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Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography
Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography
Richard Rodriguez
Viking, 2013
235 pp., 26.95

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Daniel Taylor

The Desert God at the Twin Towers

Richard Rodriguez, contrarian and master of the essay.

Richard Rodriguez is a master of the essay. I would even call him one of our most valuable public intellectuals, except, given our culture's studied indifference to things of the intellect, it might not be taken as a compliment. And "intellectual," with its implications of abstraction and theory and élite learning, is not the right word for any true essayist, whose work is embodied, concrete, filled with story and specificity and dirty fingernails. There is much more than intellect at work in a good essay and in Richard Rodriguez.

The essay is an art form for ruminating (as in chewing the cud of human experience), and Rodriguez's ruminations are at the same time chewy and profound. We return to an essayist not for opinions but for a sensibility—a way of seeing things, a idiolectic way with words, a personality or temperament, a constellation of values and experiences that we call character. And that is why we are interested to hear what a favorite essayist has to say about anything.

The anything in this collection ranges widely, though with enough recurring subjects and themes to lend coherence. All of them come to us marinated in the sensibility of Richard Rodriguez and therefore rich and savory. And all of these essays, he says, were written in the shadow of 9/11, hence a circling back throughout them to the question of religious pluralism (all pluralism actually), especially the relationships among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He says that 9/11 awoke him to how little he knew of Islam. He wonders at the terrorists' determination to "kill the people they passed among," but rather than reacting in anger and retribution, he says, "I want to hear their quarrel with me."

These reflections lead to expressions of openness (or leakiness) that some will find enlightened and others obtuse. He insists that the three religions worship a common God and declares, "After September 11, I started describing myself as 'Judeo-Christian-Muslim.' " That reminds me of a story told by a friend, definitely not herself an intellectual. She related that her Muslim cab driver said, "We worship the same God, you know." To which she replied, "Unless your god has a son named Jesus, we don't." That's not an answer pluralists approve of, and they would no doubt finesse it by saying Islam does think of Jesus as a "son" of God—but that's not what my friend meant (nor what devout Muslims mean), and her reaction would be a common one among the non-élite in each of the religions about the others. (That I did not know whether to capitalize God in her declaration expresses the issue exactly—God or god?)

Such an insistence on distinctions, as in my friend's remark, is dangerous according to Rodriguez. It separates people, makes them enemies, and encourages violence. "Dogma strives to resemble the desert: It is dry; it is immovable. Truth does not change. Is there something in the revelation of God that retains—because it has passed through—properties of desert or maleness or Semitic tongue? Does the desert, in short, make warriors? That is the question I bring to the desert from the twenty-first century." Rigid theology loads the gun and terrorists pull the trigger (or fly the plane).

But of course the challenge for pluralism is to avoid relativism. Rodriguez writes, "both Islam and Christianity are fractures of Judaism, glosses on Judaism, branches of Judaism—Judaism the root." Historically this is true. You can link the three at multiple points. You can also point out thousands of similarities between earth and Mars. But if you were to go for a walk on Mars, you wouldn't want to forget the differences.

Rodriguez is concerned about the excessive confidence of certain people. Thinking you know the mind of God—and having the effrontery to refer to "our God"—creates the conditions for flying planes into buildings (and, he suggests, for marginalizing women and homosexuals within the Church). He argues against certitude (a psychological state) in light of the fact that we clearly do not have certainty (an epistemological state). In another place, Rodriguez has reversed the famous New Testament declaration regarding belief and help for unbelief to read, "Dear God, I believe in you. Please strengthen my disbelief."

One of the reasons Rodriguez is hard on certain orthodoxies and traditional formulations is that, as a gay Catholic, he sees them as having been used to exclude and harass people like himself. When he asks, "Is dogma a fossil of the living God?", he has in mind, among others, the Catholic Church's teaching that homosexuality is an intrinsic disorder. He dismisses "natural law" as a mere "philosophical construct" and makes the familiar postmodern move of saying what we call "morality" is simply an expression of what some people or institutions like or don't like. I don't think Rodriguez actually believes this generally, but it is what he says about traditional views of homosexuality, expressing what he himself doesn't like.

Rodriguez also follows the common line of argument in suggesting that we think about homosexuality in the same way we think about race and gender, especially gender. He connects the fate of gays in the three desert religions to the fate in them of women. Attitudes toward homosexuals will not change, he argues, until they "turn to regard the authority of women … . And that will not happen until the desert religions see the woman as father, the father as woman, indistinguishable in authority and creative process." This rhetoric, unfortunately in my view, plays into the hands of hard-nosed boundary protectors, who will see it is as confirmation that progressives want to erase God-given (or even nature-given) distinctions—culturally given according to progressives—and thereby pave the way for everything from the end of the family to unisex toilets.

My general impression of Rodriguez is that few writers work harder to be fair, to be open to opposing perspectives (including those here of Muslim terrorists), and to convey the complexities and nuances of life that argue against all overconfident declarations and ideologies. And yet even he, when the issue is dear to him, cannot resist loading the rhetorical dice. He cites approvingly, for example, a Mormon mother's painful declaration, "the Church tells me that I should abandon my homosexual son. I will not do it." Of course the Church—Mormon or otherwise—counsels no such thing. Another mother, equally earnest, could rightfully say, "The Church is trying to help me save the life of my son. I will not abandon him to a way of living that can kill him."

I worry that I am not being fair to Richard Rodriguez. I have tried to summarize his views accurately, but, perhaps inescapably, have oversimplified him. All of the above regarding religious pluralism and gay advocacy and women in the church paints a picture of him as a standard ideological progressive with a dollop of religious interests. That is not the case, as is clear from the consistent criticism he receives from progressives for not toeing the party line.

Rodriguez actually is quite traditional, even conservative, on a number of fronts, including in things spiritual. He has been a longtime critic of (sometimes abstainer from) progressive dogma regarding ethnicity in America, among other issues. If he is critical of religious institutions in these essays, he is also critical of the intellectually lazy enemies of religion in contemporary America. He says, "Maybe the spirit of the time is to recoil from a mullah's absolute or a bishop's absolute, and to call that recoil atheism. Yet atheism seems to me as absolute as the surest faith."

He notes with bemusement secular intolerance: "The music critic in our local paper regrets, on his readers' behalf, the religious context weighting upon the transcendent beauty of a Bach cantata." And he feels the disapproval of his friends when he defends faith: "Our lives are so similar, my friends and mine. The difference between us briefly flares—like the lamp in my bedroom—only when I publish a religious opinion."

Why, Rodriguez is asked so often, does a progressive, gay man remain within the Catholic Church—an institution that is assumed to be homophobic, anti-women, hierarchical, hypocritical, and generally on the wrong side of history (to use the currently popular phrase)? Rodriguez offers various answers to this question in these essays, including valuing the connection it makes for him to a community—one with a past and a future. Reciting the Lord's Prayer together, for example, "takes us out of ourselves and joins us to centuries of people who have gone before, centuries of people who will come after." And he adds, "This confraternity of strangers—the procession of the living with the dead—is the most important, most continuous confraternity in my life."

Rodriguez even embraces the supposedly damning accusation against his Catholic faith that its adherents only believe what they are told to believe. Of course they do, he replies (implying, "Who doesn't?"): "What is important to me is how important it is for me to be told what I believe. I could not, on my own, have come up with the two thousand years of argument that has formulated an evolving Christian theology." He sees valuing tradition as a corollary of valuing community. We believe together because none of us is wise or strong enough to believe alone.

This doesn't, of course, mean that Rodriguez does not evaluate what he is taught, and make decisions accordingly. Otherwise he would not oppose the Church's teachings on homosexuality and call them ignorant. This he does when he expresses most succinctly why he stays in the Church: "I stay in the Church because the Church is more than its ignorance; the Church gives me more than it denies me. I stay in the Church because it is mine." A good answer, I think, for all who find themselves disaffected with their fellow believers.

Many other subjects and themes come up in these essays—the thinness of the digital culture that abolishes the embodiment of place ("The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnection from body, from presence, from city"), death ("the approach of eternity is implacable"), the tenor of contemporary American spirituality (regarding the disappearance of sin and penance: "In secular America, the holistic mode of self-forgiveness, self-dispensed, prevails"), the decline of local newspapers ("who will tells us what it means to live as citizens of Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor?"), and much more. But I want to return to where I started: sensibility.

I don't much care if I agree with what Rodriguez says about any of the topics in this book, because I find greatly agreeable how he writes. I do not say that only style counts, not content. I say that excellent writing informs and shapes and profits me even when it comes to conclusions with which I disagree. Good writing will always give us insight into the human condition—things to chew on—even when it gives us something less than the full truth.

Furthermore, Rodriguez does not come to "conclusions," in the sense of coming to the end of a steel-trap argument. As an essayist of the highest kind, he is making an essay—an attempt—to cast light on some aspect of the human experience, leaving both writer and reader better for the attempt, even if it proves nothing.

And there is the simple enjoyment that comes from craft, from language used in accordance with T. S. Eliot's description at the end of "Little Gidding": mutually supportive words, old and new, precise but not pedantic, "The complete consort dancing together." In Rodriguez this dance results in phrases and sentences such as the following: "the forensics of hope"; "my brother and I became rumors to each other"; the "unfastidious merchants of Hollywood—the ham-fisted, the thick-fingered, the steak-minded"; regarding his speaking of saints and holiness: "I apologize for introducing radiant nouns"; and "their lives were drawn by Tolstoyan engines of history." The dance often extends to tour-de-force paragraphs too long to reproduce here. And from time to time they reveal a mordant irony and sense of dark humor, as in the following circumlocution regarding our fallibility in speaking for the Divine: "The motive of God who has penetrated time tempts us to imperfect conjecture." Imperfect conjecture indeed—imperfect in these essays, but imperfect everywhere.

Rodriguez thanks his editors for "permitting him a literary freedom appropriate to an age when words literally mattered," implying, as he suggests explicitly in some of the essays, that words matter much less to most people today than they should and once did. Sometimes, as in the title essay, "Darling," that freedom births a style that might be described as precious, bordering at times on camp (including addressing the reader directly, as a darling). Rodriguez uses now-familiar modernist techniques such as juxtaposition, suppression of transitions, allusiveness, and the like (see Ezra Pound's "ideogrammic method") that some will find hard to follow but which, as he says about his Church, give us more than they deny.

Collections of previously published pieces are often put forward under a rather misleading label, as if to disguise that what's being offered is a hodgepodge of sorts. Hence, in this case, the subtitle: "A Spiritual Autobiography." Well, yes and no. Do not expect any chronological or even extended account of Rodriguez's spiritual development. Do expect "spiritual" often to be used in the general sense of "the human spirit" and to be relevant more to his analysis of the contemporary ethos than to his own spiritual journey. But also expect frequent if scattered glimpses into how he thinks about his own life as a person of faith in a world of many faiths and no faith.

The theme that most clearly ties these essays together is human connectedness. Perhaps the summation of how Rodriguez thinks about many things can be found in what may be the only thing he actually insists on. He describes the gathering of believers at his church as follows:

The congregation does not believe one thing; we believe a multitude of hazy, crazy things. Some among us are smart; some serene; some feeble, poor, practical, guilt-ridden; some are lazy; some arrogant, rich, pious, prurient, bitter, injured, sad. We gather in belief of one big thing: that we matter somehow. We all matter. No one can matter unless all matter. We call that which gives matter God.

Those who insist on bright lines of definition won't be happy until Rodriguez explains more precisely what he means here by "God." Personally, I find the description fits my own church quite well, and I will not press him beyond the point an essayist-ruminator should be pressed.

Daniel Taylor calls himself "a Christian humanist with a fondness for the life of the mind, spiritual pilgrimage, and salty snacks." He is the author most recently of The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist (Bog Walk Press).

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