photo: Evan Lane/Flickr
We had great fun pulling this week’s show together. I kept recalling that Lewis Carroll line I love from the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass: “It’s a poor memory that only works backwards.” Our program that’s soon to be titled Being, formerly known as Speaking of Faith, carries all the weight and wonder of these last seven years in its editorial bones. We got to this moment voice by voice and show by show. The moments we revisit in this show are fueling our change and will continue to form the spirit in which we inhabit that ethos.
Near the opening we listen again, for example, to the sage sociologist Peter Berger, who reminds us that while influential American thinkers (including him) proclaimed that religion had ceased to matter in modern lives after the 1960s, religion never went away for most people in most cultures around the world — nor indeed in this one. In the United States, though, we stopped having a robust, diverse vocabulary for talking about the part of humanity we call “religious” and “spiritual.” This is one of the factors that made it so tricky to start a public radio program called Speaking of Faith in the early 2000s — and, in my mind, so necessary.
As soon as we had launched this adventure, the world kept changing around us, kept reframing what we needed to be opening up for exploration. On this anniversary of 9/11 as much as any that preceded it, I am so grateful to hear Seemi Ghazi’s elegant, soulful recitation of the Qur’an from the first program we created about Islam in the weeks following the terrorist attacks. And, even now, the window she opens into the aesthetic, spiritual, and intellectual heart of Islam is a surprise and a kind of balm. She offers something far more compelling than a defense or argument. She embodies a contrast to violent images of terrorism — and a kind of everyday contrast that is simply buried from view by dramatic headlines.
Yet, in a way that is much larger and I hope more enduring than the crises and antagonisms of the moment, our cultural frame for seeing religion, spirituality, and the reality of religious others has also shifted dramatically. We are turn-of-the-century people. The challenges of our age are vast. From politics to ecology, from economics to family life, we are reimagining basic words and structures that have served us for decades, even centuries. The change in our title reflects that and so do the voices of this show.
Lindon Eaves proposes a definition of the spirituality of the scientist. Katie Payne wonders at the inner lives of the complex animals — whales and elephants — she has studied as a scientist. David Hilfiker offers working definitions of “charity,” “justice,” and “relationship” that point at new ways to approach poverty around the world, such as in post-Katrina New Orleans. “Historian of doubt” Jennifer Michael Hecht eloquently describes “the corner we’ve gotten ourselves” with labels of “atheist” and “agnostic” as much as “religious” and “spiritual.” These words may not be not big enough for the richness of our convictions or the ways in which all of our perspectives might inform our common humanity.
Here’s the thing, as true in life as in the naming of a radio program: letting go of words we cherish doesn’t mean we let go of what they mean to us, of that aspect of our identity and knowledge. Rather, it challenges and frees us to represent these things more vividly and invitingly in a world that needs all of our deepest moral imagination, our best spiritual, theological, and ethical insights. Letting go of words that have defined us creates a possibility of reintroducing ourselves, our best knowledge and virtues, to the world. I believe and trust that this turning point in the life of this program will have that effect too. It is an invigorating challenge, one we walk with our guests as well as you.