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Krista Tippett is the presenter of the popular On Being podcast, which is estimated to attract 1.5million listeners worldwide. In the programme, Tippett interviews poets, theologians, activists, neuroscientists, philosophers and more to “explore the animating questions at the centre of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?”. Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living is an attempt to collect the best of those conversations, and a chance for Tippett to reflect personally on what she’s learnt through her practice of “generous listening”.
I was able to interview Krista while chairing an event recently at the Royal Society of Arts. A colleague, sitting in the audience, got chatting to an RSA fellow attending, who was astonished that someone from a religion think tank should be involved, saying “I just fail to understand what religion has to do with wisdom”.
Both Krista in person at the RSA and the book itself are a firm rebuttal to this perspective. Tellingly, the podcast was originally called ‘Speaking of Faith’, and although clearly written for a generalist (i.e. predominantly non–religious) audience, the loose structure of Words, Flesh, Love, Faith and Hope gives both more pages and more deep contemplation to Faith than to any other area. She says “I love the deep savvy about hope that religion tends, its reverence for the undervalued virtue of beauty, its seriousness about the common human experience of mystery”. She manages to sound convincing to twenty–first century, highly educated ears when she argues that “spiritual life is a reasonable, reality based pursuit…it acknowledges the full drama of the human condition. It attends to beauty and pleasure, it attends to grief and pain and the enigma of our capacity to resist the very things we long for and need”. By the end, the RSA audience member seemed closer to convinced that religion might indeed have something to do with wisdom.
Tippett is motivated by a “moral equation” drawn from Einstein. One of the many memorable passages tells us that the nobel prize winner started his life with faith predominantly in the scientific endeavour to bring about social good “ a community of cosmic endeavour that should transcend tribal rivalries and national boundaries.” Following the conflicts of the mid–twentieth century, he thought science had become “like a razor blade in the hands of a three year old”, and turned his attention instead to “geniuses in the art of living– Gandhi and Moses, Jesus, Buddha and St Francis of Assisi”.
Her interviews with today’s “spiritual geniuses” (who “do not have publicists”) make for a rich and engaging collection.
In conversation with Elizabeth Alexander, the black poet made famous by her appearance at President Obama’s inauguration, she muses on the importance of the words we use, of “language that shimmers, individual words with power”. The central word used to help us live with our increasingly deep difference, tolerance is, Tippett thinks, “too small a word…to make the world we want to live in now”. She chooses “common life” over “public life”, and with Mennonite civil rights veteran Vincent Harding, goes further, wondering if like Martin Luther King we should instead be aiming for “the beloved community”. The Vincent Harding section is one of the most quotable– he explains how King and his fellow campaigners spent hours developing the theology behind the movement, and role playing as white policeman and bystanders to allow them to empathise with those they were trying to persuade. After four little black girls were killed in the firebombing of a church, King made “one of the most radical statements I’ve ever encountered…. ‘we must not lose faith in our white brothers’”. The contrast of a thought–out, empathy led approach which refused to “other” opponents seems stark against some of today’s identity based protest movements.
With geophysicist Xavier Le Pinchon she discusses how important “ a capacity to accommodate fragility” is within “vital , evolving systems, whether geological or human”.
Philosopher Anthony Appiah addresses how we should deal with difference– by “sidling up to it…make[ing] a human connection…simple association, habits of co–existence”, rather than going, as we in the west often do, for “for the jugular, or even for dialogue, straight to the things that divide you”.
John Paul Lederach, a conflict resolution practioner, offers the memorable idea of “critical yeast”. Within social change theory we are obsessed with “critical mass”, large numbers of people or leaders, but he believes change comes first through small, unlikely groups of people in unexpected relationships. These “yeasty groups” refuse to buy into the “us against you” narrative, and are defined by courage and creativity.
With Brene Brown she discusses the research demonstrating “hope is a function of struggle” (echoing Romans 5:35) and with Rabbi Sacks the Judeo–Christian idea of the Dignity of Difference. In all these conversations Tippett is panning for “virtues and rituals” which she sees as “spiritual technologies for being our best selves in flesh and blood, time and space”. The “best selves” grates– reminiscent of hair dye adverts and clean eating advocates, but what she actually means by it is something deeper. The book is asking a deeply Christian question (and Christianity, she says, is her “mother tongue and homeland” in her quest for wisdom) – “how love can be practical, creative and sustained as a social good, not merely a private good”.
While the nature of the subject matter (faith, love, hope, virtue, wisdom, goodness) means the text hovers perilously close to sentimentalism and banality at a few points, her desire to ground and interrogate these moral questions keeps it provocative and digestible.
It’s not a perfect book – I initially found it rather frustrating. The structure is too loose and the material too diverse for easy reading. Tippett’s prose ranges from the succinct and compelling (“The great traditions, in all their fraught, lumbering majesty, become comprehensible for me again”) to the awkwardly over written, as she wrestles valiantly to pin complex concepts to the page.
However, once I stopped looking for a thesis, I could begin to relish its scrapbook, dip–in–and–out nature. I enjoyed Tippett’s thoughtful, intelligent voice, respected across many disciplines and lines dividing the religious from the non–religious, and also her passionate appeal for a deeper approach to life. I will return to quote her wise conversation partners for many years to come.
“Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living“ is written by Krista Tippett and published by Penguin