Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, No. 53 (Spring 2007), pp. 71-85
A Conversation with Scott Russell Sanders
Scott Russell Sanders was born in the South and spent his childhood in Tennessee and Ohio. Originally devoted to the study of science, Sanders turned to writing while at Brown University, graduating with a degree in English in 1967. He went on to earn his PhD in English from Cambridge University in 1971. Sanders has taught at Indiana University ever since, making his home in Bloomington and raising his family there. He has been recognized as an award-winning teacher and as one of the most important essayists writing in America, receiving fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Indiana Arts Commission, the Lilly Endowment, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Although primarily known as an essayist, Sanders has also written eight works of fiction and several children’s books. His many volumes of creative nonfiction include The Paradise of Bombs (1987), which won the Associated Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction, Staying Put (1993), which won the 1994 Ohioana Book Award in Nonfiction, Hunting for Hope (1998), The Force of Spirit (2000), and most recently A Private History of Awe (2006). The interview was conducted by Carolyn Perry and Wayne Zade.
Image: While your work has always contained some element of the spiritual, it seems that you took a definite turn in that direction beginning with Hunting for Hope. Do you agree? And how do you see your explanation of the spiritual—“the way of things” in Hunting—relating to your more recent books, The Force of Spirit and A Private History of Awe?
Scott Russell Sanders: Several impulses lay behind that shift. I wanted to come to terms with mortality—not only my own, which I had been brooding about since boyhood, but also that of my elders. My wife’s parents each went through a cruel whittling-down before their deaths, and then my mother suffered the same, and grieving over them as they wasted away led me to think more deeply about how we make sense of loss. This isn’t a scientific question; it’s an emotional and ethical question, which religions have always sought to address.
Another impulse behind the turn towards the spiritual was the desire to take stock of what I had learned thus far about the mystery of living. I was approaching fifty as I wrote Hunting for Hope, and I was nearing sixty as I wrote A Private History of Awe, large round numbers that provoked me to reflect on the path I had taken. After the hectic years of rearing children, making a home, and pursuing a career, I felt the need to center down, to focus on the deepest, oldest concerns.
I’ll mention a third motive for writing more directly about the spiritual, and that is my dismay over much of what is said these days in the name of religion. The most vocal forms of fundamentalism project a belligerent, intolerant quality wholly out of keeping with the Christianity in which I was reared. Rather than abandon the discussion of religion to the bullies and fanatics, I chose to have my own say.
Image: Anyone familiar with British Romanticism would hear echoes of Wordsworth in The Force of Spirit, and perhaps of other British and American Romantics, as well. Do you agree that the Romantic tradition has influenced your writing about the spiritual?
SRS: No doubt there’s a Wordsworthian streak in my writing, especially a kind of mysticism grounded in nature, a taste for country things, and an attraction to people who labor with their hands. I’ve been reading Wordsworth since high school, when an English teacher loaned me a collection of his poems. Of all the Romantics, Wordsworth is the most eloquent in writing about the spiritual energy at work in nature and in us. My own sense of that energy runs through all of my work, especially The Force of Spirit and A Private History of Awe. As for the American Romantics, those I feel closest to are Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau—the latter two not as poets but as essayists. Thoreau’s earthy, sensual form of transcendentalism appeals to me more deeply than Emerson’s disembodied idealism. Whitman traces spirit not only through the natural world, but also through our flesh, our work, our entire range of social activities. He sees humans as capable of manifesting holiness in our humblest acts. The Force of Spirit was supposed to have carried the subtitle “In Search of the Sacred in Everyday Life,” but the publisher inadvertently left it off. That subtitle might have been useful to readers, as a reminder that the energy I seek is present not only in nature, but also, at least potentially, in every moment and every act. Like the Romantics and Transcendentalists, I believe human imagination and compassion are expressions of the same creative power that flows through the natural world.
Image: The Force of Spirit ends with a chapter on silence. In your writing, you often express your attraction to the Quaker tradition and to the discipline of silence. Could you explain what silence and solitude mean to you? How are they important to spiritual existence?
SRS: I have been interested in the Quakers since I began investigating conscientious objection during the Vietnam War when I was a graduate student in England. At the heart of Quakerism is the practice of silent meditation, both in solitude and in groups. Traditional Quaker worship is in fact a kind of group mysticism, a seeking together for insight into the nature of things. From my first contact with Quakers, I sensed in them a radiant peacefulness, kindness, and integrity that I found deeply moving. Instead of trying to impose their views, they asked questions, they listened, and they did so with great patience and wisdom. I came to realize that these qualities were nurtured by their practice of meditation, and so I began my own erratic practice. It remains erratic, despite my vows to pursue it faithfully. Over the past twenty years or so, Buddhism has also become important to me as a guide to the practice of meditation and the search for wholeness. I feel less in need of solitude than of silence. As a writer, I spend most of my waking hours alone. But that solitude is filled with language—the words I’ve read, the words I conjure up or set down. By contrast, meditation quiets this inner chatter, allows me to hear voices other than my own, allows me to center down and really pay attention to where I am and what is going on. In our noisy culture, as in our classrooms, we often regard silence as a sign of boredom or indifference. And of course it may be that. But it may also be a sign of deeper engagement.
Image: In your notes to A Private History, most of your references are to the Bible. You refer warmly to the cadences of the language of the Bible, particularly in the King James Version, as a literary influence. Yet the Bible seems to guide you in other ineffable ways. Could you comment on those other ways?
SRS: The Bible is a great library of tales, songs, images, and instructions, and for me it’s a very resonant library, because I began taking it in when I was quite young. From childhood on, I read and reread this bewildering book, heard it cited in sermons, heard it quoted over the supper table or paraphrased in hymns, so that the rhythms and stories go very deep in me. I’m grateful for that. In A Private History of Awe I tried to give a fair accounting of how much I owe to this tradition. I’ve also tried to acknowledge how deeply Christian I am, in spite of my having let go many of the beliefs that I now regard as mythic—the six-day creation, heaven and hell, the virgin birth, the walking on water, the bodily resurrection, and the claim that Jesus is God incarnate. Those are, for conventional Christians, core beliefs, which I no longer share. But my sense of how I should lead my life, the ethical vision that shapes my response to war and poverty and inequity and racism—that I learned from the Bible, in particular from the Hebrew prophets and the teachings of Jesus. I was instructed, as well, by my parents and by the preachers and Sunday school teachers whom I encountered in country Methodist churches. I feel certain I could have learned very much the same values had I been reared a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Hopi, or a Navajo. But I learned them through Christianity. So in that sense my whole ethical framework is Christian, even though my philosophy and cosmology are at odds with conventional Christianity.
Image: In The Force of Spirit, you claim that the Spirit must be honored, and you suggest in both Force and Private History that the Spirit is honored in the way we treat the natural world and each other, as well as in how we use the gifts we have been given.
SRS: Part of what I took in from my religious upbringing was the understanding that talents are gifts that come to us by birth rather than by any virtue of our own, and that we have a responsibility to use these gifts for the benefit of others. One person might have a talent for music, another for visual art, another for storytelling, another for mathematics or mechanics. The Lakota holy man Black Elk said that gifts are never meant for the individual but for the tribe; a vision, a song, a healing touch, or any other such blessing takes on meaning, for the Lakota, only when it is danced before the people, only when it is shared. Publishing a book is a way of dancing before the people. The making of poems or stories or essays is a way of giving back to the world something of what you have received from your life experience, a way of sharing your verbal gifts.
Image: Like much of your writing, A Private History is distinguished by a sense of detail that we often associate with poetry, your first literary ambition, as you explain in the book. Do you feel that your prose comes from the same place as your poems did? How does this place relate to awe?
SRS: Since childhood, I’ve been attracted by the musical quality of language, the sound of individual words and the rhythm of lines and sentences. To this day I write very slowly because a sentence has to sound right to me before I’m willing to type it onto a screen. My revising process involves going over and over the prose, listening to it, seeking vigor and precision and rhythmic pleasure. So I would point to a fascination with the music of language as the common ground between my early poetry and my later prose. Attention to sound is bound up, for me, with a regard for silence. The pauses between words or sentences or paragraphs, the white space surrounding the inky trail of letters, these are what give shape to the music. Sound is married to silence. And one shouldn’t interrupt silence unless one has something beautiful or meaningful to say. A sense of awe also runs through all of my writing, from the feverish poems I wrote in college to the fiction and essays of recent years. This word names a complex emotional response to what is both wonderful and terrifying in our existence. I’ve adapted the Quaker notion of spiritual openings to describe those moments of awe. Often in my writing I’m seeking to make a home for such openings. For instance, I had a powerful encounter with my father, some years after his death, in the form of a red-tailed hawk. I carried that memory around for several more years before I fashioned a container to hold it, in the form of an essay called “Buckeye.”
Image: Do you think of A Private History as a spiritual autobiography, in the tradition of Augustine, Schweitzer, or Merton? If so, what spiritual autobiographers do you most closely identify with? Which ones helped shape this book?
SRS: I do think of it as a spiritual autobiography. I don’t pretend to compare myself with Merton or Augustine, but I have certainly learned from them. I would also mention Thoreau in Walden, Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Peter Matthiessen in The Snow Leopard—writers who tell you less about their lives than about their search for understanding. The Quakers have a tradition of writing spiritual autobiographies, as a way of recording and clarifying their deepest experiences. Usually they don’t publish these autobiographies, but share them with family and friends. One exception is John Woolman, an eighteenth-century Quaker whose published journals, manifesto against slavery, and plea for the poor have been inspiring to me. The people who write the most ballyhooed autobiographies and memoirs in America today tend to be celebrities or people who’ve led colorful lives. They’re actors, generals, sports heroes, or politicians; they’ve been prisoners of war or drug addicts or frostbitten mountain climbers. Their claim to our attention is based on fame or scandal or sensation. Well, my life is neither sensational nor celebrated. So if A Private History of Awe holds any interest for readers, it’s because of the understanding that has come to me through reflecting on an ordinary life.
Image: A Private History is a book that we can sense fitting together throughout. More specifically, elements that we might see as opposites—the decline of your mother’s life and the beginnings of your granddaughter’s—seem to flow naturally in and out of one another. Did you consciously create this sense of motion?
SRS: The subplot concerning my mother’s decline and my granddaughter’s ascent was not in my original scheme for the book. But as I wrote the early chapters in the coming-of-age narrative, I was spending hours every week caring for my mother, aching over her cruel diminishment, and hours caring for my granddaughter, exulting in her growth. They were such potent emotional facts in my life that I soon realized they must become part of the story. So the mother who is dwindling toward death in the present-tense narrative contrasts with the young, feisty, capable mother in the past-tense narrative. The granddaughter is a reminder of the constant upwelling of new life, even as loved ones perish. With the baby in the book, I was able to depict all the stages in life, from birth to death. I was able to write about the never-ceasing human flow, generation to generation.
I often find myself struggling to reconcile opposites. I wrote Staying Put because I’m restless. Friends kid me about traveling all over the country and urging people to stay put. I am committed to place, to marriage, to work, but at the same time, I travel frequently. So there’s a tension between my desire to be still and my desire to roam, as there is a tension between my love of silence and my love of words. In Hunting for Hope, I sought to acknowledge grief over the enormous damage we do to one another and to the earth, while upholding our capacity to live in a more loving and peaceful way. So the tension is between despair and hope. I can’t forget the suffering, yet I refuse to accept it as inevitable. As long as I keep wrestling with opposites, there’s the possibility of new insights arising. If I ever felt there were no more contradictions to cope with, that would be a sign to me I had somehow lost my way.
Image: A Private History begins with your early childhood memory and concludes with recollections of the births of your daughter and granddaughter. How do these passages fit together?
SRS: There’s a rhyming of events that helps give structure to the narrative. From my earliest conception of the book, I knew it would open with the scene of my father cradling me on the porch of our farmhouse in Tennessee during a thunderstorm, and I knew it would close with my holding two babies during Indiana thunderstorms, first my own daughter as a newborn and then, thirty years later, my daughter’s daughter. Those scenes dramatize the way we pass on our affections and knowledge, as well as our genes, through the generations. What my father conveyed to me, and I conveyed to my daughter and granddaughter, is not a formal lesson, but a sense of how to be in the world—how to feel about storms, about earth’s wild energies, about death. So I wanted those events to frame the book as a form of narrative rhyming, but also as an evocation of the intangible lessons that are passed on, willy-nilly, from parent to child. Also, the birth of my daughter seemed the right point at which to end the book. When I became a father, and my wife became a mother, we also became adults in a new way. I’m not saying that people who have no children aren’t adults, but only that becoming a parent marks a passage into a new and sobering responsibility. Even when my mother was suffering from dementia and could hardly speak, she kept trying to take care of me. “You look tired,” she’d say, or “You’re too thin. Sleep more. Eat.” In her late eighties, she had lost the ability to care for herself, yet she still tried to be a mother to me. I’m sure I’ll feel like a father toward my daughter and son as long as I can feel anything. So ending the narrative with the birth of my first child was a way of emphasizing the importance of that transition for my coming of age.
Image: You also suggest an underlying structure for the book by naming the four parts “Fire,” “Air,” “Water,” and “Earth.” Why did you use that scheme?
SRS: The scheme emerged in the process of writing the first draft, as I realized how often these elements kept appearing in the narrative. I didn’t add references to fire, air, water, or earth in their respective sections, as a way of reinforcing the pattern, but simply recognized what my imagination and memory had already generated. I’ve long been fascinated by the ancient notion that everything in the world is made up of a few elements, going through endless permutations. I included an essay about it in Writing from the Center, for example. Among the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Persians, and other civilizations, this idea held sway for some two thousand years. Even today, physics has only changed the names of the fundamental entities—calling them quarks, strings, gluons, and so forth—but it still holds to the idea that the universe is a continuous flow. This view of reality as a constant rising and passing away of forms seems to me the most accurate one we have, and it’s the only one that enables me to make sense of the cycles of human life. Put over-simply, the opening section is called “Fire” as a way of pointing to the primal energy that radiates through all things; the second part is called “Air” to emphasize the dreams of flight into space and the swift development of mind; part three is called “Water” to mark the transformative effects of the journey across the ocean to England and, four years later, the journey back; and the final part is called “Earth” because it is about finding a home and settling down on this magnificent planet.
Image: Your definition or explanation of awe emerges slowly in this book, rather like the way a theme emerges in a novel. Did you feel as if you were plotting the book as you wrote it?
SRS: I wrote the book in part to discover why certain powerful experiences haunt me, and what they might reveal about the way of things. I wanted to explore those moments that seem to yield a glimpse of something fundamental about the universe and about this mysterious life we lead. The word I lit upon to name the emotion roused by these revelatory moments was “awe,” which I describe in the prologue as a two-sided emotion—wonder coupled with terror, amazement with dread. The rest of the book is a working out of what that word means in the context of a particular life.
Image: A quick look at A Private History suggests that the book is primarily intended to be inspirational, focused on those transcendent moments human beings experience when they connect with a divine force. Yet so many pages are filled with pain, as you confront experiences and topics that have been and are painful for you—particularly aspects of what you call the shame of your early family life, involving the effects of your father’s alcoholism. Is this tension actually creative for you?
SRS: It can be energizing to confront what is troubling in one’s life—my father’s alcoholism, for example, or my mother’s dementia—so long as one remembers that others have suffered much greater troubles. I don’t see myself as being any sort of victim. The truth is, I have been greatly blessed. There is a lot of pain in the book just because there is a lot of pain in the world—the loss of loved ones, the loss of a place, the failure to live up to one’s dreams, the sting of racism, the upheaval of war. The story of Job in the Hebrew Bible poignantly admits the incomprehensibility of pain. Why is it that everything born must die? Why is there illness? Why do the innocent suffer? The Buddha taught that suffering is fundamental to living. It is the price of admission. On the other hand, once granted admission, very few people are eager to leave, and that’s because life is filled with more than pain; it is also filled with desire, discovery, dreams, and joy. A friend told me the other day he’d had a tough time reading the opening chapters of A Private History of Awe because they evoked so many harsh memories from his own childhood, but he said that once my wife, Ruth, entered the narrative, she was like a ray of light, because he felt certain that love for her would redeem the narrator. Later on, when I told Ruth, she laughed. But it’s true—my love for her has proved to be an antidote to pain. As I say in the book, the writing of hundreds of letters to Ruth during our courtship, when we lived a thousand miles apart, was my real apprenticeship to this craft I’m still pursuing. My work as a writer and teacher has been fraught with the normal frustrations, but overall it has allowed me to earn a living by doing what I love, and that is a great privilege. Likewise, becoming a husband, a father, and, more recently, a grandfather has been a source of the usual frictions but more importantly a source of delight.
Image: In A Private History, do you see your role as a writer as dual—part social critic, part prophet or seer? If so, do you feel a need to negotiate the roles? Are you seeking a balance?
SRS: I’m aware that I have a strong didactic impulse. I try to rein it in, but I don’t always succeed. Some readers have complained about a preachiness in my writing, and I sympathize. But I can’t hide my feelings of indignation, grief, and anger about the suffering we humans impose on one another, on other creatures, and on the earth. My dismay at the American cult of violence runs right through A Private History of Awe, as it runs through my life. Similarly, I couldn’t avoid writing about the Civil Rights movement, because awareness of racism cuts through my life like a wound. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t write about my social concerns, but I try not to suggest that I know how to cure us of these ailments, or that I am entirely free of them myself.
A Private History of Awe traces the formation of one person’s conscience, not because I hold myself up as a model that other people should emulate, but simply because everyone has a conscience that has been shaped by family and friends, by reading, by school, by church or synagogue or mosque, by events in the greater world, and by other influences. In writing about my formation, I wanted to invite readers to consider how they acquired their own deepest values and concerns. I wanted them to think about how they came to love what they love, because, in the long run, we only take care of what we love.
Conscience gives us the capacity to think and act differently from our peers. Lately, we’ve heard about the soldiers who joined in torturing prisoners in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay. We don’t hear much about the soldiers who refused to play along—and those are the ones who fascinate me. I want to know what gave them the strength to resist the tremendous pressure to conform, to say, “No, that’s wrong. I won’t do it.” I don’t regard myself as a prophet or seer, someone granted clairvoyant understanding, but in recent years I have come to see myself as an elder. This is not a role one seeks, nor does it come automatically with age; it is a role one is given by others, as they ask for guidance and consolation. An elder must tell the truth about what’s amiss in a society. “You know,” the elder says, “this torturing of prisoners, this bombing of civilians, this unsettling of the climate, this extinguishing of creatures is not only wrong, but also unwise; it will cause trouble for us, and for those who come after us.” While warning of dangers and injustices, the elder must also keep witnessing to the sources of healing and renewal. I feel, now, the responsibility to pass on what I have learned, to say what I believe to be true, no matter how imperfect my wisdom. I feel the call to help younger people find their way, just as many elders have helped me, elders met in books as well as those met in the flesh. Some of my own most important teachers I met only briefly—as in the encounters with Father Daniel Berrigan and Martin Luther King Jr. I tell about in A Private History of Awe. Dr. King galvanized my conscience at a crucial time in my development. Becoming an elder means, among other things, I can never give in to despair, because I owe to my children, my students, my readers, and all those who come after me a sense that there is always good work to be done.
Image: The new book reveals a palpable sense of the years it covers, particularly the Vietnam War years. Were September 11 and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq vivid to you in the same horrific ways that the war in southeast Asia was, and did these later events prompt you to write the new book? Or are they part of a larger mix?
SRS: Yes, the so-called war on terrorism and the war in Iraq were major factors behind the writing of this book. I was and am distraught over the way the terrible events of September 11 have been used to justify further militarization of America. I came of age during the Vietnam War, and I wanted to believe we had learned from that tragedy the futility of trying to impose our will with bombs and troops. But here came the Bush administration, hardly any of whom had served in the armed forces, and they wanted to reassert American military might, intimidate their enemies, seize control of oil, and use fear to maintain political power. So they invaded Iraq on flimsy pretenses. I began writing A Private History of Awe in the months leading up to the invasion, and I completed it in the third year of the occupation, when Iraq was falling into chaos. The whole adventure has proven to be a diplomatic, military, and economic disaster, and yet those who launched it still brag about their resolve. In Awe, I recalled my formative encounters with militarism, from GI Joe comic books and World War II movies, to headlines about the testing of nuclear weapons, to my years of living inside an army munitions plant, to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. I was trying to understand why violence is so seductive to Americans, especially to those, whether Democrat or Republican, who occupy Capitol Hill. I was also retracing my reasons for abandoning the study of physics during college, because of the way research had become tied to Pentagon funding, and my reasons for becoming a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. All the time I was writing I felt a profound grief over the harm we cause through our bombs and bullets and prisons, through our tax money, through our government policies, the harm to our own soldiers, to civilians in Iraq and elsewhere, and to future generations of Americans through the building up of debt and ill-will. Our great-grandchildren will still be paying for this folly.
Image: The Vietnam years overlapped with the years of the sexual revolution in America and elsewhere. At one point, you refer to your brother Glenn possibly having hitchhiked to California, “that nirvana of free love.” You write extensively in the book about marital love and sexual fidelity in marriage, and you connect them deeply with your sense of awe in life. What about the opposites—the high U.S. divorce rate, one-night stands or shacking up, risk of STDs? Is it the commercialization or the glamorization of sex in our culture that drives people to promiscuity? Or, again, are these things part of a larger deleterious cultural mix?
SRS: I don’t know that our society is more promiscuous than previous ones— probably the ancient Romans outdid us, for example—but we’ve outdone everyone else in harnessing sex to commerce. We use sex to sell everything— clothes, cars, movies, music, you name it. Young people suffer especially from this barrage of erotic imagery, which encourages them to experiment with sex before they’re mature enough to handle the consequences. Likewise, the divorce rate in the United States is worrisome mainly because of the hardship suffered by children when their parents break up. I realize that some marriages are better off dissolved, because they inflict so much pain on the partners, yet even the most amicable of divorces send out ripples of pain among family and friends. No doubt promiscuity contributes to divorce, but I suspect that mobility also plays a part. If a couple, with or without children, keeps moving around, chasing jobs and dollars and glamour, lacking any sustained relationship to community or place, they’re much more vulnerable to break-up.
Although I came of age during the sexual revolution, I mainly watched from the sidelines. I never made love until my wedding night, and I’ve had one and only one sexual partner in all my life. I don’t say this to make myself out as virtuous or chaste; it’s simply a fact, and a curious one in our liberated age. During the years before marriage when Ruth and I might have experimented with sex, we were going to college a thousand miles apart. We saw one another in person only once or twice a year, and always in the company of vigilant parents. We also believed, and still believe, that sex offers a sacred bond between lovers, and that it should never be indulged lightly. It’s not recreation; it’s a great power. At its best, sex gives a taste of communion that is akin to awe. Like awe, it’s two-sided, wonderful and terrifying. We don’t choose to become sexual creatures, nor do we choose to be attracted to this or that person; it simply happens to us, like weather or ecstasy or death. It’s through sex that we bring new life into the world, and every new living thing must eventually die. And so sex gives us an intimation of the ultimate ground of things that I sought to plumb in the pages of Awe.
Image: A Private History is a deeply spiritual book, yet it questions the preaching and the practices of various churches and seems to reside most comfortably in the experience of the Quakers. Many of the hot-button social and political issues in America today seem driven by the religious right. Did you, in a sense, see this coming during your formative years? Are these religious forces here to stay for a while now? Might there be a change in direction?
SRS: I did not foresee the rise of the religious right. I grew up among rural Methodists who were open minded, not the least bit fanatical. They didn’t try to force their views on other people. I don’t know how much of this had to do with their being Midwesterners, how much with their being country people, how much with their being Methodists, but for whatever reason, they were tolerant and undogmatic. And then I discovered the Quakers, who possessed these qualities to an even greater degree. Although the Quakers of my acquaintance have tended to be kindly and compassionate, that hasn’t made them passive. They can be strong and determined in their service to justice and peace. As I said earlier, I was prompted to write A Private History of Awe in part by my concern about the increasing influence of religious fundamentalists in America. I knew it would be risky to deal in religious questions without having an orthodox creed to offer. But I wasn’t willing to abandon the public arena to true believers. I wanted to offer my own view of the Bible and Christianity, my own ethical vision, as a counterweight to the aggressive moralizers of the far right.
As I was growing up and learning the amazing story of evolution, I would not have foreseen that in the twenty-first century we’d still be fighting about the teaching of creationism in schools; I would not have foreseen that eighty years after the Scopes trial roughly half of the American population would believe that the universe is some six thousand years old and that humans were created from scratch in our present form. I would not have believed that a man who reads the Bible as literal truth could become president. So I could not have predicted the rise of the religious right, and I’m not about to predict that they’ll disappear any time soon. I believe that all versions of religious fundamentalism—Christian, Muslim, Jewish—are responses to a dizzying rate of cultural change. The global media are spreading over the planet imagery and values—materialism, gleeful violence, recreational sex, hostility to nature, scorn for the past—that are at odds with most religious traditions. People alarmed by these corrosive influences may retreat to a core of unquestioned beliefs, a kind of moral fortress, from which they can defend themselves and their fellow believers from this poisonous modernity. It’s ironic that the right-wing religious community in the United States has allied itself with the most aggressive proponents of free-market capitalism, which is eroding practically every value that has been sacred to Christians. If American fundamentalists really thought through what was threatening their families, their communities, and the holy creation, they would take on global capitalism, instead of allying themselves with it. Muslim fundamentalists, by contrast, understand that the triumph of the free market is subverting everything their religion has taught them about the meaning and conduct of life.
Image: You choose to advocate a spirituality untethered to particular religious traditions—or at least you feel that you cannot find a home in one of these traditions. Why is that and is there a danger that what you say may end up being too nebulous and private for your readers to connect to?
SRS: You’re really asking whether vision can be passed on outside of social institutions. I believe it can be, but I also recognize the difficulties. I’m aware that my ethical vision is the result of many years of schooling, reading books, traveling, reflecting, and writing. Few people enjoy such opportunities. People who work two jobs, say, who may not have the leisure to read or ponder, who may not even be literate, will need something other than a book to guide them. I understand why many people need institutions—churches, synagogues, mosques, sanghas—to provide them with a ready-made creed, a set of practices, a code of behavior, and leaders to answer the age-old questions. For me, however, no institutional home has been consistently nourishing. Certainly I love Quaker silent meditation, I love Methodist hymn-singing, I love the preaching in many African-American churches, and I love elements of Catholic and Episcopal liturgy. I’m attracted by aspects of Zen Buddhism, by the spiritual practices of many Native American peoples, and, most recently, by the liberal religious atmosphere of Unitarianism. But I have never found an all-embracing community to which I can give myself wholeheartedly. No community is perfect, of course. But my chief problem with organized religion is that it devotes so much of its energy to defending and sustaining the institution itself—the buildings, programs, clergy, and creeds. Instead of turning outward to serve the world’s needs, too many churches aim at enlarging and perpetuating themselves. Religious institutions have also caused, and are causing, a great deal of damage. I’m thinking not only of the crusades, pogroms, and inquisitions carried out in the name of Christ, or the jihads being carried on today in the name of Allah. I’m thinking of religious wars, of missionary efforts to convert the heathen, of exhortations to increase and multiply, of collaborations with dictators and plutocrats and racists. Missionaries may create schools and hospitals, but they also undermine traditional cultures. For all the good it has done around the world, the Roman Catholic Church has also caused untold suffering through its opposition to effective methods of birth control. Religious leaders, wanting to ingratiate themselves with the powers that be, have too often been silent in the face of inequity, segregation, genocide, and war. Think how so many evangelicals in America vilify homosexuality while ignoring poverty. I don’t hold that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or any other religion is discredited by such abuses. But I do feel that religious institutions tend to lose touch with the visions that inspired them, and become obsessed with preserving and enlarging their own power. The clear limitation of my approach to spirituality is that it’s not easily transmittable. You can’t share it with neighbors at the ten o’clock service, can’t pass it down to your children, can’t use it to rally a movement. I’m a seeker rather than an embracer of certainties, and seeking can be exhausting and bewildering. Most people don’t have the patience or stomach for it, and so they accept some prefabricated set of beliefs. But I suspect that many people share my religious questioning. The correspondence I’ve received since publication of Awe would suggest this is so. Certainly we all need communities where we might worship together, learn together, take care of one another. We need companionship on this difficult journey, and we need a place for sharing what we’ve learned with the young people coming along.
Image: Do you have a sense of where you will head in your writing from here? For example, with the arrival of a grandchild, do you plan to return to writing children’s books? Do you see yourself returning to fiction at some point? Or do you have still more personal stories to weave into nonfiction?
SRS: I’m at a point of major transition in my writing. A Private History of Awe is in many ways a summation of stories and insights that I’ve been exploring through personal essays for twenty years. While I will continue to draw on my experience, for now I’m finished writing about my own life. I’m ready to explore other territory, either by going out to research new books through interviews and observations, or by returning to fiction. One of the nonfiction projects I have in mind derives from an essay I wrote a few years ago called “Building Arks,” versions of which have been published in Resurgence and Wild Earth. I’m interested in the way that people alarmed by the prospect of ecological, economic, and political breakdown are creating refuges, small-scale alternatives, which are like vessels for preserving things vital to our survival. So I invoke the biblical story of the flood, which tells how, in a time of cataclysm, Noah builds an ark to preserve samples of all species on earth, so that when the waters recede, the abundance of life can be restored. Clearly, we live in a time of cataclysm—burgeoning human population, species extinction, climate disruption, resource exhaustion, shortages of fresh water, nuclear proliferation, epidemic disease, terrorism, and war. In such a time, one has to ask: What are the creatures and tools, the places and ideas, the values and skills that must be preserved, and how can we preserve them? There are a lot of imaginative people all over the world who’ve asked themselves this question and are working on answers. They are creating seed banks, land trusts, organic farms, food co-ops, straw-bale houses, solar cars, urban community gardens, tool-sharing collectives, micro-lending banks, and countless other vessels; they’re restoring prairies and forests, cleaning up rivers, founding communes, harnessing wind and sun, all in an effort to carry through hard times those things that humans will need for the long haul. To write such a book would require me to spend a great deal of time on the road, talking with people, observing places and institutions. Until I retire from teaching, three years hence, I won’t be able to afford the time or travel required, but that is the nonfiction project I’m attracted by now.
In the near future, what I’d most like to write is
a novel. I began as a writer of fiction, never planning to become an essayist,
and now I would like to try my hand at it again, if only to see how I
might apply, in fiction, my experience with nonfiction. I’ve been
making notes for a novel that’s intimately linked to the “Building
Arks” project, about an imaginary commune secreted away on private
land encircled by the Hoosier National Forest, in the hardwood hill country
of southern Indiana. Of course such an experiment would be beset by problems,
not the least of them the accusation of being involved in marijuana-growing
and eco-vandalism. The story would be narrated by one of the founders,
an irascible and irreverent carpenter, part visionary and part crackpot.
His voice, and the countervailing voices of his wife, children, communal
neighbors, hostile authorities, and mainstream opponents would provide
me with a polyphonic chorus for raising questions that have obsessed me
since I first realized, in my twenties, that our vaunted American way
of life is doomed. Writing such a novel, set here in my home region with
characters I’m free to invent, would spare me the need to travel,
and give me an excuse to tramp the woods, dreaming of a more durable way
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