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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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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.”

Rachel Naomi Remen’s lifelong struggle with Crohn’s disease has shaped her practice of medicine, and she in turn is helping to reshape the art of healing. “The way we deal with loss shapes our capacity to be present to life more than anything else,” she says. And each of us, with our wounds and our flaws, has exactly what’s needed to help repair the part of the world that we can see and touch.

We Americans revere the creation of wealth. Anand Giridharadas wants us to examine this and how it shapes our life together. This is a challenging conversation but a generative one: about the implicit moral equations behind a notion like “win-win” — and the moral compromises in a cultural consensus we’ve reached, without reflecting on it, about what and who can save us.

Tracy K. Smith has a deep interest in “the kind of silence that yields clarity” and “the way our voices sound when we dip below the decibel level of politics.” She’s a welcome voice on the little leaps of the imagination that can restore us. She’s spent the past year traversing our country, listening for all of this and drawing it forth as the U.S. Poet Laureate. Krista spoke with her at the invitation of New York’s B’nai Jeshurun synagogue, which has been in communal exploration on creating a just and redeemed social fabric.

Mirabai Bush works at an emerging 21st century intersection of industry, social healing, and diverse contemplative practices. Raised Catholic with Joan of Arc as her hero, she is one of the people who brought Buddhism to the West from India in the 1970s. She is called in to work with educators and judges, social activists and soldiers. She helped create Google’s popular employee program, Search Inside Yourself. Her life tells a fascinating narrative of our time: the rediscovery of contemplative practices, in many forms and from many traditions, in the secular thick of modern culture.

“People believe things that are mutually contradictory; I think we all do. I know I do.” — Erick Erickson

Earlier this year, the University of Montana invited On Being to attempt an outside the box civil conversation between two political pundits on contrasting ends of the U.S. political spectrum. It became a sold-out, public event in the spirit of Montana’s Senator Mike Mansfield, who famously modeled integrity, courage, and humility across the partisan aisle in the tumult of 1960s and 70s. Sally Kohn and Erick Erickson are both controversial, lightning-rod figures, yet neither of them fits neatly into a partisan mold. The reaction of the youngest people in the room is what compelled us to put this on the air. They said they had not witnessed or imagined a political conversation like this possible: one marked at once by bedrock difference — and good will, humor, and a willingness to bring our questions as well as our arguments, our humanity as well as our positions, into the room, if only for an evening.

“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.

An exuberant experience of conversation and singing. There are nearly 5,000 spirituals in existence. Their organizing concept is not the melody of Europe, but the rhythm of Africa. They were composed by slaves, bards whose names we will never know, and yet gave rise to gospel, jazz, blues, and hip-hop. Joe Carter lived and breathed the universal appeal and hidden stories, meanings, and hope in what were originally called “sorrow songs.” This was one of our first weekly shows, and it’s still one of our most beloved.

We don’t really reward or allow our politicians, good or bad, to be searching, or to change their minds and grow — to admit their human frailty. So it’s surprising to hear Cory Booker say that the best thing that’s happened to him is “being broken, time and time again.” He’s taken flack for talking about politics as “manifesting love.” He speaks with Krista about the inadequacy of tolerance, strengthening the “muscle” of hope, and making your bed as a spiritual practice.

The wonderful writer Luis Alberto Urrea says that a deep truth of our time is that “we miss each other.” We have this drive to erect barriers between ourselves and yet this makes us a little crazy. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.