Book review: “Becoming Wise” by Krista Tippett

It’s come to the point where I can never really keep track of when or why I added a book to my reading list. Perhaps I should introduce a tagging system of some sort? Does Goodreads let me add notes to books prior to reading them? I just know the shelving system, that I could do better at implementing as-is. Anyhow, I believe I added Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett from the footnotes of another book, but that’s only a guess.

First, the positives. As a Mormon, Tippett’s Becoming Wise reminded me a lot of Preach My Gospel‘s section on Christlike attributes, at least in terms of its organization. Each chapter is dedicated to a specific attribute– well, perhaps not even an attribute but focus. The first two aren’t attributes in the traditional sense: Words and Flesh, outlining the power, from a Christian view, of the incarnation in terms of language and body. The last three chapters, whether by accident or on purpose (probably, considering her Christian background), are Paul’s three great attributes: faith, hope, and love.

Tippett is a journalist. And she has had the opportunity to interview hundreds of individuals from many different backgrounds and faith traditions and disciplines. These aren’t “famous” people. Most of the people interviewed are people I have never heard of. But these individuals do embody what is captured from the title of the book: Becoming Wise. Tippet’s book is filled with tidbits like these that re-capture the power these ideas can have in our lives:

On love: Love is something we only master in moments. It crosses the chasms between us, and likewise brings them into relief. It is as captive to the human condition as anything we attempt.

On faith: That feat of the religion of my childhood was about measuring up– about moral perfection, and the eternal cost of falling short. For me now, faith is in interplay with moral imagination, something distinct from moral perfection.

On hope: Hope is distinct, in my mind, from optimism or idealism. It has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth. It lives open eyed and whole-hearted with the darkness that is woven ineluctably into the light of life and sometimes seems to overcome it. Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be.

Those she interviews are powerful examples of these attributes. Out of all the interviews, I think there are only two names I recognized: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Brene Brown. Let me give you an idea of the scope of individuals you encounter. You meet Jean Vanier, a Catholic humanitarian, who founded L’Aarche, a community centered around individuals with disabilities. This wasn’t just a care facility though. These disabled individuals were equals. They lived in community together. You meet cosmologists and evolutionary biologists who, while professing a disbelief in God in the traditional sense, have found a spiritual home in the wonder and awe in the universe. I love this quote from Margaret Wertheim when asked if she is an atheist:

No, I’m not an atheist. I’d like to put it this way. I don’t know that I believe in the existence of God in the Catholic sense. But my favorite book is The Divine Comedy. And at the end of The Divine Comedy, Dante pierces the skin of the universe and comes face to face with the love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the stars. I believe in Dante’s vision. And so, in some sense, perhaps, I could be said to believe in God. And part of the problem with the concept of “Are you an atheist or not?” is that our conception of what divinity means has become so trivialized and banal that I think it’s almost impossible to answer the question without dogma.

You meet civil rights leaders like John Lewis who wrote The Civil Rights Movement, above all, was a work of love. Yet even 50 years later, it is rare to find anyone who would use the word love to describe what we did. This wide variety of experience truly does embody wisdom in the human condition, and it nothing but hope and goodness, and I think it’s definitely worth the read.

But there was something that made me feel off about the book– not the interviews themselves necessarily. But this could entirely me being uncomfortable with the strangeness of others’ experience. I felt the book lacked something because the author didn’t necessarily have an anchor of her own. This is coming from someone firmly entrenched in my own faith tradition. While I honor and learn from others of different faith traditions, it only helps me strengthen and appreciate my own angle, my own particularities. I think this can be embodied in a question Tippet posed to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who is firmly embedded in his own faith tradition of Judaism.

Even as you honor the dignity of difference in the contemporary world, you are upholding the dignity of particularity.

By being what only I can be, I give humanity what only I can give. It is my uniqueness that allows me to contribute something unique to the universal heritage of humankind. I sum up the Jewish imperative, very simply– and it has been like this since the days of Abraham: to be true to your faith is a blessing to others regardless of their faith. That’s the big paradox when you really reach the depth of particularity.

Tippet does bring her own unique story and experiences, from growing up in a Christian home, to losing that, and the re-countering a revived faith in a new context. I don’t mean to begrudge her that in any way, but I do value people who stand firmly rooted in their faith traditions. Call me a conservative.

I could add a lot more quotes from this book that I found inspiring, but I don’t want to include them all here. But I would definitely recommend reading it if you found any of the quotes provocative!

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