Krista Tippett: Effective Compassion through Faith
Religion & Liberty Online

Krista Tippett: Effective Compassion through Faith

Krista Tippett
Krista Tippett is the host of the radio program Speaking of Faith, broadcast weekly on NPR since 2003. In her conversations with people of all faiths and occupations, Christian and Hindu, novelist and physicist, Tippett aims to better understand the way that belief and spirituality affect our society, worldview, and personal well-being.

In the two books she has published in the last few years, certain themes stand out that define her own view of religion and its place in human life. In particular, Tippett understands that the positive impact that spiritual traditions have on the world rests on their ability to transform the heart and the way we live in relation to one another:

The context of most religious virtue is relationship–practical love in families and communities… These qualities of religion should enlarge, not narrow, our public conversation about all of the important issues before us. They should reframe it. (Speaking of Faith, 3)

Throughout her two books, Speaking of Faith and Einstein’s God, Tippett discusses faith from a perspective shared by the Acton Institute: Human suffering cannot be eliminated through government programs or by reforming political or economic structure. But our spiritual traditions can address complex problems on their deepest level. The religious sensibility inspires virtue, and, even in the midst of great suffering, it can instill hope through an insistence on human dignity and potential.

For Tippett, the value she now places on faith and religious dialogue came gradually and over time. As she explains in the first pages of Speaking of Faith:

[I once believed] that all of the important and interesting problems in the world were political, and all of the solutions, too… 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… 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. (SOF, 8 )

In relation to the ideological clashes and violence that plague our world, some fueled in part by “religion’s excesses”, Tippett speaks of her “sense that religious people and traditions themselves contain the most powerful critique and correctives we have” (SOF, 10). These correctives arise from what she calls the “anthropology of faith”:

The anthropology of faith–its insistence that critical aspects of life are unquantifiable, unsolvable, flawed, and nevertheless blessed–puts it squarely in the camp of reality if not logic. The great traditions are not systems for an impossible perfection but for aspiration to grace within the possibilities and the boundaries of every life, every moment. (SOF, 92)

Such a forgiving attitude toward other people, as “flawed, and nevertheless blessed”, captures what I feel to be the sentiment behind Christian respect for human dignity. It is this attitude that allows for empathy and forgiveness, but also for the acknowledgement of human rights and the treatment of people as ends in themselves, never as the means to an end. In her continued discussion of the religious view of the human person, Tippett uses the Afrikaans word ubuntu. The idea of ubuntu, she explains, “suggests humanity. It says, I am through you and you are through me. To the extent that I am estranged from another person, I am less than human” (SOF, 182).

Varadaraja Raman, a Hindu emeritus professor of physics and humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology, was one of Tippett’s conversation partners whose words are documented in Einstein’s God. In his comments on the Hinduism of Gandhi, Raman describes the effectiveness of social action taken by him and other nonviolent leaders when guided by the principle of ubuntu. His description of their strategy reminded me strongly of a line from Acton’s series on Effective Stewardship – that we help others most effectively when we treat them in such a way that “ennobles” them. Gandhi understood, says Raman, “that no matter what, it is by trying to bring out whatever is good and noble in the human personality that we can resolve many complex problems” (Einstein’s God, 139).

Tippett also has learned through her years of conversation that religious teachings across the board tend to advocate something that to me resembles the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, the idea that problems are best dealt with at their source. Here, she uses a Hebrew phrase that she has heard from “Jewish as well as non-Jewish voices” on her radio program. It is Tikkun Olam, meaning “repairing the world”. According to the corresponding Jewish legend, in the beginning of life, a great light was broken to pieces. The resulting tiny shards of light planted themselves within each human being, waiting for each to discover its existence and let it shine around his life. This teaching “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” (SOF, 184).

Before starting her NPR program, Krista Tippett was a journalist and a diplomat. Stationed for a while in East Germany, she had the chance to “see and touch” life in the Communist bloc. Her insights on the quality of life there, in contrast to the American capitalist society she knew well, further emphasize her belief in the importance of a rich inner life of faith, which she holds can sustain human dignity no matter the extent of the state’s control over “its citizens’ outer lives” (SOF, 36). Tippett acknowledges that the communist state she experienced in East Germany was the result of “tyrannical ideology”, lacking in vitality and hope–a place where “contradictions of doctrine were punishable by imprisonment, exile, or death” (SOF, 30). But as she discusses its ideological opposite, it becomes clear that she is no certain advocate of free-market capitalism.

There are several pages in Speaking of Faith where I expected that Tippett might clearly state the superiority and advantages of a capitalist system over socialist central planning, or at least the desirability of American democracy over Soviet-satellite communism. But instead, she chooses to focus somewhat vaguely on “the human life that swirls stubbornly, full of contradictions… and defiance, beneath the grandest categories of history and politics” (SOF 38-39). As I read Tippett’s words, “Communism crushed many souls, but it ennobled others. Capitalism did the same, but with preferable, subtler devices” (SOF, 37-38), I can only hope that she understands the vast difference between a system that enabled government officials to destroy millions of lives and that stalled the creative energies of its people, and a system that is incapable of crushing souls, neither moral or immoral in itself. The free market is a framework that allows for and encourages cooperation, creation, and moral action. Although capitalism, agreed, is neither “divinely ordained good” (SOF, 31) nor a “global panacea” (SOF, 166), history has proven its success in wealth creation. The miseries and failures that some associate with the word capitalism can, more often than not, be traced back to government intervention and what is known as crony capitalism.

But Tippett’s analysis is ultimately mild. She is more interested in highlighting human values and experience than in vilifying political points of view. Later in her book, as the conversation returns to economics, Tippett includes an excerpt – she calls it a “reflection on human nature… spiritual in the deepest sense” – from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. In it, Smith gives the story of a poor man, who, after spending his life working to become rich, comes to a state of great material wealth that, in the end, is…

…in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it. Power and riches appear, then to be what they are, enormous machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniences to the body. They are immense fabrics, which it requires the labor of a life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which, while they stand, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. (SOF, 167-168)

What can protect him, Krista Tippett’s whole body of work seems to suggest, is faith. The greatest lesson to be learned from her own story in Speaking of Faith and from the conversations in Einstein’s God is the lesson that, with the freedom to act according to one’s inner guidance, comes the urgent necessity of nurturing that source by way of an active spiritual life. That lesson becomes all the more important with the realization that it is precisely this source of inner guidance that, together with freedom of action, can bring about positive change in our communities and, by extension, the world. In Tippett’s words, “Transcendent goals like peace and justice are always made possible, or rendered impossible, by the patterns of the human heart” (SOF, 40). And there lies the importance of spiritual tradition, even in the midst of a well-structured free society.