As creator and host of NPR’s Speaking of Faith radio program, Krista Tippett has spent countless hours doing just that. Her conversations with religious authorities, scholars and others are borne of a treasure trove of intellect and interest, including her own. Overflowing with gems of wisdom, Speaking of Faith, the book, offers thoughts on matters related to faith, religion and spirituality worth not just reading but pondering as deeply as one’s imagination allows.
Although Tippett hails from a southern Baptist community in Oklahoma, her personal brand of curiosity has led her down ever-expanding roads of religious academe and life experience, a journey that continues today via her radio conversations. According to Tippett,
“Speaking of faith in the 21st century is not about religion but about life…Spiritual questions don’t go away, nor does a sense of wonder and mystery cease, in the absence of a belief in God.”
Her radio conversations, punctuated with the words of luminaries including Rheinhold Niehbur, Martin Luther, Thich Nhat Hahn and Jesus Christ, have all contributed to the insightful discourse that begat Speaking of Faith, the book.
Tippett takes her analysis of religion in the world “from its source in the richness, mystery and mess of human life.” And in a world where the intensity of faith ranges from nonexistent to violent fundamentalism and the faithful are redefining spirituality, she posits that “religious or not, people long for religon to live up to its best ideals.” Hence, her conversations continue with increasing relevance.
In the chapter “Remembering Forward” Tippett draws from her experiences on either side of the Berlin Wall, both before and after it fell. While living, studying and working in Germany, she immersed herself in “The German Question” for six years spending a semester in Communist East Germany and, in 1983, a year in the West German capital city of Bonn. Guided by the religious voice of German theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, she studied Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer and became fluent in Cold War politics. As a freelance foreign correspondent for the New York Times she interviewed Elie Wiesel when his faith lay in a state of destruction back in Auschwitz and at the age of 25 became a Special Assistant to the senior American diplomat in Berlin and later to the U.S. Ambassador to Bonn. Wondering “where the resilience of the human spirit expressed itself at [that] level of policy,” she left Germany attuned to life as beautiful and defiant. It wasn’t until the years that followed that Tippett learned how to take religion seriously.
And so, she hosts a myriad of voices on her program including those of holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, environmentalist Wangari Maathai, physicians Rachel Naomi Remen and David Hilfiker, journalist/author Bruce Feiler, Muslim American activist Eboo Patel, theologian John Polkinghorne as well as atheists, agnostics, ethicists and others.
Employing the language of former nun and self-described “freelance monotheist” Karen Armstrong, the poet Ranier Marie Rilke and the Bible, Tippett seeks to rethink religious truth. She aptly refers to the Bible as “an ancient record of an ongoing encounter with God in the darkness as well as the light of human experience” and says “reasoned liberal or secular analysis of the Bible can dismiss [its] relevance and mystery.”
Regarding the paradox that is religion and science, Tippett learns from allusions to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words: “We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants us to realize His presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved,” as well as Einstein’s: “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”
When Tippett spoke with Indian journalist, Pankaj Mishra, he described the Buddha as a social philosopher who understood that grand political and economic policy could never end people’s suffering. In discussing deep moral virtue with South African leaders, she learns the definition of ubuntu: “I am through you and you are through me. To the extent that I am estranged from another person, I am less than human.” In a conversation regarding same-sex marriage with two evangelicals they both suggest to Tippett that “the way we approach our divisions is as telling a reflection of the substance of our faith as the positions we take,” even though they are on opposite ends of the debate.
It is with unparalleled sensitivity that Krista Tippett engages experts, the faithful and the opposition in diverse and important discussions on matters related to faith, religion and spirituality. The greater part of Speaking of Faith addresses these matters intelligently and thoughtfully but in the last chapter, “Confessing Mystery,” Tippett exposes her true gentility. She remains admittedly vulnerable to the mysteries of the unknown and as such, dedicated to seeking truths that affect us all.
And it is good.