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Faith and Culture Lecture Series

President's Introduction: Paul Elie and Richard Rodriguez

Riggs Library
November 11, 2009

It’s my pleasure to welcome you this afternoon to Riggs Library—to this place originally devoted to scholarship and the search for truth—for a literary conversation on “The God of the Desert.” We’re especially pleased to welcome to Georgetown Richard Rodriguez, who The Washington Post describes as “one of the most eloquent and probing public intellectuals in the country,” …and a frequent visitor to the Hilltop, author Paul Elie.

These are authors who have both demonstrated how faith and religion can affect, influence, and impact artistic creation…

 

…Authors who have striven, in the words of the late John Paul II in his Letter to Artists, to “search for new epiphanies of beauty,”…

…And authors who would probably agree with poet, and Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins, that being men of faith makes them better writers.

The title of today’s conversation is taken from Richard’s upcoming book, which is concerned with Judaism, Christianity, Islam…and the desert ecology that shaped them.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, discusses in Silence and Honey Cakes, how the early desert fathers and mothers left the towns and cities and “kept seeking deeper desert.” Perhaps, in their quest for solitude, they also felt that by embracing the desert, they were somehow drawing closer to the very heart and spirit of their faith…

…For as Richard has written, all three of the great monotheistic religions were born, and were first experienced, within the ecology of the desert. The ecology helped to both form…and inform them. As he wrote in "Jerusalem and the Ecology of Monotheism," [Harper’s Magazine, January 2008.] “The desert resembles dogma: it is dry; it is immoveable. Truth does not change.” Perhaps that is why the three faiths urge believers to never lose hope, because God—immutable and unchangeable like the desert landscape—will always be there…the light that is always with us.

Yet, along with the light, the desert—in Richard Rodriguez’s view—has also brought with it darkness. He notes in the National Catholic Reporter, [November 2, 2001] that “The religions of the desert are ‘male’ in popular imagination and in tradition.” And throughout his writings, he argues that the “masculine impulse”—and by that he does not mean men—is to take a stand…to convert the other in our midst... to defend its theology against another, variant, theology. Unfortunately, it is this “impulse” that we’ve seen at work from the Crusades to September 11th—the event which first turned Richard’s attention to the ecology of the desert.

But, according to Richard, the “feminine impulse” is also present in all three monotheistic religions, although its presence is too often muted. The “feminine”—and, by that, he does not mean women—tends toward compromise…toward listening…toward seeing the other in our midst not as a stranger, but as a neighbor on par with ourselves.

And in our fragile world—where interactions between faiths and religions are too often characterized by mistrust or animosity—it is this “feminine impulse” which so desperately needs to be recognized and embraced.

It’s also the “feminine impulse” which must guide efforts at interfaith dialogue and understanding—efforts which we’re committed to fostering and advancing here at Georgetown.

Richard Rodriguez is the perfect author to examine the monotheistic faiths, their impulses and origins—with passion and compassion—because he’s a man of great faith himself. He has a deep love for Catholicism, and for the Most Holy Redeemer parish in San Francisco, where he and his partner of 28 years are devoted members. He even describes himself as “Irish Catholic”—because of the influence of the Irish nuns and priests on his upbringing.

Richard noted the importance of his faith to his life when he told the Los Angeles Times, [January 6, 2002] that “My Roman Catholicism has encouraged me to do good in the world, to prize love above all other emotions.”

Along with being a man of great faith, Richard Rodriguez is also regarded as one of the most prominent Hispanic intellectuals in America. He has written three memoirs about his story as a Mexican-American boy coming of age as a writer. Hunger of Memory focuses on class. Brown focuses on race and, in his own words, the “browning of America.” And Days of Obligation focuses on ethnicity—and what Rodriguez calls the competing theologies of American history—“Catholic pessimism and Protestant optimism.” The book was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1992.

Born in San Francisco, he went on to study literature and religion at Stanford and Columbia. Besides his books, he is known for his commentaries on The NewsHour for over twenty years…and for his numerous essays—on everything from religious violence to the meaning of the burrito—in U.S. and European publications. In 1993, he was awarded the National Endowment for the Humanities Medal. It’s the highest award the federal government gives to recognize work done in the humanities. His writing was also included in The Best American Spiritual Writing of 2008.

The perfect partner to Richard Rodriguez in our literary conversation this afternoon is a frequent guest on the Hilltop, Paul Elie. He is a man of faith and art as well, whose writing was also included in the Best American Spiritual Writing of 2008…and who has written [Commonweal, November 5, 2004] that Rodriguez’s books are animated by an “enigmatic Catholicism.”

Paul was with us last year, when he gave a lecture on “Catholic Culture in a Critical Age,” 45 years after a lecture by Flannery O’Connor that helped mark the 175th Anniversary of Georgetown. He also joined us in February when he engaged in a literary conversation with author Ron Hansen about Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Catholic Imagination…and in March when he discussed the resurrection of the ordinary with Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Marilynne Robinson.

During his visits with us, Paul has discussed his first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own. The title is taken from a Flannery O’Connor short story, and the work focuses on the most influential Catholic literary figures of the 20th century: Dorothy Day; Thomas Merton; Flannery O’Connor; and Walker Percy. For three decades, the four corresponded…grappled with the demands of faith and art…and shaped the American perception of Catholicism, and the Catholic Imagination, through their writing. The Boston Globe called it, “An ode to faith, and the art of the book as a tool of that faith.”

Paul’s book seems the natural outcome for someone who—like Richard Rodriguez—is very much dedicated to both his faith and his art. He received his BA from Fordham University, where he studied theology and philosophy…English and art. And as he investigated how faith and culture are interrelated, he began to examine the lives and works of Day, Merton, O’Connor, and Percy. After receiving his MFA from Columbia, he became an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Paul’s writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, and elsewhere.

Richard and Paul’s works both speak to the influence of religion on culture…to the enduring insights of the “Catholic imagination”…and, perhaps most important, to the power of both faith—and books.

It’s now my privilege to introduce to you the participants in today’s conversation, Richard Rodriguez and Paul Elie…

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