Krista Tippett is a journalist and host of On Being, an award-winning public radio conversation and podcast that aims to open up “the animating questions at the center of human life.” She is the author of Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters and How to Talk About It; Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit; and, most recently, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. In 2014, she received the National Humanities Medal at the White House for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.”
Tippett recently spoke with S&H about the power of questions, the spiritual seeking of millennials, and the relationship between darkness and hope.
In Becoming Wise you write, “I’m a person who listens for a living.” But before you listen, you ask questions for a living. Where do your questions come from?
In addition to listening to the guests each week, part of the On Being project is to listen to the culture in a larger sense. This helps us decide who to interview. This listening before the listening also means that I do a lot of preparation before speaking with a guest. This preparation is, to me, an act of hospitality. It’s part of creating a space that is going to feel gracious and full of richer possibility. This leads to questions that are not only interesting to me but that are going to be interesting to them, questions that will spark them, questions that they will enjoy giving their minds over to.
Listening is about being present. When I say that I listen for a living, I mean that I try to bring all of myself to listening in order to honor and draw out the best of someone else’s fullness.
You just shared a little bit about your process for how you come up with specific questions for your guests, but I get the impression that a larger sense of questioning is an important aspect of your work. Perhaps you feel similarly to the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who talks about loving and living the questions. I have always been drawn to that sentiment but find it difficult in practice. Can you talk about living with questions that you don’t have answers to?
When I talk about spiritual life being animated by questions, I’m partly trying to make room for questions in our public imagination, which has been dominated by people who have answers—often noisy and strident answers.
I’m trying to open that up a little and reveal that part of us that is searching. I think spiritual life can be at its richest and most intense in the moments when we really don’t know, when we are all questions, where we are all confusion, where things don’t add up and there’s no fixing or solving the situation. One thing we’re trying to do, I think, is to wrest wisdom out of those moments, and then figure out how to attend to them and walk through the other side of hard experiences. When I think of living the questions in those moments, I think the way we form our questions and take care with them really makes a difference; it really pays off.
I find questions to be very powerful things to dwell with. I think the questions we’re asking are shaping the direction we’re moving in as much as the answers we’re formulating. For me, questions go hand-in-hand with actively moving forward.
What if your question is, “What’s the best thing I can do with my life?” How can you really live that question in a meaningful way without having an answer to it?
The question of what it means to lead a good life is always there—it’s large and nagging in the background—but there’s a lot of specificity in terms of how you approach it. You approach that question based on what you’re doing now, what you’ve learned, what you’ve done that interests you, and what you’ve done that you will definitely not do again. I don’t think that questioning what you’re doing at any time should paralyze you. It can help you refine your path while staying open to possibility. I absolutely think of it as a companion to having your feet on the ground and walking forward.
One thing that intrigues me is that emerging generations seem less narrowly focused on the question What do I want to do? and are making room in that question for Who do I want to be? and How am I present in whatever I’m doing? These are questions about the work of cultivating character, virtue, vocation, and your inner life, which is something larger than your job description. It’s something that you cultivate across a lifetime and the work doesn’t necessarily have effects that you can see right away.
We can practice living into questions about who and how we want to be just as much as we can practice what we want to do, recognizing that there’s a lot of pressure on the latter end of that equation. We have to develop spiritual muscle memory around these things that are not very familiar and not supported culturally.
But we spend all of this time at our jobs. How can we properly honor the who when so much of our energy has to go toward the what?
This is one of the important and practical spiritual questions for our time. If we are engaging human wholeness in all its complexity and understanding that even at work we’re whole people, how can we nurture that and also keep intact the kinds of practical boundaries that we all understand to be necessary in a workplace?
These are hard questions. One thing I like to think about is the notion of vocation, which is our calling as human beings. During the 20th century we narrowly defined vocation as your job title, but your calling is more closely related to what you care about. Vocation will change across a lifetime and, at any given moment, can be as much about being a parent or friend or spouse or child as about your job. It can be about how we’re of service. It can be about how you are present in any kind of workplace that might not qualify as “meaningful work,” but it’s what you contribute with your presence, which can be transformative for those around you. You can constantly be making somebody’s day better.
I think it’s a problem when you’re not taking seriously those parts of your life where you are actively working out the who and how parts of your life.
You mentioned the importance of developing spiritual muscle memory to create balance between these pursuits. Do you have specific practices that you do?
At different points in my life, the answer to that question would be different. At this particular moment, I have a number of things that, pieced together, nurture me spiritually. I have a very modest morning meditation of six to 10 minutes. For me, letting it be OK that I only do six to 10 minutes has meant that I actually do it. I also have a yoga practice, which I don’t think of as very spiritual—but then I’m often in danger of being in my own head, and yoga helps me get into my body.
I work with what is given to me. This means working on my relationships with my children, friends, and colleagues. I don’t have a traditional spiritual community, but I think that I bring a different intentionality to those relationships in my life right now. I also have my On Being conversations, which are nourishing and will often have a kind of healing effect.
So you find your job to be spiritually fulfilling.
Yes, but I will also say that I worry when people romanticize my job and imagine that all I do is sit around and have beautiful conversations. It’s still a job. In addition to the conversations, I’m doing administration, managing people, and raising money. I’m very fortunate to have that spiritually nourishing aspect of my work, but it’s still something that I have to let in. I don’t have a totally contemplative lifestyle, by any stretch.
Pew Research Center numbers suggest that younger people are moving away from religious traditions. But, as we’ve been discussing, younger people are still clearly interested in questions that have typically been explored in the context of religion. Do you think that religious traditions are becoming obsolete?
First of all, I don’t think any of us in this country should be surprised that people who were growing up in the 1980s and 1990s—which was a moment of incredibly toxic, strident religious speech in American life—should be coming to adulthood wary of religious certainties and kind of allergic to stridency. So I think we’re seeing a reasonable response to history that you can trace.
Thirty percent of people under 30, and a growing percentage of the population at large, when asked a multiple-choice question—and let’s keep that fact in mind—“What is your religious affiliation?” answer, “None.” So the Pew poll calls them the “Nones.” Well, the first thing I’ll note is that our media space is filled with nones. We just did some audience research and found that something like 25 percent of the audience that has joined On Being in the last year are millennials, and almost 50 percent are under age 44, which is the opposite of what’s happening in public media and in religious institutions.
It’s dangerous to generalize about an entire demographic, but my experience is that within these groups that we call millennials and “Nones,” there’s a huge amount of spiritual searching. There is even overt theological curiosity and, beyond that, a deep desire to be of service. I actually think that the “Nones” of this age are our corollary of the early monastics of the great traditions—who, we forget, started out in spiritual renewal movements also critical of religion that had lost its spiritual core and become coopted by empire.
I actually think that it’s possible that this group of people will call our traditions back to their own deepest heart. I don’t know that I will be around to see how it turns out, but I would love to see what happens a hundred years from now. I think religion is evolving. I don’t think the best of the traditions will go away, but they are undergoing a transformation. When I see this group that people call “Nones,” I don’t see the death of religion in that—I see its potential redemption.
Do you think there’s any danger of the “Nones” simply cherry-picking what they like from traditions and ignoring things that don’t comfortably fit into their worldviews?
Yes, I do. I remember hearing a theologian a few years ago talk about “spiritual promiscuity.” But, to generalize again, I think that there was more of a tendency for people in the New Age movement to say things like, “I’ll take Sabbath and this Native American ritual and I’ll meditate.” They might cobble together a spirituality that incorporated a lot of things but was superficial about all of them.
I sense a longing for depth right now. So while people may be emerging unmoored from traditions, wisdom is more accessible than it’s ever been. It used to be held by experts, clergy, and monastics. What I see now is that people might start down a path and then they want to go deeper by becoming engaged in ritual, community, text, and teaching. We are all explorers when it comes to this part of our life, and I would be the last person to ridicule how anyone works this out. But I think there are stereotypes about spiritual seeking that suggest a greater degree of fluffiness than I actually see in most of the people who might call themselves seekers.
One of the reasons I’m drawn to On Being is that you don’t shy away from complexity or even dark subject matter. But even though you sometimes explore dark terrain, by the end of the show I feel uplifted and hopeful. Can you talk about the relationship between darkness and hope?
When the worst happens in human society, human beings know how to rise to their best. A great image that is always with me is Dorothy Day at 8 years old, when the San Francisco earthquake hit, and she was in Oakland watching people come across the Bay in boats. She has these eyes of a child and sees that this catastrophe has happened where people are displaced and hurt. But what she also sees is what predictably happens when things go wrong: people rushed out to take care of each other. Somehow they knew how to do it all along—how to be there for strangers and for each other. And she asked this question: “Why can’t we live this way all the time?”
So if I may talk about my own calling, it’s that I want to help nurture a sense that goodness is possible and abundant, despite all evidence to the contrary. We’re better collectively at publicizing and dwelling on the dark parts of life. We’re not as good at honoring and standing before the light that is interwoven with it. The potential to see it is always there.
It’s Hard to Resist a Generous Question.
If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned this: a question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words. Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking a better question.
Here’s another quality of generous questions, questions as social art and civic tools: they may not want answers, or not immediately. They might be raised in order to be pondered, dwelt on, instead. The intimate and civilizational questions we are living with in our time are not going to be answered with answers we can all make peace with anytime soon.
Excerpted from Becoming Wise, by Krista Tippett, published by Penguin Press.
Sam Mowe is a regular contributor to Spirituality & Health. He splits his time between Brooklyn and Garrison, New York, where he lives and works in a former monastery on the Hudson River.