Thursday, June 28, 2007

Krista Tippett's Speaking of Faith: I Choose It

(reflection on SPEAKING OF FAITH, radio program and book by Krista Tippett.)

With a new feature called "Beliefwatch," Newsweek is a sign of religion's ever-increasing prominence in our culture, fifty years after Time asked if God is dead. The latest issue of Newsweek questions conventional (liberal) wisdom: "All religions are basically the same: True or False?" Their answer is "false." As a longtime connoisseur of religions, I'd agree.

Still, I'm grateful to Krista Tippett and her weekly talk program SPEAKING OF FAITH for presenting a wide variety of believers of many faiths and non-believers who still have in common certain traits. Her book of the same name is a printing of highlights from that program, framed as a kind of autobiography. Tippett dwells lovingly on her grandfather, an evangelist whom she obviously adored. She grew disenchanted with religion and more enchanted with politics and journalism, and spent her early adulthood working as a "hawk" within the diplomatic corps in divided Germany of the 1980s. The rest of the book, and her program, often bounce between these two poles of ways to face life's challenges, faith or political action. She often implies that they are both faiths of a kind, and power is the one that's illusory.

(She observes that powerful people she knew in her Berlin days, brilliant in speaking on foreign policy, were petty and adolescent in their private lives -- cf. Kissinger in Dallek's book, which I blogged earlier today. The powerless people she met in East Germany, trapped there, were attentive to others and serious and grown up by comparison.)

What happens after Berlin is less clearly defined: some religious re-awakening and study at Yale divinity school, some work among needy inner-city youth, a failed marriage, and battle with clinical depression. But what comes through more clearly than her own story is the one she's more interested in telling, and that's the threads she finds in her wide-ranging on-air discussions with people. The way she was trained as a journalist to ferret out vice in public figures, she is attempting to ask questions that get her guests beyond their public selves to expose their private virtues.

What are the common traits of these guests -- besides articulateness?

First, her guests fall into the first of two categories that long-respected church historian Martin Marty uses instead of liberal and conservative. These are, that religious people are either kind or not:
The context of all virtue in the great religious traditions is relationship -- relationship with God, practical love in families and communities, care for the "other." They insist on reverent attention to the outcast and the suffering and the stranger beyond the bounds of one's own identity [or tribe, or nation - Smoot]. Christianity puts an extreme fine point on this, calling also for love of enemies. (p. 12)
Second, her guests would all agree with with Khaled Abou El Fadl, author of a book called Wrestling Islam from the Extremists. The more important category, they would agree, is not right and wrong but beauty and its absence. El Fadl said that the "underpinning theme" of the Qur'an is that God created male and female, diverse peoples and tribes, "So that you may come to know one another." Tippett interviewed him at a Jewish cultural center, sharing the stage with Rabbi Harold Shulweiss, who agreed with the Muslim. Thinking of actions done in the name of religion, rather than starting with doctrine, the Rabbi postulated that one could ask instead, "Does this action reveal a delight in this creation and in the image of a creative, merciful God who could have made it?" (p. 202-203)

Third, her guests would all agree with the distinction that one of them drew between religion and spirituality. Rabbi Sandy Sasso told her that Moses had a direct encounter with God on Mt. Sinai. Later, he formalized what he'd experienced in the ten commandments. The encounter was the spiritual experience from God; the religion is its man-made container. (p. 180)

Tippett is great at pressing her guests for clarifications and examples to support their generalizations, but it's rare that she really puts her foot down. In this book, she does one time. She's describing the essential idea that she and her guests all live by . . .
. . . that each person's presence, action, and words in the world matter, however inconsequential they may seem against the backdrop of this evening's news. Religions remind us of this fact, this faith. Like any political or economic theory, this is empirically unverifiable. I choose it. (p. 162-163)

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