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.”
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 in 21st-century forms. 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. Also his thoughts on the “un-taming” Christmas.
We live in a world that is recreating itself one life and one digital connection at a time. On this landscape for which there are no maps, Seth Godin is a singular thought leader and innovator in what he describes as our post-industrial “connection economy.” Rather than merely tolerate change, he says, we are all called now to rise to it. We are invited and stretched in whatever we do to be artists — to create in ways that matter to other people.
Something of a celebrity in Quaker circles, Carrie Newcomer is best known for her story-songs that get at the raw and redemptive edges of human reality. This week, a musical conversation with the Indiana-based and born folk singer-songwriter who’s been called a “prairie mystic.” She writes and sings about the grittiness of hope and the ease of cynicism.
In a probing and personal conversation, Reza Aslan opens a refreshing window on religion in the world and Islam in particular. It’s a longer view of history and humanity than news cycles invite — certainly when it comes to the Arab Spring, or to ISIS. His life is a kind of prism on the fluid story of religion in this century. But in a globalized world, we all have a personal stake in how this story unfolds.
Computer scientist Bernard Chazelle has an original take on what music works in us — especially the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Just as mathematicians talk about discovering rather than inventing great equations, so, he says, Bach set out to “discover” the musical rules behind the universe. After hearing this conversation, you may never listen to any piece of music — whether Bach or Jay-Z — in quite the same way again.
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.
She’s the tattooed, Lutheran pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, a church where a chocolate fountain, a blessing of the bicycles, and serious liturgy come together. She’s a face of the Emerging Church — redefining what church is, with deep reverence for tradition.
For over a decade, the French-American anthropologist Scott Atran has been listening to the hopes and dreams of young people from Indonesia to Egypt. He explores the human dynamics of what we analyze as “breeding grounds for terrorism” — why some young people become susceptible to them and others, in the same circumstances, do not. His work sheds helpful light on the question on so many of our minds as we watch horrific news of the day: How could this happen — and how could we possibly help transform it?
If journalism is a primary way we tell the story of ourselves and our time, Michel Martin is a person helping us tell that story — and take part in it — more completely. Her daily NPR program Tell Me More was often labeled as “diversity” or “minority” programming. But in fact, she and her journalism are about a more generous and realistic sweep of who we are now — and how we’re creating our life together anew. At the Chautauqua Institution, we mine her wisdom on the emerging fabric of human identity.
The third in a four-part series, “The American Consciousness.”
The XIV Dalai Lama seems to many to embody happiness — happiness against the odds, a virtue that is acquired and practiced. Before a live audience in Atlanta, Georgia, Krista had a rare opportunity to mull over the meaning of happiness in contemporary life with him and three global spiritual leaders: a Muslim scholar, a chief rabbi, and a presiding bishop. An invigorating and unpredictable discussion exploring the themes of suffering, beauty, and the nature of the body.
After September 11, 2001, Richard Rodriguez traveled to the Middle East to explore his kinship, as a Roman Catholic, with the men who stepped onto airplanes and turned them into weapons of terror. What he learned illuminates some of the deepest paradox and promise of the world we inhabit. He is an especially intriguing conversation partner for right now — a life and mind straddling left and right, religious and secular, immigrant and intellectual. At the Chautauqua Institution, we mine his wisdom on the emerging fabric of human identity.
The fourth in a four-part series, “The American Consciousness.”
Imani Perry is a scholar of law, culture, race — and hip hop. She acknowledges wise voices who say that we will never get to the promised land of racial equality. She writes, “That may very well be true, but it also true that extraordinary things have happened and keep happening in our history. The question is, how do we prepare for and precipitate them?” We took her up on this emboldening question at the Chautauqua Institution, on the cusp of yet a new collective reckoning with the racial fabric of American life.
The first in a four-part series, “The American Consciousness.”
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.
Dan Barber is a celebrated young chef — but his passionate ethics and intellect have made him much more. He’s out to restore food to its rightful place vis-à-vis our bodies, our ecologies and our economies. And he would do this by resurrecting our natural insistence on flavor.
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.
What Adele Diamond is learning about the brain challenges basic assumptions in modern education. Her work is scientifically illustrating the educational power of things like play, sports, music, memorization, and reflection. What nourishes the human spirit, the whole person, it turns out, also hones our minds.
He bestowed the title “Mahatma” on Gandhi. He debated the deepest nature of reality with Einstein. He was championed by Yeats and Pound to become the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Rabindranath Tagore was a polymath — a writer and a painter, a philosopher and a musician, and a social innovator — but much of his poetry and prose is virtually untranslatable (or inaccessibly translated) for modern minds. We pull back the “dusty veils” that have hidden his memory from history.
Yoga has infiltrated law schools and strip malls, churches and hospitals. This 5,000-year-old spiritual technology is converging with 21st-century medical science and with many religious and philosophical perspectives. Seane Corn takes us inside the practicalities and power of yoga. She describes how it helps her face the darkness in herself and the world, and how she’s come to see yoga as a form of body prayer.
Sculptural artist Dario Robleto is famous for spinning and shaping unconventional materials — from dinosaur fossils to pulverized vintage records, from swamp root to cramp bark. He joins words and objects in a way that distills meaning at once social, poetic, and scientific. He reveals how objects can become meditations on love, war, and healing.
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.
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.
For the Fourth of July, a refreshing reality check about the long road of American democracy. We remember forgotten but fascinating, useful history as we contemplate how we might help young democracies on their own tumultuous paths now.
We tend to frame our cultural conversation about science and religion as a debate — two either/or ways of describing reality. With mathematician Jim Bradley and philosopher Michael Ruse, we trace a quieter evolution of science and religion in interplay — not a matter of competing answers, but of complementary questions with room for humanity, nuance, and humor.
Who knew that we learn empathy, trust, irony, and problem solving through play — something the dictionary defines as “pleasurable and apparently purposeless activity.” Dr. Stuart Brown suggests that the rough-and-tumble play of children actually prevents violent behavior, and that play can grow human talents and character across a lifetime. Play, as he studies it, is an indispensable part of being human.
The surprising psychology behind morality is at the heart of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s research. “When it comes to moral judgments,” he says, “we think we are scientists discovering the truth, but actually we are lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means.” He explains “liberal” and “conservative” not narrowly or necessarily as political affiliations, but as personality types — ways of moving through the world. His own self-described “conservative-hating, religion-hating, secular liberal instincts” have been challenged by his own studies.
As the daughter of Johnny Cash, singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash describes her life as “circumscribed by music.” But, it’s through her love of language and quantum mechanics that she’s finding new sources of creativity and mathematical ways to think about the divine. The mother of five shares her perspectives on being present, Twitter as a “boot camp for songwriters,” and how she wrestles with love and grief through her music.
Ellen Langer is a social psychologist who some have dubbed “the mother of mindfulness.” But she defines mindfulness with counterintuitive simplicity: the simple act of actively noticing things — with a result of increased health, competence, and happiness. Her take on mindfulness has never involved contemplation or meditation or yoga. It comes straight out of her provocative, unconventional studies, which have been suggesting for decades what neuroscience is pointing at now: our experience of everything is formed by the words and ideas we attach to them. What makes a vacation a vacation is not only a change of scenery — but the fact that we let go of the mindless everyday illusion that we are in control. Ellen Langer has shown it’s possible to become physiologically younger through a changed frame of mind; to find joy in what was experienced as drudgery by renaming it as play; and to induce weight loss by substituting the label “exercise” for labor.
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?
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.
Fairy tales don’t only belong to the domain of childhood. Their overt themes are threaded throughout hit TV series like Game of Thrones and True Blood, Grimm and Once Upon a Time. These stories survive, says Maria Tatar, by adapting across cultures and history. They are carriers of the plots we endlessly re-work in the narratives of our lives — helping us work through things like fear and hope.
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.
The idea of reciting an unchanging creed sounds suspicious to modern ears. But the late, great historian Jaroslav Pelikan illuminated ancient tradition in order to enliven faith in the present and the future. He insisted that strong statements of belief will be necessary if pluralism in the 21st century is to thrive. We take in his moving, provocative perspective on our enduring need for creeds.
With a master of midrash as our guide, we walk through the Exodus story at the heart of Passover. It’s not the simple narrative you’ve watched at the movies or learned in Sunday school. Neither Moses or Pharaoh, nor the oppressed Israelites or even God, are as they seem. As Avivah Zornberg reveals, Exodus is a cargo of hidden stories — telling the messy, strange, redemptive truth of us as we are, and life as it is.
An astrophysicist who studies the shape of the universe, Janna Levin has also explored her science by writing a novel about two pivotal 20th-century mathematicians, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing. Both men pushed at boundaries where mathematics presses on grand questions of meaning and purpose. Such questions, she says, help create the technologies that are now changing our sense of what it means to be human.
Stay. That’s the message that philosopher, poet, and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht puts at the center of her unusual writing about suicide. She’s traced how the history of Western civilization has, at times, demonized those who commit suicide, and, at times, celebrated it as a moral freedom. She has struggled with suicidal places in her life and lost friends to it. As a scholar, she’s now proposing a new cultural reckoning with suicide, based not on morality or on rights but on our essential need for each other.
“There’s no question about the reality of evil, of injustice, of suffering, but at the center of this existence is a heart beating with love.” South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu on how his understanding of God and humanity has unfolded through the history he’s lived and shaped.
“Let’s go back and look at our faith before it was reduced to a system, before it was reduced to a system of abstractions and beliefs. How can we rediscover our faith as a series of stories and as a series of encounters?” Brian McLaren on the evolution of Christianity and the meaning of progressive Evangelicalism.
Dr. Sherwin Nuland died this week at the age of 83. He became well-known for his first book, How We Die, which won the National Book Award. For him, pondering death was a way of wondering at life — and the infinite variety of processes that maintain human life moment to moment. He reflects on the meaning of life by way of scrupulous and elegant detail about human physiology.
He is a genius of improvisation; a genre-bending vocal magician and conductor. And he sings the territory between music, mystery, and spirit. Who better to contemplate the human voice — its delights, its revelations, and its mystery — than Bobby McFerrin?
The writers Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, social activist Dorothy Day, and the Trappist monk Thomas Merton — all four shared a complex Catholic faith. Paul Elie takes us on a kind of literary pilgrimage through a Catholic imagination that still resonates in our time.
The philosopher Simone Weil defined prayer as “absolutely unmixed attention.” The artist Ann Hamilton embodies this notion in her sweeping works of art that bring all the senses together. She uses her hands to create installations that are both visually astounding and surprisingly intimate, and meet a longing many of us share, as she puts it, to be alone together.
David Hartman died a year ago this week. The Orthodox rabbi was a charismatic and challenging figure in Israeli society, called a “public philosopher for the Jewish people” and a “champion of adaptive Judaism.” We remember his window into the unfolding of his tradition in the modern world — Judaism as a lens on the human condition.
A thrilling, mind-bending view of the cosmos and of the human adventure of modern science. In a conversation ranging from free will to the meaning of the Higgs boson particle, physicist Brian Greene suggests the deepest scientific realities are hidden from human senses and often defy our best intuition.
The coming stage of evolution, Teilhard de Chardin said, won’t be driven by physical adaptation but by human consciousness, creativity, and spirit. We visit with his biographer Ursula King, and we experience his ideas energizing New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin and evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson.
The word “Vodou” evokes images of sorcery and sticking pins into dolls. In fact, it’s a living tradition wherever Haitians are found based on ancestral religions in Africa. We walk through this mysterious tradition — one with dramatic rituals of trances and dreaming and of belief in spirits, who speak through human beings, with both good and evil potential.