A Northwest Based Literary Journal

TLR Recommends: Book Reviews

Becoming Wise
Krista Tippett
Penguin Press

I used to wonder if there were no more true philosophers left. They’d all become specialized as ethicists, semioticians, linguists, logicians, aestheticians; had turned to narrowly-defined studies of behavior and logic. But there wasn’t anyone dedicated to synthesizing and broadening the knowledge of our human endeavors: religion, physics, biology, mysticism, and more—into a universal approach on how we might live, until I read this book.

As a rule TLR doesn’t review books produced by major publishers, or by writers whose careers don’t need our publicity. But Krista Tippett’s book transcends those barriers.

Tippett is host and executive producer Of On Being, the long running American Public Media radio show[1] that visits each week with some of the most profound thinkers of our time, in one-on-one interviews with scientists, religious leaders, activists, and artists, most of whose names would be lost among the cult of celebrity that dominates our society’s feeble attempts at culture, and even among the glitterati who form the pantheon of our own exclusive literary world. Usually they are people who have not sought any form of spotlight, but have dedicated their lives to simple truths discovered while living, often surmounting oppression or personal tragedy to do so.

Over the course of that time Tippett’s investigations have unearthed a wealth of independent and compassionate thinking that has escaped the mainstream, but which has formed the basis of her own, encompassing philosophy.

…the idea of a kinship between the spirituality of the scientist and the spirituality of the mystic: a constant endeavor to discern the truth while staying open to everything you do not yet, cannot yet, know.

Tippett’s background and experience, coupled with her natural curiosity about life and the lives of others, is the root of her journey. Born in Oklahoma farmland, the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist preacher, she worked first as a journalist, much of it covering the politics of Europe, and then as an assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to West Germany. But she returned to the U.S. to obtain a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School, and on graduating, began a series of endeavors designed to bridge the gap between religion and the secular world that has continued to this day.

Throughout the book, Tippett refers to a concept she calls “moral imagination.” It’s a morality that is not hamstrung by systematic rigidity, but is open to possibility, flexible and ever evolving, its goal to encourage dialogue among parties that is founded on respect for the other.

I can disagree with your opinion, but I can’t disagree with your experience.

It’s a philosophy that exposes the polemic rancor of our times, and simultaneously faces down the concept of unachievable perfection demanded by many religious and ethical systems.

Tippett’s philosophy is not a system, but a life—make that lives, as in the lives of the many people she’s interviewed who are dedicated to listening before speaking, and knowing always that other people, instead of themselves, form the center of the universe. It’s a pan-philosophy that seeks common origins and goals, and often in the interviews (excerpts of which are used throughout the book) reveals that knowledge can be achieved without doctrine, and therefore that our apparently competing intellectual disciplines are not as exclusive as they may appear. And it says without saying that the life of avarice, hedonism, and self-centeredness is logically indefensible.

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.

When one refuses to judge other people or modes of thought, it leads not only to understanding, but also to honesty. Perhaps what impressed me most about Becoming Wise was Tippett’s sparkling candor about her own life: her divorce and her estrangement from her father are part of her journey, but they do not, as they might under some systems of thought, preclude her pursuit of her goals.

Such openness counters what many see as the constant and growing discord in our society, the pitched battles over the assumed high ground of righteousness. It’s helped me realize there is another direction in which we can go, a direction away from the illusion of corporation-inspired self-interest that strangles our culture. It leads away from politically charged polemics. This is a book that reveals other connections, other paths that lie open—wide open in fact—the life perhaps you had been looking for and which was always right in front of you, if you only knew you were looking, if you only knew how to see it.



[1] Known as Speaking of Faith from 2003-2013.

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Categorised in: Book Reviews, Nonfiction

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