Speaking of Faith

April 23, 2009 | 7 comments
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Religion can be divisive. We read of historical confrontations and we witness the divisiveness in the world around us – between major world religions and among the sectarian branches they foster. But while religion and faith claims can be divisive, it needn’t be this way. There are ways to approach faith and differences of faith in constructive, expanding ways. One example is carried on over 200 public radio stations each week, a program called Speaking of Faith. The host, Krista Tippett, explores faith in a narrative approach that draws out the complexities of, the power in, and the wisdom gained from a life of faith.

The aspect that I appreciate most about this program is its focus on the individual voice. The interviews are less about doctrines and beliefs and more about how faith works in the individual – what it means, how it relates, and insights gained. The institutional voice is largely lacking, refreshingly so, and the episodes range from explorations of specific faith traditions to interesting examinations and lessons learned from the songs of whales.

In Ms. Tippet’s own words:

I’m committed to drawing out the contours and depths of what I call “the vast middle” — left, right, and center between the poles of competing answers that have hardened our cultural discourse. In the vast middle, faith is as much about questioning as it is about certainties. It is possible to be a believer and a listener at the same time, to be both fervent and searching, to nurture a vital identity and to wonder at the identities of others.

I started listening on Sunday mornings in the early years of this decade, at least when I remembered to turn on the radio. Now I find these thoughtful and inspirational podcasts are perfect for a commute, a workout, or to simply pass an hour in contemplation.

There are over 300 episodes, though some are rebroadcasts (I didn’t bother to count the unique episodes). You can find them on iTunes, or download and listen here.

To get started, I’ll list some of my favorites. These are my top five, but it’s too much to ask to rank them in order. I welcome other SoF fans to list theirs, too – it’s rather illuminating, I’m sure that my list says something about my approach to faith.

A History of Doubt, with Jennifer Michael Hecht

Poet and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht says that as a scholar she always noticed the “shadow history” of doubt out of the corner of her eye. She shows how non-belief, skepticism, and doubt have paralleled and at times shaped the world’s great religious and secular belief systems. She suggests that only in modern time has doubt been narrowly equated with a complete rejection of faith, or a broader sense of mystery.

Rory comments: I love the exploration of doubt as a rich tradition, one that needn’t be seen as a negative trait or something to be avoided. We have problems reconciling doubt in a faith that values “I know”. There are those among us that doubt, that question, that are skeptical, and viewing that doubt as a powerful approach rather than a detriment is a refreshing and sustaining concept.

Obedience and Action

In over 50 years as a Benedictine nun, Sister Joan Chittister has emerged as a powerful and uncomfortable voice in Roman Catholicism and in global politics. If women were ordained in the Catholic Church in our lifetime, some say, Joan Chittister would be the first female bishop.

Ok, this isn’t my comment, it’s Sister Chittister’s, but I wish it were mine: “It takes a long time for ideas to seep to the top, let alone to move the bottom. So you just realize that what is going on right now is simply the seeding of the question. It comes down to how many snowflakes does it take to break a branch? I don’t know, but I want to be there to do my part if I’m a snowflake.”

Days of Awe

We delve into the world and meaning of the Jewish High Holy Days — ten days that span the new year of Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur’s rituals of atonement. A young rabbi in L.A. is one voice in a Jewish spiritual renaissance that is taking many forms across the U.S. The vast majority of her congregation are people in their 20s and 30s, who, she says, are making life-giving connections between ritual, personal transformation, and relevance in the world.

I’m fascinated by the power of ritual. This episode taught me more about some of the Jewish rituals, and I was particularly interested in the approach of the young rabbi, especially as we face a crisis in the rising generation within our own faith.

Approaching Prayer

Americans are religious and non-religious, devout and irreverent. But in astonishing numbers, across that spectrum, most of us say that we pray. We explore the subject of prayer, how it sounds, and what it means in three different traditions and lives.

An expansive look at prayer, one that might help us to break out of a rut if we find ourselves offering patterned, rote prayers.

Play, Spirit, and Character

Stuart Brown, a physician and director of the National Institute for Play, says that pleasurable, purposeless activity prevents violence and promotes trust, empathy, and adaptability to life’s complication. He promotes cutting-edge science on human play, and draws on a rich universe of study of intelligent social animals.

You’ll never look at your free, purposeless time the same way again.

The Body’s Grace: Matthew Sanford’s Story

An unusual take on the mind-body connection with author and yoga teacher Matthew Sanford. He’s been a paraplegic since the age of 13. He shares his wisdom for us all on knowing the strength and grace of our bodies even in the face of illness, aging, and death.

I loved the wisdom, the optimism, and the peace that this episode offers.

And since I’m incapable of just sharing five six, a quick list to round out my top ten:

Ok, I’m going to stop here. Go listen, learn, and share.

What are your favorites? Are there other quality podcasts out there that you’ve found?

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7 Responses to Speaking of Faith

  1. Kent Larsen on April 23, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    I too am an avid listener, and, if I remember correctly, John Dehlin once told me that he had somewhat modeled his Mormon Stories podcast on SoF.

    Tippett has not ignored Mormonism in her program. Mormonism has been the topic of one episode, and an LDS man’s experience raising a special needs child was the subject of another:

    Inside Mormon Faith (January 24, 2008)

    • Americans have been hearing a lot about Mormonism in the context of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. But much of the public discussion of this faith of 13 million people has focused on controversies in the church’s history. We’ll avoid well-trodden ground to seek an understanding of the lived beliefs and spirituality of Latter Day Saints, with a leading scholar of the church and a lifelong practitioner. Robert Millet describes a developing young religion with distinct mystical and practical interpretations of the nature of God, family, and eternity.

    The Spirituality of Parenting (web exclusive, did not air)

    • This Web-exclusive interview features Krista’s conversation with David Dollahite, an associate professor at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life. Here, he speaks about his personal faith and family, his research on the role faith plays in family’s lives, and raising a child with special needs.
  2. Kent Larsen on April 23, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    I too loved the “History of Doubt” episode, and the Liberating the Founders episode was likewise fascinating. I felt like it put evangelical conservatives today in an awkward position, because they didn’t realize the freedom of religion background they came from. With a knowledge of this background, there is no way that Baptists can in good conscious advocate prayer in school.

  3. Rory Swensen on April 23, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    I could be biased simply because I am familiar with Mormonism, but I was a little bit disappointed in the Inside the Mormon Faith episode.
    I think it is one example where the Speaking of Faith program sounded like an institutional voice rather than an individual voice. Perhaps this is because it was designed to educate about the faith, but I was hoping for something more along the lines of what the intersection of Mormon faith means in an individual life. A Mormon speaking of their experience in the world of faith, rather than a Mormon speaking about the Mormon faith.

  4. Kent Larsen on April 23, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    I can see where you are coming from on that Rory. And I think you are right to a degree. Millet is very much about explaining institutional Mormonism, instead of the very personal stories that are often what I hear on SoF.

  5. Researcher on April 24, 2009 at 8:21 am

    One of my favorites is a program from 2006 about Alcoholics Anonymous and its founder Bill Wilson with commentary from Basil Braveheart, a Lakota teacher, on his recovery from alcoholism and some of the experiences surrounding that recovery. It doesn’t seem to be available on the SoF website, but is on the list of podcasts from iTunes.

    I’ve enjoyed the introduction to great characters such as Bonhoeffer and Niebuhr. Looking at the list of podcasts, I haven’t listened much since 2006, due to a change in my Sunday morning schedule, but since the podcasts are not limited to one hour on Sunday morning, I just subscribed to the program. What’s not to like? Freeman Dyson on Einstein’s religious views. Wangari Maathai on planting trees.

    I wouldn’t put the Mormonism segment on a list of my favorite programs.

  6. Kent Larsen on April 24, 2009 at 10:43 am

    Researcher, I think your recommendation of the Alcoholics Anonymous episode is particularly interesting, given the Church’s adoption of a modified 12-step program for its own efforts to help members fight addiction.

  7. Noel Hausler on May 2, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    I have enjoyed many of the programs on Speaking of Faith. Especiallly the ones on Niebahr (Obama’s Theologian) with David Brookes (conservative writer NYT). I like the ones on Creeds (Pelikan), Gardening, Bonhoeffer, AA (on Bill Wilson). Its been somewhat expensive as I have gone out on bought books mentioned. ‘My Name is Bill” on life of Bill Wilson (started AA). He had a problem with the ladies later in life. After listening to the one on Bonhoeffer, I went and bought 3 doc about him, his biography (Bethge), his writings (Life Together, Ethics, Cost of Discipleship, Creation and Fall). Oh the joys of reading once your kids leave home

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