Riding the Seesaw of Faith and Reason
Public Affairs Television/Robin Holland
By Will Joyner
Thank goodness “retirement” is a relative term for Bill Moyers. No television professional of the last 35 years has done a better job of bringing the serious discussion of large ideas to an American viewing public—that is, the viewing public that still takes the time to tune in to public TV. And no television professional in the last several years has been treated more unjustly upon departing from regular duty—in this case, from the weekly pbs program “Now,” as ideological misinformation and derision threatened to drown out what should have been loud, widespread acclaim.
But Kenneth Tomlinson, the shrill conservative who seemed to wage an officially sanctioned vendetta against Moyers in 2005, is long gone from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in some disgrace. And with Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason, a six-part series of conversations with prominent and almost-prominent writers, Moyers has returned to providing a kind of deeply thought-out programming so scarce these days that it’s, sadly, almost quaint.
In fact, Faith and Reason couldn’t be more timely, vital, even jarring. Last April, the novelist Salman Rushdie, about to finish a term as president of the PEN American Center, convened a conference of more than 100 writers in New York City to talk about the tensions between faith and reason—understandably a topic of perpetual concern for someone who spent almost 10 years of his life hiding from Islamist assassins, after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa because of the content of the 1988 novel The Satanic Verses.
Bill Moyers: “In a world where religion is poison to some and salvation to others, how do we live together?”
Moyers and his production crew took the opportunity to select 12 writers from the PEN conference to interview individually as the attendant issues percolated just beyond the studio’s walls. Although the 12 interviews vary in coherence, the overall project ended up being a perfect one for Moyers, whose prime calling in recent years has been not to advance a “liberal agenda”—as Tomlinson accused him of—but to prove that people of widely divergent points of view do not need to be defined, or isolated from one another, by the dumbing-down of ideology.
“I’ll wager that most of us don’t live such polarized, one-sided lives,” Moyers says in his introduction to the series’ first segment, which features Rushdie himself. “The people I know seem to move back and forth in the twilight of the mind where doubt and belief stroll together like old lovers, often estranged, now reconciled, trying to carry on a respectful, intimate conversation in the hope of getting to know each other just a little bit better.”
The 12 interviews, which were broadcast in July but can be viewed in full and at no cost online at www.pbs.org, fall roughly into two categories. The first category includes writers who—especially since September 11, 2001, but in Rushdie’s case much longer—have been critical regarding how strident, blindered religious belief so often threatens individual freedom of expression, or how a deep spiritual life so often alienates an intellectual from his or her worldly working milieu. The second category includes writers who have recently retold classical myths or biblical stories as a way to revive those tales and help gain from them a more modern type of insight.
While there are wonderful moments of observation from participants in the second category—especially the British novelist Jeanette Winterson (in regard to Atlas), the Israeli writer David Grossman (Samson), and the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood (Odysseus and Penelope)—and much comment from them on belief systems in relation to our own tumultuous times, I found myself thinking that these particular interviews should have been held for a second season. Given the urgency of the central topic as presented by Moyers and Rushdie, I was most captivated by the writers in the first category, who have been explicitly, and personally, grappling with the “faith and reason” barometer in regard to issues such as stem-cell research, abortion rights, global warming, and, of course, war and global terrorism, especially through the misuse of Islam.
In the first segment, Moyers asks Rush-die why he had invited only creative writers to the PEN conference, and not scholars, journalists, government officials, and religious leaders. “Largely for the reason that we are dreaming creatures,” Rushdie replies, “and I wanted imaginative acts of response . . . . I think that’s what writers can offer better than journalists, better than philosophers: they can use their imaginations to look at the world.”
It is indeed refreshing, and sometimes startling, to listen to reflections on these difficult issues from people who do not reside primarily inside the politically correct confines of American academia, or in the politically out-of-whack meta-atmosphere of Washington point-counterpoint. The American novelist Mary Gordon, still a practicing, believing Roman Catholic, for example, is able to spot a potential for belief-motivated violence within her own psyche. “We live in a very stupid, banal, gross, greedy, and rather disgusting culture,” she says, referring to her urge to run people in Hummers off the road. But she quickly follows with a simple, powerful, religious explanation of why she would never follow through on her strange mental image: “Every human being is of enormous value. Every human being is sacred.”
And the British novelist Martin Amis, who earlier this year tried to get into the mind of one of the leaders of the 9/11 attacks in the short story “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta,” is engagingly blunt in an assessment of Islam, even while making careful distinctions between its mis-use and its peaceful practice by the great majority of its adherents. “There’s no getting away from the fact it’s a tremendously severe religion,” he says. “Islam is nothing without its severity.”
The spirit that predominates in Faith and Reason, however, is a more humble one best exemplified by the American essayist Richard Rodriguez, a lifelong Roman Catholic who had just experienced the power of prayer in a new way as he unexpectedly recovered from renal cancer. Asked whether prayer betrays rea-son, Rodriguez gives the following reply: “No. I’m acknowledging that reason has only some functions in my life and not others. Reason has a sister. She’s very beautiful, but she has a very ugly name. Her name is unreason, and she’s a friend of writers . . . . And to love unreason is to trust intuition, is to trust the transcendental, to trust the essential mystery of life—is to trust, also, that emotional part of our life that is not reasonable, for example, love. Love is not reasonable. Love defies reason.”
In this sequence alone, and many others like it throughout “Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason,” there’s more that’s pertinent to navigating our complex, everyday, issue-laden days than a TV viewer will find in a year of Sunday-morning news analysis shows.
Will Joyner is editor of the Bulletin.