Book Review: Speaking of Faith

[NOTE: This review was originally posted on another blog of mine.  As I find it this book to be continually informing my worldview, I decided to include it here as well, but with a little editing.]

Speaking of Faith
by Krista Tippett
Viking (2007)
238 pages (paperback/hardcover)


“All truth is God’s truth,” or so goes the saying attributed to Augustine. Former diplomat, Yale Divinity School graduate, and public radio host Krista Tippett built this principle into Speaking of Faith, the original name of her her broadcast (now called “Krista Tippett on Being”) and her book. My interest in Tippett’s broadcast began a few months ago and has become a regular podcast download. I’ve enjoyed the string of important topics and impressive personalities that have passed before her microphone. From discussions on science, Islam, and gay marriage, to guests or “conversation partners” like Jaroslav Pelikan, Freeman Dyson, Karen Armstrong, and Paul Davies, her search for truth shows no fear.

On her radio program, Tippett is concerned with letting others speak about their faith(s) from what she calls “the first person approach.” As she describes it on her website, journalists often have guests speak for a tradition, as in “Christians believe X,” which, as she explains, puts “listeners on the defensive.”

The first-person approach behind Speaking of Faith sidesteps the predictable minefields and opens the subject wide, making it inviting, both in ambiance and substance. It insists that people speak straight from the experience behind their own personal beliefs. How did they come to hold the truths they hold? How are religious insights given depth and nuance by the complexities of life?

This way of speaking also has the effect of opening the listener’s mind. I can disagree with another person’s opinion; I can’t disagree with his or her experience. Because I know where they are coming from, I am capable of some understanding — even compassion — about why they think that way. Moreover, because I have heard their story I am able to attach a person, a humanity, to their conclusions, and I will never quite be able to dismiss that position or denomination in the abstract in the same way again.

As a result of this approach, I’ve found Tippett’s broadcasts very disarming. Listeners are less inclined toward demonization when they hear a voice not entirely unlike their own. Tippett shows us the human side of religion so that we can approach the spiritual or unfamiliar without a deep-seated suspicion. Tippett says her “starting point and perspective are grounded in Christianity,” but it is clear that she is very comfortable in the land of mystery.

Krista TippettIn her book Speaking of Faith, Tippett explains her role as a journalist as “drawing out the contours and depths of…’the vast middle’—left, right, and center between the poles of competing answers that have hardened our cultural discourse.” In my travels through the land of evangelicalism, I’ve discovered that the fortified walls of hardened discourse often are built on a heavy foundation of suspicion, that is, a suspicion of each other, of mainline denominations, of science, of those with other political views—anyone outside the borders. Tippett, however, offers a passport into these different lands.

In the vast middle, faith is as much about questioning as it is about certainties. It is possible to be a believer and a listener at the same time, to be both fervent and searching, to nurture a vital identity and to wonder at the identities of others.

Within the pages of Speaking of Faithone finds a spiritual autobiography. “Faith” is not some pie-in-the-sky idea for Tippett. She understands the damage caused by religion, but she nevertheless avoids the extraordinary reductionism of the new atheism, that “religion poisons everything.” Her conversation partners, writes Tippett, have insisted “on an honest appraisal of the destructive energies alive in their faiths.” There needs to be a “nuanced appraisal,” she continues, “one intelligent enough to take the time and care to unravel extremism from devotion, to distinguish between what is ideological and what is human.”

The questions that concern Tippett are as universal as they are personal. They are as much for her benefit as they are for her listeners and readers, and they emerge from a lifetime exposure to a world of ideas. Tippett, the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist minister and the daughter of an Oklahoma Democrat, began her thoughtful journey from her earliest years. She experienced the world of the Cold War first hand in Berlin, believing that “all of the important and interesting problems in the world were political, and all of the solutions too.” But faced with the limitations of politics, she returned to America with renewed “hunger for spiritual depth.”

I studied theology to learn whether I could reconcile religious faith with my intelligence and the breadth of my experience in the world—whether faith could illuminate life in all its complexity and passion and frailty. I decided that it can.

In the 1990s, the Christian fundamentalism of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, “largely defined what it meant to be Christian, what religious people sound like and advocate.” But, says Tippett, it was 9/11 that made it “possible to argue that religion was at the root of the world’s worst problems.”

Despite the explosive rhetoric that followed 9/11, Tippett—through her experience—is able lead the reader and listener to a calmer place, past the stereotypes that contribute to the polarlization. Take, for example, the grotesque image conjured up by the word “fundamentalism.” A number of years ago, Martin E. Marty led a now famous study on the nature(s) of fundamentalism(s), known as The Fundamentalism Project. His important five volume work, however, has yet to end this complex discussion or resolve the confusion resulting from popular uses of the term. Historians and sociologists continue to look for the best way to describe a phenomenon that, like Justice Stewart’s explanation of pornography, is not something easily defined, but something we know when we see it. George M. Marsden defined a fundamentalist as “an evangelical who is angry about something” (Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism; 19991:1). He has had the privilege of seeing his clever words quoted in nearly every book on the subject since then. Tippett offers an explanation which, though not as humorous, is nevertheless far more nuanced:

It is easy to argue that in the post-9/11 world, violent religious fundamentalism is at the root of some of the world’s worst crises. But here again, I want to challenge some common generalizations and angles of approach. I define a fundamentalist as anyone who not only has the answers for himself, but has them for all the rest of us too [emphasis mine]. Fundamentalism is a peculiarly potent form of flight from modernity…It is always a reaction, born of a perceived assault on one’s most basic identity and values…But I’ve come to understand it as an extreme manifestation of a more basic instinct alive in our culture, mundane and universal—that defensive grasp at certainties stoked by the bewildering complexity of the age in which we live. Moral libertarians and secular analysts can be as derisively dismissive as religious moral conservatives. A fundamentalist temptation, both secular and religious, accompanies twenty-first century tumult and runs across the spectrum of our beliefs.

As one can see from Tippett’s analysis, there is a reason why fundamentalism seems to have a universal application. Tippett is willing to look past the surface and apply common sense—a standard for her approach—and from this the reader benefits.

As I write this, however, I can imagine certain conservative friends scratching their heads. Really? You liked this book? Yes, I did. Of course, Tippett’s volume does not lose us in a maze of metaphysics (though some of us enjoy that sort thing) nor does it trap us in the muddy waters of a theological swamp. Most of us can do that on our own. Rather, by “faith” and questions of eternity, Tippett is not concerned with something as clinical as a systematic theology. She is not concerned with supralapsarianism versus infralapsarianism, nor does she feel compelled to ask questions like, “can you really be a baptist if you don’t hold exactly to the 1689 Confession?” (If you’re Presbyterian change it to the Westminster Confession of Faith.) Tippett’s world is very different from that, and I’m thankful for it.

Religion, for her, is a broader discussion that sounds somewhat like J.B. Phillips, who wondered if the Christian kept “his faith wrapped in a napkin as a precious thing and apart; or does he allow every discovery of the truth to enlarge his conception of the God behind this immensely complex universe? And does he then marvel and adore the infinite wisdom and power, which so humbly descends to human stature?” (Watch For the Light; 2004). All truth is God’s truth. Tippett is still exploring this truth, so the reader should not expect a final solution. Rather, what appeals to me about Tippett is the sense that she expects to spend the rest of her life exploring these issues. Life is, as the saying goes, “more about the journey than the destination.” In Praise of Folly, Erasmus puzzled over the ability of clergy to write about the details of hell as if they spent the majority of their lives there. Like Erasmus, Tippet has a good sense of how little human beings know in the grand scheme of things and that does not frighten her.

The idea that “all truth is God’s truth” is an important one for Christians and always relevant. In the long history of Christianity, this perspective has served as a basis for inquiry into the minds of Plato and Aristotle. It allowed Cyril and Methodius to dialogue with Muslims and Jews without fear. There have always been limitations to this principle in Christendom, and it has never served as an opening for the unqualified freedom of inquiry—just ask Origen or Martin Luther. I understand the comfort one can find in “knowing everything.” There is something reassuring about having your ducks in a row (and everyone else’s as well). It can give a person the confidence he or she needs to face a crazy and dangerous world. But then again, without some measure of humility, it can be easy to miss what else there is to learn about God.

Like Tippett, however, I don’t mean being willing to learn strictly from other Christians alone; I believe that religion and culture can be too intertwined, sometimes to the point where what is eternal is nearly impossible to separate from what is earthly. By listening to the voices of others, we have a better chance at discovering what is divine and what is simply conventional in the disguise of religion.

The Apostle Paul had no problem finding truth about God in poetry about Zeus: “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring'” (Acts 17:28). (I don’t get the impression that Paul learned pagan poetry simply so he could sound smart when he closed his sermons with it.) Centuries later, Jonathan Edwards understood that while the Reformation brought with it renewed knowledge of God’s grace and even the natural world around us, it did not, however, mean the end of learning. He believed that new scientific discoveries and philosophical conclusions would improve the doctrines of the Reformation. He looked to those that belonged not only outside of his Reformed Christian tradition (John Locke, for example), but also outside of his religion altogether (such as, Philo and Maimonides). Though not all religions were equal for Edwards—he found salvation only in Christ—and though he often had an apologetical intent in mind—using prisca theologia to answer the deists, for example—Edwards nevertheless sought out books like Daniel Defoe’s Dictionarium Sacrum, or a Dictionary of All Religions Antient and Modern(1704) and John Lockman’s Travels of the Jesuits (1743). He wanted to learn about the traditions of the world, because he believed that there was something divine to be found in them. That human beings are created in God’s image and that all persons benefit from common grace, creates a world fresh with possibilities. Jesus, after all, said that those he called “evil” knew how to give good gifts to their children (Mt. 7:11).

This does not eliminate the human condition. Greed, anger, malice—all our inherent and depraved maladies—present any number of bad influences on our souls. Nevertheless, human traits, good or bad, are not limited to the Christian or Muslim. Pandita Ramabai, for example, understood the inquity and evil in the practice of sati and sought to change it, long before she discovered Christ. In her article, “Finding Grace in Fiction,” (Modern Reformation; July/August: 2007) Mindy Withrow, writes that literature “is a rewarding place to look for God’s gift of common grace. Believers and unbelievers alike demonstrate breathtaking powers of perception and communication.” Tippett does not divide the world into these categories, at least not as mainline Christians would, but she understands the universal contributions of human beings to our understanding of this world and our existence.

One might see Tippett as a practical theologian. She asks the important questions, though I suspect that not all will see it that way. When discussing theodicy, for example, she writes that “as a child of the Enlightenment, the problem of needless and wanton suffering in the world stood in the way of my giving in completely to faith. There is no proving that God exists. But the magnitude of suffering in the world is the most logical of arguments against that notion.” So where does she find insight? Tippet turns to Margaret Spufford, an English medieval historian who found “natural evil”—that is, the pain of debilitating health for she and her daughter—to be a dominant and dark force in her life. Spufford’s ability to trust in God came from the message of the incarnation of Christ. She reasoned that she could not worship a God who “had not himself cried, ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?'”

Lastly, after Tippett digests her life lessons and discoveries in Speaking of Faith, she argues for the value of mystery in religion. She admits that what she calls mystery might be understood by others as a “cover for relativism.” Nevertheless, she says she finds “that mystery is a word people of every tradition love, whether they speak it often or not.” With mystery, she writes, “the conversation gentles.” Tippett is comfortable with believing while also knowing that “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.” In this sense, her book does not end. She bemoans not having enough words to tell her story and the reader will not find everything wrapped up nice and sweet. But then again, that is truer to life.

There are those that would, as Tippett noted, see her work as a rejection of truth in favor of relativism.  Her broad use of the word “faith” does not entirely capture the diversity of religious conviction. As Stephen Prothero once wrote in his Newsweek article from July 2007, “At least since the first petals of the counterculture bloomed across the United States in the 1960s, it has been fashionable to affirm that all religions are beautiful—and all are true. The proof text for this happy affirmation comes, appropriately enough, from the Hindu Vedas rather than the Christian Bible: ‘Truth is one, the sages call it by many names.'” Tippett is not saying all religions are the same, mind you. She is far from that, but the less critical reader might miss that point when confronted with such an affirming voice that stands in stark contrast against a world of harsh words.

The reader, however, might keep in mind that Tippett is willing to take the unreconcilable differences that appear to have elements of truth and put them in the category of mystery. All truth is God’s truth, but, says Tippett, affirming the words of the Apostle Paul, we need to remember that in this life, we see through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12).


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