A few months ago, Cathy Lynn Grossman spotted American Public Radio Krista Tippett’s transition from “Speaking of Faith” to “Kristen Tippett on Being.” Apparently Tippett’s name was a bigger draw than “faith,” or something like that. Now Tippett is plugging her show on CNN’s Belief blog.
I confess I don’t regularly listen to her show because my precious iPod time is usually spent with other shows. She has struck me in the past as someone who wants to sing kumbaya instead of asking really interesting, provocative questions. In her CNN promo, Tippett seems to suggest that “faith” is not a helpful term, just as “peace” and “justice” are “not effective shorthand or inviting rallying cries.”
Religious voices have been some of the most toxic in global life in recent decades. Bombs explode in the name of Islam. Christian rhetoric fuels culture wars. There is a chasm between these expressions of religion and the lived virtue their texts and traditions demand.
One of the things that drew me to the new name of my radio program, On Being, is that it has profound philosophical and theological roots–and at the same time, it is profoundly hospitable. Hospitality is one of the great overarching virtues of all our traditions, more immediately achievable than peace, forgiveness, or compassion.
Am I wrong about my kumbaya claim? How does “being” mean “hospitable”? One might argue that “being” could be void of value, that you can’t necessarily give it virtuous meaning.
She told Grossman, “It does feel risky but I feel Being will be a more spacious container for this show.” But since when is “being” become more spacious than “faith”?
I understand that she might want to make people who don’t believe in any religion feel welcome, but she could easily do that by changing the show to “Speaking of Faith and Being.” Instead, she completely nixes “faith” as something worth talking about because it’s polarizing.
American culture’s encounter with the ethical and spiritual challenges of our time has unfolded along similar lines. There is a convergence of searching questions, strong identities, and communal commitments that long for discussion and shared action not only across religious boundaries but across boundaries of belief and non-belief.
“Faith” has its place in that, but it is too limiting a word even to describe the Christian contribution to it.
And letting go of a word, after all, doesn’t mean letting go of its content. It frees and compels us, rather, to find fresh, vivid language to communicate the deepest sense of our convictions.
On the other hand, “being” doesn’t really seem to capture the same idea as “faith,” since it carries a passive connotation that someone simply exists. People who believe in God, Mohammed, Jesus, etc. aren’t just “being.” Many of them are actively trying to figure out what it means to be a Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, or something else. “Being” doesn’t seem to parse out how a religious belief system manifests itself.
Tippett obviously has a specific audience and is trying to accomplish something particular for her radio program that doesn’t necessarily cover news or religion per se. My concern is that this might reflect a larger feeling among journalists that “religion” and/or “faith” is icky because it’s controversial. Many then opt for a more comfortable term like “spiritual people.” This occasionally captures a group of people, but since when did “religion” or “faith” become a dirty word?
Similarly, many religion reporters express excitement when they see interfaith dialogue or peaceful conversation between religions. Yes, that can be newsworthy, especially when there are unusual suspects involved. But tension among religions is also worth covering because it’s called news. Complain about the Huffington Post all you want, but it seems to be one of the only major online outlets to have “religion” as a main category on its home page. Web editors: take note!
Religion is why some churches break apart, why we see generational divides, and, in some cases, why we see violence. Wars are sometimes fought over religion, and conversely, intentionally nonreligious people can create conflict. If you dig at a story’s roots, you can often find faith in the mix.
Religion does not always create tension and it often motivates people to do incredible things. Religion can motivate people to give to the poor, to stay faithful to their spouse, to swap their annual vacation to build a hospital in Haiti. You can look to countries like Rwanda as an example of where religion has played an important part of reconciliation.
Tippett seems to offer “being” as some sort of neutral, common or “hospitable” ground for people to dialogue with each other. On the intro page, she offers examples of the questions she might address: “What does it mean to be human? What matters in a life? What matters in a death? How to love? How to be of service to each other and to the world?” It seems as though she has widened her angle to the point where anything and everything goes, which is fine if she was getting bored with religion, but I don’t know why I would go to Tippett’s show particularly to listen to someone talk about these ideas. She concludes her post by saying:
On Being, as a conversation starter, holds out hope, for me, of a bolder demonstration that the extreme choices between nihilistic atheist and unthinking religious don’t fit most of us. Perhaps, in our search for the new vocabulary to express who we are becoming, we will reintroduce our deepest longings and virtues to each other and to the world.
She seems to frame “being” as a superior to religion or “faith,” but merely “being” is generally not what motivates many people to do things outside of the norm. We argue time and time again that religion itself is newsworthy, which is why Krista Tippett’s marketing move probably won’t work for journalists who cover challenging and compelling stories.