Krista Tippett on Humility, Mystery, and Self-Knowledge
We all admire and praise and strive to be like humble people. St. Augustine is on record, and has been quoted across the Christian tradition: “almost the whole of Christian teaching is humility.” (De Virginitate 31). Augustine even once instructed a student named Dioscorus, “If you were to ask me, however often you might repeat the question, what are the instructions of the Christian religion, I would be disposed to answer always and only, ‘Humility.’” (Letter 118.3.22) St. Thomas Aquinas considers humility foundational and the beginning of virtue precisely because it opens us up to the formative power of others—exemplars—to apprentice ourselves to them—apprenticeship especially to the Holy Spirit.
About Krista Tippett
(@KristaTippett) Krista Tippett is a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and New York Times best-selling author. In 2014, she received the National Humanities Medal at the White House for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence. On the air and in print, Ms. Tippett avoids easy answers, embracing complexity and inviting people of every background to join her conversation about faith, ethics, and moral wisdom.”
Krista grew up in Oklahoma, the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist preacher. She studied history at Brown University and went to Bonn, West Germany in 1983 on a Fulbright Scholarship to study politics in Cold War Europe. In her 20s, she ended up in divided Berlin for most of the 1980s, first as The New York Times stringer and a freelance correspondent for Newsweek, The International Herald Tribune, the BBC, and Die Zeit. She later became a special assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to West Germany.
Krista left Berlin in 1988, the year before the Wall fell. She lived in Spain, England, and Scotland for a time, then pursued a M.Div. from Yale. When she graduated in 1994, she saw a black hole where intelligent coverage of religion should be. As she conducted a far-flung oral history project for the Benedictines of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, she began to imagine radio conversations about the spiritual and intellectual content of faith that could open imaginations and enrich public life.
In 2007, Krista published her first book, Speaking of Faith. It is a memoir of religion in our time, including her move from geopolitical engagement to theology and the cumulative wisdom of her interviews these past years. In 2010, she published Einstein’s God, drawn from her interviews at the intersection of science, medicine, and spiritual inquiry. And now, Krista’s New York Times best-seller Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living opens into the questions and challenges of this century. Maria Popova calls it “a tremendously vitalizing read — a wellspring of nuance and dimension amid our Flatland of artificial polarities, touching on every significant aspect of human life with great gentleness and a firm grasp of human goodness.”
Krista’s two children are at the center of her life. She also loves cooking for her children and their friends, radio plays, beautiful writing, great science fiction, cross country skiing, and hot yoga.
00:01 – Is humility a joke? Is it self-defeating?
00:30 – The elusive virtue of humility
01:00 – Political examples of self-defeating humility
01:44 – “What is the whole teaching of Christianity?” according to St. Augustine
02:15 – St. Thomas Aquinas on humility as the beginning of virtue
02:30 – Introductions, Humility, Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise
04:32 – Becoming Wise’s book dedication; children as beloved teachers
08:00 – Homo quaerens
08:20 – Mountains of mystery according to Flannery O’Connor and Krista Tippett (sections of Becoming Wise)
10:15 – Humility, the companion to curiosity and delight; the humility of the child
11:00 – Negative connotations of humility, humility based in reality and a stance in wonder
16:45 – Self-knowledge; Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos; Nietzsche on the difficulty of self-knowledge; humanity’s most vexing problem
19:10 – Complications, the difficult work of humility and self-knowledge; attentiveness, searching, and love
20:16 – On love and humility held in community; “loving, knowing, becoming”
21:25 – Final thoughts and next episode preview
22:34 – Credits
Evan Rosa: “I am so humble.” “I’m more humble than you could know.” [laughs] I mean just saying that – the fact we can make a joke of humility—that says a lot.
For most of us, we recognize these words as somehow self-defeating. As soon as they are uttered, they appear to be untrue. You sure seem proud of your humility. As soon as we recognize our humility—poof—it up and vanishes in the winds of pride….
Maybe it’s the reflexivity of the virtue of humility that makes it so paradoxical. Because it’s a virtue related to self-regard, it’s natural that things would get funny, kinda wonky, once you notice your own humility. Somehow, your own humility becomes fodder for thinking yourself better than others.
And I’m sure we could find a few references to self-defeating humility out there in politics.
Debate Host: What would you want your secret service code name to be? Mr. Trump?
Donald Trump: Humble.
Jeb Bush: That’s a good one.
Donald Trump: I do have actually much more humility than people would think.
Evan Rosa: But really? Can we make genuine, real personal humility a public goal? Can we talk about it?
Humility is a long-standing virtue. We all admire and praise and strive to be like humble people. St. Augustine is on record, and has been quoted across the Christian tradition: “almost the whole of Christian teaching is humility.” (De Virginitate 31). Augustine even once instructed a student named Dioscorus, “If you were to ask me, however often you might repeat the question, what are the instructions of the Christian religion, I would be disposed to answer always and only, ‘Humility.’” (Letter 118.3.22)
St. Thomas Aquinas considers humility foundational and the beginning of virtue precisely because it opens us up to the formative power of others—exemplars—to apprentice ourselves to them—apprenticeship especially to the Holy Spirit.
Well, yes, humility is fraught, but most good things in life are. And if what great Christian theologians and church fathers have said is true, we need to talk more, do more and be much more with respect to humility.
As the beginning, and perhaps the end of Christian character, on display most fully in the example of Jesus, humility is a central feature of what it means to become wise.
I’m Evan Rosa, and you’re listening to The Table Audio – a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s biggest questions.
Today, I’m excited to share a discussion of humility from an interview with Krista Tippett, the Peabody Award winning journalist and loving force behind public radio’s best show on spirituality, faith, and public life, On Being. She is also author of the 2016 New York Times Bestselling Book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. Maria Popova of Brain Pickings has noted Tippett’s skill in “touching on every significant aspect of human life with great gentleness and a firm grasp of human goodness.” I agree. For my own car-rides home and then for before, during, and after dinner discussion around the Rosa family table, On Being is a consistent go-to source of nuanced and generative ideas.
We covered lots of ground in this interview – but for this episode, I’m sharing Krista’s thoughts on humility, mystery, self-knowledge, whether humble politics is an oxymoron, and why we, as Reinhold Neihbur once noted, are our own most vexing problem. I love reading book dedications and epigrams, so I started by asking her about hers. And it turned out to be a great launch point for a conversation about humility.
Children As Beloved Teachers
Evan: You dedicate “Becoming Wise” to Aly and Sebastian. Those are your children, right?
Krista: Yes, that’s right.
Evan: You identify them, I love this, as beloved teachers. I’m moved by this. When I think of my own kids—I’ve got three kids, and they’re young, six through one—to think of them as my beloved teachers is good. It’s stark and it’s surprising learning from children, but there’s this wonderful tradition, “from the mouths of babes.”
It puts us in this place of humility, the clear-sightedness of children, the way they see the world. Why did you dedicate this book to them? What does it mean to have your children as beloved teachers?
Krista: I do have all kinds of lofty thoughts about that, because I’ve been doing this project in the years that my children were growing up. I remember interviewing Robert Coles years ago about “The Spiritual Life of Children.” Children do ask great, big theological questions. They ask the questions that stump us.
Evan: Usually, too close to bedtime, unfortunately.
Krista: [laughs] That’s right, too close to bedtime. “Where do we come from?” And, “Why did grandma die?” And, “Why are people bad to each other?” These are really important questions. It’s the beginning of moral life and spiritual life.
Also, [laughs] in a more down-to-earth way, children anchor us to reality. My children, even in terms of leading a life where I had something of a public life — I’m not a big celebrity, but there are circles in which I’m a public person and recognized — my children always reminding me what was important and real.
I still remember a couple of moments when I first had the radio show. Somebody said to my daughter, “Wow, it must be really exciting to hear your mother’s voice coming out of the radio.” She said, “No, not really. We hear her voice all the time at home.”
Krista: Or, somebody saying to son, “Oh, your mother, she has a radio show. She writes books.” [laughs] He said, “And let’s not forget her most important job, being a mom.”
I just feel like my children were always there to keep me grounded, and have done that in the most wonderful way. A new life in the world, which is what a child is, if we’re asking spiritual questions, if we’re thinking theologically, we are watching this unfold, and it’s full of learning.
Evan: Starting with children as beloved teachers is important context for discussing humility, I think. As we grow older, it’s possible that we’ll genuinely come to know more. But what’s certain is that we’ll definitely think we know more. Childhood wonder introduces a realism about the nature of human life and questioning. This is perhaps why George Steiner suggested that, rather than homo sapiens – that is, beings that know – we’re more accurately, quote, “homo quaerens—the animal that asks and asks.“
Kids: What, How, Why Daddy, Why?
If you didn’t get that reference, inside joke. Check out our first episode on Seeking Christian Wisdom for Life’s Big Questions.
The Southern Gothic novelist Flannery O’Connor once wrote that “Mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.” Children disarm us and invite us to humble ourselves before the great mountains of mystery in life’s big questions.
In her section on Faith in Becoming Wise, Krista writes, quote, “Once upon a time I took in mystery as a sensation best left unexamined. Now I experience it as a welcome. I’m strangely comforted when I hear from scientists that human beings are the most complex creatures we know of in the universe, still, by far. Black holes are in their way explicable; the simplest living being is not. I lean a bit more confidently into the experience that life is so endlessly perplexing. I love that word. Spiritual life is a way of dwelling with perplexity—taking it seriously, searching for its purpose as well as its perils its beauty as well as its ravages. In this sense spiritual life is a reasonable, reality-based pursuit. it can have mystical entry points and destinations, to be sure. But it is in the end about befriending reality, the common human experience of mystery included.” End quote.
Why is this a starting point for humility? Because humility, however you want to define it (and we will get to that someday soon – the goal of finding a philosophically and psychologically satisfying definition of humility) – humility is about being truly and rightly acquainted with yourself. Neither over- nor under-estimating. Neither over- nor under-concerned about yourself.
Krista’s words are again helpful here. Quote, “[Humility] is woven through lives of wisdom and resilience. It’s another word that has acquired a taint of ineffectuality. But my life of conversation has reintroduced it to me as a companion to curiosity and delight. Spiritual humility is not about getting small, not about debasing oneself, but about approaching everything and everyone else with a readiness to see goodness and to be surprised. This is the humility of a child, which Jesus lauded. It is the humility of the scientist and the mystic. It has a lightness of step, not a heaviness of heart.”
Humility and Mystery
Krista: The negative connotation that humility has gotten, that I grew up with, was that it’s about demeaning yourself or dismissing yourself or even worse, making yourself vulnerable to being ineffectual or being abused.
You’re right. It’s not about making yourself small. It’s about enjoying and taking in the vastness and the beauty and dignity of others and of reality.
Evan: Didn’t C. S. Lewis say, “Humility does away with modesty”?
Krista: I love that.
Evan: Something like that. It’s about reality. What’s fascinating to me about humility is, one, there’s a huge resurgence in contemporary research about intellectual humility, moral humility, spiritual humility. And we find it in the sciences. And we find it in spirituality, and finally, some common ground.
Evan: Not finally, really, but something we can agree about. Here’s a quote from the book, “Mystery lands in us as a humbling of reality we cannot sum up or pin down. Such moments change us from the inside if we let them.”
There is a real movement to humility if we allow it to take its fullness in us. I wonder if you’d just comment on how you see humility operating in the various context of life.
Krista: We were talking earlier about our children being our teachers. I happened to be studying divinity…I was at a divinity school when my daughter was born, when I got pregnant and she was born. That had not been in the plan. [laughs] That was one of those moments…
Krista: I was reading these passages, “Be humble like a little child.” It always just completely left me cold. These were the kinds of passages you skim over and you say, “At some time and place, that made sense, but it doesn’t make sense.”
Then, I find myself studying these passages and living with a little child. What I understood, what I saw in my daughter was this humility that is about walking out into the world every day and everything is new and everything is potentially amazing.
It was a stance. It was a willingness to be amazed and surprised and taught by the person walking by, the crack in the sidewalk, the bird in the air. Those passages, I started to see there’s this incredible wisdom and reality in them that I had never considered.
That was my beginning of thinking about humility. The connection between humility and mystery is huge. This language that I learned from a geneticist, actually, about the spiritual life of a mystic and a scientist is it has this kindred quality that includes humility.
On the one hand, a passionate commitment to discerning truth, however best you can, at any given moment and living by truth. At the same time, living in a wonder and humility that there are things you do not, cannot, will not understand in this lifetime, everything, but there’s also everything yet to discover.
Evan: More from Krista in just a minute; after the break we’ll talk about Humility and Self-Knowledge, and humanity’s most vexing problem. Just after these messages (we’ll be right back).
Evan: Besides podcasts, articles, videos, not to mention a residential research fellowship program for scholars and pastors, we at the Biola University Center for Christian Thought put on events – and one is coming up – The Table Conference. We treat a different theme every time – on September 21 and 22, we’ll be bringing in theologians, philosophers, psychologists, and others to discuss Resilience: Growing Stronger Through Struggle. Here’s Center for CHristian Thought Program Administrator and Event Planner extraordinaire Laura Pelser.
Laura: Hi Evan
Evan: What’s your favorite part of the Table Conference?
Laura: My favorite thing about the Table Conference is that our audience is genuinely hungry to learn about these things and they’re honestly coming with these big questions and they’re excited and enthusiastic to hear from who we have.
Evan: And who do we have? Well, I’ll name two for now. Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University and author of Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering. She’ll be joined by Miroslav Volf of Yale University, who’s the author of Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. We’ll be sharing more names in the near future and you can also check out the event on our website at cct.biola.edu.
Evan Narrate: One of my favorite books, ever, is Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos. Shout out to Greg Ganssle for the recommendation. It deals with humanity’s zany, yet focused, even obsessive, quest to know ourselves. The book’s epigram is taken from Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. And I can’t ever seem to get this passage out of my head.
“We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves … Of necessity we remain strangers to ourselves, we understand ourselves not … for each of us holds good to all eternity the motto, ‘Each is the farthest away from himself’—as far as ourselves are concerned we are not knowers” (Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 1887).
So I asked Krista her thoughts about the connection between humility and the vexing problem of self-knowledge.
Evan: There’s also this connection to self-knowledge. It comes up a few points throughout your book, humility and self-knowledge, the idea of if humility…the truly humble position is to see things rightly and to be connected to reality, not estimating yourself higher, not estimating yourself lower. You think of Socrates, where wisdom is knowing that he doesn’t know.
Krista: [laughs] That’s right.
Evan: Looking back to some other voices here, you said this a few times and I learned to love this quote, Reinhold Niebuhr, “Man is his own most vexing problem.” It’s almost on repeat. There’s this chorus of thinkers and influential people who are reminding of us of this.
What is this? Why are we so vexing to ourselves? What are we to make of this and accepting it and putting it to use and enjoying it, delighting in it?
Krista: It is the human condition. I think about the idea that man is his own most vexing problem and all those [inaudible] these are the best diagnoses we could give of our current economic present, our racial present, our political present.
It is a great mystery of life and of reality that we are so complicated and so complicated even to ourselves, but it is what we have to work with. What is redemptive [laughs] in a hard way is that when we let ourselves just be attentive and searching about this, that is where we grow.
Krista: That is where we have the possibility of growing wiser and not just older and not just smarter.
Krista: It’s hard work.
Evan: One thing I notice is, if it’s a problem for me, it’s a problem for everyone. Again, it puts us on equal footing to be accepting of one another.
Krista: Yes, and I think that you just got through an important part of this, and this is actually something we have to learn. Love and self knowledge, neither of these things are we meant to carry by ourselves as individuals, nor will we get them right.
We have this culture where we’re all taught to be self made, and raise yourself up by your bootstraps, and somehow, you’re supposed to know it all. I wrote in the book about the end of my marriage, and this realization that even that kind of love, I think, is meant to be held in community.
We need to accompany each other in this work of loving, and knowing, and becoming, because even that self knowledge, even that understanding, that line between what we know and what we don’t know, that’s something you get with maturity, and we actually need feedback. [laughs] This is not all stuff we should do in isolation, alone in our room.
It’s stuff we can’t actually do, at its fullest, alone in our room.
Evan: That’s it for now. But not for long. And we will pick up right there in the next couple days we’ll post another portion of the interview with Krista Tippett of On Being, where we discuss the social nature of humility – as she said, “the need to accompany each other in this work of loving, and knowing, and becoming.” We’ll also talk about Krista’s favorite question to ask her interviewees, and [DUH DUH DUH] politics. Humble politics. Whereas the general theme of this episode was Humility and the Self-Orientation – next time we’ll talk more about humility and the other. Can’t wait to share more with you.
Music (“Brother”, The Brilliance): Open up our eyes to see the wounds that bind all of humankind, May out shutter heard greet the dawn of light with charity and love. When I look into the face of my enemy, I see my brother. I see my brother.
The Table Audio is hosted by me, Evan Rosa, and is produced by the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is supported by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation, along with people like you who care about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions. Theme music is by The Brilliance. Special thanks to Krista Tippett, Lily Percy, and Chris Heagle over at OnBeing for their generosity, time, help with audio production, and just for, well, being. To subscribe to The Table Audio, check us out on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever podcasts are found — just search “The Table Audio.” And really, it will help us if you leave us a review in Apple Podcasts and leave a comment. You can follow me on twitter @EvanSubRosa and you can follow the Center for Christian Thought @BiolaCCT or visit cct.biola.edu
Music: I see my brother.
Donald Trump: There’s more humility than you would think. Believe me.