Monday, April 1, 2013

Speaking of Faith

Speaking of Faith
Krista Tippett (2007, Viking)

    Speaking of Faith is the public radio program which has, for the past decade, brought issues of faith, spirituality and religion to public radio. The host, Krista Tippett, interviews all kinds of people, from all walks of religious life. Her guests include theologians, philosophers, environmentalists, physicists, nuns and monks; they speak from Buddhist, humanist and atheist perspectives, well as from within the Abrahamic faiths in all their variety.

    Tippett’s book Speaking of Faith provides a valuable introduction to those thinkers and those conversations, in the framework of a memoir, the story of what made her the perfect person for such a job. Like most such stories, it would have been quite unpredictable, yet it makes sense in hindsight: the granddaughter of a Baptist minister, Tippett went to Brown University, then spent her twenties in Germany, in the last decade of the Cold War. She was religiously disengaged in those days, but she was fascinated by the rich spiritual life she found in some of her East German friends, at a time when it was not reasonable for them to have much hope for their futures. “Germany’s division was about the world’s brokenness, and my passion–now secularized and recast in political terms–was for salvation.”

    It was a time of high political and diplomatic drama, but Tippett couldn’t help noticing the human element: “...where did the resilience of the human spirit express itself at this level of policy, I wondered, and could this level of policy address the spiritual underpinnings of human experience?” She moved on, to a restorative time on a Mediterranean island, and then to a small village in England, always continuing to contemplate the ironies and paradoxes that arise when finite, mortal humanity tries to confront the infinite and eternal.

    The works of Rilke, Bonhoeffer, and T. S. Eliot were among her guides on the way back to the Bible of her youth, with new questions and a more open attitude. Unable to leave the subject alone, she went on to the Yale Divinity School. “The Bible, as I read it now, ... is an ancient record of an ongoing encounter with God in the darkness as well as the light of human experience. Like all sacred texts, it employs multiple forms of language to convey truth: poetry, narrative, legend, parable, echoing imagery, wordplay, prophecy, metaphor, didactics, wisdom saying.”

    The Bible is too big, and too important, to be read as literal history, or science. Such readings put religion at odds with history, science, and reason; but, read as story and poetry, the Bible has everything in common with science. Tippett says, “Science like religion is about questions more than answers–questions and more questions that meet every new answer as soon as it is hatched.”

    St. John’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota, hosted a center for ecumenical conversation and research called the Collegeville Institute. In 1995, Tippett was engaged to conduct an oral history of the Institute, work which set a pattern for the work in radio that would come next. “I did not invite people of faith to pronounce. I asked them to trace the intersection of religious ideas with time and space and the color and complexity of real lives–not just the trajectory of their lives, but what they knew of the world, the work they did, who and what they loved. This both grounded and exalted what they had to say, and it let me in.”

    The habit of speaking and listening this way permeates Speaking of Faith; Tippett is both grounded and exalted, and she lets us in. The book has that delightful Pandora’s box quality, of leading on to other books; but Tippett’s life doesn’t let her be purely bookish. She says, “If holiness is happening, it is happening in the thick of reality, not replacing the world we know, not banishing death, but defying its terror as the last word. And here is the task that fills my days: how to speak of this together and make it more visible, audible and tangible in the world.”

    Amen, amen.

Email edition, April 1, 2013

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