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‘I Want to Insist on Complexity’

‘I Want to Insist on Complexity’

An interview with Krista Tippett, the famous and wise host of the public radio show On Being.

Krista Tippett grew up in a religious family, but she had been out of college for about a decade before she decided to go back and get a master’s degree in divinity from Yale, graduating in 1994. In 2003, her radio show about religion, On Being, featuring interviews with a wide range of cultural figures, got picked up for national broadcast on public radio. Tippett has since become one of America’s most soulful conversationalists, garnering Peabody Awards and millions of listeners. This past December, she chatted with Topic about her thoughts on faith, facts, and our current political moment.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Watch an animated version of this conversation here.


What does the word belief mean to you?

I have a complicated relationship to the word “belief.” So I don't actually use the word “belief” very much. Although what I'm talking about and thinking about all the time and drawing other people out on is in this category of what we mean when we ... you know, the way the word “belief” gets used.

The reason I try to use it sparingly is because I do think that in religion in the West, as in other aspects of culture in the West, we've really privileged what is cerebral and abstract and kind of chin up, neck up. And what is interesting to me about our religious and spiritual traditions at their deepest, and kind of this part of human life at its deepest, is when it is fully embodied.

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And what I’m interested in are the interactions between how we come to believe what we do, how our questions interact with what we believe, how that changes us and evolves us across the course of a life—and also how what we believe and what we know and what we believe in is constantly in an interplay with what happens to our bodies in space and time. You know, these lives we lead. Which is always messier and stranger and less predictable than we want it to be. And then also, strangely, that’s how we grow.

Does the word “belief,” in your mind, refer to opinion? Religion? Spirituality?

Yes. For me this is such an important and interesting point that really gets at the world, this moment, we inhabit. I think the focus on mere belief, in the form of opinions, positions—you know, kind of one-liners, even if they’re biblical one-liners—that focus has actually separated religion in the public sphere from its own deepest self, and simplified and really made religion and religious voices and people, in some cases, kind of a caricature of what I think they really are representing, or misrepresenting.

Because in the traditions, beliefs are always underpinned by virtues, by ways of being. They’re inextricable from how you treat others, even when they believe differently, and it doesn’t even really divide us up in that way. Although certainly there is a layer of what you believe, what you hold to be true, how that shapes your life in the world.

In general in our culture, I think that what we did with religion, we’ve also done generally so that we really think ... I think we thought after the Enlightenment, in the post-Enlightenment world, we thought we wanted to retire our messy, complex, contradictory, irrational selves; and I think we have this technocratic belief that we can do that.

But it turns out that we can't. And it turns out that all our technologies, in fact, will not go well if we don't shape them to human purposes. And that means that we have to get back inside our bodies and in touch with complexity.

Have you noticed that Americans have become more rigid or calcified in their beliefs over time? Are we wielding our beliefs in more weaponized ways?

I think that what has changed fundamentally over the last couple of years is that just about everybody feels afraid. And then, ironically, we feel uncertain for all kinds of valid reasons, and all kinds of valid reasons all around, some of which contradict each other. Ironically, I think, when we feel like we're not on steady ground and the fear in us is activated, we start putting forward you certainties, right? And it may be things that are true, and it may be things we wish were true.

I would say that one of the things you could say about our culture in the last few years—and really this is true globally—is that more people are walking around wielding their opinions forcefully and almost frantically. But I think that's a symptom of an underlying anxiety and fear rather than.... So I think if we want to soften that, carrying opinions around like weapons and beliefs like weapons, then what we have to work on is the anxiety and the fear.

How do you distinguish between a belief and a fact? How do you know what is objectively true?

I think truth is complex. Truth is embodied. Truth is interactive. It's a bunch of things that come together, and it's a perception and it's never made ... Truth never is made merely of facts. Facts can be part of it.

In my mind, belief and opinion and facts are only components of whatever truth is. And if we really think seriously, any of us, about truths we hold dear as opposed to a mere fact, mere opinion, mere belief, they have many sides to them, and there is a road to them, and they actually meet the complexity of life and we can work with them.

“In the post-Enlightenment world, we thought we wanted to retire our messy, complex, contradictory, irrational selves ... but it turns out we can’t.”

It’s like, you are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.

Yeah. I can disagree with your opinion, but I can't disagree with your experience, right? And really, if alongside my opinion I have some curiosity, I have some questions, I have some desire to be in a room with you as a fellow human being, even just understand why you're driving me crazy, then I can't disagree with that. I take in more.

Did you ever doubt what you were taught as a child? Your or others’ beliefs?

I think that my religious upbringing is probably, certainly contributed to the way I danced lightly with the notion of belief, or that I really want to insist on complexity. And I don't think belief always works with complexity. Because I did grow up in a world where, basically, there was right and there was wrong and there were dos and there were don'ts, and they were pretty simple.

And as I got out into the world, I knew that the world was so much more complicated than that. My grandfather, who was a preacher, was the one who preached and was so judgmental of so many people and so many behaviors—mostly, if you trace them far enough, for about something that would lead you to have sex, or do something addictive.

But you know what? My grandfather was the most passionate person I knew, and he was the funniest person I knew, and I think he's probably one of the smartest people I knew. But he only had a second-grade education. And I actually think, when I look back, that he was so passionate and lusty and that he probably really needed those rules for himself. And so then he imposed them on everyone else. I think I always knew that as a child. So even though he was preaching these really, really rigid, narrow beliefs, I knew that the reality was more complicated than that.

Were you ever encouraged to question what you were taught?

I was definitely never encouraged to question, and I really think I internalized a sense that questioning was dangerous, and sinful. That it could lead you astray. And it was a very immersive religious world. It was where community was, where you had dinner every Wednesday night, you know? You had youth group; it's where your friends were. So, no, I was very much embedded in that. And it was really loving at the same time that it was really restrictive.

There weren't a lot of books in my house. I mean, the Bible was kind of what there was to read and what I was getting schooled in. And the Bible actually has a lot of room for questions, and it actually contradicts itself all over the place. So it actually, if you're actually reading it, it presents a model of contradicting yourself and searching and holding a lot of sense of what doesn't add up and what is mysterious, alongside what feels like conviction.

In general, do you find that the people around you, the people you come in contact with or observe, have a hard time talking about and articulating their beliefs?

Well, we definitely need to work on our collective emotional intelligence. But I think the larger point is that emotional intelligence is not something we cultivated, whereas this matter of knowing how to formulate an opinion and represent your opinions and be in a debate and make an argument, right? That's what we get skilled in.

I was living in Germany. I was a journalist, and I was with the State Department for a little while ... working on nuclear-arms stuff. I was completely fluent in German. I could sit in rooms full of nuclear-arms negotiators talking about, you know, the strategic missiles and the Cold War, and I had really sophisticated vocabulary. And then I went away for a year, and when I came back, in the year that followed, because of this kind of big life thing I had, I'm suddenly telling people that I'm going to go to divinity school. And I literally did not have the words to formulate a sentence to tell people ... I didn't know how to say it in German: I am going to divinity school. I did not know how to explain any of the reasons or the questions I was asking or the things that were motivating me to do this, in German. I had spent all these years so removed from these conversations that I did not even have the vocabulary.

I had never talked about this kind of thing with anyone I knew. And I know a lot of people, I'd been in a lot of conversations. But then what started to happen, and this has happened to me ever after, is that when I would reveal this to people—and I did it with a certain amount of trepidation; I never knew what they thought, and I was pretty sure that a number of them really wouldn't get it and would think I'd kind of gone off the deep end, and that was probably true of some people—but what was also true that completely took me aback is that I would tell people I was doing this, with little child-like language tell them why, and then they would tell me something. Everybody came out of the closet with me—that they also had a spiritual life or that they belonged to a prayer group.

“I was definitely never encouraged to question, and I internalized a sense that questioning was dangerous, and sinful. That it could lead you astray.”

How can differences of opinion—or conflicting truths—be resolved in this particular political and cultural climate when things feel so polarized?

Well, so, I absolutely think we can figure out how to share life and be in a relationship and figure out what common life can mean in the 21st century. And we were gonna have to reinvent that anyway. Focusing just on belief actually is what ties us up in knots.

I don't think we can make common life dependent on whether we have common ground. I do think that there are really profound and meaningful disagreements. I don't think we will reconcile all of that. Or not anytime soon.

I want to say one thing before I go farther. I don't think we have to be tolerant of violence or hatred, right? And I don't think we even have to think about, you know, reconciling with people who are dangerous. The first thing is, everybody gets to get safe. And there are certainly beliefs and behaviors that aren't invited.

But I actually believe that most of our attention, and the way the news gets reported, and the way we start to imagine the other side, wherever we are, focuses on the most extreme exemplars and people who are dangerous. And I think that in the middle, there's still this vast swath of us, which is most of us, where we certainly might not agree today or ever on this, that, or the other thing—and sometimes I think we’re going to have to get comfortable kind of holding our noses at something we really, really disagree with—but again, they're not dangerous. It's just that we just don't get it and they're wrong.

I honestly think that a lot of this anxiety that underlies and contributes to our public disarray also has to do with this elemental fact that the weather is changing, and the natural world, literal ground beneath our feet, or the air we breathe is shifting. Things we took for granted that are just elemental. So I see in a lot of places in the country, the closer to the ground you get, the less despairing you get, you know? Places where it's about cleaning up a river; it's about cleaning up the water, right? It's about preserving some beautiful place. I think we really owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to new generations, to also aspire to that, to model that.

What do you believe is the importance of asking questions, in terms of understanding who we are individually and collectively? And how can asking questions be squared with the idea of faith?

I carry my questions in front of me as much as I carry my beliefs. I don't walk through the world armed with my beliefs. And yet I'm saying that, but you know, certainly I meet plenty of people all the time with whom I know I have profound differences. Or, let's say this, that I know I would not agree with them if we got into certain conversations. You know? And unless there's a reason to go there, you know, I will find what is it that we can connect about. There's always so much that you can talk about.

I just interviewed Claudia Rankine. And she's so good on this. And she's tough, you know, she's all about speaking the truth. She's so good, though, about not starting a fight, but she'll just kind of be honest with somebody if they say something. And again, not in an attacking way, just like, here's the truth.

It's amazing how I think people respond better to that than we give them credit for. And then it's, again, it's not that they are fundamentally changed or you are fundamentally changed, but you've actually had this moment.

“A lot of this anxiety that underlies our public disarray also has to do with this elemental fact that the weather is changing, and the literal ground beneath our feet, or the air we breathe, is shifting.”

How do you approach discussions about religion and belief with people with whom you have substantial differences of belief or who are just not open to being persuaded? Do you believe that there are some differences in belief that are just insurmountable?

Well, professionally, I do have conversations about things that it's hard to talk about. But, you know, I'm choosing to draw out people who I know are ready and willing to have a conversation, right? Like, who are also gonna see that as an adventure. So it's not like I'm a news journalist, where I have to interview somebody who egregiously offends me.

But having said that, that is also a luxury most of us have in our daily lives. I do think that we get kind of paralyzed because we watch a lot of media, and so we think that, you know, let's just give an example: there's nothing I could say, or like no initiative I could start, that would reform Steve Bannon. So it's just despair, right? So like, if Steve Bannon is your metric, or whoever, then you don't do anything, then you're paralyzed, and you feel powerless.

And we actually can choose to find the people who are not Steve Bannon but who are very different from us. And they are all over the place, like somebody else's brother-in-law who drives them crazy at Thanksgiving, but you could probably have lunch with them and learn something and they could learn something from you. I mean, we can find these people. So that's what I do, right? I find those people.

I think the conversations in public that I find most challenging are the conversations about race, ’cause I—you know—and whiteness. I mean, that’s one. And, in fact, with Claudia Rankine I was talking about whiteness. And I did a show with Eula Biss, who’s written a lot about whiteness. I think it’s a reckoning. It’s this awakening.

I think some of the hardest things that we have to talk about are not the ones, in fact, we’re fighting about all the time. Like, they are hard in their own way. But then there’s this whole realm of things that we want to name and talk about, and we don't know how to start. Or it feels too scary or embarrassing to start now. When I had this conversation with Eula Biss about whiteness, there’s a moment in it, and we left it in the edit, where she says, “You know, I find it mortifying to be thinking that anybody’s gonna be listening to this.” And we both kind of admit [that’s] because it feels so inadequate.

What do you believe in?

What do I believe in? I’m gonna be so much less fluid on this.

Yeah.

I believe that we human beings are strange, very strange, fascinating creatures—also often dismaying—but the strangeness holds both things. And I believe that we are at this moment where the kind of elemental truths are completely out on the surface of the work we have to do, both in ourselves and in our life together.

And I also believe, at the very same time, that we're being handed, from science as much as anywhere else, ways to understand and work with ourselves, with our brains, with the way our bodies work, with what our instincts are, with how to shift those, where we actually have the tools to kind of grow up as a species. And I don't know if we're gonna make it.

It’s not about being lone individuals doing this. We have to accompany each other, and we have to surround ourselves with other people who can do the hard work on the days when we can’t. That I see everywhere people who are rising to the occasion rather than stooping to what is base and broken right now. I see that. I believe in that. I believe in that potential in us. And that enough of us are going to do our best to kind of live into a better capacity of what we're capable of. And if we don’t succeed, that’s still our offering to the cosmos.

Watch an animated version of this interview here.

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