Author Mary Gordon on Death, Donald Trump and the Perils of ‘Either/Or’

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The 2006 series Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason featured provocative conversations with unique voices drawn from the group assembled at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York. In this episode, Bill talked with author Mary Gordon, widely regarded as one of the leading chroniclers of contemporary Catholic, Irish-American life. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason website or purchase the DVD from Acorn Online.


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BILL MOYERS: Greetings. I’m Bill Moyers. One of the intriguing questions about faith and reason is how it is two finely-honed minds can examine the case for belief and come to totally different conclusions. Consider Mary Gordon and Colin McGinn. One’s a novelist, the other a philosopher. Both were born to Catholic families. One remains a believer, the other is an atheist. Yet both are champions of reason. Here is Mary Gordon:

MARY GORDON: Without faith we would be paralyzed. We believe that all men are created equal. That our mothers, or at least our dogs, love us. That the number four bus will eventually come, all these represent a belief in the unseen. The question is not then are we people of faith, which we as a species seem to be. But rather, what then is the nature of that faith? And what actions does it lead to?

BILL MOYERS: Mary Gordon has made quite a name for herself with novels, essays, and memoirs chronicling Catholic life in America. Her first two novels dealt with young Catholic women making their way in the secular world. In THE SHADOW MAN she wrote of the early death of her father, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, and his deceit about his past. Pearl portrayed an Irish-American mother whose faith is challenged as her daughter slowly starves herself on a hunger strike. While teaching English at Barnard College, Gordon has published a stream of work in addition to her novels. She’s won three O. Henry awards for best short story. Not surprisingly, when writers from around the world convened in New York recently to talk about faith and reason, it was Mary Gordon who framed the issue:

MARY GORDON: I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine who had come of age during the Second World War. One of the surprises of our age, he said, is that religion still seems to be a burning question, and we had thought of it as a dead letter, a way of thinking that would simply fall away. Rather than falling away, religion has become an essential category by which we must come to an understanding of the world. So that now it seems that one of the most important human divisions is between those who think of religion as a major threat to our survival as a species. And those for whom our survival without it would seem to have no meaning.

BILL MOYERS: Mary Gordon, as a Christian, did you feel out of place at a festival of writers so many of whom are not believers?

MARY GORDON: Well, most of my life is spent among non-believers which is the way I like it. I went to parochial school for twelve years. Couldn’t wait to get out of the parish, which is the root of parochial. And these people are my friends and my colleagues and people whom I respect. So I have to endure the irony of the fact that most of the people whom I admire slightly suspect me of perhaps sucking my thumb at night. Because I am a person of faith. So I’m very used to it. And I rather like it. I wouldn’t like to be in a world where everybody was a believer and we all sort of fell back into this comfort zone of agreeing with each other all the time. I think there are many more good reasons for not believing than believing.

BILL MOYERS: How so?

MARY GORDON: Well, if you look at the evil and suffering in the world, it’s very hard to believe that there is a personal God looking out for us, watching the sparrow, counting the hairs on the head. If you look at the behavior of institutional religions, it’s very scandalizing. Not just my own church which is the Catholic Church, but the history of religion proves that religious people are no better than people who are not religious.

It seems to be to not make a lot of difference in terms of virtue. And often, if a religion is connected with power, it enables them to act worse than people who have less power. So, I think it’s a very strange thing, a very mysterious thing to believe.

BILL MOYERS: Agnostics and atheists however stand outside the frame of belief. They stand outside the language of belief. They stand outside the experience of belief. Why should believers take them seriously as if they have anything to say that a believer should appropriate?

MARY GORDON: Because if it weren’t for atheists and agnostics, there would have been no enlightenment, for example. And I’m immensely grateful for that. Many of the ideas which I most prized as an American, as a woman, as somebody living in a relatively free society have come to me through people who were agnostic or atheist. The ability to question, the ability to take a skeptical position is absolutely central to my understanding of myself and my understanding of myself as a religious person. It’s very important to experience doubt. I think faith without doubt is just either nostalgia or kind of addiction. And I’m not interested in that.

BILL MOYERS: Do you feel that what you value as a humanist, as a woman, as a believing skeptic is threatened today?

MARY GORDON: I think most of what I treasure seems very vulnerable to me right now. And it seems vulnerable to me on several different fronts because I think there are two major narratives in the world, the narrative of fundamentalism and the narrative of consumerism. And I think that what I value is threatened by two opposing forces. One, the fundamentalist force, which wants to censor doubt, censor questioning. And one which wants to make everything about money. And one of the most disturbing phenomena in the world as I experience it now is that everything seems to be about money. What can be commodified, what can be sold. The notion that there’s never enough money. That greed seems to be okay. That the value of an artistic or a literary production is how many mega bucks it makes. That the value of a vocation seems to be gone. It’s what can you do that would make money. And so, I feel that these two narratives which intertwine in some poisonous way that I don’t quite understand, both of them make me feel very vulnerable.

BILL MOYERS: At your discussion the other day on Writing Faith you told your fellow writers that the most important division today may well be between those who think of religion as a major threat to our survival as a species and those for whom a survival without it would have no meaning. What’s the work of the writer in a world where religion is salvation to many and poison to others?

MARY GORDON: And I think one of the most dangerous linguistic or epistemic phenomena in the world is the either/or. Because we are hybrid creatures. We have bodies and souls. We have appetites and duties. We have many, many things that contradict. We’re spirit and flesh. And, so it seems to me, the work of the writer is always, to use a religious term, incarnational. How do we witness to the mix of being human? How do we witness to the inherent contradiction of being human? And also, I believe that if a writer can do her or his work, it is to try to imagine the other, not the comfortable other. I’m actually much more comfortable thinking of a suicide bomber as another than I am of Donald Trump. Donald Trump–

BILL MOYERS: The inner life of a suicide bomber-

MARY GORDON: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: –intrigues you more than the inner life of Donald Trump?

MARY GORDON: I find it much more comprehensible.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

MARY GORDON: I can very easily put myself in the imaginative place of believing that something is worth dying for and even worth killing for. And so, my imagination can understand somebody who would say, this is a life or death thing. This is about the truth. I will give my life for the truth. And if I have to take lives in order to defend the truth, I will do it.

BILL MOYERS: You say that I find Bin Laden’s beliefs a grotesquely and murderously perverted version of beliefs I once held.

MARY GORDON: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: And in some sense, still do.

MARY GORDON: Well, I think that Osama Bin Laden was a person who got disgusted. And sometimes when I look, there are some things in the world that disgust me to the point of despair. So that, for example, some of the things that kids will do on the Internet now. Somebody was telling me about young girls from very good schools who will photograph each other having sex, and put it on the Internet, so that people can, you know, see them, access them having sex. Thirteen, fourteen year old girls are doing that. And I see something like that, and it makes me despair. And I think there is something so wrong with this culture that, wipe it out. Start from– start from zero. It’s too corrupt. It’s too far gone. There’s an almost physical revulsion that I can have from some of the glut and some of the– just some of the ugliness that I see. And I believe that that’s what Osama Bin Laden saw in the West. That he saw a kind of disgusting corruption that made him feel very, very, very sick. Conrad gives us the example of some people who-

BILL MOYERS: Joseph Conrad.

MARY GORDON: Joseph Conrad, who was just disgusted by a kind of behavior that they found incomprehensible and so gross, that it made them want– it’s as if you were in a swamp. And you were covered with stink. And you just wanted to be on a high, dry rock. And I can understand that very well.

BILL MOYERS: I am sympathetic to the angst on the Christian right towards popular culture.

MARY GORDON: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: Towards the banality.

MARY GORDON: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: The sheer ugliness of it.

MARY GORDON: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: And I share that sense with them. You obviously do too.

MARY GORDON: Yes. And I think if you can put yourself in that place and say, you know, and sort of ratchet it up, you can say, I understand Osama Bin Laden. That, if I have to– I mean, this is absurd — but if I have to look at all the violence, all the stupid violence that’s on TV and some of the stupid violence that teenagers seem to think is fine, and kids carrying guns. And kids shooting other kids. And eleven and twelve year olds having all sorts of sex that they can’t possibly really connect to pleasure. And the greed that this, to tell you the truth, to see people driving Hummers sometimes makes me feel so sick that, you know, I want to just drive them off the road and say, okay, in the name of Christ, in the name of peace and justice, I’m just going to shoot you because you have to get out of your car now. We live in a very stupid, banal, gross, greedy and rather disgusting culture.

BILL MOYERS: But it does not lead you to do what Osama Bin Laden did, to kill.

MARY GORDON: And I think that I have to go back to a religious position, which is that if reading the Gospel means anything, if Jesus means anything, it’s about seeing everybody, every human being as Jesus. That’s what makes sense. That– therefore, every human being is of enormous value. Every human being is sacred. So it seems to me the only thing that stops me from going out and shooting people in Hummers is a religious belief that, even though I don’t like them, they are sacred and valuable in the eyes of God. And that does stop me. Because I could really, you know, go out on quite a spree.

BILL MOYERS: I remember on our series we did on Genesis, you said, I’m surprised I’m not a murderer.

MARY GORDON: I still have time as you pointed out.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, you do. Did you ever want to be a martyr?

MARY GORDON: Oh, my God. When I was little — I was about twelve — I used to walk around with thorns in my shoes, so that I would prepare myself for martyrdom. And so, my feet would bleed, so I’d be ready for martyrdom.

BILL MOYERS: What was the appeal of martyrdom?

MARY GORDON: Because you went straight to heaven. No purgatory. You didn’t pass go. And I was brought up literally, literally, to pray for a martyr’s death. This was 1950’s, early 1960’s New York. I was praying for a martyr’s death. And I would have all these scenarios where it was the Russian communists then. Somebody, you know, in a fur hat and a brown uniform would put a gun to my head and say, say you don’t believe in Christ. And I would say, I will not say thee. Blow my head off. And I would be in heaven. And then, little girls like me would be praying to me. And have pictures of me in their rooms for all eternity. I mean, so what was my alternative? I was going to grow up and marry a cop? I mean, it didn’t seem like that was a very good bet. Maybe I could be a teacher. Or I could go straight to heaven and be prayed to. I literally lived that as a young child and a teenager. And then at one point, I thought, you know, I really don’t think I want to die a painful death. So I knew I wasn’t really a good Catholic. And it made me rethink a lot of stuff. And I said, I don’t think I want to die. I wasn’t quite willing to die. And it was a religious crisis for me.

BILL MOYERS: Both of us had drummed into our ears this marvelous mysterious statement of Jesus, that no love has a man greater than to give up his life for another.

MARY GORDON: I think that has been the cause of a lot of the good things that I’ve done in my life and a lot of the bad things that I’ve done in my life.

BILL MOYERS: How so?

MARY GORDON: I never feel like I’ve done enough because I’m alive. And so, that has both given me a kind of energy to I think do a lot of stuff, just because I have to.

BILL MOYERS: Eight novels. And God knows how many essays.

MARY GORDON: So it’s given me a kind of energy. On the other hand, it always made me feel inadequate– that I haven’t done enough. Sometimes, the only thing that keeps me sane is Mel Brooks who, you know, had this– Carl Reiner says to him, did you know Joan of Arc? And he said, yes. I would say to her, you save France, I’ll wash up. And sometimes, I think, you know, I just need to be washing up, while others save France sometimes. I did write a book about Joan of Arc.

BILL MOYERS: You wrote a biography of Joan of Arc, right?

MARY GORDON: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: Here’s a 15th Century girl, seventeen years old, who has these visions of– hears the voice of God. Goes out to become a brave soldier. Wins several victories over her enemies. And then, winds up being executed by the church.

MARY GORDON: At nineteen.

BILL MOYERS: At nineteen.

MARY GORDON: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: Two years later, she’s a heretic.

MARY GORDON: Yes. When I was a little girl, I used to sleep with a statue of Joan of Arc. Some people had stuffed dogs. I had my statue of Joan of Arc. And again, it’s that double thing, where it allowed me, particularly as a girl, to have a vision of heroics beyond the domestic. Heroics beyond the obedient. Heroics beyond the well behaved. So, here was this peasant illiterate girl who stood up to bishops and kings and nobles and said, “I can do this.” And, “I know I’m right.” That was a wonderful model for a young girl to have. When we were being told to just behave. And interestingly enough, as a person of great faith, she chose not to wear women’s clothing and to give up communion to do that.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, they wouldn’t give her the Eucharist.

MARY GORDON: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: Unless she wore a woman’s dress.

MARY GORDON: It’s again that notion of vocation. That she could only do what God called her to do if she was dressed as a man. Because it was the only thing that would mark her as able to take her place in the world. She couldn’t do her work signed as a woman. The work that she believed God called her to do required her to be signed as a man. I don’t know whether it was Shaw or some wise guy like that who said, in fact, Joan was the first Protestant. Because she really believed in her private revelation trumping the revelation of the church. But she knew who she was and what her work was and what she had to do to accomplish it. And she wasn’t going to listen to anybody who said she wasn’t going to do it.

BILL MOYERS: Did that example, did that story of Joan of Arc inspire you to want to be a martyr? Or did it turn you away?

MARY GORDON: Oh yes, no. I was just an unbearable adolescent. You can not imagine how awful I was. I would do, you know, there was a very nice man who owned a candy story in my neighborhood. And then, he started selling Playboy. And I said to him, you know, you’re just going to have to stop selling this because it’s a dirty magazine. So, of course he stopped giving me free egg creams and went on selling the magazines. My life has been marked by a series of failed acts of witness in which I put myself at tremendous risk. And nobody cares. No behavior is changed. I think one of my greatest fantasies is somebody’s going to say, ‘oh, thank you, I never saw it that way before. You’re absolutely right. My life is now changed. I’m going to be on the path of virtue.’ It doesn’t happen. But I think I was very marked by that notion of martyrdom, that you tell the truth, that you witness. And if you die, that’s better than being quiet.

BILL MOYERS: I remembered you said, “Our calling is to be a witness to Abel,” who was killed by his brother, to be a witness to the one who is not there. And I have often thought about that. If I had been raised in Munich, Germany, instead of Marshall, Texas, would I, as a Christian, have tried to save Anne Frank?

MARY GORDON: Well, I think about that all the time. And my greatest terror, actually, is not that I will die horribly, but that I will die betraying the weak, that I will save myself rather than performing an act of witness. That’s my worst terror– that at the moment when I am put to the test to witness for the oppressed or the weak or the persecuted, I’ll choose my own safety. And that, to me, is worse than death.

BILL MOYERS: So what do you make today of Augustine’s idea? “Our souls were made for God and will not find rest until they find their rest in thee.”

MARY GORDON: It’s very important to me, because it’s somehow beyond behavior. In that it’s almost a physical description, a desire for rest. It takes it beyond good and evil. It almost seems like the desire for God is something mysterious and yet rooted in the body. And that’s a combination that’s very dear to me, this desire for the ineffable which yet is somehow rooted in us as animals. And our combination of animal and immortal is, to me, very poignant. And it’s the challenge of being alive. I think that’s why I like a religious perspective, because it seems to create a language that explains more things about human beings than other languages do, without answering it. But it raises the questions. It creates a vocabulary where more questions can be raised. As long as you give up the idea that it will answer the questions, I think answering the questions will take place at that moment of rest, which will be in a dimension beyond our corporeal one.

BILL MOYERS: Where do you come out on the great debate between faith and reason in Dostoevsky’s THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, where Jesus comes back to earth and he begins to heal people and to cure people, to perform miracles. And the Grand Inquisitor comes and has him arrested and goes to see him in prison. He says, “You know, I had to do this, Jesus. I had to arrest you. I’m going to have to kill you because you are disturbing the peace.”

MARY GORDON: I think everything goes back to the Grand Inquisitor. All our religious debates and conflicts go back to: “Do you want control?” What Jesus does in that Dostoevsky chapter is he’s silent, and he embraces the Grand Inquisitor.

BILL MOYERS: He walks over and gives him a kiss.

MARY GORDON: He kisses him, and then walks away. And there are these moments of silence and love beyond explanation that I think that’s where you don’t have to set up a dichotomy between faith and reason. Dostoevsky’s very sympathetic to the Grand Inquisitor. He wants justice. He wants to relieve suffering. Who wouldn’t want to do that? But I think we’ve seen in the effects of Communism. Communism was about trying to relieve injustice. That was the impulse. How do we redistribute wealth in order to prevent human suffering? They’re the original Grand Inquisitors. But it’s always our desire to control and to have the final word that leads to tyranny. And I like to believe that there’s some silence and love that acknowledges our reason and our sense of justice. But that at the end is inexplicable and beyond it, and it ends in silence and a kiss.

BILL MOYERS: Do you agree with the Grand Inquisitor when he says, “All that man seeks on earth is someone to bow down to, someone to take over his conscience. There is nothing more seductive for man,” he says, “than the freedom of his conscience. And there is nothing more tormenting either.”

MARY GORDON: I think that we have to be able to endure living in torment. And if there is some point to the consolation of religious life, it is a consolation in torment that we have to look at the suffering of the world and be tormented by it. If we were complacent by it, that would be a gross insensitivity. But there has to be a love and beauty that is a consolation beyond our torment. So I think we always have to go back and forth between torment and consolation. And I think that’s why I like a religious vocabulary is that it suggests that restlessness, that going back and forth between two poles, which will eventually, in some way we don’t understand, end up in rest.

BILL MOYERS: Is it possible to be a Christian without this appetite for the absolute?

MARY GORDON: I don’t think so. But I think it’s very important to understand that– and I guess the reason I like Christianity, I thought it was a hit– is that it is incarnational, that Jesus is flesh and spirit. One of the things, details, that I like in the resurrection account is after Jesus comes back, he eats broiled fish. They actually tell us — they give us a menu. Luke gives us a menu. He ate broiled fish. So in his glorified body, he is still with other people, with an appetite for specific food. I think the genius of Christianity is that it insists on a physicality, which is sacrilized. And it doesn’t – the reason why I’m not a Gnostic is that– the Gnostic privilege is the spiritual over the physical. And I think Christianity, at its incarnational best, honors the mixed lot of being human.

BILL MOYERS: You even call Jesus problematical.

MARY GORDON: He is very problematical. And I mean, you know, I have a great sympathy for Thomas Jefferson trying to clean up the New Testament but it’s so wrong. The reason why I think Jesus is compelling is he is problematical. He’s really a bad bet for anybody’s agenda, because he’s larger than any agenda. And he’s very mysterious. What does that mean to curse the barren fig tree? I mean, who would do that? And what could that possibly mean? And it seems to me, as a figure, he is in his impossibility, in his contradictions, in his problematical nature, endlessly fascinating in a way that reason doesn’t allow for.

BILL MOYERS: Yet the comedy and the contradictions do make it a good story.

MARY GORDON: Yes. You know, there’s Peter’s walking on the water. And all of a sudden he says, “Oh, my God. I’m walking on the water,” and he sinks. You know, there are these wonderful comic moments. And moments of– Jesus genuinely seems to despair in the garden. And, he says, “You know, I just– can I please not do this?” And then he does do it. So it– it seems to me–

BILL MOYERS: And-

MARY GORDON: — a tremendously rich and evocative story. And it can’t be flattened out. And that, it seems to me, is where literature and religion can come together. How can we insist that our religious figures not be– our religious stories not be flattened out for our comfort?

BILL MOYERS: So when you bend your knee and bow your head, to whom or what are you inclining?

MARY GORDON: I don’t know exactly to whom and what I’m inclining. But I know that it’s greater than I am. And because I’m a Christian, I feel like the figure of Jesus gives me some character, some faith, some body to put it to. But also because I’m a Christian, I have the God of the Old Testament, with his create– his endlessly generative presence, his presence of holiness, his covenantal presence. So I feel like I’m bowing to somebody I don’t understand and to someone I can’t put a face and a body to. And so it’s very multiple. It also depends on how I’m feeling that particular day, whether I’m going to bow my head at all. And some days I won’t. And to which of the many faces of God I will choose to bow my head to that particular day. And I like that richness of possibility.

BILL MOYERS: When you were eight years old, you wrote an essay called “What is Prayer?”

MARY GORDON: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: Here, many years later, many books later, what’s the answer?

MARY GORDON: I think that– a friend of mine said– prayer is having something to say and someone to say it to. And I think that’s what it is. It is a kind of language. I would go back to George Herbert’s fabulous poem Prayer. He calls it the “bird of paradise, the Milky Way; the land of spice is something understood.” So it’s a way of being in the presence of beauty, in the way of being in the presence of love, and it’s something to say and someone to say it to.

BILL MOYERS: What’s your next book?

MARY GORDON: I’ve just written a book about my mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and also from polio. So it’s about coming to terms with affliction and seeing past affliction. I’m also writing a book called Reading Jesus.

BILL MOYERS: Reading Jesus?

MARY GORDON: Yes. In which I am simply going to read the Gospel as a person trained in literary terms and as a writer and see what happens. And I don’t know yet what I’ll find.

BILL MOYERS: What did you learn from your mother’s Alzheimer’s?

MARY GORDON: One of the most important things I learned is the limits of my own ability to change the world; that all my love and my imagination and my effort were able to accomplish nothing for her. Nothing I did made anything any better. And that I had to love her as one of the living dead. It also taught me that there are many, many things worse than death. And that’s actually quite helpful.

BILL MOYERS: How so?

MARY GORDON: Because you don’t have to be so afraid of death. You can see death as a release. And you can see the mercy of death in some ways.

BILL MOYERS: Mary Gordon, thank you very much.

MARY GORDON: Thank you.

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