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.”
Public Theology Reimagined
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.
August 30, 2018
The Bible, Poetry, and Active Imagination
“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.
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October 3, 2019
Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson
Befriending Radical Disagreement
We’d heard Derek Black, the former white-power heir apparent, interviewed before about his past, but never about the college friendships that changed him. After Derek’s ideology was outed at the New College of Florida, Matthew Stevenson (one of the only Orthodox Jews on campus) invited him to Shabbat dinner. What happened next is a roadmap for navigating some of the hardest and most important territory of our time.
Forms of religious devotion are shifting — and there’s a new world of creativity toward crafting spiritual life while exploring the depths of tradition. Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie is a fun and forceful embodiment of this evolution. Born into an eminent and ancient rabbinical lineage, as a young adult he moved away from religion towards storytelling, theater, and drag. Today he leads a pop-up synagogue in New York City that takes as its tagline “everybody-friendly, artist-driven, God-optional.” It’s not merely about spiritual community but about recovering the sacred and reinventing the very meaning of “we.”
The folk-rock duo Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have been making music for over 25 years. They’re known for their social activism on-stage and off, but long before they became the Indigo Girls, they were singing in church choirs. They see music as a continuum of human existence, intertwined with spiritual life in a way that can’t be pinned down.
Public theologian Ruby Sales opens up what it was like to be a teenage participant in the civil rights movement — including the impatience she had with religion and how she circled back, through her experiences of the movement, to a sense of the deep reason for inner life and religious groundings. The question she carries with her, “Where does it hurt?”, models new ways for us to understand one another.
Men of all ages say Richard Rohr has given them a new way into spiritual depth and religious thought through his writing and retreats. This conversation with the Franciscan spiritual teacher delves into the expansive scope of his ideas: from male formation and what he calls “father hunger” to why contemplation is as magnetic to people now, including millennials, as it’s ever been.
There are places in the human experience where ordinary language falls short but where poetry can find a way in. Gregory Orr has used lyric poetry to wrest gentle, healing, life-giving words from one of the most terrible traumas imaginable. On a hunting trip with his father at the age of 12, he accidentally shot and killed his younger brother. Since then, he says he has found consolation in words and story. “What’s beautiful about a poem is that you take on this chaos and this responsibility, and you shape it into order and make something of it,” he says.
May 16, 2019
Rami Nashashibi and Lucas Johnson
Community Organizing as a Spiritual Practice
Community organizers Rami Nashashibi and Lucas Johnson have much to teach us about using love — the most reliable muscle of human transformation — as a practical public good. Nashashibi is the founder of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, a force for social healing on Chicago’s South Side. Johnson is the newly-named executive director of The On Being Project’s Civil Conversations Project. In a world of division, they say despair is not an option — and that the work of social healing requires us to get “proximate to pain.”
Sylvia Boorstein says spirituality doesn’t have to look like sitting down and meditating. A Jewish-Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, Boorstein says spirituality can be as simple as “folding the towels in a sweet way and talking kindly to the people in [your] family even though you’ve had a long day.” And she insists that nurturing our inner lives in this way is not a luxury but something we can do in the service of others — from our children to strangers in the checkout line at the grocery store.
“What does a good day look like?” That question — when asked of both terminally-ill and healthy people — has transformed Atul Gawande’s practice of medicine. A citizen physician and writer, Gawande is on the frontiers of human agency and meaning in light of what modern medicine makes possible. For the millions of people who have read his book Being Mortal, he’s also opened new conversations about the ancient human question of death and what it might have to do with life.
A Buddhist philosopher of ecology, Joanna Macy says we are at a pivotal moment in history with the possibility to unravel or create a life-sustaining human society. Now entering her 90s, Macy has lived adventurously by any definition. She worked with the CIA in Cold War Europe and the Peace Corps in post-colonial India and was an early environmental activist. She brings a poetic and spiritual sensibility to her work that’s reflected in her translations of the early-20th-century poet Rainer Maria Rilke. We take that poetry as a lens on her wisdom on the great dramas of our time: ecological, political, personal.
The late Wangari Maathai was a biologist, environmentalist, and the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize. She was born under British colonial occupation and schooled by Catholic missionaries. But when she looked back on her childhood near the end of her life, she realized her family’s Kikuyu culture had imparted her with an intuitive sense of environmental balance. Maathai was steadfast in her determination to fight for the twin issues of conservation and human rights — and planting trees was a symbol of defiance.
Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, and extraordinary healer in our world of fracture. He leads the Corrymeela community of Northern Ireland, a place that has offered refuge since the violent division that defined that country until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Ó Tuama and Corrymeela extend a quiet, generative, and joyful force far beyond their northern coast to people around the world. Over cups of tea and the experience of bringing people together, he says it becomes possible to talk with each other and be in the same room with the people we talk about.
March 28, 2019
Desmond Tutu, Natalie Batalha, Eckhart Tolle, et al.
‘Becoming Wise’ With Tools for the Art of Living
Over the years, listeners have asked for short-form distillations of On Being — something to listen to while making a cup of tea. Our podcast Becoming Wise is this offering, designed to help you reset your day and replenish your sense of yourself and the world, ten minutes at a time. A taste of the new season, curated from hundreds of big conversations Krista has had with wise and graceful lives — including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, astronomer Natalie Batalha, and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner is a long-time student and articulator of the mysteries and messages of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. Kushner says mysticism tends to appear when religion — whatever the tradition — becomes too formal and logical. “The minute mysticism becomes permissible, acceptable, possible, it’s an immediate threat to organized religious structures,” he says. “Because what mysticism does is it gives everybody direct unmediated personal access to God.” He is influenced by the Jewish historian Gershom Scholem, who resurrected Kabbalah from obscurity in the 20th century and made it accessible to modern people.
A philosopher and Catholic social innovator, Jean Vanier is one of the great elders in our world today. The L’Arche movement, which he founded, centers around people with mental disabilities. The dozens of L’Arche communities around the world have become places of pilgrimage and are transformative for those involved and for the world around them. He has devoted his life to the practical application of Christianity’s most paradoxical teachings — that there’s power in humility, strength in weakness, and light in the darkness of human existence.
February 14, 2019
A Neuroscientist on Love and Learning
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson is one of the central people who’s helped us begin to see inside our brains. His work has illuminated the rich interplay between things we saw as separate not that long ago: body, mind, spirit, emotion, behavior, and genetics. Richard is applying what he’s learning about imparting qualities of character — like kindness and practical love — in lives and in classrooms. This live conversation was recorded at the Orange County Department of Education in Costa Mesa, California.
She has called Brain Pickings, her invention and labor of love, a “human-powered discovery engine for interestingness.” What Maria Popova really delivers, to hundreds of thousands of people each day, is wisdom of the old-fashioned sort, presented in new ways. She cross-pollinates between philosophy and design, physics and poetry, the intellectual and the experiential. We explore her gleanings on what it means to lead a good life — intellectually, creatively, and spiritually.
The topic of the day was “courage,” with two singular, admired women (who happen to be married to each other): soccer icon Abby Wambach and writer/philanthropist Glennon Doyle. Abby is an Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion. Glennon entered the American imagination with the label “Christian mommy blogger.” Now she ignites millions of followers through initiatives like “Love Flash Mobs,” as she says, “to turn heartbreak into action.” What follows is a conversation about courage that is both serious and playful, as it turns up in their lives apart and together — from addiction to social activism to blended family parenting.
Step away from the week with us.
The Pause is our Saturday morning newsletter, a gathering of threads from the far-flung, ongoing conversation that is The On Being Project. Stay up to date with our latest podcasts, writings, live events, and more.
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