Global Ethics Forum: A Conversation with Krista Tippett on Becoming Wise

Global Ethics Forum: A Conversation with Krista Tippett on Becoming Wise


– Welcome to Ethics Matter. I’m Stephanie Sy, and I’m
joined by Krista Tippett, the host of the award-winning
public radio program On Being. It’s also a podcast. In that program she
talks to people of faith and also in the secular spheres
of science and activism. Her most recent book is
called Becoming Wise. Krista, thank you so
much for joining us. – [Krista] I’m so
glad to be here. – Let’s start with the
title Becoming Wise. Kind of an ambitious title. – (laughs) Yes. – Is it a self-help
book in certain ways? – I don’t think of it that way. Actually, one thing
I have to point out is the becoming word is just
as important as the wise word. I’m not describing
a destination, I’m
describing a process. I actually did not name the
book until close to the end. I started out
pursuing a question that has come at me a
lot across the years. People have said, “You
know, you’ve interviewed “all these wise, graceful
lives, these voices. “Are there recurring qualities
or recurring themes?” And that’s what I
started tracing. In the end, I realized that
that notion of becoming wise, and becoming wise through the
ordinary elements of any life, was really the connective
tissue of the book. And it became more and
more important to me as I gleaned these
lessons that this is not, of course there are
these spiritual geniuses, there are these saintly figures, these wise sages of history
who all come to mind, but that wisdom is something
that is accessible to all of us with whatever the raw
materials of our lives are and I think, to help
people take that seriously. – I love this line in the book, tools for the art of
living, if you will. I’ve come to think of
virtues and rituals as spiritual technologies
for being our best selves in flesh and blood,
time and space. Talk about the use of
that word technology. – Spiritual technology?
– Yes. – I’m so fascinated
by how we talk a lot and are very imaginative in
the way we talk about, in fact, our technologies
growing intelligent and growing sentient
and growing conscious. – The smartphone.
– Yes. We possess intelligence. We possess consciousness. And we have this
capacity as human beings to take this further
step to become wise, which leavens intelligence and I think has an ability
to advance evolution in the direction
we want it to go. I really do think that
these tools and techniques, rituals, which I think
physically we need, and virtues, which in
fact are practices, neuroscience is now giving
new language to something that our spiritual traditions
have carried forward in time, this intelligence that
what we practice we become. That goes as much for becoming
more patient, more loving, more compassionate, more
generous, more wise. – I want to break that
down a little bit. Science is important to you. You interview a lot of
scientists on On Being. Do you ever get accused of
sort of being too fluffy? Is science and neuroplasticity
and the studies around how physically you are
impacted by these practices, is that important to you? You are a journalist. Is that important to you, to be able to speak to
people in scientific terms? – I think that in the
21st century, scientists, physicists, evolutionary
biologists, neuroscientists are walking some
of the territory that philosophers
and theologians walked in previous centuries. Whether they are
religious or not, whether their inquiry is
explicitly spiritual or not, they are yielding this
amazing new insight into these ancient questions, what it means to be human,
how we want to live. Scientists are taking virtues, they are taking
notions like altruism and empathy and mindful
attention, into the laboratory. – What are they finding? – They are unlocking
some of these virtues, some of these practices and
these pieces of intelligence, these tools for
the arts of living that have been carried
forward across millennia by our spiritual traditions. They are learning
that these things actually do change people
on a physiological basis. The science of neuroplasticity, which I think is one
of the most wonderful and emboldening discoveries
of our generation, that our brains and characters don’t stop forming
at a certain point, I think when I was growing up we thought it was
young adulthood, or
in the teenage years. But we have now found that
our brains and our characters can continue to evolve
across the lifespan and that we can influence
that with our behaviors. That discovery was
deeply influenced by the work of Richard
Davidson at Madison at the brain imaging laboratory, who was approached in the
1990s by the Dalai Lama, who has a great reverence
for science, who said, “I believe that these
contemplative practices “that my community engages in “that we weave
into ordinary life, “that they change us, and
I want you to test that.” – Love, compassion, forgiveness, some of the tools for living. Is what you are really saying, that being kind can
actually make us healthier, can make our bodies stronger? – That is one of the
things we are finding. For example, there is
some amazing research
about gratitude, very simple practices
of gratitude. This has been studied by
clinical psychologists. Having people once
a day or once a week make a list of things
they were grateful for, even on their bad days, that it actually
affects their health, that they sleep better, that they feel a
sense of inner peace. So yes, there are actually
physiological health benefits, and there is a quality-of-life
benefit that people report, which is harder to measure
in a laboratory but is real. – I want to take a step back and go back to how
you started On Being. You started out as a journalist. Then you went to
divinity school. How did one lead to the other? I mean, was journalism
unsatisfying to you in any way? Were you searching
for something else? – I really loved journalism. I started as a print
journalist, and I loved it. It’s an amazing foundation for
everything I’ve done since. I didn’t so much enjoy the
breaking-news aspect of things because I felt like as soon as
I was digging into something, I had to turn my attention
to something else. – We call that feeding
the beast in the business. – Okay, feeding the beast?
– Yes. – I was in divided Berlin,
which was an amazing place. I was just kind of
on the fault line of what seemed to
be the great crisis threatening mankind
at that point. I had an experience
at a very young age. I was thoroughly political. I was not religious
at all in those years, I would not have used the
word spirituality probably. But I had an experience of
being up very close to people who were literally
moving those missiles around on a map of Europe. I was really in those circles. I went from journalism to
being a diplomatic appointee, skip that step, and seeing
a great disconnect, a chasm, between the genuine power people were exercising
in the world. I felt the incredible moral
responsibility that they had, people who had great
big outer lives and impoverished inner lives. So they are doing important
work at a public level and the imprint they are
making on the world around them is not necessarily generative
or creative or positive. I was confused by that. People don’t talk about divided
Berlin in this way often, but among other things it
was a vast social experiment. You had one people, one city,
one language, one culture, divided into two world views. People were living in
dramatically contrasting economic and social
circumstances. Their range of choice was
dramatically different. But I saw there,
because I loved people on both sides of that wall, and I also made
this observation, that is kind of a
classic observation, but made it on a personal level, that people could
have empty lives, people could create lives
of dignity and beauty, and it was not dependent on the circumstances
they were working with, it was how they worked
with those raw materials. That led me, kind
of reluctantly, to start asking what I finally
called spiritual questions, wanting to work at
that human level of change and where
people make meaning. – You said that you were not
spiritual though, at that time. So that was actually a
personal journey for you. You were asking yourself
those questions. – Yes, it was. Yes, because I had only been
asking political questions. I then, as I said, started
asking spiritual questions, but I only called them
that after a while. Then, because I had grown up
in an immersive religious world but where the life of
the mind was not honored, the life of the mind
was kind of held at bay, I went to study theology because I needed to know that this could have
intellectual content as well as spiritual content. I also needed to know that
working in this sphere, taking it seriously, this sphere of what we call
religion and spirituality, could in fact address the complexity of the
world I had experienced. I found theology
to be thrilling, just a thrilling discipline, an incredible intellectual heft. But then I came out of
that in the mid ’90s into this American landscape, where it was a moment
of incredible toxicity, of a very few strident
religious voices defining religion in
American public life. And I have to say, being handed the
microphone by journalists, because figures like Jerry
Falwell and Pat Robertson, they were very entertaining.
– The Moral Majority? – Yes, the Moral Majority,
the Christian Coalition, they did sound bites, which was kind of a new
invention then, really well. – They got a lot of
traction at that time. I want to get into all of that. But I want to go back to
those days in divided Germany because you talk
about that disconnect between spirituality
and maybe humanity, and maybe even ethics
and realpolitik, because that’s what you’re
really talking about when you talked about
that time in the Cold War, you are talking
about realpolitik. Why does there have to
be such a separation? Even leaders who say they
are practicing Christians seem to sort of have this divide between policy and the way
they behave in the world, these major players,
and their inner life, is part of what Krista
Tippett is doing trying to bridge that, to find a way to
integrate those lives? – I’m all about reality
and being reality-based. The reality of policy and
politics at those highest levels is that there are
very, very few choices where you really have a
clear-cut, simple choice between something that’s good
and something that’s evil, something that’s moral or
something that’s immoral. At that level of complexity
it doesn’t work that way. Having said that, I think that, I was born in 1960, and I think that
part of the story of the latter half
of the 20th century is that we thought we
could kind of retire this irrational, spiritual,
values-driven part of life. This was kind of our culture. We had this culture,
we’d won the war, the economy was booming,
we believed in our systems. It was a century of ideologies, and we believed in
facts to be able to tell us the truth
and drive the truth. And in the ’60s also, this country experienced
genuine diversity, really for the very first time. For the first time,
non-European immigrants began to come in, the
laws were changed. Of course America had been
racially diverse before then, but the ’60s was the first time we really integrated that
into our sense of self. And also there was all
this eruption of new ideas, of social freedom, and of intellectual
freedom that was new, cultural freedom. Part of the way
we navigated that was with this
virtue of tolerance, which is about letting
you be you and I’ll be me. It was a good impulse. One of the things I
believe very deeply now is that tolerance has
outlived its usefulness as our only civic virtue,
it is not big enough. – You say in the book that
that’s kind of a low bar. – It is a low bar. – Actually can we go
further than tolerance? – But it was a way
of creating control and keeping the peace and navigating something
that was very new. One of the ways we
did that was to create what we call values-free spaces. Of course you could
have deep convictions, but you checked them at the
door of your workplaces, of your professional life,
of politics, of school. There were reasons for that. But I don’t think
it was sustainable. And I think it did
have the effect of training all of us to
actually go into public life, into our common life, without our moral grounding. We haven’t learned to
flex those muscles. So it’s no wonder
to me that people, not just in those
highest places of policy or those large public lives, aren’t very skilled
or experienced at bringing their sources
of moral discernment into that realm of
decision-making. – So, assuming that
one day they do, do you run into the problem of the Moral Majority
and values clashing? – That’s the scary model we got in the late 20th century that made it seem
all the more right that we should keep this out. I like to pose this
thought experiment. What if when Christian voices, orthodox, conservative,
Christian voices, reasserted themselves into
American political life, which was after
a chosen silence, there had been a
kind of withdrawal in the early 20th century, what if when that happened, what they had done,
the effect of that, would not be just to bring
certain positions into play but to model the deepest
virtues of Christianity? What if the result
of that had been that we would all have
seen robustly modeled what love of enemies could
look like in politics, in real policy situations? What if it had become a
great experiment in that? If it were about joining the
deepest virtues and behaviors with the thinking,
with the positioning, I don’t think we would
be wringing our hands about needing to keep places free of religious
and moral thinking. I think we could do this
completely differently. So it’s how we live
and not how we talk. How what we believe
and how we live are in a creative tension, because it is going
to be a tension, but what always prevails, which in fact is what
actually always prevails at the heart of our religious
and ethical traditions, is how we treat others. – Do you believe in
moral relativism, or do you think that
there are just sort of hard and fast
moral mottos, like, Do unto others as you would
have them do unto you, the Golden Rule? I was raised with that
from third grade on and not much religion. Are we at a point where there’s not even
that in this society? – I don’t like moral relativism. I think the real challenge,
and really the calling, that can take us to wisdom
rather than just intelligence, is to figure out, and we
do have to figure this out, because this hasn’t been
what we’ve been trying to do, is to figure out in this century how we can bring
deep convictions and deep passions
into our public spaces and join that with a commitment to stay in relationship with the people with
whom we disagree. There are some instincts
we’ve developed over a long period of time
that work against that. Then now there’s
such a breakdown that we realize
we have to change, one of the instincts
is, first of all, we deal in this culture
in competing certainties. We take most seriously, because we turn everything
into an either or, we set up a debate,
we set up an argument, and we hand that argument over
to the most strident voices who have absolutely
no questions left alongside their certainties. We also have assumptions
that the goal of a conversation or
a debate or a dialogue is for someone to win, or it gets called, or you take a vote,
or you move on. These are ways to be in dialogue and there are hard
things we have to discuss on which we’re
going to disagree. But there needs to be the
parallel, simultaneous work of creating new realities, of walking towards the
generative common life, which includes in the 21st
century, like never before, the necessity that we
are in relationship, that we are creating
common life, with very different others
who we will not agree with, that the point
can’t be agreeing. There has to be value if we
are committed to common life, common ground is not the
same thing as common life, and we have to create
this new muscle memory. Moral relativism to me
is, maybe it’s dangerous. It’s boring too. I don’t think it’s good for us. I think somehow we have to learn how to bring our convictions,
bring our passions, into common life and combine that with a
commitment to common life. – Right, it sounds
like you’re almost sort of the anti-fundamentalist. – (laughs) Well,
I’d take that label. – I mean that’s a compliment. If you ever went
back to journalism, how do you think you would
approach it differently, if you went back to covering big geopolitical,
historical issues? – Gosh, I don’t know. I am critical of the fact that traditional journalism,
especially news journalism, that we have all
this sophistication about covering and analyzing what is catastrophic,
corrupt, and failing. I don’t say that to criticize
that sophistication. But we do not bring a
comparable sophistication to covering what is
good and redemptive. Hope as a muscular reasonable orientation, option, choice. Also, I say that, and
I know how hard it is to make goodness as
riveting as evil. I think that goes back
to what our brains do. We are drawn to it. We are looking for the threat because we’re ready to mobilize. So when you ask me the question, I don’t have a prescription. I don’t know what I
would do differently. But what I would
endeavor to figure out, and there are a lot of people
experimenting with this, I would endeavor to figure
out, how can we cover goodness? What’s working? The new realities that
are being incubated that better describe the
world we want to live in and the world we want
our children to inhabit, how could we cover that with as much sophistication,
as much dedication? You know the feel-good,
fluffy, sidebar piece of the saintly person who
you know makes you feel good but you could
never be like them, too much of that
would be boring. So I’m not talking
about being boring. I don’t have the
answer, but I think that that’s a good challenge
to set for ourselves. – Do you feel like
you saved yourself when you left the business? I mean we’re a pretty cynical
bunch, us journalists. – I had a conversation
with a journalist a few years ago who said, “You know, journalism
could be a healing art.” I think much like physicians, people go into
medicine to be healers and then they end
up being fixers, and they end up
focusing on pathology. There is kind of an
analogy with journalism. I actually do think
people go into journalism because they want to be a
good force in the world, because they believe in
the power of information. – When you took that step back
to look at your inner life, did it occur to you
that all the conflict we see in the world is actually just a
mirror of the dark and the light in our inner lives played out on a world
stage in a massive way? – I think that is more an
insight I have grown into. I think I was trying
to understand, back then in divided Berlin, it didn’t make sense to me that we don’t always do
what’s best for us, that we often act in
ways that work against our own deepest longings
and the needs of others. But I think that’s one way theology is an important
discipline in our midst, because theology is the
discipline that analyzes that. But again, I do
think there’s a way in which we have tools now. And I especially think that the new generations
coming up are insisting, some of the language they’ve
brought into our vocabulary, like authenticity, transparency,
integrity, like all words, these words can get overused
and they can get fragile. But in those words, I see
this generation saying, “We are going to
be the same people “on the inside and the outside.” They have seen the kind of
hypocrisy of our institutions. They have seen the loneliness
in the lives of adults that is engendered
by that disconnect. So I do think we have a chance. So, when I talk
about becoming wise, I’m not interested in that
just as a private move. I think it’s a move
we can make together. It’s going to need us
to work individually, but it also needs us to do
this very un-American thing and acknowledge our
need of each other, to accompany each other, to create something called
common life for this century, which is not going to look like common life in the last century. – It is a very hopeful
note to end this on. Krista Tippett,
thank you so much. (electronic music) – [Announcer] For
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