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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.

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The wonderful writer Luis Alberto Urrea says that a deep truth of our time is that “we miss each other.” He is singularly wise about the deep meaning and the problem of borders. The Mexican-American border, as he likes to say, ran straight through his parents’ Mexican-American marriage and divorce. His works of fiction and non-fiction confuse every dehumanizing caricature of Mexicans — and of U.S. border guards. The possibility of our time, as he lives and witnesses with his writing, is to evolve the old melting pot to the 21st-century richness of “us” — with all the mess and necessary humor required.

Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed has been a sensation of 2020 and beyond, and now she’s launched a new podcast titled with words of hers that have become a cultural force: We Can Do Hard Things. Meanwhile her wife, the soccer icon Abby Wambach, has her own bestselling books and is hosting a new tv show – Abby’s Places on ESPN+. Krista spoke with them before they were quite so much in the public eye together, and it’s a window into the passions that brought them here. They sat together in Seattle at the 2018 summit of Women Moving Millions, a consortium of women testing the meaning and boundaries of philanthropy. And courage was the theme of the day.

“Remember,” Bryan Doerries likes to say in both physical and virtual gatherings, “you are not alone in this room — and you are not alone across time.” With his public health project, Theater of War, he is activating an old alchemy for our young century. Ancient stories, and texts that have stood the test of time, can be portals to honest and dignified grappling with present wounds and longings and callings that we aren’t able to muster in our official places now. It’s an embodiment of the good Greek word catharsis — releasing both insight and emotions that have had no place to go, and creating an energizing relief. And it is now unfolding in the “amphitheater” of Zoom that Sophocles could not have imagined.

The glory that coexists in human life right alongside our weird propensity to choose what is not good for us; the difference between a place of sheer loss and a sacred space for mourning; grace as something muscular amidst the muck and mess of reality. These are some of the places of musing, sweeping perspective, and raw wisdom a conversation with Serene Jones takes us. And after hearing this, you’ll never think in the same way again about Woody Guthrie, or John Calvin, or what a Christian upbringing in Oklahoma might be.

There is a question rolling around even in the most secular of corners: What do religious people and traditions have to teach as we do the work ahead of repairing, renewing, and remaking our societies, our life together? Krista’s conversation this week with Rabbi Ariel Burger, a student of the late, extraordinary Elie Wiesel, delves into theological and mystical depths that are so much richer and more creative than is often imagined even when that question is raised.

We’re in a tender spiritual moment, widely feeling our need for re-grounding both alone and together. By way of the Almighty force of Zoom, Krista engages a forward-looking conversation with two religious thinkers and spiritual leaders from very different places on the U.S. Christian and cultural spectrum: Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention. Through their friendship as much as their words, they model what they preach. The Washington National Cathedral and the National Institute for Civil Discourse brought us all together.

Rabbi Sacks was one of the world’s deepest thinkers on religion and the challenges of modern life. He died last week after a short battle with cancer. When Krista spoke with him in 2010, he modeled a life-giving, imagination-opening faithfulness to what some might see as contradictory callings: How to be true to one’s own convictions while also honoring the sacred and civilizational calling to shared life — indeed, to love the stranger?

Music is a source of solace and nourishment in the best of times and the hardest of times. It has been for so many of us in this year of pandemic, and Cloud Cult is on every playlist Krista makes. Craig Minowa started the band in 1995. Its trajectory was cathartically changed the day he and his wife Connie woke up to find that their firstborn two-year-old son, Kaidin, had mysteriously died in his sleep. The music that has emerged ever since has spanned the human experience from the rawest grief to the fiercest hope. We welcomed Craig and the whole Cloud Cult ensemble to On Being Studios in Minneapolis, for conversation and music, in 2016.

This prophetic conversation, which Rev. angel Kyodo williams had with Krista in 2018, is an invitation to imagine and nourish the transformative potential of this moment — toward human wholeness. Rev. angel is an esteemed Zen priest and the second Black woman recognized as a teacher in the Japanese Zen lineage. She is one of our wisest voices on social evolution and the spiritual aspect of social healing.

“The sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us may well be the most serious business of all,” Michael McCarthy writes. He is a naturalist and journalist with a galvanizing call — that we stop relying on the immobilizing language of statistics and take up our joy in nature as our defense of it. And he reminds us that the natural world is where we first found our metaphors and similes and it is the resting place for our psyches.

As a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer joins science’s ability to “polish the art of seeing” with her personal, civilizational lineage of listening to plant life and heeding the languages of the natural world. She’s an expert in moss — a bryologist — who describes mosses as the “coral reefs of the forest.” And she says that as our knowledge about plant life unfolds, human vocabulary and imaginations must adapt.

An extraordinary conversation with the late congressman John Lewis, taped in Montgomery, Alabama, during a pilgrimage 50 years after the March on Washington. It offers a special look inside his wisdom, the civil rights leaders’ spiritual confrontation within themselves, and the intricate art of nonviolence as “love in action.”

This year Muslims are experiencing a Ramadan like no other. The month is usually a period of both intimacy and great community. Now Muslims are improvising, as in many places the rituals of Ramadan must be experienced at home or online. This show, recorded in 2009, grew out of an invitation to Muslim listeners to reflect on what it means to be part of what often is referred to in the abstract as “the Muslim world.” We received responses from all over the world and were struck by the vivid stories about Ramadan itself, across a remarkable spectrum of life and spiritual sensibility.

We’re in a season of renewal in the natural world and in spiritual traditions; both Easter and Passover this year are utterly transformed. It’s drawing us back to the wisdom of Br. David Steindl-Rast, who makes useful distinctions around experiences that are life-giving and resilience-making yet can feel absurd to speak of in a moment like this. A Benedictine monk for over 60 years, Steindl-Rast was formed by 20th-century catastrophes. He calls joy “the happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.” And his gratefulness is not an easy gratitude or thanksgiving — but a full-blooded, reality-based practice and choice.

Pádraig Ó Tuama and Marilyn Nelson are beloved teachers to many; to bring them together was a delight and a balm. Nelson is a poet and professor and contemplative, an excavator of stories that would rather stay hidden yet lead us into new life. Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, conflict mediator, and the host of our new podcast, Poetry Unbound. Together, they venture unexpectedly into the hospitable — and intriguingly universal — form of poetry that is prayer.

Editor’s note: This episode includes a preview from our new season of Poetry Unbound featuring a poem by Joy Harjo.

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