November 4th, 2010
07:00 AM ET
By Krista Tippett, Special to CNN
Since I left print journalism to study theology two decades ago, I’ve thought a great deal about the limits and possibilities of words - especially when we try to navigate the spiritual territory of human life.
And when I started a public radio program on religion, ethics and meaning seven years ago, I was also quite aware that I was inviting people to put words around something as intimate as anything we try to talk about, and as ultimately ineffable.
Nevertheless, to paraphrase St. Augustine, we speak in order not to remain silent. We are fin de siècle, turn of century, people – charged with revisiting basic definitions of life, death, and meaning; we are restructuring our families, institutions, and economies. Our common life needs all the edifying vocabulary and virtues we can muster.
There’s an obvious irony here.
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.
And I’ve been pleased and at times surprised by the open-hearted, open-minded correspondence I’ve had with Christian leaders – including theological conservatives - about losing the show’s former name, Speaking of Faith.
They struggle personally with the fact that “faith” does not carry the complex resonance it has in lives of devotion when it is transplanted to the public square. A Pentecostal leader wrote to me of his regret that the word “faith” has become “neuralgic” – a source of recurrent pain - in American life.
Evangelical leaders have told me about the “embarrassment” they experience among the young in their communities - young evangelicals have used this very word with me too – about the way “faith” became a blunt instrument in American politics in recent years, flattened out into positions and debates, a primary source of animosity.
There is grief behind these sentiments too, a sadness that a term so rich in meaning for so many should become an obstacle to exploring that very meaning. I understand that sadness and share it.
When we launched our radio program in 2003, I insisted against resistance that public radio had to claim an explicit stake in the “faith” discussion, demonstrating that this part of life too could be discussed with intelligence alongside politics, culture and economics. That conviction remains at the heart of my project.
But my cumulative conversation has evolved to cover religious ideas and questions less in a distinct compartment in society, and more as they infuse all of our pursuits and disciplines.
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.
A turning point for me around this decision to change our name was a day I spent last spring at Harvard Divinity School. In a discussion about the future of “progressive Christianity,” it became necessary to name the fact that the word “progressive” itself is at once vague and fraught in public discourse, not an adequate vessel for the contribution its passionate adherents want to make.
So, too, words like “peace” and “justice” have taken on political connotations and political divisiveness. They are not effective shorthand or inviting rallying cries. Yet across boundaries of belief and non-belief, so many of us long to pursue the substance those words were coined to signify.
Being is the word I’m throwing into the mix. What does it mean to be human? And how do we want to live?
These are fundamental, animating questions behind the human religious and spiritual impulse. Our great traditions are vast repositories of thinking and prayer, text and ritual, and conversation across generations about them.
But these questions are not exclusive to religious people. Atheists and agnostics are among the most ethically engaged people in our culture now, some of the most vigorous spiritual seekers.
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.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Krista Tippett.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.