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Public theology is about the virtues that accompany the work of theology, not just the ideas. It means connecting grand religious ideas with messy human reality. It means articulating religious and spiritual points of view to challenge and deepen thinking on every side of every important question.

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Mary Oliver was one of our greatest and most beloved poets. She is often quoted by people across ages and backgrounds — and it’s fitting, since she described poetry as a sacred community ritual. “When you write a poem, you write it for anybody and everybody,” she said. Mary died on January 17, 2019, at the age of 83. She was a prolific and decorated poet, whose honors included the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In this 2015 conversation — one of the rare interviews she granted during her lifetime — she discussed the wisdom of the world, the salvation of poetry, and the life behind her writing.

Walter Brueggemann is one of the world’s great teachers about the prophets who both anchor the Hebrew Bible and have transcended it across history. He translates their imagination from the chaos of ancient times to our own. He somehow also embodies this tradition’s fearless truth-telling together with fierce hope — and how it conveys ideas with disarming language. “The task is reframing,” he says, “so that we can re-experience the social realities that are right in front of us, from a different angle.”

Pico Iyer is one of our most eloquent explorers of what he calls the “inner world” — in himself and in the 21st century world at large. The journalist and novelist travels the globe from Ethiopia to North Korea and lives in Japan. But he also experiences a remote Benedictine hermitage as his second home, retreating there many times each year. In this intimate conversation, we explore the discoveries he’s making and his practice of “the art of stillness.”

“Prayers are tools not for doing or getting but for being and becoming.” These are words of the legendary pastor and writer Eugene Peterson, whose biblical imagination has formed generations of preachers. At the back of the church he led for nearly three decades, you’d be likely to find well-worn copies of books by Wallace Stegner or Denise Levertov. Frustrated with the unimaginative way he found his congregants treating their Bibles, he translated it himself, and that translation has sold millions of copies around the world. Eugene Peterson’s down-to-earth faith hinges on a love of metaphor and a commitment to the Bible’s poetry as what keeps it alive to the world.

We were introduced to Lucas Johnson by the great civil rights elder Vincent Harding. He said that this young man embodies the genius of nonviolence for our century — nonviolence not as a withholding of violence, but as a way of being present. And it was a great pleasure to bring him together with Rami Nashashibi, a rising visionary and kindred force in the Muslim world. Lucas is based in Amsterdam. Rami’s center of gravity is the South Side of Chicago. They have much to teach us all about the lived practicalities and tensions of the “strong, demanding love” to which Martin Luther King, Jr. called the world of his time — a call that is echoing again in ours.

Maria Shriver’s life is often summarized in fairy tale terms. A child of the Kennedy clan in the Camelot aura of the early 1960s. Daughter of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics, and Sargent Shriver, who helped found the Peace Corps. An esteemed broadcast journalist. First lady of California. This hour, she opens up about having a personal history that is also public history — and how deceptive the appearance of glamour can be. We experience the legendary toughness of the women in Maria Shriver’s family — but also the hard-won tenderness and wisdom with which she has come to raise her own voice.

We’d heard Derek Black, the former white power heir apparent, interviewed before about his past. But never about the friendships, with other people in their twenties, that changed him. After his ideology was outed at college, one of the only orthodox Jews on campus invited Derek to Shabbat dinner. What happened over the next two years is like a roadmap for transforming some of the hardest territory of our time.

“The sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us,” Michael McCarthy writes, “may well be the most serious business of all.” He is a naturalist and journalist, and this is his delightful and galvanizing call — that we can stop relying on the immobilizing language of statistics and take up our joy in the natural world as our civilizational defense of it. With a perspective equally infused by science, reportage, and poetry, he reminds us that the natural world is where we evolved, where we found our metaphors and similes, and it is the resting place for our psyches.

A literary thinker with a “telescopic view of time”; an astrophysicist with an eye to “cultural evolution towards good.” What unfolds between these two is joyous, dynamic, and unexpectedly vulnerable — rich with cosmic imagining, civic pondering, and even some fresh definitions of the soul. A live taping from the inaugural On Being Gathering at the 1440 Multiversity in California.

“When you’re in a very quiet place, when you’re remembering, when you’re savoring an image, when you’re allowing your mind calmly to leap from one thought to another, that’s a poem.” Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness” has traveled around the world. She grew up between Ferguson, Missouri, Ramallah, and Jerusalem. She insists that language must be a way out of cycles of animosity. She’d have us notice “petite discoveries” that embolden us to choose human nourishment over division. “Before you know what kindness really is / you must lose things.”

Stephen Batchelor’s secular Buddhism speaks to the mystery and vitality of spiritual life in every form. For him, secularism opens to doubt and questioning as a radical basis for spiritual life. Above all, he understands Buddhism without transcendent beliefs like karma or reincarnation to become something urgent to do, not to believe in.

The tensions of our time are well-known. But there are stories that are not being told, because they are not violent and not shouting to be heard. One of them is that all over this country, synagogues and mosques, Muslims and Jews, have been coming to know one another. There is friendship. There are initiatives that are patiently, and at human scale, planting the seeds for new realities across generational time. As part of the Civil Conversations Project, a live conversation at the Union for Reform Judaism’s General Assembly in Boston between Imam Abdullah Antepli and Rabbi Sarah Bassin.

We often find ourselves talking to poets and writers about the vivid connections between art and faith. This special hour came out of a live collaboration between On Being and Selected Shorts at Symphony Space in New York. Claire Danes, Ellen Burstyn, Julie White, and U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith joined us with stories and poems about meaning and mystery.

Mysticism is the birthright of every human being, says Br. David Steindl-Rast. He speaks of the anatomy and practice of gratitude as full-blooded, reality-based, and redeeming. Now in his 90s, he has lived through a world war, the end of an empire, and the fascist takeover of his country. He was an early pioneer, together with Thomas Merton, of dialogue between Christian and Buddhist monastics. He’s also given a TED talk, viewed over six million times, on the subject of gratitude — a practice increasingly interrogated by scientists and physicians as a key to human well-being.

The wise and lyrical writer Adam Gopnik muses on the ironies of spiritual life in a secular age through the lens of his many fascinations — from parenting, to the arts, to Darwin. He touches on all these things in a conversation inspired by his foreword to The Good Book, in which novelists, essayists, and activists who are not known as religious thinkers write about their favorite biblical passages. Our ancestors acknowledged doubt while practicing faith, he says; we moderns are drawn to faith while practicing doubt.

No challenge before us is more important — and more potentially life-giving — than that we come to see and know our fellow citizens, our neighbors, who have become strangers. Journalist Anand Giridharadas and Whitney Kimball Coe of the Rural Assembly have two very different histories and places in our life together. But they are both stitching relationship across the ruptures that have made politics thin veneers over human dramas of power and frailty, fear and hope. We spoke at the Obama Foundation’s inaugural summit in Chicago.

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