On “On Being”

Krista Tippett tends to her flock in the Church of the Spiritual (but not necessarily religious).

Krista Tippett. Photo: Maciek Jasik
Krista Tippett. Photo: Maciek Jasik
Krista Tippett. Photo: Maciek Jasik

One of the most popular episodes in the history of “On Being,” the 15-year-old public-radio program hosted by the honey-voiced Krista Tippett, is a conversation Tippett had more than ten years ago with the late Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue on the subject of the inner landscape of beauty.

“Beauty isn’t all about just nice loveliness, like,” O’Donohue tells Tippett. “Beauty is about more rounded, substantial becoming. I think beauty, in that sense, is about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.”

Tippett responds by asking what O’Donohue pictures when he hears the word beauty. He answers, “The faces of those that I love come into my mind. When I think of beauty, I also think of beautiful landscapes that I know. Then I think of acts of such lovely kindness that have been done to me by people that cared for me in bleak, unsheltered times or when I needed to be loved and minded. I also think of those unknown people who are the real heroes for me, who you never hear about, who hold out on lines on frontiers of awful want and awful situations and manage, somehow, to go beyond the given impoverishments and offer gifts of possibility and imagination and seeing.”

This episode — an Irish ex-priest poet-philosopher musing on beauty — has been listened to more than 5 million times since it first aired, and it’s a good place to begin to understand this cultish public-radio program broadcasting out of Minneapolis. “On Being” is about beauty and poetry; it is spiritual in that it addresses the inner life, but the position is firmly agnostic. The show soothes and comforts and suggests that there are big, beautiful forces at work in the universe, but it also avoids being strict or dogmatic. The whole thing leaves you with a sense that the world might not be quite as horrible as the rest of the day’s broadcasts will inevitably suggest, that it might be actually mysterious, gentle, and magical.

According to a 2017 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, about 27 percent of Americans now say they are “spiritual” but “not religious,” which represents an increase of 8 percent in the past five years. In the same time, the number of adult Americans who identify as religious and spiritual has declined 11 percent. One helpful way to understand the trend is to consider that 85 percent of Americans of the “silent generation” (people born between 1928 and 1945) identified as Christian, while just 56 percent of younger millennials (born between 1989 and 1996) do. This decline in religiosity, particularly among the more educated, urban classes, has meant less community, less ritual gathering, less time for quiet contemplation; that, in turn, has meant more yoga classes with earnest cooldown dharma talks, more meditation studios and acupuncture. It’s meant that SoulCycle and CrossFit and Tough Mudder all have begun to fulfill roles previously occupied by churches and synagogues and mosques.

It has also meant boom times for Krista Tippett and her gentle, quiet, Sunday-morning voice piping through NPR, suggesting a version of spirituality for the cultural one percent, a population fried out on bad news and dire predictions. “On Being” is not about naming the world’s many ills, but it is not about escapism, either — not premium television, or sports, or luxury ecotourism. It’s about imagining a more beautiful, thoughtful, generous way of existing that is neither hopeless nor instrumental but is instead thoughtful and questioning and open. It is a world where, as one producer explains, “poetry is a huge growth area” and where a lot depends on believing that the world is full of other receptive people, who are curious about physics and poetry and nature walks, each of them unembarrassed — or at least less embarrassed — by the pretty-universal feelings of an intuitive inner mysticism. Instead of smuggling that mysticism through bourgeois lives both embarrassed by and in thrall to it, “On Being” simply suggests exploring it.

When Tippett talks about what her listeners are feeling, she uses words like anguish and fragility, which might have sounded dramatic a few years ago, before we were so openly raw, but now sound reasonable. Because one result of everything getting crazier and harsher and more aggressive by the minute is that a certain kind of seeking has emerged. It’s a seeking for stories and ideas and attitudes that resist or overwhelm the hostile staccato rhythm of most contemporary culture. All of this means that Tippett has very much met her moment — and seized it, growing her weekly radio hour into a full-blown multiarmed cultural institution with big, if amorphous, ambitions to heal a world in pain, not in an instrumental, results-oriented way but in a gentle, meandering one. “The thing about the people I hire,” Tippett tells me, “is that they’re all part of the generative story of our time, which is out there alongside the destructive story of our time. It’s a culture shift, and that’s the only thing that’s going to save us.”

Tippett launched the show in 2003. She was an ex-reporter and divinity-school graduate who had spent a number of years living in Berlin before landing in Middle America at the turn of the century, thanks to a work assignment for her then-husband. “It was a weird moment,” Tippett says. “People were asking the big existential questions, questions of evil and loss and vulnerability and frailty and grief.” There was an Evangelical president in the White House, and the country was reeling from the aftershock of a massive, religiously motivated terrorist attack. Religion was certainly in the news, but, Tippett felt, the religiously skeptical, intellectual crowd had nowhere to go when it came to the big existential questions that have been asked for millennia. “I understood why newsrooms were hostile to this, because those were secular places and those were places where you were trying, in good faith, to bracket out what is irrational and what is subjective,” she says. “I felt like it was this whole part of life that we didn’t know how to talk about with the same kind of sophistication that we could bring to politics or the arts. These words are all so fraught: The word religion is fraught, the word spirituality is fraught, the word faith is fraught. But I just thought that it was all too important and too interesting to not try to find a way to talk about it.”

Tippett persuaded American Public Media to give her a show, and eventually it did, even if the show aired at obscure times and Tippett was low on the fund-raising totem pole (below “Marketplace” and “A Prairie Home Companion”) and many in the APM newsroom doubted everything she was about. The show would be public radio’s answer to the faith question, exploring the spiritual life of the intellectual NPR-ite — to the extent that the stereotype could possibly include such yearning — and delivering weekly conversations about death and beauty to what was understood as its largely agnostic tote-bag population, a population for whom religious seeking has historically been, Tippett says, “in the closet.” No one, including the suits, seemed to think there was much hunger for that kind of thing, at least among their people. But last year, episodes of the show were downloaded 53 million times.

Photo: Maciek Jasik

At the start, Tippett says, the show was motivated by the three questions each and every episode is meant to address: What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? Who will we be to each other? But it addresses each one in a very particular way. The goal is to ask a lot of questions while providing very few answers, to always shy away from dogma or certainty, and to avoid mentioning God whenever possible. Guests have included Senator Cory Booker, poet Mary Oliver, essayists Ta-Nehisi Coates and Rebecca Solnit, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma — which is to say that this is high-blue-state-brow thinking, with a dash of more mainstream Oprah types (Elizabeth Gilbert, Brené Brown) and a sprinkling of Ivy League divinity-school philosophical heavyweights. Alain de Botton has explored the complexity of love and relationships, pointing out that the word single only “captures somebody who’s not got a long-term committed relationship” — to which Tippett replied, “But I have so much love in my life.” One week Tippett interviewed Eula Biss talking about race, another it was the physicist Carlo Rovelli, posing ideas like “A stone is a thing, because I can ask where the stone is tomorrow … A kiss is not a thing, because I cannot ask, ‘Where is a kiss tomorrow?’ ” But the Gospel According to “On Being” also has room for Mary Karr saying, “I don’t want to be Mother Teresa, you know? I don’t want to be an asshole.” If there’s any conclusion to be drawn about the whole spirituality “On Being” projects, it’s that curiosity is paramount and that anything, really, can be “spiritual” if you take it seriously enough.

In 2017, “On Being” hosted the artist Maira Kalman, who is not an obvious fit on matters of spirituality, though she is a near-perfect fit with Tippett’s audience, which Kalman laughingly describes as “people like us! People who read the New York Times!”

“The way we move through space is really interesting to me,” she tells Tippett on the broadcast, “and I am conscious of the fact that we are moving and dancing, in our way, all day long. It’s funny because Nietzsche said that a day that doesn’t have dance in it is a lost day, which you wouldn’t expect from somebody like Nietzsche, who was crazy.”

“And intense,” says Tippett.

“And intense,” Kalman agrees, “and had such a giant mustache.”

Kalman goes on to tell Tippett about the walks she takes as often as she can in Central Park with a friend. Afterward, “I take the bus down Fifth Avenue, and then I’m probably the happiest person on the bus. And then I say, ‘In New York,’ and then I say, ‘In the United States,’ and then I say, ‘In the world.’ It’s really extraordinary. I mean, when we’re in the park and there aren’t more people there, and we go all year round, and we think, Where is everybody? How could they be so stupid as to not understand what they have here for themselves? But there you go.”

Tippet replies, “Here’s another line of yours I love: ‘We see trees. What more do we need?’ ”

“That’s really true,” Kalman says. “It’s hard to be sad.”

Along the way, Tippett’s interests and ambitions stopped being exclusively journalistic. She was thinking about social change, even as she was unsure of the form that might take. She knew she’d like to take the morality that was coming through in her interviews and give it a home base. In 2013, Tippett decided it was time for “On Being” to strike out on its own.

Initially, the independent “On Being” operation was based inside a single studio. But Tippett is an astonishingly good fund-raiser. (“That’s a critical part of this story,” she says, pointing out that she does all of the fund-raising herself, and always has, and “that inside every organization that funds us, there are one or two people who really get it.”) The On Being Project is now housed in a comfortable, bright office in downtown Minneapolis, just near Loring Park, with a beautiful library (rolling ladder included) along one wall and lots of soft places to sit, many with sheepskins strewn over chairs. End tables are covered with copies of Rilke, and a lot of work happens around a big table beside the open kitchen. (“Food is one of our love languages in this office,” a young producer named Marie Sambilay tells me over grain bowls and kale salad. I have a cough during my visit, so I am offered tea, which a staff member brings on a pretty porcelain tray. She’s added a delicious caramel cookie on the side.) When Tippett left APM, the entire operation involved five people: Tippett, three audio producers, and an administrative assistant. Now there are 23 employees with a variety of jobs. There’s Erinn Farrell, the newish COO — who has pink hair and is also a co-founder of The Coven, a Winglike workspace for women and “nonbinary folks” — along with a team of creative directors who make sure everything looks good and consistent, coolly modern and minimalist. A tour through the office means being hugged by most members of this young, self-consciously diverse staff, though words like diverse and inclusion are not welcome here. Place-making is preferred — an outside agency has been conducting workshops on bias in the workplace.

Tippett wears mostly black, a nice contrast with her pale Scandinavian skin and hair. Her clothes appear soft and loose and comfortable, and inside the office, she doesn’t wear any shoes; she often curls her stockinged feet up under her thighs, like a cat. In her small glass-walled office, there is no desk or computer, just a series of cozy places to sit, a lot like a therapist’s office. It seems like a good place for group.

In 2011, Tippett began the Civil Conversations Project, an amorphous idea for addressing what she saw as her mission of healing a chaotic world. In her 2007 book, Speaking of Faith, she describes that calling as a way to “speak about faith that defuses the usual minefields. I explore the light my conversation partners shed on the great issues of our time, from the depths of their knowledge and experience in the world.” In Becoming Wise, published in 2016, Tippett takes this idea one step further: “The crack in the middle where people on both sides absolutely refuse to see the other as evil — this is where I want to live and what I want to widen.”

A week before I visit Tippett, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Donald Trump Jr. (and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle) got in a nasty, crappy Twitter fight. It’s become so common to feel defeated every single day: by Trump’s presidency, by Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, by all the mass shootings, the intuitions of a climate apocalypse, the heartbreaking scenes on the border and around the world. It feels almost silly that something called a Civil Conversations Project even exists — like, hasn’t that ship officially left the harbor?

Tippett thinks not. “You know,” she says, “after the election … this anguish and confusion and longing and sense of fragility and also, which gets less publicity, a sense of wanting to understand how we got here. We did walk into this, so how do we walk out?” A big part of Tippett’s mission has to do with some notion that if she can host these deep, complicated and still respectful conversations, and if there is a world of people happy to listen to them, perhaps she could teach people how to do the same. After the election, Tippett and her staff began providing the download “Better Conversations: A Starter Guide” to readers who found themselves on her website, which also includes dialogues between people of opposing viewpoints (mostly moderated by Tippett at an “On Being” gathering). Some matches: an organizer for the tea party with a progressive millennial leader, and an abortion-rights activist with a Christian ethicist who advocates for a “consistent ethic of life” (i.e., he’s anti-abortion and anti–death penalty).

“What is it in your own position that gives you trouble?” Tippett always asks everyone. “What is it in the position of the other that you’re attracted to?” She goes on to assure both that they are in “an unusually safe space” with her.

At the end of the abortion-rights conversation, the Christian ethicist has this to say: “I guess maybe a walkaway point for me is, I think we’re becoming dumber as a society.”

“Yes!” says the abortion-rights activist. Common ground!

They agree that they’d enjoy more conversations with other thoughtful, intelligent people.

“Next time,” Tippett says, “vocal magician Bobby McFerrin on the territory between music and mystery. Please join us.”

The On Being project is now a buzzy hive of activity, where the idealistic staff likes to gather around the live-edge table for shared vegetarian lunches. Although Tippett is still in charge of the whole thing, there are new leaders, too. The Civil Conversations Project, for example, is now partly led by Lucas Johnson, an ordained minister and “21st-century freedom fighter,” who worked most recently at the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in Amsterdam and counted among his mentors Vincent Gordon Harding, the legendary civil-rights leader. “I grew up in the South,” Johnson explains. “My parents integrated the public schools, and, to me, being a person of faith meant caring about these things. I went to seminary because I did feel that God had called me into service — that I was meant to come to the aid of God’s people — I just never knew if that meant I’d be in a pulpit or not. I guess it has come to mean that I want to shake up the expectations of what a religious person should be, because I think it means caring deeply about social justice.”

Over lunch, I ask Johnson how different the types of views the CCP endeavors to put together really are. I can imagine a conversation, for example, with members of a Jewish family from different generations discussing their relationships to Israel. Yes! says Johnson. Exactly. Would you invite a Holocaust denier, too? Or one of those people who showed up in Charlottesville last summer? Johnson’s face falls. Oh, no, he says. Oh, no, no, no.

There’s also the Impact Lab, which over the past year has been staging “How We Gather,” an examination of the institutions replacing church in modern times, headed by Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, and Sue Phillips, all of whom met at the Harvard Divinity School and now describe themselves as “building a world of joyful belonging” (a Harvard report by ter Kuile and Thurston explored SoulCycle and CrossFit). Ter Kuile still hosts the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which “engages the modern classic through ancient sacred reading practices” and was downloaded 7 million times last year.

“I care about elections,” Tippett tells me over dinner one night in a busy, jolly café around the corner from her office, “but cultural change doesn’t happen in real time, and it doesn’t happen in election cycles. The generation that’s in charge now, it’s this 20th-century idea of big external lives where what is rewarded and celebrated is money, celebrity, and power. Inner life has been optional. This generation coming up, we’re trying to become more whole, trying to create families and workplaces and communities that are nourishing for human beings to live in.”

Before we left, just as Tippett was slipping into a pair of Ugg boots for the walk around the corner to dinner, a handful of her staffers appeared, in pajama pants and “On Being” sweatshirts, clutching pillows and bags of organic popcorn for movie night in a conference room downstairs — Sleepless in Seattle. Tippett’s executive producer, Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz, is a movie buff and the host of This Movie Changed Me, an “On Being” podcast.
Profit Idowu, an engagement manager, joked that the movie was made the year he was born. They all giggled and rolled their eyes, then gleefully tripped down the stairs.

Millennials, after all, have a bit of a New Age reputation — they download Headspace, they are open to discussing and sharing their ideas about themselves, their identities and their fears. Tippett’s listeners skew younger than I’d expected — America Ferrera was on a popular episode last year — and the younger staffers who have gathered themselves around Tippett seem less like Joshua Tree day-trippers or tech entrepreneurs on a meditation retreat than like starry-eyed volunteers from the first Obama campaign. But they are all quick to say they are explicitly not political; they may like Beto, but they don’t think he’s the one who will save us; and they are not actively engaged in changing future political outcomes. They want something gentler, a new way of existing and being that is more compassionate, more considered, more thoughtful.

When you email Tippett, you get an auto-reply that says, “I’m in year two of my vow to forsake hurry as a way to move through my days” (she tends to reply the same day, regardless) and then presents a poem by Rubem Alves called “What Is Hope?” It contains the lines “So let us plant dates / even though we who plant them will never eat them / we must live by the love of what we will never see / that is the secret life.”

“We have exhausted the limits of the supposedly rational, the political, of the things we can measure with numbers attached and so-called rational arguments and solutions,” Tippett says. “We have exhausted the limits of that as our primary vocabulary, and all the things that have risen to the surface of our life together now, and of our political life, and of our economic life, are about the human drama. And that’s actually what we’re paying attention to, and that’s what spiritual life attends to. It’s inner life.
That’s not the only definition of it, but that’s my definition.”

“The ‘spiritual but not religious’ of now is not the old New Age,” Tippett specifies over dinner. She should know, she points out. She’s lived through a lot of that and has spoken to so many seekers. “What I have been seeing is that this version has much more depth. It has a lot of substance. The conversation I have on the show is really intelligent — we value the life of the mind. It’s not something that is in a category of ‘This is where my emotions and my spiritual life are’ — it shows up in how people do their jobs or the workplaces they want to create or how they think about their life trajectory.”

(The new idea is so much a part of millennial life that Thurston from the “On Being” Impact Lab told me she first noticed SBNR as a common denominator among the men she matched with on She got married to a nice SBNR man last year.)

If you ask anyone at the On Being Project what success for this enterprise would look like, they are calm and circumspect. “We have a really long view of time,” Tippett says. The dinner over, we are climbing into her little red VW Cabrio, the car she bought when her children left for college. “I’m interested in making social change happen. And what I know is that the people who are listening to our show are the people who are asking these questions and mean it. Questions about human transformation and stretching themselves.”

Tippett grew up in Oklahoma. Her parents were conventional Southern Baptists who did not understand her desire to attend Brown, the Ivy League university, which she’d learned of from a friend at debate camp. People in town, she says, assumed it was a Bible college.

At Brown, Tippett was interested but overwhelmed. “It wasn’t even like, Oh, I’ve never been abroad,” she says. “It was like, I never even knew anyone who had.”

The culture shock was intense, and she experienced what she now can say was likely clinical depression, but she didn’t have the language for that then. She soldiered on, graduating in 1983 with a degree in history and a Fulbright scholarship that sent her to the University of Bonn, in West Germany. While there, Tippett began working as a freelance journalist, then as an assistant to several high-ranking American diplomats. It was, she later wrote, the proximity to power that led to her interest in probing the moral, spiritual, and theological questions that have come to define her work. As she writes in Speaking of Faith, “In Berlin, I learned that transcendent goals like peace and justice are always made possible, or rendered impossible, by the patterns of the human heart. The human condition is the reality around which political life revolves — and upon which it falters. Even the highest levels of diplomacy and geopolitical strategy are about treating the symptoms of humanity on the loose.”

Tippett’s Baptist childhood and her marriage to and divorce from an Episcopal priest, as well as her own religious views, are not subjects she discusses freely. She says they’re intimate topics, so she is careful never to ask her guests about these sorts of things straight on.

“I grew up in an immersive southern world that had all the answers,” she says. “I do love deep religious conviction, and I really honor that, but I like the idea that we can hold that in a creative tension with a real humility before mystery.” She prefers to talk to people about beauty and love and loss, not whether someone believes in God, say, or adheres to certain boundaries in daily life. “Early on, I interviewed this geneticist who is also an Anglican priest,” she says. “He’s so cool. And he said that if there is a spirituality of scientists, it is that at one and the same time you are compelled to discover truth and cleave to that and mine it and also to live in expectation of everything that is yet to discover.”

*This article appears in the January 7, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Krista Tippet Is a Religion