Why Religion Matters
by Krista Tippett

Reform Judaism magazine Summer 2008We can’t compare faith flatly to reason and declare it intellectually inferior. Its territory is the drama of human life, where art is more precise than science....

Some say that religion is the cause of our worst divisions, and a threat to democracy and civilization. The truth is more broadly and deeply rooted in the human psyche and spirit.

The great religious traditions have survived across millennia because they express insights that human beings have repeatedly found to be true. But they are containers for those insights—fashioned and carried forward by human beings, and therefore prone to every passion and frailty of the human condition. Religions become entangled with human identity, and there is nothing more intimate and volatile than that. Our sacred traditions should help us live more thoughtfully, generously, and hopefully with the tensions of our age. But to grasp that, we must look anew at the very nature of faith.

I reject the kind of sweeping prognostication that has become popular in recent years and fueled fear and paranoia: doomsday scenarios of impeding theocracy, phrases like a “clash of civilizations.” I’m drawn to what I call “the vast middle” between the poles of competing religious certainties that have hijacked our cultural discourse. In the vast middle, faith is as much about questions as it is about answers. It is possible to be a believer and a listener at the same time, to be both fervent and searching, to honor the truth of one’s own convictions and the mystery of the convictions of others. The context of most religious virtue is relationship—practical love in families and communities, and care for the suffering and the stranger beyond the bounds of one’s own identity. These qualities of religion should enlarge, not narrow, our public conversation about all of the important issues before us. They should reframe it.

I was born on the night John F. Kennedy was elected president. So I arrived more or less with the ’60s, but too late to experience the underlying hope and whimsy of the times. I came of age to the unraveling of dreams. My earliest public memories, the defining public events of my childhood, are of violence and tragedy attached to admirable faces: John and Robert Kennedy; Martin Luther King, Jr.; young men coming home bloody and broken from Vietnam. I grew up with a strong but deeply conflicted sense of politics as the primary arena of human action—of social power and of human frailty, of light and dark secularized yet of biblical proportions.

In those years Western intellectuals were foretelling and urging the end of religion. As societies grew more technologically advanced and plural, they argued, religion would simply retreat to the private sphere. Perhaps it would disappear altogether. In 1965 Harvard University’s Harvey Cox published his bestseller The Secular City praising the joys of post-religious culture. On April 8, 1966 Time magazine asked on its cover, “Is God Dead?”

For decades religion was not treated seriously by those running governments, writing history, driving industry, and defining the issues. Religion, as Boston University sociologist Peter Berger muses, became something “that was done in private between consenting adults.”

Spiritually, religiously, I was a child of my time. I grew up in Oklahoma, the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist preacher. Through my grandfather I experienced the drama of faith, but my parents had turned their backs on his stern rules for a fallen creation. We went to church on Sunday. Monday through Friday I was raised to win, to perfect myself, and to do so in the American way of accomplishment and accumulation.

I believed then that all of the important and interesting problems in the world were political, and all of the solutions too. And for a while I threw myself body, mind, and spirit at this conviction.

But I changed my mind. There are places in human experience that politics can not analyze or address, and they are among our raw, essential, heartbreaking, and life-giving realities.

In the early 1990s I studied theology to learn whether I could reconcile religious faith with my intelligence and world experience, and whether faith could illuminate life in all its complexity and passion and frailty. I decided that it can. I have found a vast and vivid landscape of others who share this discovery.

The spiritual energy of our time, as I’ve come to understand it, is not a rejection of the rational disciplines by which we’ve ordered our common life for many decades—law, politics, economics, science. It is, rather, a realization that these disciplines have a limited scope. They can’t ask ultimate questions of morality and meaning. 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 each other. These are the kinds of questions religion arose to address, and religious traditions are keepers of conversation across generations about them.

In this handful of years since I began to think and speak about faith in a new way, the world has realigned itself once again. Religion has moved from the sidelines to the center of world affairs and American life. Western pundits, policymakers, and citizens have awakened collectively to the fact that religion never went away. Indeed, it remains a force that animates lives and nations and history—for better or for worse. Religious identities and spiritually fueled passions are shaping this post-Cold War century as ideologies defined the last. And nothing could be more unrealistic—or more dangerous—than the prescription that reasonable people should abandon religion for its sins. For every shrill and violent voice that throws itself in front of microphones and cameras in the name of God, there are countless lives of gentleness and good works who will not. We need to see and hear them, as well.

I’ve come to understand religious texts and traditions as keepers of truth more openhearted and realistic than many of the arguments against them and the practices in their orbit. We have to think about truth and knowledge itself differently—the insights and edges of words and ideas, the richness of their forms—to understand the nature of religion and the work of theology, the human attempt to pin God, however fleetingly, down to earth. In many ways, religion comes from the same place in us that art comes from. The language of the human heart is poetry. Music is a language of the spirit. The métier of religious ideas is parable, verse, and story. All of our names for God are metaphor. Our sacred texts burn with that knowledge and dare us to use all of our faculties of intelligence and experience and creativity. But we forget this: our fact- and argument-obsessed culture is deaf to it, blind to it.

“Our theology,” says British author Karen Armstrong, “should be like poetry…. A poet spends a great deal of time listening to his unconscious, and slowly calling up a poem word by word, phrase by phrase, until something beautiful is brought forth into the world that changes people’s perceptions….” This is why we can’t compare faith flatly to reason and declare it intellectually inferior. Its territory is the drama of human life, where art is more precise than science, where ideas are lived and breathed. Our minds can be engaged in this realm as seriously as in the construction of argument or logic, but in a different way. Life and art both test the limits and landscape of argument and logic. We apprehend religious mystery and truth in words and as often, perhaps, beyond them: in the presence of beauty, in acts of kindness, and in silence.

Krista Tippett is the host of American Public Media’s Speaking of Faith. This article is from Speaking of Faith by Krista Tippett, © 2007 by Krista Tippett. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

 

Union for Reform Judaism.