July 25, 2007
It has been a great adventure creating Speaking of Faith – and creating it during years in which religion has moved from the sidelines to the forefront on American life and world affairs. Though in 1998, when I first proposed that public radio should have an intelligent, in-depth program about religion, I encountered a nearly overwhelming skepticism. At that time – as you will all remember, I suspect – a few strident voices had galvanized American media imagination about who Christians are, and what they sound like and advocate. In those years many people who heard my idea couldn’t really imagine such a thing as “intelligent” religious discussion. They couldn’t imagine that we could invite people to speak from their deepest places without proselytizing or excluding or making lots of listeners angry. Then September 11 happened. Bitter moral values debates escalated in U.S. politics and religion. In the circles in which I work, it was now arguable that religion was at the root of all of the world’s worst problems.
Why this chasm between the essence and purpose of religion in general and Christianity in particular – and their effect on our public life? This is a question that has driven me and shaped my work these past years. It is a great Christian and ecumenical challenge I believe – and a source of great confusion and longing for the Next Generation, which is the theme you’ve chosen for this year.
We can of course fault some of those strident religious voices for the disrepute into which religious speech has fallen in our lifetimes. But at a deeper level, I think, we simply haven’t had adequate models for bringing the fullness of religious ideas and questions into our common spaces. Traditional journalistic approaches and political formats are especially poorly suited to drawing out the intellectual and spiritual content of faith. They make the humble sound trivial, and deliver inordinate play to strident voices who are willing to squeeze themselves into political boxes of adversarial debate. It is very hard for people of faith to express their ideas in an adversarial forum without betraying the very spirit of what motivates them. Of course every idea of substance – political as well as religious – is simplified by an opinion poll driven, pro and con, crossfire mentality. But the content and effect of religious faith is especially distorted – and sometimes rendered dangerous – when it is reduced to positions and soundbites delivered by people who are set to speak for all Christians, for all Muslims, for God.
On Speaking of Faith, I insist that my guests – however influential and devout they may be – speak only for themselves. This is a discipline I learned at the Ecumenical Institute in Collegeville. They call it “the first person approach” to ecumenical dialogue, and I’ve adapted it for radio conversation across the world’s traditions. This sounds simple, but it has the effect of defusing predictable minefields. There is a profound difference between hearing someone say, this is THE truth, and hearing someone say, This is my truth. I can disagree with your opinions, I can disagree with your doctrines. I can’t disagree with your experience. The more we can put human faces and stories and voices to our religious claims, the better we will be able to stay in conversation and relationship – even with those at a very different place on the spectrum of beliefs. My guests are theologians and scientists, poets and activists, parents and police officers. We trace a powerful and humbling and creative line between religious ideas and human experience – theology and real life. This kinds of conversation illustrate – rather than arguing – that religious voices can reframe and nourish and deepen our public discernment on all the important issues before us.
So – a few examples. I think of John Polkinghorne. He is a physicist who also became a theologian in mid-life. Some of my favorite interviews are with scientists. Over these past years they have opened up for me a world of conversation – a give and take – between science and religion, that is fascinating and far more generous than, for example, an either/or choice between evolution and creation – that has even made its way into this year’s presidential debates. John Polkinghorne looks to the cutting edge insights of quantum physics and chaos theory illuminate his understanding of Christian truths. He sees a universe that is “supple” and “subtle” and imagines these as qualities of God. Polkinghorne says this: God did something more clever than create a readymade world; God made a world that can continually create itself.
I think also of a conversation I had with Major John Morris, a chaplain in the U.S. Army who told me about his experience in Iraq, of standing before a bridge across the Euphrates where the charred body parts of four American contracters had been hung for display. Fury consumed him, along with a certainty that the people who did this did not deserve to live. They were animals. He would be the agent of God, the wrath of God. As that conviction seized him, he understood that he was at an abyss that would render him capable of the very actions he hated. “God help me and have mercy on me,” he prayed. “Save me from becoming a debased, immoral human being, and save my soldiers as well.” Prayers like this, theology like this, belong in our common life.
One of the phrases that recurs most often in my interviews – from Jewish as well as non-Jewish voices – is the moral longing and commandment to “repair the world”, Tikkun Olam. In the beginning, Hasidic legend goes, something happened to shatter the light of the universe into countless pieces. They lodged as sparks inside every part of the creation. The highest human calling is to look for this original light from where we sit, to point to it and gather it up and in so doing to repair the world. This can sound like an idealistic and fanciful tale. But Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, who told it to me as her Hasidic grandfather told it to her, calls it an important and empowering story for our time. It insists that each one of us, flawed and inadequate as we may feel, has exactly what’s needed to help repair the part of the world that we can see and touch. Religious traditions offer up stories like this as practical tools to a world longing to address images of suffering that can otherwise overwhelm us. Our public life needs moral vocabulary like this, just as seriously as it needs sophisticated language for political and military and economic analysis.
In some sense, I think, the vast religious energy and curiosity of our age – the religious energy and curiosity of this next generation – is about putting politics and the news into perspective; about acknowledging that the facts and the headlines always only tell us partial truths. We can construct factual accounts and systems from DNA, gross national product, legal code – but they don’t begin to tell us how to order our astonishments, what matters in a life, what matters in a death, how to love, how we can be of service to one another.
And for every strident and violent religious voice that throws itself in front of microphones and cameras, there are countless lives of gentleness and integrity and service who will not. That simply reflects another natural shortcoming of politics and its bearers, the news. The issues and headlines of the day are usually the problems of the day. Reporters focus on what is wrong, they don’t shed sustained light on what is good and right. We all of us have to find new ways in and beyond journalism to edify and embolden ourselves and others – to bridge that chasm between the spirit of faith and its effect on our common life. I believe that some of our most critical and overlooked tools are among the lived virtues that underpin our words and beliefs and give them their force in human life.
In the few minutes before I close, I’d like to name a few practices and sensibilities that emerge across my conversations. I’ve come to associate these with the most hopeful contribution religious and spiritual traditions and people can make to our common life – while staying deeply rooted in our own identities and witnessing to those alongside religious others.
The first virtue I’d name is hospitality. A few years ago I conducted a live interview in Washington D.C., at the National Cathedral, with the Croation-American theologian Miroslav Volf. His theology has been formed in crucible of his homeland in which in his lifetime as in the past different Christians have waged war in the name of God. He’s studied the role of religion both in creating and in redressing not just division but violence all over the world. He calls such violence the result of an “ethic of exclusion” which emerges from a shallow reading of Christian tradition. He says that the cure for religious zealotry in our world of all kinds is not less religion, but more religion – or rather, stronger and more intelligent practices of faith.
In a question and answer period that followed our public conversation, someone asked Miroslav Volf a question that I hear a great deal, it’s on many peoples minds: What can people of the three monotheistic traditions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – find in common to heal the rifts between their peoples?
I think we all expected Miroslav Volf to speak about how three monotheistic traditions can come together around their common belief in one God, or a shared reverence for sacred text. But the truth is, as he reminded us trying to reconcile these commonalities is excruciatingly hard; what is most obvious is also most impossible – like why can’t Christians just celebrate communion and baptism together? Here was Volf’s alternative suggestion: we couldn’t do better than to start in our approach to each other by way of our shared virtue of hospitality. Think about that. Hospitality is hard to politicize or even to theologize. It is a hands-on, human extension of deep ethical commitments of our great traditions. It doesn’t require us to agree with each other. It requires us to be kind, and generous. It requires us to go beyond the civic virtue of tolerance, and take seriously the more exacting commandments of Christianity in particular, of practical love of neighbor and of enemy. Listen to this verse of the Qur’an – a seminal textual passage that’s been quoted to me by a number of Muslims in different contexts. “In humankind,” Qur’an says, “God has created you male and female and made you into diverse nations and tribes so that you may come to know each other.”
The second virtue I’d name for our common good is both a precursor and an effect of hospitality: It ishumility. I’ve heard this word and seen it embodied in such intriguing ways. For many, it is a litmus test of spiritual integrity. A Pentecostal sociologist said to me, that an attitude of humility is a sign she’s come to trust in determining whether it is really the voice of God someone is hearing and heeding. Former Senator John Danforth told me that a sense of humility could make all the difference to whether the continued expression of religion in American politics grows more divisive or more constructive. On the subject of gay marriage, I interviewed two evangelical Christians who love the same Bible and have come to very different theologies. But Richard Mouw and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott agreed with one voice that the measure of our Christianity on this issue has as much to do with how we treat each other as with the positions we take. Richard Mouw – who believes the church should not sanction same-sex marriages – nevertheless calls for a sense of “sexual humility” among conservatives and liberals as we discuss this aspect of human life that is complex beyond measure for all of us.
Now I need to clarify that the Christian notion of humility has very different connotations for me from the way this word has come into the 21st Century American culture. I grew up dismissing humility as a sure route to being ineffective. As a woman, it holds a particular resonance of subservience and invisibility. Even when I studied theology and learned to value the great nuances of the New Testament, I was frankly puzzled by the teachings of Jesus that his disciples should become humble like a little child. And then, I gave birth to a little child. I became a mother. I passionately believe that we are all theologians and that the raw material for our theology is given to us in the basic experiences of our lives. And I know of no richer source of theological enlightenment than parenting. As I watched my daughter move through the world, I began to imagine what Jesus was talking about. The humility of a child, moving through the world discovering everything anew, is closely linked with delight. Spiritual humility is not about debasing oneself; it is about approaching everything and everyone with a sense of curiosity and wonder. Spiritual humility has a quality of fearlessness, too, that I first recognized in monastics who inspired me. I’ve since experienced spiritual humility in a vast far-flung communion of saints of many faiths and no faiths at all.
Spiritual humility makes room for mystery. And a respect for mystery is the final religious insight I’d like to name this evening as a potentially vital contribution to our public life. At their orthodox cores, most religious traditions themselves ask us to hold a sense of earthly certainties and transcendant mystery in a creative tension.
But a sense of mystery is the crux of religion that is almost always missing in our public expressions of religion. Mystery evaporates beneath debates and sound bites and entrenched positions. Mystery resists arguments and absolutes; it can hold truth, compassion, and possibility in relationship. This relationship could redeem our literalistic, triumphalist civic and religious debates. We could disagree passionately with each other and also be tempered by an awareness that there are limits to our own understanding. If mystery is a fact of human existence, uncertainty and ambivalence are blessed. And I believe that uncertainty and ambivalence are what many of us hold as we ponder some of the deep and contentious issues that our age is called to address.
I find that “mystery” is a word people of every tradition love, whether they speak it often or not. It is a word many agnostics hold in higher regard perhaps than some religious people. Introduce mystery into any conversation and the conversation gentles; reality doesn’t lose its sharp edges but we remember that the sharp edges are not the whole story. Some would say that a sense of mystery is precisely the engine of religious violence – that religious people can claim to answer only to transcendent truths and be released from earthly norms of justice. But fanaticism is more flagrantly dismissive of mystery than any degree of non-belief.
Others might say that I’m proposing mystery as a cover for relativism. That if we treat mystery as a primary value, we might suggest all truths are equal and all convictions relative and that’s not good for our common life either. But I know in myself and in my conversation partners that we are all driven to discern truths, each of us with the raw materials of the life that we’ve been given. I need to discern my tenets of truth constantly, to cleave to their assurances as keenly as I feel how they change and expand as I grow older. But I know, that this truth I seek is ultimate; I exist in time and space.
Again it’s a scientist who gave me my best analogy for living this way. The geneticist Lyndon Eaves is also an Anglican priest. Juggling these two sides of himself, he says he’s come to the conclusion that the spirituality of the scientist is akin to that of a mystic. It is a constant endeavor to discern truth while staying open to everything we do not yet, can not yet, know. It is to live boldly and assertively with the discoveries we’ve made and the truths we’ve formed, all the while anticipating greater wisdom still to come – and wanting to hear how others might enlarge our perspective.
I often have a sense that my conversation partners and I are standing before the same mystery. At the very least, we are asking the same large questions of meaning. I’d like to leave you this evening with a sense of challenge: that the 21st Century is calling each of us to more creative expression and application of the fullness of our humanity and belief, in private as well as our public spaces. We can, I believe, embrace this boldly – as a great adventure – with our intelligence and faith intact.