Impressions of Eternity
Lawrence Joseph January 28, 2008 - 11:32am
Do You Believe?
Conversations on God and Religion
by Antonio Monda, translated by Ann Goldstein
Vintage, $12.95, 178 pp.
In an essay titled “Monda’s World” in the July 29 edition of the New York Times Book Review, Rachel Donadio introduced “arguably the most well-connected New York cultural figure you’ve never heard of.” Antonio Monda: forty-six years old; Italian; a resident of New York City since 1994; author; film and literary critic; award-winning filmmaker and curator; artistic director of Le Conversazioni, a festival of prominent Anglophone fiction writers held annually on the island of Capri; professor of film and television studies at New York University. Antonio Monda, Donadio announced, is “a one-man Italian cultural institute.” He is also “a practicing Catholic,” Donadio noted in passing, “who sends his three children to parochial school.”
Do You Believe? (originally published in Italy as Tu Credi? in 2006) consists of an introductory essay by Monda followed by conversations with some of America’s most prominent cultural and artistic figures. Monda speaks with writers Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, Elie Wiesel, Grace Paley, Derek Wolcott, Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster, Jonathan Franzen, Richard Ford, Michael Cunningham, Paula Fox, and Nathan Englander; actress Jane Fonda; filmmakers Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and David Lynch; architect Daniel Libeskind; and historian Arthur Scheslinger Jr. Deeply moving, Do You Believe? is a truly compelling book, bound to become a classic.
In his introduction, Monda notes that religion “obviously has played a central role in the important and often dramatic political and social choices of recent years.” Do You Believe? is not, however, intended as a sociopolitical analysis. Monda’s emphasis is on how every choice—existential, artistic, political—has its origin in the answer to “the great question” that he asked all those with whom he spoke: Does he or she believe in the existence of God. Monda’s own faith is grounded in an orthodoxy that he describes as an aurea mediocritas—a “golden mean.” For Monda, true religious orthodoxy rejects religious extremes. One extreme is “every type of fundamentalist aberration.” Another extreme is Gnosticism and “New Age spiritual tendencies...constructed for the use of the individual worshiper.” Monda’s orthodoxy is religious “in the sense of the etymon religio: ‘bond.’” The aurea mediocritas of religious orthodoxy is what binds believers to their faith: “the fundamental genetic makeup of the believer includes not only the choice of the golden mean but its celebration.”
Monda believes in a Catholic Church bound by essential, central beliefs. He also believes in a church bound to the all-too-human. Monda quotes from G. K. Chesterton’s book Heretics: “This one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.” Monda adds: “I don’t think that anyone...can help feeling a sense of mystery before the central place still occupied by this two-thousand-year-old institution constructed by weak men who have often cursed and betrayed its message. And the sense of mystery can only conceal a doubt: Is there something truly divine behind it?” Monda often refers to the Letter to the Hebrews: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” (11:1)—which, to Monda, “seems a paradox, and perhaps it is. But what else is faith?”
With the hope that it may “prove to be a good traveling companion on the most important journey of every life,” Monda devotes the rest of Do You Believe? to a series of conversations. When Monda asks the novelist Michael Cunningham if he believes in God, he responds, “Well, we’re starting off with the big one, aren’t we?” Nathan Englander says, “I’d be inclined to say no if I didn’t feel God’s wrath.” Jonathan Franzen answers by asking Monda, “What do you mean by God? What’s your definition?” Monda quotes Luis Buñuel, who said he was “an atheist by the grace of God.” Nathan Englander replies, “I share that feeling, and I’m ready to steal the remark.” Monda asks Englander if he believes in life after death. “It’s a question that brings me to a point of crisis,” Englander says. “Yet again I would be tempted to say no, that it’s an illusion and also perhaps a joke, but if you ask me where I think my grandfather is at this moment I would answer: in Paradise.”
Another of Monda’s favorite questions: “What artists do you admire in whom you feel a strong religious presence?” “Most prominently, Flannery O’Connor,” Michael Cunningham answers. “She was an utterly orthodox Catholic, and one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.... O’Connor, in her fiction and her letters and essays, is the best argument I know against dismissing Catholicism outright.” Daniel Libeskind invites those who don’t believe in God to listen to Bach.
Salman Rushdie explains to Monda that he can’t get over a tragic fact that is intimately bound up with every religion, “the blood that’s been shed in the name of God.” Monda asks, “You don’t think that this is one of the many tragic events to be attributed to men who exploit, betray, and blaspheme the will of God?” Rushdie responds, “When you don’t believe, it’s difficult to separate the two things, and little remains.”
Saul Bellow simply answers “yes” when asked if he believes in God. How does he imagine God? “I don’t want to talk about that,” Bellow answers. “I’m afraid of banality, and I think it’s a subject whose importance is diminished by conversation.” Monda then quotes, from Bellow’s great novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Mr. Sammler’s declaration, “Very often, and almost daily, I have strong impressions of eternity.” Bellow elaborates: “There are moments when God shadows existence.” Monda: “What do you think happens at death?” Bellow: “This I don’t know, but I don’t think everything is resolved with the destruction of the body. What science has to say seems to me insufficient and unsatisfying.”
Martin Scorsese tells Monda that “Catholicism has been extraordinarily important in my life, and I would say that my films would be inconceivable without the presence of religion.” Catholicism “is part of my innermost self, and I’m sure it will always be that way.” When Monda asks, “Do you believe in God?” Scorsese says, “I don’t think I can give a precise answer. I think that my faith in God lies in my constant searching. But certainly I call myself Catholic.” Monda: “How can you be a Catholic and not be sure if you believe in God?” Scorsese: “I didn’t say that. What I’m trying to explain is that I distrust definitions, and I think there are questions that I personally find it difficult to respond to directly.” Monda: “For a Catholic, God is made flesh, is born of a virgin, and saves the world.” Scorsese: “I would say that everything you’ve said is part of my culture, of what I try to express in my films, and so of my being.”
Grace Paley asks Monda if he’s serious after he tells her that he considers his subject the most important subject not only of our time but of all times. “Do you think life after death exists?” Monda asks her. “Obviously, no,” Paley answers. “And an eighty-three-year-old is telling you this, aware that she doesn’t have much longer to live. The moment I take my last breath everything will end.” What are her thoughts about that? “That it’s sad,” Paley says, “but life is wonderful.”
Paley then asks Monda whether he believes. His response: “I am Catholic, Apostolic, Roman.” Paley: “And what is there for you after death?” Monda: “The true life.” Paley: “And what is the life that we’re living at this moment?” Monda: “A passage and a gift.” Paley: “Do you feel that you are better as a result of your faith?” Monda: “I would feel useless without it. And even more useless without charity.” Paley:
I’m ahead of you. I know you’re quoting the hymn to charity—it’s a passage from Paul. And I would add, on charity I am in total agreement. One of the most beautiful, gratifying, and enriching experiences of my life was my involvement with the Catholic Worker Movement. One can say what one likes about faith, but what I saw done by its members daily and by all who were the heirs of Dorothy Day is simply marvelous: an extraordinary lesson for us all on what it means to love and to work to make the world a better place with determination and a spirit of service. It was an experience that formed my social, political, and even artistic conscience.
The final conversation of Do You Believe? is with Elie Wiesel. Monda asks Wiesel if he believes in God. “Yes, of course,” Wiesel answers. “May I ask what your image of him is?” Wiesel: “You can certainly ask, but I have to answer that I don’t have an image of him.... I think that every image represents a limitation, and that mystery is part of his infinite greatness.” Monda then turns to the problem of theodicy: “You believe firmly in God, but you live in a world where suffering, injustice, and tyranny exist.” Wiesel: “It’s the great torment of my entire existence. The question I don’t know how to answer and that I don’t think anyone can answer. But even in these terrible moments I see not an absence but an eclipse.” How would Wiesel define his faith today? “I would use the adjective wounded, which I believe may be valid for everyone in my generation.”
Finally, Wiesel remembers the example of a friend and mentor. “When I am thinking of my personal experience, there comes to mind, as a luminous example, François Mauriac. I, a Jew, owe to the fervent Catholic Mauriac, who declared himself in love with Christ, the fact of having become a writer.” Monda asks, “Do you think that the God Mauriac believed in is different from the one you believe in?” Wiesel: “No. But I know how different our views can be, and our approach. Once Mauriac dedicated a book to me and he wrote: ‘To Elie Wiesel, a Jewish child who was crucified.’ At first I took it badly, but then I understood that it was his way of letting me feel his love.”