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Writer Richard Rodriguez introduces readers to ‘seasons of belief and doubt’

November 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
After 9/11 writer Richard Rodriguez was puzzled by how intimate relationships with God can also be dangerous. This exploration of spirituality inspired him to pen "Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography." Jeffrey Brown speaks with Rodriguez on his challenge to readers to consider what belief is in a world afire with religion.
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GWEN IFILL: This will come in handy. Finally tonight, writing about belief and doubt in the modern world.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a daunting task recognizing religion, sexuality and place in the week of 9/11. But that’s the goal of a new selection of essays titled “Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography” by author and former longtime NewsHour contributor Richard Rodriguez.

And, first of all, welcome back.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be back. You talk about place, the sense of place.

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JEFFREY BROWN: This is a place in your life.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: To be back on this set after more than 10 years, it really quite — quite wonderful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the subtitle here, “A Spiritual Autobiography,” in what sense? Because this is not a straightforward narrative of spiritual awakening.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: It’s a record of the years after September 11 and the quandary and the exploration of my soul, coming to terms with the fact that those men, terrorists on that day who flew into the World Trade Center, who flew into the Pentagon were praying.

They were praying to Allah, which is another name for the God that I also worship. That puzzle, that religion which is so ennobling for so many lives, that intimacy with God can also be so dangerous. The notion that the proclamation “my God” becomes possessive, “my God,” began this journey for me of looking at what religion could be in the aftermath of…

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: In your life and in their lives and in all of our lives, you’re talking about praying — the tie of praying to religions of the desert, as you put it, a god of the desert.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: That’s what the terrorists oddly led me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I began to trace their lives backward, and they took me back to the Middle East.

And I began to realize that my religion is a desert religion and that my God is a desert God, despite the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, despite the fact that I call myself a Roman Catholic.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thousands of years of — exactly — thousands of years of Europe, of the Americas, Africa, everything now.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: And, in December, I will get Christmas cards with the baby Jesus surrounded by the Swiss pines, you know, as though it all took place in Switzerland somehow.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how do you make the connection? What…

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, the story of Abraham that unites these religions, the belief that Abraham is father, become becomes a desert story, the dry old man promises fertility by God.

It begins as a kind of announcement that the desert will be fertile, that out of these desert tribes will come a civilization so vast that they number as the stars do in the night. Well, all that was new to me. And it forced me to — I mean, I — most of my friends are nonbelievers, but — and really hostile toward religion.

But they would say, well, you’re going to these desolate places. How can you — what is there? There’s nothing there. These people are still fighting in those deserts, but there is nothing there.

For the believer, it seems to me, that that’s the question. Why would God, who is believed — the Semitic God is believed to penetrate time, the particularity of time, not that moment, not this moment, but this, that moment, also particularity of place, not that place, not this place, but that place.

Why there? And it seems to me that for the believer, that question, why would God reveal himself in a place of desolation?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in these, I recall in essays of yours in the past for our program where you were — and it comes out here — you are a believer, but you’re a questioner, a doubter, an explorer of what belief means.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Yes.

I’m glad you said doubter, because I — my religious tradition has always accepted doubt as part of the procedure of believing in God. And I think that becomes a kind of a protection against extremism. But religion is under assault right now from various places.

There’s something called a new atheism in the air that is coming into the country. And it has a dogmatism to it that doesn’t quite understand that religion itself has within it disbelief, that there isn’t a religious life of, what shall I say, seasons of belief and doubt, and that that…

JEFFREY BROWN: So, one is not either a believer or nonbeliever?

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: That’s right. It’s the composite of life that seems to me to be the prayer.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what — so, to the extent that, as you say, many of your friends are nonbelievers, probably many of the readers wouldn’t be believers.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you want us to take from this?

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, I want you to at least acknowledge, and at a time that the world is afire with religion, that you may tell me that you’re not a believer, but you better consider what belief is.

And it seems to me that we better at least know what is going on in the world. We’re living in a world that’s increasingly disconnected from place. We’re living in a world using cell phones like this as a way of losing a sense of place, where we’re not even buried anymore. We put our ashes at the side of a lake or on a mountain or something. The wind blows it away. We no longer inhabit cemeteries, our dead. We no longer visit the dead in cemeteries.

It seems to me, at a time in which we are losing a sense of place, that what I would like my reader to understand is that place is central to religion. And the other part of this book that I wanted readers to have — and this is why “Darling” is the center chapter of the book — is that my relationship to women, particularly heterosexual women, is both…

JEFFREY BROWN: As a gay man.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: As a gay man — is crucial to my formation.

I dedicate the book to the Sisters of Mercy, an Irish orders of nuns who educated me. They were fiercely determined that I would become this American man that you listen to. In fact, they were the precursors to — in my judgment, the real beginning of my own emancipation out of the closet came with women in the 19th century, those nuns, but also the women, the processions of women in European streets, in the capitals marching for the vote, the suffragettes.

That becomes the crucial theme in this book, not the gay man trying to find his place in the desert religions, but women. Where are women going play? What role are they going to play in this theological battle?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, there’s a lot more I want to talk to you about, especially the art of the essay. We will do that in our online section of this.

But, for now, the new book is “Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography.”

Richard Rodriguez, thanks so much.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Thanks, Jeff.