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Q&A: How Krista Tippett finds goodness in the world (even during election season)

Posted April 20

Krista Tippett invites people onto her radio show to learn their best advice for living well. In her newest book, she shares some wisdom of her own.

"Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living," which was released April 5, offers lessons Tippett has collected in the nearly 15 years she's spent interviewing theologians, artists, activists and researchers. She examines how the world is changing, reflecting on themes like love, grace and faith.

"My interest in these pages is on qualities of the art of living that have taken me by surprise, uprooting my assumptions," she writes.

Tippett, host of NPR's "On Being," has been writing and reflecting on religion for more than two decades. She received a Master of Divinity from Yale University in 1994 and launched her radio show in 2003. In 2014, she was awarded a National Humanities Medal for her commitment to exploring the art of living.

Tippett spoke with us about listening well, the search for hope and sense of how religious communities can evolve to serve a changing culture. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: You've highlighted how much being a good listener has benefitted you. What's your advice for those of us who are bad listeners?

Krista Tippett: Listening is a basic social art, but a lot of the ways we get taught to be present and advocate for ourselves work against good listening.

For the most part, the way we practice listening in American culture is “I will be quiet while you say what you have to say, so that I can say what I have to say.” That’s definitely not listening. Listening is not just about being quiet. It’s about being present.

Like any other virtue, this is something that can be practiced. It’s a muscle. You can practice creating a trustworthy space and a conversational tone that is about more than words passed back and forth.

Think about it this way: questions elicit answers in their likeness. It’s very hard to transcend a combative question, and it’s also hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. But it’s hard to resist a generous question.

Question: Listening is an important part of election season, but this is also a time when tempers flare easily. Was it just a coincidence that your book came out now?

KT: Yes, it is a coincidence. But it does seem like we’ve hit a fever pitch because of all the ways we don’t know how to listen.

We don’t seem to know how to approach important, hard, life-giving questions and challenges that this age is throwing up at us. Are we just going to get more technologically advanced or are we going to be wise?

Question: Speaking of election season, some politicians seem to be capitalizing on a loss of hope about the future of the country. How can we work together to restore a hopeful spirit?

KT: There is a lot of despair and justified anguish. But at the very same time I feel that hope is making a comeback.

I think hope is a choice. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy when we decree everything to be despairing and hope to be impossible.

Hope refuses to only see the dark side and refuses to accept that we can’t rise to our best and accompany each other in pinning our aspirations to our actions.

We can be very sophisticated at analyzing the dark side of the human story. We are very good at describing what is catastrophic and corrupt and failing and devastating. We are not as sophisticated about shining a light on goodness and what is generous and creative and resilient.

Question: How can faith communities increase hope?

KT: People think of theology as being about God, but the history of theology is also about a complex analysis of the human condition. That includes hope.

Faith communities are realistic about the worst we’re capable of, but they don’t reduce us to that.

Our faith communities, like all of our institutions, are in the midst of a bit of a crisis, because the structures that worked 50 years ago don’t work now. But I actually think this existential crisis can be an opportunity. So much of what they have always modeled and discussed is precisely what the 21st century needs.

Question: What surprises you most about how religious practice has evolved?

KT: Not that long ago, people inherited religious identity and affiliation like they inherited ethnicity or hair color. You probably associated with the tradition of your parents and grandparents. You may even have gone to the same church or synagogue as them.

In a very short period of time, that has fallen away. And I write about this a lot in the book. It’s very important to me.

I see seeds of renewal and reinvention precisely at that boundary where religion does not have a given place and affiliation is chosen and not inherited. All of this unaffiliated humanity has a lot of spiritual curiosity and a real ethical passion. They have a desire to be of service.

I see all of that swirling around institutions that are flailing, in a way, and struggling to see what their future holds. Something really dynamic is happening when those energies come together.

Question: You grew up attending Southern Baptist services. Do you still affiliate with a religious group?

KT: I grew up in Oklahoma where there was only one game in town: Southern Baptists. I became religious again in England where there was also only one game in town: the Church of England. I became Episcopalian (when I moved back to the U.S.).

Christianity is my homeland and mother tongue. I would say I’m Christian rather than I am Episcopalian.

At this moment, I don’t have a church community. I suspect I will again. But I feel like I get a lot of spiritual nurture and community from different parts of my life. In that, I’m like a lot of other people.

Question: Do you want your book to inspire reflection or action?

KT: What I hope to do — because this is what I have become passionate about — is to connect the two.

There shouldn’t be reflection for its own sake or action for its own sake, but, instead, a merger of inner life and outer presence in the world.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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