In Bed with Krista and Kate

In Bed with Krista and Kate October 10, 2023

It was just beginning to turn dimly light when I began to wake up. I laid as still as I could in the hope of catching a bit more sleep, knowing that Bovina’s radar is set for any early morning motion that might indicate it’s time for her walk. Then I heard something entirely unexpected.

Woman 1: So in contrast to all of that statistical language, a word that seems to have felt so true to you early on is “precarity.” Would you talk about what that word means to you now?

Woman 2: Oh my gosh. Dorothy Day, the Catholic activist used it so beautifully to talk about a life living in New York in community with people with insecure housing.

Clearly, as I came to consciousness I was dropping into the middle of a conversation that had been going on for a while. But who were these two women? And, more importantly, what were they doing in my bed?

Soon I recognized Krista’s and Kate’s voices; shortly after I realized why they were having this conversation next to my pillow. I have a difficult time sleeping well when Jeanne is away. In past years when Jeanne was away for weeks at a time for work, I was able to adjust reasonably well. She works from home now and travels far less than in the past, so when she is away as she was (for work) last weekend, sleep is a problem that even Bovina spooning with me doesn’t solve. My go-to solution has become turning on a podcast at low volume on my phone when I go to bed, hoping that the murmur of voices will either lull or bore me into slumber.

This works pretty well, and I am always asleep before the end of whatever 30-45 minute podcast episode I decide on. I have bookmarked a couple dozen podcasts on Spotify that I listen to frequently, alerting me each morning to new episodes. Even on sabbatical I don’t have the time to stay up to date on all of the podcasts, so Spotify helpfull (?) continues playing new episodes I have not yet heard, even while I am asleep. I had awakened to Krista Tippett interviewing Kate Bowler on Krista’s podcast “On Being.”

I’ve been following Krista Tippett for close to fifteen years ever since I spent a sabbatical semester at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research as a resident scholar. She had spent a similar semester at the institute a decade or so earlier; it was during that residency that she conceived of a radio show called “Speaking of Faith,” which morphed into “On Being” in the early 2000s. Krista is one of the best interviewers I have ever encountered. The New York Times reports that he style “represents a fusion of all her parts – the child of small-town church comfortable in the pews; the product of Yale Divinity School able to parse text in Greek and theology in German; and, perhaps most of all, the diplomat seeking to resolve social divisions.”

Kate Bowler is a more recent phenomenon, an associate professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School who burst onto the national scene with her 2018 book Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved), a memoir that a reviewer calls “A meditation on sense-making when there’s no sense to be made, on letting go when we can’t hold on, and on being unafraid even when we’re terrified.” Working at her dream job, married to her childhood sweetheart, and the mother of a one-year-old, Kate was diagnosed at age 35 with stage-4 cancer and given no more than a few months to live—Everything Happens is a beautiful and brutally honest account what followed.

Everything Happens shot to the top of the NYT non-fiction bestseller list, as have Bowler’s subsequent books. Kate is a brilliant writer (very rare among academics) and has a wicked sense of humor with a distinct talent for memorable sentences. On a page I just picked at random, for instance, you find “For academics, bookshelves are trophy cases” and “No one tells you that fear is extremely boring.” Her podcast “Everything Happens” is undoubtedly my favorite of the twenty or so podcasts I try to stay up to date with.

The conversation that woke me up was the latest episode of “On Being” which provides the live conversation that Krista and Kate had at the recently concluded Aspen Ideas Festival. It is brilliant—I have no doubt that I’ll be reflecting on it here frequently in the upcoming weeks.

The word “precarity” that Krista asks Kate about is indeed one of Kate’s favorite words to use when describing her journey. I was familiar with the adjective “precarious” and the adverb “precariously,” but am not sure that I had ever heard it in its noun form. The dictionary says it simply means “uncertainty”; the term started being used in the late 1980s to describe the conditions of those who were employed in temporary jobs without social security. But in Kate Bowler’s hands, precarity turns into something profound. Here’s how she describes its meaning in the interview.

Dorothy Day, the Catholic activist used it so beautifully to talk about a life living in New York in community with people with insecure housing. And if you compare how she describes it with other theologians who imagined a stable universe full of certainties, I just love the way she describes precarity as contingency, the fragility of your life, that feeling like things can be taken away in an instant. But not like it’s a bad thing, that it’s not the thing that we have to get over to get back to the person we were before. And I found that really emotionally satisfying, because what if the new is just the way it’s always going to be?

The uncertainty and fragility of human life are not things to overcome but rather are definitive of what it means to be human. As the title of Kate’s 2021 book announces, there is No Cure for Being Human. And, as she intimates in the passage above, that’s a good thing. Being human is important enough that God chose to inhabit its precarity.

Later in the interview, Krista Tippett notes that the recent pandemic has forced all of us to face precarity directly.

So we have just lived through this collective trauma facing our mortality with the pandemic, with so much loss and such an experience of precarity. And I think that these patterns that you describe and this need to control — which is so natural, so understandable — to control the narrative, was also directly present in this.

Think of all the times during the past three and a half years that you heard someone say, “I can’t wait until this is over and we can return to normal,” as if “normal” hasn’t always been precarious. The pandemic simply forced us to face the constant presence of precarity, whether we wanted to or not.

Faith and precarity go hand in hand, just as faith and doubt do. Isn’t precarity a lot more interesting than certainty?


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