Becoming Wise with Krista Tippett

For Territory Magazine, Winter 2016-17

Asking Krista Tippett, the host of NPR’s On Being, to give me the elevator pitch for her new book Becoming Wise, was probably not, in retrospect, the best idea. Tippett, the Brown- and Yale-educated professional interviewer and deep question asker, said, “I’m not great with elevator pitches.”

For fans of the show, the understatement is hilarious. That’s because Tippett describes her task as “drawing out the animating questions at the heart of our religious traditions,” and that is not a task that lends itself to brevity.

Krista Tippett Penguin Author Photo

Photo by Peter Beck

“In the early days, the program was called Speaking of Faith,” Tippett said. “I thought it was important to have something on public radio with faith in the title. What interests me is drawing out those questions at the heart of the big traditions, questions like ‘Where did we come from?’ Or ‘What does it mean to be human?’ Religious traditions are vast repositories of information and deep reflection on these questions.”

Growing up in Shawnee, Okla., in the 1960s and 1970s, it was difficult to see the world as the massive place it is. Small Oklahoma towns defined religious diversity as having Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal and Catholic churches. Occasionally, an agricultural community would have a Lutheran church, or perhaps a Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses might be found here and there, but diversity was defined as degrees of separation from the person of Jesus, not Moses, and certainly not Muhammad.

Tippett’s grandfather was a Southern Baptist preacher. Her family attended First Baptist Church of Shawnee, Okla., a small city just 40 miles east of Oklahoma City. Shawnee was not a small city during her childhood, though; it was a town. The only notable institutions there were the Baptist University of Oklahoma, now OBU, and Shawnee Milling Company—if you grew up in Oklahoma, you had their pancake, cornbread or biscuit batter at least once.

Her grandfather was a supply preacher for small churches in and around Shawnee. Supply preachers filled in for sick pastors, pastors on sabbatical and vacation, or churches that were between full-time ministers. She describes him as a “hellfire and brimstone preacher.” The archetype is so much a part of the fabric of American religion no description is required. However, Tippett would internalize some truths about her grandfather that would be critically important to her life’s mission much later.

I asked her how she has learned to integrate the categories of childhood faith into On Being, into her own life, and into relationships. How do you take what is good from a life within a community of faith—a community that teaches you what the categories of reality are, how you understand the world—and leave behind the toxicity or false categories? Is it necessary to reject the community and its teachings utterly? Tippett said she had found it necessary to move away from religion for a period of about ten years; separation can be useful in separating things out.

“The lessons of my grandfather are good examples of how to integrate the categories, though,” she said. “My grandfather formed me in the ways he was living, not just what he was saying. He had a great sense of humor, and he was passionate and very loving. I was able to internalize that God is love, even if my grandfather’s teachings sometimes made that difficult. I learned we are formed more by the things that are embodied rather than the things that are said.”

She speaks of her grandfather as a man of rules, too, so many rules. She laughs easily about it now. “He always knew, and so we always knew, what you could or couldn’t do. Things like drinking and card playing were part of the rules. He believed that the world was full of temptations, and you had to stay on your guard. When I moved away, I learned that the world is full of temptation, but it’s also full of beauty.”

The moving away was before the public radio program, though—way before, in fact. Tippett went to a debate event in Chicago. Sometimes you see something that opens up your imagination or your experience to much larger realities. Chicago has had that effect on many, many people. With all respect and necessary apologies to New York City and Los Angeles, Chicago has always been the quintessential American city in ways those two behemoths never were, most importantly in its ability to woo middle Americans and then launch them into a broader understanding of how damn big this country and the world are.

While in Chicago, Tippett made a friend who was headed to Providence, RI, to attend Brown University. Almost inexplicably, the small town girl applied for acceptance to the Ivy League school. The lack of fear sort of defines her orientation to the world, though. She said she just wanted to get out of the small town in which she grew up, and that impulse resonates with smart, precocious kids in small towns all over the world. She was accepted to Brown, and moved to Providence.

From there, the story has been documented several times in several places, including her study at Yale and the student exchange program that placed her in communist East Germany, a semester that would help her flesh out her broad-minded perspective on being human.

“I was in a place—divided Berlin—where very literally a geopolitical line had been drawn that separated people and contrasting worldviews,” Tippett said. “The question of how to order human society was being answered by people and policies in very high places. I was working with people who developed those policies, including policies related to nuclear arms, and the more I worked in that divided place, the less convinced I became that the policies or lines told the whole story.”

At this point, it’s fair to mention that I introduced the idea that a parallel might possibly be drawn between the Wall that divided Berlin and the wall that seemingly divides our nation. The interview took place the day after the General Election, after all, so it’s difficult to talk about geopolitical divides without talking about Trump-Clinton and the American body politic. While not specifically addressing the election—that’ll come later—she did talk about a remarkable observation that, like many things she addresses, seemed obvious after she said it.

“Part of the story was that people on the wrong side of the good/evil divide created lives of beauty and dignity, while people on the good side were pretty empty,” she said. “The important thing is to avoid placing people into geopolitical categories.”

Of course we shouldn’t do that, but America is eaten alive with cries of “fascist,” “libtard,” “Nazi,” and “ecoterrorist,” all variations on the top-tier categories in our political taxonomy: conservative and liberal.

Tippett studied history, but unlike most historians, she is not convinced that the old adage is correct that learning from history helps us to avoid repeating it. In that sense, she certainly does not have a messianic view of education; it won’t necessarily save us from ourselves.

“I don’t think knowing something happened will create a changed reality,” she said. “We are aware of political events, but it’s not about politics; it’s about human beings.”

This is the thrust of all that she does, this parsing of the ontological question: what does it mean to be human? We defy categorization, because categories are meant to make the world more intelligible, but often they simply obscure the truth of how wonderful and how complex humans can be. You can read in her writing and hear in her questions the voracious curiosity combined with the gentlest tone that drive the quest, and she is clearly convinced that religion does not hold all the answers; it’s just a good place to look. She has interviewed scientists and politicians and educators, people from multiple disciplines, but she has not done so with them as means to an end, but with a fascination and love for humans.

“We are never at our best when we’re in a state of fear,” she said. I’d asked her to diagnose our present circumstance, both politically and ontologically—we both studied theology and these questions are the things that keep theology nerds awake. “Technology and globalization have uprooted everything that gave meaning to our lives. The institutions we believed helped us understand the world have been uprooted, too, and basic issues are being redefined. The process has been very unsettling to human beings.”

This is not a jeremiad; she’s a quester, not a prophet of doom. The uprooting hasn’t destroyed everything; it’s simply made them more confusing, and the things and institutions that helped us understand the world are mostly suspect right now. Absent the clear institutional answers we used to have—the “thus sayeth the Lord” in the mouths of our parents and pastors and teachers—human beings look for meaning and structure in new and scary places, or they look to the past. This sums up the recent election, I think, and it’s here that she finally agreed to talk about it, even if a bit tangentially.

“The dynamics of the election come back to that state of fear we’re experiencing,” she said. “We can talk about who gets elected, but the more important question is who we are. Going forward we need to ask ‘What is the common life and what questions do we ask in common?’ We must dwell on those questions across the divides, and that requires human work, not policies.”

Note that she did not say dwell on the answers. For Tippett, the asking and the discussing is primary. Answers seem, if anything, to be pauses in human discourse, setting us up for the the inevitable, “Yeah, but…” that leads to the next questions. Her new book has something to say about that, too. She said she noticed that the one word that kept coming up when she interviewed people was “wisdom,” and happily, it’s one of the virtues that we can all achieve. It may be the virtue of saints, but it happens to be available to sinners as well.

“Wisdom emerges in the raw materials of life,” she said. “It’s possible for all of us to achieve it.”

So she wrote a book about it, and she tells stories, of course, because stories have always been great repositories of truth, even if they weren’t exactly true stories. Wisdom is not an immediate virtue, though; it takes time to cultivate, so I asked her what virtues we need going forward, post-election.

“Compassion. It’s too soon for love and forgiveness; those take time, and most people are not there yet, so we start small, with manageable things. Like kindness. It’s a kind action in the moment. We can manage that. Hospitality, too. I don’t have to love someone or agree with someone to extend hospitality; it just acknowledges we share a world and often need hospitality.”

Listening was the big one, though, the one we all need, and Tippett is afraid we’ve unlearned it. “Our culture has formed us to go into a room with an opinion, to advocate for our position and identity, and that is not necessarily good for the skill of listening. Also, I think that we can’t ask everyone on every side to be ready to do all this yet. Some people feel threatened, rightly, and those of us who hold a space where people come together need to foster listening. We have to be in relationships and not shut people out who disagree.”

Tippett has connected with Oklahoma again in ways she didn’t expect. Her son is attending the University of Oklahoma, so she’s learning about people and projects happening here that were unknown to her before. When she left, she really left, but she still carries some of the understanding of Oklahomans with her.

“After the election, I was headed back to Minneapolis with a group of journalists who were stunned at the results,” she said. “I wasn’t. I am grateful that Oklahoma is my roots, as it helps me understand a part of the country that is not well understood where I live now.”