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 her new book Becoming Wise, she lays out how faith “evolves” and where she sees 2016 America in that process.
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Here are some edited excerpts from a recent interview with Tippett:
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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). … 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: You write about how faith is “evolutionary.” Are there cycles or phases to this?
A: … 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.