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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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“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 rocks are beyond slow, beyond strong, and yet yielding to a soft green breath as powerful as a glacier, the mosses wearing away their surfaces, grain by grain bringing them slowly back to sand. There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents.”

 

This is how Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about moss, which she studies as a botanist and bryologist. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she joins science’s ability to “polish the art of seeing” with her personal, civilizational lineage of “listening” to plant life — heeding the languages of the natural world. This gives her a grammar not of feminine and masculine but of animate and inanimate — a way into the vitality and intelligence of plant life that science is now also seeing. It opens a new way for us to reimagine a natural reciprocity with the world around us as “a generative and creative way to be a human in the world.”

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.

“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.

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.

“In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” A mystic, a 20th-century religious intellectual, a social change agent, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., famously saying afterwards that he felt his legs were praying. Heschel’s poetic theological writings are still read and widely studied today. His faith was as much about “radical amazement” as it was about certainty. And he embodied the passionate social engagement of the prophets, drawing on wisdom at once provocative and nourishing.

No conversation we’ve ever done has been more beloved than this one. The Irish poet, theologian, and philosopher insisted on beauty as a human calling. He had a very Celtic, lifelong fascination with the inner landscape of our lives and with what he called “the invisible world” that is constantly intertwining what we can know and see. This was one of the last interviews he gave before his unexpected death in 2008. But John O’Donohue’s voice and writings continue to bring ancient mystical wisdom to modern confusions and longings.

The band Cloud Cult is hard to categorize — both musically and lyrically — though it’s been called an “orchestral indie rock collective.” Less in question is the profound and life-giving force of its music. Cloud Cult’s trajectory was altered the day its co-founder and singer-songwriter, Craig Minowa, and his wife woke up to find that their two-year-old son had mysteriously died in his sleep. Live from our studios on Loring Park, we explore the art that has emerged ever since — spanning the human experience from the rawest grief to the fiercest hope.