We’re joined this week Krista Tippett, host of the award-winning radio show “Being.” Krista begins the discussion by sharing how she went from being the chief aide to the US Ambassador in Germany, during the cold war era, to asking deep spiritual and ethical questions. This questioning led her to study theology at Yale, and then sometime after start her current show, which started off with the title, “Speaking of Faith.” She also shares how she first was introduced to meditation and contemplative practice, and where those practices has taken her since.
Finally, we close the interview by exploring the “re-integration of our inner selves and outer lives.” Krista shares how she creates a space to bring out the wisdom of re-integration with her guests on Being, inviting them into “conversations of the soul.”
- Krista Tippett on Being
- Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit
- Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters–and How to Talk About It
Vincent: Hello Buddhist Geeks, this is Vincent Horn and I’m joined today over the phone with a very special guest, Krista Tippett. Krista, thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with the Buddhist Geeks, we really appreciate it.
Krista: I’m really happy to be with you.
Vincent: Fantastic. And just a little back of background for those people that may not listen to your show “Being,” which is actually one of the most popular shows on religion and spirituality. You’re a journalist, a broadcaster, an author, you’ve written two books. The newest one is “Einstein’s God,” and you’re just a fantastic voice in the West for promoting healthy dialogue around religion and science, and spirituality, mysticism. And just a little background or a little conversation about your history as a journalist and as a broadcaster. I understand you started your career as a professional journalist. You were in Berlin for quite awhile before the Berlin wall fell, is that correct?
Krista: Right. I landed in Berlin after college in 1984, which at that time, we didn’t know those were the final years of the Cold War. It felt like the shape of eternal truth, that wall in Berlin. It was a very interesting time because it still was this kind of geopolitical reality that divided the world but there was a lot happening under the surface, in social terms and human terms and politically. So, yeah, I landed in Berlin in 1984 as the New York Times stringer and there weren’t actually many American journalists based in Berlin. Most papers had their bureaus in Bonn, so I actually got to do a lot of reporting.
Vincent: And then what motivated you to come back to the states?
Krista: Well, I ended up being in Europe for most of the 80s, most of my twenties and I did that stint as a journalist and then I also was with the State Department for the last couple of years, which also kind of had to do with the crazy division of the world in Berlin at that time. And I was basically offered a job to keep doing what I was doing but help the American government think about what was happening in Berlin and what was happening across the wall. I mean, in fact, it’s interesting because some of the most interesting things that started to happen that defied the old logic were, like, groups of young people, young environmentalists, for example, joining forces between East Berlin and West Berlin. These are kind of the stories that never even really got told that got overshadowed later.
I was paying attention to that, but at the same time, I ended up being the chief aide in Berlin to our ambassador to Germany. This is 1987, this is the most strategically important country in Europe and he was a nuclear arms expert and he was a Reagan appointee. And I’m 26, 27 and that year, this entire world of power passed through my life. I sat at tables with people who were literally moving nuclear weapons around on a map of Europe. And I started to, without being able to name it, I started to ask spiritual questions and ethical questions, right? I started to see the disconnect between lives of real power which were impoverished inwardly. And I also started to see how those dynamics, very close to the ground, the intimate lives of meaning that people carved out even in East Berlin, for example, of relationship and activism. I started to see that there were so many places where people found meaning and there were places in human experience that were real, and as real as those missiles that were getting moved around on the map and maybe more real, right? I didn’t even know how to think about that because I was so immersed in this world of journalism and diplomacy, which told me what was ultimate and what ultimately mattered.
So I guess I started becoming spiritual, I started asking spiritual questions, I started meditating, I started praying, I started reading and ultimately I went to divinity school, to Yale divinity school, which is an ecumenical place so I could be on a spiritual journey but also be having a really deep intellectual experience. So that’s what brought me back to the states and then, eventually, the way I ended up bringing all of this together#&151;the theology, the journalism, the looking at the world and wanting to point at what was real#&151;that ultimately led to the radio show.
Vincent: Yeah. Yeah, it seems like a great synthesis of those different strands of your life.
Vincent: Beautiful. And in terms of the spiritual stuff, because Buddhist Geeks, we focus a lot on those type of questions I’d be interested in hearing you say a little bit about that early experience with meditation and prayer, and then I assume because I hear you in these conversations with these fantastic mystics and spiritual leaders, and you’re totally holding your own with them, you don’t really talk a whole lot about your experience, but I get the sense underneath it that you do have a very deep relationship to these mystical practices and traditions, and I wondered if maybe I could hear a little bit about that?
Krista: It’s interesting that you’re asking me about that and also in light of the story I just told of my trajectory because the truth is, I grew up in a very religious southern Baptist culture in Oklahoma, and then I went to college, I went to Brown, and I just really left all that behind. And I was really political, as they say. I mean I was involved, I was very idealistic. I think I had a really strong ethical life. I thought politics was where all the interesting questions were being asked, and if there were solutions to the world’s problems, they were going to be political, too. Right?
When I started realizing that there were maybe places where my attention and energy should be that completely fell outside that, it was a shock to me. I didn’t take religion seriously as a force in the world, I didn’t take it seriously as a force in my life. But as I say, I found myself asking questions that I eventually realized were spiritual questions. But what I did at first was not process that or think about it, I just kind of gave myself over to it. So I ended up going, leaving Berlin, and I was in a beautiful place. I would say the beginnings of spiritual life for me were, and this was such a departure from the life I’d been leading, were just sitting and being quiet. It was sitting and looking out at a mountain that somehow dwarfed those nuclear missiles, somehow did put them into perspective, and I didn’t even want to call that prayer a meditation at first. But that was the beginning. And then later, I actually did first turn to mystical writings, all kinds of mystical writings. I was reading Zen masters. I ended up in England and I was reading Julian of Norwich, and that whole mystical tradition that came from that part of the world. Hildegard of Bingen, all of those European mystics. And Brother Lawrence, who talked about how every act of life, including, and maybe especially, washing dishes, can be a moment of prayer and contemplation.
So, that was the starting point for me, and then it was really only from there that I started thinking, well, maybe I want to think about the nature of God? Maybe I want to think theologically? Maybe I want to know the ideas and practices people have put around these kinds of mystical insights, and that’s what led me to take religion, religious traditions and spiritual traditions seriously, and then really become a student of that. And in some ways, I’m still a student of that, right? Because I ask people about that all the time. But you’re right, I have my own life, however imperfect, of cultivating myself spiritually.
Vincent: Interesting. And do you feel comfortable sharing a little bit about what kinds of things you’re into now in that realm?
Krista: Yeah. It’s kind of hard for me to talk about, because I still do feel like I’m being a journalist. But it’s a different kind of journalism I’m doing. And you’re right, I’m totally there with people in my conversations, but I’m not talking about myself.
Krista: And so, though at the beginning you said that I’m comfortable in front of a microphone, that’s true. I’ll say that, like a lot of people, I’m not as planted right now as I have been at other times and as I expect to be#&151;I don’t really have a community right now. I do consider myself to be Christian, or this is the way I would say it: that’s my mother tongue. That’s where I come from, and that’s my mother tongue. That’s my heritage. Though, I am so enriched by the conversations I have, they feel like they enrich the soil beneath my feet. That’s where I’m planted; it’s still so much more, because of these encounters.
And when people ask me, as they often do, how these conversations have changed me, I would say it this way, and it touches on this idea of mysticism: The thing I can best express about the cumulative effect of these conversations is that I become more aware of the reality of mystery#&151;a reverence for mystery, a reverence for, at one and the same time, the creative tension between our need, and I think even our obligation maybe, as human beings, to be discerning truth. But the creative tension between that, and what all our of traditions also hold us to, is being reverent towards sitting in the presence of that which we cannot understand in this lifetime. Knowing that whatever we discover, there’s that much more to discover.
So what a scientist once said to me, and I really resonate with this, a genetisist who is also a theologian, an Anglican priest, said that he thinks, “the spirituality of a scientist is like the spirituality of a mystic.” And that is to say that at any moment, you are driven to seek and to probe and to grasp whatever you can grasp, to make whatever discoveries you can, and yet always to live in this excitement about the discoveries that you have yet to make, or even to be able to fathom.
Vincent: Beautiful. It’s interesting that you bring that up because it’s one of the things that I’ve been struck by the most listening to Being, which was formally called “Speaking of Faith.”
Vincent: That’s that there’s such a deep interweaving in there, in your conversations, even in specific episodes and then of course in the whole tapestry of the show itself, interweaving these things that most people, I would imagine, consider disparate, or disconnected even. The whole thing of religion and science, talking to this person who’s both a geneticist and an Anglican priest. Speaking about the secular and the spiritual together in the same conversation. Speaking about things that people normally feel are at odds, and even in your personal journey you described becoming disillusioned with your spiritual upbringing at a certain point, and then coming back to it from a different place.
So, I was wondering if you could say a little bit about why you’re taking this, what I almost want to call a transdisciplinary or like an integrated or holistic#&151;there are different words that come to mind#&151;but this approach you’re taking seems very unique in terms of what’s out there, and I wondered what drives that. What guides that for you?
Krista: Well, it may be unique in a media product, but I think it is the frontier and the great adventure, and the challenge of the 21st century#&151;is reintegrating things that in fact should never have been separated before. We can see the reasons, and Buddhists know this better than anyone, right? I think Buddhism has been a big force in waking even Western culture up about this. We see what happened, we see how we disconnected mind, body, and spirit, some of it in the name of science, much of it in the name of progress, but we reached the limits of the fruitfulness of that. It’s not sustainable. It’s not sustainable to disconnect our inner lives and our outer lives. It has not served our economic life, it hasn’t served our political life, and it doesn’t serve us as human beings. And we are being forced to confront that all around us, so I don’t even think there’s an argument to make.
Now, what we don’t have are models of, how do we reconnect these things? How do we live differently? And that’s a challenge we are going to collectively grow into, but it happens one life at a time, and that’s what I think is very interesting and exciting about the fluidity of spiritual journey and spiritual life in our time. Even a generation or two generations ago, in this country, most people would be growing up not just in the same religious tradition with the same assumptions about these very important matters that their parents and grandparents had, they might be going to the same church and synagogue that their parents and grandparents went to. But there’s a very real sense in which 21st century people have taken charge of their spiritual lives, and there has been superficiality to that, right? I think that the kind of New Age thing of the ’80s, which is not#&151;I keep saying to people, that’s not spirituality of 2010. I’m talking about something different from, “I’ll take a little bit of this, I’ll take a little bit of that.” People are really energetically searching and carving out lives of meaning, and they are using what I see as spiritual technologies that these traditions have passed on, like meditation and contemplation and mindfulness.
Right now as you and I are talking, there’s this whole new conversation in American life about civil discourse, right? Civility. And what I see is that what we have to recover#&151;and we have a longing for this without yet being able to name it. We need to recover, also virtues, and not just give them lip service, but we need to rediscover the meaning of things like compassion, love of neighbor#&151;Christianity is a core tradition of this culture but we have absolutely no idea what love of enemy means.
So, I think that we want and need to discover those things, and that’s where we are, and at the root of that is this re-integration of our inner selves and our outer lives. But at this moment, because in the 21st century we live together with different others, with a proximity and a complexity that’s kind of unparalleled in human history, I don’t think we have a choice anymore. We have to rediscover these virtues. I think a lot of the debates that we have are just false debates. I mean, I think we need to start a lot of our basic conversations, a lot of our basic deliberation about what it means to be human and how we want to live together. We need to start a lot of those conversations fresh, from the beginning. Bring these integrated perspectives that our traditions have carried forward in time for us.
Vincent: I found it interesting that you said we don’t really have models for this yet, in terms of how to go about this integration, and that statement seems to tie into your earlier statement about the mystery of it all. And in some ways, that’s one aspect I also really appreciate about Being, is that there’s a sense of probing or inquiring or asking questions predominantly to get a feel of what the features of this integration might look like. Would you say that’s generally true?
Krista: Yes, and when I say we don’t have any models, the models are out there, but the models are not visible. They’re not the official story that we tell ourselves about who’s important, and what’s important, and how we work out problems, and what matters. We have political and media formats, we have certain kinds of people, we have celebrities. We have the things that rivet our attention, and all the while there are lives of gracefulness and mindfulness and compassion. I mean, there are all kinds of models in individual lives and families and communities.
Let’s say, what I think my work is, and maybe your work too, is shining a light on that, just starting to shine a light on that. Say, look, this is possible too. And we have to make that more visible, more audible. We have to mine the vocabularies and the practices that come out of these models that in fact do work and are different.
Vincent: Nice. Thank you. One maybe last question or closing question, because it’s something I feel very clearly in all of the conversations you have, is that there’s really, grounded in this inquiry that you’re a part of, this shining a light that you’re doing, a real sense of heart, a real sense of warmth. I mean, there are many episodes I’ve listened to where I’m just so deeply touched by the heart of the guest and the heart of what’s being shared, and like you’re saying, these are people I normally, I just wouldn’t know about.
Krista: Yeah. Right.
Vincent: Could you talk a little bit about that heart, the love quality behind what you’re doing, and why that’s important too?
Krista: One thing I’ll say is, we look hard for who we’re going to have on the program. What I want to say is that that magnetic quality, that magnetism that you experience when you hear a person of integrity speak not just about what they know, but who they are, and how they live. Not just about the answers they’ve reached but the questions they live with. What I do is call that forth in people. I ask people. I invite people. I create a space. I take these words from a Quaker author, Parker Palmer, I don’t know, some of you must be familiar with him. He said that for the insights of the soul to show itself#&151;and I think, again, you know, what am I doing? I’m trying to draw out the insights of the soul, not just the insights of the intellect and the emotions, but the insights of the soul. And he says that “for the insights of the soul to speak we have to create quiet, inviting, and trustworthy spaces.”
So, I try to create a quiet, inviting, and trustworthy space, for my interview guests first, and then later for listeners. And so, I create a quiet, inviting, trustworthy space and then I can invite people to speak, again, not just about their opinions#&151;and that’s usually what people get invited to talk about#&151;but to join that… I like to say we talk in my show about the intersection between big ideas and real life, theology, and human experience, messy human experience.
I’m not interested in religious life or spiritual life as something off to the side in a compartment that you do one day a week in your institution, or that just happens in your practice, in whatever that period of time is every day. But my interest is: How do we take these insights, these longings that we have, and cultivate in the spiritual part of ourselves? How do they flow into whatever we do in the world, whether we’re a quantum physicist or a parent or an environmentalist? And then how does what we experience and learn in the world, in those messy life places, how does that come back and challenge and enrich and deepen the spiritual part of us?
So, what I’m saying is I think we could have a lot more conversations like this, but this is not the way we usually try to conduct conversations, and so that’s what I do, but I think when you’re intentional about this, it is an amazing experience both to be asked to speak from this place#&151;I mean, you’re doing it for me now, right? It is amazing, and it’s unusual. We don’t usually invite each other to speak from this place. It’s amazing to be asked to do it. You say things you didn’t know you knew. [laughs] Like, the kind of thing that happens in writing sometimes also can happen in this kind of conversation. And then it is amazing to hear it, and what’s kind of magical for me, mysterious and wonderful, about the hearing of it is: you have this conversation where people speak from these deep personal places, but when you really have someone talk from this far inside themselves, in a very particular way about what they know, it becomes something that others can take and use in their own particular places. So that is a mystery and it’s a gift. So here, today, you and I meet and we’re both out there cultivating this gift in the world, and that’s exciting.