Quips and Quotes: Writing Faith

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Editor's Note: As students, many of us fail to take advantage of one of the biggest perks of being at a university: all those lectures. You may not be able to pop by DeBart 101 every week to listen to experts opine about cell biology or geopolitics, but, in this new series, we're bringing the lecture hall to you. Our editors will scour the campus for one presentation per week to attend and share with our readers, reporting back with a quote and a few highlights from the latest event in the life of the mind. 


“If you are deeply committed to what you and other people find most beautiful in [religion], and you’re loyal to that, then you’re doing something that the civilization yearns to have you do.”


These closing words of “Writing Faith,” Marilynne Robinson’s 75-minute open conversation with Notre Dame faculty and students on Wednesday, September 19, might have been a broad-brush statement of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist’s artistic vision. In fact, it was part of Robinson’s response to a “pretty newly ordained” and candid Catholic priest, who sought “a word of encouragement” from the Calvinist writer at a time of widespread discouragement in his church, and who asked: “How do we give imagination and hope to our world, to our faith?”


Robinson’s best-known work, Gilead, written as a letter from an elderly Congregationalist minister to his young son, might serve as a protracted answer to that very question.


The writer’s appearance in the Duncan Student Center kicked off the 2018-19 edition of the Notre Dame Forum, a series of lectures and events that will contemplate the “Catholic artistic heritage” throughout the year. Extensive familiarity with Robinson’s three other novels, as well as with her nonfiction writing, underlay questions for the silver-haired storyteller posed mostly by students, suggesting she may be one of the most widely read authors on campus.


Robinson’s main interlocutor, Susannah Monta, associate professor of English and authority on Reformation-era literary culture (think John Donne, Shakespeare and the even-earlier pages of your Norton Anthology), deftly steered her guest from one wellspring of sound-bite-defying wisdom to the next. Robinson first hit resonant notes on topics from writing as a vocation, the lost habits of thought and solitude, and the value of “individualism” understood not as “selfishness” but as responsiveness to God and to one’s conscience; she then visited our human craving for beauty, the false opposition of science and religion, and the meaning of manhood in the #MeToo era.


Thematic throughout was Robinson’s view of human beings not as aggregations of sociological identity categories — woman, white, upper-middle-class — but as “highly distinctive emotional ecologies” attentive to “the sort of music that’s continuously present in your own mind, of memory and dream, questioning, and all the rest of it.


“We are mysterious creatures moving through a world of mysterious creatures on our way somewhere, toward greater or lesser understanding of what actually matters in the world,” she said.


John Nagy is managing editor of this magazine.