On Being, the NPR radio show about spirituality hosted by Krista Tippett, premiered 13 years ago, but I heard it for the first time only last year, when a professor of social work named Brené Brown was Tippett’s guest. Brown had interviewed more than a thousand people in an attempt to find out why some are plagued by feelings of shame while others aren’t. Their conversation was full of touchy-feely buzzwords—compassion, creativity, authenticity—but it left me feeling unmistakably uplifted. I began listening more regularly to Tippett’s interviews with clergypeople, artists, activists, and scientists about spiritual life in an increasingly secular world. When I felt lonely or dispirited by the news, I would listen to On Being while riding my bike around the park and emerge reassured that the world wasn’t so bad.
Tippett’s show launched, in 2003, with a more overtly religious title: Speaking of Faith. Tippett was raised in the Southern Baptist Church; after working as a journalist and diplomat in divided Germany, she decided to study theology at Yale Divinity School. In 2013, she rebranded the show with a more secular title, On Being, and the episodes went from having titles like “At the Table: The Meaning of Communion” to “How Movie Music Moves Us.” The series went from being a theistic show to an agnostic one. When Tippett won the National Humanities Medal, in 2013, President Obama praised her for “inviting people of all faiths, no faith, and every background to join the conversation.” In a book called Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (Penguin), published this April, Tippett looks back on her conversations and attempts to distill them into a unified theory of agnostic spiritual life.
Agnosticism is often thought of, incorrectly, as a state of theological indecision. Rather, it is the conviction that it is epistemologically impossible to determine whether or not there is a deity. Agnosticism is an ideology of unknowability. In a kindred book, also published this April, Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto (Riverhead), Lesley Hazleton describes agnosticism as “a recognition that we need room for mystery, for the imagination, for things sensed but not proven, intuited but not defined—room in which to explore and entertain possibilities.” It reflects the beliefs of a growing sector of the population: The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans increased from 15.3 to 19.6 percent between 2007 and 2012. And more than a third of this group identified themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” These people access spiritual life in an enormous range of ways: through yoga, meditation, music, poetry, community service, psychedelic drugs, the outdoors, and more.
On Tippett’s show, talking—connecting through conversation—is a way of accessing spirituality. Much of her work revolves around the collaborative creation of a new spiritual rhetoric. Tippett argues that religious words have become ossified, banal, and politicized. She hopes to develop a new “language of virtue,” made up of what, on one episode, the poet Elizabeth Alexander calls “words that shimmer.” Tippett writes that, in order to keep our spiritual and moral imaginations open, she avoids words that ring partisan: God, prayer, or justice, for instance. When she lists the adjectives that she prefers, they are unmistakably free of denominational connotation: nourishing, edifying, redemptive, and courageous. Tippett also believes that using stories instead of rhetoric can break down the divisions between people. In her book, she writes, “Once I have a sense of your experience, you and I are in relationship, acknowledging the complexity in each other’s position, listening less guardedly.”