Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.
Krista Tippett: For me, the spiritual task is to befriend reality in all its mess and complexity—to do that with grace. In these voices and lives of wisdom who I speak with and I bring on to the show is people who befriend reality—which has a lot about it, always—that we wouldn't choose, and that we don't like, and that we don't expect, and make a life of meaning from that and with that.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity.
I'm Evan Rosa with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. "All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." These are the words of Jesus to Julian of Norwich, as she laid sick and alone, as you thought she was dying in a 14th Century England that had already lost half of its population to the Black Death just a few years earlier. In 1373, Julian received a series of visions, revelations—she called them showing—while in more or less permanent seclusion as an anchorite, a Christian spiritual ascetic who willingly retreats from society for the sake of prayer. After she survived in the wake of her illness, she wrote these visions down in the first known book of English written by a woman. And they're known today as the Revelations of Divine Love or Divine Showings.
Our guests on the show today is Krista Tippett, the founder and CEO of the On Being Project, nationally syndicated radio and podcast host, who has become known for curating conversations on the art of being human, civil conversations, and social healing. She's a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster, a National Humanities Medalist given to her by Barack Obama in 2014, and a New York times bestselling author. When Krista quoted Julian of Norwich recently on Twitter, what struck me was the parallel context for both Julian of Norwich and us today. She was writing in the wake of a pandemic, amidst political and social and religious upheaval, arguably much worse than our situation today. But the message of "all shall be well" was this aspirational and hopeful message.
It's truly a hope against hope for things unseen from out of the depths of one's being, fighting against a physical, spiritual, and social death. Miroslav Volf invited Krista onto the show to talk about the importance of engaging otherness on the grounds of our common humanity, her personal faith journey from small town Baptists in Oklahoma, to a secular humanism in a divided Cold-War Berlin, and then back to her spiritual homeland and mother tongue of Christianity, but in a more expansive and engaging new way. They discuss the art of conversation, deep listening, cultivating hospitality, the spiritual task of befriending reality, and the challenge of being alone and being together as we seek to live a life worthy of our humanity. Thanks for listening, friends.
Miroslav Volf: Hello, Krista, it's so wonderful to have you on our show, For the Life of the World podcast. It's great to have a conversation with you in particular about what you are doing in this incredible NPR show by the name of On Being. When I listened to it, it always strikes me that what you're doing is a kind of curating conversations on the art of being human. Does that strike you as a right way or near right way to describe what you're trying to do?
Krista Tippett: I'll take it. I like that.
Miroslav Volf: I'm impressed by the diversity of voices on your show and how much space you give to each one of them, or your capacity to enter their worlds and through you, their worlds shine toward the listener—from nuclear physicists to artists, from Buddhist to humanist, from conservative Jews to conservative Muslims and Christians—each with their own take on this art of being human. Is that diversity of conversation part of the understanding of "living as a human is an art?" It's something for which there is no recipe; there's no formula in living it out as a specific concrete human being.
Krista Tippett: Miroslav, I think there was a moment in the early years of the show when it was still called Speaking of Faith, which I think I would call it Speaking of Faith again. I think that was a good title for the early 21th Century. And I really did, at that point, want to create a space for this whole conversation that I couldn't hear anywhere, which was about—yes, it was about faith but all that holds for me and for you, which is about this entire aspect of what it is to be human and this aspect of our life together, that we scarcely have language for or any place to be in dialogue about.
But I think when we started to move to changing the name is when I realized that that language of speaking of faith sounded like we're speaking about something and that it's about certainties and beliefs. And certainties and beliefs are interesting, but they're not the whole picture. And I think what I realized is that what I'm really interested in are the animating questions behind the human enterprise and behind our tradition—so the question of what it means to be human and how we want to live and who we will be to each other. And if I define my curiosity that way, then I have to be listening and looking at such a range of how humanity manifests in lives and disciplines and pursuits.
Miroslav Volf: How do you take yourself into the space where your interlocutors are? What do you think happens to them when you entered that space and let them speak?
Krista Tippett: Part of the simple answer is I do a lot of good old-fashioned homework. I prepare but I see that preparation, I approach that preparation as work of hospitality, intellectual hospitality, creating a hospitable space. And hospitality is a virtue and it's a social art and technology that human beings have created with such complexity and sophistication for inviting the best of other people into the room.
I want to inform myself and immerse myself so that I feel like I know something of what this other person knows, but I think more than that, I'm familiar with a little bit of how they think, how they move through the world. And what we've all had the experience of is when you encounter someone, I think often before any words are spoken, we know at a physical animal level if we're going to have to explain ourselves or defend ourselves, or if we are actually seen, if we are heard. And so I really feel that when I am present to people and I've taken the time and the care I have to try to get inside their heads, and to honor the lives they've lived and the work they do, that really invites them in their fullness into that conversation.
Miroslav Volf: It's almost as if you, in this conversation, embody something of the idea of humanity. I think the kinds of tensions in which we find ourselves, and one of the reasons for the tension at least as I perceive it, is that we know what we want to say, but we don't care to listen to what other people want to say. And I was always fascinated. You must have so many things to say, and yet you in such a disciplined way, keep yourself interested in what they have to say and pull that out. It's almost like a public service that you're doing.
Krista Tippett: Well, thank you. I've actually been thinking this year as I do this longer, I have started to speak more, to insert myself more. I just listened to a conversation. I was quite critical of myself because I think I talked too much. There's a balance because I really am trying to do a conversation and not an interview, not merely an interview. If you're in a conversation, you're not just answering questions. You're also responding to things that the other person says. I do think it's important that I'm also offering things up and I'm having real reactions to what I'm hearing from them. And I'm thinking out loud. And the best effect of that is when that takes the other person outside the sense that they are on the spot or being interviewed, and then they are really in conversation with me.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. So you've got this dual role there. You're both curating the conversation as a whole, but you're also a conversational partner in that conversation, which is a tough thing to do. I was curious as to—with all the diversity of voices present there, can you identify anything that binds various voices that united them, or something like a normative vision of humanity, who we as human beings are?
Krista Tippett: That's a huge question. I think one thing that's important is my primary intention is not to find similarities. My primary intention is to be fascinated by particularities and go deep into that. But then what is so fascinating? I think a lot about Abraham Joshua Heschel's idea of depth theology, and his experience—and you and I have had this experience also—of sometimes having more in common with somebody who is different when you're speaking at the depths. Deeply rooted for him, and you and I have both been active in this sphere as well, in monotheistic traditions. And you can encounter someone who is so deeply rooted in a very particular tradition and sensibility and even exclusive truth claims, and yet here are such powerful echoes. Feel this kinship that is at one in the same time a mystery, given what I just said, but also transcendent.
What I have the experience of in the conversations without going in probing for people to be echoing each other are in fact those echoes. If I think about what binds them, I think the first way I would answer the question is it's an experience of the wholeness of a person in how they join things that seem opposite in this world. I experienced people who are wise who I'm interviewing, who I'm learning from to have a power about them and a tenderness at the same time. That feels really counterintuitive, kind of counter-cultural. And I would say that is a thread across people in many disciplines—many kinds of people and it's in somebody like Desmond Tutu, and it's in somebody like Thích Nhất Hạnh.
The thing that happens really often that I marvel at is how certain themes start to emerge out of very different mouths. So recently, just to give you an example and it happens in periods of time—recently that juxtaposition has been of the struggle, the struggle for many kinds of justice. And I think I want to say wholeness, right? Not just what we have to fight for, but what we have to aspire to, and how hard that is, and how we're in this moment where we have such clarity about what is so woefully unfinished, what has been so profoundly inadequate. But the theme that I'm hearing a lot now is this side-by-side with a commitment to and a seriousness about the struggle, a commitment to and a seriousness about knowing what one has to be joyful—understanding joy, our rootedness in what we love and in what we take delight in as part of the foundation on which we fight for what must be fought for.
And, if I think about that theologically, isn't that the movement of the Psalms? Any individual psalm or the prophets, it's this back and forth and up and down and in and out, but praise and lament are never—they're distinct, but they're never far away from each other. So that's how it works for me that I see these big themes come through and that's just really fascinating, and that's the one that I'm seeing now.
Miroslav Volf: This is really interesting because you mentioned Psalms and Prophets, but you can go straight to Jesus in some ways. And he has a message both of repentance and that repentance in a function of the good news. And good news is what really joy is, in some ways, all about, even discovering good news that's old but it's fresh to you, or something new that's happening, but it's bringing some kind of goodness into one's life. That's really fascinating.
So we talked a little bit about this normative kind of idea of humanity and by that I meant something toward which we as humans should aspire, struggle for, or maybe let something like that happen to us as joy often does. And then there's a descriptive side of humanity, of being human. We look in wonder at what this thing is, called a human being. You do the second part amazingly beautiful, meaning that there is so much wonder about complexity, fine texture of our humanity. Can you speak more about that?
Krista Tippett: About that as the truth of us, that complexity?
Miroslav Volf: Yes. And your experience of hearing it from so many different sides. In each place, the melody of humanity in just slightly different ways.
Krista Tippett: Yes. And I think what fascinates me too is how in our time science has become such a companion for that observation of our complexity; how we, each and every one of us, contradicts ourselves all the time. We confound ourselves. And again, these are observations that theology and our spiritual traditions have been making and helping people tell the truth about themselves. And these things are being born out in neuroscience, and social psychology and evolutionary biology.
I don't know. I did not expect to keep coming back to the Hebrew Bible in this conversation with you. But that's something that I actually loved in the Hebrew Bible—when I came back to religion for the first time after a period away and then ended up at Yale Divinity School—was how there are no storybook heroes in the Bible. The New Testament has a little bit different vibe. It has that Greek things going on. Like it's not showing all the mess. But the Hebrew Bible shows all the mess. And even a figure like King David is so flawed.
And somehow the way I've started through all my conversations—just one way—I'm so hesitant ever to say because I do see the complexity; I have trouble with summarizing things. But for me, the spiritual task is to befriend reality in all its mess and complexity—to do that with grace. And that would also be one way for me to respond to your question of what do I see in these voices and lives of wisdom who I speak with and I bring on to the show, is people who befriend reality—which has a lot about it, always—that we wouldn't choose, and that we don't like, and that we don't expect, and make a life of meaning from that and with that.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. So sensitivity to the fragility, to flawed-ness and yet not letting that occludes the vision of what's so incredibly wonderful; how the two work together; our different sides; and creates concrete human beings that they are.
You mentioned that you were surprised to find yourself going to the Hebrew prophets or Christians Scripture in this conversation. But at one point, I think I recall you saying that Christian faith is your mother tongue. So what did you mean by that?
Krista Tippett: I think that's a way that I try to point at the complexity of my own spiritual lineage at this point in my life after 60 years. Because I grew up going to church three times a week with my Southern Baptist grandfather.
In this immersive Christian environment—and there's much about the emphases and the contours of how the Bible was read—I don't think I was exposed to theology actually the way I would understand that now even being in church three times a week, but I did get a lot of Bible and I guess I got a lot of lived theology. I got a lot of doctrine. I got a lot of rules. And as I've grown older, I think that I become more aware all the time of the gratitude I have for that upbringing, for my preacher grandfather, for the sense that was so strong for me that I have held across my life—even in that period of 10 or 15 years, where I wouldn't say that I was religious or interested in religion—of a sense that there is some kind of order behind all of this, that there is a love that infuses this, and that's something I feel in my body, even though at times intellectually I have to really puzzle over it.
So there's a lot that I respect about the Christian world I grew up in. And there's a lot that has no relevance to the way I make sense of a faith or of my life now. And yet it's my lineage. And then in these decades, I've had many chapters in my life of faith and I think at present there's not a lot—I was going to say there's not a lot that I reject. I guess that's not true. I'd say that I'm not defined by what I reject. I'm very slow to judge anyone else's deep beliefs. But the shape my religious life takes is so different from what I grew up with.
At the moment, it's not really about participation in congregational life. I don't think that will necessarily always be true. I'm very enriched by, especially, my conversations and the spiritual practices I've learned from my Buddhist conversation partners. I'm always inspired by Jewish ritual and theology and Midrash and all of that. I'm inspired by the Islamic mystical tradition and actually a lot about the commitment to daily lived piety in Islam. I could go on and on. So I'm enriched by all of that. But I think at some point when I formulated that statement about Christianity is my mother tongue and homeland is I could really clarify for myself that that's the ground I stand on.
Miroslav Volf: It's interesting, even the kind of journey that you have gone over the past—after Yale Divinity School, let's put it this way. But it took you first back to the Christian faith. Am I right? Can you tell me how that happened?
Krista Tippett: How I came back to Christianity? I was living in Europe and in central Europe of old. And, yeah, I was living in divided Berlin. I was working politically and I had a fantastic experience. It was just thrilling. I had been a journalist and then I was working for our ambassador and sitting around tables with people who were working on nuclear arms negotiations, which at that time in the world was just—they held the life and death of our planet in their hands. It was so seductive and it was so fascinating, and yet I really started to question without even being able to take myself seriously about whether this is really how we could define life and death. That's one way to say it. And if I was interested in life and death, as they manifest in other ways, where would I look to get curious about that and to figure out the work I might do that would be closer to that. I also just got really morally exhausted and depleted and started asking these moral questions
Miroslav Volf: Depleted because of the kind of complexity and the tension and difficulty of the divided world?
Krista Tippett: No, I think in those years in which I was working with policymakers, I was in my mid-twenties. I was very idealistic. I thought we were all in there to save the planet. And what I found was a sphere in which people did have tremendous responsibility and tremendous power to affect human lives, but they were really mostly there for their big egos. I experienced the complexity of power and that's not what I wanted to be when I grew up.
So I think I ended up—one of the things I realized later is that I had lived in Germany. I lived in Germany for off-and-on almost seven years. And there was not a single conversation about religion. I was completely fluent in German. I could speak with absolute sophistication around a table of nuclear arms experts. When I went back to tell people that I was going to go to divinity school, I had no words. I had no vocabulary to talk about that. So I had really lived in this very secular place and time. But I think I didn't immediately head back to Christianity. I think, first of all, I just got quiet. And then I started intentionally getting quiet. And then I wandered into praying and then realize what I was doing was praying the first time in years. And then I think my imagination did take me back to my spiritual homeland because that's what I was rooting around in.
Miroslav Volf: Recently, also, you quoted one of the great Christian saints, Julian of Norwich from the 14th Century—her famous line: All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. And you did that in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of political division, in the midst of racial injustice, in the midst of generalized, depressed state of most of us: human pain, suffering, disconnection, violence, you name it. All shall be well! Do you believe that?
Krista Tippett: I do believe it with a cosmic sense of mystery and time. I also think, yeah, I did that on Twitter, which is a strange choice to do it because I had just used those lines; I had just sent those lines out to someone. And I've thought about that line of Julian of Norwich often across the years: And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. And I know that the only reason it is not absolutely absurd and even offensive to use those words is because Julian herself was living in circumstances worse than ours, right? The black death was raging all around. And they've been there for people across generations, not just in the best of times.
It's a mystical statement. Julian of Norwich was also calling God "She"—I can't even imagine how that was received in her time. So yeah, it's a mystical statement. It doesn't add up with what we can see and hear and touch, and yet it made sense for her and on some cosmic level that I cannot be articulate about it. It makes sense for me. But what I want to say is that I don't think that using that phrase is an invitation to just sit back and expect things to be all right. It doesn't absolve—if I believe that, then I have to throw my body, my life, and all of my energy at that possibility, at making that real and visible.
Miroslav Volf: You called it a mystical statement and you're right. But it's a mystical statement of hope, which is what you just added, and the hope which takes us into its own realization. So it makes you busy. It's a kind of waiting...
Krista Tippett: Gives me a work to do. Yeah.
Miroslav Volf: And in fact, if you didn't have that hope, you might end up being despondent and not doing anything. So rather than making you lazy, it energizes you. Jürgen Moltmann called it a cup of coffee for the present. Religion is a cup of coffee for the present. A kind of old critique of Marx was that religion was opiate of the people, and so he turned it into...
Krista Tippett: I see. Oh, that's so good! I had never heard that.
Miroslav Volf: So upper rather than downer.
Krista Tippett: I think Netflix is the opium of the masses. There's a tendency coming that's really gotten in the way.
Miroslav Volf: At the beginning, I mentioned to you briefly in our offline conversation that we here at Yale teach this course, Life Worth a Living, which is to say, we try to examine from the perspective of various traditions how people imagine—greats spiritual masters and ordinary people as well—how they imagine. What kind of life is truly worthy of our humanity? And so my last question to you is what do you think? What kind of life is worthy of our humanity?
Krista Tippett: I think we are really in a time where we're opening more deeply to the truth about ourselves, which is also where you and I started, that we are alone and that we are here for each other, and that both of those things are true. The question of what it means to be human in our century, with every single challenge before us as a species, has made the question of who we will be to each other—that is now inextricable from the question of what it means to be human.
And everything we're learning through science is backing up this deep spiritual truth. It sounds beautiful. It's a little bit like "all shall be well." It's actually very hard. It's very hard to be inextricable from other human beings. And we're just on that line of that fault line and that line of friction. I think we are, on the one hand, experiencing in a time of tremendous stress on the planet and in our bodies—just even below all the stresses, all the things that are happening to us, which makes it just impossible actually for us to be our best selves, except for brief snatches of time. And, we're also very fitfully gaining knowledge and tools to—I would say—to befriend complexity, to befriend our complexity. I even think—we don't have time to go into this, but I even think the way gender is being revisited is about revisiting the notion of binaries. Because our binaries are dead ends for the things we have to grapple with.
And so that's just a fascinating development that has happened in some ways so quickly. It's civilizational. It's a species development. And I would also look at how the practices of meditation and mindfulness and contemplation, how those are emerging for modern people. It's really fascinating. At the turn of the century, that was very much a fringe thing and Buddhism, which has been cultivating these traditions of knowing ourselves for thousands of years and really privileging the cultivation of those things, has come along and that is something 21st-Century people are reaching for. But it's not a Buddhist phenomenon. It's these spiritual technologies that are also in the other traditions. But these become ways for us to settle and calm, and befriend reality in all its complexity, and do that very messy work of being our best selves and engaging with otherness.
I think it's just such a fascinating time. And somehow, that's my answer to that question. It's also this move of understanding our inextricability from each other. I think you and I talked about this years ago, this very challenging implication of Christianity and theology that we are in fact shaped as much by how we treat our enemies as by how we treat those we love. That's actually just a reality. That's a truth about life. It could not feel more counter-cultural to how we're living right now, and yet I think it's the kind of truth that is at the same time—as we are in such a mess in so many ways—that truth is also surfacing. And that I think for me is what it's about—is my answer to this question.
Miroslav Volf: I think that's really wonderful. And what I hear in a number of strands that you have mentioned. What I hear is this sense of nurturing the interior life that we live in a time where we always pull completely out of ourselves. We are being observed; we observe ourselves being observed. We always think how we look on the outside. But this inner life—taking stock of where we are, realizing what enmities, what loves, what laziness, what eagerness do to us—we've unlearned; and maybe that's why this turn to meditation; maybe that's why this turned to or fascination with keeping the sphere of privacy somehow protected where I can grow into something who I aspire to be without being trampled immediately by somebody's gaze, critical gaze at me.
Krista Tippett: Yeah. And I think the revolutionary move or the evolutionary move is this realization that we cultivate that inner field; we invest in ourselves in order to be present to the world in the way that we not only want to be present—I believe long to be in our heart of hearts—but in the way the world actually demands that we be present, if what happens in this century is that we flourish and grow into our better humanity rather than just survive it.
Miroslav Volf: This is a wonderful programmatic statement on which to end this wonderful conversation. Thank you, Krista, so much.
Krista Tippett: Oh, thank you, Miroslav.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured journalist, Krista Tippett and theologian, Miroslav Volf. I'm Evan Rosa and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. We produce new episode every Saturday and you can subscribe through any podcast app. We're grateful that you're listening to this podcast. We are passionate about making this work consistently accessible to people who are genuinely concerned about the viability of faith in a world racked with division, contested views about what it means to be human, and what it means to live life.
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