The Search for Meaning

By Nadia Colburn / November/December 2014
November 5th, 2014

Krista Tippett ’83 got a cryptic message from her speaking agent late one afternoon in June: call the National Endowment for the Humanities office. Tippett, host of the public-radio show On Being and author of Speaking of Faith and Einstein’s God, assumed the endowment wanted to speak to her about a problem with a grant application. Instead, she learned she had won a National Humanities Medal, which is given to people “whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects.”

Mandel Ngan/APN/Getty Images
President Obama awards the National Humanities Medal to Krista Tippett '83, host of the public-radio show On Being, during a White House ceremony. 

“I didn’t even know a radio host could get that award,” Tippett says. In fact, past recipients have included Studs Terkel, Garrison Keillor, and Milton Rosenberg; Diane Rehm is on this year’s list.

For Tippett, receiving the National Humanities Medal was a sign not only of how far her show has come, but also of how far the country has progressed. The award acknowledges Tippett for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.”

“Ten years ago,” she says, “it wasn’t respectable to use language like ‘mysteries of human existence’ on public radio. The award shows not just our own achievement, but also how the world is changing and how we have become more whole as human beings.”

Raised as a Southern Baptist, Tippett became an agnostic at Brown and spent much of her twenties living in Europe as a reporter and diplomatic assistant. In her thirties, she became a practicing Episcopalian and earned a master’s in religious studies at Yale Divinity School. Tippett says that she saw the need for thoughtful conversations about belief and in 2001 began her Minnesota Public Radio show, Speaking of Faith. She recalls that when she was trying unsuccessfully to get her show off the ground she encountered a lot of skepticism about a radio show with an ecumenical approach to religion.

All that changed after September 11, 2001. On the day of the terrorist attacks, Tippett was in Washington, D.C., trying to raise funds. Suddenly there was national interest in religion, especially in evangelical Christianity and Islam. By the end of 2004, Speaking of Faith was airing on seventy stations and had about 100,000 listeners. In 2010, Tippett changed the show’s name to On Being because she believes it better reflects the audience, which includes atheists and agnostics, as well as the broader questions of spirituality she addresses. Today On Being is heard on more than 330 stations and counts on 677,000 weekly listeners. Its podcasts are downloaded 1.5 million times per month.

At the National Humanities awards ceremony on July 28, President Obama told Tippett that his brother-in-law calls the show his “church.” Indeed, the show excels in presenting a wide range of subject matter and in delving into deep questions of meaning with both complexity and intimacy. Guests have included Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, poet Christian Wiman, yoga instructor Seane Corn, and musician Yo-Yo Ma. On one show she talks with psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk about how trauma lodges in the body. On another, physicist Brian Greene speculates on the limitations of human perception. Desmond Tutu talked with Tippett about how he believes every person is a “god carrier.”

The show continues to evolve, in part because of listeners’ responses. Some 76 percent of listeners say they are better able to discuss issues with people who are important in their lives because of On Being. Tippett’s new venture, the Civil Conversations Project (CCP), is a series of podcasts, live events, and online resources that address such controversial subjects as abortion. The aim, according to the project’s website, is “beginning new conversations in public life at every level.” The CCP is already being used at Harvard Law School and by educators in Mississippi.

“At some point it’s too urgent to wait for politics or media to change,” Tippett explains. “We are creating resources for people to start new conversational spaces where they live.”

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November/December 2014