Tippett, Unger open week of conversations on American consciousness



A changing, 21st-century American landscape warrants big questions and innovative ideas, and Krista Tippett will address these concepts with five guests this week.

Tippett, host of NPR’s “On Being” and creator of The Civil Conversations Project, will have a conversation with Roberto M. Unger today at 2 p.m. in the Hall of Philosophy about the American consciousness.

The exploration of how individuals and societies can rise up to greater forms of human life is a central theme in Unger’s philosophical work. Unger, a professor at Harvard Law School who recently served as Brazil’s minister of strategic affairs, is interested in looking at increasing one’s share in the attributes that he ascribes to God, if one is a believer.

“This is a major theme in the history of American consciousness,” he said. “This belief that everything is possible and that a greater life lies ahead for both the individual and society.”

That belief, however, has been subjected to two perversions, one being an inadequate view of the relation between an individual’s self-instruction and the solidarity among people.

“Americans have often been tempted to believe that each individual can be like a little Napoleon, crowning himself,” Unger said.

The second, he added, is the tendency to accept the existing structured society.

Unger’s 2014 book, The Religion of the Future, covers topics such as religious revolution, political theology without God, becoming more human by becoming more godlike, and overcoming, humanizing and struggling with the world.



Unger has also studied the vitality of the experimentalist impulse and the central faith of democracy and the ways in which contemporary democracies, including that of the U.S., are organized in a way that makes change dependent on crisis.

“Americans believe that big problems yield to little solutions,” he said. “The central faith in democracy, in a way, is a faith in the constructed genius of ordinary men and women.”

Unger, who is Brazilian, does not see the themes he explores in his work as uniquely American, adding that the existing institutions prevent the necessary experimentation required to ascend to a higher form of life.

“I see them as worldwide themes for humanity. But each country presents them in a unique form,” he said. “The contemporary societies cannot resolve their fundamental problems without changing the economic and political regimes under which they now live.”

Tippett, who recently received the 2013 National Humanities Medal, plans to use each of her conversations this week for her radio broadcast, “On Being.” She said she immediately knew Unger’s was the kind of perspective she wanted to bring to Chautauqua Institution.

“I saw him talking about that there is such a thing as the soul of a nation,” she said. “That’s exactly the kind of voice I like to draw out, that is coming at great big enduring questions from very fresh and unique angles.”

Tippett said she attempted to bring together a diverse group of voices to talk about questions of American consciousness in a 21st-century way, because what one would think of as “American consciousness” even a few decades ago has drastically changed.

“I think that we’re actually in a moment of reformation, but whereas a few hundred years ago it was a reformation of Christianity that was at the center of culture … we’re experiencing a reformation of all of our institutions,” Tippett said. “Religion is one of those. We’re redefining the meanings and definitions of marriage and family and leadership and authority. Technology is transforming all of our structures form the inside out. It’s transforming our daily lives.”