My graduate studies in public discourse last spring brought the point home once again: Speaking about religious faith in contemporary North America is an activity fraught with challenge, misunderstanding, and polarization. Listening to others speak about faith in a meaningful way is no less difficult.
The 30 of us spent four hours together each Thursday evening for ten weeks reading texts on major public-discourse issues, including war, the working poor, gender, inequality in public education, and the environment, among others. By no means was there unanimity on any of these subjects, but we took them up without strain, in vigorous but respectful and effective dialogue. Then came religion.
In our class discussion on religious faith, responding to Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being and Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, polarization and anxiety kicked in like a full-force gale. I found myself wishing that American Public Media host and author Krista Tippett were in the room with us, moderating the conversation, asking probing yet measured questions, drawing out the stories behind our own belief systems, and reflecting back her own insights from a theologically trained perspective. Alas, that didn’t happen, but we have the next best thing: Tippet’s book Speaking of Faith.
Writing at a website devoted to the weekly radio program that carries the same name (www.speakingoffaith.org), Tippett says, “The first-person approach behind ‘Speaking of Faith’ sidesteps the predictable minefields and opens the subject wide, making it inviting, both in ambiance and substance. It insists that people speak straight from the experience behind their own personal beliefs. How did they come to hold the truths they hold? How are religious insights given depth and nuance by the complexities of life?”