The renowned actor as you’ve never heard him before. He has appeared in over 100 films, including Apocalypse Now. He’s best known on television as President Bartlet in The West Wing. But Martin Sheen, born and still legally named Ramón Estévez, has had another lesser-known life as a spiritual seeker and activist. He returned to a deep and joyful Catholic faith after a crisis at the height of his fame in mid-life. He’s been arrested over 60 times in vigils and protests. “Piety is something you do alone,” he says. “True freedom, spirituality, can only be achieved in community.”
Silence is an endangered species, says Gordon Hempton. He defines real quiet as presence — not an absence of sound, but an absence of noise. The Earth, as he knows it, is a “solar-powered jukebox.” Quiet is a “think tank of the soul.” We take in the world through his ears.
“Prayers are tools not for doing or getting, but for being and becoming.” These are words of the legendary biblical interpreter, teacher, and pastor Eugene Peterson. 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.
Two legendary Buddhist teachers shine a light on the lofty ideal of loving your enemies and bring it down to earth. How can that be realistic, and what do we have to do inside ourselves to make it more possible? In a conversation filled with laughter and friendship, Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman share much practical wisdom on how we relate to that which makes us feel embattled from without, and from within.
Singing is able to touch and join human beings in ways few other arts can. Alice Parker is a wise and joyful thinker and writer on this truth, and has been a hero in the universe of choral music as a composer, conductor, and teacher for most of her 90 years. She began as a young woman, studying conducting with Robert Shaw at Juilliard, and collaborated with him on arrangements of folk songs, spirituals, and hymns that are still performed around the world today.
Before Pope Francis, James Martin was perhaps the best-loved Jesuit in American life. He’s followed the calling of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, to “find God in all things” — and for him that means being a writer of books, an editor of America magazine, and a wise and witty presence on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. To delve into Fr. Martin’s way of being in the world is to discover the “spiritual exercises” St. Ignatius designed to be accessible to everyone more than six centuries ago.
They are partners in music and in life — recovering something ancient and deeply American all at once, bringing both beauty and meaning to what they play and how they live. Béla Fleck is one of the greatest living banjo players in the world. He’s followed what many experience as this quintessential American roots instrument back to its roots in Africa and taken it where no banjo has gone before. Abigail Washburn is a celebrated banjo player and singer, both in English and Chinese. Nashville Public radio brought us together at the Belcourt Theater in their hometown.
Go to the doctor and they won’t begin to treat you without taking your history — and not just yours, but that of your parents and grandparents before you. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson points this out as she reflects on her epic work of narrative non-fiction, The Warmth of Other Suns. She’s immersed herself in the stories of the Great Migration, the diaspora of six million African Americans to the north of the U.S. in the 20th century. It’s a carrier of untold histories and truths that help make sense of human and social challenges newly visible at the heart of our life together.
In an unsettled political moment, at the end of a divisive campaign, the late, great civil rights elder Vincent Harding is a voice of calm, wisdom, and perspective. He was wise about how the civil rights vision might speak to 21st-century realities. Just as importantly, he pursued this by way of patient yet passionate cross-cultural, cross-generational relationship. He reminded us that the Civil Rights Movement was spiritually as well as politically vigorous; it aspired to a “beloved community,” not merely a tolerant integrated society. He posed and lived a question that is freshly in our midst: Is America possible?
To reassert the liveliness of ordinary things, precisely in the face of what is hardest and most broken in life and society — this has been Michael Longley’s gift to Northern Ireland as one of its foremost living poets. He is a voice for all of us now, wise and winsome about the force of words in a society that has moved away from sectarianism in living memory. A profound conversation before an adoring crowd at The MAC Belfast.
This political season has surfaced our need to reimagine and re-weave the very meaning of common life and common good. We take a long, nourishing view of the challenge and promise of this moment with former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and interfaith visionary Eboo Patel. This is the second of two public conversations convened by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis on the eve of the 2016 presidential debate on that campus.
This is a strange, tumultuous political moment. With columnists David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, we step back from the immediate political gamesmanship. We take public theology as a lens on the challenge and promise we will all be living as citizens, whoever our next president might be. This public conversation was convened by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Graham Chapel at Washington University in St. Louis, the day before the second presidential debate on that campus.
“A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.” Mary Karr is beloved for her salty memoirs in which she traces her harrowing childhood in southeast Texas with a mother who once tried to kill her with a butcher’s knife and her own adult struggles with alcoholism and breakdown. She has a captivating ability to give voice to what is funny and wild in life’s most heartbreaking moments. Mary Karr embodies this wryness and wildness in her lesser-known spiritual practice as a devout Catholic — an unexpected move she made in mid-life.
Fundamental forces of physics somehow determine everything that happens, “from the birth of a child to the birth of a galaxy.” Yet physicist Leonard Mlodinow has an intriguing perspective on the gap between theory and reality — and the fascinating interplay between a life in science and life in the world. As the child of two Holocaust survivors, he asks questions about our capacity to create our lives, while reflecting on extreme human cruelty — and courage.
Alain de Botton is a philosopher who likes the best of religion, but doesn’t believe in God. He says that the most boring question you can ask of any religion is whether it is true. But how to live, how to die, what is good, and what is bad — these are questions religion has sophisticated ways of addressing. So he’s created The School of Life — where people young and old explore ritual, community, beauty, and wisdom. He explains why these ideas shouldn’t be reserved just for believers.
The history of rebellion is rife with excess and burnout. But new generations have a distinctive commitment to be reflective and activist at once, to be in service as much as in charge, and to learn from history while bringing very new realities into being. Quaker wise man Parker Palmer and journalist and entrepreneur Courtney Martin come together for a cross-generational conversation about the inner work of sustainable, resilient social change.
Where does it hurt? That’s a question the civil rights icon Ruby Sales learned to ask during the days of that movement. It’s a question we scarcely know how to ask in public life now, but it gets at human dynamics that we are living and reckoning with. At a convening of 20 theologians seeking to reimagine the public good of theology for this century, Ruby Sales unsettles some of what we think we know about the force of religion in civil rights history, and names a “spiritual crisis of white America” as a calling of this time.
In the 15 years since its inception, Wikipedia has become as much a global community as a business venture — a living organism with a mission statement to make “the sum of all human knowledge available to every person in the world.” And a conversation with co-founder Jimmy Wales — one of the architects of that philosophy and the world-changing project that has grown up around it — is full of surprises. What Wikipedia is learning has resonance for our wider public life — about the imperfect but gratifying work of navigating truth amidst difference, ongoing learning, and dynamic belonging.
She works at an emerging 21st century intersection of industry, social healing, and diverse contemplative practices. Raised Catholic with Joan of Arc as her hero, Mirabai Bush 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. Mirabai Bush’s 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.
Movies, for some of us, are a form of modern church. The Argentinian composer and musician Gustavo Santaolalla creates cinematic landscapes — movie soundtracks that become soundtracks for life. He’s won back-to-back Academy Awards for his original scores for Brokeback Mountain and Babel. We experience his humanity and creative philosophy behind a kind of music that moves us like no other.
For the Summer Olympics, we explore a topic our listeners have called out as a passionate force and a connector across all kinds of boundaries in American culture: running. Not just as exercise, or as a merely physical pursuit, but running as a source of bonding between parents and children and friends; running as an interplay between competition and contemplation; running and body image and survival and healing.
A philosopher of ecology, Joanna Macy’s path wound from the CIA to Tibetan Buddhism, to translating the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. We take that exquisite poetry as a lens on her wisdom on the great dramas of our time: ecological, political, personal. Now in her 80s, Joanna Macy says we are at a pivotal moment in history — with possibilities of unraveling, or of creating, a life-sustaining human society.
The Brazilian lyricist Paulo Coelho is best known for his book, The Alchemist — which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over 400 weeks. His fable-like stories turn life, love, writing, and reading into pilgrimage. In a rare conversation, we meet the man behind the writings and explore what he’s touched in modern people.
Growing up, the poet Naomi Shihab Nye lived in Ferguson, Missouri and on the road between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Her father was a refugee Palestinian journalist, and through her poetry, she carries forward his hopeful passion, his insistence, that language must be a way out of cycles of animosity.
Xavier Le Pichon, one of the world’s leading geophysicists, helped create the field of plate tectonics. A devout Catholic and spiritual thinker, he raised his family in intentional communities centered around people with mental disabilities. He shares his rare perspective on the meaning of humanity — a perspective equally informed by his scientific and personal encounters with fragility as a fundament of vital, evolving systems. Le Pichon has come to think of caring attention to weakness as an essential quality that allowed humanity to evolve.
The Vietnamese Zen master, whom Martin Luther King nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, is a voice of power and wisdom in this time of tumult in the world. We visited Thich Nhat Hanh at a retreat attended by police officers and other members of the criminal justice system; they offer stark gentle wisdom for finding buoyancy and “being peace” in a world of conflict, anger, and violence.
Her name is synonymous with her fantastically best-selling memoir Eat Pray Love. But through the disorienting process of becoming a global celebrity, Elizabeth Gilbert has also reflected deeply on the gift and challenge of inhabiting a creative life. Creativity, as she defines it, is about choosing curiosity over fear — not to be confused with the more familiar trope to “follow your passion,” but rather as something accessible to us all and good for our life together.
In life as in song, Joe Henry says “we’re really called not to dispel mystery but to abide it, to engage it.” He brings an inward wisdom to the art and craft of making music. Cherished by fans and fellow musicians alike, he’s produced a dozen albums of his own and for an array of artists, including Ani DiFranco, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Allen Toussaint, and Billy Bragg. And he’s written songs together with Rosanne Cash and Madonna. With Joe Henry, we probe the mystery and adventure of discovering life through music.
There is no such thing as closure. Family therapist Pauline Boss says that the idea of closure in fact leads us astray — it’s a myth we need to put aside, like the idea we’ve accepted that grief has five linear stages and we come out the other side done with it. She coined the term “ambiguous loss,” creating a new field in family therapy and psychology. And she has wisdom for the complicated griefs and losses in all of our lives and in how we best approach the losses of others — including those very much in our public midst right now.
Sixteen Muslims, in their own words, speak about the delights and gravity of Islam’s holiest month. Through vivid memories and light-hearted musings, they reveal the richness of Ramadan — as a period of intimacy, and of parties; of getting up when the world is quiet for breakfast and prayers with one’s family; of breaking the fast every day after nightfall in celebration and prayers with friends and strangers.
The emerging science of implicit bias is one of the most promising fields for animating the human change that makes social change possible. The social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji is one of its primary architects. She understands the mind as a “difference-seeking machine” that helps us order and navigate the overwhelming complexity of reality. But this gift also creates blind spots and biases, as we fill in what we don’t know with the limits of what we do know. This is science that takes our grappling with difference out of the realm of guilt, and into the realm of transformative good.
It was supposed to be a discussion about “culture and conscience” with two social scientists, as part of a public gathering of the Center for Humans and Nature at the American Museum of Natural History. But Jonathan Haidt is studying the relationship between capitalism and moral evolution, and our conversation took off from there in surprising directions. The liberal view of capitalism as essentially exploitative may remain alive and well, Haidt says. But the ironic truth of history is that capitalism actually generates liberal values as it takes root in societies. Our conversation preceded this American cultural-political season but offers provocative perspective on it.
A singular writer and thinker, Rebecca Solnit celebrates the unpredictable and incalculable events that so often redeem our lives both solitary and public. She searches for the hidden, transformative histories inside events we chronicle merely as disasters, in places like post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. She writes that, so often, “when all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brothers’ keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amidst death, chaos, fear, and loss.”
Kevin Kling is part funny guy, part poet and playwright, part wise man. A treasured figure on the national storytelling circuit, his voice inhabits an unusual space — where a homegrown Minnesota wit meets Dante and Shakespeare. Born with a disabled left arm, he lost the use of his right one after a motorcycle accident nearly killed him. He shares his special angle on life’s humor and its ruptures — and why we turn loss into story.
“The soul is contained in the human voice,” says David Isay, founder of StoryCorps. He sees the StoryCorps booth — a setting where two people ask the questions they’ve always wanted to ask each other — as a sacred space. He shares his wisdom about listening as an act of love, and how eliciting and capturing our stories is a way of insisting that every life matters.
This episode, a “theft of the dial.” Writer and traveler Pico Iyer turns the tables on our host Krista Tippett by asking her the questions. Her latest book, Becoming Wise, chronicles what she’s learned through her conversations with the most extraordinary voices across time and generations, across disciplines and denominations. An illuminating conversation on the mystery and art of living.
Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek sees beauty as a compass for truth, discovery, and meaning. His book, A Beautiful Question, is a long meditation on the question: “Does the world embody beautiful ideas?” He’s the unusual scientist willing to analogize his discoveries about the deep structure of reality with deep meaning in the human everyday.
The civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander is one of the people who is waking us up to history we don’t remember, and structures most of us can’t fathom intending to create. She calls the punitive culture that has emerged the “new Jim Crow,” and is making it visible in the name of a fierce hope and belief in our collective capacity to engender the transformation to which this moment is calling.
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.
“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.”
David Whyte is a poet and philosopher who believes in the power of a “beautiful question” amidst the drama of work as well as the drama of life — amidst the ways the two overlap, whether we want them to or not. He shared a deep friendship with the late Irish philosopher John O’Donohue. They were, David Whyte says, like “two bookends.” More recently, he’s written about the consolation, nourishment, and underlying meaning of everyday words.
When Tiffany Shlain thinks of her favorite quote from naturalist John Muir, she thinks of the internet: “When you tug at a single thing in the universe, you find it’s attached to everything else.” As a filmmaker and founder of the Webby Awards — the “Oscars of the internet” — she is committed to reframing technology as an expression of the best of what humanity is capable, with all the complexity that entails. With her young family, she has helped popularize the practice of the “tech shabbat” — 24 unplugged hours each week. Her perspective on our technology-enhanced lives is ultimately a purposeful and enriching one: the internet is our global brain, towards which we can apply all the wisdom we are gaining about the brains in our heads and the character in our lives.
There’s a kind of brilliance that flashes up in early adulthood: an ability to see the world whole. Nathan Schneider has been able to articulate and sustain that far-seeing eye of young adulthood. He’s also a gifted writer, chronicling the world he and his compatriots are helping to make — spiritual, technological, and communal. At the Chautauqua Institution, we explore the wisdom of a millennial generation public intellectual on the emerging fabric of human identity.
In the 1960s, Nikki Giovanni was a revolutionary poet of the Black Arts Movement that nourished civil rights. She had a famous dialogue with James Baldwin in Paris in 1971. Now a professor at Virginia Tech, she brought beauty and courage by way of poetry after the shooting there. Today, she is a self-proclaimed space freak and a delighted elder — an adored voice to hip-hop artists and the new forms of social change this generation is creating.
The Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah is a rich, magnetic world of thought and teaching. It has resonance with modern understandings of reality — and describes a cosmic significance to the practical moral call to tikkun olam, “repair the world.” Rabbi Lawrence Kushner is a long-time student and articulator of the mysteries and messages of Kabbalah. We speak with him in honor of the 20th-century historian Gershom Scholem, who resurrected this tradition from obscurity and made it accessible to modern people.
The great cellist Yo-Yo Ma is a citizen artist and a forensic musicologist, decoding the work of musical creators across time and space. In his art, Yo-Yo Ma resists fixed boundaries, and would like to rename classical music just “music” — born in improvisation, and traversing territory as vast and fluid as the world we inhabit. In this generous and intimate conversation, he shares his philosophy of curiosity about life, and of performance as hospitality.
“Why is the world so beautiful?” This is a question Robin Wall Kimmerer pursues as a botanist and also as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She writes, “Science polishes the gift of seeing, indigenous traditions work with gifts of listening and language.” An expert in moss — a bryologist — she describes mosses as the “coral reefs of the forest.” Her work opens a sense of wonder and humility for the intelligence in all kinds of life we are used to naming and imagining as “inanimate.” She says that as our knowledge about plant life unfolds, human vocabulary and imaginations must adapt.
We’ve heard a lot about Black Lives Matter, but you may never have heard one of its founders reflect outside a moment of crisis. Black Lives Matter co-founder and artist Patrisse Cullors presents a luminous vision of the resilient world we’re making now. She joins Dr. Robert Ross, a physician and a leader who is helping redefine public health in terms of human wholeness, in a cross-generational conversation. They give voice to the generative potential in this moment we inhabit — its courage and creativity, its seeds in trauma and resilience, and its possibility for all of our growth as individuals and community.
Brain surgeon James Doty is on the cutting edge of our knowledge of the brain and the heart: how they talk to each other; what compassion means in the body and in action; and how we can reshape our lives and perhaps our species through the scientific and human understanding we are now gaining. The backstory of James Doty’s passions is told in his memoir, Into the Magic Shop. In the summer of 1968, in the throes of a hardscrabble, perilous childhood, he wandered into a magic shop and met a woman named Ruth who taught him what she called “another kind of magic” that freed him from being a victim of the circumstances of his life, and that he now investigates through science.
Jean Berko Gleason is a living legend in the field of psycholinguistics — how language emerges, and what it tells us about how we think and who we are. She has helped to illustrate the remarkable ordinary human capacity to begin to speak, and she’s continued to break new ground in exploring what this may teach us about adults as about the children we’re raising. We keep learning about the human gift, as she puts it, to be conscious of ourselves and to comment on that. For her, the exploration of language is a frontier every bit as important and thrilling as exploring outer space or the deep sea.
“Let death be what takes us,” Dr. BJ Miller has written, “not a lack of imagination.” As a palliative care physician, he brings a design sensibility to the matter of living until we die. And he’s largely redesigned his sense of own physical presence after an accident at college left him without both of his legs and part of one arm. He offers a transformative reframing on our imperfect bodies, the ways we move through the world, and all that we don’t control.
Now nearing 90, Brother David Steindl-Rast has lived through a world war, the end of an empire, and the fascist takeover of his country. He’s given a TED talk, viewed over five million times, on the subject of gratitude — a practice increasingly interrogated by scientists and physicians as a key to human well-being. He was also an early pioneer, together with Thomas Merton, of dialogue between Christian and Buddhist monastics. In this conversation from our visit to the Gut Aich Priory monastery in St. Gilgen, Austria, he speaks of mysticism as the birthright of every human being, and of the anatomy and practice of gratitude as full-blooded, reality-based, and redeeming.
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.
One of the most extraordinary minds of American and global history, W.E.B. Du Bois penned the famous line that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” He is a formative voice for many of the people who gave us the Civil Rights Movement. But his passionate, poetic words and intelligence continue to enliven 21st-century life on the color line and beyond it. We bring Du Bois’ life and ideas into relief — featuring one of the last interviews the great Maya Angelou gave before her death.