Friday, September 25, 2009

The crusader against insufficient questions and answers

Just finished reading Krista Tippett's book Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters--and How to Talk about It. The author hosts the weekly American Public Media's progam Speaking of Faith, which airs at 7:00am in the Philly area, so I rarely catch it--or if I do, it's usually the tail end. I usually try to sleep a bit later on Sundays. However, Tippett certainly know how to talk about religion. I don't know how to describe her style -- sort of rapturous metaphysical reality. Her writing sometimes bears the reader up on a warm, sensuous wave; other times it jolts the reader awake with a cold splash of truth expressed in surprising terms. Here are a few of her jeweled expressions:

Silence, embraced, stuns with its presence, its pregnant reality--a reality that does not negate reason and argument, but puts them in their place.

My mother tongue was Christianity.

I learned to be wary that summer of a pious approach to life that saw good intentions and righteous prayer as substitutes for planning and pragmatic action. This way of faith only deepened the despair it was called to heal.

This sentence could easily be entitled "The seeker's manifesto":

I have become a crusader against insufficient questions and answers that stand in, prematurely and destructively, for both justice and mystery.

[religious moderation contrasted with fanaticism]
Developing eyes and ears for moderation does not mean denying the importance of religion in human life. It means inviting and enabling the devout to bring the best of their tradition to bear in the world.

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. Week after week, my conversation partners illuminate the imaginative and pragmatic possibilities of this choice. soon as human beings pick up a piece of the truth, they make their mark on it. They codify and literalize. They distort the rest of the picture to fit their chosen center.

In some mysterious way, "containing" religion [as opposed to a vaguely practiced spirituality] helps us unlock the sacred within us. It enables us to participate in the human encounter with the divine even when our own spirits are dry.

"Thin religion," as [Croation American theologian Miroslav Volf] describes it, is not religion lacking in zeal. It is religiosity reduced to a formula, and this can render the passion behind it very dangerous.

As a journalist I'm deeply aware of how strangely tricky it is to make goodness seem relevant, or at least as perversely thrilling as evil.

On the nature of religious mystery

Mystery resists absolutes.

If mystery is real, even more real than what we can touch with our five senses, uncertainty and ambiguity are blessed. We have to live with that, and struggle with its implications together. Mystery acknowledged is, paradoxically, humanizing.

Introduce mystery into any conversation and the conversation gentles; reality doesn't lose its sharp edges but the sharp edges are not all, not the end.

On our spiritual practice as we get older

I need to discern my tenets of truth constantly, know their texture, revisit and cleave to their assurances as keenly as I feel how they are changing and expanding as I grow older.

And there's a beautiful, startling oxymoron at the heart of this sentence:

From the beginning of my life of listening, I have observed fierce humility as a quality in the lives of people I admire.

This quote from
The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr, situated close to the end of the book, could be the credo of this fearless crusader:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true, or beautiful, or good, makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint; therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness. Reinhold Niebuhr
The Niebuhr quote invites us to let the light of the discerning Spirit shine even on the good that we try to do so that we see it from the perspective of God's eternity. We can not in our lifetime know all the consequences even of our good deeds. We rarely discover a definitive answer or solution to any problem that we tackle. But remembering this will keep us centered in that "fierce humility" described by Tippett.


  1. I love this radio show - I download episodes as MP3s from their website. Krista Tippett's book has many memorable passages. The supporting website is a wonderful resource, I often prefer to listen to the unedited interviews. I really enjoyed the Parker Palmer episode.

    Did you hear/see the stage show she did, reading from her book? Download the full hour's performance or watch the streaming video at -


  2. Thanks for the link to the stage reading!

    I have to start downloading Tippett's interviews instead of old Peter Paul & Mary songs :-)


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