Krista Tippett’s safe space

January 28, 2019 • 12:30 pm

UPDATE: Note that, in comment #17, reader Michael sussed out that Tippet has had 2.6 million dollars in grants from the Templeton Foundation, with the latest grant, expiring in mid-2020, worth nearly $1.2 million.  The New York Magazine article didn’t mention that, of course, and I should have been aware enough to look this up. Whatever Tippett’s selling (woo and science-dissing), Templeton likes it!


Back in the old days, Krista Tippett’s show on National Public Radio was called Speaking of Faith, and was pretty religious and New-Agey. But Tippett had her ear to the ground, and, realizing the increasingly secular nature of America, she changed the name of her show to On Being. That secularism is mentioned in a new article about Tippett and her show in New York Magazine, also reprinted in The Cut (click on screenshot):

Now I’ve long been a critic of On Being, as it seems to be the audio equivalent of a self-help book, but one aimed at self-styled intellectuals. And yet, despite my revulsion at the platitudes that pass for wisdom on the show, and at Tippett’s tendency to choke up when realizing the depth of her own profundity, I continue to listen to the show if it comes on when I’m doing my Sunday-morning shopping. Why? As someone once said, “For the same reason you sniff the milk when you already know it’s gone bad.”

I could say I’m hoping for some substantive discussion, but that’s a lie. I just enjoy yelling at my car radio and writing about it on this site. It also distresses me that Tippett’s show is wildly popular, at least according to Amy Larocca’s article. Why is there such an audience for this aural pabulum?

So once again I pick up the cudgels. Larocca interviews Tippett, and I’ll be hornswaggled if I can make much sense of what Tippett says.  But reading the article, I was stopped in my tracks by this bit, recounting a day when Larocca and Tippett head off to a “jolly” (??) restaurant from Tippett’s office:

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.

The only thing missing here is the Play-Doh, puppies videos, and Crayolas. I couldn’t have made up that scenario if I wanted to. Organic popcorn! Uggs! Sleepless in Seattle! (The movie actually isn’t bad, but somehow it fits right into the paragraph.) Pajama pants and radio sweatshirts! No wonder that Tippett calls her new conversational segment “an unusually safe space.”

But on to Tippett’s quotes from the article. I would be pleased as punch if readers can explain these to me:

. . . “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.”

Seriously? We have exhausted the limits of the SUPPOSEDLY rational? Now we have to talk about the “human drama”? Yes, there’s surely room for emotions in life, but not all of politics and economics is about “human drama”. And about exhausting the “supposedly” rational—well, I have no words. I am shaking and crying now.

Tippett spent some of her younger days in Berlin as a stringer and assistant to diplomats. Here’s what she says about that:

. . . 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.”

But what are the “patterns of the human heart”? Is Tippett trying to say that the way people feel about things affects how they try to achieve political goals? If so, well, that’s true but trite. (It is, in fact, a Deepity.) And “the human condition is the reality around which political life revolves”? Couldn’t you say that about any human activity?

The last sentence defies my understanding, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

But wait! There’s more!

. . . “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.”

Okay so she honors deep religious conviction (Tippett is never confrontational because she thinks that’s bad); but we’ll let that pass.  But what on earth is a “real humility before mystery”? She’s not talking about the mystery of Dark Matter or the origin of life here; she’s talking about The Big Emptiness Within Millennials, and how she tries to fill it with her swell-sounding palaver. And as for that priestly scientist, it’s not really that cool, as the person is clearly infected with cryptic cognitive dissonance. And “Everything That is Yet to Discover” is either about scientific facts, in which case it’s not spiritual, or it’s about the Nature of Being, in which case it’s flabby and gaseous.

Let there be no doubt: in my mind, Tippett is the Queen of Deepities, and her audience laps this stuff up. I don’t get it and I don’t acclaim it. Give me the frank and confrontational emissions of Christopher Hitchens any day.

67 thoughts on “Krista Tippett’s safe space

  1. I just enjoy yelling at my car radio and writing about it on this site.

    That’s a time-honored form of entertainment so long as you are sensitive to any passengers. My father used to listen to right wing fundamentalists like Carl McIntire for the sole purpose of yelling at the radio. I also think he wanted to inoculate his kids against such nonsense.

  2. “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.”

    All mortar, no brick.

    1. C’mon now, what’s wrong with “a deeper sense of depth”? I think that’s one of the worst things I’ve ever read.

    2. It sounds to me he’s happy with his partner continually putting on weight. Lots of us would be happy with a man like that!

    1. +1 I, too, “get” exactly … … this.

      And also: = .the why. behind any of ’em,
      and there are bagazillions of those,
      making certain upon Sunday mornings or
      Fridays five times a day or during any Sabbaths,
      that: they are s e e n at the local mosque
      or within the pews or the tabernacles, etc.

      .That. is what “to get:” the show of it.


  3. I’m with you. I dislike this sort of deepity doo. It seems to be based on a belief that emotions are indescribable, ignoring the fact that better writers seem to be able to do it. It also implicitly attempts to reinforce the division between the rational, scientific worldview and that of the human condition and its emotions. IMHO, the best thinking melds them when the subjects require it.

  4. I just enjoy yelling at my car radio …

    Yeah, me too. Scares the shit outta my Springer Spaniel, though. (I often forget he’s even in the car.) I have to pull over, fetch him outta the back seat, tell him in a soothing voice it’s got nothing to do with him. Then, I give him a treat, put him in the front seat, and change the station.

    1. In deference to a former President, “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘motion’ is”.

  5. “clearly infected with cryptic cognitive dissonance”

    I’m using the opportunity to address the misuse of the concept. The dissonance is a momentary tension that “wants” to be resolved, which happens fairly quickly in favour of one of the conflicting beliefs. For example, buyer’s remorse can build up, which is combatted by telling customers that their purchase was money well spent. There is no reason to congratulate customers after they bought, but doing so reduces returns, because it reduces cognitive dissonance.

    Maintaining conflicting views over longer time requires compartmentalisation, which is sealing away such beliefs into different contexts or identities (say, one as a scientist, one as church visitor). We can do this, because our views seem to remain fairly local and are not processed globally across all our other beliefs (mixing from different domains is a source of creativity, a talent, or mental illness).

    We do not naturally grasp the implications of every view, and can easily confuse naming with knowing. Smart people, such as scientists, also are ingenious enough to imagine mediating or mitigating ideas that somehow harmonize domains when questioned (enough to survive cognitive dissonance when pressured, after which they go back to happily exist in separate contexts).

  6. “I am shaking and crying now.”

    That gave me a good laugh out loud.

    But really, one runs into this sort of gobble-de-gook all the time. Example: a couple of weeks ago, one of my sisters had a car wheel come off while she was driving. She was able to control the car, pull over and she was not injured in any way. After describing the incident, which could have been horrific, she said: “I love my guardian angel”. Really? What about our other sister, who, on Dec. 6th, fell down the stairs at home and broke her right wrist, left humerus and five ribs? Or our niece’s husband, who overdosed and died not that long ago? Where were their guardian angels? Or is it just you that the “guardian angels” look after? Of course, I didn’t say that. I just quietly seethed inside at the stupidity.

    1. Agree with you, but after squeaking thru a close scrape or having any form of significant ‘luck’ it does feel like something numinous had stepped in and pulled some strings just for you. Everyone has felt that from time to time. Rational feelings take a back seat during the rush of sensations.

      1. That is true Mark. It just rubbed me the wrong way at the time, given what the family had just gone through.

  7. Can we confine Ms. Tippett to a cell (in a monastery, of course) to fast and contemplate on the texts of Better Angels and Enlightenment Now?
    I’m just getting into the newer of these (last night, Ch. 5, Life; Ch. 6, Health). Incredible what rationality hath wrought, in the last hundred years, and even in the last 10-20 years.

  8. Her On Being org is partly funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

    It got $1,199,999 in July 2017 & other payments I’m sure [I’m still looking]


      July 2011 to June 2014: $590,000

      November 2014 to July 2017: $899,832

      July 2017 to July 2020: $1,199,999
      “Expanding Public Imagination about Science, Deep Thinking, and the Human Enterprise”

    2. Acumen [should be Acme surely?] Presents: “Krista Tippett on the Art of Conversation. Become wiser by learning to hold transformative conversations, ask generous questions and listen with presence”

      5,402 students enrolled – £45 [discounted from £180]

      1 hour on-demand video
      9 articles
      Full lifetime access
      Access on mobile and TV
      Certificate of Completion

      Rip off merchant!

    3. Templeton–grrrrrr! This brings to mind a phrase..(paraphrasing here): “When Considering the source, consider also the $ource$’ $ource$”.

  9. Salagadoola mechicka boola
    Put them together and what have you got

  10. According to an article in the Atlantic about existential therapy
    most of our worries boil down to one of 4 areas, death, meaninglessness, isolation, and freedom.

    We cannot protect ourselves from these issues occurring – they just happen – and to pretend that we can avoid them can be harmful. You should not dwell on them but move on. So I guess that deepities might prevent you from letting go of past upset.

    No, we can’t ever know anyone else’s internal experience. No, there is no objective meaning, and yes, we will all fail at times to create it. Yes, you will die.

  11. I wonder if I am the only human being that’s a fan both of this blog and On Being. Krista and her guests do have a habit of making statements that sound profound but don’t have much content, and this can be pretty frustrating and may induce a few eye rolls. But sometimes they make statements that do seem profound, and are thought-provoking.

    I think that particular quote about “having exhausted the limits of rationality” is pretty daft. But if I were to steelman her argument, I would say that she means that sometimes people respond more to compassion than they do to rational argument. I don’t think she literally meant that we should always be irrational.

    I think people have a need for the profound – and sometimes this takes a form that’s not easily communicated with strictly logical debate. If I am debating whether to kill myself, listening to very rational people calmly discuss the pros and cons may not do much good. On the other hand, a hug from a friend might help. If Krista’s lack of content is sometimes frustrating, think of it as a (perhaps unsuccessful) attempt at a hug which takes the form of a conversation. Sometimes deepities can be comforting.

    One example is in an episode on Alzheimer’s:

    The guest describes a woman who is in a late stage of dementia, and who is rarely able to speak or understand others. (forgive me, I don’t know how to block-quote.)

    When it wasn’t really possible to talk about things, she would kind of walk around and we would look at objects. She was very taken by the birds outside the window. I mean, that was the kind of time that we spent together. And then even that became difficult. She was one of those people who started to kind of retreat into almost a mask-like blankness. It was harder and harder to access her. And so we were reaching the end of that time, and I was talking to her husband, telling him that I just didn’t think that it was a really fruitful way for her to spend her time and so on. So it was around that time, and I was going on vacation, and she loved the beach and I loved the beach and this was something that we used to connect about. And I said to her — as I was leaving, I said, “Ann, I’m going to the beach. I’m going to be away for a while.” And she smiled, and her face kind of lit up. I said, “What do you love about the beach?” She kind of drifted away, as she did, and she got very quiet. And again, I waited. And I thought, well, she can’t really answer that question. And she turned to me and she said, “There’s some kind of music that lives there.” And I thought, “Oh, god. That’s the best answer.”

    What does it mean, that music lives at the beach? I’m not really sure. But it was beautiful, and it made me cry.

    1. You left out some pretty powerful modifiers from the quotation on rationality. Here’s what Tippett said: ‘“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. . . [upper-case added].’

      Her modifiers denigrate reason, even call into question its reality. And you yourself write ‘I think people have a need for the profound – and sometimes this takes a form that’s not easily communicated with strictly logical debate.’ I won’t get into the difficulty with your opening assertion about ‘the profound,’ but I must call ‘straw-man’ when you say that profundity’s ‘form’ is ‘not easily communicated with STRICTLY LOGICAL debate [upper-case added].’

      My metaphor for the brain (mind) is a field produced by a neuronal network. What’s rational and what’s emotional are separable in an analytical sense only. Existentially, as we feel, we think about what we feel, which leads to further feelings and thoughts, and so on. To make sense of, or to make a whole of all this ‘product,’ whether in speaking, writing or private thought itself, we require reason in order to. . . reason it out. Consciousness of this whole–reason’s account–however, is limited, and we are often left perplexed.

      But the point is that sympathetic or empathetic ACTS are very probably functions of the global-field brain-mind experiencing the world of life. And, trained both by nature (epochs of evolution) and by the nurture of each human generation’s ‘long childhood,’ to make the best of it.

    2. (forgive me, I don’t know how to block-quote.)

      You need a pair of HTML tags (non-standard, I think, but common nonetheless). In what follows, I’ll substitute the left angle-bracket with “[” and the right angle-bracket with “]”

      [blockquote] (forgive me, I don’t know how to block-quote.)[/blockquote]

      Usual caveats : HTML tags come in pairs (mostly) ; they should be nested, not interleaved :

      Like this [bold]BOLD[i]BOLD & /italic/[/i]BOLD only again[/bold]
      Not like this [bold]BOLD[i]BOLD & /italic/[/bold]/italic/ only desired[/i] – this will be ignored.

  12. If I was with a group of coworkers and they all “giggled and rolled their eyes, then gleefully tripped down the stairs”, I would turn in my notice.

  13. I know ad hominems aren’t cool, but seriously, what’s going on in that photo of her? The magenta/turquoise duo tone is unflattering to say the least. And is the amateur blurring effect supposed to connote “spirituality”? Yeah, spirituality is really blurry…blurry to the point of not existing.

      1. True spirituality only shows up with large aperture large format lenses. That’s the fake Photoshop Blur Filter kind.

  14. “Profit Idowu, an engagement manager, joked that the movie was made the year he was born.”

    “Engagement Manager”

    I recently came across the following title of a newspaper executive: “Group VP-Head of Fan Development”

  15. Like the other New Age airheads, Tippett has chosen her “calling” and the reasons for it deliberately in order to avoid facing two important facts about humans: first, that evil (or mistakes or fallibility, etc.) is ineradicable; second, that trying to understand the world, whether human behavior or the natural world or politics, is a lot of work and requires brain power. Some people cope with the first weakly by exhorting “good”behavior (i.e. religion) by offering either heaven or hellfire. As for the second, this characterizes most people on earth, both those who were deprived of an education as well as those who mock intellectual endeavors. Tippett combines both of these:irrational belief that denies evil and the elevation of subjective belief and emotions above and beyond not only physical reality but above a belief in a civil society governed by both law and individual social responsiblity. In these respects New Agers are far more dangerous than religious leaders because they endorse and encourage any kind of individual belief system without casting any moral judgments on it as religion does. Instead of religious doctrine we have the blessing for all outrageous claims, visions,
    inspirations and gut feelings. Every New Ager is his/her own priest! That’s really a comfy thought, isn’t it? No one can challenge you!!
    You are always right!!Whatever you feel or believe is valid!! Life is one continual
    ice cream cone.

  16. I feel like if your social media feed doesn’t include many women (or men) who have yoga certifications; throw essential oils parties; and / or love Lauren Daigle (or Dave Matthews, if they’re more liberal, maybe Krishna Das or DJ Drez if they’re even further to the left) there is just going to be a lot of “presumed to be shared but not actually shared” context missing from an article like this. Like “patterns of the heart”, for example – I’m fairly sure that refers to the idea of examining one’s ‘conditioning’, via mindfulness, to suss out various patterns of behavior and their causes (aside from the mindfulness part, more or less an idea from behaviorism, actually.) For example, maybe practicing mindfulness of the body first, then noticing an unpleasant sensation in the stomach whenever you see your To Do list, then realizing the reason you procrastinate is because you feel this unpleasant anxiety whenever you go to start a task, then finding various ways to work through it (those will involve other in-group words, like ‘breathe into’ and ‘working with resistance’, so I’ll stop there, but hopefully that gives a general example.)

    So if these are circles you’re familiar with, you generally know what terms like ‘patterns’, ‘conditioning’ and ‘heart’ refer to and have heard stories of friends making discoveries about how they discovered this or that pattern via mindfulness, and made your own observations. (And, that presumably all of that has been helpful, otherwise one doesn’t stay in those circles long enough to learn all the vocabulary.) So I think she’s essentially referring to a theory about psychology that we all have an innate goodness that gets covered up by conditioning. Whether or not one agrees with that is another story, of course, but I think that’s what she’s referring to – this is a view of human psychology that is very common in spiritual circles and that I more or less subscribe to myself, although I will of course grudgingly say that it must be backed by evidence. (Regarding the limits of rationality, I assume she doesn’t mean in the actual material world. Of course we need doctors and engineers and just people walking down the street to go on being rational, or we’d have a horrible mess. I think it refers to the common sentiment that once material needs are met, people still find they ‘want something more’, or ‘feel that something is missing’. A quote I often hear is that of D.H. Lawrence “Vitally, the human race is dying. It is like a great uprooted tree, with its roots in the air. We must plant ourselves again in the universe.” Again, whether or not one personally agrees, I think this sentiment resonates with a lot of people.)

    If you ever want a general outline of this particular world but find sites like On Being to be ‘chick lit’ to your ears, lol, I feel like a lot of guys liked the book “Why Buddhism Is True”, so maybe it’s more guy-centric (I thought it was a nice enough summary but wasn’t enthralled by it, but I know a lot of people loved it.)

  17. It seems to me that many of Tippet’s statements could perhaps be tweaked a little and inserted into passages written by people like Steven Pinker or Sean Carroll — in small doses, of course — and would set off no alarms. They often speak poetically too, and emphasize the importance of sympathy and wonder in the pursuit of human flourishing. The “real humility before mystery” could well refer to the scientist’s recognition that science doesn’t deal in confident certainties and absolute truths, but tentative conclusions and provisional models.

    That’s the problem with deepities — they’re so open to interpretation.

    As for the slumber party movie night, I don’t think that’s an example of a “safe space.” I think it’s an example of fun. It’s social bonding through play with a bit of whimsy to it. Tastes for such things differ (consider dressing up at sci fi conventions or having a paint ball war) but this one — yeah, I’d go.

  18. “I could say I’m hoping for some substantive discussion, but that’s a lie. I just enjoy yelling at my car radio and writing about it on this site.”

    This made me laugh. There is a local religious radio station that is just two notches below NPR on the radio dial here in NH – I do the same thing.

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