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An American Missionary in Wartime China

Robert McMullen was working as a Presbyterian missionary in eastern China when Japan invaded the country in 1937. His letters describing the chaotic period that followed are presented in a new book by Charles Bright and Joseph Ho. Its title is War and Occupation in China: The Letters of an American Missionary from Hangzhou, 1937-1938. I ask Bright and Ho about their book in this episode. We discuss the goals and methods of American Protestant missionaries in modern China, with a special...


Who Created ISIS?

Christopher Davidson discusses his book, Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East. We talk about American and British covert operations in the Middle East, both historically and in contemporary conflicts. We focus particularly on Western support for fundamentalist Islamic political movements. Special music by audionautix.com


Temple Transformations

Vasudha Narayanan discusses how Hindu temples are transformed by the minority status of Hinduism in America. Temple practices preserve many traditions while also helping Hindus assimilate to American culture. We also discuss the idea of a "dialogue of action" between Hindu temples and other religious communities, which centers on shared service to the needy.


Yoga Remix 1800

Are contemporary Americans who profit from the business of yoga appropriating Indian culture? Are they stealing its intellectual property or misrepresenting its religious traditions? We can’t answer these questions without understanding the origins of modern yoga. In this episode Peter Valdina argues that nineteenth-century Indian translations of the Yoga Sutra resulted from complex intercultural encounters that can’t be easily dismissed as mere cultural appropriation. We start with the...


This Wicked World

Can we achieve our highest moral aspirations through political effort? Can we even expect significant, long-term moral improvement in government? If not, what kinds of community are most worthy of our time and energy? Peter Kaufman and I discuss these questions, drawing on the countercultural, pessimistic political theories of Saint Augustine and Giorgio Agamben. The first part of the interview is about Augustine’s political theology. Kaufman argues that Augustine turned away from his own...


American Islamophobia

What is causing contemporary Islamophobia and how should we think about it ethically and politically? This episode features Carl Ernst, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. We discuss his book, Islamophobia in America: The Anatomy of Intolerance. It's available here: https://www.amazon.com/Islamophobia-America-Intolerance-C-Ernst/dp/1137321881. First, we discuss the spread of anti-Islamic propaganda groups over past 15 years. Some of them are...


Vasubandhu and Virtual Reality

Are we living in a virtual reality? If we are, what should we do about it? Jonathan Gold joins me on this episode to discuss how the first-millennium Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu might answer these questions. We discuss Vasubandhu’s views about the hidden causes of the reality we experience and the mentally constructed nature of the world. We compare his position to the idea that we live in a computer-generated simulation, like the characters in the movie “The Matrix.” Then, we explore...


Speaking of Theology

When Catholic theologians speak about God, what sources and what kinds of reasoning should they use? What role does faith play in the practice of theology? In this episode, I discuss these questions with Paul Griffiths, the Warren Professor of Catholic Theology at Duke Divinity School. We also discuss broader questions about the rules and rationality of specialized languages like theology. Griffiths argues that theology is reasoned discussion about God. Anyone with the relevant background...


Heaven Only Knows

What happens in heaven and hell? Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths discusses his speculations about the afterlife. Our conversation is based on his book, Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures (Baylor, 2014). We move through four main topics and a conclusion. We begin in part one with the Catholic story about death, the soul, and resurrection. Then we discuss four possible final destinies for human beings. Part two is about heaven. We talk about what time, freedom, self-awareness...


Computers Made of Meat?

Is the brain a “computer made of meat”? This is a modern idea associated with artificial intelligence research, neuroscience, linguistics, and the philosophy of mind. But in some ways the idea isn't new at all. The seventh-century Buddhist philosopher Dharmakirti developed a very sophisticated model of the mind that explained how beliefs and concepts could be caused by more basic sensations - making them somewhat like the outputs of a computational process. The episode features Dan...


Rejected Prophets

People in popular media tend to discuss the Bible in one of two ways. Either they focus on new research that challenges traditional Jewish and Christian historical claims or they offer selective quotes to prove a theological or political point. Literary interpretations that pay attention to the whole of a biblical book and the agenda of its author, in contrast, are less common. I argue, drawing on my interview with Jocelyn McWhirter, that this kind of interpretation is hard to do, but it...