Speaking of Faith
My favorite podcast these days is Speaking of Faith, hosted by journalist and former diplomat Krista Tippett. When her book by the same title came out, Brandon and I were quick to pick it up. He read it first (and then wrote this in-depth review essay, which I encourage you to read); I put it on my Festival of Faith & Writing reading list since I planned to read it anyway and could therefore give myself double reading credit for it!
Like the podcast, the book argues that we need more, not less, public conversation about faith—but not talk of the usual kind. Especially in this post-9/11 world, there is no lack of public debate about religious beliefs, sources of truth, the search for meaning in the face of personal and community despairs. But in many cases, these discussions would be better called diatribes, arrogant and belligerent arguments against strawmen. Rarely do we encounter two people, with perhaps very different perspectives on religious faith, sitting down together and truly conversing about each other’s life-giving beliefs. Why is such genuine conversation so threatening to religious people? If we sincerely seek truth, why do we resort to name-calling and badgering when someone presents an idea we have not considered?
Tippett’s goal is to help people learn to talk to one another about religion in a way that is neither arrogant nor irrelevant, that is, to seek to understand from their perspectives the ideas and practices that others indicate are most important to their faith. This does not require us to adopt these perspectives for ourselves. But it does require us to ask genuine questions, to allow our conversation partners to speak for themselves, and then to really listen to and consider their answers instead of preparing an assault on assumed areas of disagreement.
The book is part memoir, part model. Tippett recounts the personal background that led her to her current approach to religious dialogue, and spells out principles she thinks we must grasp for such dialogue to be truly meaningful. She is so gracious and thoughtful in her approach that I found it easy to pay attention and ponder her suggestions. And there is much of value here, as the following quotes establish (page numbers refer to the hardcover edition):
…In the elections of 2000 and 2004, the strident religious voice became the voice of the people, or so it seemed to some. Bitter arguments over moral issues—in politics, as within religious traditions themselves—had long aped the partisan dynamics of the political realm. This dynamic was now amplified. But categories of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are alien to Christianity or any other religious tradition…. The context of all virtue … is relationship—relationship with God, practical love in families and communities, care for the “other”.… These qualities should enlarge, not narrow, our public conversation on all the important issues before us. They should reframe it (12).
…I offer [this book] as a contrast to the religious stance that is more intent on holding correct positions than on how one treats friends and enemies along the way (24).
…In our time, we analyze global realities and culture wars with new categories, defining and dismissing whole swaths of human life in terms of “fundamentalism” and “liberalism” and “terrorism.” These labels only tell us partial truths. We must use them humbly, guardedly…aware of the limitations of our own vision and of our own capacity for misunderstanding and self-deception (46).
…This is a lovely and important way to understand why we can’t compare faith flatly to reason and declare it intellectually inferior. Its territory is the drama of human life, where art is more precise than science, where ideas are lived and breathed. Our minds can be engaged in this realm as seriously as in the construction of argument or logic, but in a different way (51-52).
…Science like religion is about questions more than answers—questions and more questions that meet every new answer as soon as it is hatched. It’s not so much true that sicnec and religion reach different answers on the same questions of human life, which is how our cultural debate has defined the rift between them. Far more often, they simply ask different kind of questions altogether, and the responses they generate together illuminate human life more completely than either could do alone (92).
If I have a criticism, it’s that the book went a little longer than necessary. She wrote that she found it hard to conclude—trying to wrap up a subject that defies words—and that is evident in the meandering of the final chapter. But her willingness to listen to others engenders a willingness to listen to her as she hones in on her final point:
I need to discern my tenets of truth constantly, know their texture, revisit and cleave to their assurances as keenly as I feel how they are changing and expanding as I grow older. But to believe is not to have all the answers; to discern truth is not to be able to carry it all the way to the end….I know I have to admit mystery alongside, within, religious doctrine (233).
This is not relativism; it is the embodiment of what she calls the “common qualities of great ‘lived theology'”: humility, irony, curiosity, and compassion. She articulates a purpose that resonates with one I have been slowly (and far less articulately) forming, that of “a life well-lived, a life defined by words well chosen, by grand ideas elicited as well as offered, and by a web of life-giving relationships.”
May the conversation continue.