Public radio host Krista Tippett covers the Big Think beat better than anybody in my business.
Every week on “On Being,” this Yale Divinity School grad with the made-for-public-radio voice digs deep, exploring mystery, tradition, consciousness and a hundred other things with theologians, scientists and philosophers.
Tippett is coming to Charlotte on Monday (March 18) – it’ll be her first visit – to speak at Queens University of Charlotte (7 p.m. in Dana Auditorium; tickets are free). And I’m happy to report that, during our recent phone chat, she was just as penetrating and articulate as she is on her show. (It’s carried on 250 stations, including Charlotte’s WFAE, 90.7 FM, where it airs Sundays at 7 a.m.)
An Oklahoma native whose grandfather was a Southern Baptist preacher, she’s now an Episcopalian who’s “between churches.” And that much-admired voice? “I can’t stand to listen to myself,” she said with a laugh.
Tippett talked with me about everything from Jesuits (the Catholic order that produced Pope Francis) to her upcoming Easter show (on how the civil rights movement was more religious than political) to science and religion (and how they often complement each other).
Q. What are you going to tell your audience in Charlotte?
I'm going to talk about my thinking about science and religion. Basically, I think we've conducted a kind of false, contrived debate (between them) in our culture. We've set up a division that is not real or necessary, but it's entrenched, we're used to it and we know how to conduct it. I don't find it to be useful and I have personally found it incredibly exciting to hear the echoes across these two spheres. This is also some of the programming that our listeners can't get enough of.
This week, because of the new pope, I've been thinking about Jesuits (the religious order that produced the pope). One of my favorite interviews of all time was with these two Jesuit astronomers. One of them ran the Vatican Observatory and the other is the director of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory. Both of them have asteroids named after them, which is actually a big honor. They live in this rich intersection of being scientists and being people of faith. And finding those things to be mutually enlivening, even joyful, and not at all in contradiction. I just think that's a story that hasn't been told.
Q. You mean the false debate of science vs. religion?
Yes. And the other thing that I am totally fascinated about and am totally following is how in fields like neuroscience and biology and physics even, scientists -- whether they're religious or not -- are making observations about what it means to be human, about the cosmos, and about our place in the cosmos.
They're posing the kind of questions that, up to now in human history, theologians and philosophers posed. You can put aside the old debate about religion and evolution. There are really fruitful, mutually fascinating discussions happening now between neuroscientists who are thinking about the brain and consciousness and religious people who think about consciousness. That is opening up a great deal for all of us -- things about ourselves that we all want to learn more about.
Q. You seem to be the only one pursuing that -- you and maybe Charlie Rose (on PBS). Why are so few journalists mining that?
There's a lot of great coverage of science. There are a lot of people covering what these neuroscientists are doing and what these physicists are doing. But (journalists) are not making the connections between the great human questions that, in fact, these scientists are adding to.
People who are spiritual, who are living in the depths of their (religious) tradition, and scientists who are completely immersed in their passion for science tend not to be the people who throw themselves in front of microphones. It's a lot easier for journalists to find those strident voices who actually make for a good headline
Q. If you could land the new pope for an interview on your show, what do you think you'd ask him?
I don't know enough about him to answer that question. I haven't dug in yet. Maybe I'll say what I am fascinated about are Jesuits, which I do know a little about.
I've never met a Jesuit who wasn't intriguing. And I've met so many people who were educated by Jesuits who really value that and it really formed them, whether they were even religious for the rest of their lives.
(In interviews), I have really experienced Jesuits to be explorers. Throughout history, in the colonial period. at a time when the West was discovering parts of the world, Jesuits were there, literally, being explorers.
And I feel like they're kind of spiritual explorers, too -- searching and thinking beyond the limitations we've maybe boxed ourselves into. They don't seem to be scared of boundaries. That could serve the new pope well.
Q. Are we at a spiritual crossroads? We've seen in polls an increase in "nones" -- people with no religious affiliation. And many young people seem to have questions about organized religion.
On the "nones," I actually take a little bit of a radical view: That some of them may be a crucible of renewing and reforming religion in the coming period.
I tweeted about this a few months ago when some of these polls were out again. I always point out that, if you dig around in those numbers, a very, very small percentage of those growing number of "nones" call themselves atheists.
Q. Exactly. About 2 percent, I think.
Yeah, it's tiny. Anecdotally, I feel that a of of people who (put) themselves in that ("nones") category are pretty vigorous spiritual seekers. And, really importantly, there's a real commitment to service as a core of what they want religion and spirituality to be about. They don't always find (that) in institutions.
I think a lot these days about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany in the mid-20th century. Very, very different circumstances. In his world, the church had been totally co-opted by the (Nazi) government. But he had seen the institution cease to be the carrier of its own heart and soul and its virtues and its theology. And when he was in prison, he started thinking about this notion of a religionless Christianity. His idea was that Christianity brings truths into the world that will survive and be resurrected even as the institutions and the structures and the words fail.
I don't know this for sure, but I do believe there is something in that ("nones") movement that, 50 or 100 years from now, we may look back and say that was a crucible in renewal.
Q. I could imagine that a lot of the people you just described -- the young, spiritual seekers -- are tuning into your show. But I wonder if you're getting many Southern Baptists from Oklahoma -- and yet, that's where you came from.
I have to say that one thing that really pleases me about how the show has evolved is that we do have a great spectrum of listeners. We have really devout Christians, Muslims and Jews, and Buddhists. And then a lot of atheists and agnostics. And we have a good age range: a lot of younger people and also a lot of people at the much older range -- these times when you're asking these big questions in an energetic way.
What I really try to do in the show, whoever I'm interviewing, is honor the depths of faith and traditions and theology. I think that, even as there is a wariness about institutional religion, when you really present people with substance, with the thick of this, with a great theologian, that's an exciting experience. And I like to bring that experience to people.
And I have funny experiences. Like: We have one of our shows, our classic shows, years and years ago, with Jaroslav Pelikan before he died. He was the great historian of doctrine. He did the great work of the 20th century on Christian doctrine. And I cannot tell you how many people, how many Unitarian Universalists (laughs) have said, "That's my favorite show, the show on the creeds."
This is the way interreligious encounter works, when it's profound. It's not a proselytizing thing -- it's not "My religion is more interesting than your religion." When we encounter the religious Other, we learn as much about ourselves as we do about them. I've seen this over and over again. It's a paradox. It's hard to talk about unless people have experienced it.
If people have had this experience, you can become much more deeply and richly planted in your soil at the same time that you have this new appreciation, even awe of this religious Other.
There's no contradiction there. That is a reflection of the reverence for mystery that our traditions call us to at their depth as much as they call us to orthodoxy. I just think it's a creative tension.
Q. You have a divinity degree from Yale. Is your interest in religion these days just scholarly or do you go to church?
It's scholarly and more than scholarly. What I care about with the show is inviting my guests to trace that line between what we know and who we are, the life we lead and the theology and the positions we hold and how they influence each other and change across time.
I walk that line, too. Sometimes people think I wouldn't be able to declare myself, to have a religious life, because I'm a public radio host and a journalist. I think that's kind of a weird bias to hold journalists to when compared to other spheres. You wouldn't trust an economics correspondent who didn't have a bank account. And you wouldn't trust a political correspondent who didn't vote. Now, you still hold people accountable for understanding the boundaries between their personal convictions and professional role. I certainly accept those boundaries.
Christianity is my mother tongue and homeland. And that's just as true now as it was 10 years ago. My life and my spiritual life are so enriched by the people I talk to from many traditions.If I did this work and if I had these conversations I've had and I didn't have a religious life of my own, I don't know what kind of person I would be. I'm in there, I care, right? If someone wants to tell me what they know about leading a worthy life, what they know about God and it's a person of integrity, of course I want to hear that.
I just recently went on a civil rights pilgrimage that was led by (U.S. Rep.) John Lewis, the great civil rights legend. And I sat down with him in Montgomery (Alabama). That show is going to be on Easter. And it was one of the most incredible experiences in my life. One of the things he reminded me of was that the civil rights movement was a religious movement. Faith was absolutely in the forefront. Nonviolence was a spiritual confrontation inside yourself and then with the world outside. It was about love of enemies. We have completely changed this memory collectively. We've turned it into a political movement and (Dr. Martin Luther) King into an activist. Everything there started and ended in churches. Every march. The music was as important as the agenda.
We've whitewashed this out of a lot of our memory about who we are as a culture. But I'm committed to being part of that, that substantive place of these ideas and these virtues in a public life. I'm part of that personally as well as professionally.
Q. Do you identify with any church?
Right now, I'm kind of like a lot of people -- I'm kind of between churches. I grew up Southern Baptist. I became an Episcopalian, or Anglican, when I was living in England. Technically, I'm Episcopalian. But I don't really have a church right now that I feel great about. I will again. I moved a few years ago and haven't found a place.
Q. Your voice seems to match your show's focus on mystery and depth. Is that natural?
It's very strange to me that people talk about my voice. I was really insecure about my voice when I started this because I hadn't done radio before. And I didn't have a radio voice. And if you listen to interviews I did 10 years ago, I sound like the same person. But if you listen to me doing the script and narration introducing the show, I sound really uptight because I was. I found it incredibly nerve-wracking and traumatizing to do that piece of it.
I finally realized that a radio voice is just a real voice. When people talk to me about my voice now -- I can't stand to listen to myself. I can't listen to a show when it's on radio.I think something happens when you hear a voice come out of the radio. It's like an aura illusion -- not an optical illusion, but an aural illusion. Now the ironic thing is that when a person says to me "You have such a great voice for radio, such a great voice for the subject," I just think it's because it's evolved and your hear it and it seems to sound right.
This is a very funny topic for me, because I'm essentially insecure about it.
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