Conversations in the Vast Middle

Public radio host and author Krista Tippett talks with Stan Friedman about civility, social media, and Einstein.


Listener of the public radio show On Being are treated weekly to an exploration of human spirituality and faith as host Krista Tippett interviews an array of guests ranging from scientists to poets. She also hosts the Civil Conversations Project, which seeks to provide opportunity and resources for dialogue on what often are contentious political and moral issues.

For her work, she has received the Peabody Award and earlier this year was presented the National Humanities Medal at the White House because “on the air and in print, Ms. Tippett avoids easy answers, embracing complexity and inviting people of all faiths, no faith, and every background to join the conversation.” Tippett says her work has strengthened her Christian faith while giving her a greater appreciation for other spiritual viewpoints and a richer sense of wonder and mystery.

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Tippett grew up in Shawnee, Oklahoma, where she says she was influenced by the strict religious views of her grandfather, a Southern Baptist preacher. She went on to attend Brown University, where she earned a Fulbright scholarship to study politics in Bonn, West Germany. She then moved to Berlin and became a stringer for The New York Times as well as a freelance correspondent for Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune, the BBC, and Die Zeit. She also became a special assistant to the U.S. ambassador to West Germany.

She left in 1988, the year before the Berlin Wall fell, and subsequently lived in Spain, England, and Scotland before pursuing an M.Div. from Yale University. While doing an oral history project for the Benedictines of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, she began to imagine a radio program that would provide dialogue and exploration of religion in the public square. She published her first book, Speaking of Faith, in 2007, and her second book, Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit, in 2010.

How did the Civil Conversations Project come about?

When I’m out speaking, I’m so aware of the desire people have for civil conversations. Generally it comes to me in the form of questions: “Do you think Congress will ever change?” “Do you think the media will ever change?” But I think these conversations are too urgent to wait for politics or the media to change. We need to start creating the spaces we want to see. We need to start hosting these conversations.

I would hope that 95 percent of what we’ve done over the past ten years would count as a civil conversation, but we gave in and created this series. It started as a radio project, then the feedback we kept getting led us to do these conversations. This project has taken us outside the box of being a radio show. We’re in the process of creating some resources to help people start new kinds of conversations where they live.

How might churches get involved?

Churches are ideal spaces for these conversations. A big aspect of this is the virtue of hospitality of opening one’s physical space and creating an atmosphere in which we invite different kinds of people to come together. I can’t imagine a more ideal space than churches.

We are truth-seeking creatures, and I think we’re all called to discern truth. The world needs us to have vibrant ideas and strong convictions, but how we continue to have the conversations and express ourselves is important.

Is gracious conversation possible in the age of social media?

It isn’t typically a medium where people are especially willing to listen to each other. We have to make it possible. Sometimes I’m with groups of journalists who are pretty much in despair about the comment section in newspapers. It’s not just about turning it over to technology – it has to be curated. There are disciplines, there are best practices, but we can create gracious places for conversation. Technology is a tool, and it’s up to us to infuse it with a purpose and an ethos.

We launched a lot of things that we now see led to more division and less conversation. So now there is this messy work of rolling it back and starting over, and it’s expensive and requires a lot of energy.

You talk a lot about seeking out conversation from people in the middle and not on the extremes. I wonder if you would have had John the Baptist or the Apostle Paul on the show. In other words, do we make moderation a false value?

(Laughs.) That’s a great question, and I’m not sure I have a great answer for it. The phrase I like to use is the vast middle. I’m not actually interested in the center. I’m not even sure it exists, and I think it’s not very interesting if it does. I think most of us fall to the left or right. It may look different depending on our religious or political views.

But we tend to frame our public discussions from the standpoint of the absolute extremes, where one has defined oneself over against the people who are different from them and where there are no questions left. Even if we’re quite far to one side on the spectrum, whether religiously or politically or however you would define it, most of us have some questions along with our answers. We have some desire to better understand others along the spectrum.

I think the people you are describing actually are prophetic figures. I’ve been speaking with Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, and one of the things he says is that prophets never speak in terms of issues. It’s whenever we turn something into an issue – something we can vote on – that we get an irreconcilable dispute that breaks down.

Brueggemann says prophetic language absolutely transcends political language – it’s poetic rather than positional, so I do think I’m interested in those kinds of voices.

But would I put John the Baptist on the air? I don’t know.

What signs of hope do you see in terms of people’s willingness to engage in civil conversation?

I do see a lot of hope. A real irony of the situation, especially when it comes to people of faith and people of courage and hope, is that the people who are getting on with the important work that needs to be done are not self-promoters. They’re the last people to put themselves in front of a microphone. But the people who are getting the attention are the rabble-rousers or divisive characters.

What I find is that the people who are out there leading beautiful lives and being true to the deepest part of our tradition are quiet, so there’s this work that we need to do—to look for them and shine a light on them. I really like that biblical language of having ears to hear and eyes to see. That’s kind of a spiritual discipline for the twenty-first century.

You focus a lot on mystery, but because of that, people have accused you of allowing for relativism. At the end of the day we have to make decisions based on what we believe. I wonder sometimes whether we hide behind the words of mystery and wonder so that we don’t have to decide what we believe regarding difficult issues. Could you talk about that?

I used to hear that more in the early days. I think the fear was, “If you assume that everyone has dignity and integrity and wisdom, are you saying it’s all the same or that it’s equally true?”

That’s not the question I’m asking, and I don’t think I’d have the answer to that. So one way I answer the claim is to say that isn’t what we’re saying. This is where Abraham Heschel is helpful. No one could have been more deeply planted in his religious tradition, orthodox Judaism, and yet he talked about depth theology and the dignity and the beauty and the kinship of people in other traditions. That’s where having a reverence for mystery comes in because even in orthodox Judaism or Christianity, there is the belief that we won’t be able to tie up all things in this lifetime. We have to have reverence for the limitations of our knowledge. I really think that mystery lets us have our cake and eat it too.

I do not believe that we are called to relinquish our deepest truths and traditions. We have to hold them, and of course we have to hold them as we do any certainty – with some humility. We have to be open to life-changing lessons, and deepening those things and nuancing them. But I actually think that the depths of our tradition allow us to hold those things in a creative tension with the reality of mystery. We don’t have to feel like we have all the answers.

In recent years, some scientists have been dubbed New Atheists because they argue that we should be giving up those traditions and reject religious faith. What do you think Einstein would say to the New Atheists today?

Einstein said that a sense of wonder and a reverence for mystery are at the heart of the best of religion, and science and the arts, and I love that. I love that Einstein sees a kinship among all these.

The problem I have with the New Atheists – among other things – is that they are very intelligent people and very erudite in their fields. For example, Richard Dawkins is a brilliant man in his field of genetics, but he seems to have picked up an infantile, cartoonish image of religion that is easy to shoot down—that any of us could shoot down. I felt like they all had a bad experience in their own religious life, and their knowledge or experience of religion got stuck at age nine or ten. It was immature, and then they were arguing with an immature view of religion. I think Einstein would have said that was irresponsible and not very interesting.

To me the whole New Atheist phenomenon is kind of interesting. It flared up and then it went away pretty quickly. They sold a lot of books and they were on a lot of talk shows, and then we all moved on.

Behind the scenes, there are a lot of interesting conversations. I don’t think there are that many people anymore who are interested in arguing, “Is there a god or isn’t there a god? Can science disprove or prove there is a god?” I think we all have come to a more realistic humility about that. But there’s a lot of interesting discussion about ethical issues across the religion-science line about human questions, about questions of the environment, and even about sharing the wonder. It’s really constructive, and it’s quiet. It’s very different.

I can’t imagine doing science without it leading to a sense of awe and wonder.

There are many examples of people who have deep convictions and also are people of humility. That is a kind of an interesting walk, a kind of a dance, but it’s an ennobling dance. In that sense, I think a lot of scientists could teach the religious. It’s scientists I interview – for the most part – who have a robust sense of joy in the natural world, and a joy in discovery. To me, those are sacred qualities.

Can people be faithful without curiosity?

Boy, in my mind the two go hand in hand and are inseparable. There’s a synergy between them. I would never want to point at another human being and say they aren’t people of faith just because they’re not curious in the same way I am. Also I don’t think you can know what goes on in the heart and mind of another person, but for me those two couldn’t exist without the other.

How do you talk to your kids about faith?

My kids are sixteen and twenty, so they’re kind of at the ages where they have their own thoughts on these things. It’s kind of like your children are who they are at some point. I couldn’t raise them with the same kind of certainty and rules that I was raised in.

Some things are still meaningful to me, like hymns, that were not part of their childhoods. I grew up with this music and these hymns, and I knew all the words and I still know all the words. If I hear them, they bring back this flood of well-being. So when you don’t pass on your traditions to your children – even when there are reasons for that – something is lost, and I’m aware of that with my kids.

I think my honest answer to that question is that I have the same struggles in talking about faith with my kids as everybody else does. “Am I getting it right? Did I get it right? Did I give them enough?” What I’ve heard from the wisest people I know is that your kids obviously hear your words, but what they really take with them is what they saw and what you were. Oh boy, did I do a great job in that area? I don’t know (laughing). I just kind of fall back on the knowledge that you do the best you can. I find parenting one of the most important things we do and one of the things we are least prepared for.

Sometimes parents who have left the church feel it is important to take their kids to church for various reasons. What do you make of that? Yes, it’s very common for children to bring you back to this discussion. No matter what kind of journey people have had up to that point – no matter how much they distance themselves from their own tradition – parenting is this new journey and you wonder, “What do I owe my child, what do I want to pass on to them?” I think we don’t really understand how important it is to give our children even something to reject, if that’s what’s going to happen. I think giving them something to react to, whether they accept it or reject it, has substance. Giving them something to grapple with has value.

People today are often looking for a sense of meaning, a sense of vocation. In your book Speaking of Faith, you quote Annie Dillard who said, “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” You say you do the kind of journalism that looks for the redemptive stories. What does vocation mean to you—as opposed to having a job?

I really love the language of vocation and calling, and I believe that in recent generations, especially in this country, we have associated vocation with job titles. That’s a real diminishment; it’s really a skewed version of what vocation is about. We live in a world now and an economy where people don’t get their dream jobs. Maybe at some point you’ll have a job that feels like it has meaning, but many people won’t. We can’t define ourselves or our vocation in terms of the work we do.

Those of us who have jobs that have meaning for us are very fortunate, and I am so grateful, but sometimes I talk to young journalists or other young people, and they say, “I want to do what you do.” But I’ll respond saying, “Don’t glorify or romanticize my job – or any job.” There have been long periods of time in my own career where I felt like I really had to struggle to squeeze out that five percent of this job that was about those transformative moments of conversation. I certainly feel this less now than I did five years go. But I also have to deal with office politics. I also have to deal with raising money. Every job has drudgery to it.

We have to see our vocation as the whole of our lives, and at different points in our lives know our vocation may be more focused on different things. I really think parenting is a vocation. Our most intimate relations are our vocation. We need to let ourselves be defined by more than what we do and when we say that, we mean what you do that you get paid for.

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About the Author

Stan Friedman

Stan Friedman is the news and online editor for the Covenant Companion and is grateful for the opportunity to serve in a job that combines his newspaper and pastoral ministry experience. He has been to 15 Bruce Springsteen concerts in four cities and listened to “Thunder Road” an average of at least once a day for 41 years.

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