Statistics show America is losing its religion, but Krista Tippett instead sees something powerful rising.
To the doyenne of religion journalism, GOP front-runner Donald Trump’s surge reflects “raw human pain.” The mushrooming percentage of Americans who say they don’t identify with any religious label reveals one of “the most spiritually vibrant … spaces in modern life.” Scientists, seen often as God skeptics, are “no longer pushing the mystery out.”
It makes perfect sense that Tippett would look at the plummeting stature of institutional religion and see instead a bustling spiritual marketplace for the future. When she founded her now super-popular radio show-podcast “On Being” in the early 2000s, it was called “Speaking of Faith,” but she morphed it in a way that parallels a country rapidly becoming less doctrinaire. The show says its aim is to explore “What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?”
Now Tippett has synthesized themes and insights from her years interviewing major thinkers into a book that in part lays out the future of faith — and she sounds very optimistic. In “Becoming Wise,” which comes out Tuesday, she lays out how faith “evolves” and where she sees 2016 America in that process.
Here are some edited excerpts from Tippett’s recent interview with Post religion reporter Michelle Boorstein:
In your book you talk about the huge boom in “Nones,” people who don’t identify with a particular denomination or label, and often don’t use God talk to describe where their sense of wonder or morality comes from. If I could generalize about the wisdom you’ve picked up about this trend, you do not see this as an inevitable drive towards secularism. In the book you call this “one of the most spiritually vibrant and provocative spaces in modern life.” Why?
There is a lot of spiritual curiosity in this group. … I hear about churches and synagogues that are full of Nones. There are a lot of Nones at seminaries. There is real theological engagement. Most importantly, a lot of ethical passion.
People who were born in the 1970s and ’80s were born into a particular chapter of American life where there were a few toxic strident voices who were dominating public talk on values. I don’t think we should be surprised that now this generation has risen up both inside and outside the traditions that says: “I don’t want anything to do with that kind of religion.” The paradox is many are gravitating and I’d say reinvigorating some of the core values and impulses these traditional faiths rose to address, like service, like community, like expecting and insisting religious people and institutions live what they say.
You write in the book that the Spiritual But Not Religious — a popular term for people who could be seen as a type of Nones — are “the tip of an iceberg that has already moved on.” What does that mean?
I’d go back even to the term “New Age,” which in the 80s, probably unfairly, but to some extent understandably, was associated with private spirituality, touchy-feely, woo-woo (giggles). And I think there has been a real evolution from that and the kind of Spiritual But Not Religious, that suggested a smorgasbord — a little Native American, a little Buddhist, Shabbat. I feel like there’s been a deepening over the last few decades. It’s not that everyone who says they’re Spiritual But Not Religious is on a deep journey, but I think more of them than any stereotype would suggest.
Is that something you are kind of rooting for, this idea that people who seem to be leaving religion are actually really very spiritual or religious in another way?
The best heart of the great traditions and the reasons they’ve lasted so long is there is lot of beauty and wisdom and inquiry and virtue about critical life-giving aspects that other institutions don’t carry forward in time, don’t bring into conversation. And I guess this is where I may be saying something that may seem provocative, but I actually think a lot of the energy and impulses I see in this group we call Nones is good for the heart of our traditions. I make the analogy between the early monastics and the Nones. The early monastics, the St. Benedicts [a sixth century Christian saint who is seen as a founder of Western monasticism] or desert fathers and mothers, they were the Nones of the first few centuries.
The people we call Nones [today] are potentially that spiritual renewal movement calling our traditions to their best selves, their core, for this century. It’s going to be really, really interesting.
You write about how faith is “evolutionary.” Are there cycles or phases to this?
I grew up Southern Baptist, in a culture where Christian faith sat uncomfortably with a word like “evolution” in the scientific sense. … If you’re alive, breathing, living, even if you could make the same bedrock statement of faith, between the time when you say that at [age] 5 and 15 and 45 and 85, it’s going to be filled with all kinds of nuances and experiences and memories and connotations. So even a truth is evolving. That doesn’t mean it’s losing its grounding.
Look at Christianity in the United States in the last 50 years. Think about the fact that in the early ’60s, 50 years ago, it was a radical, revolutionary, controversial thing for Protestants and Catholics to be in dialogue, never mind bringing Jews into that equation.That was unimaginable. And now we have this growing population of unaffiliated. We also have this proliferation of ways to engage spiritual practice. … It’s a complicated picture.
You write that scientists today are “no longer pushing mystery out, but welcoming it back in.” You always interview a lot of cosmologists, physicists and astronomers whom you see as part of this positive change in our attitude towards faith. Why are they well-suited for 21st-century spirituality?
One thing I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy is that scientists are by nature comfortable acknowledging there is a lot they don’t know and they are actually excited about that. They are excited about mystery. They are not imbuing that word with any kind of supernatural or divine connotations, but there is a majesty and an awe about it and a wonder about it, and I think the delight scientists take in mystery is something religious people could learn from. … They don’t need to pin it down, they don’t need to call it God.
But what about ethics and morality? I did a story recently about the large swath of Nones — 23 percent of Americans – and how they approach voting, and the way they define religious or moral are things like “take care of others.” You described in your youth how faith was about morality. Can faith be about morality — a specific morality? Are Nones forming a new morality?
I like language of moral imagination. What Nones’ morality is about is moral integrity. Being born into a world where you had these strident, hateful, polarizing voices speaking in name of religion, speaking in the name of God, in the name of Christianity and saying: “That, I can’t take that seriously, and that’s not any kind of religion I can take seriously or identify with.” I think what they want is a consonance between what people believe in and how they live, what they believe in and how they treat others. It’s a real faith in the original principles of these traditions. That how you treat others always trumps any dogma or any position on an issue.
Talking about very contemporary expressions of new faith, new morality — two powerful movements in our country are Donald Trump supporters and Black Lives Matter. Are these new expressions of American religion?
Those two movements, one thing that unites them is a lot of raw human pain that’s fueling them and we don’t know how to take that seriously in our culture. And we don’t know how to dwell with the pain, or address the pain, things get caught up in political action, which is necessary but that’s not the only thing that’s necessary.
I’d want to separate them because there are differences. … How that pain is being worked with, and what people are asking for and looking for, that’s where they diverge.
But each of these movements is very much a movement of this moment. [They don’t] have the same kind of religious vocabulary or constituencies that many movements like this have had in the past. And I think that is an expression of the age we live in.
[Of Black Lives Matter founders-leaders, some of whom are LGBT] a lot of them are young, grew up alienated from church, people who have fit uncomfortably and disconnected from the traditions. In the past that wouldn’t have happened because even if they didn’t fit comfortably, they would have stayed [in church]. You might have been disaffected but you stayed, because that’s what you did. … That makes [Black Lives Matter’ spirituality] different from the Civil Rights movement, when every march started and ended in a church. There are interesting ways people like that are reaching out for mentorship to that older generation, understanding that they won’t go about it in the same way, but they want a spiritual dimension.
So let’s look from a more skeptical view. Is it possible you and I are two religion reporters who want to see this, and we are just ignoring clear growing secularism?
I ask myself that question too. I’d not say I’m describing the whole group. I think that it’s important to note that a small percentage says they don’t care and believe in nothing. But I think there is some swath that’s really energetic and is seeking and is — even as it seeks and questions — out there challenging our traditions in ways that can renew them.