Mystery is a Birthright: An Interview with 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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