November 11, 2009

Krista Tippett on Religious Dialogue and Curiosity

Krista Tippett hosts the radio program Speaking of Faith, which deals with "religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas."1 If you enjoy podcasts and you enjoy thinking about religion I can't think of a good reason not to listen to her program. Last night Tippett spoke at the Salt Lake City public library, but earlier in the day she had lunch with some students and faculty at the University of Utah and I was pleased to sit in. It was an informal conversation and I scribbled only a few notes, but wanted to highlight a few points we discussed.

Tippett is soft-spoken but intense and she described becoming more interested in how religion infuses life with meaning while covering politics in Berlin shortly before the wall fell. She said at the time she thought she was dealing with the big issues—weapons, war, government, conflict. She saw people living on the east side of the wall, saw the restrictions under which they lived, but who were able to create huge "inner lives." They made the most of the restrictions because their families became tightly-bound places of refuge and kinship. On the west side she saw people with many more opportunities and freedom making much less of what they had, doing less with more. She marveled at the difference and wondered how some were able to make their own days more important than the nuclear bomb. It was the stories of individuals that really struck her and led her to the show she hosts today which focuses largely on religious individuals and their stories.

One student noted that he felt her show maintained a good balance and demonstrated respect for religious values. He asked how she managed to create that atmosphere and Tippett described a few things she does to foster ecumenical discussion. She wants to understand how religion affects a person's everyday life and so doesn't often engage a guest in abstract questions but rather personal experiences. She had been inspired by Parker Palmer, a Quaker author/educator, who noted that conversations tend to focus on the intellect or the emotions. We are good at stating our opinions, we are good at showing our emotions, but Palmer emphasized the need to seek insight in the soul. In order to do so the environment is crucial, so Tippett tries to create a quiet, inviting, and trustworthy atmosphere. She said the best way she has found to do this is a "first-person approach" wherein people answer theological questions through the story of their own lives. Though it often hits the cutting room floor she begins each interview by asking the guest if there was a spiritual background to their childhood. She believes this is a non-threatening question that helps open the heart of the interviewee. This has the added benefit of personalizing another person's view of God. It "humanizes" their view of God by connecting a line between ideas and experiences. Tippett said she believes this helps open minds—people are less likely to dismiss the views of another when they have heard a more personal account of their beliefs.2 

Finally, and most interesting to me, she talked about curiosity as a religious virtue. When a person is truly interested in learning about the views of another person real and fruitful dialogue can take place. Genuine curiosity helps people connect with each other, and it can help people connect with God.3

Speaking of Faith is produced and distributed by American Public Media. See

Tippett said she doesn't usually make the entire entire revolve around this approach, but uses it as a way to break the ice. She noted that her interview with Robert Millett, a BYU professor and LDS writer, focused a good deal on these questions throughout the interview, however.

This was the subject of a recent episode on Speaking of Faith called "Curiosity over Assumptions."