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Mystery is a Birthright: An Interview with Krista Tippett

Krista Tippett

The granddaughter of a Southern Baptist minister, Krista Tippett approaches faith from a unique perspective. “Both science and religion are set to animate the twenty-first century with new vigor,” she writes in Einstein’s God, her latest book. “The dialogue that is possible—and that has developed organically, below the journalistic and political radar—is mutually illuminating and lush with promise.”  

It’s that organic dialogue Tippett has sought throughout her career. For more than 10 years, Tippett has hosted On Being, a Peabody-award winning NPR program that explores the “big questions at the center of human life, from the boldest new science of the human brain to the most ancient traditions of the human spirit.” In 2011, she launched the Civil Conversations Project, which aims to create space for constructive dialogue around some of the most pressing social and political issues we face today. On September 26, 2012, Tippett led a discussion on life, choice, and women’s rights between pro-choice activist Frances Kissling and pro-life scholar David Gushee. You can check out the video here. On October 10, Tippett will moderate “The Future of Marriage,” the final installment of this year’s Civil Conversations Project series. The conversation will include gay marriage advocate Jonathon Rauch and former same-sex marriage opponent David Blankenhorn. 

Below is our interview with Tippett, following the September 26 Civil Conversation Project discussion, “Pro Life, Pro Choice, Pro Dialogue.”   

Sam Ross-Brown: What role does religion or faith play in the Civil Conversations Project? 

Krista Tippett: Religious voices and religious perspectives on moral and social issues have been some of the most polarizing voices in the last 30 or 40 years. I think it’s really important when we take up these issues of abortion or same-sex marriage that we also try to create a different kind of conversation with those perspectives, and also show what’s possible because media and our political process have completely given the spotlight to those very strident voices that make for really good soundbites and are entertaining. But it’s not really the whole story of religion and it’s certainly not the whole story of how we can talk about these very intimate moral issues that we all have a stake in, whether we are religious or not. So it’s really claiming that discussion back—and also leaving a place for people with religious conviction to create a new voice in that discussion in our common life.

Part of where I started coming from as I was putting this together was the irony that in an election season we have all these huge issues, all these open questions in our common life, and this becomes the most unlikely time we can talk with any rationality or even courtesy about these things. I also think I’m not alone in thinking that our civil society is really fractured, and like many people I myself feel really unrepresented in the really polarized and narrow way that important subjects are discussed, whether it’s the nature of marriage, or what economic recovery might really mean or not mean.

And so what I wanted to do in creating this project is create an intellectually hospitable place where we don’t walk the same tired old path of doing a “for or against,” you know, “pro/con,” but instead try to have the discussion that many of us have been longing to have. So we’re doing something very different with the discussion about marriage or the discussion about abortion, or the discussion of the economy. You know, I’m looking. What I know is not being reported in the news is that there are bridge people out there who are reaching across these boundaries, that there are new generations who are not being heard, and that there are actually really interesting areas of moral consensus across the partisan divide, but that our attention simply hasn’t been drawn to those things. So I’m trying to put them out there and put a spotlight on them.

SR: I was struck by something Frances Kissling said during last week’s discussion that “if you don’t want to change, don’t go into dialogue.”  

KT: [Laughs] And she also talked about how hard dialogue is, right? It was really clear when we set the framework for the project that we were not going to rehash all the old platitudes and irreconcilable positions, and we started talking about things that were really uncomfortable and difficult to discuss in public. So you started to understand that dialogue is really hard work. But I really think that so many of us are longing for that. We’re even open to some kind of vulnerability to be changed. But the screaming—it’s not just talking heads we have now, it’s screaming heads. Most of us can’t find any point of entry in that, and we’re dismayed and disgusted by it and just turn away.

SR: At one point you asked both participants to locate something in their positions that gave them trouble as well as something in the opposite position that they found attractive.   

KT: Yeah, it was really interesting, wasn’t it? We just have so few opportunities to see people reflect on something, or even just to reflect. There was space and time for them to answer a counterintuitive question. If you’re listening to that, you take that in and it becomes a moment of self-reflection and it’s good for us. 

SR: It’s kind of a sense of humility, that we’re willing to be changed by what we’re hearing and what we’re understanding.  

KT: Yeah. The goal of these civil conversations and for civil society is not really about changing each others minds or thinking that we can talk for an hour, or ten hours, or 100 hours, and not have diverse perspectives on these things. We can change our conduct towards each other and I think we can create conditions for dialogue and we can create relationships, so that change that we might not foresee now can be possible. To me, it’s about living together differently, even while we hold passionate disagreement. That has to be the immediate goal, but I think if you listen to these people who have given themselves over to this, you see that down the road, things do begin to soften in interesting ways.

SR: It’s like what David Gushee said at one point, that out of discussions like this, he feels stronger about his position, but at the same time, he feels stronger that the other side is coming from a more humane place.  

KT: Yeah, that they have integrity. So the immediate effect, even if it’s not to change positions, is to stop the demonizing. This is a story I know from talking to people about this over the years, but it’s the kind of thing I feel our public life doesn’t know. There’s no headline that says, “Abortion Activist Changes His View.” But he goes back to his community, and it becomes this infectious softening—a loss of demonization.

SR: And certainly for the listeners and viewers too. Just somebody like David Gushee coming from an evangelical progressive perspective—the fact that someone like that exists in the universe is somehow amazing.  

KT: Exactly! That’s the thing: that people don’t even realize that someone like David Gushee exists. The truth is there’s a lot of diversity in that world, but again, they don’t get the light shone on them. It’s a hopeful thing. Even if you totally disagree with everything he stands for, the world feels like a more generous place. And maybe there’s some room in our political life for you and he to coexist peaceably, maybe even creatively.

SR: Do you feel like that that room, that space, is growing? 

KT: I know the longing is out there. These things we’re doing are a small seed. It’s a couple hundred people in a room. I’ll tell you, the very first event that we had was with the head of Focus on the Family and young evangelicals—it was called the New Christians. That event was taking head on the fact that Christian voices have been some of the most polarizing voices. We wanted to shine a light on these new generations of people who do not fit the stereotype, and actually within their own worlds are really working to counter it. James Dobson was the famous head of Focus on the Family, and he left years ago. But everyone still associates James Dobson with Focus on the Family and with the worst kind of Christian stridency. His successor, Tim Daley, is this really interesting person of integrity who’s charting a new path and still holds many of the positions that James Dobson does, but with humanity and nuance and a willingness to learn and to change.

And I was very gratified that night: we had one of the most conservative columnists in Minnesota—arch-conservative, who writes for one of the local newspapers—who was one of the first people to come up to us afterwards and tell us what a good and important event he thought it was. And we also had the head of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, who was a very powerful woman, and she and Tim Daley had a conversation that night and exchanged phone numbers. You could say, how do you quantify that—it’s only three people. But I feel like if you plant seeds like that, you send them out into the world. And I’m not in control of the effect, but I feel like something happened. I feel like something happened in the room, and I feel like something happened when you put the radio broadcast out. You know, when you write an article, you do something to the best of your ability, and you send it out. You do set things in motion, and I trust that process.

SR: What was your experience with faith growing up? I understand that your grandfather was a Baptist minister.  

KT: Yes, he was a Southern Baptist minister, and I’ve actually been really glad that that’s part of my background coming to this. I think it’s a little bit counterintuitive for public radio, but the whole world of evangelical Christianity is such an important part of American culture. You know my own grandfather was very much about rules and much more about hellfire and damnation—especially in how he preached. He was much more about how you could mess up than how you could live a life of flourishing. But he modeled that life of flourishing. He was funny, he was smart. There were contradictions, there were human contradictions in what he preached and the way he led his life. In some ways I carry that image of my grandfather and it forces me to look deeper than headlines, and to know that there are human beings behind these positions and these arguments, and then to search for that, to want to see that, to make that visible, that complexity. Because in that complexity there is hope. We’re all more alike than we realize.

SR: Did your experience as a journalist in Germany during the Cold War make you more aware of the dangers of polarization? 

KT: Well, it’s kind of interesting that you ask me that question, because I hadn’t thought about that. And recently I thought, how interesting it is that I spent most of the decade before the wall came down working at the fault line of this absolute geopolitical divide. One of the most important experiences of those years for me was having friends on both sides of the wall—having friends in East Berlin and having friends in West Berlin, and always seeing the human beings behind the conflict. And just really knowing that was important, and that the story was always bigger than the news story would tell you. So interestingly I kind of find myself paying attention to that again in an American moment.

SR: You write in Einstein’s God about the ability to accept two seemingly contradictory things as “simultaneously true,” such as the truths of Darwin and Genesis. Contradiction and paradox are things we tend to avoid, especially in politics. But what do we gain from it?   

KT: Well, reality is about contradiction and paradox. So to the extent that we avoid those things, we are avoiding the fullness of reality. Reality is much more demanding than flattening things out. But I don’t see a way forward for our civil society, I don’t see a way forward on these big issues we have to grapple with, whether it’s marriage or the economy, if we are not dealing with the fullness of reality. David Gushee said it well. He said, “Nuance is not rewarded.” There are very few spaces or media spaces where you can have that. But I guess what I’m trying to say with this project is, nuance may not be rewarded, but it’s essential. We have to carve out those opportunities. We have to make it happen. And the great thing about the world now with technology is there’s much more power to starting something where you are. That’s the upside.

SR: You also write that Albert Einstein’s “cosmic religious” outlook is little known today, but is “intriguingly resonant with twenty-first sensibilities.” Are you referring to a decline of organized religion, or a way of seeing science with “religious awe,” as Einstein did?  

KT: Religious identity is a much more fluid thing now than it was when Einstein was around. And he certainly lived uncomfortably with his Jewish identity—it was complicated in his mind with the Holocaust and the fact that he had to leave Germany. But I think that his discomfort with his religious identity is for very different reasons something that people now experience. The impulse to make sense doesn’t go away just because you’re not going to church or synagogue. So I think that while organized religion is declining by many measures, I’m just aware of a real curiosity and energy out there. And I think that Einstein was about nothing more than curiosity, this unbridled curiosity. He didn’t have any kind of traditional faith in God, but he always kept asking questions, and he talked about how he was animated more by inklings and wonderings than by certainties. And I just experience a lot of people to be like that these days. Einstein had the largest possible understanding of our place in the universe, and how mysterious and wild and unpredictable reality is. And I think here, generations later, that knowledge is becoming something the rest of us are aware of. Maybe it takes this much time for culture to catch up with science, and of course science itself keeps being surprised. This side of Einstein probably was not that magnetic or comprehensible in his age, when the world was really segregated in terms of religious identities. But I think it’s a very interesting model for us now.

SR: It’s interesting that he would have such humility about these very large questions. That’s another thing you don’t think of when you think of Einstein.   

KT: Yeah, that’s the thing: he had no need to pin it down. He would say that he had this sense of awe and mystery, and he would speak in terms of the intelligence behind the universe. But he had no requirement to say definitively that he knew what that meant, that that was God. He was very willing to bask in the mystery.

SR: It seems almost alien today—there are so many certainties and false certainties floating around. 

KT: Yeah, although I do talk to a lot of scientists in my work, and I find that there are a lot of scientists who live like that, who just rejoice in mystery. That’s another story that’s not being told, and it’s very intriguing and inspiring when you listen to that.

SR: Do you find a corresponding humility in religious communities, or is it missing these days? 

KT: You know, one thing I’ve found is that scientists do mystery better than a lot of religious people. Mystery is a birthright of theology and faith, but you often do find religious people grasping for answers that shut things down and narrow what is possible. And so, I talk to scientists who are not at all religious, but who are so drenched in mystery and the excitement of what they don’t know and what there is yet to discover. And I think that it’s almost holy ground, however you want to define that. And then, what if theologians could learn from them?  

Photo by Matt M. Johnson/On Being/Humphrey School of Public Affairs. 

And be sure to check out Krista Tippett's Civil Conversation with Frances Kissling and David Gushee.