Speaking of Faith

When WITF-FM abandoned its classical music format in June for news and talk, its decision provoked strong reactions from many long-time listeners.

But if you’re an early riser on Sunday morning, you know one of the happy byproducts of that change has been the appearance at 7 a.m. of Krista Tippett’s On Being, a show that’s billed as “a spacious conversation about the big questions at the center of human life, from the boldest new science of the human brain to the most ancient traditions of the human spirit.” Simply put, it features some of the most thoughtful conversations you’ll hear anywhere on radio or television.

Speaking of Faith (Tippett’s show originally bore that title) is really two books.

One tells the story of her spiritual journey, from an Oklahoma childhood where she grew up under the powerful influence of a Baptist preacher grandfather, through college at Brown, a stint as a journalist and diplomatic aide in Germany in the years leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, a divinity degree from Yale and an extended engagement with a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota. Though Tippett is a “person of faith” and a committed Christian, every page of this book reflects the questing soul of a spiritual searcher whose world view has been shaped by well-known theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr.

“This book is a chronicle of a change of mind,” as Tippett describes it, “and of a discipline of listening that keeps my mind and my spirit stretching.”

The book’s other thread concerns the birth and development of Tippett’s career as a media presence. It’s not surprising she had to overcome considerable skepticism when she first pitched the idea of a public radio show on religion.

“We have had few models in our public life for religious speech that does not proselytize, exclude, anger or offend,” she writes.

In the more than a decade Tippet has been on the air, she’s hosted an impressive array of religious leaders and intelligent laypeople, scientists, philosophers, and entertainers. Summing up the task she’s set for herself and the values she’s tried to serve in her conversations, she writes:

“This kind of journalism I do is, as much for myself as for others, about looking beyond the horrors of the evening news to the redemptive stories that are not being told, to ways of being in the world that keep sense and virtue and the possibility of healing alive in the middle of the world’s complexity.”

In the same civil, generous spirit that characterizes her probing interviews, Tippett spends a considerable portion of the book wrestling with some of the “big questions” – the conflict between science and religion, fundamentalism, social justice and the problem of evil – that have preoccupied her thoughts and conversations. She’s determined to change Americans’ perception of Islam, for example, observing that “exclusionary Islamic violence is a reality of the twenty-first century. But it is not the whole story.” Tippett believes religion fundamentally is a force for good, recognizing, as it does, that “each person’s presence, action, and words in the world matter, however inconsequential they may seem against the backdrop of the evening’s news. Religions remind us of this fact, this faith.”

Although she doesn’t explicitly address the claims of New Atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens, Tippett firmly rejects the proposition that the blame for many of the world’s ills can be laid at the feet of religion, citing persuasive examples to support her argument. In a chapter entitled “Exposing Virtue,” she extols “people who bring light into the world” like the late Kenyan Nobel Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, responsible for helping plant 30 million trees in her native country, or David Hilfiker, a physician who 20 years ago gave up his Midwestern medical practice and moved with his family to one of Washington, D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods.

In Tippett’s account, these are not mere “feel good” stories, but instead tales of people inspired to great deeds, even deep sacrifice, by a profound religious faith.

We’ve just finished a bitter election campaign that’s made most of us feel we’ve been overexposed to an overdose of what Tippett calls the “competing certainties of our public life.” We could use a measure of the civility that’s consistently supplied by the people she writes about in this book and on her show.

If Speaking of Faith whets your appetite to consider some of these issues more deeply, you may want to take a look at Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit, a collection of 13 interviews from her show, or visit her website at onbeing.org.