New York Magazine

ON “ON BEING”

How did a MINNESOTA public-radio host become the GURU to “SPIRITUAL but not RELIGIOUS” seekerdom—and make NPR the center of a new NEW AGE? KRISTA TIPPETT has the answers.

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

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