dreams for them. She sees “evidence of our purpose” in figures like Gödel and Turing, even though they did not the find the clarity in life that they wrested from mathematics on all our behalf.
Paradoxically, perhaps, the world feels more spacious to me after this conversation with Janna Levin — even, to use her words, if it suggests incompleteness and the limits of human reason and faith; even if it suggests we are not free. She possesses a quality that keeps me interviewing scientists as often as a I can — a delight in beauty, a comfort with mystery, a limitless ambition for one’s grandest ideas combined with a humility about them that many religious people could learn from.
Getting Revenge and Forgiveness: Science That Liberates Us from Reductive Analyses
by Krista Tippett, host
I first began to gain a kind of respect for the revenge impulse in human life when we worked, in the early days of this program, on a show about the death penalty. I came to understand that revenge was the original “criminal justice system.” For most of human history, prior to the rule of law, prior to structures of justice that transcend the messiness of human interaction, the threat of retaliation has been a primary tool humans possessed to pursue justice and also to deter cycles of violence. I’ll never forget Sister Helen Prejean, a great campaigner against the death penalty, describing anger as a moral response. The question, of course, is where we let that anger take us.
Now, as Michael McCullough lays out passionately, science is able to document how normal, and purposeful, our instinct for revenge is. In the brain, the instinct for revenge looks like a “craving,” a felt need that begs for satiation. We do range into the realms of global geopolitics in this conversation — to the world around Joseph Kony in Uganda no less — Michael McCullough is just as interested in the mundane forms this craving takes: in our reactions to neighbors and irritating co-workers or to our political opposites.
The good news is that Michael McCullough’s research is also revealing that forgiveness is hard-wired in us — purposeful and normal. He says that to think of forgiveness as a trait of the weak and the vulnerable reflects a simplistic imagination about evolutionary biology. We tolerate and excuse the deficits and mistakes of those we know and love and work with — and even those we don’t love but need to work with — many times each day. Forgiveness doesn’t work in real life as it too often works in media portrayals of dramatic stories of conversion and high emotion. It happens constantly, and we rarely stop to glorify it with the lofty word “forgiveness.”
This science, in other words, liberates us from reductive analyses of ourselves and the world around us. If we accept the normalcy of our instincts both to revenge and forgive, and can see what triggers them both, we have more control over both.
On its cautionary side, it offers lucid explanation of why human societies remain vulnerable — physiologically, not merely politically — to falling back on retaliation and violence as a form of justice. When we cease to see our own well-being as linked to that of others, when we feel threatened by their very existence and are only able to see them amorphously as part of an opposing group, the forgiveness instinct becomes less possible and violence more likely.
This conversation with Michael McCullough heightens my sense of what is at stake in the present global and national moment. One the one hand, the interactivity of the globalized world should make it possible — even necessary — for us to know people far beyond our families and “tribes” as necessary to our survival and even our flourishing.
I am also deeply concerned, as we roll through another toxic election year, at how complete the chasms in American society have become. We have divided ourselves in countless ways — between red and blue, between the 99 percent and the 1 percent. Such distinctions are surely inevitable. But the utter lack of communication, courtesy, and curiosity across these divides seems new to me. Alarmingly, the religious traditions that have been humanity’s moral respositories are also implicated in some of these divisions. How intriguing to imagine that we might harness lessons of science towards a more reconciliatory, peaceable future.
Our Words Are the Most Powerful and Connective Tool We Have
by Krista Tippett, host
Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye perform at Da Poetry Lounge in Los Angeles in 2011. (photo: Da Poetry Lounge)
I experienced Sarah Kay at a gathering on Nantucket Island last fall. Collected there were the CEO of Google, the founder of the X PRIZE, and an eminent Broadway director. But each time this lovely 23-year-old took the stage to perform a poem, the audience quieted, reflected, and delighted in a completely different way. On YouTube, at TED, and in classrooms around the world, Sarah Kay has become an inspiration and role model for teenagers (and others).
She herself is well aware that it might sound surprising that poetry could galvanize a modern audience. When she and her friend and fellow poet, Phil Kaye, go into schools to introduce Project V.O.I.C.E., she says she finds herself fighting two sides to the same argument. She reminds teachers and administrators that what we call “spoken word poetry” is the same thing Shakespeare and Homer were about. To skeptical teenagers — who, she says, have often internalized an idea that they should shield themselves against amazement — she points out that spoken word poetry is also what Regina Spektor and Jay-Z do. As soon as we forget this, we reinvent it.
Sarah Kay talks about helping teenagers find their voices, which feels like familiar language in the 21st century. Listen to her closely — and take in the layers of response you have to her own poetry — and you see that she is doing something much more instructive and nourishing.
Her Japanese-American grandmother says she is an old soul. There’s something to that. In her slam poetry and spoken word poetry and singing and teaching, Sarah Kay is reminding young people today that our words are the most powerful connective tool we have — and not merely our most personal tool. We are called to be creative with our words, and careful without words, in our age that is technological but still as human as before.
I’ll end by pointing you to Sarah Kay’s performance of her poem, “Hiroshima.” She wrote this after a post-high school trip to Japan with her cousins. She did a lot of thinking there, as she tells it, about what we mean when we say we want to leave an impact on the world. We’ve also interspersed the sound of her performing other poems between a quietly beautiful conversation with me, where she puts words to what she knows about poetry, stories, and what happens within and between human beings.
The Last Quiet Places: The Sounds of Nature’s Silence Are Essential to Our Own Contemplative Lives
by Krista Tippett, host
This week and next week, we’re bringing people to the air who feel like discoveries. Their chosen vocations surprise and enrich the world in graceful ways. Sarah Kay, next week’s guest, is a young spoken word poet and teacher. Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist, an explorer and collector of natural sound. At heart, they are both about listening as an essential, if somewhat lost, art. In very different spheres, they are leading a renaissance.
Gordon Hempton tells of a turning point when he was in his mid-20s, just a little older than Sarah Kay is now. He took a break alongside the highway on a cross-country drive, and lay down to listen to an approaching thunderstorm. He felt like he had never really listened to life before, and pledged to give himself over to it. Our producer Chris, who mixes the sound of these shows, has created an immersive experience, guided by Gordon Hempton’s ears, which will also make me a more passionate listener to “ordinary” sounds ever after.
Gordon Hempton went on to become one of the world’s first acoustic ecologists. He has gathered sounds from the Kalahari Desert, the edge of Hawaiian volcanoes, inside Sitka spruce driftwood logs of the same wood as violins. His work appears in movies, soundtracks, and video games. Along the way, he’s also invented another, related vocation — that of “silence activism.”
Sitka spruce driftwood washes ashore at Rialto Beach in Olympic National Park (photo by Bryan Matthew + Jessica Lee/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Silence, as Gordon Hempton experiences and seeks to preserve it, is not a vacuum defined by emptiness. It’s not an absence of sound, but an absence of noise. True quiet has presence, he says, and is a “think tank of the soul.” It is quiet that is quieting.
This is one of those insights that is in the realm of re-learning as much as novelty. We live in a picture-drenched culture. Gordon Hempton suspects this is, in part, because the noise level of the 21st century is so high that we would be overwhelmed if we really focused and took it in. He helps us remember that most of the world’s creatures move through life by way of sound more than sight. The history of humanity is no different. Hearing was always a primary source of never-ending information and of staying safe, of survival. Our eyes close and stop working for us at night, but our ears work for us all the time.
Gordon Hempton also shares a fascinating piece of truth that human ears are most attuned at their peak sensitivity not to other human sounds — but to birdsong. In our not-so-distant past, the sound of birds signaled a habitat that would be compatible for human flourishing. We’ve intuitively nurtured quiet in spiritually and aesthetically nourishing spaces in our common life, like places of worship, libraries, theaters, and music halls. Gordon Hempton also tells of research that links the noise level of environments and our capacity to be actively caring toward other people.
Amazon rain forest (photo by Oscar Federico Bodini/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
As I was preparing to interview Gordon Hempton, I came across an essay by Pico Iyer called “The Joy of Quiet.” Iyer, a globe-trotting journalist and a non-religious person, shared how he periodically goes on retreat at a monastery. He described the other unlikely modern people he encounters there — like an MTV executive who comes to the monastery regularly with his young children, and has been transformed by the delight they can take together in a quieting, technology-free place. “The child of tomorrow,” Pico Iyer reflected, “may actually be ahead of us, in terms of sensing not what’s new, but what’s essential.”
Gordon Hempton, I think, has been ahead of a lot of us on this particular frontier. He helps us understand ourselves better as listening, contemplative creatures — not for what’s new, but what’s essential, and why.
The More Alert We Are in Our Bodies, The More Compassionate and Connected We Become to the World Around Us
by Krista Tippett, host
U.S. culture glorifies “perfect” bodies. At the other end of that spectrum, we champion people who fight when their bodies fail. Matthew Sanford has charted another way. In his lyrical memoir, he describes how he learned to live in his whole body again, despite an irreversible paralysis, in part through the practice of yoga. And like every story well told, his contains lessons that reach beyond the confines of one person’s experience.
Here is the kind of passage — one of several Matthew reads in this show — that made me want to understand more.
“I am forced to feel death — not the end of my life, but the death of my life as a walking person. In principle my experience is not that uncommon, only more extreme. If we can see death as more than black and white, as more than on and off, there are many versions of realized death short of physically dying. The death of a loved one sets so much in motion … Then there are also the quiet deaths. How about the day you realized you weren’t going to be an astronaut or the Queen of Sheba? … What about the day we began working not for ourselves, but rather with the hope that our kids might have a better life? Or the day we realized that, on the whole, adult life is deeply repetitive? As our lives roll into the ordinary, when our ideals sputter and dissipate, as we wash the dishes after yet another meal, we are integrating death, a little part of us is dying so that another part can live.”
The “mind-body connection” is a somewhat controversial phrase, a new-age notion to some, though it has been studied and described scientifically in a multitude of forms in recent years. I have spoken with scientists engaged in that work, but none of them has impressed me with the reality of the mind-body connection as Matthew Sanford does by his mere presence.
For over a quarter century, as a result of a car accident that killed his father and sister, he has been in a wheelchair. Yet I’ve rarely sat across from a person so alive, a body so palpably whole and wholly energetic as his. He has knitted his mind and body back together again over a quarter century, wresting wholeness through layers of cultural denial.
As we speak, Matthew Sanford makes me aware of the seamless cooperation of my mind and uninjured body, a synergy most of us take completely for granted. I stand up and walk as soon as the desire crosses my mind; I gesture with my hands to illustrate an idea I am passionate about; I shake my foot as my own engagement in conversation rises.
This kind of fluid connection was severed in Sanford. Yet as he struggled to come to terms with his body’s new realities during years of recovery and violent corrective surgeries, he encountered another kind of mind-body connection that our culture practices instinctively, reflexively. We celebrate those who battle adversity, triumph over obstacles, beat the odds. We love the 80-year-old man who runs a marathon, the injured hero who never gives up pursuing the technology that will enable him to walk again. This is the mind-body connection translated as a battle of will over matter.
Matthew Sanford heeded these kinds of images for many years. He accepted the advice that he should declare the lower half of his body dead and pour all of his energy into creating bodybuilder arms. He lived for years, he says, feeling like a floating upper torso. Then in a time of renewed pain he gave yoga a try. He was fortunate to have a first teacher who specialized in Iyengar yoga.
Iyengar focuses on precision and alignment, qualities Sanford’s body needed and could grasp. Through yoga, he came to a conviction that healing, for him, did not have to mean walking again. Yet he learned to experience his paralyzed limbs in a new way. He describes it as a subtle sensation of energy to which he has patiently learned to attune himself, an alternative to the crisp and clear sensation of nerve endings most of us take for granted. He writes, “My mind can feel into my legs.” Speaking with him about this, coming to a vicarious sense of it myself, is fascinating.
We also speak at some length about a fascinating central idea Matthew Sanford has developed in and through his disability. He speaks of the “silence” he encountered where his mind and body stopped communicating with one another. But this core silence is within each of us, only grown more evident through his injury. He describes it variously in his book and in our conversation, as “the aspect of our consciousness that makes us feel slightly heavy;” “the place where stress lands;” and “the source of our feeling of loss, but also of a sense of awe.”
This is the quality of solitary apartness evoked by the existentialist philosophers. But as Sanford understands it, this silence both separates us from one another and, in its universality, joins us together. In this I sense that Matthew Sanford, through an experience of bodily paralysis, has put new words and a new picture to a core human truth at once both spiritual and physical.
I often feel that I will never be quite the same again after my radio conversations, but rarely is that conviction so tactile and embodied as this time. Through his work with both able-bodied and disabled students of yoga, Matthew Sanford tells me, he sees that the more alert we are in our own bodies, the more compassionate and connected we become to the world around us. Thanks to him, acts like washing the dishes and taking the stairs become moments of gratitude for the grace of my body and all of life.
A Better Title for Our Show with Poet Christian Wiman?
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
It took several months, but I was finally able to make the case that Christian Wiman was a voice we needed to put on the air after seeing the strong response to his conversation with Bill Moyers on PBS. He was good; he also seemed nervous, and I wondered if that didn’t have to do with being on television being asked questions by one of America’s best interviewers.
And that’s where the beauty of radio comes in. Rather than setting up a face-to-face interview, we set up an ISDN line — an extremely high-quality telephone line that captures the intimate aspects of a person’s voice — with Krista in a studio in St. Paul, Minnesota and Wiman in a studio in Chicago, Illinois. Methinks you’ll hear a somewhat different Christian Wiman that will add to the sum of your life.
That said, I’m not too wild about the title of this show though: “Remembering God.” It doesn’t do the interview justice or capture what’s relatable for many listeners out there: being raised in a faith rooted in family and culture, losing that devotion and belief in a greater Being, and returning to some type of belief that perhaps is more mature but less intense.
If you get a chance, take a listen and tell me what you might have titled it. There’s no doubt we will rebroadcast this show, and I’d be more than glad to shepherd your suggestions so we can make way for a better title!
From Outside Faith and Within, Being Religious Is Being Transformed
by Krista Tippett, host
Recently I spoke to a class of college students — by way of Skype — in southern Minnesota. We talked about how religion is portrayed through news media. As often in my experience, this was a critical discussion about the narrow and often inflammatory way religion comes up, and usually in the context of politics.
I asked them if they felt at all represented in media portrayals, or how they might. One young man in the back of the classroom said, “I don’t think there is any real expression of what it means to be religious now. It’s different.”
He’s right. I think about this all the time. There has been a dramatic break with ways of being spiritual and religious that held, in the West, for many generations.
Before I created this radio show, I spent two years interviewing people across the Christian Church — from Armenian Orthodox to Nazarene Holiness — who had in some way been involved in the ecumenical movement that surged after World War II and through the 1960s. Sitting with them, probing their memories, I relived the absolute shock and thrill of first encounters between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. This felt unprecedented, impossible, and utterly liberating. It’s not just that faith looked new; the whole world looked full of possibility and kinship that had not been there before.
Rigid, rule-bound ways of being religious — of being identified not merely by the same denomination but perhaps the very same church or synagogue your parents and grandparents attended before you — have transformed in a handful of generations.
Strong religious identities survive and thrive. But more than ever before, even in their most conservative iterations, they are chosen. And alongside them is a world of flux and questioning — a new phenomenon of people who have been raised with more questions than answers, more choices than givens. They are not abandoning religion, though, or revealing it as something primitive that modernity has outgrown (as intellectuals since the Enlightenment have predicted they would). They are rediscovering and reinventing it.
I did not realize, before I spoke with Christian Wiman, how provocatively and profoundly he has become a poetic witness and voice for this change. He grew up in a West Texas world soaked in a particular charismatic Christianity. When he left that world behind, its religious core ceased to make sense.
For many people who were never religious or who leave the religion of their childhoods behind, it’s the experience of having children of their own that brings an urgency to the question of what they believe. For Christian Wiman, it was the experience of love — of falling deeply in love with the woman who would become his wife. Because he is a poet, perhaps, he became wonderfully articulate about the power of love to make life more vivid, to make us reach for the best in ourselves, to feel we have touched transcendence and to want to rise to that experience. And then, hard on the heels of that, he was diagnosed with a mysterious blood cancer that could kill him in 30 days or 30 years.
Christian Wiman believes that a whole new religious language is being created. It will include traditional religious insights and language, but will also reach beyond them — or better approximate the animating essence of them. He even imagines “that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms.”
From outside faith and within it, Christian Wiman has pondered this question: “How does one remember God, reach for God, realize God in the midst of one’s life if one is constantly being overwhelmed by that life?” You don’t need to be diagnosed with cancer these days to share in that question.
This conversation, “Remembering God,” about what he has learned about faith, and how he is living his questions, is rich with humility, challenge, and an infectious courage.
Tasting and Touching Transcendence: Engaging All the Senses Inside and Outside of Easter
by Krista Tippett, host
I have long been fascinated by Eastern Orthodox spirituality and theology, and I’m delighted to throw a spotlight on it in this holiest of Christian seasons. In engaging all the senses — with incense, iconography, and lush hymnody — Orthodox worship conveys the incarnational message of Easter as a matter of routine. In fact, in the Armenian Orthodox tradition of Vigen Guroian, every Sunday is in some sense a celebration of Easter. And in the passions of his life — as in the culture of generations of Armenians who came before him — he also tends the Easter themes year round through life, death, and resurrection in his beloved perennial garden.
There is a mystical collusion of the lofty and the literal, of sacred and earthly, in Guroian’s perspective. He describes how in Orthodox liturgy — as in gardening, as in life — “beginnings and endings” are repeatedly, transparently connected. And so an Armenian Easter commemorates the larger cosmic drama — beginning with the creation of the world, and human exile from the original garden of Eden, through eternity — that frames what the New Testament calls the “New Creation” in Jesus Christ.
That, of course, is high theology. But in Vigen Guroian’s imagination and in his garden, high theology is made three-dimensional, brought down in the most literal way to earth. So, for example, he describes the sacrificial labor of early spring, the time of Lent — the pruning, the mess, the clearing away that prepares him and his soil to “receive the gift.”
As he does so he not only evokes the grand themes of Easter, he vividly reveals the ancient, organic connections between many religious holidays of this time of year and nature’s cycles of fertility, decay, and regeneration.
At the same time, as Vigen Guroian remembers the aunts and uncles of his childhood, many of whom were survivors of the Armenian genocide of the early twentieth century, he finds a connection between the gardens they cherished and the human tenacity to insist on the possibility of new life and resurrection out of every disaster.
In closing this week, I offer a handful of readings from Vigen Guroian as meditations on ancient, sometimes hidden themes of this religious season that even the most devout of moderns might easily forget — exiled as so many of us are, by culture, from gardens.
From the essay “On Leaving the Garden” in The Fragrance of God:
“I have said on occasion that I think gardening is nearer to godliness than theology. … True gardeners are both iconographers and theologians insofar as these activities are the fruit of prayer ‘without ceasing.’ Likewise, true gardeners never cease to garden, not even in their sleep, because gardening is not just something they do. It is how they live.”
From the opening chapter of “On Leaving the Garden” in The Fragrance of God:
“In the Christian religion, sight has frequently been proffered as a metaphor for the experience of God. The medieval theologians spoke of the ‘vision of God’ as the summum bonum, the highest good of the Christian life. They singled out sight as the ‘mystical’ sense, the one that draws us deepest into communion with God. Dare I contend with souls so wise? For I have a notion that smell, not sight, is the most mystical sense. The garden has persuaded me of this.”
And, an excerpt from “Lenten Spring” in Inheriting Paradise:
“Lilies and hyacinths signify the resurrection, and I can understand why. But I have a pair of turtles that plant themselves in my garden each fall like two gigantic seeds and rise on Easter with earthen crowns upon their humbled heads. With the women at the tomb, I marvel.”