May 16, 2007

A Civil Conversation

Krista Tippett is host of the award-winning radio program, Speaking of Faith. Billed as “Public Radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas,” it is heard on the American Public Media network on dozens of stations across North America. Tippett was recently in Washington, D.C., to promote the release of her book, Speaking of Faith. Adventist Review managing editor Stephen Chavez attended the public event and later had an opportunity to ask Tippett questions about her conversations with people of different faith traditions. We begin this piece with some of her public comments about the importance of dialogue between people of faith.—Editors.

CREATING SPEAKING OF FAITH AS A WEEKLY national show for the past three years has been a great adventure; especially as in that period religion moved from the sidelines to the center of news and world affairs. We started piloting this program at Minnesota Public Radio in 2000. On September 11, 2001, I was here in Washington, D.C., at the Dulles Hilton getting ready for our first big meeting to raise money so we could become a weekly show. There was still a huge amount of skepticism in the public radio system about whether it was appropriate to have a program about religion on public radio, and whether it was worth an hour a week.
Obviously, that meeting was canceled as we all watched airplanes crashing into buildings and the Pentagon in flames. I drove home knowing I had this one little hour of radio, which meant maybe I could address some of the spiritual confusions and questions those events started to raise. And all these years I’ve been doing this show people have asked me, How did you come to care about these kinds of questions? Can you tell me about your spiritual journey? How are you changed by these conversations with people across the world’s traditions week after week? I’ve never been able to answer that question in five minutes, so I’ve written a book, in part, to give those important questions the texture they deserve.
2007 1514 page26Tell me about your religious background.
I was raised Southern Baptist in Oklahoma. I had a Southern Baptist preacher who was probably the most informative religious person in my childhood.
I went away to college on the East Coast. I was not a religious person at all for about 10 years. I ended up in Germany. I was interested in politics and was drawn to the divide between Capitalism and Communism in the eighties. I ended up in divided Berlin as a journalist, was working on foreign policy, and became a diplomat during my last couple years in Berlin.
Then I started asking spiritual questions, although I wouldn’t have called it that at the time. I ended up, a couple years later, getting a theological education, because if I was going to be a religious person again I wanted to know I could bring that together in my mind with everything I knew of the world.
When I came out of that I felt there was just a black hole on public radio where a discussion of religion should be. That was the germ of the idea to start this program.
Have you found your faith strengthened by your conversations with a variety of people from different faith perspectives?
I find my faith is deeper and more generous and open-hearted. I have been asked whether this program doesn’t encourage relativism, and I’m absolutely convinced that it does not. I don’t think faith works that way. Most of us tend to be planted somewhere; even seekers are planted somewhere, searching somewhere at the moment. Most people tend to learn something about their own tradition at the same time they’re learning something about the other.
A Benedictine monk at St. John’s Abbey talks about people of other faiths as “intimate outsiders.” It’s that way for me. The conversations I have are illuminating, they’re educational, and they also teach me things. Hearing someone put different words around a virtue that may also be at the heart of my understanding of Christian tradition takes me deeper into that virtue myself.
When you started this program, did you imagine you’d be talking to Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, or was it just Christian conversations you had in mind?
I was really clear that I had to explore the breadth of the world’s religions.
Because of the way the world has changed in these years since I first had the idea, and since this show has grown, I’ve interviewed many Muslims. In the earliest years we had a focus on the monotheistic traditions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam—and that’s because Islam, in particular, and that whole relationship with “the people of the Book,” became front and center of world events.
So many times religious people tend to talk past each other, rather than to each other.
An evangelical professor at a seminary said to me, “I think what you’re doing is ‘stealth dialogue.’ Some of us wouldn’t necessarily engage in those dialogues ourselves, but we get to hear your program. Suddenly I hear someone speaking and I say, ‘Oh, that’s what they mean by that!’” He said, “Although we haven’t had that conversation ourselves, I move forward with a new appreciation and openness to understanding.”
How do you get past labels and interact with people on a personal basis?
To me that’s just one of the most critical tasks. Our culture is full of sound bites and categories. Religious people, different kinds of religious people, are still labeled in a way we stopped thinking is acceptable with different ethnicities and races and cultural differences. But it’s still somehow acceptable to put religious people into boxes.
I only ask those I speak with to speak for themselves, not to represent a whole tradition, but to talk about how their faith, their religious convictions, their practices, their denomination, informs their lives, whatever they do. They speak in the first person.
2007 1514 page26Doctrine is humanized when someone hears another person of faith speak at that intersection of religious ideas and real life; it humanizes that tradition they come from. They may never have really had a frank conversation with a Muslim or a Seventh-day Adventist. But if they suddenly have a human story and a human voice to attach to that tradition, they will never again be able to dismiss the whole thing or see it as a category. It’s always going to have that human dimension. We become capable of violence and bigotry when we dehumanize other people.
Did you always intend to write a book? Or was it something that developed recently?
It’s a long story. I did an oral history project, which I write about in the book, for St. John’s Abbey, for the ecumenical institute they have there.
When I finished that oral history project about 10 years ago, I started writing about it. That was the first incarnation of this book, Speaking of Faith. I feel as if I’ve been writing this book for 10 years. But coming back to write now, bringing it into the present, meant not only telling my story and the way I see it now—of course, our memories change, and the sense we make of our lives changes as we get older—but wanting to reflect on what I learned through this life of conversation with people across the religions. That is a question I’m asked often, and can’t answer quickly. So I’ve written about how I see the world has changed through these conversations.
As you look at the religious landscape, both here and around the world, about what are you optimistic?
Whenever I’m able to look beneath the surface and the headlines, to where human beings are involved, there’s always something to be hopeful about. But you really do often have to poke around and not accept the headlines as the whole truth.
I have felt an enormous amount of grief these past years over the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict just festers and seems to have reversals. It’s very hard to imagine how that might be resolved. Yet, when I interviewed people in a large and passionate citizen-led movement of people on both sides of that conflict who have lost loved ones and who have said their grief is profound, they do not want their grief to be an excuse for more violence. They said to me: “What you see in the papers, the violence, is not the whole story. We’re living with tragedy, but we also have hope. A lot of us are putting our lives on the line for a different future. Start telling our story too.” You can always find hope. Sometimes it comes just with understanding.
How has your perspective of Christianity changed over the course of interviewing so many people of different backgrounds?
There was a time, when I first went to divinity school, I saw the divisions of Christianity as a real scandal, as a senseless mess. What happened to me through the oral history project, what was confirmed in my conversations in recent years, is that I’ve come to see that the whole creation screams of the beauty of difference, diversity, and variety.
As I’ve learned about the different strains of Christianity—and there are so many of them—I see each of them as having their origins in someone or some group of people seeing a slice of Christian truth that was being neglected by other churches; that had been downplayed, lost sight of, or distorted; and kind of picking up this jewel and brushing it off and honoring it. The different Christian traditions have a different emphasis; they have a different center; they have something that has to be celebrated and taken seriously.
The problem with that, because we’re human, is that we then overemphasize sometimes what it is we saw that’s distinct, and we can distort the rest of the truth around that. But I don’t think it’s bad, per se, anymore that there are all these different expressions of Christianity. It’s a mystery. I don’t think it’s a mystery we’re going to crack. There was a vision after World War II of the World Council of Churches, one unified church. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. I’m not sure that’s desirable. I’m not sure that would honor the complexity of Christian truth.
There are doors we can all keep walking through, and it doesn’t in any way diminish where we stand or what we believe; it just makes it richer. It gives us more to work with.
What about ultimate truth?
It’s human to need to discern truth as best we can. I’m not happy when people beat other people over the head because they have ultimate truth and they want to force it on others. However, I would never judge or denounce religious people for saying, “I believe this is ultimately true.”
We are driven to discern that. Each of us has to do the best we can with what we know. It can’t be wrong for us to discern ultimate truth as best we can. The only thing that’s wrong is to try to lord it over others.We went through a period in the late twentieth century where there was the suggestion that if you believed that something was true, by implication you were offending or dismissing the truth of others. That’s not right; the world doesn’t work that way; we don’t work that way. We all need to be working with truth.
Somebody I loved talking to in that oral history project was a high school Montessori philosophy teacher. He said, “My students don’t think it’s OK for them to believe that anything is true, because they think that to be tolerant and live in a pluralistic society means that everything has to be equal.” He said, “I say to them, ‘If you don’t have any ground to stand on, if you haven’t discerned some truth for yourself, you can’t even ask interesting questions of people who are different.’”

Stephen Chavez is managing editor of the Adventist Review.