On PEN’s Faith & Reason event

Featuring Chinua Achebe, Martin Amis, Gioconda Belli, Roberto Calasso, E. L. Doctorow, David Grossman, Elias Khoury, Yusef Komunyakaa, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Duong Thu Huong, Ayu Utami, Jeanette Winterson, and the prepared remarks of Nadine Gordimer. Apologies for the length and inarticulate patches. I’ve opted for inclusiveness rather than concision out of deference to those who’ve asked for details about particular authors.

Last night’s PEN World Voices Faith & Reason event wasn’t scheduled to start until 8, but when I got to the Town Hall at 7:30 lines already ran down the block in both directions. The center seating area was nearly full by the time my friend Russell and I filed into the building and took our programs. We found seats off to the side.

“When I came here to see Norah Jones last year, they searched my bag,” Russell said. “But I come to see Salman Rushdie, and they usher me right in.”

Rushdie kicked things off, marveling at the size of the crowd and observing that World Voices, now in its second year, is the first international literary festival New York City has regularly hosted. “Isn’t that ridiculous?” he mused.

After the applause died down, he announced that a family emergency prevented South African writer Nadine Gordimer from attending. He read from her prepared remarks, omitting sections in which he was discussed and praised.

The sentence that best encapsulates Gordimer’s thoughts on faith and reason, she said, is that famous Bunuel quip, “Thank God I’m an atheist.” Although she doesn’t subscribe to a religious creed, Gordimer believes that, if anyone could have persuaded her to turn to faith for comfort, it would’ve been Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose advice she’s sought amidst sorrow and turmoil. But he never urged her in that direction.

Unlike some of the proselytizing atheists who took the stage later, Gordimer didn’t characterize religious belief as evil. Nor did she present secular belief systems as inherently preferable. “Political ideologies elevated to faith,” she argued, can wreak as much havoc as blind fundamentalism.

Having dispensed with Gordimer’s thoughts, Rushdie opted to share a passage from his most recent novel, Shalimar the Clown.

The selection he chose, unlike the entertaining excerpt he read from The Satanic Verses at the end of the evening, left no lasting impression on me. I didn’t take any notes. I don’t remember the characters. I won’t be running out to buy the book.

Rushdie ceded the stage to Chinua Achebe, whose wheelchair was pushed out to the center microphone by two assistants. Achebe’s voice was gentle, his pace slow, his humility almost palpable.

He read a powerful scene from Things Fall Apart. In it, the uncle of the exiled protagonist challenges him to explain why “one of the most common names we give a child [means ‘mother is supreme’].” The protagonist can’t answer, and the uncle dresses him down, imploring him to embrace his mother’s country, where he is, and must remain, in exile for seven years. We turn to mothers when no one else will have us, the uncle says. And when a funeral is held for a woman, the crowd follows behind the casket, chanting, “There is no one for whom it is well.” “You think you are the greatest sufferer in the world?” the uncle challenges him, before launching into other people’s heartaches. “Ask my daughter [] how many twins she has thrown away.”

After this brief reading, Achebe turned to “two recent and illuminating opinions from readers” about the very passage he’d read.

One focused on “there is no one for whom it is well.” She called this funereal chant “the direct antithesis of Julian of Norwich’s prayer” — “all will be well” — which her priest had urged her to repeat to herself as she awaited the results of a breast biopsy. Her book club didn’t see the relationship between the prayers but encouraged her to consult Achebe, who said he felt a bit like a lower tribunal hearing a case on remand from the Supreme Court. But yes, Achebe told us, there is a relationship between the two mantras: “One is a prayer; one is an instruction manual.” The human mind, he contended, “can hold both faith and reason.” The two concepts “need not be at war.” When faith “overrides reason,” it becomes superstition. And “when it is reason that is at fault, we call it unfeeling.” In short, “too much of anything, even a good thing, is bad.”

The second letter he read was from a Yugoslavian woman who’d “watched [her] motherland being torn apart,” and who heralded the “irony and bitterness” of the ending. She said the passage “saved [her] sanity,” by reminding her of other people’s suffering, and showing her the absudity of life.

Up next was Martin Amis, who proved to be as insightful on faith and reason as I expected. Which is to say: not at all.

Every modern-day discussion of faith seems to include an Islam-basher. So we had Amis, who isn’t so much an atheist as a foe to all things Muslim. [Subsequent note: He tries to tap-dance his way around these kinds of charges here.]

He swaggered out in his black (leather?) jacket and opened with an anecdote about a battered Saudi newscaster. She was found, stashed in the trunk of a car, before her husband could leave her to die in the desert. The husband beat her because she answered the phone. This detail, Amis explained, underscores an important difference between the cultures: “I know I’d be more likely to beat my wife half to death if she didn’t answer the phone.” Everyone laughed. So far, so good. “But customs and mores vary from country to country,” he continued. “And you cannot claim that one ethos is better than any other.”

Next Amis’ reading envisioned a conversation between John Walker Lindh and Osama bin Laden in which the “American Taliban” advises the Al-Qaeda leader to attack the U.S. well before September 11, 2001. Even in the Monica Lewinsky years, Amis-as-Lindh posits, the U.S. was “blinded by thirty years of multicultural relativism.” No sooner would the planes hit the towers, than the liberals would “yawn and say America had it coming, and wonder why we waited so long…. The liberals will be saying that it’s all their fault. Their ideology will make them reluctant to see what it is that they confront, and it will make them slow learners.”

In Amis’ view, Islam[ism] is inherently evil — more nefarious at its core, it seems, than other religions — and suicide bombers are motivated by nothing more than a hunger for notoriety and eternal life with 72 virgins. And faith in general is a laughable desire for “approval from supernatural beings.”

If reading Amis’ last novel was “like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating,” his new one hearing him read his new essay, about Mohammed Atta, is like being trapped in a room with that same uncle for a week as he swigs from pints of Jameson’s and rails against the Illuminati.

Nicaraguan writer Giocanda Belli bemoaned the “uncertainty that has replaced every certainty” in the days following the end of the Cold War. Consumer societies have not, as she had hoped, recognized their responsibilities to marginalized peoples, but instead have tried to force other countries to model their societies “on democracy as it is in the U.S.”

She said the rise in the 90’s of democracy in Latin America “paradoxically brought despair,” because the poor were no more empowered than they had been before but now there was no dictator to revolt against. The church took on a new importance. People looked for signs. They flocked to see “the Virgin who sweats,” a statue that, it turned out, emitted perspiration every morning because its owner sprayed it with water and stored it in a freezer overnight.

Yet Belli has developed hope for the world as true democracies have begun to form in Latin America, as socially conscious leaders have begun to focus on the plight of the poor. As things improve, she contended, the people’s imaginations “can break centuries of religious belief that hold them back.”

Italian publisher, writer, and Kafka biographer Roberto Calasso began with a call for clarification of terms. “Both faith and reason are words subjected to abuse every day,” he said. He advocated the Confucian idea that the most fundamental “task of a true statesman is to rectify names.”

While people “rally under the name ‘faith’ and brandish it menacingly against others,” their so-called faith is not related to the “divine and the sacred” — essential characteristics of true faith, in Calasso’s view. He cited with approval one of the most beautiful and perplexing verses in the New Testament: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith is “nothing more than the perception of invisible reality,” he said, and so it is not the fault of faith itself that people use it “to justify all kinds of actions” that have nothing to do with faithfulness.

Modern-day cheerleaders for reason at the expense of faith, Calasso charged, are really nothing more than “19th Century Positivists.” And in reaction to this mode of reasoning, he dispensed some “pharmacological advice: use in small doses.”

Calasso asserted that faith and reason can coexist; we must remember, “above all,” that “the invisible may act upon the visible.” He closed with a reference to Musil’s Man Without Qualities.

E.L. Doctorow stopped short of explicitly arguing that we should amend the Constitution to do away with the principle that freedom of religion is, as Thomas Jefferson held, “compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws,” that allowing everyone “to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are … the serious convictions of his own inquiries,” leads to comfort and quiet.

Doctorow is suspicious of our nation’s “supermarket of religious choice.” He argued, not illogically, that our acceptance of all creeds results in an inevitable paradox: “pluralism is an offense to fundamentalists,” who are “trying to undermine exactly the secular religious principles that allow their religion to flourish.” Yet he cast the “desire to eradicate” as an inherently “religious one.” (How to account for Hitler and Stalin, then?) Fundamentalists are “less god-fearing than secularists in a democracy.” Consequently, secularists are the only people, apparently, with a proper “moral sense of ourselves,” and this is because the secular intellect is “self-liberating.”

“I’m aware that this is a secular humanist canticle I’m singing,” said Doctorow. And then he kept on singing it.

David Grossman spoke more briefly. He began in familiar territory: discussing the motivations of a Palestian suicide bomber, quoting the mother’s hope that the rest of her children would be heroes like the dead son. Being unfamiliar with Grossman’s work, I worried based on some of his early remarks that we were going to have to sit through a lecture equating Palestinians with (undesirable) faith and Israelis with reason. But his speech was far more nuanced than that.

Recalling the time he spent with a settlement family in the 90’s while making a documentary film, Grossman talked about the bewilderment he felt as he watched, over subsequent years, these basically kind people and their ilk transform into a powerful group that have “made peace almost impossible.” They speak in his name and in the name of his country, Grossman noted, but say things he doesn’t believe in. “I don’t understand the impresarios of history,” he said. “The game called ‘blow up Iraq and wait for the Arab world’s reaction.'”

Lebanese writer Elias Khoury read a story about a man taking care of a mosque on the edge of a Jewish settlement. The settlers used the mosque as a cow pen, and the man went silently, every morning, and cleaned out the dung. The piece was ultimately about endurance, but I’m afraid I was fading a bit as he read.

Poet Yusef Komunyakaa, a magician of a wordsmith, embraces “faith in the unknown and unknowable.” But he believes “making gods and goddesses in our image” is to “make[] them indifferent.” Although he’s won the Pulitzer prize and been profiled by publications from Ploughshares to the New York Times, I’ve managed to be completely unfamiliar with Komunyakaa’s poetry. (My ignorance won’t be a surprise to regular readers.) Until now.

After hearing Thanks and Ode to a Maggot (“….no one gets to Heaven/ Without going through your first”), I want to read every poem he’s written.

The great Toni Morrison shared a church scene from her 1999 novel Paradise. Two Christian preachers officiate at a wedding and offer, in their blessings, completely opposed views of man’s relation to the divine.

The first chides the lovers that love is “divine only, and difficult always.” Love, he says, is not a gift from God; “it is a diploma,” conferring “the privilege of giving love and receiving it.” The second minister views this screed as a “deliberate assault on all he believe[s].” His mind goes through all the things he wants to say in response, but he’s so shocked and outraged that he’s powerless to utter them. Instead he holds the cross and wills the congregation to understand God’s unlimited love through it.

Zadie Smith depicted herself as a comic novelist ill-equipped to comment on “abstract nouns,” but her reading of a masterful funeral scene from On Beauty led me to castigate myself for putting her book to the side forty pages in. (I set it down — planning to pick it up again — because, having lived in north Florida, I didn’t buy Kiki, who’s supposed to hail from that region but says things like, “How am I meant to react?”)

In the passage Smith read, a rational man who deplores religion sits in the small church and finds himself weeping at the death of a woman who was a devout believer.

Duong Thu Huong‘s translator read her prepared remarks, which began with the idea that “salvation is an ancient human need.” Although conceding that “every faith harbors madness,” she argued that the “fanaticisms of faith” are no more perilous than the “dangers of reason.” Ultimately, according to Huong, “faith and reason issue from the same source.” They are “part of what it means to be human.” Ayu Utami pared down her short story, “Smell.”

Jeanette Winterson bounded out, took the mike at center stage, and, with no notes, launched into an anecdote about growing up in a Pentecostal home. Her parents adopted her anticipating that she’d become a missionary and “save the world.” (Much of what she said will be familiar to anyone who’s read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Despite growing up in a differently whacked-out Evangelical household, and having admired The Passion and some of her other novels, I’ve never been a fan of Oranges. But I was completely charmed by Winterson’s performance.)

In her childhood home, only six books were allowed: “the Bible — and five books about the Bible.” Winterson’s mother feared any secular contamination. She did read Jane Eyre to her daughter, but changed the ending. “The trouble with a book,” she asserted, “is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.”

When Winterson went to work, she started buying books and hiding them under her mattress. (Apparently a single bed will accommodate 77 paperbacks, laid side by side, per layer.) As Winterson’s bed rose ever-closer to the ceiling, her mother came in one night, suspicious, and saw a book poking out. Unfortunately it was a D.H. Lawrence novel. She tossed the books out the window and set them aflame in the back yard, and Winterson began to realize, she said, that “tyrants … ban books” but they can’t ban what you take from books. After the book burning, she started memorizing texts.

Eventually her mother discovered she’d fallen in love with a woman. Winterson was given a choice: move out, or give her up. Winterson left. As she walked out the door, her mother called after her, “Why be happy when you can be normal?”

Literature teaches us, according to Winterson, to eschew these kinds of false dichotomies. And books show us “a world we can live in differently.”

By the end of the night, Russell, a science guy, shared Michael Orthofer’s opinion that the focus of the event was too heavily tilted toward faith, “with reason as the afterthought or occasional counterweight.” They’re right: the discussion was largely religion-centered.

Overall (from my agnostic but faith-sympathetic perspective) this focus followed from the idea that religious extremism of various kinds is one of the greatest obstacles to harmony in our increasingly globalized world. Some authors worked toward the notion that faith isn’t inherently bad — that reason, too, can be problematic. Others charged that religious faith is backward or insidious. A few seemed to believe it may be the death of us all.


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