Monday, December 13, 2010

On Being & Nothingness

As part of a makeover of their weekend edition this fall, the Wall Street Journal started running a new column called "Word Craft." Each week they have a different contributor weigh in with words of wisdom on the art of writing and speaking. Since I'm a big believer that you're never too old to learn, I usually try to make an effort to read what these craftsman have to say about how to communicate better.

About a month ago, the subject of the "Word Craft" column immediately captured my attention:

"Rules for Discussing the Meaning of it All" by Krista Tippett

Now at the time, I had no idea who Krista Tippet was or why she would have any particular expertise to offer guidance on so weighty a matter. But the notion that there could be a framework for talking about the meaning of life was intriguing enough to cause me to dive right in:

On my radio show, which covers issues of faith and moral imagination,

Before we go any further, see if you can guess who a radio show about faith and "moral imagination" (whatever the heck that means) would most likely be produced by. The answer will be revealed as we proceed.

I encourage my guests to follow a couple of ground rules: No abstractions about God, and speak in the first person, not on behalf of your group or tradition (or God). This makes statements of belief much more hospitable, easier to hear. A listener might disagree with your opinion on ultimate questions but can't disagree with your experience of them. There is a profound difference between hearing someone say "this is the truth" and hearing her say "this is my truth."

There's also a profound problem with a forum which requires participants to mollify their religious beliefs thusly. Christians don't profess that Jesus Christ is "my way, my truth, and my light." While such a watering down of faith might come off as more friendly and less likely to cause discomfort with others, it renders any serious discussion about religion impossible. Religion--real, serious religion at least--isn't about what I think the truth is based on my ridiculously short experiences on earth or my staggeringly limited knowledge and wisdom. It's a collective set of beliefs, values, and traditions that have been developed--at least in most cases--over hundreds and thousands of years and have been shared by millions if not billions of people throughout the world.

Since we started doing the show in 2003, this approach has worked well with a great variety of guests, from theologians and physicists to poets and police officers. Many of them do not consider themselves religious, but all of them have something to say about the animating questions behind religion, which flow beyond the boundaries of faith: Where did we come from, and where are we going? What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?

I've got a great idea. Let's have a radio show about religion where no one is allowed to offer an opinion unless prefaced by "I'm not saying this is right or wrong, it's just what I think…" and invite a bunch of people to come on who don't consider themselves religious. Riveting radio.

In my experience on the air, I have found that the best question for bringing a lofty or difficult conversation back to a usable place for the listener is: "What do you mean when you say that?" The more thoughtful answers almost always contain a story. And the most vivid personal stories have the most universal reach, elevating our sense of others and of the humanity we share.

In case you haven't guessed by now, Tippet hosts a show on National Public Radio called "On Being." NPR (and local public radio stations as well) must teach it's hosts the "What do you mean when you say that?" follow up approach to questions because it's a familiar query that you hear on show after show. It serves as a way to make the host appear thoughtful and as a method to deconstruct statements and introduce relativity.

"What do YOU MEAN when YOU say that?"

Guest: I believe that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. He rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and will one day come again.

Host: What do you mean when you say that?

Guest: Um…well, you see Jesus was crucified, he died, and then he was…

Host: What do you mean when you say that?

Tippet closes with a summary that showcases the modern conceit that everything is so different now that the old questions we used to ask about religion and the old ways we used to discuss it are now hopelessly obsolete:

The complexities of our age—ecological and political, economic and social—have redrawn a range of basic existential and religious questions. The trick for us all is to create conversational spaces in which new answers can unfold. Using words wisely is essential to this effort, especially at a time when so many ideas related to human purpose have been reduced to blunt instruments in our public discourse. Shared convictions may elude us, but by learning to speak and listen in new ways, we can begin to live together and to look to the future differently.

The whole point of religion is that there isn't a need for "new answers" at all. You can change the questions and you can make new rules about how we're allowed to discuss it, but in the end the answer is always the same.