Krista Tippett on Public Life, Social Humility, and the Religious Other
What are some aspects of social humility? Becoming humble means more than understanding one’s own stature and status. It means finding oneself standing on common ground with others. This is part 2 of Evan Rosa’s interview with Krista Tippett (host of On Being and author of Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living). Krista talks about the origins and purpose of the question she asks all of her conversation partners; intellectual humility as an article of faith; and how humility enables communication with the religious and political other.
00:01 – “Remember that thou art dust…”
01:25 – We are the in-between (link to Gilbert Meilaender’s book, Neither Beasts Nor Gods).
01:38 – “Dusting” by Marilyn Nelson (link to the full poem).
02:35 – Glorious dust as an idiom for humility and a point of common ground.
03:04 – Social humility. Finding common ground on… the ground. Two words with the same Latin root.
03:40 – Episode introduction and overview.
04:35 – Krista Tippett sparks civil conversations through generous listening.
04:52 – “What was the spiritual background of your childhood?” Krista Tippett explains her famous question.
06:58 – The origin and purpose of the question. “How would you answer [theological question X] through the story of your life?”
07:43 – Merging what you believe, and who you are (and the messiness of all that).
08:18 – Adapting the question to the radio show.
10:02 – Intellectual virtues and improved public discourse.
10:43 – The challenge and importance of intellectual humility as an article of faith.
13:01 – Paradox of inter-religious dialogue: enlarging our sense of learning from the religious other, while gaining a deeper and more illumined perspective on your own tradition.
14:32 – Humble politics. Social humility and intellectual humility as an approach to a more human politics.
14:59 – Humility and Conviction in Public Life at University of Connecticut (link to project website). Michael Lynch on Intellectual Humility / “Teaching Humility in an Age of Arrogance” (link to article).
16:15 – Krista Tippett comments on humility in politics. Humility isn’t rewarded in politics. Humility can be found everywhere throughout local politics. The good news about the future of humble politics.
19:53 – Concluding thoughts, more from Krista Tippett.
20:28 – Episode credits.
21:58 – An earthy Table snack.
“Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” Some combination or translation of those words are spoken around the world every Ash Wednesday; the bearers of this ash wear their humble humanity on their face, literally on their foreheads, in the form of ashes made from last years Palm Sunday fronds. I love that symbol: Smearing the remains of our confused premature glory as a stark reminder of our finitude and limitation. What’s more is it’s a public religious act, and thus a reminder to all of our common heritage of fragility—yes we are resilient at times, strong, persevering, creative in our attempts to become anti-fragile—but all of us bookend our dusty lives with great vulnerability. Here is a physical, embodied reminder of who we are. Dust. Glorious dust.
You might be thinking: “What? Dust? Glorious dust? That’s something resembling an oxymoron.” But, yes. Glorious dust.
The idea here is that there is both something marvelous about our place in the universe, and something modest. We are, as Gilbert Meilaender titled his book on human dignity, “neither beast nor God.” We’re the paradox of the extraordinarily ordinary (say that 5 times fast), we are the in-between. A short poem by Marilyn Nelson gives us some imagery of scale and scope to explain this phenomenon.
“Dusting” by Marilyn Nelson
Thank you for these tiny
particles of ocean salt,
for the infinite,
For algae spores
and fungus spores,
bonded by vital
mutual genetic cooperation,
from equator to pole.
My hand, my arm,
make sweeping circles.
Dust climbs the ladder of light.
For this infernal, endless chore,
for these eternal seeds of rain:
Thank you. For dust.
(From Magnificat, published by Louisiana State University Press. Copyright © 1994 by Marilyn Nelson.)
In our case, “glorious dust” is a helpful idiom for humility. We must hold in hand a balanced truth about ourselves, neither slipping too low into servility and self-deprecation or floating to high into arrogance and snobbery over others. That is, we must recognize what we have in common. It seems hard to come by points of common ground in our divided culture today.
But think about the common ground of well, the ground. The Latin root for humility is “humus”—you crunchy composters know what I’m talking about—humus, or soil, earth. Another word with the same root: human.
I’m Evan Rosa and you’re listening to The Table Audio, a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
Could it be that humility is the most expressive of what it means to live an excellent human life? Maybe, if it keeps us so deeply connected to what we truly are, and how we ought to think of ourselves in relation to others.
And in this episode we’ll be talk about the social elements of humility. What it means to appreciate the other—the stranger—the common dignity of us dust bunnies, and political humility. Is that an oxymoron? What does it look like when humility makes its way into politics.
This is a second installment of an interview with Krista Tippett, voice of the award-winning radio and podcast program On Being, and author of Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.
I’m an avid listener, and must give credit: I first heard that poem, “Dusting” (which I really love) in an interview Krista had with its author Marilyn Nelson. Krista’s overall project could be described as Sparking civil conversations through generous listening. There are a host of moral and intellectual virtues that lie beneath that effort, and when we spoke, I was curious about her technique for sparking her own civil conversations found in the program. She asks every single person she interviews, “What was the spiritual background of your childhood?”
The Mystery of the Religious Other
Krista: The origin of the question is in an oral history project I did for an ecumenical institute that no one will have heard of, in the middle of nowhere, in Minnesota. … this little ecumenical institute in the mid-20th century, when ecumenism was revolutionary. …
This little institute helped people of many traditions, …
Yet, even the people in those traditions are living in a world of what I want to call “the mystery of the religious other,” being exposed to people are planted in a very different place, and yet clearly, have lives of beauty, grace, and integrity. It’s still a theological move across the sweep of our traditions to be in that to engage with the religious other.
They had learned that they could have a really eclectic gathering of people — and I mean Nazarene Holiness to Armenian Orthodox, all Christian, technically, all part of the same family, but could not be more different from each other — that they could humanize doctrine.
They could let the doctrine in its fullness be in the room, but put faces and voices and lives of integrity to nuances of that doctrine, to differences, and start a relationship that was about something different than defining oneself over, against, or having an argument or a debate.
Evan: It starts with the person.
Krista: Yeah. They had this method that I experienced. First of all, I experienced it. I went to a couple of consultations, where they would have a theological question.
You had five days with a group of people to do this, everybody got to speak and be heard and there was reflection. The question would be, “Here’s a theological question. Answer the question through the story of your life.”
It did not lose any of the gravitas or heft or complexity — a lot of these people were theologians that they would bring to it—but it insisted on you speaking out of your life and you experience, and not speaking for your tradition or for God, but merging ideas, beliefs, and experience, what you believe and who you are, and the messiness of that intersection.
That’s where that came from. I experienced it to completely take what, in other settings, would be an acrimonious or suspicious gathering and create something very rich and spacious, full of possibility, and full of creativity and humanity.
I just adapted that when I started doing the radio show. The way I started adapting that, and as I’m saying this, it doesn’t seem like a direct line, but the way it came to me was I couldn’t ask people to answer a theological question through the story of their life, or any question through the story of their life, because we didn’t have five days.
But I could ask this question about the spiritual background of your childhood. To your question of what that affects, it may not sound dramatically different from asking somebody about their spiritual life, but it is.
That question of, “What’s your spiritual life? Are you religious? Do you believe in God? Who is God?” as someone asked me recently, those questions immediately freeze us, because they’re so enormous. It’s hard to put words around those things, and they’re so intimate.
But to ask somebody, anybody—and I’ve asked people who are physicists, atheists, people with all kinds and manner of spiritual or religious background—”What was the religious or spiritual background of childhood?” Everyone has a story.
Evan: It’s disarming.
Krista: It’s disarming and it includes people.
Evan: It invites.
Krista: Yeah, it invites people into a soft searching place that each of us inhabits, which is full of questions, and wonderful questions, and questions that I have found people have often followed, in some indirect way, their whole lives long.
Evan: You said once that you can disagree with someone’s argument or their conclusion, but you can’t disagree with their experience.
Krista: Yeah. You just take it in.
Intellectual Virtues and Civil Discourse—Specifically Intellectual Humility and How We Hold Our Own Convictions in Hand with Those of the Religious Other
Evan: More and more work has been done in recent years on the benefits of intellectual virtues (or cultivating good minds) for making better progress in public discourse—civil conversations right? The idea here is that, quite apart from the specific beliefs and ideas we have, say matters of policy debate—the stuff we all disagree about and that ends up dividing us—if we were to work on growing more excellent minds that embody humility, measured open-mindedness, better habits of listening and attentiveness, then we could experience improved public life for everyone and we’d all get closer to truth and goodness. I asked Krista about intellectual humility, the acknowledgement of our limitations in the face of demanding certainty.
And if this doesn’t sound challenging to you, think about it: Admitting to our cognitive limitations—the limits our our powers of knowledge as an article of Christian faith.
Evan: This is from Page 187 in your book.
“At their orthodox cores, all of our traditions insist on a reverence for what we do not know now and cannot tie up with explanation in this lifetime. This is an invitation to bring the particularities and passions of our identities into common life while honoring the essential mystery and dignity of the other and to do so not as an adjunct to faithfulness but as an article of it.”
What we don’t know, this is another common ground.
Krista: There is a lack of humility. It is a flaw of character when we don’t let that be part of our faithfulness.
Evan: Really, in the realm of religious belief then, this is perhaps to talk about humility specifically in its intellectual domain, the humility with respect to our beliefs, the content of our beliefs, being willing to say, “I could be wrong.” What have you seen humility do in religious conversation in the task of faithfulness?
Krista: It can be a tricky thing. Again, we have cultural ways of approaching difference. One of them is that people often go into settings where you’re confronted with difference, with an idea that there’s some expectation that either you’re going to change other people’s minds or they’re going to change your mind.
Especially when you’re dealing with matters of religious identity and fidelity, it’s not even respectful. [laughs] What I do see, there’s this great paradox of actual ecumenical and interreligious encounter that is deep and meaningful and genuine.
The paradox is that people, at one and the same time, find that their sense of the world and often of mystery is enlarged and that they are given gifts of beauty and understanding that they didn’t have before.
They learn things from this other person and their tradition, but there’s almost always this move at exactly the same time of feeling also more richly planted in the ground on which you stand, understanding your own tradition better, bringing better questions and insights that actually illuminate your own tradition in ways that you would not have considered before.
Evan: Which is the benefit of a conversation. It’s what it looks like to be genuinely involved in a successful conversation.
Krista: You’re not actually giving anything up. You’re getting bigger.
Evan: Yet, there is that risk.
Krista: You’re entering unknown territory, which just for us as creatures is always slightly frightening, unnerving. That’s normal. That’s OK that it feels that way.
Evan: For this segment of the interview with Krista, we ended by talking about politics. Watch out, I know! Regardless of who you voted for, where you fall in the increasingly polarized spectrum between progressives and conservatives, is there space for humility in politics? I played a couple clips of a politician talking about his own humility last episode. What does humble political engagement look like?
I’m a fan of what’s happening in a project called Humility and Conviction in Public Life out of University of Connecticut, and the project leader and philosopher Michael Lynch recently wrote:
“But being intellectually humble also means taking an active stance. It means seeing your worldview as open to improvement by the evidence and experience of other people. Being open to improvement is more than just being open to change. And it isn’t just a matter of self-improvement — using your genius to know even more. It is a matter of seeing your view as capable of improvement because of what others contribute.” (http://www.chronicle.com/article/Teaching-Humility-in-an-Age-of/240266)
I like the use of “active stance” as Lynch says, to describe the disposition of intellectually humble people. And the social component of humility really emerges here insofar as politics is a joint effort to secure the flourishing of the polis—our common life, the public space that we all occupy and are dedicated to. And so of course being open to what others contribute is absolutely essential.
Evan: I wanted to ask you about what are your thoughts about this apparent oxymoron—humble politics.
Krista: It’s not what we see modeled currently.
Krista: That’s not a very controversial statement, is it? It’s just a fact. Actually, I think that it is modeled in many places at a local level, but it’s not at the most visible, most dysfunctional level, which partly because it’s so dysfunctional, also gets most highly publicized. It’s not what we see.
It’s also not what’s rewarded, and that we have to take in, as much as we want to criticize politics and politicians. People who are running for office, or are in office, who admit mistakes or change their mind are reviled for that, and I don’t quite understand that dynamic. I was going to say it’s not a reaction I have, but that’s not true. I think it depends on what I think of the politician and what they’re recanting on.
The work of creating a humble politics is not just about electing different people. There’s this great line of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” If we’re talking about creating a humble politics and maybe, just maybe, we’re in the midst of this wild and discouraging and frightening political moment, I mean globally.
I hope that the good news about this is that it is so unsettling, that where we thought we were supposed to look for guidance is just so broken that we understand that we have to take this back, that politics belongs to all of us, that common life is bigger than politics and belongs to all of us. Maybe this is a moment for an opening where we start asking a question like that.
Evan: I love this idea of framing it locally and saying, “Well, I’m going to shrug my shoulders when it comes to the national scene,” but it turns us towards our neighbors.
Krista: There are good people on school boards, and who are mayors, and on city councils, and we need to honor that.
Evan: They do it without all the fanfare. They do it without all the press coverage.
Krista: This is an irony of…humility is all over the place. There are good, humble, wise people, but they are the last people to draw attention to themselves, those lives don’t get the publicity, and they don’t get noticed.
This also, to me, puts the responsibility back on all the rest of us to be creating and inhabiting the world we want to belong to. It’s not, and this is good news, we don’t actually have to create everything from scratch, but there is this step of being intentional, and opening our eyes, and our ears, and deciding to look for that which is quiet, and humble, and redemptive, but is not throwing ourselves in front of cameras and microphones.
Evan: So I’m going to get off the mic here and call it a day. If you’re interested in listening to more of Krista, check out OnBeing.org and subscribe to On Being’s podcasts, and she’ll be back in another future episode of The Table to discuss spiritual geniuses of the everyday, developing a vocabulary of love, and learning to acknowledge and hold the pain of others. Thanks for listening my fellow humus dwellers.
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.
Evan: 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 On Being. It’s an honor to work with them. 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.