She talked with Beliefnet's Patton Dodd about her own approach to speaking of faith--both the faith of others and her own--and how a new understanding of spirituality helped her survive the hardest days of her life.
How did you manage to get a show dedicated to talking about religion on public radio?
It was a hard road for many years. When I first pitched the idea in the late 1990s, there were still a lot of people in public radio who said, “We just don’t think religion is that important,” or, “This is something that should be kept private.”
But the world has changed. 9/11 happened and there was not only a huge religious dimension to that--people woke up to Islam--but there was a spiritual response. I was in Washington on that day and I drove back to Minnesota and suddenly there was this new urgency to having an hour of radio about religion. They actually asked me to do a program called, "Where was God?" Even in my wildest dreams, I never thought I would do a program on public radio called "Where was God?" And that has just intensified as the last two presidential elections happened.
I don’t think [religion] ever went away. It certainly didn’t go away in most of the world. We stopped talking about it in this culture, but now it’s out on the surface again and it’s not going to go back into its box.
Usually conversations about religion try to feature two sides—the religious view and the non-religious view, or the fundamentalist view and moderate view. Your show usually just presents one viewpoint at a time. Why?
I don’t accept the idea that there are two sides to any issue. I think that the middle ground is to be found within most of us. If you get beyond the strident voices who claim the ground at either extreme of an issue, most of us are somewhere in the middle and are living with some of the questions.
We did do a program on gay marriage where we had two evangelical voices—one of them, Richard Mouw, opposed to gay marriage, and one of them, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, a lifelong evangelical Christian who loves her Bible and had come out as a lesbian thirty years earlier and wrote a book called "Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?" Even at those poles, they both had a longing for there to be a different kind of conversation. For them, being an evangelical Christian in that debate was not just about the positions they held, but about the way they treated others.
What do you think about the new wave of atheism, exemplified by high-profile authors like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris?
People have been asking me ever since these books started appearing if I’m going to interview Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. But I don’t see a constructive role for these pundits who just want to critique what goes wrong with religion; they decry the entire religious enterprise. I mean, I wouldn’t interview somebody who’d written a book called "The Science Delusion." How arrogant is that—[for Dawkins] to use a phrase like “the God delusion” when over 80 percent of people in this country say they believe in God.
I interview a lot of scientists on my program who reconcile scientific knowledge and religious faith in intellectual and creative ways. They completely reject the idea of Dawkins that religion makes people blind to the insights of science. It’s just not true. It’s not true in individual lives. It’s not true in a lot of famous lives.
Sam Harris says that moderate religious people are complicit in all the violence and damage that the extremes do. Well, I think that moderate religious people are the only hope we have of taming those extremes, of getting religions back on course.
Ever since I’ve been doing the program, people ask me, “Well, what about your life? What have been some spiritual high points for you? What’s your theology?” And I can never answer that in a five-minute setting. I felt like I almost had an obligation to [tell my story] because that’s the kind of narrative theology I’m engaged in with the show.
Some people exclaim to me, "Well, you have all these conversations with the most amazing people. You must be so wise!" And the truth is that I am left with my life and my story to make sense of. None of us are saints, none of us are heroes. My depression is not something very special. A lot of people go through depression. My divorce is not something very special; a lot of people go through divorce.
But what I’ve learned is that it can be redemptive. I don’t want to use the word “blessing” because that sounds kind of pat. Because those are hard, dark places in life. But I’ve learned to accept what goes wrong, and to turn it into a gift.
What role did your rediscovery of faith play in helping you achieve that sort of understanding?
It’s not so much that I stopped believing in God, but that I couldn’t imagine ever having believed in God or, you know, ever feeling things like love and hope again.
I talk about psalms [in the Bible] that I have always been turned off by--psalms of cursing and moaning and even psalms about enemies. I learned that the early church fathers and the great minds of Judaism understood that enemies can be internal as well as external. And when I started praying those psalms in that way, I could pray the psalms as something not at all lovely and not even hopeful, but that were telling the truth about life. And there was some consolation just in that—that this was real, that other people had been there.
You write about seeing our painful experiences as something necessary to remember and keep visible as part of the truth of our lives. That runs counter to the popular notion that we should move on from past regrets and emphasize the positive. Why is remembering past pain helpful?
You know this is something that modern psychology has determined, right? That we kind of have to go back and know the whole story of ourselves to be whole. And what’s fascinating to me is that religious traditions have also known this. In the Hebrew Bible, past tense is also present. You know--“What happened to your ancestors, happened to you.”
It’s not that I revisited what was painful about my life by choice. I got to this place where I had to know what was haunting me. Through therapy, I had to start telling the truth about myself and know what my losses had been and what my wounds were, so that I could live with them consciously. And again, I think it’s amazing that these ancient spiritual traditions drive us to that and support us in that.
How do they do that?
I think they do it in different ways. Buddhist mindfulness is about the present, but I also think it’s about being “real.” Being awake to everything. Feeling like nothing can hurt you if you can look it straight on. If we can’t face our losses, we can’t be present either fully to everything that is. When people have cut off or not made peace with some part of themselves, they miss out on other aspects of life.
It can be a tough thing to ask someone to face their past pain.
It’s a harder life, but it’s a fuller life. That is my experience of living after depression. I struggle with this as much or more than anybody I know. I’m not so good at accepting what’s wrong, but I try. Maybe my life of conversation helps me try better.
It's a distinction Miroslav Volf makes. Thick religion is grounded in the complexity of sacred text, because sacred texts are not simple at all. And it’s grounded in the complexity of human experience and in a sense of how our knowledge of these things is never perfect, and that they can’t be simplified into slogans.
Thin religion makes the news. When somebody drops a bomb and says that they’ve done that in the name of Allah, it makes the news. When somebody makes a hateful remark in the name of Christianity, it makes the news.
What I am really concerned about is pointing beyond that thin religion, beyond the headlines. Not saying that that doesn’t matter, or that that’s not real or that we don’t have to contend with that, but to say that the whole story of religion in the world is much bigger than that, richer and more generous.
How is that "whole story" supposed to be found?
The irony is that people who are living according to the the deepest virtues of these traditions are marked by qualities like gentleness and humility and kindness. They are going to be the last people to throw themselves in front of microphones or be photographed doing what they do. And so there is a certain responsibility on the part of the rest of us as citizens and journalists to seek them out and find them, and see that story.
A recurring theme on your show and in your book is finding religion where you least expect it. For instance, you go back to the story of Charles Darwin and look for the religious aspects of the man and his work.
I have found that another way to unlock some of these terrible cultural debates we’ve gotten into is to go back and look historically. I use this phrase--“remembering forward,” [based on] a line from Lewis Carroll: “It’s a poor memory that only works backward.” We don’t remember forward very well in our culture.
One thing we have totally forgotten is that through Charles Darwin--not just before him, but he was part of this-- scientists saw themselves as illuminating what was in the Bible--not countering it, but filling out what was there. Opposite the title page of "The Origin of Species," he put a quote from Frances Bacon that there’s the word of God and there’s the works of God and that we need to understand both to fully understand the world we inhabit. The word of God is the Bible or our traditions. And the works of God is everything that we can understand about the natural world. Copernicus and Kepler and Darwin thought that in expanding what humanity could understand about the world around us we would better understand the nature of the creator.
You also see Darwin's work as a blessing because of its extension to sociology.
This is something else that we have forgotten. People who feel that his work is dangerous don’t remember how dangerous it was to live in a world were there was an assumption that everything had been ordained once and for all from the beginning of time. In the Victorian England Darwin lived in, that meant incredible disparities between classes of people. Incredible poverty was justified by saying, “Well, God ordained it. This is the way it’s supposed to be. They must have deserved it.” And so, [Darwin] stopped making God responsible for every design flaw--everything that is wrong and unjust.
That dovetails very nicely with the notion of the Christian scientist John Polkinghorne, who says that God has instilled freedom into every being in the world. Freedom is not just for humans, but for plants and animals of all kinds.
Right, and even tectonic plates and cancer cells. And that’s where it gets complicated. It’s a dangerous gift, but a gift nonetheless. And that’s a God I’m happier to believe in than a God who somehow switches on every cancer cell or knocks over those tectonic plates.