On Being’s Krista Tippett
on journalism, compassion, and exposing virtue
By Timothy Cahill
As the shape and meaning of religious journalism expands in the twenty-first century, Krista Tippett has emerged as among the field’s most influential pioneers. On Being, her hour-long public radio interview program, invites theologians, scientists, artists, activists, writers, social scientists, academics, philosophers, and seekers of all description into in-depth interviews or “conversations,” as she prefers, on foundational questions about the meaning of life. A decade ago, few radio professionals would have identified this concept as the basis for a successful radio show, but today On Being is carried by 334 public radio stations nationwide, while the podcast version has 1.5 million downloads a month. In 2014, President Obama presented Tippett with a National Humanities Medal for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.”
The program began as Speaking of Faith in 2003, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal. In 2010, the title was changed to On Being because, “we were not speaking of faith as much as speaking from faith,” Tippett told me in November, during her visit to Yale sponsored by the Institute of Sacred Music. I was escorting her back to her hotel after a long day that included a lunchtime meeting with students, an early evening address in Battell Chapel, a public interview with poet and ISM instructor Christian Wiman, a book signing, and dinner with faculty and others. The visit was a homecoming for Tippett, who received the M.Div. from Yale Divinity School in 1994.
On Being addresses questions of religion, spirituality, and theology, but the faith it speaks from is not one of canons and creeds, but ideals and ethics. Tippett herself remains a person of faith in the usual sense, though just what the nature or practice of her religious life is she does not much discuss. As a journalist, her concerns are grounded not so much in metaphysics as in a quality perhaps best summed up by an ancient concept, “nobility.”
The term works in describing both the atmosphere of excellence that pervades Tippett’s program and the ethical values it embodies. Tippett’s guests represent an aristocracy of a certain mode of conduct and inquiry, one marked by honor, integrity, generosity, decency, awareness, engagement, aspiration, and compassion. One listens to the program each week not merely for the specific expertise of its guests, but also for the quality of attention of its host. Tippett’s interviews are designed not to elicit information or invite opinion, but through conversation to collaboratively participate in what she calls “lived virtue.”
Tippett’s code of attention and virtue are what drew several hundred people from the Yale community and New Haven at large to see her in Battell Chapel, and it is what drew me to help organize a student-only lunch-time interview at Yale Divinity School with “Krista,” as everyone familiarly refers to her. The hour-long luncheon included some forty ISM and YDS students gathered over sandwiches in a seminar room, where I led the informal question-and-answer session. Tippett was unguarded among her fellow divvies, several times provoking knowing laughter with asides only a divinity student would find funny. She spoke fluently and with candor about herself and the issues that animate her work.
Tippett was raised in Oklahoma beside a “Southern Baptist grandfather” and preacher whose religion “was all about rules, and his heaven was very small. Even Methodists weren’t getting in.” Despite his fundamentalist astringency (“He had a second-grade education. The life of the mind was a scary thing for him.”), her grandfather was also “the funniest person I knew. He was the most passionate person I knew. And I realize that in formulating my image of God … there’s a sense in which I think I do what I do for him. I got my theological education for him.”
In the 1980s, Tippett worked for a time as a freelance journalist in Berlin, writing about the Cold War for international publications including the New York Times, then left reporting to serve as chief aide to the U.S. Ambassador to West Germany. Her time on both sides of the Berlin Wall provoked a kind of spiritual identity crisis, though at the time she “didn’t have the vocabulary” to name it. Amid the wealth and freedom of the West, she observed a kind of existential lassitude, while in the East, which seemed all scarcity and threat, she met people who “created lives of beauty and dignity and intimacy.” Likewise, her diplomatic work placed her in the midst of nuclear weapons negotiations, “rooms where men were literally holding life and death in their hands, only they weren’t talking about life and death, they were talking about power plays.”
“I felt so despairing about that,” she told the YDS students. “It was at that point I started asking spiritual questions, but it was probably a year before I started calling them that. I was surprised to be taking religion seriously for myself and the world, and I wanted to think it through.”
She came to Yale because, “if [taking religion seriously] was what I was going to hand my life over to … I had to make sure it had heft and intellectual content and the life of the mind, and that the complexity of the world was being addressed. From day one I found that to be true in my professors and what I was learning and what I was asking.”
What follows are brief moments from the hour-long luncheon, redacted for clarity. The questions below (in italics) are mine, and proceed more or less chronologically from first to last. But I begin with a question asked by a fellow student near the end of the gathering, about Tippett’s process of preparing and conducting her radio conversations. At no point was Tippett’s ethos of nobility more evident than in her reply, which began by describing her “huge preparation,” then went on to explain why she goes to such measures.
Krista Tippett: Of course I want to understand what people know and what they’ve done and what they might have to say that’s interesting, but I really want to have a sense going in of how they think. How they think, not what they believe. That is going to create a better conversation, but also, I think of it as a form of hospitality, creating a hospitable space. This is something that communicates itself palpably, and there’s this relaxation that happens physically and intellectually and emotionally. Most of my interviews, I’m not sitting in a room with [the guests], they’re actually coming in through my headphones. It’s amazing technology, very intimate. It’s a wonderful thing to have that discipline of working just with the human voice and all that it can hold and convey. I find, interestingly, that even if they’re sitting in a studio in San Francisco or Australia, that people sink into that hospitality. I have a lot of notes in front of me, but I want to be surprised. Because the better prepared you are, the better prepared you are for [the conversation] to take its own course and to really be able to go there with them. A conversation … is a very intimate thing and a great adventure. It’s a huge thing to walk into that space with someone else.
Timothy Cahill: Many of us arrive at divinity school not quite knowing where it will lead us. When you were here, how much did you know about why you were at Yale?
KT: I really had no clue, but I did know I was going to be taking this endeavor, this set of questions, this kind of rigor of looking at the world and at myself, and see how it applied out in the world. It was the lived theology that I was drawn to.
When I started the radio show, I took all my books from Yale Divinity School. I knew I was the only public radio host with concordances and Greek-English translations. I was not just interviewing Christians, but the foundation of being able to think theologically, and read sacred texts, with all the [critical] ways of uncovering layers of meaning, that was an incredible skill-set to apply in many other directions. I knew I was getting that here, even though I didn’t have any idea what the application would look like.
Did being at divinity school change your relationships with friends and professional colleagues? Were they puzzled by it, or did they suddenly regard you with suspicion?
That’s what I expected, and I went to some people with great trepidation about how they would respond. What I found instead, most of the time, is that people came out of the closet, that it turned out they also had a spiritual life. And they had never talked about it with anybody in those same circles. That’s the person I am—I walk into a room and people come out of the closet with their spiritual lives! In some ways I’ve helped public radio listeners come out of the closet.
And programmers too. I’ve heard there was a lot of resistance to your program. It had no real precedent in broadcast journalism or public affairs programming, at least on public radio.
Yes, there was a lot of allergic reaction: “You can’t do this;” “It will make people mad;” “It will be exclusionary;” “It will be proselytizing;” “It won’t be intelligent.” I actually understood where they were coming from, because I couldn’t say, “Well look, it’s working over here.” We had to demonstrate it, and for that we had to have a few people who got it and were willing to risk trying it.
You still exist somewhat uneasily in the world of journalism—
—one foot in, one foot out. In your memoir Speaking of Faith, you quote Miroslav Volf on the difference between what he calls “thin” religion, which is a sort of veneer of dogmas over personal or cultural self-interests, and “thick” religion, which has texture and depth, and you write of your work: “The complexity, paradox, and gentleness of thick, lived religion can elude the calculus of politics and journalism. I’m out to investigate thick religion. I’m out to expose virtue.” Would you speak more about that work?
Yes. In the context of journalism, which sets the tone for a lot of our culture, we reserve our highest critical faculties for analyzing what is catastrophic, corrupt, inadequate, broken. There is a place for that. But if you think about the force and effect of journalism on us as individuals and in common life, there’s the idea that journalists are writing the first draft of history. I like to think we are telling the story of our time. It’s not the whole story. I once, early on, was interviewed somewhere and said we had too narrow an idea of the news, and a New York Times correspondent said, “Well, the definition of news is the extraordinary thing that happened today, and that’s a useful definition.” And it may be a useful definition, but the way it has been interpreted and practiced is not just the extraordinary thing that happened today, but the extraordinarily terrible thing that happened today.
And now we inhabit a twenty-four hour news cycle, where the extraordinarily terrible things that happened today come at us from twenty-five different directions before dinner, and the pictures are immediate and raw, and so we are seeing people frozen in the worst moments of their lives, with no sense of how they are going to get up the next day and keep living and loving, as so many of them will. And consequently, no sense of how we can respond with compassion. Journalism—not that journalists want this—but journalism in the twenty-first century, as it has met technology in the twenty-first century, has become a demoralizing, debilitating medium in terms of its effect on us.
When I say I want to expose virtue, I’m very aware that it’s hard to make virtue as interesting, as riveting, as the terrible things. So there is a discipline that I’m still exploring, and I think we all have to explore in whatever we do, of talking about goodness and virtue and embodying those things with the complexity that they have, so that they feel relevant and telling and people start to see them. Those terrible things that happen are true and real, and there’s a bigger story.
You have spoken eloquently on the subject of compassion. I am thinking particularly in your 2010 TED talk delivered at the United Nations, where you said that “compassion has been hollowed out in my field of journalism.” The talk goes on to make a distinction between tolerance and compassion, and observes that tolerance, the “core civic virtue” with which we approach diversity, is “too cerebral to animate the guts and heart and behavior when the going gets rough.” I commend everyone to find and listen to the entire talk, but would you condense your thinking on the subject here?
That’s something I think about a lot. In the 1960s, this country experienced genuine diversity for the first time. We had an explosion of diversity of all kinds, [because] we had the Immigration Act of 1965, which no one ever talks about … This gave us religious diversity, intellectual, cultural, ethnic diversity. We had racial diversity—of course we’d had racial diversity all along, but we acknowledged it in a new way—and diversity of idea and orientation and belief. This was new, and tolerance was the civic virtue we adopted, and it was the right virtue to adopt. But it was a baby step. Tolerance was a way of saying, “Okay, everybody’s in the room now.” But what tolerance does—it allows, it indulges, it endures; in a medical context, tolerance is about the limits of thriving in an unfavorable environment. So it’s a fine civic virtue and we still need it today, but it’s not big enough to create the world I think everyone in this room wants to be living in and helping to lead. It’s not only that [tolerance] doesn’t call us to compassion, it’s that it doesn’t even invite us to be curious about each other, or to be surprised by each other, much less invite us to love of stranger or love of enemy. And in this twenty-first century interconnected world, the basic question of what it means to be human is inextricable from who we are to each other. That’s the frontier we’re on now. Tolerance still needs to be in there, but those of us who have a bigger vision have to claim something much bigger and more complex.
I don’t think we always have to have common ground. I don’t think we are going to get on the same page. I think a challenge now, which really goes beyond tolerance, is to say we really may not agree, and my job is not to talk you into my way of seeing things, and I’m not here to compromise what I stand for. And yet, we share life together. So, if nothing else, what questions are we both holding? Is there a way we can live forward out of this moment? If what matters is not the agreement we reach or the common ground we rush to, but how we conduct ourselves and who we are to each other, even when we are very different. I can’t help but imagine we will together create a world better than a world that is built on who lost the last round and me being with my tribe.
How do we activate the energy being generated by all the change-makers in the world, including the people on your program? How does all that disparate energy get directed toward change?
That’s a question I’m holding now too. The poet Rilke is a real mentor to me, and Rilke said [we] should love the questions themselves, like locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. You have to live the questions now because you can’t answer them. Live the questions until one day without noticing it you may live your way into an answer. I think every age sort of overstates its specialness. We don’t live in a more harrowing age than a hundred years ago, with world wars and global depressions and fascism. We don’t. But our challenges are existential in a new way, and I think a hallmark of our age is that we have these vast open questions that we don’t have answers for and will not be on the same page about for generations, maybe. And that’s stressful for human beings in a whole other way … and so it brings out fear, it brings out our worst behavior, when what we need to do is rise to our best.
There are so many amazing initiatives in the world right now, so many people who are breaking out [beyond] tolerance, leading creatively, creating new models that are planting goodness and virtue. There’s this proliferation of good. How do we start connecting those dots more effectively? How do we turn that proliferation into cross-pollination? I created my own independent production company two years ago, and this is a question we are asking. How can a media project be a dot-connector, be a curator and a cartographer? I don’t have the answer, but the reason I [brought up] Rilke is that I believe there is value in putting a good question out into the world. We’re so answers-focused in this culture, it shuts down a lot of discernment and deliberation. So that is a question I’m holding, and I’d like to hold it with all of you.
~Timothy Cahill is an M.A.R. candidate in religion and literature (2016) at the ISM and Yale Divinity School.
A past fellow of the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism,
he served as photography critic and arts correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor
and founded the Center for Documentary Arts in upstate New York.