Speaking of Faith by Krista Tippett – book review

Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters—And How to Talk About It

Having heard Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith radio program a few times, I couldn’t resist buying the book when I saw it in the discount bin at Borders.  The subtitle to the book, Why Religion Matters—And How to Talk About It, is an issue that’s been on my mind recently.  In traveling to many countries around the world, I have the opportunity to talk to a lot of people of different religious backgrounds: Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists among others.  I enjoy talking about religion, but I have internalized the American adage that it’s something you don’t talk about in polite company.  So this book really caught my attention.

Tippett comes from a unique background as the granddaughter of a Midwestern Baptist preacher she was close to and the daughter of irreligious parents.  She moved away from religion in her teens and college years because it didn’t fit her intellectual paradigm, only to be pulled back to it later in life.  A few years ago she began her Speaking of Faith radio program where she interviews preachers and scientists, believers and doubters, poets and statisticians, all to get a wide variety of perspectives on religion.  These are great interviews because these people are intelligent people talking personally.  Even if you don’t agree with them, the environment is so judgment free that you get real feelings on a range of topics.  She also brings a lot of her personal life into the conversation.

The great meat of the book is, first, its emphasis of the importance of religion in the lives of billions of people, and how that can’t be discounted from a personal (micro) or geo-political (macro) perspective.  The second important emphasis is on the personal-ness of religion, and how we can share religion and talk about it as a personal thing, and that we should not feel imposing or imposed upon as personal and spiritual feelings and stories are shared.

It was a really good read that made me more willing and desirous to talk about religion with others.  It even made me understand my own internal faith better.

There were also some great quotes from the book:

Citing (but not quoting) Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “We’ve pushed God to the boundaries, he wrote, where the rest of our knowledge gives out.  We’ve consigned God to the gaps in our scientific understanding, to the wings of our action.  We’ve reserved prayer for when our best efforts fail.”

“[J]ust as worlds of human dignity flourished beneath the East[ern Bloc]’s surface of want, there were layers of human want beneath the surface of Western plenty that I was engaged in defending.  Communism crushed many souls, but it ennobled others.  Capitalism did the same, but with preferable, subtler devices.”

Quoting Luke Timothy Johnson from an interview: “The notion of scripture as being a cadaver that one performs an autopsy on—as opposed to a living body with which one danced—was stunning to me.”

“The human spirit eventually defies the best-laid plans of politics, and we can guess so little of the history before us.”

Quoting John Polkinghorne from an interview: “…God is not a god in a hurry. That’s clear. God is patient and subtle. God works through process and not through magic; not through snapping the divine fingers. And I think that’s what we learn from seeing the history of creation as science has revealed it, and I think that tells us something about how God acts generally. And, when you think about it, if God really is a God whose nature is best described as being the God of love, then that is how love will work. Not by overwhelming force, but by, if you like, persuasive process. So I think we learn something really quite valuable from that. Again, it’s an example of how religious insights about the nature of God and the scientific insights about the process of the world seem to me actually to be very consonant with each other. You can’t deduce one from the other, but you can see it and they fit together in a way that makes sense. They don’t seem to be at odds with each other, and I find that encouraging.”

Also from Polkinghorne: “[A] chemist can take [a] beautiful painting, could analyze every scrap of paint on the canvas, tell you what its chemical composition was, would incidentally destroy the painting by doing that, but would have missed the point of the painting. . . .”

“Science, like religion, is about questions more than about answers—questions and more questions that meet every new answer as soon as it is hatched.”

“[S]cience is neither innately concerned nor equipped to pose questions of ‘why’ or ‘what next’ in a moral, spiritual, or existential sense.”

“[E]ven the best answers of science and religion can become idols, blocking our view of the complexity of what it means to be human.”

Quoting Rainer Maria Rilke: “Love is perhaps the most difficult task given us, the most extreme, the final proof and test, the work for which all other work is only preparation.”

Quoting Thomas Merton: “One of the moral diseases we communicate to one another in society comes from huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask.”

Citing Roberta Bondi: “God . . . sees us with a great deal more allowance for our humanity than we ever make for each other or for ourselves.”

Quoting Karen Armstrong from an interview: “. . . God is not just a bigger and better version of ourselves writ large, with our likes and dislikes, but a reality that is entirely different.”

Quoting Alexis de Toqueville: “. . . I am certain that [Americans] hold [faith and religion] to be indispensible to the maintenance of republican institutions.  This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.”

“A certain compartmentalization of private reverence from public activity . . . was not sustainable with human nature.”

Quoting Adam Smith: ““The poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition, admires the condition of the rich. It appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings, and, in order to arrive at it, he devotes himself forever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness. Through the whole of his life, he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose, which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquility that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age, he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it. Power and riches appear, then, to be what they are, enormous machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniences to the body. They are immense fabrics, which it requires the labor of a life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which, while they stand, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much and sometimes more exposed than before to anxiety, to fear and to sorrow, to diseases, to danger and to death.”

Quoting Yossi Klein Halevi: “You can’t outhate a fundamentalist.  They will win.”

“Kindness—an everyday by-product of all the great virtues—is at once the simplest and most weighty discipline human beings can practice.”

“[P]eople who bring light into the world wrench it out of darkness and contend openly with darkness all of their lives.”

“Our love for our children is often defined by the fact that we cannot spare them pain and save them; that we give them their freedom as necessary steps to creativity, wisdom, and love; that we raise them for the world they go on to create.”

One Reply to “Speaking of Faith by Krista Tippett – book review”

  1. Thanks, Dave.

    I’ve been reading a lot about the Reformation and the beginnings of the European Enlightenment. The fear or different ideas, whether scientific or religious, drove so much violence and death. I’ve been making similar comment to students that Polkinghorne does: essentially, science has as its purpose to understand and investigate the “how” of life. It can say nothing about the “why”. Religion really doesn’t pretend to be able to answer the “how” of things (like how the universe came into being), but it has answers to the “why”.

    Until we realize that God knows infinitely more than any of us can imagine and we let our arrogance affect the way we treat others, we will be living inconsistently with His “why” for us.

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