Some words are rich, robust and profound. They are used artfully in poetry and novels, to express significant findings, sober realities, important ideas or nearly inexpressible joys. They can stir the soul, spark the mind with ideas and creativity, or touch the emotions.
Other words are silly, trivial or profane. When I was a teenager, comedian George Carlin released his infamous routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”. It was thumbing of the nose at the television censors and one of the first volleys in the avalanche of crudity that now marks much of our public discourse from the mouths of both men and women.
The interplay of words both profound and profane shapes us as a people. For better or worse, words with meanings make us. That’s one reason why we have a First Amendment that guarantees freedom of expression.
The words we choose and the words we avoid shape us. And those choices come from someplace deep inside. It is fascinating to note the kinds of language that are allowed or scrubbed from our public conversations.
I began thinking about this when I heard about the recent name change for a radio program produced by American Public Radio. Speaking of Faith provides host Krista Tippett the opportunity to explore a broad range of stories about faith, ethics and spirituality in our world. It is faith viewed from a fairly secular, non-sectarian viewpoint. It is faith defined by the participants themselves, which can give programs a fairly generic feel. This not a doctrinally rigorous program. Philosophical, maybe, but not doctrinal in any classic sense of the word.
So, it is a bit surprising that Tippett recently changed the name of her program to Krista Tippett on Being. Faith has been replaced with Being. Being. How fuzzy can you get? Even the most generic sense of faith defines something specific. But being is just so passive, non-specific and hollow.
So, why the change? In a recent essay, Tippett says,
I’ve thought a great deal about the limits and possibilities of words – especially when we try to navigate the spiritual territory of human life….Our common life needs all the edifying vocabulary and virtues we can muster….[In our time] we are charged with revisiting basic definitions of life, death, and meaning; we are restructuring our families, institutions, and economies. Our common life needs all the edifying vocabulary and virtues we can muster.
….Religious voices have been some of the most toxic in global life in recent decades. Bombs explode in the name of Islam. Christian rhetoric fuels culture wars. There is a chasm between these expressions of religion and the lived virtue their texts and traditions demand….
On Being…has profound philosophical and theological roots – and at the same time, it is profoundly hospitable. Hospitality is one of the great overarching virtues of all our traditions, more immediately achievable than peace, forgiveness, or compassion….
“Faith” has its place in that, but it is too limiting a word even to describe the Christian contribution to it.
And letting go of a word, after all, doesn’t mean letting go of its content. It frees and compels us, rather, to find fresh, vivid language to communicate the deepest sense of our convictions.
There’s more here than we can fully explore. But basically, Tippett is saying that “faith” is just no longer a helpful word to use in discussions of morality, ethics, spirituality—all the things that address the life of the soul, and the profound intersections between God (or even the Divine), human beings and their world.
So, instead, Tippett suggests “being” is preferable because it is more “hospitable”. Huh? For Tippett, hospitality is a virtue that trumps peace, forgiveness or compassion. The primary goal is to maintain an open-armed welcome to all people, their viewpoints and beliefs about what it means to be and relate as humans.
This is not an insignificant move. Remember, words have meanings that define realities for us and shape us. So, why would anyone prefer “being” to “faith”? What is the real difference?
Faith is not merely religion’s rituals or abuses, nor its polarizing conflict; it is a way of considering all of human life & meaning. Being is more like a mere statement and acceptance of human existence—which just doesn’t go far enough to capture the majesty of the human soul, nor will it avoid the messiest parts of being human; we carry that with us.
Faith has content and presses us to specifically define beliefs. For the Christian, that content is a faith whose object is God revealed in Jesus Christ and the gospel of His life, death, burial, resurrection and rein. Being is, in Tippett’s words, a “larger container” for meaning people bring to their spiritual, moral and ethical lives. But it is also so hollow that any person can fill it with their own meaning at any time.
Faith is specific and requires us to define ourselves. Again, for Christians “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6), “no one is righteous…the righteousness of God comes through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:10,22). Being is generic, in a lowest-common-denominator, “let’s hold hands around the campfire and sing Kumbaya together” feel. And the crucial thing to realize is that our only basis for any meaningful dialogue is in the specifics.
Faith that moves us towards peace, forgiveness or compassion requires that we deal with others—even the messy parts like division, offense, or hurt. On the other hand, “being” allows us to stay in our individualized cocoon.
Faith requires that we trust someone outside ourselves, Someone larger than ourselves. Being deceives us into trusting ourselves, and seeing Ourself as in a fun-house mirror, distorted all out of proportion to the realities of our soul and our place in the world.
Making faith a dirty word is not wise. Replacing “faith” with “being” lessens our humanity. It hollows out our souls. It puts us in a precarious place because it loops us away from God rather than toward Him.
We need faith (and more specifically faith in God) to live the most human lives possible. Even if we define ourselves as atheistic or agnostic, we need to wrestle with faith in order to live with any sense of intellectual or spiritual integrity.
In other words, there is no being apart from faith. Our being itself rests on faith.