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Listening

· Krista Tippet, a radio voice of America ·

Krista Tippet is not only a voice on the radio but also a person with a rich intellectual and human profile. This may be deduced from her book: Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters and How to Talk About It (Penguin, 2008), a serious reflection by a woman who challenges her culture, that of the American Dream. The title is of course that of a radio programme, for at the outset her broadcast had the same title (Speaking of Faith), but in the course of the years it became On Being – as it still is today – meaning, as it were, being on the frontier of faith.

Her programme began with an occasional series of meetings on a radio in Minnesota at the end of the 1990s. At the beginning of the 2000s it became a monthly, and finally a true and proper weekly event. In 2010 the programme assumed its new title and was retransmitted via internet on which it is possible to find dozens and dozens of interviews with men and women, Americans and foreigners, who have something to say about religion and about the religious experience. To the generic question as to how many people she has met, Krista, answered – as it were through modesty – that she did not know the exact number, but it is a matter of several hundred. Every programme rotates around one figure with a profound religious experience.

When I met her, on the occasion of a study seminar on compassion, in the woods of the town of Kalamazoo, Michigan, I immediately recognized her unmistakeable voice. It has a tone that induces you to meditate, makes you meditate and invites you to reflection. She has great sensitivity and when she speaks, hosting the sessions, all those present – some of whom are leading professors of the Catholic University of Notre Dame – fall silent to hear the content of her observations.

Indeed, her voice, so accustomed to radio broadcasts, leads the listener to the subject of her thoughts: her voice is a powerful means with which she has been endowed, Krista lets it come through with deep modesty, since she is aware that it is a service to spirituality. Moreover the guest at each of her programmes is truly put in a condition where he or she can freely explain his or her experience, which is always truly profound.

Religion and the life of believers are the focus of her interests and this is especially surprising when one thinks that as a young girl she left the States to go to Germany as a journalist for various organs of the press. Her book illustrates the experience of an American in a Germany suffering from the tragedy of separation and the Cold War. On her return to the United States, she earned a Master’s in theology at the University of Yale and here renewed her ties with her background, so oriented to the practice of the Christian faith. Following the diploma she obtained in 1994, for some time she attended the Benedictine Abbey of St John, Collegeville, in Minnesota, on a project of research in oral history. Listening to what the monastery had to say gave her the incentive to conceive of a radio programme. So it was that little by little she developed the initiative that was to become a cultural and intellectual heritage for all..

The internet site On Being is a real encyclopaedia of today’s religion in its American and, more generally, its international facets. When I asked her to explain more specifically the reason for her radio broadcast, Krista has no doubts: “In those years, the topic of religion concerned only the negative, degenerate and corrupt aspect of religions, understood above all as social and political institutions. I had intuited that a new approach must be offered”. This “empty space”, as she herself calls it, accounted for the success of her programme.

For Krista, religions are not only institutions but it is the believers who form their pulsating hearts. It should not be forgotten that this was on the eve of the dramatic events of 2001 and that her programme was inaugurated in that same year. Saying religion meant violence or behaviour in blatant contrast with the religious principles professed. Krista thus offered all her listeners the tangible, lived and suffered experience of dozens and dozens of protagonists of Christian life.

In speaking to me, she knew that she was talking to a Catholic priest, she who had a Baptist background, and she felt honoured to have made known in the United States the activity of the Vatican Observatory, the astronomical institute which also has headquarters in Arizona. Before she created that broadcast, she told me – half smiling – that many Americans were still thinking of the relationship between the Catholic Church and science as at the time of Galileo. She is convinced that she contributed to the cause of a revision of American public opinion, thanks to her interviews with Br Guy Consolmagno and with Fr George Coyne, because it was one way of making listeners understand the articulation between faith and science in the Catholic world and more in general for the Christian..

The relationship between science and religion seems to strike her attention as a believer as the programme entirely dedicated to Teilhard de Chardin also proves, thanks to the participation of Ursula King, a Catholic theologian attentive to gender issues and spirituality, as well as to thought on evolution.

Krista’s voice and her interviews are an exceptional source of knowledge of the Christian world. She does not want to reflect on topics taken for granted, such as those that fill the front pages of newspapers on religion, but seeks to enable religion to speak through believers with an experience as specific as it is universal.

This is the case of the interview with Marie Howe, a poet from New York State, who expressed the meaning of poetry, of its impossibility to translate, of the absolute need for it and the reflex of her Catholic education. Marie Howe states that moral life is expressed as much in what we say as in what we do. This sentence can also sum up the Christian being of her interviewer..

Krista Tippet can truly boast of having contributed to a serious change of mentality in the United States as regards religion. Her broadcast is relayed to more than 200 radios throughout the country and thanks to her website,, she has numerous listeners throughout the world. Her basic concern is to recount truthfully what religion is for a believer who takes on his or vocation responsibly. In the days when I met her, the broadcast recorded with Nadia Bolz-Weber had just gone on the air. As pastor, this Lutheran directs her community in Denver whose name is already a whole programme: the House for All Sinners and Saints.

Krista spoke of Nadia as a woman who succeeds in speaking to everyone, above all to youth, thanks also to her surprising experience of healing from dependence and with a body tattooed all over, without being afraid to highlight a living Christian faith, even though it may be marginal or extravagant. When one listens to Krista’s interview with Nadia, one realizes that one is facing a true and profound faith that is seeking to go beyond stereotypes and reach the heart of humanity..

The programme On Being has revolutionized the way of presenting religion and all that concerns it in the United States, and the project of the woman who conceived it not only continues but is becoming ever more vigorous, partly thanks to her personality. A radio journalist by vocation, Krista is also a writer: following her first book she has published another, more oriented to the relationship between science and faith; the title Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit does not deceive one that in this book too the author feels particularly committed to understanding that faith and religion must dialogue with science. Her intimate proposal is clear: to put faith and theology at the centre of the cultural and social debate.

Krista’s project is far more than a simple profession, it is a true and proper Christian vocation. Her deepest desire is to make believers speak, to get them to talk to each other, in this community of listeners in search of a more authentic meaning of faith in society today. She declares it with conviction: “Yes, of course, for me the radio is a vocation, in the most profound sense of the word. It is what I am called to. It is a lay vocation, because I am not a preacher but rather a listener”.

The more one listens to her the more one realizes how much light St Paul’s words shed on a fundamental truth: fides ex auditu, faith depends on listening to the preaching of men and women who continue to proclaim the Good News and thereby to incarnate Christ’s voice.

Alberto Fabio Ambrosio

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